By Herb Bowie
Let me take you on a little journey of thought exploring some hitherto unconsidered aspects of our common cultural evolution.
These developmental stages can be viewed through an objective lens, or through a subjective, or an intersubjective lens. That is, we can look at each stage from an exterior perspective, or from a singular interior perspective, or from a collective interior perspective. (For more on these various perspectives, see The Four Quadrants of Human Knowledge.)
From a subjective, or inter-subjective perspective, it is tempting to view these stages of development as having some ethical direction. For example, Ken Wilber has said that:
…moral development tends to move from ‘me’ (egocentric) to ‘us’ (ethnocentric) to ‘all of us’ (worldcentric) – a good example of the unfolding waves of consciousness.
In a similar vein, and in a better known quotation, Martin Luther King once said:
The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.
However, it is also possible to look at these same stages of development from a more objective, exterior viewpoint, as a series of Evolving Social Structures. When taking this perspective, it may be useful to remember this comment from Yuval Noah Harari:
To the best of our knowledge, only Sapiens can cooperate in very flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. This concrete capability – rather than an eternal soul or some unique kind of consciousness – explains our mastery of planet Earth.
And so, from this perspective, we can look at these developmental levels as a series of communication strategies enabling ever greater levels of human cooperation:
From this perspective, it’s good to note that these various communications strategies can all productively complement each other. Even though later ones have developed gradually over time, we shouldn’t think of later ones as being superior to earlier ones, or as rendering earlier ones obsolete: rather, each new one simply represents one more tool in the toolbox.
From this exterior perspective, it’s also important to realize that technology has played an essential role in these various stages of development. As human communication has evolved from grunts, to spoken language, to mathematical expressions, to the written word, to the printing press, the telegraph, the telephone, the fax machine and the Internet, these technical advances have proven to be essential enablers for various stages of development. As just one example, it’s hard to see how humans could have formed working productive peer networks, enabling many scientific advances, without the use of the printing press to publish books and journals.
With hindsight, of course, it’s relatively easy to see how these various interrelated factors have played their respective roles in our human cultural evolution. But how will our culture continue to evolve in the future? How is it evolving now? Answering those questions is a bit trickier.
Again, from an interior perspective, it’s tempting to think of our future cultural evolution as a moral or spiritual journey to increasingly higher ground. Wilber might characterize this as a journey from “worldcentric” to “kosmocentric”; Clare Graves, the originator of the developmental levels as defined in Spiral Dynamics, characterized this as a transition from “subsistence levels” to “being levels.” Some might describe this as a transition from “first-tier” to “second-tier.”
The problem with this sort of thinking, it seems to me, is that these projections seem to be based on wishful thinking concerning the nature of human interior development, but are unsupported by any evident corresponding changes in human social structures. And while we might argue about whether interior development precedes exterior, or vice-versa (probably with as much success as our usual chicken-or-the-egg debates), it seems clear that we can’t have one entirely without the other. If there is going to be development to a new level or stage, then there will be interior aspects to that development, but there will also be exterior aspects. And if we can’t describe any new enabling technologies and social structures, then it would seem pointless to talk about ever more refined levels of human consciousness.
Having finally reached this point in our thinking, it might be only natural to look about us to see if there are any communications strategies or social structures we might have overlooked, or failed to sufficiently appreciate.
And here, I’m afraid, we don’t have to look very far. For there is one major communications strategy that has assumed preeminent importance over the last century that we haven’t yet mentioned: broadcasting.
For a description of what I mean here, the introduction from Wikipedia will serve us well:
Broadcasting is the distribution of audio or video content to a dispersed audience via any electronic mass communications medium … in a one-to-many model. Broadcasting began with AM radio, which came into popular use around 1920 with the spread of vacuum tube radio transmitters and receivers. Before this, all forms of electronic communication … were one-to-one, with the message intended for a single recipient.
This communications strategy has been so omnipresent for all of us alive today that we no doubt take it for granted. And while we tend to think of broadcasting in terms of radio and television programming, it is clear that these sorts of one-to-many communications are now showing up in telephone calls, in text messages, in emails, in app notifications on our personal devices, as well as in purportedly “social” media such as Facebook and Twitter.
Now this sort of broadcasting clearly has its uses, as the occasional tests to our Emergency Broadcast System remind us. But it is also ripe for misuse.
Hollywood director Frank Capra clearly highlighted some of these issues in his 1941 film Meet John Doe. A newspaper reporter fabricates a piece of “fake news” about an unemployed “John Doe” threatening suicide on Christmas Eve in protest of society’s ills. The story “goes viral,” and the newspaper interviews a series of homeless people looking for someone who can pretend to be the nameless protester described in the original article. The person they pick has an older companion who rants about “heelots”: a lot of heels who are constantly trying to get money from others. The reporter pens a series of pieces supposedly written by John Doe, complaining about society’s ills, which are read aloud by the John Doe character and broadcast over the radio. Their simple theme: “be a better neighbor.” At this point, both the John Doe character and the reporter begin to sincerely take the perspective of the fictional character, and begin to see the good that is coming from their radio broadcasts, with John Doe clubs forming all over the country to help their neighbors in need.
At this point a major industrialist with money and political ambitions decides to co-opt this movement for his own purposes. He helps to organize a national convention, bringing together representatives from the now nationwide John Doe clubs. The John Doe character is scheduled to deliver a speech, written by the reporter. But at the last minute the industrialist coerces the reporter into producing a speech that will announce the formation of a new political party, with the industrialist being endorsed as the party’s presidential candidate. The John Doe character rebels and refuses to politicize the movement. He tries to speak to the assembled crowd to tell them how he really feels, but the industrialist gets to the microphone first and denounces the John Doe character as a fraud; Doe tries to speak to the crowd, but the industrialist cuts the wires, effectively silencing Doe.
Capra famously had troubles figuring out how to provide an upbeat conclusion to this dark tale, filming four different endings and testing them on various audiences in different theaters around Southern California. In the end, though, he was unable to come up with any sort of fully triumphant resolution, which may be one reason why this movie is not as well known today as some of his others, such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
What’s striking to me is the degree to which this story from eight decades ago sounds like something from today’s headlines. Update the technology a bit, and it’s all too familiar.
Of course it was only a couple of years before the making of Meet John Doe that Hitler had addressed 15,000 party faithful in Berlin, demanding that Czechoslovakia cede the Sudetenland or face invasion, while having his words broadcast live to millions around the globe, including simultaneous translations into many foreign languages. And it was only a few weeks after Hitler’s speech that CBS broadcast Orson Welles’ famous radio adaptation of War of the Worlds, unintentionally causing widespread panic among US citizenry.
This whole concept of one source being able to simultaneously broadcast to millions of people was still a relatively new phenomenon back then, and so perhaps it was easier for Capra to take a serious look at it back in the 1940’s than it is for us today, when we just accept it as part of the fabric of our existence.
So what can we say about this communications strategy of broadcasting, including its use and misuse in our society today? Here are some thoughts.
So, coming full circle in our inner-to-outer journey, it might be reasonable to ask whether there is a corresponding subjective state that matches up with the broadcasting communications strategy. In other words, is there a broadcasting “consciousness”?
Unfortunately, even though it’s hard to peg this as an advance on any kind of upward moral trajectory that I can identify, I’m afraid there is.
I would describe it like this:
What can we do to fight the spread of “broadcast consciousness”?
First of all, become aware of broadcasting as a communications strategy, and become aware of a “broadcasting consciousness,” in yourself and those around you.
Share this awareness with others.
If you currently find yourself spending too much time tuning in to various broadcasts – whether from your favorite television news channel, or from non-social alerts and notifications on your personal device(s) – turn them off, and look for other more effective communications strategies that you can enable in your life.
Regularly consider news sources that do original reporting, and that offer differing perspectives. Avoid news sources that simply parrot items of dubious parentage, and collections of news sources that all seem to simply repeat a common message without any new analysis or investigation. In this regard, you might want to be aware of research reported here.
In particular, look for ways to become more reflective and less reactive. You might start by selecting and then reading a new book on some topic of interest, being careful to pick something that won’t simply tell you things you already think you know. In management circles, this is often described as paying more attention to what’s important, and less attention to what’s ostensibly urgent.
Published 2018 Nov 19