The Illusion of Progress

We do not have an accurate perspective on what the past was truly like nor do we look very far beyond our time into the distant future. So when we claim we’re making progress, which past are we measuring that progress against, and which future do we create by the improvements we think we’re making?

It is hard to say anything definite about human history more than a few generations ago. Human beings have always relied on forms of oral transmission – such as songs, stories, myths, and poems – to preserve their history, but those forms tend to evolve with the people that carry them. As our cultures change and adapt, so do their histories, and much of their original content gets buried under layers of reinterpretation, merged with stories borrowed from other cultures we interact with, or left out altogether, when later generations can no longer relate to or understand their relevance to their ‘modern’ situation. With the advent of writing, at least more of the original material was preserved, and became less malleable, but it didn’t stop the retelling and reshaping process of the cultural narrative completely. At best it slowed it down and helped it spread deeper and wider, but it has not seemed to improve our collective memory of our deeper history. And the faster our cultures change the faster our true history slides out of our reach.

From a history we can't really remember ...
From a history we can’t really remember …

And that is unfortunate.

Because of this continual retelling of our history we have very limited access to what it was like to live in past times. We continually replace our real history with an imaginary one; a fictional version that is more mythical than factual, more symbolic than historic, more a fantasy than a memory. This gradual replacement of true history with a fictional reinterpretation creates a strange kind of collective short-sightedness: we imagine both the past and the future in simplified terms and drastically shortened time-frames. So when we measure our ‘progress’, we measure it against a reduced and largely imagined past, and project it forward to an immediate and overly linear future. But we don’t see the slow, deep changes that gave rise to our current situation and we don’t see how short-term, immediate actions and solutions could make things much worse in the long-term, even when seemingly improving things in the here and now. Because of our limited sense of what the past was really like we may feel we are making progress, when in reality we are just barely recovering from the damage past ‘progress’ has done to our world and may still be far behind the positive qualities that made life beautiful and meaningful in the past. But we may equally make the mistake of longing for a return to an imaginary simpler and happier past, and in clinging to that illusion stop true progress from happening or in trying to restore a past that never actually existed prevent a more beautiful future from emerging.

... to a future we didn't see coming.
… to a future we didn’t see coming.

If we want to make sure that improvements and solutions for today’s problems constitute actual progress, and not a convenient, quick-and-easy cure that will become one of our future’s ailments, we must learn to distinguish true progress from momentary relief. We have to learn to think of progress in terms of long-term consequences, and of improvements as something that can only be measured over longer time-frames. We must rediscover our distant past and the lessons we can learn from that. We must stop oversimplifying our past: either as a paradise from which we have fallen into darkness, violence, and suffering, which would continue to get worse if not for the forces of order and constraint such as religion, laws, and moral principles; or as a primitive, savage struggle for survival we only recently have begun to make our escape from through the forces of enlightenment such as reason, science, and technology. We must understand that the past was most likely never so simple and straightforward, but was in reality a complex tapestry of happiness and agony, suffering and bliss, progress and decay, order and chaos, war and peace, all intertwined and moving in currents and time-frames much longer than our shallow stories encompass.

Let us learn, therefore, to discover both our deep past and ponder our long future, both at the same time. Let us try to measure progress not as a simple improvement over present day problems, but as an attempt to mix the best of our past with the best for our future. And let us carefully consider such attempts not just for our own brief lifetime, but project them forwards to the future of our children’s children’s children, and track trends and long-term consequences to make sure today’s improvement does not steal from future generations. Perhaps, even, if we learn to step out of the urgency of our own brief moment, we can learn to see time as a long unbroken flow from past to future, as full of valuable experience and knowledge as it is of as yet untapped but very real potential. And then learn to weave the two together and become part of it, dance with it, rather than constantly cutting it to shreds and pieces in our attempt to force the world into our incomplete and broken fictions.

The ‘Free Rider’ Problem

Whenever the topic comes up of the need to help the less fortunate and disadvantaged, invariably someone will bring up the ‘free rider’ problem: that there will be people taking advantage of such assistance and get undeserved benefits from it, at the cost of those providing it. I don’t deny that such people exist and that they throw an unfortunate blemish on the genuine desire to help people that really need assistance. But is that a reason to stop such assistance? Even more important is to stop for a moment and wonder if people taking advantage of help offered by people that are better off are the only ‘free riders’ in the equation, or the ones we should worry about most.

I believe most people want to be good and do good. And most people want to help people in need. There is plenty of evidence that helping others is more than a cultural imperative – a learned behaviour – but a much deeper, instinctive behaviour, genetically programmed into us because it has proven beneficial to our survival as a species. Yet when we look around we see plenty of people in need, plenty of people not getting help, and plenty of well-to-do people not really sharing their wealth freely with others. Why?

One reason often given is that freely helping people is a sure-fire way to end up being taken advantage of. Whether the help is given by an individual or a collective (such as the state), so runs the argument, people will abuse anything that is too easily given to them, and profit unfairly from it, at the expense of the donors. This is often referred to as the ‘free rider problem’, and brought up as the reason we cannot simply go and help people in less fortunate circumstances than ourselves.

Free riders are everywhere and unavoidable, it is claimed, and would profit from the hard-earned wealth of other people, without having done anything to deserve this, and without giving anything back. It is because of those free riders that we cannot expect hard-working people to share their wealth with just anyone: that would not be fair. Instead we need to be really careful with any help we may want to give, and make sure that the recipients are made to feel that they are in no way entitled to that help, should feel guilty for needing it, and are actively discouraged from seeking it.

The sad thing is that such reasoning doesn’t distinguish between people that just need some help; that have fallen onto hard times through no fault of their own; that simply drew the short straw in the big lottery of Fate; versus the – in my observations minority – who rather take advantage of other people’s naive good nature than make even half an effort to fend for themselves. So help is withheld on the basis of a generalization that does grave injustice to a large number of people.

But there is another assumption underneath the free rider problem and the way it is used to stop or hinder assistance to those in need. And that is that it is always the weak that profit from the strong, the poor from the wealthy, the sick from the healthy. After all, the weak are in need of what the powerful have in abundance, so they are the only ones that can take advantage of that fundamental inequality.

That is a dangerous assumption, and deeply flawed. Dangerous because it ascribes to the needy not just weakness but envy as well. They are not just needy, they are also greedy – greedy for things they did not earn. Deeply flawed, because in reality the direction of advantage runs as easily from the needy to the wealthy, as the other way round. It is probably easier for the rich to take from the poor than the reverse; easier for the healthy to profit from the sickness of others; and easier for the powerful to suppress and disempower the powerless.

There are at least as many, if not more – because it is easier – free riders amongst the people that are well-off than amongst those that are in need. People that have taken advantage of other people’s misfortune; slaveholders getting rich from the suffering of people that lacked the power to defend their freedom; industrialists coercing masses of workers to spend dismal, long hours in dangerous and dark factories, because those people had no other means of income; pharmaceutical corporations raking in massive profits from people desperate for medication; banks taking advantage of people caught out by natural disasters or economic downturns; … the list goes on. And don’t think I am just talking about some small group of evil-minded people we could single out and blame for their greed and avarice. If we take an honest look at ourselves, our Western society, our own wealth and relative power, how much of what we at present consider our birthright and product of our ancestors’ hard work and diligence was in reality stolen, under threat of violence or worse, from people that had no way to defend themselves?

So, here are my three reasons to reject the free riders problem as a reason to limit or stop help to those in need:

  1. Psychologically, once you can master your fear of scarcity and lack of control, giving is more likely to make you happy than receiving or hoarding. By clinging to your wealth you are denying yourself a chance to feel that happiness;
  2. Amongst those seeking your help there are more genuinely needy people than free riders. Most people don’t actually like asking for help, and will hesitate to do so, unless they feel they have no other choice. By pre-judging anyone asking for your help as a free rider you are probably doing them a grave injustice, not just not helping them, but contributing to their psychological suffering of feeling helpless and unwanted;
  3. If you are amongst the wealthy people in your society, you are probably a free rider yourself, taking unfair advantage of many people all over the world, that are exploited and suppressed to provide you with the many luxuries you surround yourself with. You may not do so on purpose, and oppose these practices in principle, but since our society is built on these practices and you are part of these systems, you are profiting from it, and thereby complicit. So the least you can do is to share more of those profits with those in need, and help, if not to abolish this unfair advantage completely (which may be beyond any individual’s power anyway) at least to somewhat alleviate the pain and suffering caused by them.
Sharing can be messy, but it's much more fun.
Sharing can be messy, but it’s much more fun.

1

And that, my dear readers, is my parting thought for this year: dare to care more and share more. It will make the world a better place.

  1. (Image by Kathy on Flickr – published under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)

On Success

Whether deserved or not, success is not an objectively measurable state. It is a construct of the human mind, experienced only by comparing a person’s actual circumstances against a mental model of what success looks like. One way to achieve success is by attempting to match or succeed that model. Another way would be to change the model to match the reality of one’s life.

I received a number of comments on my previous blog about luck. Some supported my main thesis that success is more luck than merit; others pointed out that opportunity alone is not enough: without preparation, skills, and hard work opportunities are easily missed or wasted. And there was also the notion that a person creates their own luck: that luck is somehow influenced by the individual’s actions, not simply the random workings of a mechanical, uncaring Universe.

I don’t disagree with the notion that opportunities alone are no guarantee for success. An opportunity is a potential, nothing more, until you put in the hard work and dedication to bring it to fruition. In other words: there is merit in having made the most of an opportunity that presented itself – that part of success can be said to be deserved. But do you really make your own luck? Does Lady Fortune really favour the bold and prepared? Or is that the narrative we tell ourselves to uphold the feeling we must have some power over our fate?

Of course it feels good to be told you deserve your success. It’s a nice compliment to get and I know the people that say it really mean it. But there is a flip side to this compliment, an unspoken implication, I think we need to be aware of and very careful with, because it seems to be a source of suffering for many. I am referring to the notion that if success is deserved, then so must be the lack of it. Which means that millions of people that fail to achieve success (by whatever measure – but I will get back to that later) have only themselves to blame.

That doesn’t feel right to me, and I don’t actually believe this to be the case. It also easily leads to a sense of entitlement in the successful people that can stand in the way of their empathy and compassion with those less fortunate. It is this ‘entitlement effect’, I think, that can turn an inspirational concept like the American Dream into a dismal nightmare for those missing out through no fault of their own.

So my first point to make here is to urge all successful people to stop themselves from time to time and reflect on the incredible good fortune that brought them to where they are now; to tone down their sense of entitlement and self-satisfaction; and realize there is not all that much that separates them from those that failed. “There, but for the grace of God, go I” I think is the more appropriate way to look at it.

But what about all those people that are not successful? That feel they have failed. That get stuck with the lousy hand that Fate has dealt them? Telling themselves that the success they see in others is not deserved is not likely to make them feel much better about themselves. The opposite, in fact, is more likely: on top of being disappointed with themselves, they may easily slip into bitterness and resentment towards the successful people around them.

For all those people that feel they are not successful, consider this: by which definition of success do you fall short? Success is not an absolute state, with clear and unchanging criteria; what constitutes success depends on what you define it to be, and is different for different people.

Success is subjective and easily influenced by the people around us. We have a tendency to compare our situation with that of others and then wish to ‘get’ what they ‘have’.

And that is where we unwittingly cause ourselves much unnecessary suffering.

To begin with: what other people have may not be the best model to define our own success by. We may be aiming for something that is simply not suitable for us, because of our circumstances or abilities. We may be aiming for something that – should we get it – doesn’t make us happy or feel fulfilled. We may easily misinterpret other people’s success, and model something that doesn’t actually exist. When we then commit our time, energy and passion to accomplish what we mistakenly define as success, we are almost certain to be sorely disappointed.

The other downside of looking at other people for our definition of success is that we tend to use as role models people that appear to be better off than we are. We raise the bar on what we call success, then measure ourselves by that bar, only to discover we are falling short. And then feel unhappy about our perceived shortcomings.

Success by any definition
Success by any definition

I have personally found that a regular critical examination of my own definitions of success has been a great help in leading a more balanced, more fulfilling, and somewhat ironically, more successful life. Once I realized that success is something I specify myself, I could begin modifying my definitions to my own standards, not those of other people. I also found that instead of only looking up to people, it really paid to take stock of people less fortunate than me, and realize that many people would consider most of the things I take for granted as the pinnacle of success.

To name a few things: I am (reasonably) healthy, have food on the table, a house to live in, and friends and loved ones around me. And I live in a country that is not at war, is prosperous, democratic and free. Each of these is something many people would envy me for. Each of this things is bound to be someone’s definition of success.

So, whenever you feel you are not successful (enough), first of all do not fall into the trap of believing you don’t deserve success. Success is fickle and erratic, sometimes it comes, sometime it doesn’t. And then look at how you define your success, what model you use to compare and align yourself to. If that model is causing you pain and disappointment, why not adjust it a bit? Make it match more closely with the plusses of your current situation. There are always things to be grateful for. And the more you can make those the standard for your success, the more successful you will feel.

On Luck

We always tend to attribute our successes to our hard work and smart decisions, down-playing the elements of chance and opportunity. Looking at my own history of ups and downs, it is easy for me, now that things have turned out for the best, to think it must have been all my hard work, perseverance, and honesty of the past that allowed me to finally turn a lucky opportunity into a success story. In reality, however, there were so many factors completely beyond my control it could easily have turned into a complete disaster. In all humility I have to acknowledge that I have been incredibly fortunate and got to where I am now through “a series of fortunate events” I cannot honestly take credit for. Sure, once things turned for the better, I’m sure hard work, and perseverance helped to stay on course, but compared to just happening to be in the right place at the right times meeting the right people, my hard work was a minor part of my success at best.

I would love to say “I made it, because I deserve it”. That would definitely make me feel good about myself. But in all honesty, “I made it, because I was incredibly lucky” is a lot closer to the truth.

A Critical Examination of Democracy – What Do We Assume About It?

Democracy is a powerful concept that many of us are taught to believe in. But what exactly are we asked to put our faith in?

In a previous blog I called for a critical examination of modern democracy. Not because I don’t believe in democracy as an idea, but because I feel we have become complacent and much too accepting of a system that is far from perfect. Only a critical examination can help to uncover its flaws and – I hope – help us find ways to improve and strengthen the system.

One way to explore a human-designed system is to look at its underlying assumptions: the ideas implicit in the system itself or the way it is being presented. So here is a rather random list, in no particular order, of assumptions I believe are usually seen as part and parcel of most Western people’s perception of democracy. Since they are implied assumptions, they are mostly taken for granted, and seldom questioned. I am quite sure there are many more of such assumptions upholding our current system of government. But at least this is a start.

In a Democracy, people choose those individuals that can best govern the country for the next few years.

That is the whole point of democratic elections, isn’t it? So that the whole population has a change to critically look at the state of the country, make up their mind about the kind of government that would be best suited to deal with the current problems and challenges, and then carefully select the people they think are best suited to form that government.

The reality is, I suspect, far less rational and far less deliberate. Most people, it seems, do not actually vote for candidates because of their abilities, skills, or track-record in managing the country, but base their decisions on much more emotional grounds. They look at candidates and judge how well they like them, based on what they see them say and do in public. And that judgement of likability is necessarily skewed by the media, the careful orchestration of public appearances and press releases, and the kind of scandals candidates can unleash upon each other.

The problem is that this way of selecting likable candidates is hopelessly inadequate as a way of choosing a capable government. Since there is no direct way to interact with the candidates, or at least observe them in action when the spotlights are not on them, elections have turned into a popularity-driven media-circus. Public debates are not set up as a meaningful debate about issues, options, and arguments, but as shouting matches and point-scoring exercises, where no actual content needs to be discussed in any discernible depth. And instead of politicians being expected to be serious, well-meaning, and capable people, the system filters such people out in favor of the publicity-seeking, grand-standing, empty-gesturing, media-attention seekers the public seems to like. Which leaves us with people who may be able to secure enough votes to win an election, but have not much of any value to offer beyond that. In fact, the way many politicians behave in order to get elected would disqualify them for office would they be asked to undergo a standard job-selection process.

Candidates come from the people and govern for the people: they are themselves just normal citizens, with only a temporary mandate to govern. When their term is over they return to society as ordinary citizens

That may have been true once, but over time politicians have become a professional class, a group of people that chose politics as a career, not as a calling next to or after a normal career. While there are aspects of politics that require professional training to really understand and perform well in, the problem with having a class of professional politicians is that such people become closer to each other than to the people they are supposed to represent. Someone who has never worked a job other than politics has not been exposed to the kind of challenges life presents to most people. And the more politicians surround themselves with politicians, the harder it will be for them to even empathize with the very people they are meant to be spokesperson for. Instead of representing the people on whose behalf they are meant to govern, professional politicians are almost bound to represent themselves more than their voters, and have the interests of the political class closer at heart than that of the people.

Democracy is a transparent form of government: a government of the people by the people is free and willing to share their information, decisions, and actions with the people as a way for the people to stay informed and provide feedback and control over the actions of their elected government.

Whether is is because of the second assumption above, or because power craves more power, or because governments believe there is power in secrecy, whatever the reason, even the most democratic of governments end up hiding behind layers of secrecy and deception. And it is not just individuals trying to keep things secret. The bureaucratic system itself seems designed to obfuscate rather than clarify the true workings of government. And on top of that we seem to have entered an era in which fear has become such a constant narrative that our democratic governments have been allowed – one could almost say forced – to create more and deeper power structures, for the apparent purpose of keeping us safe from harm. But, and this is the catch, one cannot be safe and free at the same time. And the same goes for information: it’s either safe and secure, and therefore unavailable, or it is free and accessible, but not safe. Our governments by erring on the side of safety, are eroding the basic principles of transparency and accountability democracies need to maintain even the semblance of a government under control of its population, rather than the other way round.

Democracy is a balanced form of government: the extend of power bestowed on the elected government is limited by a body of law that is enforced by an independent policing power, and interpreted and overseen by an equally independent legal power.

This works well in theory, but how well does it work in practice? Only when those three forces are truly independent can they keep each other in check the way they are supposed to. In most modern democracies, however, there is a fourth force in play that is both much more pervasive and much harder to control than the other three: the power of commerce. We live in a commercial society, where business for business’ sake has become a rule unto itself. Because of this, in spite of the supposed delicate balance of the power triangle, commercial interests can overrule each and any of the other forces, rendering the checks-and-balances design obsolete and unworkable. Privatization of public services is one example: when public services become privatized they become largely removed from the kind of transparency and public scrutiny expected of public services. And because of this lack of transparency they are no longer kept in balance by the power triangle, nor can the public form an informed opinion about how well or badly these services fulfill the functions they are expected to.

Democracy in the hands of commercial interests

In a democracy every voice counts.

In a democracy everyone gets to vote so everyone has a voice to add to the total of voices that end up determining the government that gets chosen. In reality, however, since in a democracy only majority voices end up determining the chosen government, many minority voices get lost in the process, even those that represent better alternatives than those espoused by the majorities. More importantly, the whole democratic process must of necessity stay close to the majority consensus in its decision-making, prioritization, and social engineering. Voices that do not fit in with that consensus will not just be ignored, they will be actively shut down and persecuted since – it will be argued – they destabilize the social structure democracy itself relies on.

Of course not each and every dissenting voice should be acted on, but democracy – by limiting its perspectives to those that conform to the stable consensus – thereby limits its ability to read the signals and early warning signs of the sweeping changes happening around us. The majority concensus tends to downplay such signals or builds defensive arguments against them, trying to shut them down rather than considering how to act. This paralyzes a democratic society untill the signals get so loud they can no longer be ignored. By which time it may be too late to act.

I have been working on this blog for over two months now, and have just decided to stop here. There are many more assumptions I considered, but most of those seem variations on the 5 I describe here. Also, I think, several of those assumptions require much more thinking to figure out whether they are actual assumptions people have, or just flaws in the system most people acknowledge but choose to accept as inevitable.

And completeness wasn’t my goal here.

I just want to show that we must remain vigilant and keep questioning the systems we have created to organize our society. Not because they are necessarily wrong and need to be torn down – even if they are not perfect – but because unquestioning acceptance leads to a societal blindness that can lead us to move in a direction none of us want, but none of us tries to stop either.

Figure and Ground: A Problem With Identity

We tend to define our identity as much by who we are not as by who we are. But can you ever know yourself by always looking at others?

Figure and Ground: Are You Looking at Me?
Figure and Ground: Are You Looking at Me?

Without others to compare ourselves to, most people find it hard to define their own identity. It seems that we need others to become coherent as ourselves. Comparing ourselves to others, however, has huge drawbacks. It creates artificial separations – dividing lines that do not actually exist – between groups of people that prevent them from interacting freely and justly.

The ‘us vs. them’ effect is especially strong in cultural identity. And as soon as a group comes under pressure (even perceived pressure) our cultural defense mechanisms create emotional reactions that directly trigger very basic instinctual reactions such as fear, disgust, anger, and hate.

Setting ourselves off from others not just leads to separation, but also to a perception of superiority and stratification between groups. Everyone seems to believe their own group – for no other reason that it’s their group – must be superior to any other group. No actual evidence is needed to support this belief. Experiments have shown that simply by giving people randomly assigned markers (such as colored armbands, or different t-shirts) people will tend to segregate and start feeling there is something unique and superior about the group they are part of.

Since comparisons are never complete they can be very selective and dangerously so. People can always find ways of filtering out some of the other group’s strengths and amplifying some of their weaknesses to justify their own group’s superiority.

In addition to creating an unwarranted – but emotionally very satisfying – sense of superiority over ‘other’ people, this also makes us blind to our own true nature: our own strengths and weaknesses, functions and dysfunctions alike. By drawing conclusions about ourselves based on incomplete and twisted comparisons with others we do not actually learn much about ourselves. Even when we try to be unbiased and fair, we don’t learn as much about ourselves by comparing us to others as we would by looking in the mirror and honestly examining ourselves.

Only when we stop measuring ourself against others, and come to accept ourself for who we are – at the same time accepting others for who they are – may we hope to peel away our blinders, rid ourselves of reality distorting filters and dial-down our biases and preconceptions.

A Critical Examination of Democracy

We are often told that democracy may not be perfect, but it is the least undesirable of the types of government we know. But is that really true?

I was born in post World War II Western Europe. As a child I was often told to be grateful for that. Not only had I (just) missed the world’s largest global conflict in human history, but I had the incredible good fortune, so I was reminded frequently, to live in a democratic country – the best kind of country to live in. This was often contrasted with all the non-democratic countries (primarily the Communist countries of that time, or the fascist tyrannies of the recent past) I could have lived in, to stress the fact that I was living in a place that was as close to Paradise on Earth as human design could make it. Sure, it wasn’t perfect – after all, humans aren’t perfect, and compromises always have to be made – but it was close. Very close.

As I grew up I had very little reason not to believe this view of democracy. After all, there were plenty of examples of the alternatives, and none of them looked even half as good as my own democratic corner of the word. We had freedom of speech, proper education, proper healthcare, social security, our politicians were chosen by the public and were held accountable by that public, we had law and order without unnecessary police brutality, we had a growing economy, … all things that were in short supply or lacking completely in any of the non-democratic countries elsewhere in the world or in the past.

Over the years, however, I have begun to doubt modern democracy’s claim to superiority. Is today’s parliamentary democracy really as beneficial and functional as is claimed? And is it really the best system we can come up with?

Shouldn’t we remain critical, and keep looking for signs of disfunction, of things not working properly, for systems and structures that are, or have become, less beneficial to the general population than they are said to be? And shouldn’t we keep trying to come up with even better ways to govern the people on this planet? How can we claim with such surety that this is the best we can do, when so much has changed and is still changing:

  • the world population has grown dramatically;
  • humanity’s impact on the global climate is spiraling out of control;
  • technology is rapidly creating a truly global community, on top of an already global economy;
  • we have more data about anything than ever before, and more power to process that data and interpret it;
  • we have made great progress in our understanding of the attributes and behaviors of massively complex systems, such as economies, populations, and eco-systems.
The Complexity of Our Changing World - Old versus New, East versus West, Nature versus Humanity
The Complexity of Our Changing World – Old versus New, East versus West, Nature versus Humanity

But our politicians are still bickering about the same topics, and proposing the same (or very similar) short-term, local, overly simplified ‘solutions’ to problems that do not even come close to touching the real issues affecting our future. And they do so because that’s what they need to survive in the system we call democracy. It seems to me our current democratic system is encouraging all the wrong behaviors, and pushing all the wrong people into leadership positions. Even if the democratic system was as good as it was claimed to be 50 years ago, shouldn’t we at least consider the possibility that the changing conditions of the world we live in make it necessary to critically examine the system and see if we can improve it where it falls short?