Contemporary Complexity - Point 9
This point is a reminder of the vast complexity that has been achieved or that has inundated society in recent history. It is an assessment that is motivated in showing that a continued use of clear and transparent categories of thought is a doomed, outdated fantasy. We have studies to contradict other studies. We have discovered unimagined complexity even within ourselves and if we don't want to deal with it, then someone else will begin at any time saying that we only say or do something because of this chemical imbalance, that psychological envy problem with a sibling, this viewpoint of our gender, that bias of our class, this limitation of our education and so on. We have more information and printed material than we want. We are invaded constantly by advertisements and other unwanted messages. Our environment and architecture are more and more man-made to shape our movements, thoughts and purchases.
This Page, this Point:
"In the past three or four decades, television has provided a source of enormous social stimulation at very low cost, air transportation can now bring together two people from opposite points on the globe in little more than 24 hours; personal computers, microchips, satellite transmitters, copy machines and faxes have set a vast, humming grid of connections upon the entire world. Through these technologies, we are now, whether directly or indirectly, significantly connected to vastly more people, of more varied ways of life, spread over broader geographical domains than could scarcely be imagined in any other historical time. At a social level, we have become embedded in a multiplicity of relationships. We are aware of the needs of more people, empathize with a greater number of tribulations, join more causes, confront more potential threats and enemies, sustain more social obligations, experience more longings and disappointments, and are tempted by more varied and tantalizing possibilities than ever before.
"At another level, we ingest myriad bits of others' being--values, attitudes, opinions, life-styles, personalities--synthesizing and incorporating them into our own definition of self. As we blend the qualities we find in others with our own potentialities, we find it increasingly difficult to look inward to discover what we desire and believe. We have gathered so many bits (or bytes) of being to create ourselves that the pieces no longer mix well together, perhaps even contradict each other. To look inward, then, is to risk seeing a maelstrom of partial beings in conflict. It is, for example, to locate a realist coexisting with a romanticist, a lover of tradition mixing with a revolutionary, an advocate of commitment at odds with a free adventurer. This is the experience of the world and the self that I call 'social saturation.'
"For each new investment in a cause, an ideal or a person, a host of inner voices stands ready to belittle our latest interest, laugh derisively at the newest waste of time, prick our vanity for previous failed investments, undermine our confidence. As every new choice invites a sea of mixed opinions and speculations, both from outside ourselves and from the multiple voices we have already collected within ourselves, the possibility of rational choice fades away. When one can see the situation in multiple ways, how is one to discern the 'best' or the 'right' way?
"At the most subtle level, these changes in social patterns bring about a profound shift in our conception of ourselves and others. Our traditional belief in ourselves as singular, autonomous individuals gives way. Where in the interior lies the bedrock self? Are not all the fragments of identity the residues of relationships, and aren't we undergoing continuous transformation as we move from one relationship to another? Indeed, in postmodern times, the reality of the single individual, possessing his/her own values, emotions, reasoning capacities, intentions and the like, becomes implausible. The individual as the center of cultural concern is slowly being replaced by a consciousness of connection. We find our existence not separately from our relationships, but within them." "The Saturated Family," Kenneth J. Gergen, Networker, Sept/Oct 1991, p. 28.
"The possession, use and control of knowledge have become their [societal elites] central theme--the theme song of their expertise. However, their power depends not on the effect with which they use that knowledge but on the effectiveness with which they control its use. Thus, among the illusions which have invested our civilization is an absolute belief that the solution to our problems must be a more determined application of rationally organized expertise. The reality is that our problems are largely the product of that application. The illusion is that we have created the most sophisticated society in the history of man. The reality is that the division of knowledge into feudal fiefdoms of expertise has made general understanding and coordinated action not simply impossible but despised and distrusted." Saul, John Ralston. Voltaire's Bastards. Vintage Books. 1992. p. 8.
“What we see around ourselves in recent decades has been an enormous expansion of cultural production. There are over 1 million publications annually in the natural sciences, over 100,000 in the social sciences, and comparable numbers n the humanities (Price, 1986: 266). To perceive the world as a text is not too inaccurate a description, perhaps not of the world itself, but of the life position of intellectuals: we are almost literally buried in papers. As the raw size of intellectual production goes up, the reward to the average individual goes down–at least the pure intellectual rewards of being recognized for one’s ideas and of seeing their impact on others. The pessimism and self-doubt of the intellectual community under these circumstances is not surprising.
“Which of the three types of stagnation do we exemplify? Loss of cultural capital (Stagnation A), certainly, marked by the inability of today’s intellectuals to build constructively on the achievements of their predecessors. Simultaneously there exists a cult of the classics (Stagnation B): the historicism and footnote scholarship of our times, in which doing intellectual history becomes superior to creating it. And also we have the stagnation (C) of technical refinement: to take just a few instances, the acute refinements and formalisms of logical and linguistic philosophy have proceeded apace in little specialized niches; in the same way among all factions of the intellectual world today we find the prevalence of esoterica, of subtleties, and of impenetrable in-group vocabularies.” Collins, Randall. The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 1999. p. 521.
Contemporary complexity is so all-reaching that the use of fixed ideas has become unworkable. No traditional society has coped with this degree of complexity. It is around us and also shown to be within us. On the one hand the shared meaning (conceptscape) from a researching and interconnecting world shows up as the remarkable complexity from publishing and databases that themselves cannot even be catalogued. The mental environment itself has become a deceptive and inundated semantic minefield that includes: a graphics revolution, an advertising avalanche, zillions of memes and the revolution in communications technology. On the other hand the personal factors that each of us has been dissected with and that we are invited to use (lifescape) include an unfathomable list: socio-economic determinants, psychological history, patterns hardwired into the body from the species history or through development, hormonal chemistry, emotional bondings/IQs, the incredible cognitive complexity of even simple thoughts such as the identification of a chair as a chair, or the incredible amount of potential perceptual information impinging subliminally on our senses. Below all these the physical environment that we have constructed such as our houses and electronics are more vast, more interconnected and thus more susceptible to normal decay. “Can’t keep up” is the usual response.
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Page updated 3/5/03