Monday, March 31, 2003
A New Renaissance? Back to the Future
I think that we can usefully take a much deeper look at our Hunter Gatherer past. I have a sense than if we care to look we will find the ideas that may lead to a new Renaissance. Was not the last Renaissance a time when a few people saw past the page to the meaning of the ancient texts? Monks had been copying them for a thousand years but no one could “see” what they said so long as they were prisoners of the Medieval Mindset. The essence of the last Renaissance was that the great ideas of the Ancient world were re-contextualized for the modern world. The early actors did not seek to recreate the ancient world but to apply its thinking to the problems of their time. The result the birth of the modern world. What about our time?
Now our modern world is failing as a thought system. I wonder if we in the blogosphere have been climbing a ladder of revelation about social networks that in fact will take us back to the wisdom of our 4 million years of hunter gatherer tribal structures? These, surely are where we are hardwired to be most comfortable? I am not suggesting that we immediately don skins etc but I am suggesting that a more rigorous study of our hunter gatherer past will tell us how to live in the post industrial society.
My sense is that we, like our medieval forefathers are trapped in a way of thinking that has become the problem. We are prisoners of the Cartesian and Industrial Mindset. But as some of us work our way through how blogging reconnects us using the Magic numbers of social connections, the deep laws of tribal behaviour become revealed and their meaning burst upon us. We are experiencing the power and the value of these groupings – not as a design but as an experience.
I think that Daniel Pink’s ideas about a Free Agent Nation also talk to a new way of participating in the economy where many of us seek to make a livelihood and no more. Many of us work at home and have no break from family. Many of us are building work relationships through blogging. I am experiencing this myself and I witness that you are experiencing this too. Here my needs are few and my work hours are also few. I find it hard to discriminate between work and play and between friends and collegues. My family is inside my work
Back to the Future? I think so. This is why the article that follows is so helpful.
Original Affluence. Marshall Sahlins is the author of Stone-Age Economics, which is an interesting read, in part about gift economies and how pre-historic economic systems weren’t as miserable as they’re commonly believed to be. Here is something from the article The Original Affluent Society:
“There are two possible courses to affluence. Wants may be “easily satisfied” either by producing much or desiring little The familiar conception, the Galbraithean way- based on the concept of market economies- states that man’s wants are great, not to say infinite, whereas his means are limited, although they can be improved. Thus, the gap between means and ends can be narrowed by industrial productivity, at least to the point that “urgent goods” become plentiful. But there is also a Zen road to affluence, which states that human material wants are finite and few, and technical means unchanging but on the whole adequate. Adopting the Zen strategy, a people can enjoy an unparalleled material plenty – with a low standard of living. That, I think, describes the hunters. And it helps explain some of their more curious economic behaviour: their “prodigality” for example- the inclination to consume at once all stocks on hand, as if they had it made. Free from market obsessions of scarcity, hunters’ economic propensities may be more consistently predicated on abundance than our own.”
Sahlins explains how typical hunter-gatherers work 3-5 hours per day on acquiring food, and they have plenty of time for leisure. For that matter, they have a schedule that most civilized people would be sort of envious about. The more ‘civilized’ we become, the harder we tend to work, and the less time we have for leisure. He also makes some interesting distinctions between primitive living and poverty. In hunter-gatherer cultures starvation would be pretty much unthinkable.
“The world’s most primitive people have few possessions. but they are not poor. Poverty is not a certain small amount of goods, nor is it just a relation between means and ends; above all it is a relation between people. Poverty is a social status. As such it is the invention of civilisation. It has grown with civilisation, at once as an invidious distinction between classes and more importantly as a tributary relation that can render agrarian peasants more susceptible to natural catastrophes than any winter camp of Alaskan Eskimo.”
I’m not sure what we can learn here, other than that it is possible to successfully live very simply and modestly. There must be some kind of point that applies also to a technological civilization. A just-in-time kind of thinking. We could very well arrange our world so that nobody ever has to starve and so we only work a few hours per day. From what I hear, only 2-3 percent of our work relates to actual production, and from my own observation, the majority of human work is inefficient or unnecessary, just arranged to keep people busy. So, why can’t we have a an efficient and productive, but leisurely and relaxed, high tech society, where it would be unthinkable that basic needs wouldn’t be filled? [Ming the Mechanic]