Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ The Monkeysphere Ideology

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Mar 02, 2009

Originally posted on Half an Hour, March 2, 2009.

Goodness knows, I don't want to cite Cracked as my source.

My brother liked Cracked. I was always a Mad reader. He also liked Pepsi and CFGO in Ottawa. Myself, I was always a devotee of Coke and listened to CFRA. The originals.

But sometimes you follow the leads wherever they take you. But let me digress first.

Unlike most people, I did not lose any money in the economic crash. At least, no money that I know of yet - I may have something in some pension account somewhere. But I don't have investments, retirement accounts, or any of that sort of thing.

"I won't get to retire," I always said when people asked me. "Whatever retirement money I could ever save, they would figure out some way to steal it." And so they have, and now with the Dow passing 7000 and continuing its downward plunge, it feels like I'm watching the fall of a civilization.

I watched The Day After on YouTube today. You can watch the entire length of the controversial 1983 made-for-TV movie. The story centers around the survivors of a nuclear attack. The few that made it endured chaos, disease and hardship. Their entire way of life disappeared in jyst a few minutes.

I have always wondered why people go on with their daily lives in cities on the brink of disaster. How the residents of Pompeii, for example, were cooking bread and weaving cloth right up to the time of the fateful eruption. How villages continued as normal up to the very minute of Genghis Khan's golden horde.

Now I know: what else can you do? The disasters cut a swatch through society, everything changes, and then you try to make do with whatever you have left.

So what does this have to do with Cracked?

Well - it's this. Great societies, they endure. Their fabric withstands the blows of fate and fortune and there is enough in their people to carry on after. To carry on in an altered, reformed, fundamentally different state, perhaps, but to carry on.

But what gives you that capacity is not typically your technology or your wealth or your dominions - all of which are characteristically wiped out in a crash. No it is your character, your capacity not simply to carry on, but to have a reason to carry on, to rebuild what you have lost.

Now let's look at the Cracked article, which suggests that each of us has a limit of about 150 people we can know and understand and relate to. The theory is based on Dunbar's number, and Cracked calls it - with more than a little alacrity - the 'monkeysphere'. The article, which was written in 2005, is making the rounds again.

In our complex society, writes Cracked, "Most of us do not have room in our Monkeysphere for our friendly neighborhood sanitation worker. So, we don't think of him as a person. We think of him as The Thing That Makes The Trash Go Away."

So far, this is fine. We have limits to our capacity. We are monkey brains. We all know that. But the writer takes it a step further. " We are hard-wired to have a drastic double standard for the people inside our Monkeysphere versus the 99.999% of the world's population who are on the outside."

My fiend Bob Armstrong used to say, when we worked on the Gauntlet together, that the importance of a story to the media was inversely proportional to the distance from us and proportional to the amount of blood shed and the whiteness of their skin. An observation, not a thesis, and one that remains true today, at least in western media.

But being Cracked, the thesis is pressed one fatal step further: "The problem is that eventually, the needs of you or those within your Monkeysphere will require screwing someone outside it (even if that need is just venting some tension and anger via exaggerated insults). This is why most of us wouldn't dream of stealing money from the pocket of the old lady next door, but don't mind stealing cable, adding a shady exemption on our tax return, or quietly celebrating when they forget to charge us for something at the restaurant."

Except... that's not true.

Oh, wait a minute. It's true for some people, at least. "There is a reason why all of the really phat-ass nations with the biggest SUV's with the shiniest 22-inch rims all have some kind of representative democracy (where you vote for people to do the governing for you) and all of them are, to some degree, capitalist (where people actually get to buy property and keep some of what they earn). "

And this is what I have always known about what would be the fate of my putative retirement savings plan.

And what we are going through now is the logical consequence of thinking like monkeys. If we can't even get though a day without yelling at people on the road, stealing money from old ladies, or cheating on our taxes, cable bills or restaurant cheques, then any hope we have of building a modern technological society is probably doomed. They're too fragile. They require a high degree of intelligent behaviour on the parts of their citizens.

And we have spend the last few decades fostering, nay celebrating, the ethos of the monkeysphere. Believing that if each of us looked out solely and entirely for our own interests (and that it wasn't cheating unless you got caught and convicted). A nation of Conrad Blacks, looking at us smugly, derisively, snarling at our inability to understand the realities of our times.

And even as our society heads toward the precipice, life continues on as usual. Television channels continue to play Jerry Springer and Dr. Phil. The newspapers continue to publish stories about the needs of business and retirement savings. Our society continues to slide - and, one thinks, it will not cease to slide until people get the point.

The point is that the monkeyspehere ethos that has been informing our society over the last three decades or so is fundamentally wrong.

Our failure lies not in the fact that we cannot know and understand more than 150 people. That's just a fact of physiology. Rather, our failure lies in how we characterize the remaining 99.99 percent of humanity: as though they were automatons.

This is the fundamental error of our times. It is the error that allows us to characterize entire societies as 'ragheads', the culture that allows is to say "it's not personal, it's business" as we evict someone from their home or cheat them out of their life's savings, the ethos that allows us in the western world to build a society based on consumption and ownership of more and more even as starvation and disease wrack the remainder of the world.

This is what allows us to treat politics and warfare as games, that allows people like Rush Limbaugh to say he hopes Obama's plan will fail, that allows us to treat education as though it were economics, able to be sceptical about reform but not really caring, because those kids, aren't people, beacuse success has nothing to do with lives, everything to do with test scores.

This fallacy persists. The failure to understand just what has gone wrong with our society continues in our government halls, where our own ministers are sacrificing humanities and the arts for business - “[s]cholarships granted by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council will be focused on business-related degrees.”

And I read this headline in he New York Times: "In tough times, the humanities must justify their worth." Not business, which caused this mess, not media, which propagated the monkeysphere ideology, not accounting, law or political science, which participated by stumbling around each other in their haste to see who could be corrupted most quickly. No - humanities. And arts.

Because the humanities continue to be portrayed as the pastime of the idyll rich: "a traditional liberal arts education is, by definition, not intended to prepare students for a specific vocation. Rather, the critical thinking, civic and historical knowledge and ethical reasoning that the humanities develop have a different purpose: They are prerequisites for personal growth and participation in a free democracy, regardless of career choice."

Our falure is not a failure of business, which performed as intended (at least for those who made off with the wealth). It is a failure of the humanities, a failure of humanity, the study of which has been in notable decline throughout these last few decades, having, if you will, no measurable worth, no valuation, it being nothing more than a pastime and a recreation.

Ironic then that Obama's success in the United States is the very antithesis of that: “He does something academic humanists have not been doing well in recent years,” [Andrew Delbanco] said of a president who invokes Shakespeare and Faulkner, Lincoln and W. E. B. Du Bois. “He makes people feel there is some kind of a common enterprise, that history, with its tragedies and travesties, belongs to all of us, that we have something in common as Americans.”

The case has been made before. Our media, one of the early victims of the rise of corporatism, has transformed us from a society of thinkers and reflectors to a society of passive consumers of slapstick. A society were a Jerry Springer retort is what constitutes a reasoned argument, a society where lies and deception become standard fare in the media, a society in which cardboard caricatures substitute themselves in our awareness for reality.

I find myself asking this a lot, "How can you find that moral?" or "how can you find that ethically defensible?" Business practices that depend on preventing poor people from obtaining an education. World financial systems that require deceptive advertising and child labour in work camps in the third world. A network of luxuries and resources that are based in the systemic looting and deprivation of entire populations.

Andrea and I went out to see The Reader last night, a film that had enough conflict, sex and nudity to catch the attention of the box-office-sensitive critics and Oscar voters. "What would you have done?" asks the illiterate prison camp guard quite reasonably. "There were more people coming. We had no place to put them. What would you have done differently? Should I have not joined the SS?"

What is society, other than law? We are tempted to say that it must be more - that it must be morality, say - but even that is far to shallow a notion. Law and morality are not what make us obey even the little principles that create a society. Law and morality depend, even in themselves, on self-interest, on reward and punishment, on monkey teleology. We know that when law and morality are all that hold us together, things fall apart as soon as the source of order is removed.

Our society is founded, and made possible, though an act of mind: and that act is the capacity to empathize - to see, through reason, the conseuqence of our action on others, and to feel the impact of those consequences in ourselves. We even have bits of monkey brain specifically designed for that purpose. Until we shut them off. Until we deliberately erase their impact, because they have no 'value'.

This is not simply a matter of schooling, not simply a matter of going to college. Perhaps there was a time when we could afford to have a society where education was available only to the elite. It isn't even a matter of preparing students "for professional success, responsible citizenship, and fulfilling lives." It's not a matter of preparing at all.

James Bloom writes, 'When we start telling students, their families and the public who pay for our services: 'Trust us. Don’t ask questions. We know what we’re doing,' instead of encouraging them to ask, 'Why do you what you do?' or 'What’s the point of studying literature and philosophy?,' we’ll deserve to go out of business." But it isn't a matter of being or not being in business.

The economy is just numbers. Education is just facts. Business is just commerce. None of these will offer our society any sort of hope in the current crisis, or the numerous crises that are coming. Yes, the economy is crashing, yes, millions of people are losing their homes and their jobs, yes, we may be only weeks and months away from riots in the streets and civil insurrection - none of this is at the core of our despair.

I finished Hemingway's For Whom The Bell Tolls last night. A story of civil insurrection, of the end of society and the rise of fascism, of casual murder, betrayal, and love. "'Then you will have to fight in your country as we fight here.' 'Yes, we will have to fight.' 'But are there not many fascists in your country?' 'There are many who do not know they are fascists but will find it out when the time comes.'"

In Hemingway's time, as in our own time, society falls, and fascism rises, when the humanity is erased from its citizens. "The soldiers using those weapons are simple brutes, they lack 'all conception of dignity' as Fernando remarked. Anselmo insisted, "We must teach them. We must take away their planes, their automatic weapons, their tanks, their artillery and teach them dignity".

When we live our lives in the monkeysphere, we have no comprehension of any of this. We see glimpses only of the lives of the participants, and mostly, see that they do not see each other as people - as hurting, feeling beings. "Because thou art a miracle of deafness....It is not that thou art stupid. Thou art simply deaf. One who is deaf cannot hear music. Neither can he hear the radio. So he might say, never having heard them, that such things do not exist."

What we need, to survive this crisis and the next, is to get beyond the crass calculations of statistics and value, beyond the idea of "proving your worth", beyond seeing people as caricatures, as cardboads cutouts populating the backdrop of our lives, but of beings worth of consideration, nay, worthy of sacrifice.

This is more than "a common enterprise, that history, with its tragedies and travesties." This is, rather, a way of seeing the world, or as Wittgenstein would say, a way of being, a way of living. Our fundamental bedrock assumption must be, as Kant said, that we treat people as having inherent value in and of themselves. "Act in such a way that you treat humanity both in your own person and in the person of all others, never as a means only but always equally as an end."

I have, from time to time in the past, advocated that educators ought to adhere to something like the Hippocratic oath, a commitment to, above all, do no harm. This ought to be the end of statistical education, the end of the idea that students are not mere caricatures, the end of the idea that educational innovation that satisfies the needs of the many, or the needs of society, or the needs of business or the rich, can be accomplished by the sacrifice of even one person.

And, were a similar standard adopted in our processes of politics and business, it would be the end of government by statistics. The end of the depiction of unemployment as a rate. The end of the accounting of poverty as a percentage. The end of the idea that "it's just business" when we sacrifice a life, and the beginning of the idea that, not only is it morally and legally wrong, it is also fundamentally opposed to our idea of selves as humanity. Inhumane.

So how do we get there?

Ideologically, we have to get beyond the mass. We have to get beyond the idea of seeing ourselves as being nothing more than the corporate entity to which we belong, whether that entity be a business, a religion, a discipline, a nationality. We are each of us members of all of these things, and more, and yet they form only the shallowest part of ourselves.

Yes, though it is empowering and aspirational to be a part of something that 'greater than ourselves', it is key and fundamental to understand that, whatever this thing may be, it is a fiction, an artifice, that we have created in order to more efficiently express our thoughts, feelings and affiliations. The moment we subvert ourselves to the mass, is the moment we can see all other humans as similarly subverted.

Conceptually, we need to begin to think and reason and act in terms of the concrete rather than the abstract. That does not entail the end of abstract reason - far from it - but rather it is to foster in ourselves a clear and precise understanding that the abstract is an artifice, an invention, that we use to facilitate thought and reasoning.

Probably the most evident of the abstract that has become reality, and the form of artifice most often promulgated in our mass media, is that of simple causality, whether that of a war, a depression, a successful education, an election. We hear constantly the idea of some 'leader' or 'great person' (usually from MIT or Princeton or something) having 'done' something, whether it be as mundane as raising money through a football program or 'the inventor of' as though there were no players or society or funding of staff or support or janitorial service that made it possible. Our mass media idolize the famous, and in so doing, relegate the rest of us to being bit players. Props.

This understanding, this way of seeing the world, is wrong, and demonstrably wrong. Place Alexander Graham Bell in the Middle Ages and - guaranteed - he does not invent the telephone. Place Rene Descartes in the Tsarist Russia and the Meditations never sees the light of day. Under slightly different circumstances, Elisha Gray is the inventor of the telephone, or Blaise Pascal the inventor of Cartesian Geometry.

When we magnify the importance of the corporate entity above all else, we hurt society. And when we magnify the importance of the individual actor above all else, we hurt society. The monkeysphere ideology is based on both of those fallacies. Business, media, and the rest of them, are based on that fallacy.

Practically, we must immerse ourselves in our own humanity. We must talk to each other. We must communicate with each other. We must be open about our own lives, and curious about others. We must transcend the limit of the monkeysphere by constructing for ourselves concrete understandings of what it is to be human, to live, to have hopes and dreams, and to die. We must read each others' stories, listen to each others' music, to, above all, communicate.

We may not be able to know, in a personal sense, more than 150 people. But we can know of many many more, and we can know, in a concrete sense, that each of these people live lives of value, and cannot simply be thrown away or discounted, not through any sense of law or ethics, but because that's how it feels to be human.

Which returns us to the monkeyspehere. Which returns us to the fact that most of us would not cheat on our neighbours, steal from the blind, swindle old ladies, and all the rest of it, not because it's against the law, not because it's immoral, but because of the way we feel when we do it. As Hume attempted to explain, our sense of humanity and decency is based on a sense of feeling inside us, a passion, and this passion is in turn born in us through a process of experience and education, the process of living in the world, interacting with others, and understanding them.

In our society today a great many people live without this sense of feeling for others. It's a sad thing, and the result of decades of deliberate desensitization. These are the people who, above all, will not be able to comprehend the economic collapse (or global warming, or resource scarcity, or the rest of it) and, with its onset, will be poorly placed to survive it.

These are the people who, through the decades of the monkeysphere, laughed at us from their SUV, blames poverty on the indigent, and championed the unique acumen and skill of CEOs who, by luck and a similar narrowly focused ethic, managed to steal success and create an empire. These are the people who will be least stable in the coming years, which is why reconciliation - as hard as it may be - will have to serve as a touchstone for our post-crash society.

And the other touchstone will be even more simple and more basic - the preservation and promotion of individual human worth and dignity, for each and every person in society - no exceptions. The understanding that our first response to the crisis will have to be to ensure that everyone remains housed and healthy, nourished and educated. The understanding that acquisition and hoarding are dysfunctional, that the chronically wealthy are, in a certain sense, disabled, and that the wealth of society is the birthright of each and every individual of which it forms a part.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

Copyright 2024
Last Updated: Jul 13, 2024 12:57 p.m.

Canadian Flag Creative Commons License.