“As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.”
I love that quote.
It came to me a month ago while I was listening to "Philosophy Talk" on NPR. For those of you who don't know, Philosophy Talk is a program hosted by two Stanford philosophy professors who take on a key topic, then discuss various questions asked of them on that topic by callers and members of the audience. One such question was this: "Considering all of the scientific proof and indications that global warming is threatening the future of our species, how is it that we are too stupid to change our habits and behaviors?"
The thought came to me that we may not have been lacking the ability to think globally all these millions of years, what we have lacked...right up until the last 15-20 years, were the TOOLS to develop a global awareness.
One of the hosts came back with a wonderful answer which I will paraphrase: "If you look at it, global warming is a Global Problem due to complex systems and forces happening all over the world...but for the past millions of years, we have evolved to see the guy in front of us, not to see the world in its totality." He suggested that it might be a bit unnatural for us to internalize and adopt a sense of peril related to something only visible from outer space, from a recently published scientific journal, or from that complicated emotional realm of the "personally unknown."
I made a point of putting "personally unknown" in there because I think that is the root of what Darwin was going for in the quote at the top of the page. Big D was often vocal about how ruthless and cruel the natural world was - filled with self-interest and the struggle for survival. However, Darwin was also vocal about how he clearly believed that humanity possessed a very remarkable ability to love - to empathize and to extend itself beyond the limits of individualism. You could say that the PT host was just trying to explain that you can't turn around millions of years of evolution overnight, but Darwin believed that we had ALREADY evolved into a species capable of having true connections outside of the physical boundaries of our immediate lives.
I'll tell you right now, I'm on Darwin's side on this one. I don't think we are lacking in our capacity to process and solve this global problem, the lack is elsewhere. As an industrial designer, I am constantly trying to understand the various effects products have on our lives. The thought came to me that we may not have been lacking the ability to think globally all these millions of years, what we have lacked...right up until the last 15-20 years, were the TOOLS to develop a global awareness. And that is this relationship between our evolved ability to "think global" and the rapidly increasing set of tools in our toolbox I wanted to talk about today.
Distance ain't what it used to be.
Above is a heavily stylized visual representation of the Facebook network. As you can see some continents are very bright (highly facebook-ified) and some are very dark with only a few facebookified areas. When I look at this map, I am reminded of a study called "The Geography of Twitter" from the University of Toronto which tracked the tweets and twittered relationships of 50,000 subjects. From there they identified 2,000 "dyadic tweeters" or pairs of tweeters who frequently interact. What they found was that these relationships weren't occurring independently of geography, but rather very much in sync with the dominant domestic airline routes in the country. It seems the extent of an individual's ability to conveniently travel seems to have a correlation to how far their primary digital social network extends. I find this a wonderful correlation between two powerful, awareness-growing tools: Jet Planes (convenient travel) and Digital Social Networking (the ability to connect and both actively and passively monitor the activities of friends and acquaintances). By the way, if you look closely at the map above, you can see (ghosted in the white glow of high-volume facebook traffic) the outline of the I-5 corridor which runs down most of the US west coast.
Our minds are elsewhere, but that's not a disaster.
We put a meaningful percentage of our consciousness into this place where identity is more of an idea than it is a fact...
The shot above is from the movie "Until the End of the World." This is a scene in which a machine is introduced which can record and play back your dreams. As the protagonists await the cataclysmic arrival of a nuclear satellite somewhere deep in the Australian bush, one of them becomes addicted to this machine. She begins spending nearly all of her time resting in the darkness, living and re-living her dreams. She is finally rescued from this addiction by a character in the film who pulls her back to reality by reciting from a novel...he saves her with words. This, in my mind, symbolizes a deep emotional battle people are fighting every day regarding the role of technology in their lives...and I'll get deeper into where that battle may be headed in the short term in another post. For now, though, people of my generation and younger (especially younger) also spend a lot of time now moving in an out of an abstract digital world - often at the cost of some engagement with our "real world" lives and relationships. Why do we do it? Well, clearly we are getting something vaguely equivalent to the sort of social interaction we crave as human beings from this digital media. Many attribute this as a new form of escapism brought on by technology, and others would say it is evidence of a new "fractured self." But the idea of a fractured self is not a new one.
If you talk to an astrologer, they will tell you that your existence on Earth is subject to three primary influences: The Sun, which is the most powerful influence, is connected to your greater nature. The Moon, second most powerful, is the influence of your inner self, or the person you feel yourself to be. And the Ascendent, or rising sign, is the influence of your external self, or how you are perceived by others. I believe that the realm of digital media and social networks is the realm where our internal and external selves are set loose to play. It is here that we unload how we wish to be perceived, and here where we receive feedback from others on a daily basis. We put a meaningful percentage of our consciousness into this place where identity is more of an idea than it is a fact...every day and with each generation that percentage grows. This, to me, is the proof that we do not just merely see "what is in front of us" - in fact, as internet use grows, and the devices we use to access it become more ubiquitous, it seems we see less and less of what is in front of us.
So, we are not just capable, but apt to lose ourselves in an abstract world once we are given the tools to do so. You would think that would bother me, but it doesn't. I think this is just the sort of attribute a species requires in order to develop a healthy global awareness.
We simply have more available data about ourselves than ever before.
Above is a photograph of a whale taken by Chris Jordan. Well, actually it is a photograph of 50,000 plastic trash bags which have been gathered and composed into the shape of a whale.
As the pace of our consumption has grown, our grip on our own individual part has been missing.
Much of Chris Jordan's work is centered on the idea of taking massive numbers of individual objects and gathering them together in such a way that they take on a greater, more significant form. It is no surprise that his subject matter is consistently centered on environmental issues
That's pretty much what Darwin was talking about, wasn't it? And the guy on Philosophy Talk? The latter says we have evolved to see the bags, but we have yet to see the whale...and Darwin suggests that we, out of all of the species on Earth are the only ones who can see the whale for what it is - see the forest from the trees to borrow from another metaphor. Darwin believed the universe was a dark and savage place and yet he also believed in humanity (though he was a bit late to include ALL humans in this class). As I mentioned before, he believed humans were the only species on Earth capable of broad empathy, capable of a love of all creatures, and the only species which possesses an inherent ability to rationally extend our sympathies beyond the borders of our communities, Nations and Continents. He believed that, like physicality, social instincts could also evolve according to adaptation to environmental conditions.
As the pace of our consumption has grown, our grip on our own individual part has been missing. How many coffee cups have you used this year? Toilet paper rolls? How many gallons of water? How much money have you spent on cigarettes, or clothes, or songs in your library? Modern-day consumption is very much an "in the now" sort of thing and it is easy for these items to slip away into a wash of anonymous moment lost.
All of these items, moments and facts can become blurry to remember for most, but not all. There is a new trend, enabled by our digital devices, which is greatly intriguing some of my Intel colleagues. It is called the "Quantified Self" - or the act of using technology to track oneself over long periods of time.
Here is an infographic created by Nicholas Felton, co-creator of a self tracking application daytum. For several years he has been tracking everyday interactions and gathering them into reports which he then posts online for everyone to see. These reports have detailed information in them ranging from the number of times he took a taxi (and the average distance of all taxi trips next to the longest and shortest trip), to how many milligrams of caffeine he ingested throughout the year, each month, each day. This may seem a bit extreme, but wait a minute....how many of YOU use self tracking software every day? Check out this list for some tips on where to find top-notch quantified self software - I'll bet you will recognize a few of them (I'm a huge fan of Mint.com, BTW).
If you are looking for something slightly less digital, check out the image below:
This is a project which comes from Fernd Van Engelen, a friend and former boss of mine who now heads up the ID team at Artefact. Called 999 bottles, this is a re-usable steel water bottle, that helps you keep track of your steadily shrinking eco footprint as you defer water consumption from wasteful, non-biodegradable plastic containers to one simple but beautiful container. The object becomes more interesting over time as the process of counting and keeping track begins delivering it's own value...Artefact's specialty lies in combining the digital and the physical, so the project wouldn't have been complete without an accompanying online resource which can take your tallies and put them in a broader context: "Saved 226 bottles? That's equivalent to 10 gallons of oil, which is enough to drive 500 miles." The lesson here is that a series of small decisions can scale to have greater consequences - an ideal message for developing global awareness.
The right tools for the right job...in the nick of time?
I believe the tools and behaviors associated with the quantified self are another example of new tools we are using to develop a broader awareness than what our run-of-the mill everyday existence allows us. They, like the Jet Plane, like Digital Social Networking, like our ever present digital butler buddies (Smartphones), like so many new tools we have allow us to extend our awareness beyond ourselves. It used to be that our eyes and ears and hands were sufficient to change our world. Now, entire nations are vehicles of change, and it is only a collective effort that can make a difference. The tools which link individual action to collective needs have been developing and evolving since the beginning of the industrial age - take the telegraph, the locomotive, the radio, the television...all of this technology to break down the barriers of time and distance. Here we are, for the first time in history, facing a massive global crisis of our own creation...and here we are, for the first time in history, creating the tools we need to adapt and evolve to address the threat. The future is worrisome at this point, and the next generation will face even more danger than we do...but I feel it is also a pioneering time for our species. An exciting time.