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Changing our deep narratives

June 2, 2023

bookcoverI ordered John Higgs’ 2019 book The Future Starts Here from the library because I wanted to see how he addressed the subject of “the future.” Higgs is an idiosyncratic writer who tends to write expansive if English cultural histories: William Blake, The Beatles and James Bond, Watling Street, the KLF.

His starting point here is a cultural one: how is it that in the space of a few decades we have gone from optimistic views of the future to pessimistic ones—from the 1939 World’s Fair to Mad Max and The Road. His subtitle is: ”An Optimistic Guide to What Comes Next”.

When the post-apocalyptic Australian film Mad Max 2 was produced in 1981, it was necessary to explain to the audience why civilisation had collapsed. Text at the start of the film explained how, in the near future, the world would run out of oil and this would lead to the dystopia depicted in the story that followed. Now, it is no longer necessary for writers and filmmakers to explain the post-collapse worlds they explore (p2).

Constant progress

There’s also a generational question here as well:

When I was growing up in the 1970s, the idea that society was progressing, and that life would get better, was still a part of mainstream culture… The idea of constant progress and improvement had been the dominant Western narrative for centuries, embedded in everything from the Age of Enlightenment to the American Dream. When the Sex Pistols emerged like harbingers of an unwelcome nightmare and announced that we had ‘no future’, that was really shocking.

In developing this idea he has chapters that seek to understand AI, virtual reality, augmented reality, social media, space exploration, and some other things that crop up along the way. I’m not going to spend much time on those here, because they cover familiar ground, albeit in an interesting way.

Beneath the surface

But I should add a note to any reader who thinks that a discussion of AI from 2019 is going to have been overtaken, because Chat GPT: you would be wrong. Because Higgs is largely a cultural analyst he is interested in what lies beneath the surface of things. And so his discussion of AI spends quite a lot of time on notions of both intelligence and consciousness. This proceeds through Descartes and the consciousness of octopi, but a section in which he talks to Alexa about his cat is also emblematic of his style:

‘Alexa, are you more intelligent than my cat?’ I ask. ‘Sorry, I can’t find the answer to the question I heard,’ she says. The cat shakes his head in a pitying manner…

‘Alexa, does intelligence require awareness? I ask. ‘Sorry, I didn’t understand the question I heard, she replies. Awareness is an intrinsic part of cat, and human, intelligence. Alexa has access to potentially unlimited information, but data is a different thing to knowledge or understanding. (pp50-51)

The reason I’m not spending much time on these is because Higgs has a much bigger story here that he is trying to understand.

Deep narratives

His underlying idea is that all civilisations have a “circumambient mythos”, or a deep narrative structure, that defines how they see the world. (Lyotard calls this a grand narratif). He thinks that our existing mythos has run its course, and that part of the confusion of the current moment is that we are in the middle of creating a new one.

The word ‘circumambient’ suggests something that entirely surrounds us, but also permeates everything so completely that we almost don’t notice its presence. The importance of the circumambient mythos is why I was talking about mainstream Hollywood movies… It is in the bigger picture that the wider concerns of our culture reveal themselves (p9).

Because a circumambient mythos is a narrative, it falls into a narrative patttern. Higgs draws here on the work of Christopher Booker, who argued that there were seven types of plot. These are:

Overcoming The Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth (p10).

(Detail from the cover of Christopher Booker, ‘The seven basic plots’)

From Voyage to Tragedy

There’s a bit of a shoe shuffle here, since Higgs suggests that all circumambient mythos must fall into one of these seven story types , and there are other versions of this list of basic narratives. But it’s not a crazy step to take, so let’s go with it.

His view of our narrative history here is that pre-industrial revolution Christian societies (we’re looking at this through a Global North/western lens) were basically in a Voyage narrative. The Enlightenment substituted a Quest narrative instead: “We were on a journey to a better place, provided we could overcome all the obstacles that the journey tests us with” (p11).

But as we get to the limits of that Enlightenment story (see my previous writings here on modernity and its limits) this has become a Tragedy. I like this: Tragedy happens when the character flaws of the protagonist combine to destroy him or her.

Booker’s account of Tragedy runs like this:

‘For a time, as the hero embarks on a course, he enjoys almost unbelievable, dreamlike success’, he continued. ‘But somehow it is in the nature of the course he is pursuing that he cannot achieve satisfaction. His mood is increasingly chequered by a sense of frustration… The original dream has soured into a nightmare and everything is going more and more wrong. This eventually culminates in the hero’s violent destruction.’

Generational change

This is, Higgs suggests, the narrative we’re all living in at the moment. But his interest here—hence the “optimistic guide” in the book’s tagline—is that he thinks we might be able to transform this into a mythos that is formed by Comedy, not Tragedy. As a narrative form, Comedy is not about jokes or slapstick. It is about a character flaw that doesn’t prove fatal, but can instead be resolved.

After a long diversion through a whole range of technologies, the potential mechanism for this change eventually reveals itself. It is generational change, or more precisely, generational change informed by fluent access to social media and digital networks.

This insight comes from an unlikely source: watching John Hughes’ 1980s film The Breakfast Club with his teenaged children. The film is set in the detention class of an American school. He had fond memories of it from his GenX youth. They hated it. (One of its stars, Molly Ringwald, has also written about why the film is problematic).

‘Just a bully’

I’m not going to go back through the plot of The Breakfast Club here, but Wikipedia is your friend. I’m confident that if it were shown on television next week it would come with one of the those presentation voiceovers advising that it includes “social behaviours, attitudes and language of the time.”

To this (younger) generation, the villain of the film is the very character that my generation viewed as the main male hero, the bad-boy teenager Bender. To the eyes of Generation X, Bender was a character who refused to bend to authority… To the eyes of the post-Millennial generation, Bender is just a bully. He deliberately makes others miserable and takes delight in doing so, and no amount of bad-boy charm or troubled backstory can disguise the fact that the character is an unredeemable arsehole (p121).

Higgs draws heavily on the current mainstream views of generational change. Boomers are a sprawling generation born between 1945 and the mid-1960s; a smaller GenX (of which he is a part) between the mid-60s and the beginning of the 1980s; Millennials between 1980 and the mid-90s; Gen Z from 1997 (p124ff). Gen Z are the first generation to grow up fully immersed in the internet.

Being yourself

Much of the current commentary on GenZ and the internet sees it as a problem—for example causing mental health issues. Higgs suggests that something else is also going on here: GenZ sees that world as networked, and this changes their worldview:

Generation Z inherited from the Millennials a belief in the importance of individuality and a belief that they had the right to be exactly who they wanted to be. But their ability to think in terms of networks added an extra insight to this, which is that individuality can only work when everyone is allowed to define who they are. It is only when everyone accepts how everyone else defines themselves that the world can be trusted to allow you to be yourself (p 145).

The different mythos come with different imagery. In the mediaeval world, this was the ‘Great Chain of Being’, with God and the top, then archangels, angels and other creatures from the spiritual world, and then mankind, itself finely graded from kings down to peasants and slaves. Below them came animals (also graded), trees, plants and then minerals. The Great Chain of Being was a statement about authority: each layer had power over the ones below it.

The great chain of being

As Higgs observes,

The problem is that our circumambient mythos still has the great chain of being buried at its heart. For as long as we believe that we have the right to exploit the natural world as much as we want, attempts to rein in our use of the natural world to sustainable levels will be interpreted as some form of painful restraint (p284).

Our version of the great chain of being may actually be worse than that of the middle ages. The Enlightenment, he suggests, sliced off the religious layers, leaving humankind at the top.

(19th century satire on ‘the great chain of being.)

This may have worked when the world’s population was 880 million, but not when it is eight billion:

As the naturalist Michael McCarthy has pointed out, ‘Most Britons remain blithely unaware that since the Beatles broke up, we have wiped out half our wildlife’ (p283).

This story is, in its narrative form, a Tragedy—even if schemes such as E.O. Wilson’s ‘Half-Earth’ project have the potential to turn it into a Quest.

Leaning on networks

There’s a subtext to this discussion about networks that plays out in Higgs’ research method. To test the idea that one’s own networks might be enough, he chooses to speak only to people he knows in walking distance of his home in Brighton, on the English south coast. (He is lucky once, when he bumps into someone he wanted to speak to who lives in London in the street in Brighton). Reading the book, I had noticed this, but had not realised it was an explicit choice until he revealed it. Initially, he thought this might have been a mistake:

Very quickly, however, I found that talking to trusted peers helped me understand all sorts of issues in a way that interviews with experts didn’t… What I learnt from my peers was qualitatively different from what I would have learnt from experts… The act of learning from them was qualitatively different also. The connections between people are mysterious things that are a lot richer than we usually give them credit for (p331-332).

What he learns from this experiment, and from the his research, is that culture is a stronger source of change than he had realised—and this in turn gives him ground for optimism:

It is no use assuming that your own biases and prejudices will be common in the years ahead… Culture is constantly evolving and being born just a few years earlier or later is enough to give people noticeably different values. We can trust that the culture of any given moment will be a logical reaction to the world at that time. In the words of the cognitive historian Jeremy Lent, ‘culture shapes values, and those values shape history’ (p.336-37).

A fight between worldviews

Which takes us back to the values of the GenZ generation and those that follow it. Higgs makes an explicit link between network thinking and the kind of systems-based understandings of the world that will be necessary if we are to escape from the Great Chain of Being to a more reciprocal view of our relationships with the more-than-human world.

Our current crises, he suggests right at the end of the book, are about this fight between two utterly different worldviews. Writing in 2019, he sees populism—in forms such as Brexit and Trump—as the last stand of a “the individualistic fundamentalist, single-vision philosophy” of the twentieth century:

The young are watching all this play out. They are not seeing anything that appeals. They are certainly not seeing anything that works (p345).

He argues that this generation has the same transformative potential of the so-called ‘Greatest Generation’ of the 20th century, which rebuilt the Depression economies and fought the second world war. There’s a commonality there that he doesn’t spell out, which is that both these generations grew up in the middle of economic and political crisis. (They are both ‘Fourth Turning’ generations). They are, he suggests in the last metaphor in a book that is full of metaphors, “the antibodies” that can finally see off the “virus” represented by our dominant but failing ideologies. We’d better hope so.

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A version of this article is also published on my Just Two Things Newsletter.

Andrew Curry

The Next Wave is my personal blog. I use it from time to time to write about drivers of change, trends, emerging issues, and other futures and scenarios topics. I work for the the School of International Futures in London. (Its blog is here). I started as a financial journalist for BBC Radio 4’s Financial World Tonight, before moving to Channel 4 News during the 1980s.... Read more.

Tags: cultural stories, cultural transformation, Future Scenarios, religion of progress