Don’t confuse the teacher with the lesson, the ritual with the ecstasy, the transmitter of the symbol with the symbol itself. – Neil Gaiman, Stardust
What is society?
Ok – that’s a big question – so let’s focus on one aspect of society.
The aspect of contracts.
A contract is an agreement – something that sets out how two people treat each other.
But what’s important about that contract?
Is it the words that are written on the page or is it the intention that is trying to be expressed by those words?
Well, if you’re a lawyer, you’ll probably look at the words to form an opinion but in a court the intent will probably be taken into consideration.
It’s usually not that simple when you look into it – because of all the stuff that builds around the core – two people trying to figure out how to work with each other.
The purpose of this post is not really to talk about contracts but to use a contract as an example of the problem we find again and again whenever we try something new.
At some point, some day, a person has a bright idea.
This idea is forged in the pressurised cubicle of creativity and forms red hot and perfect.
It’s brilliant, it’s new and it works.
The kind of thing, for example, that’s described in this passage in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:
“And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small café in Rickmansworth suddenly realized what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.”
You’ve had this kind of idea, every so often.
Now, you show the idea to a few other people and they love it.
Maybe they ask you to teach it to them.
So you oblige, you run a few workshops, a few classes.
Maybe write a book.
And now this idea is out in the world.
It starts to attract followers, collides with other ideas, creates supporters and detractors.
The idea, as it spreads out into the world, starts to change – as it gets further away from the heat of the centre it cools, and is affected by what else is happening around it.
Some people don’t like this and they erect thinking walls around the structure – creating routines and processes and rules.
Rituals are so easy to create – so unavoidable as a result.
Management standards like ISO 9001 are like religious books, the auditors and assessors like priests and acolytes.
Don’t get me wrong – I really like ideas – this website is dedicated to exploring them.
But it’s a very short step from being open to ideas to closing yourself to new ones.
Especially if you start to take your own ideas too seriously.
For example, the other day I was irritated by a professor at a rather good university and his treatment of a subject that I think I understand.
I felt he didn’t get it but he was perfectly happy saying that his alternative method was better.
I’ve just read his piece again and it still annoys me.
What’s also clear is that he doesn’t have direct experience of the concept he is criticising.
So, if you really want to make up your own mind you have to read the core material and then figure out what you want to believe in.
Go to the source, or if you can’t, as close to the source as you can get.
The further away you are the harder it is to get enlightened.
For example, the Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman, once visited a classroom and asked them about how light is polarized when reflected.
They could explain it perfectly.
Something like If light strikes an interface so that there is a 90 angle between the reflected and refracted rays, the reflected light will be linearly polarized.
So he asked them to give him an example – and they couldn’t.
The could recite the mantra – the words that related to the idea.
But what they didn’t realise was that it talked about light reflecting off a surface – like the sea they could see from their classroom window.
Full disclosure – I was one of those kids (not in Feynman’s class – in a different class in a different place) that could recite the words perfectly and miss the point completely.
And this is physics – something that works more or less the same wherever you are.
What hope is there for less defined areas of study?
Which is why we resort to shouting very loudly and hoping people listen or arrange things so that we control what’s happening and they are forced to listen.
Social media and Intellectual Property are built on such methods.
This post is not going to resolve this problem.
At one extreme you have people who say that the truth cannot be taught, you must go to the centre for yourself.
At the other you have the jealous guardians of the way – the way of power for themselves – embodied in rituals and structure and rules and control.
You will have to work out for yourself where you are and which direction you want to go in.
And if you come up with something new…
Try not to become religious about it.