In the past two to three centuries we have been swept up in some powerful cultural narratives that have served, among other things, to obscure the nature of our changing world and our inevitable part in it. The revolution in thought that ushered in both modern science and the enlightenment drew our attention to the apparently ordered nature of the universe and then opened up huge possibilities for shaping it through reason and technology. We began to conceive of ourselves as almost endlessly powerful, freed up from the constraints of nature through our ability to stand apart from it and intervene in it.
As this unfolded into the industrial revolution we also shifted our understanding of ourselves. Human progress would come increasingly from industrial processes that could be applied reliably at vast scale and over global distance. What would make this possible was the suppression of human difference (including our passions, that which we most strongly feel and which we most deeply care about) in favour of the idea of the mass – mass production, mass standardisation, mass culture.
And as science and technology have progressed we’ve understood ourselves more and more as part of them rather than as the creators of them (science, as a discipline, is a human creation as much as any other). Today we are increasingly likely to understand ourselves as the product of neural pathways in our brains (drawing on physics) or to treat ourselves as disembodied nodes in a vast computer network.
The technology we have created gives us unparalleled opportunities to make everyone the same, to obscure our uniqueness. But it also gives us huge possibility to free up our creativity for the good of everyone, to support people in reaching out to one another thoughtfully and intentionally.
So this is where we might work out together how to respond to the swirling uncertainty of today. It will take us understanding ourselves in new ways, paying much closer and more rigorous attention to what we truly care about, to what the totality of our experience including our emotions and bodies have to tell us, and to what it is to be a human being.
And it will take us understanding that we, and others, are neither nodes in a network nor neural machines nor simply animated lumps of matter, but deeply connected actors in a huge world of meaning and possibility. As well as our science – greatly needed at this time – it’s going to take each of us bringing forward our passion, our art, our love, and our lives.