By vocation and avocation, I am a Systems Analyst…but the systems I analyze are not computer systems. They are complex systems and include technology, environment, people, processes, motivations, constraints, incentives, expectations…they cross disciplines and are generally pretty messy. My job is to apply systems thinking and other techniques and do a kind of root cause analysis.
In practice, it’s like trying to untangle a knotted ball of string. Where the some of the string is chewed gum and some of the string is hagfish, and the entire yuckball is protected by a variety of game level challenges, and if I don’t get it down to solvable parts, well, sometimes people die and sometimes billions of dollars are lost. And sometimes there’s no impact, it’s just that things aren’t as nice as they otherwise could be.
I love my job.
But, like being a teacher or a writer, I can’t ever STOP my job. I never ever stop trying to see connections; I never stop switching between curiosity and expertise; I never stop trying to understand the underlying WHY that prompts the observable what and how. I never stop trying to understand the feedback loops.
Which means that the trend in the WEIRD world over the last few years towards a new Dark Age of ignorance, in the face of more available information than ever in our history, has become a scab I can’t stop picking.
There’s a lot to unpack here: I do think that the sheer AMOUNT of information has overwhelmed people’s ability to deal with it, so they are limiting what they intake to just what they already want to believe. The incentives of capitalism have motivated information corporations to automate that; a lot has been written about algorithms and echo chambers and Fox News. There are certainly parallels with the medieval European Church seeking to control people by ensuring their ignorance and the modern billionaires and conservative parties seeking the same thing.
But how did we, as a whole, get to a place where that became possible?
I can run some excellent data science on the actions and trends, but that only reduces things to math. Yes, that math may help predict the next action, but the math stays at the what and how level. It doesn’t get to the WHY. I believe there’s a deeper level that causes the movements we see in the math: myth.
Or, to be accurate, a lack of myth.
We’ve (and by “we” I mean the WEIRD world – Western Europe and the US primarily, but there are elements in the BRIC countries, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia) forgotten our monomyth, the basic underlying structure that tells us how to be human. We’ve become too obsessed with math – who has the most money, mainly – and we’ve allowed reality TV and social media to replace the folk traditions, legends, mythologies, even the deeper truths in religion. We’ve turned away from our guides, and as a result, fallen into the nightmares that those stories warn of.
Guess My Name
Here’s an example. This is an excerpt from the prologue to The Hero With a Thousand Faces, the seminal work by one of the saints of my personal pantheon, Joseph Campbell. I’d like you to read it and tell me who you think it’s describing. The person may or may not be a literal King; we don’t have many of those in 2019, but we do have a few people who fit the description. It’s a bit erudite, so if you like, you can skip down to my blog-style gloss of it. But mainly: who is being described here?
….according to the ancient legend, the primary fault was not the Queen’s but the King’s; and he could not really blame her, for he knew what he had done. He had converted a public event to a personal gain, whereas the whole sense of his investiture as king had been that he was no longer a mere private person. The [sacrificing a symbol of his wealth / ceding something he’d promised to give up / giving a part of his wealth / a record of his wealth / connection to his private holdings] to [God/the gods/the public] should have symbolized his absolutely selfless submission to the functions of his role. The retaining of it represented, on the other hand, an impulse to egocentric self-aggrandizement. And so the King “by the grace of God” became the dangerous tyrant HoldFast — out for himself.
Just as the traditional rites of passage used to teach the individual to die to the past and be reborn to the future, so the great ceremonials of investiture divested him of his private character and clothed him in the mantle of his vocation. Such was the ideal whether the man was a craftsman or a king. By the sacrilege of the refusal of the right, however, the individual cut himself as a unit off from the larger unit of the whole community: and so the One was broken into the many and these then battled each other, each out for himself, and could be governed only by force.
The figure of the tyrant-monster is known to the mythologies, folk traditions, legends, and even nightmares of the world; and his characteristics are everywhere essentially the same. He is the hoarder of the general benefit. He is the monster avid for the greedy rights of my-and-mine. The havoc wrought by him is described in mythology and fairytale as being universal throughout his domain. This may be no more than his household, his own tortured psyche, or the lives that he blights with the touch of his friendship and assistance; or it may amount to the extent of his civilization. The inflated ego of the tyrant is accursed to himself and his world no matter how his affairs may seem to prosper. Self-terrorized, fear-haunted, alert at every hand to meet and battle back the anticipated aggressions of his environment, which are primarily the reflections of the uncontrollable impulses to acquisition within himself, the giant of self-achieved independence is the world’s messenger of disaster even though, in his mind, he may entertain himself with humane intentions.
Wherever he sets his hand there is a cry (if not from the housetops, then – more miserably – within every heart): a cry for the redeeming hero, the carrier of the shining blade, whose blow, whose touch, whose existence, will liberate the land.
In today’s language
According to a story that’s been with us for millennia, the wealthy ruler of a prosperous civilization became ruler, in part, because of a big, attractive, symbol. He’d promised to give it up if and when he became the ruler, but when that happened, he refused. He pretended to give it up, but he made no real sacrifice to become the ruler instead of a private citizen. As a result, a horrifyingly bad thing happened, and the nation was thrown into conflict with its neighbors. The ruler chose to kidnap and murder children from neighboring nations by the boatload rather than to reveal his lie or make any personal sacrifice.
In other words, he became a tyrant, out only for himself. Campbell calls this type “HoldFast” – Lex Luthor trying to stop Superman from making a better world, Magneto resisting the thought of peace, Darth Vader clinging to his childhood pain. “He is Holdfast not because he keeps the past, but because he keeps.” The Holdfast is the villain who may think of himself as working for the greater good, but who is actually out to make himself as important and powerful as possible. Letting the Holdfast win means the world stays in the dark.
He hoards everything for himself, and maybe for his close family. In so doing, he destroys everything and everyone (probably even himself and his own family). His domain may be just his own tortured psyche, or his household, or a circle of friends and acquaintances who will be twisted and ruined, or an entire nation. He’s egotistical yet terrified.
That feeling? Of living in a bad novel? This is why.
There have been Holdfasts in reality as well as mythology, of course. They tend to come to power in realities where the people have forgotten the myth, or the myth has been corrupted or hidden from them. It always works out badly, for everyone (even the Holdfast). The tragedy is that it didn’t have to happen, because there are always plenty of signals for those who understand the universal language of human nature (and who haven’t had their info flow censored).
This is why people are reacting badly to Davos (and why Davos pivoted pretty fast from “the super-rich getting together to help the world” to “the super-rich getting together to wank about helping the world without actually having to be uncomfortable in the slightest or give up even a dime.” It’s why people are hating on billionaires in general. It’s why people are starting to question whether late-stage capitalism is actually a good or helpful structure for a health, happy society.
It’s also why we should reject media that fill the space of myth and story, but aren’t. They are the psychological equivalent of empty calories. They don’t give us any insight or help or support on how to live, so we accept rulers that refuse to divest themselves from their personal companies, refuse to show their tax returns, etc. We accept “philanthropists” that won’t do anything mildly uncomfortable but want us to believe they can make actual change.
We don’t, for the most part, live in small communities with honest spiritual leaders, who tell us the truth and provide helpful guidance. We’ve ceded that to Fox News, mega-churches, and Facebook. Holdfast was inevitable.
But not invincible.