Turtles from the Shells

image by imp kerr

The end of the world really did happen, just like the Mayans said; but not in the way we thought

When I was a kid I saw a television documentary about the life cycle of the turtle. I remember only the beginning, when the baby turtles hatch from their shells and begin running down the beach toward the ocean. Thousands of baby turtles, enthusiastically and frantically wriggling their way to the water, just seconds after being born.

 Yeah, birds picked a few of them off, but these little turtles didn’t know from predators. Hell, they didn’t even know what water was. They just ran toward it. I was amazed.

“It’s instinct,” my dad informed me. “They’re born knowing to run to the water.” But that explanation wasn’t enough for me. Something else was going on, something that as a kid I identified with. Those baby turtles were leaning forward, innately enthusiastic, and running on what might be thought of as prenatal chi.

It’s different for humans. Instead of being left to jump up and down in the playground, we are taught games with rules and outcomes, winners and losers. Our energies become directed from the outside and life is transformed for us into a series of goals: finish school, get a job, find a mate, or achieve salvation. Succeed. We abandon the instinctual inner energy to move toward these learned goals.

As I see it, this shift happens not only to individuals but to civilizations. We started out as hunter-gatherers, dependent on whatever was available. No storage, no plan—just follow the food and hope for the best. Like the baby turtles, we moved by instinct, scurrying around, picking berries, chasing prey, and avoiding predators.

The advent of farming turned us from hunter-gatherers, dependent on the moment-to-moment availability of food, to futurists willing to sow now in order to reap a later harvest. It required more than the simple knowledge of how seeds work. It required a new technology: time. To have faith in farming, we had to have a strong concept of now and later, action and reaction, purpose and goal. The invention of time inaugurated what we now call the Axial Age—the great turning.

In that same period of transition, reinforcing this new sensibility of now and later, the invention of text also gave us a way to plan for the future. After all, the first written documents were contracts—ways of stating now what would happen at some future date. They created accountability over time. Along with text came the first time-based religions—the Judeo-Christian tradition, which took the form of a contract or covenant between people and God. If we do this, God will do that. Now and later. This life and the next one. Progress. The Torah described both a history and trajectory. We could make the world a better place.

Work now for future reward: pretty much everything in our society has been built around this convenient and motivating construction. Whether we’re saving souls or saving for retirement, our focus is on the finish line. It’s a useful strategy, particularly for motivating people to do stuff like building ships or fighting wars. But it reaches its very purest expression—as well as the roots of its obsolescence—in corporate capitalism.

What has driven the rise of capitalism? Imperialistic expansion. New territories to conquer, new resources to exploit, new markets to build, and new consumers to excite. As long as the economy could grow, there would be new people and businesses to borrow, putting more money into circulation, and so on. That’s why we live in a world that values metrics like the GNP, new “housing starts,” and price-to-earnings ratios. It means the future will be bigger than the past. That’s not just a way of motivating people anymore; it’s a requirement of our economic operating system. When the money system underlying an economy is lent into existence by a central bank at interest, the only option is for the economy to grow or fail. Without tomorrow, there’s no today.

By the end of the 20th century, we were all futurists, investing in the dotcom boom, competing to discover the next big thing, and counting on a housing market that allowed us to refinance our ways to home ownership. No money down.

Of course, this was just the last stage in a bigger wealth scheme that had kept the West solvent for centuries. It began with colonialism, as European nations (and later, the U.S.) expanded into all corners of the globe, taking resources and labor by force. After World War II, these practices were downgraded to a kind of virtual colonialism, where developing nations from Africa to the Philippines were encouraged to take charity in the form of loans from the World Bank. All they had to do in return was open their markets to the West—which meant opening their lands and people to polluting factories, destabilizing agricultural imports, and resource depletion.

But eventually these places wised up or broke down. Devastated nations like Somalia became unmanageably violent, while newly defiant ones like Venezuela simply refused to pay up. Barack Obama saw the writing on the wall when he became president, finally declaring on behalf of the West in his first inauguration speech that “we can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders, nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.”

While the developing nations learned the hard way that “open markets” meant being open to resource depletion and subsistence wages, the consumers meant to be thriving in global capitalism were getting pretty tired themselves. Advertising prodded Westerners to buy more stuff, faster, every year. Black Friday sales crept into Thanksgiving, and consumers began renting storage units in record numbers to house their surplus of possessions.

Meanwhile, complicating the role of central banks in a speculative growth economy even further, the digital economy is no longer dependent on huge wads of invested cash.

Internet startups require only a good idea, a couple of kids who can program, and maybe a laptop. This has left mountains of cash with nowhere to go and, more important, nowhere to grow. Add to this the fact that many of the applications these startups are developing encourage peer-to-peer transactions and value exchange instead of the old-fashioned ones dependent on big centralized corporations, and you have the makings of a marketplace based more in circulation than hording, more on sustainability rather than growth.

This may have thrown Wall Street into disarray, but I welcome it. A civilization based on growing as it moved forward is finally being forced to consider an alternative.

This reconsideration has been coming for a while now. Even middle-class Americans have pulled their retirement savings out of mutual funds, suspecting that the stock markets might not continue expanding—especially after the limits of colonialism had been reached and the earth’s resources had been nearly tapped. It’s as if Western society were full-grown. The prenatal chi has been spent. No matter how many Wired magazine and Global Business Network futurists write about long booms, long nows and long tails, it turns out the economy isn’t like the universe and doesn’t expand forever. Like the Mayans were trying to tell us, the long trek toward the future is finally ending.

No, 2012 didn’t augur the end of times, but the end of time. We went from a future focused society to a present-based one. The leaning forward that had characterized our civilization since the invention of farming and text became more of a standing-up. The myths that had been pulling us forward spiritually and economically just stopped making sense. Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” may have been an appropriate structure for George Lucas’s Star Wars or Steve Case’s AOL business plan, but it was no longer an appropriate map for a culture that can no longer keep its gaze on the distant horizon.

As forward-thinking, future-based goals recede, something else comes to take its place: a focus on the present. Here we are now, entertain us. Wild schemes for infinite growth are replaced by more realistic models for sustainability. We become more concerned about where and how to dispose of our plastic than how to come up with new excuses to fabricate and sell more of it. To this way of thinking, “winning” ceases to have meaning; in fact, victory is to be avoided, for it ceases the play.

Consonant with all this presentism—maybe even precipitating it—are digital media and the programmed environments they generate. Unlike time in the era of analog clocks, digital timekeeping has no sweeping second hand, nor any sense of continuous motion. It’s 4:22. Then it’s 4:23. The numbers don’t lean forward. The entirety of 4:22 is the same, and then it instantaneously changes to the next discrete moment. Time changes from something we move through to a series of stop-motion freezes. Glitch dancing. A sequence of still frames, a series of nows.

The rest of our digital media force a different kind of presentism on us: the now-ness of immediacy and simultaneity. The disorientation everyone blames on “information overload” may in fact have less to do with the amount of data we are being asked to process than the number of simultaneous people we are being asked to be. There are many iterations of us running all the time—our Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn profiles are still up there even when we are not. Our inboxes and calendars are filling, whether or not we are logged in to see them.

In some ways, this was a goal for developers of digital technology: outsourcing our memory was supposed to free us to focus on the present. But we are in danger of squandering this cognitive surplus on the pursuit of trivia.

Our real-time technologies urgently ping us with news from the world and our friends. We desperately try to keep up, as if an empty inbox and up-to-the-second Twitter participation means we are finally in the “now” of an always-on digital culture. But these technologies are rear-view mirrors that evict us from the now. The more likes and followers and retweets, the better we seem to be doing in the faux “now,” but it actually tracks how divorced we are from the real one.

In other words, we finally arrive back in the present, only to surrender our potential postnarrative freedom for a new sort of temporal imprisonment. That’s what I mean by Present Shock: I fear we are so unaccustomed to life in the present—to living for its own sake—that we would rather not embrace its possibilities.

Like Adderall addicts, we have kept ourselves accelerating artificially for too long. We are so far removed from the innate enthusiasm of the baby turtle that we mistake a lack of goals for lack of passion.

Unlike previous generations, we are faced with a series of challenges that don’t cry out for victory as we’ve always understood it. We’re not fighting a cold war, where we can declare an arbitrary goal like sticking an American flag on the moon by the end of the decade. We must strive instead for a steady state, a sustainable equilibrium, something like the steady-state economy of John Stuart Mill or the limited-earth philosophy of Thomas Malthus, but with a twist. It’s not a pessimistic sense of being bounded but rather a maturation and a willingness to settle in. It’s less the sensationalism of an impending “population bomb” than the creative challenge of Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. This urge toward creative sustainability underlies everything from the maker movement to permaculture farming. We don’t have to regard a retreat from growth as a downer.

 The Greeks had two different words for time. The more familiar of the two, chronos, means time on the clock, but the other, kairos, means something more like timing. While chronos merely measures the hours, kairos measures our readiness, our ability to seize the moment. Living by chronos alone means watching the ticks of the clock and ignoring all that space in between, when our lives are actually passing by. Without kairos, each moment looks like any other. No wonder a postnarrative era throws so many of us into existential despair.

Reintegrating kairos may not require us to abandon chronos altogether, but it does mean we open ourselves to the possibility that time isn’t quite as evenly distributed as our digital technologies suggest. That is, all time is not the same. Instead of constantly adapting to the always-on pings of digital reality, we can program our devices and digital lifestyles to conform to our own underlying rhythms. They are no more superstition than is jet-lag, seasonal affective disorder, or increased cancer rates among shift workers.

For example, just as each season calls us to different tasks, each week of the lunar cycle bathes our brains in different neurotransmitters. We move from acetylcholine to serotonin to dopamine to norepinephrine. And we do so as a group! If only we used such knowledge when scheduling our parties, our workweeks, or our important meetings.

Likewise, instead of striving for a world in which we get everything we want all the time, what might we gain from eating food that happens to be grown in our own region of the world, the very season it happens to be harvested? By insulating themselves from public markets, businesses would be free of the imperative to grow every quarter and instead be able to surf the ebb and flow of actual demand. As people and organizations, we can free ourselves from the artificial Industrial Age mandate of time as money, take our eyes off the prize, and take a look at one another in the here and now, instead.

By engaging with this present, we may well rediscover the patterns and pathways within it. Then, we may once again stand a chance of running like little turtles, always in the right direction, even though we have no idea where we’re going.