LOST IN THE 21ST CENTURY

 Lost in the 21st century blog

The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man's Changing View of the Universe is a study of the way we, as human beings, adapt and evolve our worldviews in a neverending attempt to better understand the universe we're living in. When Arthur Koestler published The Sleepwalkers in 1959, he was trying to highlight for us three things that are of great importance for this effort:

  • First, that it takes men and women who possess unique conceptual abilities and disciplined modes of thinking to ferret out the odd but hugely important anomalies nested deep inside our worldviews that are quietly signaling the pending dissolution of these mindsets.

  • Second, besides conceptual insight and disciplined thinking, it takes men and women who also have the courage and the will needed, in the face of harsh criticism, to do the grunge-work necessary to expand the worldview anomalies they've discovered into the seeds of a proven new way of understanding the world; and

  • Third, despite the refined insights, disciplined thought processes, and courage these men and women possess, they also are nonetheless always "sleepwalkers," that is, individuals who, in Koestler's words, are simultaneously "asking for more light while also crying out for more darkness." They are men and women who are irretrievably caught living in an old world they're discrediting while they're simultaneously conjuring a new one into existence.

These days, odds are that most of us, like Kepler, Galileo, and Newton before us, are "asking for more light while also crying out for more darkness." We are, it seems, lost in an in-between wilderness that today's sleepwalkers -- men and women like Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Dianne Fossey,  Stephen Hawking, Mark Zuckerberg, and Rachel Carson -- are creating for us.  Most of us, Koestler suggests, no matter how well educated, experienced, or enlightened we might be, are nonetheless caught between "asking for more light" and "crying out for more darkness." We're lost in the 21st Century's version of the poppy fields that entranced Dorthy just outside the gates of the Emerald City.

Put plainly, I'm suggesting that these days most of us are suspended between clinging to a 20th Century view of the world that worships linear problem solving while we're also trying hard to understand new 21st Century paradoxes that are nearly impossible to decipher, especially when we're still using our old worldview's modes of thinking. This Alice in Wonderland phenomenon leaves us overwhelmed by a mind-numbing array of new discoveries, inventions, and technologies while simultaneously struggling to understand the implications of any number of serious ethnic and racial conflicts across the globe, and an amazing array of new political and socio-economic trends. 

For the most part, it appears that few of us are equipped with the "post-modern modes of thinking and feeling" that are necessary to decipher all this. Three decades ago Robert Kegan, in describing the first whispers of this conundrum, told us we were all "in over our heads." Today, in this blog, I'm extending his metaphor, suggesting that all too many of us are simply "Lost in the 21st Century."

 

THE 21ST CENTURY's crucial THREATS AND DEMANDS

Regardless of whether we're "in over our heads" or simply lost in the complexities that this new century is bringing us, at this point it seems indisputable that most of us are struggling with the challenge of trying to understand the meaning of the demands and threats that today's new world is bringing into our lives -- things like the world's newest ethnic, gender, terrorist, climate change, and/or globalization phenomena. 

For a year or so now, I've been trying to identify, catalogue, and define these threats, trends, and challenges -- especially the ones that repeatedly defeat my efforts to comprehend them. Here's a  simple listing of these threats and demands:

 

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The Threat of Terrorism


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North Korea


Climate Change.jpeg

climate change


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Immigration


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racial conflict


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Diversity


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sexual abuse & harassment


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Gene Editing


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The Opioid Crisis


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The Internet of Things


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Truth Decay


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same sex marriage


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globalization


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Artificial Intelligence


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clash of civilizations


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gross inequality


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white backlash


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fake news


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Scarcity or Abundance?


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democracy's demise


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The Lynching of Blacks


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trump


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political polarization


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Disappearing Safety Nets


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Western Civilization's Eclipse


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The Patriarchy's Dissolution


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technological convergence


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Nuclear Proliferation.


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21st Century Leadership


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information overload


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America's Response to 9/11


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willful ignorance or Anxious Appreciation?

After a year's worth of effort aimed at trying to define the threats and challenges that are confounding me, I've come to four conclusions: 

  • First, there simply are too many significant threats and challenges going on all over the world for me to successfully identify and track. Just counting the issues I've pictured above, I've listed 30 major phenomena that I believe deserve my attention.

  • Second, besides their number, it's also true that each of these issues is both significant and complex, too complex, in fact, to yield convincingly to any kind of simple explanation. For example, one issue that illustrates the futility of my efforts is the explanation I explored for awhile that suggested "Trump and his science-denying ilk are the cause of the climate change wars we're currently engaged in." Another is the assertion that "it's the radical Islamists who are the cause of today's civilizational clashes." Obviously, simple explanations like these will never do justice to the complexity of any of the issues I've catalogued.

  • Third, the main reason I'm having trouble understanding each of the phenomena I've listed above is that I'm using a mode of thinking grounded in simple cause-and-effect propositions, premises that suggest "this" causes "that," or that "X causes Y." None of the threats and challenges listed above are grounded in linear cause and effect dynamics.

  • Fourth, most of these 30 issues are not stand-alone threats or challenges. For example, the "White Backlash" issue that elected Trump is in part a response to the "Dissolution of the Patriarchy" issue, which in turn is linked to the "Globalization" issue and the "Disappearing Safety Net" issue. And the "Immigration" issue is related to and part of the "Clash of Civilizations" and "Terrorism" issues. In short, the simple fact that I've been trying to decipher the significance and urgency of these threats one at a time is a clear indication that I'm using modes of thinking that are always going to be inadequate to the task I've set myself.

Last summer, while in the middle of cataloguing these threats and challenges, I wrote three blogs titled Our Natural Mind I, II, & III.  These blogs examined how, at this point in human history, all of us are living our 21st Century lives through neurobiological hardwiring in our brains and bodies that we've inherited from our earliest Stone Age ancestors; neurobiological architecture that's over two million years old.

Of singular importance in this regard is our brain/mind's threat management system. This system is made up of three key elements; the amygdala, the brain stem, and the limbic system.These three elements work together in one of three ways to almost instantaneously respond to any threat we might perceive; fighting, fleeing, or freezing. How can we ever think that any kind of instinctively simplistic reactions are going to help us understand today's racial conflicts, the world's immigration issues, or our polarized climate-change debates?

After I realized how complex and interconnected all my issues are, in September I wrote a blog titled Circles of Awareness and Concern. Essentially, this blog was about the implicit sense I have that, for the issue-cataloguing work I'm doing, I'm going to need a new way of understanding the world and my life in it, one that is not anchored in the ordinary "yesterday, today, and tomorrow" way of explaining things that we all use.  Instead, I need a framework that reframes my view of my life and the threats and challenges that are in it, into a trio of "known, partially known, and unknown" images that give us more finely grained and fully defined ways of comprehending the people, events, and circumstances that we're constantly sensing on the fringes of our minds.

Turns out, my Three Circles of Awareness model might be this way. It shows me how to consciously heighten my awareness of the incomprehensibly complex array of scary people, disruptive discoveries, and revolutionary innovations that, without my explicit awareness, are actually concrete realities sitting just off the fringes of my awareness. My Three Circles model, in a way, is actually a set of questions that asks us to examine the fresh ideas, new knowledge, amazing technologies, and scary paradigm shifts that are hanging “out there” on the edges of our consciousness. Just what is it that's dangling like errant chads on an election ballot; distant realities that need to be seen as issues of real interest and concern.

In case you didn't read that blog, here's my image of these three circles:

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Given the work I've done to catalogue the 30 threats and challenges I've posted above, and my Three Circles of Awareness model, I'm now thinking the reason why I've been turning a blind eye to the presence of these issues is because I implicitly sensed they were real things in the world that I didn't know how to frame, let alone understand. I didn't realize that these issues were phenomena that, with just a little conscious effort, I could see, comprehend, and learn to appreciate. That is, as long as I could manage the feelings of anxiety that are these threats and challenges constant companion. And as long as I have the courage to believe that anxious appreciation of these issues is a better first step than willful ignorance.