Thought— 9 Min Read

The New Big Story

by Case Greenfield, December 31, 2021

Thought – 9 Min Read

The New Big Story

by Case Greenfield

December 31, 2021

Every era has its own big story. Tens of thousands of years the big stories of mankind were survival stories, then the last two to three millennia the big stories became religious. Based on the dominance of science and technology, we now are on a fundamental flipping point, a radically new dawning reality that most of us will deny and ignore, because it feels uncanny, too uncomfortable.

Lately, I watched the Adam Curtis 2002 documentary “The Century of the Self” (in Curtis’ words) “about how those in power have used Sigmund Freud’s theories to try and control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy”. It is about how the marketing industry, to their own advantage, has learned to ‘superplease’ consumers by unconsciously playing human drives, needs and cravings, at a global scale. It made me think. Not so much about power and control. About the new, dawning reality that is awaiting us: the age of instant gratification.

In 1992, the short lived band 4 Non Blondes released their only album Bigger Better Faster More (with the hit single What’s Up). It is a great title, Bigger Better Faster More, because it expresses nicely the essence of The Century of the Self and what in my view is the essence of the evolution of the human species and of individual human beings.

Yes to bigger, better, faster, more

And it makes perfect sense. Our basic life organ, the brain, is a survival organ, that leads us to pleasure and takes us away from pain, our hopes and fears, often conflicting, like our need for safety and adventure, our need for relatedness and autonomy, our need for fairness and status. And … there is this thing called habituation (often the first step into sheer laziness). We get used to it and start to appreciate it less, when we have a lot of it. So, we always want bigger, better, faster, more … instant gratification, bigger, better, faster, more … pleasure for ourselves. The Very Hungry Caterpillar …

No to smaller, worse, slower, less

And not just towards pleasure … also away from pain and unpleasure. And that is where it gets really interesting. Because, once used to a degree of pleasure, luxury, ease, wealth, friendliness, whatever, it becomes very difficult for us to accept a situation where we get less of it than before. “Unhabituation” is almost impossible, especially in the case of lazy or totally spoiled (or privileged, for that matter) people. We simply don’t accept what we perceive as a step backwards. (You see it happening in many communities in the USA, today. And, for instance, you see it in the ‘first, second, third generation stories’ of wealthy families that started poor and hard working and evolved into rich, lazy pensioners.*) And rather than blaming ourselves, kicking our own ass, and starting to move and improve our situation, most of us do not have that power. Instead, we start blaming other people, the world, whatever, as long as it isn’t us. We get angry, and we do not solve the situation.

(*) [Update Feb. 25, 2022] – You also see it in the reaction of the EU, European Union, to the invasion of Ukraine by Mr. Putin. Despite knowing rationally that the man only understands one language, ie. brute force, the EU is not willing to take really strong measures against Putin, because it “would not be feasible politically”, which is euphemistic language for “we avoid military involvement, because we are not used to it anymore, and especially, we want to avoid the negative economic impact on ourselves of the measures on Putin”. And yes, I understand there also are rational arguments: Putin has less to lose than the EU, so he will go further than the EU, and the current conflict can easily escalate into a much bigger conflict. But still. Emotion over ratio, packaged as rational arguments. As Daniel Kahneman learned us, the fear of loss aversion is stronger than the desire to gain.

And mind you, there is a (growing) lot of it: loneliness, loss of social and economic capital, loss of status, distrust in the future, new technologies and institutions, to name a few. Maybe, there simply is too much individualism, and too little relatedness and connectedness. The problem: we want to be related, but only with those who superplease us. Away from pain and unpleasure.

It’s how the brain works. But is it still helpful? It was in the stone age, in an era of scarcity and survival, but is it still in our era of abundance and search for purpose, for ‘self-actualisation‘? Our brain has been very helpful in the bottom layers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but is it still in the top layer? And, what comes after self-actualisation? Is collective self-actualisation even possible?

Welcome in the century of the self, the era of instant gratification, the world of the selfie, the age of narcism (“an excessive degree of self-esteem or self-involvement, a condition that is usually a form of emotional immaturity”).

Now, where will this end? How will it end?

To understand were we are going, we must first understand where we come from. Every era has its own big story, that ususally appears in many variants of small stories.

  • The last two to three thousand years, religion has been the dominant story, beit christianity, islam, bhuddism, or whatever, and all of their splinter interpretations. The basic story has always been around suffering: yes, life on earth is difficult and often injust, but do not lose hope, because there is another world awaiting for those who live according our rules.
  • Even longer ago, the stories were about ghosts and gods, the gods of the Greek and Romans, the gods and semi-gods (the pharaos) of the Egyptians, etc. Why did the pharaos have pyramids and why eg. did the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, have a terracotta army? To thrive in the Afterlife.
  • And before that, we had superstition. The stories were about gods and ghosts in the woods. In Europe eg. we had the Sun and the Moon, and the gods Thingsus, Wodan, Donar (Thor), Freya, and we had Saturn, after which the days of the week were named.

The Big Change

The last roughly thousand years, this has slowly started to change … dramatically. Usually, the year 1543 is used to earmark the change. In this year Niklaus Copernicus published his book De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium. The story is well-known. Copernicus discovered that Earth circles the Sun, in stead of the other way around – based on mathematical calculations and logical reasoning! And that discovery was a problem, a big problem … for the Pope. Because the entire story of the catholic church was built around the model that the Earth was the center of the universe. Uh ohh! So, the Pope tried to make Copernicus’ life impossible, but of course in the long run that didn’t work. People gathered more and more evidence of Copernicus’ theories, and in the end science won. Although, it took a very long time (and even now, there are people who rather believe their own stories eg. claiming that the Earth is flat.)

Since then, we had many scientific discoveries demystifying the old “Story of Us”. Darwin discovered that we are ‘just another animal’ really lucky to have developed in a advantageous way, Freud discovered that we are not so rational after all, Watson and Crick discovered that many of our traits are simply stored in a large molecule, DNA. Actually, the common thread is very simple:

Again and again our discoveries force us to falsify the soothing, unctuous stories that we created about ourselves, the realities that we create to shape ourselves, and adopt a continuously dawning new reality.

And neuroscience is definitely going to further demystify our story, especially on the themes of consciousness, identity and free will. We will find out that whatever happens in our brains is very different from what we always thought. Eg. the deeper we will dig into the workings of our brain and mind, the more we will discover that there is not one ‘self’, that the self really is the result of many, many complex – and often conflicting – neurobiological processes, that steer our behavior, rather than something we preciously and mabe even romantically call ‘free will’.

In the same time, science has been (and will be) applied to technology. We learned how to build reliable and comfortable housing, how to transport ourselves with no effort, how to ensure rich harvests, how to ban many risks from our lives and have a luxury existence – well, not for everybody, but at least we have proven that in theory each human being could live a luxury life. But it doesn’t stop there. Modern technologies, especially artificial intelligence, are going to change our lives more in the coming 50 years than anything has done in the last 500 or even 5000 years.

We are entering an new dawning reality. The Big Change is that it’s no longer about raw survival, it will be about designing our destiny – beyond self-actualisation.

We are entering a reality where superstition and religion play no or a subordinate role, and where science and technology will be the basis of the new big story – whether you like it or not. It is all based on what Michael Strevens in his book The Knowledge Machine calls “The Iron Rule” underpinning science’s claims to objectivity. It states that all scientific arguments must be conducted by empirical testing, excluding all subjective, philosophical, religious or aesthetic matters. In Strevens’ words: “By willfully ignoring religion, aesthetic beauty, and especially philosophy, scientists embraced an unreasonably narrow method of inquiry, whose very narrowness channeled unprecedented energy into observation and experiment.

It is a sort of adolescence of the human species: we have outgrown parental guidance in the form of ghosts and gods, and we now learn to stand on our own feet; the question will be whether we will have enough self-confidence and mental power, or will we create new ghosts and gods? During the Enlightenment we tried, but fell back to Romanticism. Scarcity and survival will no longer be the big themes; we are now entering an era of material and intellectual abundance, with its own big themes like at this moment global warming, an aging population and the fourth industrial revolution, but also a collective global desire for self-actualisation.

And one big question will be whether our brain, as it is today, can handle it. After all, the brain evolved as a survival organ. But as it isn’t about raw survival anymore, how useful and effective are the primitive survival mechanisms of the brain (and our DNA) now and in the future? Our intuition to hide or run for a sabertooth tiger is worthless in our world. So, a big question is: what are the new crucial skills, and how can we acquire them. Spoiler alert: probably not with our current brain or DNA. What kind of ‘brain’ will we need in the future?

Up Or Out: The Big Split

Before my life as an artist, I worked many years for big global consulting firms. They have this wonderful career policy, “Up or out”. Either you progress in the hierarchical ranks, working your butt off, or you leave the company. It is a great metaphor – or maby even an analogy – of the New Big Story.

But first, let me be clear. It was the famous phycisist Niels Bohr, who apparently once said, that prediction is difficult, especially about the future. And that goes for me as well. So, I do not pretend to know what tomorrow will look like, let alone our life in ten, fifty or hundred years from now, or even longer away. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t guess or logically reason about what could or might happen. By means of hypotheses and scenarios.

One interesting hypothesis is about the next evolutionary step of Homo Sapiens. We are now Homo Sapiens. Will we always be? Darwin’s evolution theory says no, we will not. Neanderthals dissappeared, why wouldn’t we one day? Umpff … I know, that is a very big thinking step. Yet, what will be our next step in evolution? And what role will science and technology play? Maybe that step is closer than we think.

One interesting scenario is what I earlier described in a story The Future of Us. Simply said, many of us will establish emotional – even love – relations with the artificial intelligence in our smartphones and other infrastructure, such as the metaverse. Why? Here’s how I put it in The Future of Us:

We are a deeply social species. Put us alone on a desolate island and we go crazy or die of loneliness, not so much of hunger. Loneliness among the elderly is a major cause of disease and death in modern societies. If we want to really punish a person, we put them in isolation in a prison cell.

And yet, for many of us, direct interaction with other people is often a source of stress. Other people can bring trouble. People can be very mean. They may hurt our feelings by pushing us down on the status bar, by creating uncertainty in our life, by lording it over us, by leaving us or keeping a distance, or by treating us unfairly – to name just a few things we tend to do to each other.

Unfortunately, many of us do not have the self-confidence, mental strength or social or financial position to stand up against those who treat us badly. Life can be pretty miserable then. But AI never treats us badly. It’s just a machine, it’s software. AI is never threatening.

Depending on with what objective it’s programmed, you can have AI call you ‘sir’ or ‘madam’, if that makes you feel good. AI brings certainty in your life by giving clear, unprejudiced answers. AI is servant and only authoritative, when we allow it to because we trust (or need) it. AI will never leave us, it is interested in us. AI is fair to us and plays no games with our soul. (And if otherwise, that is because of the people who trained the AI, not the AI itself.)

To many people AI can thus easily become our #BFF, Best Friend Forever. Once we feel familiar and comfortable with the AI, it will fill the gap.

So, it will be the ultimate form of the century of the self, the age of narcissism. It is nicely demonstrated in the movie Her, where the artificially intelligent voice assistant Samantha ‘superpleases’ the main movie character Theodore Twombly. And it will be an endpoint in the evolutionary development of those individuals.

But not everybody will surrender to artificial flattery. Some will act wisely and behave independently of those machines. Those will be the people who will further evolve into a new species, that some call ‘homo deus‘, man that plays god. Anyway, it will probably be based on what is now called human enhancement with insights from science and applications of technology, especially (neuro)biological and computer technologies. Improved DNA augmented with artificial intelligence.

Those will be the ones who will keep on rising in the up-or-out struggle, the ones who will further develop in evolution. The others … will hopefully find a cosy rabbit hole to keep on enjoying themselves. But maybe, the movie Elysium is a good view into their future. You may call it ‘The Big Split’, just like homo sapiens once split off from the neanderthals. So, a big question is: how will we have to apply human enhancement to build a new ‘brain’ and new DNA, apt for the new era ahead?

Science and technology are the basis of the Big Change. Another scenario is when we will find proof of extra-terrestrial life. ET, yes. But it will probably not look like ET in the movie. It will probably be viruses or bacteria, or some other primitive life form. But still, it will be proof that life can evolve from dead matter in other places in the Universe than our own planet Earth. It will be a global shock. It will make imagination and fantasy running wild. And it will go two ways: some will take it as a guide to speed up our own evolution from homo sapiens to homo deus by changing our (extended) brain and DNA even faster, others will take it as a reason to dig even deeper into our cosy little rabbit hole and fall back on survival stories in a new guise.

Yes, I know, there is a third scenario. That we will not conquer the greenhouse effect and global warning, and that life on Earth will be impossible. Somehow, I am not so afraid that we will let that happen. Hopefully.

My art

What does all of this have to do with my art?

Well, life has taught me that rational arguments and logic bring you only so far, when it comes to inspiring people. Emotional incitement through visual cues and storytelling may be a more effective means to open up for new or different mind models: identity and meaning through stories.

In the competition between fiction and truth fiction usually wins, because the truth is just too painful and too complicated – Yuval Harari

And because – as the Belgian psychologist Paul Verhaeghe said – art, literature and philosophy express what we ourselves cannot express. Das gewisse Etwas. The things that we cannot name or indicate ourselves. Those things console us, they give solace in life. As Samuel Beckett said: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

That is why I have decided to use art as a means of communication, rather than rational arguments.

In my art, I hope to express the messy mixture of our daily reality, our self-created realities and the new, dawning reality that I described above. It is the mixture of what we do, our deepest needs and desires and the brutal facts of the rapidly changing world around us. And even our needs and desires themselves are often conflicting – like hope and fear – eg. our need for safety and adventure, our need for relatedness and autonomy, our need for fairness and status.

I try to express this mixture in my art by using mixed media techniques, such as acrylic, pastel and oil paint, markers and spray, combining different color palettes, graphic and painting styles, abstract and realistic elements, different scales and more, into a varied yet consistent whole – creating artworks with both an identifiable tension and an identifiable feeling of comfort, that I like to call “Warm Grounding“, hopefully taking away the uncanny, uncomfortable feeling – if only for a while …

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