We Have No Choice

 New Yorker cartoon by the late Charles Barsotti

“Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice but to carry on!”
– Stephen Stills

My friend Nancy White just wrote an article lamenting the loss of thoughtful asynchronous communication — the modern equivalent of the longhand letter. There is seemingly no time anymore to engage in thoughtful back-and-forth online discussions over an extended period of time on interesting and important (but not urgent) subjects, often with people we respect and value as sounding boards but have never met in person.

Nancy will probably not like my response to this, which is in essence that we have no choice over what we do or don’t do, so we shouldn’t mourn the loss, or blame ourselves (or others) for what is happening around us — or hope for, expect, or even agitate for improvements.

“It’s going to take a major shift in thinking [to improve things]”, writes the author of the article in Fast Company that inspired Nancy’s article. But let’s be real — there isn’t going to be and never has been a “major shift in thinking” of the type needed to avoid the global collapse of our industrial economic system, runaway climate change, or any of the other dangerous trajectories we are now on. Our thinking is biologically and culturally conditioned; it is beyond our control. I may change my personal beliefs on some subject, but only if my past conditioning has been to challenge what I currently believe, and if the change is consistent with what I’ve been conditioned to believe anyway. That “re-conditioned” change in my beliefs is inevitably going to happen, or not, and has nothing to do with what is “needed” at any scale. We have no control over our “thinking”, so we cannot “shift” it, especially at any scale like an organization or entire culture.

Change in beliefs and behaviours — that is, cultural change — occurs only when a generation passes the torch to another and shuts up or dies. Changes in attitudes, and hence laws and actions, about slavery, the equality of women, LGBT rights, the social acceptability of smoking and drinking, and other issues happened — generally slowly over several generations — because younger generations were differently conditioned than their forebears. They didn’t grow up thinking that slavery was acceptable or economically necessary, that women were inferior, that LGBT people were dangerous or mentally ill, that tobacco was healthy and alcohol inevitably socially ruinous, as previous generations had been indoctrinated to believe.

For the same reasons, we have seen no such welcome changes in our beliefs and behaviours related to (just a few examples here) our toxic diet, our insane faith in GDP and economic growth as a “good”, our horrific, condoned treatment of farmed animals, our reliance on pharmacological and chemical treatment of illness instead of prevention and self-management, our utterly unwarranted belief in the superiority of institutional schooling, our willingness to spend trillions waging foreign wars, or our disrespect for those providing and advocating government services and regulations that might alleviate the obscene inequality of wealth that is tearing apart our social fabric.

If our civilization and our habitable planet survive long enough, we might see such changes in coming generations — younger citizens’ attitudes towards them are largely untrammelled (so far anyway) by the blindness and propaganda that formed our attitudes on these matters, and which perpetuate the resultant tragic current ills.

We are conditioned by our bodies, our culture and our environment, and we cannot think or do otherwise than what that conditioning causes us to think and do. Biologists are now beginning to find compelling evidence that there is no “self” — nothing in the brain or elsewhere that constitutes “conscious” “us” — and that “we” don’t actually make decisions (the neurological activity in the brain that purportedly represents the decision-making actually occurs after we’ve already started to implement the decision, and all the brain is doing is an after-the-fact rationalization of what we’ve been conditioned to do, as being somehow “our” thought-out decision).

That is not to say we’re automatons. It’s worse than that — “we” don’t exist at all. The play of life and all its apparent creatures and elements and environments goes on not automatically but improvisationally, continually adapting to the changes of the moment in amazingly creative and utterly unpredictable ways. But “we” have nothing to do with it. Our belief in individual control, free will, agency and choice is an illusion, or more accurately the mental delusion of a brain obsessed with finding patterns and making meaning (with the best of intention to advance our survival), where there is actually none. Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice but to carry on. 

So getting back to Nancy’s article: Is “focus and balance” of reflective time and thoughtful asynchronous communication actually something “companies need to protect in order to be successful”? And if so, what if anything can be done to restore it?

In the context I have tried to outline here, these questions have no answers. Companies and the complex billions of influencers (human and otherwise) that affect their success will do what they will do, what they are conditioned to do; they have no other choice. We cannot predict their success any more than the grossly overpaid “leaders” that take unwarranted credit for it (and get unwarranted blame when it fails) can influence that success. What we do know is that humans are conditioned (it’s an evolutionary success factor) to do our best to help others we are in contact with — unless that conditioning is overridden by conditioning to fiercely compete or to exploit (which it often is in larger organizations, organizations that, as explained in The Corporation tend to become more and more psychopathic as they get larger, and start to condition such behaviour in their “leaders”).

It doesn’t take much cultural anthropology to discover that (not-too-large) organizations whose people are unrestricted in their freedom to do their best to help those close to them (colleagues, customers etc.) almost inevitably “succeed” no matter how you define that term. Exceptional “leaders” are unnecessary, as are mission statements, strategic plans, goals, roles, sophisticated technologies and processes — in fact these are all usually a waste of time and money, and a distraction from the essential work of people on the front lines doing their best (in spite of these management-mandated obstructions), through “workarounds”.

Communities that are similarly unrestricted do likewise, though nowadays we have more or less obliterated true communities, unwittingly, as we tried to do our beleaguered best to help our families survive the economic and social brutality of modern industrial civilization culture, leaving us no time at all to nurture community. No one is to blame for this; this is the game of life playing itself out, with an inevitable and unfortunate end in the cards for what we have built up in this culture, leading to what is likely to be a long period of misery for generations until the collapse is complete and some new temporary equilibrium begins. To change this we would have to smash the systems, and we can’t, and won’t. They won’t last much longer anyway.

I wrote many years ago, when I still believed individuals had agency to change organizations and cultures, that the only way knowledge truly gets “transferred” or exchanged is through one-on-one iterative conversations (and demonstrations) between people with shared values, on subjects they have knowledge about (know-how, know-what or know-who), and care about. I said this sacrilege as one of the founders of, and early “thought leaders” in, the field of “knowledge management”, charged with increasing “organizational knowledge” (whatever that means) through online tools and repositories. The statement in bold above is still just as true today. We can’t change human nature.

Asynchronous communication (thoughtful back-and-forth online discussions over an extended period of time) is a feeble attempt to achieve this exchange of knowledge and understanding without face-to-face contact. The challenge with it is that even face-to-face conversations are becoming ever-more fragmented and incoherent. The chaos of the modern uncaring corporation prevents trust from developing, encourages rapid turnover, and makes long-term thinking impossible (and largely irrelevant). So we are less likely to care, to share values, to have shared context, or to have a useful coherent history to impart to others in our organizations. We also have less and less experience with extended, deep, probing, intellectually challenging oral discussions with others, since our attention is increasingly fragmented and our communications increasingly short, online, and one-way. We have endless distractions, and we tolerate them because they make us feel important.

So here I’ll make another outrageous statement: Adulthood is the process of pretending to know, to have our act together, and to be in control of ourselves. Children wonder at how adults can pull this off, and wonder if it’s just a game, because there is so much evidence that it is just pretence. Children know that nothing is under control, that nobody really knows anything, and that to the individual everything is kind of terrifying. It is a game, a con, one that we increasingly come to believe and accept as truth mainly because everyone around us is pretending too, so it seems humiliating and foolish and nonsensical to go on believing that it’s just pretence. Adults fool each other into actually “buying” the life-long relentless role-playing as being, somehow, who they really are. Growing up is just buying the con, for life.

So things that make us feel important — appreciated and paid attention to — like the mountain of distractions sent online “to us” (by email, on Facebook, on Slack, through Sharepoint, etc.) help us with the pretence that we’re important, in control, knowledgeable, connected. And it’s easier to keep up the pretence online than face-to-face or even by telephone — it’s like a little mask between us and the rest of the seemingly-in-control world.

The combination of the ever-accelerating stress of trying to make ends meet (for the 99% anyway) and the ever-increasing firehose of seemingly-urgent distractions that make us feel important, in control, knowledgable and connected, mean that there is less and less time for real communication (“knowledge exchange”).

It’s also true, I think, that time has made us a bit cynical of the enduring value of thoughtful back-and-forth discussions over an extended period of time — whether online or face-to-face. Why exert so much energy to carry on a deep conversation, no matter how interesting or apparently important the subject, when it’s unlikely anything substantial or enduring will come out of it anyway? In writing the many thousands of pages of this blog over 14+ years, I’ve had many conversations, both online and face-to-face, but looking at the “Best 58 posts” on my sidebar, more than three times as many of them were inspired by reading books or articles (or in a few cases, by watching long, substantial videos) as were inspired or informed by asynchronous conversations. That’s pretty sobering, since my blog is basically a record of what I’ve learned over those 14+ years.

Those books and articles and videos have utterly changed my worldview, and modestly changed my behaviour as well. But they came at the right time, when I was ready for their messages. Why was I ready? Was it due to conversations I’d had previously? Mostly not, though in a few cases the books or articles or videos were brought to my attention during a conversation in one medium or another.

Of course I have had no control over any of this. I am by nature intellectually curious, especially about culture, human nature and how the world really works. Once my life and career allowed time for me to explore these subjects in more detail, it was pretty inevitable I would end up taking in these books, articles and videos. They’re very complex and challenging issues to try to deal with satisfactorily in conversations, especially online.

So I’m less distressed than Nancy at the decline in the number of conversations, especially asynchronous ones, I’ve had over the last few years. There is, it seems to me, less and less that is really important to say.

It’s not like I really know anything anyway. It’s kind of nice not having to pretend anymore that I do. Not that I have any choice in the matter.


This entry was posted in How the World Really Works, Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will, Our Culture / Ourselves. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to We Have No Choice

  1. I added your blog to my web library eight to ten years ago and have followed you and George Siemens since then. I have a link to the Change.ca MOOC from 2010 or 11 in the library and your video introducing the MOOC is one I’ve pointed to often. It’s somewhat depressing to read today’s post, even if I recognize some of the reality in it.

    For those who have “made it” to some level of security, if not to the top 1%, it’s easy to say some of what you’ve written and wait out the “end of times” or of your own time on earth. For others, there’s a struggle going on. For our own daily bread and for the belief (illusion?) that we can make life better for others.

    If all of what you’ve written is true, why try? What message of hope do you pass on to kids?

  2. stephen says:

    Great article, but I am sceptical of this:

    ” Biologists are now beginning to find compelling evidence that there is no “self” — nothing in the brain or elsewhere that constitutes “conscious” “us” — and that “we” don’t actually make decisions ”

    The biologists are using limited tools and limited mindsets. They know no more than the rest of us.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Nancy.

    Hey Daniel. I’m sorry you found this message depressing, as I find it kind of liberating — if there is nothing we can do to “fix” things, then we might as well relax and enjoy the astonishing pleasures and wonders of being alive at this moment, with those we love.

    I have no message of hope for anyone, since Derrick Jensen explained that it’s better to (try to) stop hoping and move Beyond Hope (https://orionmagazine.org/article/beyond-hope/). Though he thinks we have a choice.

    My great-great-grandfather lost the family farm during the Long Recession of 1871-97, and was forced to move to the city and make a living as a tailor as his children worked in the notorious “garment industry” factories or stoking coal for the railroads. He wrote in his diary that while his children would likely have a hard life, generations after them would “hopefully” reap the benefits. He said that was all in God’s hands, and there was nothing he could do about it but life a “good life”.

    I think there will be several generations of struggle with a declining standard of living, a lot of new learning, and a plunging global population, before the next stable human societies (plural; I don’t think there will ever again be a global culture like ours today — it’s unsustainable and hugely expensive) emerge. That could take centuries or even millennia. Once that’s happened I think they will be absolutely amazing times to live in, without the horrors of our current culture.

    But we may not even survive as a species, and there are great concerns about keeping the spent nuclear waste we’ve produced in the last 200 years from making our planet uninhabitable for millions of years. It’s not for us to say, or change, or plan. We can only do our best, whether that is trying or not trying. We can do nothing else. As Eliot wrote, “The rest is not our business.”

    So if we’re fortunate we will, I think, every moment we can, every way we can, do what Mary Oliver says to do: “Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” That’s not advice, or a hope, since we have no choice; it’s just my sense of how those whose lives are most joyful will live their lives. Possibly we two will be among them.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Stephen: Yes, absolutely. So called neuro-“science” is still medieval and full of flawed premises, inflated egos and over-reach. But the fact that they’re finding what they fervently hoped NOT to find — an absence of self — while physicists are finding that there is no real “time” (and hence no big bang, no beginning or end of anything, no credible grand theory of everything), seems intriguing to me. The evidence just keeps mounting that self and time and separateness are illusory, constructs of the brain and nothing more. They (scientists) hate that — the idea that “we” can’t know the true nature of reality is utterly infuriating, but the harder they try to prove that wrong, the more they seem to show it’s true.

  5. Michael Brackney says:

    Yes, it’s intriguing that these scientists are finding what they hoped not to find — no self, no time, not knowing — and isn’t it positively encouraging that these are the very same truths to which our greatest spiritual teachers are ever pointing as characteristics of the love and choiceless freedom that is and can be discovered to be our own true nature!

  6. Don Stewart says:

    Carlo Rovelli and Seven Brief Lessons on Physics
    Rovelli is an Italian physicist studying quantum gravity in France. He published these seven brief essays in an Italian Sunday newspaper, and now they are available in a very slim little book. I highly recommend them.

    So, yes, our ideas about Space-Time must be modified or replaced, which is where quantum gravity enters the picture. And No, quantum gravity theories have not been tested and verified by experiments. So, at the present time, much is still speculative. Rovelli emphasizes how much we do not know.

    ‘The scientific picture of the world that I have related in these pages is not, then, at odds with out sense of ourselves. It is not at odds with our thinking in moral and psychological terms, or with our emotions and feelings. The world is complex, and we capture it with different languages, each appropriate to the process that we are describing. Every complex process can be addressed and understood in different languages and at different levels. These diverse languages intersect, intertwine, and reciprocally enhance one another, like the processes themselves.’

    ‘Here, on the edge of what we know, in contact with the ocean of the unknown, shines the mystery and the beauty of the world, And it’s breathtaking.’

    Don Stewart

  7. Philip says:

    would go with Nietzsche….science only describes the world. Our descriptions may get better but we explain just as little as any who came before us. We are unaware of our nature. The liberation is spiritual….but this is hard for many as suffering and letting go must come first.

  8. Andaréapié says:

    Thank you for this. Statement after statement you have written rings like a bell for me. This contains one of the more positive and loving explanations of what I think of as anarchy (the old unobfuscated definition) I’ve ever read. It’s a comfort.

  9. AlterNative says:

    My soundbite in this regard goes like this. The key to intelligence is uncertainty.

    What I mean is that the ability to think about the world and to develop stories to explain it without relying on the illusion of knowledge is where logic [the lack of contradictions] flourishes.

    But in addition to accepting that knowledge is an illusion and striving to think and to communicate in uncertain but still definitive terms by virtue of belief [as opposed to fact], there is the virtually insuperable corruption built into the language [at least the English language] that corrals us into the grammar of the illusion. The infinitive, to be, and the words [and their derivatives], fact/real/know/true are the worst but not the only culprits.

    Isn’t is odd that humans seem to be the only species that demands rules, truth, and organization. It seems that all of other species on Earth just “git ‘er done”.


  10. Brutus says:

    Lots to chew on here. So much in fact I can’t (or at least won’t) go point-by-point.

    You (Dave) and I have had numerous exchanges in the past regarding free will, self, consciousness, etc. and come to remarkably different conclusions while looking at some of the same evidence. I won’t repeat here. However, the overall tone and content of your post has veered heavily toward nihilism, which you say is freeing but sounds more imprisoning. The hopelessness of our situation with respect to the imminent collapse of industrial civilization and the uncontrollable nature of society and history (abstractions, those, but powerful ones in the context of the stories we tell ourselves in our attempts to orient and make sense of things) is understood and agreed. Your version of hopelessness sounds more like “why bother getting out of bed?”

    For instance, you ask, “Why exert so much energy to carry on a deep conversation, no matter how interesting or apparently important the subject, when it’s unlikely anything substantial or enduring will come out of it anyway?” To which I respond, because it’s enjoyable! The prospect of solving the world’s many problems or even those situated right around me enters into the activity only modestly. As a younger man, I had the radical idea that nothing really mattered that didn’t permanently alter time or space. That cosmic hubris was quite silly of me, because all sorts of things matter without really mattering, if that makes sense. To give up so entirely because nothing matters anymore is a defeat unworthy of the life we’ve been gifted. Similarly, the idea that choice of where my fork goes to get the next bite of food off my plate is nothing more than conditioned inevitability, that the so-called illusion of choice is nothing more than metaphorical ball bearings bouncing off boundaries placed in our path, is also reductionist. Even if it’s true in a scientific sense (like there being no such thing as time), that’s not the reality we inhabit. I’m sorry you’re lost down that rabbit hole.

  11. Philip says:

    Dave is not down the rabbit hole anymore than you, Brutus or me. Fight the fights that make a difference and at the same time know that they make no difference. Love where you can find it. Nietzsche again- “joyous distrust is a sign of health, everything absolute belongs to pathology”.

  12. Raquel fronte says:

    Hey Dave! I am so happy I found this artical….I’m pretty sure it just changed my life…
    I am a Mother, Vegan, Flight Attendant…I was a film student before that…..Iv been reaserching Intentional communities that are sustainable and more they differ to find out what works better……why I’m doing this? I’m interested in maybe documenting it on Video….I am enlightened by this dialog and would love to speak to you…face to face Please contact me

  13. Philip says:

    do what the soft animal of our body loves
    5.30 min

    a “worthwhile story” to watch

  14. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Philip — a lovely story beautifully told. Going to include it in my upcoming Links of the Quarter.

  15. Randall says:

    Here are my lessons from a long career in technology and a more recent “minor” in community-building:

    Computer mediated communication (CMC) is a solvent for true community. CMC is to communities what freeways are to city neighbourhoods.

    If one is practicing what the original author calls “asynchronous communication”, then it is at the expense of those who are actually physically present in one’s life. People (and by extension companies) that structure their affairs with physical proximity in mind are ultimately the wiser and more resilient.

    So, perhaps a better framing of the original article’s question might be: “Why am I feeling the pull toward asynchronous communication? Who is pulling me, and why aren’t they physically in my life? Who structured this arrangement and why should I participate?”

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