In nature, everything is interconnected and one variable acts as a counterweight to another.
In social life, it’s down to us to develop a counterweight system, because the speed of the artifice we have built is overwhelming compared to the time that nature allows itself. And if this could be a negligible event for nature, it could be a fatal mistake for us.
At the basis of some of our very serious contemporary evils, in fact, lies the imbalance between some natural endowments or inclinations and the counterweight systems, which have gradually lost relevance to us. In particular, although it may seem counter-intuitive to those who associate modernity with greater awareness, human emancipation and autonomy, we are progressively becoming more and more prone to the automatisation of our psychic life.
Automatisation passes through multiple mental devices, here we consider four that play a role in our lives as individuals, citizens and society: habit, fear, awe and conformation. All four entail considerable advantages, and that is why nature and evolution have offered them to us: habit capitalizes on past learning and frees up energy for new learning. Fear sharpens the senses and multiplies strength and resistance to escape danger. Awe allows us to limit the risk of being killed by the alpha male. Conformation builds a social order with a highly efficient imitation mechanism. It is possible that nature had not really planned our exit from the realm of automatisation, but one day we started building social culture following new forms and concepts, and we found ways to pass it on from generation to generation, although certainly not in a consistent way. It is not the same with other complex social organisations, such as in the case of bees, wolves, mycorrhizae or bacterial colonies. If until that moment automatisation had found natural counterweights in us, our adventure in the world of artifice, progress and science meant that we had to take responsibility for developing appropriate ones ourselves. We would otherwise risk living the field open to automatisation and therefore producing a society of automatons, which not everyone would consider a desirable result. Today, technology is such an dominant presence in our life and in our societies that the risk of a total human automatisation is not just a dystopian scenario. What counterweights have we therefore developed? And can these play a role even today, in the Anthropocene, or is it too late?
The psychosocial research undertaken at Cittadellarte with workshops dedicated to art for social transformation and the art of demopraxy has led us to identify four antidotes, counterweights or drugs to work with to counterbalance the uncontrolled effects of the rampant automatisation we are experiencing. As we will see, none of them are new inventions, they are simply not generally understood as drugs capable of re-establishing a balance between two coexisting opposites that probably have the same root, not only etymological: the automaton and the author.
In regard to habit, it will not seem strange to anyone that the best counterweight we have at our disposal (each of us) is creativity. Inevitably, a creative activity involves new mental processes, therefore not automatic, even if stemming from pre-existing elements. Whereas, as we know, the habitual repetition of psychic and mental processes will never generate innovation, if not perhaps through error, but still, without the ability to analyse and contextualise it with new thoughts, even error would not be very effective in bringing a gradient of creativity to our life and society. A valid therapy against the excessive presence of ingrained habits in our life and in our cities, businesses, organisations … is therefore creativity. So far, it might be said that many historical and contemporary human societies have developed spaces to cultivate the antidote of creativity. How much they invest and really believe in these spaces is rather controversial, despite the electoral declarations. But if citizens lack conviction, it is useless to expect their representatives to be so enlightened as to take the lead towards policies aimed at cultivating creativity the way we cultivate the fields that offer us the nourishment we need. It happened for example in Finland and Cuba, but, unfortunately, they remain exceptions.
A second dynamics, less present in the awareness of most people, is fear. We are quite aware of how it has often been not only not fought, but indeed promoted by political systems of all kinds. Fostering an already powerful automatism like fear is dangerous: frightened citizens leave important psychic territories unguarded, including some of those that make life so precious, both for individuals and for societies. Again, on closer inspection, human societies have already developed the antidote: research. The investigation of the world and its phenomena leads to recognising the predator that ambushes us in the savannah; by studying it, we learn to avoid it or even to defeat it. It is not only true for the lion, but for every worry or concern, instance and phenomenon that we encounter. Encouraging research skills in citizens and in all their organisational structures is again a choice that societies can make decisively or symbolically. Obviously, a predatory political system will not have much interest in improving its preys’ ability to defeat it. If you are looking for an indicator of the spirit of service to the common good of the political class, the measure of resources allocated to research seems to be a good candidate. When we speak of research, we certainly refer to that conducted by the institutes appointed to carry it out professionally, but the argument is equally valid for the research that each individual citizen can develop in their own community of practice, with the aim – we should all have – of acting as researchers, according to the principle that, as the Anglo-Indian sociologist Arjun Appadurai states, research is a human right.
Moving on to the third drug, let’s consider awe or submission. What counterweight have we developed in history for this psychic dynamics based on the need to avoid the continuous explosion of violent and potentially fatal conflicts and that nature has again offered us for our own good, as long as we do not become totally subjected to it? Dialogue, the art of dialectic, capable of generating a critical and constructive debate, oriented towards the proposal, and not solely towards denunciation. We have had excellent representatives of this art in history, Socrates is probably its Maradona, its Mozart. But even in this third case, the drug is not an expensive and unattainable product only available from some exclusive Swiss clinic: it is within everyone’s reach. To develop it, we only need things like good readings and, above all, teachers from whom you can learn not to be afraid to disagree, but also not to disagree just to vent your discomfort in a destructive way. It is a drug that allows us to face the alpha males who are waiting for us at every corner, in the office, even at home, and certainly on the streets of the city and of our lives: we will not fight against them, we will end defeated. We would take the battle to a field where the intellectual muscles are worth more than the physical ones. And in doing so, we will comprehend their reasons. With the art of research, we will be able to understand them. With our creativity we will be able to invent languages and games helping us relate to them, and not be afraid or in awe of them. It is clear that we need political leaders of great value for the drug of critical dialogue to be promoted among citizens as one of the resources with which to counterbalance natural automatisms, resources that belong to the realm of human ‘capabilities’, to quote a great thinker like Amartya Sen.
Finally, we see a fourth psychic dynamics that leads to automatisation and which, if not counterbalanced, risks causing damage instead of, as intended, supporting us in our journey as humans building an artificial world. It is conformation. It too is extremely useful, even necessary for understanding and organising ourselves in a complex social system. But again, if we allow it to occupy too much of our psychic space, we can only expect that it will eventually hold back, frustrate, impede our potential for innovation, expression, fulfilment as individuals and as social communities. And what have we developed to counterbalance this dynamics? Civic engagement. This universally widespread, but equally universally opposed, ability acts as a counterweight to the natural tendency to cultural and social conformation. And this ability is also within everyone’s reach, and like for the other abilities, there is no need for great investments and radical transformations of the social apparatuses that we have produced so far for it to be able to express itself and operate a beneficial process of de-automatisation.
Now that we have outlined the picture of this automatisation / de-automatisation tension, we can conclude with the observation that if there is an area of social life that assumes these dynamics and the corresponding drugs or counterweights in a single vision, that is culture.
So what is the use of culture? To perform a de-automatisation of ourselves and our societies. To be clear: to help us avoid the risk of generating a society of automatons, and create a society of authors instead. You tell me if it is worth investing in it or not.