Tuesday, 18 October 2016

A Question of Scale

One thing I've been wondering recently is whether our perspective of scale is starting to work against us, By that I don't mean that our ability to see in three dimensions is failing or anything, but that we aren't as flexible and able to see the world as we think we are. We are limited by our essential primate nature, and by the complexity of the world. Standing at one point, or being in a particular place means that we lose sight of another part, whether that's the inability or very rich people to realise that there are places, in their own countries, where families are surviving on very little money, or for citizens in the UK (for example) to see empathetically the plight of Syrian refugees or of flood survivors in Bangladesh. There seems to be a point where we cease to be able to see the big picture effectively and fall back on gut instinct and tribalism.

This may be the same impulse that makes us opt for the simplest solution where we can - even if that's not something that will work in the long run. Take the flooding in the Somerset Levels a couple of years ago, there were a lot of online commentators calling for more dredging, simply because it was the simplest solution to the problem. They overlooked the fact that in the long run dredging wasn't going to fix the issue. Staying with flood plains, the fact that the UK is building homes on them seems incredibly short sighted, a quick fix for a problem that exists and which will only spawn further issues in the future as climate change takes hold and sea levels rise. Our natural tendency to seek the quick fix and to operate without all the facts has historically already landed us in hot water (take your pick of circumstances) and in many ways what we call progress is simply the process of setting up the next crisis. I don't mean we should stop doing anything, only that rather than succumb to our monkey urges, we should take the time to consider what will work in the long term, rather than what's easy. The fact that we don't, I believe, is connected to the issue of scale. We see what's immediately available, without considering the bigger pictures, because we literally can't focus on that without nudging our behaviour towards effectively doing nothing. If we start to consider the widening gyre of consequences that might happen because we, for example, don't build on the flood plain, we risk stagnation.

Socially, something I think is slowly being recognised is that social media aside, we aren't endlessly connected and able to make connections. Most of us know somewhere between eighty and one hundred and twenty people, and that includes television characters, Dot Cotton is as likely to be part of your tribe as your next door neighbour. In social media, we collect 'friends' but then prune them out of our feeds to keep ourselves from being overwhelmed, it's pretty much the 'notches on the bed post' version of friendship, and doubtless that's something that Facebook and Twitter et al are relying on, tapping into the competitive nature of humanity to accrue more connections, even if they're ephemeral. It does speak to something else, of course, which is that we are dependent upon other people for touchstones, the reason why Britain's election campaigns have become more focused on the leaders of the various parties, often in the most bizarre ways (I point you in the direction of the bacon sandwich incident),

To bring this to more recent events, I believe that one reason that the UK voted (by a small margin - lest we forget, 52% of the population is not the huge landslide that the May government now attempts to paint it as) to leave the EU is that the scale of the world has grown too large. The EU seems too remote to a lot of people, too alien. The popular press chose to paint EU laws as directives handed down from on high as if Brussels was a God, not a deliberative assembly. At times Westminster chose to do the same, shrugging Parliament's shoulders in a 'don't look at us guv, we don't see a problem with the existing light bulbs/bananas/other things that that the EU has supposedly thrown its teddy out over'. This is why 'take back control' seemed so attractive, it created the illusion that the UK would break free of a set of chains and be able to strut its stuff. The fact that, if we want to trade with the EU, we'll still be bound by the bloc's rules, and that if we want to benefit from the Single Market, we'll have to have some sort of freedom of movement for labour (as ever the ability for capital to move isn't in question - money can go where it likes, and damn the consequences) seems to have been overlooked in the rhetoric of independence. In a fashion true to the Daily Mail, and to an extent, Christianity, the urge to Leave pulled issues down to a personal level underlining the ways that a lot of people in the UK felt isolated and alienated and pointing to the EU and migrants as the cause of their malaise. The bigger picture got lost, the scale worked against us.

This missed the fact that, as ever, things are more complicated. A lot of the issues that affect our communities are not down to politics, be that Westminster or Brussels, but economics. The fact is that automation and the lure of the Far East in terms of being able to treat labour like dirt have meant that a lot of businesses have simply pulled out of the UK altogether. Those jobs won't come back post-Brexit unless something changes in the UK to make us attractive again (and do you want to see even more of a sweatshop economy grow up over here - Sports Direct and Amazon are bad enough without encouraging more companies to go down the same route). Worse, it now looks as if automation, the march of the machines if you like, will start to effect administrative posts adversely too. Corporations are starting to pose a threat to democracy, not simply in the way that TTIP and CETA would/will allow them to sue governments if their profits are threatened, but in the fact that there have already been court cases in Germany, where the German government was sued for their decision to stop using nuclear power. Business is getting bigger, it's ruling more of our lives and we are its willing victims, perhaps because a lot of businesses don't have figures that we can identify with - our person to person connection which drives so much of our psychology, fails us and business becomes just more 'stuff', in the same way that the actual messy bits of politics and law do.

In the UK we've seen rules bent, at the very least, to benefit supermarket chains, something that can destroy communities, taking down not only local shops but also their supply chains. We don't seem to mind this, despite the fact that, logically, if we're talking about jobs and so on, that's just as debilitating as migrants entering an area can be. Again, our person to person connection fails and we miss it because it lacks personality.

I'd like to say a few words about why I think this disparity of scale, and the retreat (as I perceive it) to a smaller scale world, is wrong. For me, the big threats of the 21st Century are truly macro - they're big and they're difficult. They include climate change, automation of work, terrorism and so on. I feel they're also best tackled at a bigger level, even a global level, and the smaller nations are, with the power of corporations to work against as well as the power and interests of other nations, going to have less power and influence over negotiations and proceedings. While larger organisations may be unwieldy, the fewer groups at a table, the fewer exceptions will need to be made and the more progress will be made, ultimately.

By isolating ourselves and insisting that we are special, we won't achieve anything because the problems are too big, and too interconnected to everything else for us to make any traction. The choice, for me, is whether or not we 'man up'* and get to work or if we just allow ourselves to splinter into ever smaller groups.

*I hate that phrase but I can't think of a better one at this time.