More than a feeling

January 21, 2009

Every year the Edge Foundation asks a question of some of “the most interesting minds in the world” and publishes the answers it receives.

Past questions include What is your dangerous idea? and What are you optimistic about?, both of which have been made into books (follow the links, if you’re interested in checking them out).

This year the question is:

What would change everything?

The answers, published on their website, are interesting reading.

There are lots, so set aside some time, but I recommend it.

One that has stuck in my head since I read it is from artist, composer and producer Brian Eno.

Unlike most, it’s pretty grim:

The feeling that things are inevitably going to get worse.

What would change everything is not even a thought. It’s more of a feeling.

Human development thus far has been fueled and guided by the feeling that things could be, and are probably going to be, better.


What if this feeling changes? What if it comes to feel like there isn’t a long term—or not one to look forward to? What if, instead of feeling that we are standing at the edge of a wild new continent full of promise and hazard, we start to feel that we’re on an overcrowded lifeboat in hostile waters, fighting to stay on board, prepared to kill for the last scraps of food and water?


What happens then?

The following: Humans fragment into tighter, more selfish bands. Big institutions, because they operate on longer time-scales and require structures of social trust, don’t cohere. There isn’t time for them. Long term projects are abandoned—their payoffs are too remote. Global projects are abandoned—not enough trust to make them work. Resources that are already scarce will be rapidly exhausted as everybody tries to grab the last precious bits. Any kind of social or global mobility is seen as a threat and harshly resisted. Freeloaders and brigands and pirates and cheats will take control. Survivalism rules. Might will be right.

This is a dark thought, but one to keep an eye on. Feelings are more dangerous than ideas, because they aren’t susceptible to rational evaluation. They grow quietly, spreading underground, and erupt suddenly, all over the place. They can take hold quickly and run out of control (‘FIRE!’) and by their nature tend to be self-fueling. If our world becomes gripped by this particular feeling, everything it presupposes could soon become true.

(read in full)

What do you think?

In the very least it’s a bit of counterbalance to the hope and optimism of the last 24 hours.