Four photos from the third session of Writer’s Lab at Shrewsbury Library. A great time was had by all!
Four photos from the third session of Writer’s Lab at Shrewsbury Library. A great time was had by all!
Just a photo (courtesy Shrewsbury Library manager Katherine Berry) of the second session of the Writer’s Lab. Session three is on Tuesday 2nd July at 5.30pm.
We had a terrific hour at the opening session of the Writer’s Lab yesterday. A really great, positive, happy and generous group of about 20 writers, with whom Joe Shooman and I worked. Very good vibes for the remaining sessions!
The Trickster is a universal and ancient archetype. Why did such a character become so important in prehistoric, then in historic myth? Tricksters were everywhere: Loki in the Norse pantheon, Hermes in Ancient Greece, the Coyote or Raven spirit to certain Native American tribes, Anansi the Spider in West Africa, and so on.
Not all tricksters are the same. Some (Loki for instance) display gender fluidity – as a mare, Loki gave birth to Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir – while some are variously heroes and/or villains, and some are more thief than anything else. But the prime focus of the trickster is deceit.
Deceit is a fascinating concept. Some scholars of language suggest that the human capacity for deceit is the basis of metaphor; in other words, a metaphor is a layer above reality that at the same time isn’t reality but also summarises, or describes it better. To make a metaphor about, for instance, shock as a ‘hammer blow’ you have to be deceptive regarding the lack of a hammer or a blow.
But deceit has one fundamental characteristic which marks it out as crucial in human evolution, and therefore in mythology. To deceive somebody you have to have what psychologists call theory of mind. Theory of mind is the understanding each of us has regarding other people, i.e. that they too have a mind which they use in an identical way to ours. Children acquire theory of mind when they are fairly young, depending on circumstances – it can be as early as six years, or as late as eight or nine. Before then, it is easy to show through experiment that young children are unable to grasp what other individuals may or may not believe. Chimpanzees and great apes have been shown to have a basic theory of mind, which means they are able to grasp what other members of their social group may or may not believe, or know. Some male chimps use this in mating strategies: many chimps use it to conceal food stash locations.
The human capacity for theory of mind however far exceeds what apes can manage. We are capable of extraordinarily complex feats of understanding, which we rather take for granted because it is such an integral part of life, but which in fact are remarkable, and a major clue to the nature of consciousness. As a result we are able to make sophisticated calculations about the knowledge or beliefs of others. In literature, this is called order of intentionality. For example: the author of a novel believes certain things about their readers; a character in the novel will have their own beliefs; that character may believe or know something about another character, who may in their mind know something about another, and so on… One of the reasons Shakespeare is so lauded is his amazing ability to manipulate for the benefit of his audience complex many-ordered intentionality amongst his characters.
Theory of mind, then, is the essence of the trickster. The trickster is universal because theory of mind is universal and fundamental to social life. The trickster is in fact the metaphor for theory of mind in mythology, folklore and fireside tale. Our very earliest myths (which, as Karen Armstrong so brilliantly pointed out, are at once real events, retold versions, and instructions for living summarised in those retold versions) contain this archetype precisely because it is fundamental to social life.
Ethnographic studies have shown that hunter-gatherer communities talk about many things during the day – the minutiae of life – but at night four fifths of talk is storytelling. In prehistoric times we needed examples of how theory of mind is used. We needed to know why the Norse trickster Loki changed his shape into a mare then gave birth to Odin’s steed Sleipnir. All this passed on in pre-literate cultures one of the essentials of social life: our capacity to deceive.
I think it’s likely that Mark Zuckerberg genuinely thought his social media networking of the planet would connect people in a positive way, which ultimately would be for the good of the world. It seems an obvious point. How could linking people together have any downside? The benefits look clear: easy communication, bringing sundered families and communities together, and much more.
But Zuckerberg did all this on an inaccurate understanding of the state of humanity at the moment. He naively thought all our good points would be accentuated by connectivity; and it’s true that some of our more humane motives are aided by online connection. But what he failed to see was the underlying metaphor of humanity at this moment in history. We remain a somewhat primitive species, whose ethical development in some places hasn’t progressed much since eras BC. Some of the rest of the world retains at best a medieval outlook.
Before I continue, I just want to digress and emphasise that, unlike some modern commentators, I believe a clear trend of human ethical progress can be discerned over the very long term – let’s say twenty thousand years – which for one main reason will continue over similarly long periods, barring a global human catastrophe. People basically have two options here: either believe human beings are born good but need teaching, or believe that we’re born in sin and need saving. You won’t be surprised to learn that I think the former option is correct. My reason for saying that ethical progress will continue is that understanding – of our environment and of ourselves – is in the long term a one-way process.
In the first of my ‘Five Upcoming Mental Health Crises’ blogs I wrote: … social media style interactions increase narcissism. I use narcissism here in the sense I’ve used elsewhere – “human narcissism is the experience of consciousness by the inauthentic, undeveloped self, one not complete, one with a less than whole understanding of itself. Narcissism is therefore an inevitable and unavoidable precursor to psychological development.” Because narcissism acts through self-deception, the slow sophistication of ourselves via the viewpoints of all the people we meet throughout our lives does not happen via internet interaction. There is no time during such interactions for reason, for the viewpoints of others to manifest themselves. Commonly this is described as ‘internet bubbles’ or ‘echo chambers,’ but the effect is far more profound than merely pushing people away from one another. Narcissism is tough. Narcissism acts with brutal strength to protect itself. Human beings only overcome it because we are a profoundly social species. Social media therefore, with ultimate irony, is in fact the exact opposite. It is anti-social media. Slowly, it is fracturing and infantilising humanity. I say this because it seems to me that narcissism can act with far greater reach and depth through the internet.
What Zuckerberg failed to grasp was that our current, quite primitive mind-set is amplified online far more than any humane tendencies. He created an online environment in which narcissism thrives. It would have been far better for humanity if he hadn’t invented Facebook.
There are three main ways in which narcissism acts online. The first is via the perceived lack of authority, which encourages users to do what they like without fear of admonishment or judgement. This effect is the origin of trolling. Trolls are inadequate narcissists lacking empathy, whom the internet fosters. The second way is via behaviour amplification, which occurs because of the immediate, swift and intense qualities of social media especially. Because narcissism is so tough, acting through self-deception, it usually wins out over humane qualities. The third way is via non-reasoning. Because online behaviour is being internalised – especially by younger users – our natural abilities to think, reflect over time and use reason are being lost. This is the origin of modern social polarisation.
We currently therefore are living in temporary backwards-moving times, in which the progress of liberalism during the 1950s – 1970s is being undone. A similar thing happened during the 20th century because of the social consequences of mechanised industrialisation – in Germany, for instance – undoing a lot of the work of the Enlightenment and what followed. Online-mediated narcissism is fuelling the rise of extremes, of polarisation, of unreasoning thought and behaviour – behaviour which, as Dr Mary Aiken pointed out, then migrates back into the real world.
I do think this is likely to be a temporary blip, however. In the long term, ethical progress moves from primitive and non-understanding towards humane life, where understanding is the main foundation.
As many have observed, technology is a double edged sword. The problem is – as with nuclear weapons for example – that humanity has created something for which the negatives are too dangerous to remain unregulated. We regulate the use of nuclear weapons, so why not online life? At the moment that is a new, powerful and highly dangerous scourge.
We need to recognise this, both as societies and as individuals.
I never post anti-Daily Mail content for instance because such postings are exactly what the Daily Mail wants. They want polarised, irrational debate because it perpetuates their position as a beneficiary of such behaviour. I do think however that at last a sense of perspective is emerging regarding social media especially. Alas, the peril of deep (video) fakes is almost upon us, and ordinary people seem powerless to stop it, despite the fact that the developers themselves have remarked (eg on BBC News’ Click programme) on the obvious dangers. Yet, still the reckless, unregulated development continues…
We are alienated from our essential human selves. Marx in my opinion was wrong on many counts, not least his analysis of the historical arc of capitalism, but on one point he was not only correct but got the heart of cultural and psychological progress. If we are alienated from ourselves there must be an “essence” to be alienated from. We – workers, bourgeoise and all – are not living authentic human lives. As I’ve argued in my novels and elsewhere, what humanity needs above all now is a complete scientific description of the human condition (which by the way I think is different to human nature). In a non-fiction book that I expect to write this autumn, I’ll be offering my own scientific description of the human condition. In the meantime, happy 200thbirthday Mr Marx!