The separations that drive our economy

dual growth trend
Dissent and separation have been good for the economy

According to Bloomberg and other news outlets, the U.S. is in an economic expansion, and despite warnings of recession, some are saying it’s going to continue. No matter the mumurations of the “sayers of doom and nay”, there’s a chance we’ll continue in the current trend… and things may stay as they are, politically speaking.

I won’t get into taking sides, right here. What fascinates me about it is that, no matter who gets into office, all the divisions between Right and Left, Rich and Poor, One Side and The Other… well, it’s all been very good for business. And I believe it’s driven a ton of economic expansion over the past several years — maybe longer.

Yes, definitely longer. Ever since we got invested in proving how different we are from others, whether politically or economically or culturally or gender-wise (the heightened gender stuff has been ever more intensely marketed to us, ever since mass media showed up – more on that later).

Anyway, I’m going to take a contrarian attitude to whether this is a good or bad thing. It depends who you talk to, of course, but I can’t say it’s a terrible thing, all across the board.

Certainly, it’s common, these days, to stress over the separations we encounter on a daily basis. Political, cultural, economic… Strife in the land. Families torn apart. Communities at each others’ throats. Members of one party pitted against each other on Twitter, Facebook, and whatever medium you care to consider.

I’ve heard great wailing and gnashing of teeth, over the past years, as people have voiced concerns over the USA being a divided nation. And a city divided against itself can’t stand… or something like that.

And yet, all the divisions spawn a whole lot of activity. Defining identities. Giving people a sense of belonging. Boosting manufacture and sales of partisan swag. Boosting sales of partisan viewpoints. Driving the ascendancy of social outlets like  Facebook and Twitter (especially Twitter). And that’s been a huge boon for a lot of groups — pretty much everybody, if you think about it.

Looking back over the past 50 years (which seems to be the timeframe before which, according to some, everything in this country was so much better than it is now), there’s been a steady erosion of identity, a steady erosion of communities. We’re more mobile, now, which means we don’t put down roots in just one place. We spend an awful lot of time online, which has no location and displaces us from our present situation. Roles have changed. Economics have changed. Jobs have changed. Everything’s changed — especially the things that used to give us a sense of purpose and belonging.

How to restore that sense we’ve since lost? It’s not hard. Identify an Enemy (ideas or people or policies or whatever) and gather your like-minded tribe members in defiance of it. That’s how we’ve been doing it since time immemorial.

In giving individuals a new sense of belonging, the economy has taken off. I would even hazard to say that it’s taken off in certain sectors precisely because of the huge surge in adversarial tribalism.

Whole television networks continue to cash in, ushering in a new golden age of bias-laden monetization. It’s as true of the Left, as it is of the Right. And there are plenty of other Progressive or Ultra-Conservative media outlets that have benefited as well. Media in general has made out like bandits, as they’ve targeted specific segments of the population with their particular “narrative”. From one channel to the next, you’d never guess we were living in the same country. It’s like the media channels have spun up parallel universes, where they’ve cornered the market on that particular version of How Things Are, and everybody can go off and do their thing, as long as they don’t encroach on their narrative.

And we’ve eaten it up.

Absolutely, positively. The human system thrives on separation. Our tribes gather new life and purpose, when we know who we aren’t, we intensify the threat from outsiders, and we pit ourselves collectively against that common enemy.

Our own personal understanding of how and where we fit in the world benefit, as well. After all, we now have a tribe that supports and reinforces our perspectives in self-fulfilling promises of, “You’re okay, but they’re not, and that makes you better than them”.

This is not to diminish the importance of that point of view. We absolutely, positively crave a sense of who we are, and that sense is driven to a considerable extent by who we aren’t. It’s just how we’re built, and passing judgment on it doesn’t help us understand how it works. Still, I’d bet $50 you’re arguing with me in your head, right now, because a part of you needs to believe I’m wrong – and you’re right.

Bottom line, we need our separations, and that’s exactly what we’ve got, these days. In abundance. And all the while, the news and media outlets that serve our own individual version of reality and reinforce our rightness… well, they’re going quite well for themselves. Numbers are up. They’ve cracked the code to staying afloat in a world of disruptive technologies and information sources. And as they continue to do well, our own separate versions of reality give us a continued sense of stability and safety. Because they’re telling us we’re right. And others are wrong. And we can rest assured that we’re not the only ones who think what we think.

As problematic as all the schisms and conflict in our current American society may be, they’re part and parcel of who we are and where we are at this point in time. Fighting them and judging them as “bad for humanity” won’t offer us any insight into their true nature. And that certainly won’t let us work constructively with them.

Yeah, it would be nice to be able to just talk to each other as human beings. But there’s a whole lot more to be gained personally and socially (and there’s a lot more money to be made) from keeping us separate and at each others’ throats.

The ties that bind, the separations that connect

separate goldfish in bagsA couple of years ago, I wrote this book, Beloved Distance, about how we’re essentially separate from each other… and we can never be in direct contact with anything.  Our billions of neurons, which transmit the data that connect us with the world around us, are always – by definition – separate. They don’t touch. They’re almost impossibly close to each other, yet they’re not in direct contact with each other.

Synapse IllustrationAnd yet, that very separateness is what connects us. Because the gap between synapses makes room for neurotransmitters, the biochemicals that pass along the information we need to make sense of the world around us. And our neurotransmitters provide a richness, a sort of “analog” data transmission that’s qualitative, as opposed to the “digital” electronic signals that pass along the incredibly complex (and long) network of our nervous system.

Like light, we are both particle and wave. We’re both neuron/synapse and neurotransmitter. That’s what makes us what we are. That’s what makes us how we are. And if our neurons were in direct contact with each other, we’d both short-circuit (because the data transmission would be too much, too soon) and never have the varied experiences that our biochemicals give us.

So, yeah. We’re like light, in that respect.

And now that quantum computing is getting all kinds of press (at least in the circles I run in) and other AI/Machine Learning/Deep Learning is picking up speed in active development and deployment, this whole concept segues nicely with the spirit of the day.

I wrote this book about 2 years ago. And I figured it would be a number of years (say, 10+) before other people would notice that it mattered. I’ve been a strong believer that it matters, all along. Ever since I first grasped what that picture of the neuron was telling me, oh, about 12 (?) years ago, I’ve believed it matters. And since I’ve been reading about quantum physics for close to 20 years*, a lot of what I’ve uncovered in the past decade or so really has some nice correlations with the quantum world view. Or maybe my quantum worldview came first and helps me make sense of the biochemistry and neurology…? Who knows?

Anyway, it’s all connected, as some like to say. And yeah, from everything I can tell and have observed in my half a century+ on this planet… It is.

*I’m a huge fan of David Bohm, and on some level, quantum concepts all make total sense to me. Why is it taking so long for everybody to catch on? 😉

So, what does this have to do with anything that matters to anyone else?

Isn’t this just some rambling of an inquisitive mind who loves to explore the reaches of PubMed, ArXive, Frontiers and more? Isn’t this just some philosophical hoo-hah that’s an indulgence at best, an annoying distraction from what really matters, at worst?

Well, I believe that this isn’t just about me, and it’s certainly not something that I came up with. I just noticed it and realized how much it matters. And yeah, I do believe it matters… especially today. We’re relentlessly inundated with a constant stream of disruptive, interruptive, disjointed, unconnected, random data points that scream (and I mean scream) for our attention. And we’ve become increasingly unhinged from the world we inhabit and the lives we want to lead.

We mourn, on the one hand, for oceans that are dying from too much plastic… and yet, we don’t hesitate to go out and buy all kinds of stuff packaged in plastic that never gets recycled. We bemoan our political fates, yet we don’t actually engage with the people or the process. We curse all sorts of forces around us, as though we have no control or influence… at a time when the average person has more control and influence than maybe ever in the past hundreds, even thousands, of years. The cognitive dissonance is deafening. And yet, we persist in making choices that go directly against our own best interests, even survival.

I’m not saying we need to each radically up-end our habits, and do away with every offending act and thought. It’s an idea, but it’s probably not all that sustainable.

What I am suggesting is that we just might be able to get more of a connection with our larger lives, by looking within our systems and better understanding how we — each and every one of us — functions at the cellular level. You can learn a lot from looking at the drawing of a synapse… especially if you really think about what you’re looking at.

The human race has always looked up for meaning. We’ve looked to the stars… to big-picture concepts… mythology… beliefs… religions… philosophies… storytelling in books as well as on the small and big screens… we’ve searched high and low for ways to make sense of our world. And now, since we have the equipment and the capability, we can also look within — literally — to find new clues from our cellular makeup about what it means to be us, what it means to be human… what it means to be here.

That’s ultimately what Beloved Distance is all about — looking at some very, very tiny stuff, to see if there’s any big meaning there.

I’ve found a lot of it.

You might, too.

So, what does all this have to with cooling our world on fire?

So, what does all this have to with cooling our world on fire?So, what does all this have to with cooling our world on fire? How does this help us find unity and a sense of connection with others? As discussed, affinity groups are defined not only by who’s in, but by who’s out. In a close-knit community, it’s perhaps even more critical to know who doesn’t belong, than it is to know who does belong. That knowledge protects us from threats. It secures our borders. It reassures us that we can let our guard down around the people near us, because the ones who aren’t safe have been banished to the regions beyond our walled community. Our tendency to look for differences, to compete, and to disqualify is an absolutely integral, protective human inclinations. It’s important. Our society might not exist, if we didn’t have it.

But wait – isn’t Othering harmful? Isn’t finding and emphasizing separation and alienation an actual contributor to our collective pain and suffering? Isn’t this diametrically opposed to the ideal goal of Unity and Oneness? Rather than pushing people out and forcing them “off the island”, shouldn’t we be doing the exact opposite: welcoming them in, with all their diversity of abilities and traits, to include them in our unified community?

Maybe.

Maybe.

We look for connection, we seek it, we crave it, we have to have it.

And yet, separating ourselves from others is the one sure way we have that quality-controls the “social container” we inhabit. Othering (both ourselves and other people) makes it possible for us to feel safe, to feel protected, to know who we’re dealing with and what the rules of engagement are.

You can’t just let anybody in…

As harsh as that may sound, it’s really the way our communities function. To feel like we belong, we need to know who doesn’t belong, and we need to keep them out. So the ones allowed in, are in.

Human nature. It’s just how we function.

And there it is.

But what about the harm that separation is doing to us?

What about that…?

So easy to get out of sync, it’s absurd

It's pretty easy for us to get out of sync with our surroundings
Image reads: It’s pretty easy for us to get out of sync with our surroundings. We can find ourselves out of our personal element at a moment’s notice, just by taking a wrong turn in an unfamiliar locale. Take a left instead of a right, and you can find yourself in a hostile situation, facing off with someone who’s armed and dangerous. You can actually end up dead – whether in the city, the country, or the suburbs. Or you can find your entire way of life displaced by events beyond your control – market  downturns, corporate mergers, even war. Whatever the scope, whatever the scale, the disorientation is intimidating. Destabilizing. Scary. Even in the most stable of unfamiliar circumstances – surrounded by friendly (but unfamiliar) co-workers at a new job – the conditions are less than ideal.

So, the Facebook drama continues.

Like countless people (I’m sure the number keeps changing), I downloaded my data and took a quick look earlier today. Hm. Pretty boring, actually. I don’t use Messenger that much, and I don’t have an Android phone, so that’s been a bit prophylactic. I’ve been in the web space for over 20 years, and from the start, I’ve been skeptical  about the ability of anyone to keep me safe online. Safe from others. Safe from myself. Safe for others.

So, I’ve self-censored considerably over the years.

I hear a chorus of dismay rising up — Censor yourself?! How horrible!  It seems, at times, that total freedom is the goal of our modern world, and that’s fine for everybody else. But seriously, this place is full of people who wish others less-than-well, and that’s as true online as it is offline, so caveat emptor. For days. Yeah, I’ve censored myself. And the result is that I haven’t been rocked by the shock waves of indignation that lots of other people feel.

Either that, or I’m not being pessimistic enough about how creatively data scrapers can use my PII against me.

But I digress. This isn’t really about me, after all. It’s more about us. Our need to connect, to stay connected. Our fear of missing out and getting disconnected. We all know just how easy it is to get cut off from our social circles. Sometimes, all it takes is a wrong word, a misspoken opinion, or even a look that gets taken the wrong way. You wear the wrong piece of clothing in the wrong season, and you’re a marked person. Things seem to have loosened up around the “no white before Memorial Day or after Labor Day” rule that was etched in stone during my childhood, but you know what I mean.

Sure, you do.

You know as well as I do, the feel of that internal cringe, when something comes out wrong, or somebody doesn’t respond to you the way you’d hoped. You mis-hear what someone else says and/or they misinterpret your response. And before you know it, you’ve got Problems.

Those Problems are very real, for they’re all wrapped up in the whole of our identities, our sense of safety and belonging in the world, as well as our definitions of what will and will not keep us safe. Those Problems can go so far as to get you beaten up. Even killed, if you’re in the wrong situation. It’s easier than ever, these days, to end up in the wrong part of town, and pay for it.

I’m not just talking about White folks in Black or Hispanic neighborhoods, or Black men driving through predominantly White neighborhoods. I’m talking about University of Georgia fans speaking out of turn in an Auburn sports bar — I once had an extended conversation with a woman whose husband had to be hustled out the back door of such a bar after having a few beers and running his mouth against his wife’s advice. I’m talking about somebody losing their filter while they’re in the middle of political opposites and ending up with their car keyed.

Say the wrong thing in the wrong way at work, and you can get shown the door. And there goes your monthly credit card payment, toppling your credit rating, as well as your future job prospects (since many employers run credit reports on prospective new hires). A poorly timed joke can turn from a pebble dropped in a pond to an earthquake that sets off a tsunami. Or the wrong piece of information can leak to the Wall Street Journal, and before you know it, your employer’s in full “spin mode” and you have to watch what you say to anyone and everyone, since you’re a walking, talking representative of the company.

It’s all so precarious.

Sheesh, how did we get to this place? I mean, people can get seriously hurt over things that used to just elicit eye rolls and shrugs. Ah… simpler times. I remember those days when you could detest other people (and vice versa) without homicide being in the mix. I remember when an honest misunderstanding wouldn’t push a person to social-media-fueled suicide. Apparently, I’m a dinosaur. Like I said, simpler times. Lord, how did this all get so … dire?

But here’s the thing, though. In spite of it all, I still have hope. If we got to this place, we can extract ourselves from it. I really, truly believe that. Life is cyclical. Pretty much everything alive moves in patterns of back-and-forth vacillations. And I believe with every cell in my body, we have the capacity to back away from the brink, just as we’ve danced along its edge, over and over and over again, throughout the course of human history. We’re just learning a sh*t-ton of tough lessons, right now, absorbing an array and variety of data points in massive volumes that never, ever factored into the mix, before. The Way Things Have Always Been Done… well, that’s sorta kinda imploded/exploded, and we’re left picking up the pieces that fell closest to us, trying to fit them into a cohesive narrative about our world.

So, where was I…? Oh, yeah, how easy it is to get out of sync.

And how absurd that is.

In Beloved Distance, I talk a lot about meaning… the patterns we use to figure out how what’s happened fits into our understanding of the world, as well as where events are going to take us… and how. While I was absorbed in my meditations on meaning, last year, I coincidentally happened across a lot of writing about the “absurd” state of the human condition immediately after World War II. Samuel Beckett. Albert Camus. Václav Havel. Existentialism. You know… light reading.

And it occurred to me that absurdity — the quality or state of being ridiculous or wildly unreasonable — could be seen as the quality or state of lacking meaning. After all, we rely on meaning to reason. We rely on our sense of meaning to establish balance and predictability. And our understanding of which causes lead to which effects (and why) makes it possible for us to stabilize ourselves in a confusing and disorienting world. When we lose meaning — lose the plot, lose touch with the overarching patterns — everything starts to look ridiculous and unreasonable.

Which is where Europe was after World War II with the rise of authoritarian states, and all the upheaval of the Cold War. The old monarchy and Order of Things … well, that was history. Literally. There were no clear patterns ahead, there were no circumstances that could reliably point to predictable outcomes. Everything was impossible to fathom, in a historical sense, because it was all new… and unexpected.

That, I feel, is where we are now — in the same kind of situation. Past patterns can’t be relied upon, because we’ve never had conditions like this: The Internet. Facebook (and everybody else) collecting data on a vast scale. Defense contractors deploying information warfare techniques against the civilian population in service to political interests. I’m not sure we’ve ever been here before.

And yes, it is absurd.

In the midst of it all, perhaps the most absurd aspect of it, is how disconnected we are, even as we are hyperconnected technologically. We have the means to bridge gaps, to find belonging, to become a part of something larger than ourselves, and yet… we don’t. Maybe our human natures haven’t quite caught up with our capabilities. Well, yeah. They really haven’t yet. And so we miss out on a whole lot of opportunities to make more of ourselves and our situation than what it’s been.

It’s absurd, really.

It’s like we’re not at all the macro equivalent of the billions of interconnected cells in our brains, in our bodies. It’s like we’re neurons that think we’re cut off from each other, when we’re actually in close communication and interaction, every living moment of our lives. It’s like we think we can actually function as a species, by pushing others away and cutting ourselves off.

How bizarre.

And yet, here we are.