Josh Haas's Web Log

Flesh and Spirit

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Here’s my prediction and my vision for the next few decades.

There is a fundamental disunity in our society between the meaningful and the material that’s in the process of healing itself. Meaning is the realm of the emotions, values, and love: the subject of literature, the source of spiritualism, the pause in the middle of a street to notice the architecture of the buildings around you. Material is the logic of human organization and prosperity: vision statements, goal achievement, corporations and society, the down payment on your mortgage.

At some point earlier in the century, the rift between the two modes of concern was so extreme that to embrace one was to totally reject the other. This is what “Turn on, tune in, drop out” meant. Total rejection of bourgeoise existence; live free and love free under the stars. Fuck the man, burn down the military-industrial complex, and let’s all build community gardens. Government was a dystopia waiting to happen; corporations turned free people into rats on an endless treadmill; family values were a hypocritical lie used to enforce social obedience.

At some point, though, the material world started getting exciting. The information technology revolution put the power in the hands of the hacker, and YouTube gave voice to the disenfranchised (and the bored). Young people in their 20s could start making serious cash in business and finance, and companies became smarter about recruiting them and sending them around the world. The best and the brightest increasingly started playing the game, and the world of material power softened to embrace things like personal growth and social responsibility. I’m drawing a sketch of the transformation here; for a full blown portrait, read Bobos in Paradise.

This remarkable subversion of hippy idealism by the mainstream is a great accomplishment of our society. The line between hipster and marketing executive is getting blurry. Corporations are doing truly exciting things, and the process of creative destruction that represents capitalism at its best is slowly eating its way into every sector. Social barriers are becoming fuzzier, and the world is a more connected, more communicative place.

On the other hand we’ve lost a lot of the stark idealism that comes from absolutism, the clarity that comes from drawing a sharp line between the things of the world and the things of the spirit. We all hear the cliches about the only important things in life being the people we care about, the little moments, the journey rather than the destination, but those cliches don’t characterize the way that most people actually comport themselves. The coexistence of material, goal-driven, logical, business pragmatic thinking, and the need to stop — and smell the air around us — is an uneasy one. I sometimes feel like we scurry through the turning cogs like rats, sometimes greasing ourselves through to find a bit of fresh air, an interstice of peace, and sometime getting lost in the grinding darkness.

My prediction — which I put forward as a self-fulfilling prophecy — is that we are seeing a transformation from a synthesis based on tolerance to a synthesis based on true union. We can’t reject one mode and have the other. A world based on hippy idealism doesn’t function. We have six-point-seven billion people on a spinning globe in space; if we don’t think, we’re going to kill ourselves off out of sheer stupidity. Logic, organization, the ability to frame and execute against a vision, are the only things standing between us and chaos. Likewise, a world where the logic of acquiring material power takes precedence quickly transforms itself into a nightmare, an inhuman hell that ineluctably trends towards evil because of the sheer pain it creates to be a cog in such a machine.

The alternative is a new idealism that embraces rather than rejects logic. This idealism is absolute: it pus the human spirit on a pedestal and defies all forces that seek to control or suppress it. It values freedom, love, peace, and being alive in the moment, and rejects questing for status or power or money. But it plays the game. It sets a vision for the world that it wants, and then does what it takes to get there. It builds gardens in cities, and art installations in the desert. It makes sure people are fed and clothed, and given opportunities to make their lives into something meaningful, and challenges them to live up to their responsibility to co-create the world. It thinks long-term about the impacts it has on our environment and natural resources, but it’s also not afraid to crack a few eggs to make omelets. Rather than smashing its computers and fleeing its cubicles, it wants to sit in the boardroom, because that’s the bully pulpit, because power is a necessity, not an impediment, for doing good.

I see this all around me. Yesterday I was at a workshop where a bunch of 20-something designers and creators talked about the work they were doing. All of it was creative and fun, inspirational and freeing; it was also commercially viable. My generation’s best minds are working on endeavors that reflect a desire to empower people, to enjoy life and have fun, but that also accrue power to themselves: they want to change the world in a logical, self-accelerating way.

Like any transformation, there’s a trend, and then there’s the variety of actual experience. For everyone who gets it, there’s a thousand who are still stuck in inertia from previous revolutions. It’s hard to maintain an outlook of joy and optimism while fighting in the trenches of daily life, of hewing to idealistic visions when your investors want you to turn a profit. But it’s doable. My goal is to help, by articulating clearly what the transition is, and building institutions that support it. Being here, at this time, is an incredible gift. Actually, it’s always a gift, no matter which generation you live in, but this is our gift, so let’s learn to enjoy it together.

Written by jphaas

September 26th, 2011 at 1:04 am

Posted in Uncategorized