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Friday
Aug282015

In the Beginning

 “If it weren’t for the people, the god-damn people”, said Finnerty, “always getting tangled up in the machinery. If it weren’t for them, the world would be an engineer’s paradise.”― Kurt Vonnegut, ‘Player Piano’


In the beginning was the Word.


Actually, in the beginning we don’t really know what there was. We don’t even know if our beginning was the beginning, or one of many beginnings.

Our best guess is that in the beginning there was some kind of singularity — that at the centre of our universe was a point of infinitely dense, uniform, spinning black sameness, where everything was alike, and contained, and restrained by one almighty unified force. Now, for some reason this singular spinning top got knocked off its axis, and with a Big Bang its infinite density and order exploded forth into the universe. Over time the one thing became everything: energy, protons, neutrons, electrons, hydrogen, helium, super-hot plasma and gas, stars, quasars, galaxies and superclusters. Eventually it became rocks, and planets, and lava and ice and liquid water, and somehow amoeba and plants and trees and insects and fish and warthogs and Kid Rock and Bananagrams and, well, you get the idea.

The fact that we can get the idea is magical. The fact that one massive fiery explosion and billions of years of random collisions and chance galactic encounters later we can sit here and comprehend a universe forming — whilst vast clouds of water vapor sail through a blue sky above us, and small feathered animals sing to each other in the trees — is almost beyond comprehension itself.

The almost infinite complexity of the whole thing, and the apparent randomness that led to a universe so vast, mysterious and beautiful is — for me — the cosmological proof for why Difference, and not uniformity, is the prevailing force for creation and growth in our world and in our lives. If you’re a religious person I’m sure you need little convincing of the endless wonder and variety in creation. If you aren’t, then the empirical, scientific approach to understanding our origins is just as marvelous.

Adaptation, and being different from what came before, allowed protozoan bacteria — through generations of multiplication and mutation — to become complex; to grow cilia so they could move, fins so they could swim and, eventually, limbs and lungs that let them emerge from the water. Recognising difference in shape and colour is what allows all of us to make sense of our world, and the difference of one moment to the next — of one day being different from any other — is what makes us feel alive. In no uncertain terms, difference is what gives everything in our world and our universe meaning.

Strange, then, that although our universe grows ever more vast, complex and different as it expands through space, we as human beings are creatures of such habit and control. In opposition to the systems we observe — the collapsing stars and eroding coastlines which tend towards chaos and destruction — we devote our energy to building structure. We are comforted by routine; rigorously taxonomising our planets and butterflies. We create layer upon layer of order where there was no order before, and expend vast amounts of effort just holding it all together.

Human beings — who are least distressed when they can see things in black and white or right and wrong — seem like a walking contradiction. Like all animals we thrive and grow from the unexpected and diverse experiences that we have in our lives. We know that discovery and adversity fuel us and yet — at the self-proclaimed top of the food chain — we try our darndest to stamp out the possibility that anything unexpected will happen. I’m not talking about war, or drought, or any of the long list of man-made or natural disasters that come out of the blue and devastate lives and communities. I’m also not talking about the immediate, urgent challenges we might have to deal with in our lives, like finding our lost child in a supermarket, or planning our monthly budget so we can pay rent.

What I wonder at are the long, slow, large-scale changes, which build up sometimes over generations: the constricting systems that shape our lives over decades and centuries. How our education systems, for example, are structured so much like our penal systems, to promote uniformity and to marginalise deviant ways of thinking, or to sideline them with labels like “autistic”. And the intransigent, entrenched prejudice to which low politics panders; demonising foreign faces, unknown religions, accents, ethnicities and tastes.

Like lots of people who write about Life, the Universe & Everything, I wonder a lot. I wonder why we outlaw homosexuality. I wonder how it can be right to ban public protest. I wonder if they’ll ever make a true spiritual sequel to the Jean-Claude Van Damme Street Fighter movie. I’ve wondered at the Rat Race of our grown-up lives; the airless, grey, cubicled daily trudge into which billions of us collectively pour trillions of hours of our collective existence.

As we answer emails, fill in spreadsheets and fiddle with our ties we are all pursuing something, but for each of us that something is different. In a world of infinite diversity, where we’re all born different into a world that is never the same one minute to the next — born with different desires and aspirations — can we honestly say that the systems we’ve set up around ourselves really match the desires we nurtured as younger people? Are they worthy of the vast opportunity for joy and discovery which is out there, outside of the cubicle? Quite the opposite.

If I’d titled my book Fear of a Midlife Crisis instead of The Difference Manifestoit would have sounded less pretentious, but the other words in the book wouldn’t have had to change that much. If you’re like me, then pretty much every time you take a week off from work and go on a long hike, take a walk along a deserted beach or stay up late at night after drinking too much coffee, you get that “What the #$%@! am I doing with my life?” feeling; the feeling that if you could just extricate yourself from your desk job, or your mortgage, or your expectant parents, or the feelings of inadequacy that you get when you see your friends’ shiny new husbands and jobs and Facebook statuses, then you might be able to pursue what you’d always wanted to do. Like me, you may also find it harder and harder as the days and pay grades and dentist’s appointments go by, to remember what that thing was in the first place.

For almost all of us (myself included) it’s impossible and irresponsible to shrug off all the responsibilities and expectations that are built up around us. We can’t escape the motions we have to go through, and the processes and systems we have to follow. I’ll be honest, in a year’s time you’ll probably still need to fill in your tax return, and you’ll probably still have to queue for 45 minutes to post a Christmas card, or get a new passport. But that doesn’t stop us from being able to change things. It doesn’t stop us from being able to #occupy public spaces en masse, to anonymously expose corruption, or for individuals within those systems to expose abuses (Snowden, Manning etc.). Although so many of our paths — through airport check-in, at border crossings and at the DMV when we get our drivers’ licences — seem inevitable and set in stone, it really only seems that way. Once upon a time they didn’t exist at all, and it was a fallible human being, probably just winging it, who was responsible for making them.

I don’t subscribe to much New Age Philosophy, but I do know there’s a Cosmic Difference inherent in the universe, and millions of people praying for fewer office jobs and grey days in their lives, and they’re imploring you tobelieve things can be different, and be better for being different. Believing has to be the first step — in many ways it is a giant leap.

In pursuit of understanding what ‘Difference’ means in society, and why it is fundamentally a force for positive change, I’m going to ask you to accept three different principles. One is the necessity of nonconformism; that questioning dogma and institutions is vital, and that the more entrenched something is, the more we should question why it is the way it is. The second is letting your own identity shape your life — recognising what your core, personal values are, and that they are not the barrage of mass media slogans and advertising that you receive every day of your life. The third, and hardest, is to believe that there is no one truth in any situation. Our differing life experiences give us different perspectives, and although we feel passionately a sense of right and wrong, it is empathy — understanding why other people believe what they do — and not preaching, which allows us to come to understanding. Difference, even difference of opinion, can always be celebrated for the new perspective it brings us, even if we passionately disagree.

Entertaining these ideas — even just keeping them at the back of your mind, or on flash cards in your pocket — means we can start to reform some of the unpleasant, entrenched things today that we grudgingly accept about the world we live in, but which we wish we could change. Before we dive in, though, let’s try and understand what’s going on here. In a world of vast oceans, jungles, dolphins, bungee jumping and chocolate hobnobs, how did all the stuff that makes us feel glad to be alive get relegated to such a small portion of our existence. How did the world we built around ourselves begin to get in the way?

Ben Wallace is a writer, technologist and political theorist. For several years he led civic innovation and governance projects at Google, and he now advises businesses in both the UK and Silicon Valley. He enjoys playing saxophone and Liar's Dice, and currently lives in San Francisco.

You can read more by Ben here, and The Difference Manifesto is available in both electronic and paperback form on Amazon. Follow@BANGwallace on Twitter for updates and extracts from the book.

 

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