Bits of a Puzzle - Part III
Sunday, March 19, 2006
In the last few posts, I’ve been exploring a range of issues around the narratives that drive modern life. The stories we tell ourselves that give meaning to political movements, businesses, or modern social institutions; i.e. nuclear family, liberal arts educations, democracy, etc.
Stories which give human beings the confidence to get up in the morning and feel assured that life has some order, whether it’s that they’ll have a job to go to, that they are deserving of certain status among friends, or even simply that when they go to turn on a faucet, water will come out.
Underlying all this attention on narratives/stories is my instinct that we are living in a period where stability seems ever more elusive for a variety of reasons. Globalization. Corporate competition for short term goals. Outsourcing. But among all these dynamics burns another issue: a faith, shared by the religious, atheists, conservative and radicals, alike, that stability as a human constant ever existed. Or can exist "if only..." (as in "if only we followed communism, free market capitalism, Islam, whatever).
The idea of the possibility of stability, itself, is proving full of holes. The sweeping narratives which imbued trust within so many of our institutions for the last 100 years (whether marriage or our plumbing systems) are not holding up. Ask anyone who lives in Iraq or New Orleans. When modern infrastructure cracks under natural or human forces, authority which we once took for a given can at times disappear.
What I'm suggesting is this: while related institutional failure can (and should, in my mind) be examined to identify and assign accountability, we are as subverted by the stories we tell ourselves about leadership and permanence as we are by the mediocre individuals that we too often appoint to fulfill our faith in its role.
More, faith in “leadership” is part of a larger desire for narratives about permanence and stability, the sum total of which will increasingly prove corrosive to generating human action.
Okay, what’s that mean for putting food on the table, managing a business, a just getting a date? Basically it means that, more than ever, we should mistrust any group or person selling permanent solutions to anything: organizational strategies, tenure at our jobs, or a dating service that promises to find one’s life partner.
The Hollywood paradigm of the last 100 years suggested that with luck, smarts, and money, we can actually locate and buy ourselves permanence. That, in fact, we deserved it. The right partner. The coolest car. The smartest, sweet set of children. In a sense, the late 1990s marketing focus on “design solutions” is symbolic of two forces - an admission that life is a series of incremental steps towards survival, and/or a desperate hope that if only we get the right design team, they can permanently bring us back to a state of grace.
Note: I am not saying there's no thing as a great solution. I am as big a sucker for "fix it now" desires as anyone. I go to a doctor with the flu, I'm way more relieved to learn that, rather than just abstract advice to "rest and it's a virus that will eventually go away," that there is an antibiotic the MD can give that will make the pain disappear. Immediately. Forever!
I also believe in the profound value of great design. And stories. This post, itself, is a narrative. I'm not saying that the importance of story or design will disappear. More than ever brilliant engineering and creativity is critical to approaching problems. We need nuanced stories and skill sets, not to mention passion, to approach a country or a city or a relationship that is unraveling.
Rather, I’m saying that at exactly at a time when the world is proving itself to be what it always was – in constant beta formation - we are more and more desperate for permanence and ultimate authority. Putting faith in access to permanence or ultimate authority is a fiction that doesn’t only prevent us from propelling the traction necessary to... well "deal," it robs us of the practical and poetic depth that actually delivers the richness of life: our experiences amid the navigation.
My own narrative here is that we don't need eternal truths - what we need is eternal vigilance, specifically around accountability. But that's much easier to simply state than put into action.
If you are a secular thinker in the sense that you believe that individuals hold more responsibility than God (or the Gods), then accountability is rooted in institutions. And right now in the United States, for instance, institutional accountability is harder and harder to maintain. Just look at the rationale behind the war in Iraq, and the murky waters you need to find "some truth."
Talking about accountability, I left last post writing about Las Vegas' ascedence over Hollywood. Games versus stories. Given that I've mentioned accountability, these "bits" need to circle back to the role of games. I will get there. Promise.
Here's hoping that I'm creating the modicum of stability necessary to building a readership... more later.
by Jonathan Field