Invisible Change

by marin mikulic

21st century. Technology. Power. Speed. Memes. Cryptocurrency, podcasts, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, virtual reality, non-fungible tokens, Tesla, electric cars, SpaceX, vaccines, quantum computing…we’ve traveled an incredible path of success and sacrifice. 80 years ago none of it would make any sense.

Try explaining cryptocurrency to your grandmother and you’ll get the idea. 

Try explaining it to yourself. Chances are you won’t fare much better.

Things change, but never as they do now. Now. Now. Every refresh announces a new groundbreaking discovery forgotten the moment we scroll past. By the time you finish this essay, the world will have changed. You can bet your money on that.

There’s been less change between the time of the ancient Egypt and the industrial revolution than in the last half century. Our ancestors laboured at the same plough for millennia or two, and yet I’m on my 4th iPhone in 6 years.

Change is the currency of the 21st century, and it will only increase in pace. It’s here to stay. There’s no turning the clock, nor should we. Times change, that’s what they do. It’s the business of those alive to change with them.

The pillars of change

Most of what we notice is the daily, irrelevant change — new app, new article, new trend, the latest outrage. The hollow stuff that sparkles. It catches the eye, but obscures the tectonic change transforming the very pillars of human societies.

We’ve always belonged to tribes and communities. Structures that support the daily life, the run-of-the-mill living with others. The familiar faces and the annoying neighbours. That’s the first pillar.

We create myths and religions, ideas that focus on the absolute morals and on answering that eternal question - what the hell happens after dying? Second pillar.

But nothing connects people more than a common enemy. This is the strongest of glues. The third pillar. It transforms a tribe into a weapon, ready to eradicate the latest threat. Look to any group, tribe, state, nation, empire, or even a football club. There’s always a rival, an enemy at hand, a menace to fear. Tried-and-true ways of maintaining group cohesion.

These three pillars provide structures of meaning, or collective dramas, as Ernest Becker so memorably put it. They imbue our lives with ready-made direction and purpose. You are born, inherit the idea that your tribe is meaningful, that your religion is meaningful, and that the enemy is not. You ingest these ideas with your mother’s milk. They’re a soft bed of moss wherein one can never think.

Who are you supposed to consider valuable, true, and despicable? There’s your tribe, your religion, and your enemy.

Weakening of collective dramas

But times change. After renaissance, enlightenment, two World Wars, and technological advances, it has become difficult to take old collective dramas at face value.

To our ancestors, the tribe was everything. A chance of survival in a hostile world. They lived together on a limited stretch of land and knew each other well. This meant no privacy, but also reliable support. You traded one for the other in order to stay alive.

Today, tribes are different. The dynamic has changed. Atomized. We are less neighbours and more chance individuals who happen to rub shoulders. How many of us live in buildings where the neighbour next door is an unknown somebody? Someone you nod at in passing.

The power of religious institutions is frayed too. The idea of burning in hell forever might have been a stress in the Dark Ages, but today… it seems worse to wait in line without a smartphone.

Even the military has changed, especially in the West. Getting forcefully drafted into the army was once a concrete reality for men, but today there’s a better chance we’ll get drafted into the NBA. That’s only a slight exaggeration.

Old dramas have flaws, but they have virtues, too. The unwavering focus on the collective. They offered a direct way to be of service to others. A part of a larger whole. Belonging. A soft bed of unthinking moss.

The new dramas are different. Individual, almost entirely about one’s self. A drama of hard pragmatism, not played by a troupe of actors but unrelated individual actors in each other’s vicinity. Each sees only as far as his or her pragmatism allows. A one man show. A bed of rock and broken glass.

But… so what? We now live longer than ever, steeped in unthinkable comforts, even in Third World countries. You’re reading this on a tiny rectangle with more power than the early space rockets. The Internet gives you access to information and audiences Napoleon would’ve envied. The pen may well be mightier than the sword, but the “Send” button is a pen on steroids.

Today’s youth weaned on the Internet is maybe more powerful than any before. Instead of wasting time on the collective, we now treasure pragmatism. What is it that works best for me and my immediate family? That’s as far as the thinking goes.

There aren’t any engrossing narratives in which to couch our lives. No obvious way to carry out the duty toward the wider community. Where once we were a powerful, but unthinking force, today we are atoms. Today, all men are islands inside an indifferent archipelago. Today, everyone’s a lone wolf.

Lone wolves

The wolf is a mystery. A frequent guest in mythology. A dweller of dreams. The symbol of both the esteemed hunter, and the hated killer. The wolf inhabits many cultures across the world, especially among the American Indians. In their eyes, the wolf is the epitome of excellence. Virtuous as an individual, but at the service to the pack. 

“There are no stories among Indians of lone wolves”, writes Barry Lopez in Of Wolves and Men.

No matter how powerful, fast, skilled, or courageous an individual wolf may be, the wolf pack will outwit, out hunt, out manoeuvre or outlive the lone wolf. The same is true of the human species, no matter how much we pretend otherwise.

Humans are social animals prone to getting swept up into interesting stories. It’s an evolutionary advantage, allowing us to accomplish wonders. Even charismatic, popular individuals owe their fortune to dramas. The words like Tesla, Apple, climate change, climate change denial, gun control, football… all dramas. Attractive stories to get lost in.

What we need, more than anything, is a path toward a better story. A way for individuals to collaborate without becoming a mob  an unthinking, emotion driven, hateful or woke crowd fuming with the latest outrage. To become human wolves, able to cooperate while retaining the ability to think.

Can we live without dramas?

Dramas are important because they strengthen the ties between individuals. They are the sea between islands, the space between planets, the glue that holds it all together. We can’t live without them. Even pragmatism is a drama, pretending that it’s not. 

Trying to live without a drama is a drama in itself. Homo Sapiens is a storyteller, a dramatist, spinning stories in which to couch herself and explain the world. Some stories — like religion, enmity, tribe — run too deep to disappear. They’re only undergoing change and will return in force. What will be their new qualities? If they’re changing, will they do so for the better or worse? And can a group make a conscious decision about the next drama?

For all their power, groups aren’t conscious. Not in the same way an individual is. Groups have a diffuse sense of responsibility and too little skin in the game. An individual bears the brunt of both. Dramas begin with a few individuals, but groups sustain them. Individualism is the catalyst, the dramatist behind the drama. The trigger, the spark, but the group is the fuel.

New dramas crop up every day. Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, White Power, Brexit, MAGA, feminism, conservatives, liberals, LGBTQIA+, Nazism, capitalism, communism… someone’s always telling a story, hoping it will catch on like so many stories before.

The only question is what will you do with the new drama when it arrives? When a new storyteller comes along, trying to purchase your devotion with emotion? Will you lend an ear or move along? What will be the better choice and how can you trust yourself to make it?

The only way I know of to answer that question is a random, boring, never-ending Tuesday afternoon. The kind that melts into itself and passes by without notice. An afternoon full of decisions and dilemmas no one ever sees or cares about. Three Tuesdays ago, what did you eat? What did you think about? What did you learn? Forget? What did you doubt and what did you accept without question? How many scrolls on Instagram? TikTok? Which messages did you reply to or didn’t? Which websites did you visit?

Tiny decisions, too insignificant to matter, but once they amass, once you collect enough of these Tuesdays… they define your life. They define who you are and what you respond to. Ultimately, they define which dramas will touch you and which pass unnoticed. Like Tetris, your choices create a pattern that defines what can happen in the future.

Will you choose a drama or find yourself lost in one? 

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