The Invisible Golden Age
How 2020 is breaking the permanence illusion
“We are powerfully imprisoned by the terms in which we have been conducted to think.” — Buckminster Fuller
This might be the most optimistic view of the pandemic, maybe even life in general, that you will ever read. Sure, I have my bad days, but this isn’t one of them. Today I want to give you more hope than you ever thought possible.
But before I can show you utopia, I need to destroy some solid statues that were erected in your mind long ago
Think back to your education, to those early days when everything was still possible. I don’t know you, but I can say with certainty that there is maybe a 1% difference between the schools you and I attended. Your history is my history. Sure, the scenery was different, the cast of teachers and role models varied, the quality of the physical stuff was all different, but the knowledge strategy was nearly identical.
While the fists of fortune swing wildly, one thing you can be sure of is that the curriculum beat into your skull is pretty much the same syllabus that they hit me with. In the words of Neil Postman, “All children enter school as question marks and leave as periods.”
That’s the whole point of school, to standardize knowledge so that if you are dropped anywhere on Earth you can still find a job and fill your shopping cart with familiar goodies. School is what makes the American dream work, it is the engine that puts the luxuries of modern life in the hands of everyone who is willing to do their homework and pass the exams. So many of us have benefited from this bargain that we take for granted the wealth represented by our possessions, rarely do we acknowledge that you can draw a straight line from every modern marvel to the education industrial complex.
The system was constructed because learning through experience is time consuming. The only way to funnel millions of kids through the the halls of education in a decade is to identify the most important realms of knowledge, simplify them, and break them into memorizable chunks. A kid’s curiosity only slows the process, and it’s in everyone’s best interest to kill the curiosity before it starts. If we are lucky enough to have a teacher who cultivates our curiosity, that experience changes our lives, we remember that teacher forever. But I digress. For the most part you don’t get to question your teacher, your only option is to accept the answers, memorize them, and proceed to the next grade.
We bought in to the system because it worked. We traded independent thought for a system that promised prosperity and a high probability of economic success. We get the bounty of consumerism and all we have to do is repeat the formulas back to our teacher with no less than 60% accuracy. It’s hard to argue with the results. The collective quality of life for humanity has never been better.
And yet despite our incredible prosperity the world seems to be falling apart. On a scale from dystopia to golden age, the weight of consensus swings hard to the side of armageddon. Most of us can’t even imagine an alternative to the chaos playing out on TV and Twitter. That’s bad news because if we can’t imagine a utopian future, how the heck are we supposed to navigate our globe in that direction?
This lack of imagination is where our educational system had failed us. We are overflowing with data processing abilities but our imaginations are empty. Aside from fantasizing the annihilation of our enemies, our imaginations rarely get exercised. Why have our imaginations run dry, where did this all start?
When you think about the version of yourself that hesitantly stepped into that first classroom you realize how much you changed to become the job-ready person who jumped out the other side. That transformation is incredible. The knowledge tubes filled your head with data, but the process wasn’t purely additive, things were lost, too. As the semesters grind past, creative thought is one of the hardest things for students to maintain. Listen to this:
“Creativity is taught out of us, replaced by rules as we’re readied for factory work.” — James Victore
That’s not just poetry, it has been measured with, perhaps ironically, the scientific method. There was a UK study where 1,600 children were tested for divergent thinking. When they were 3–5 years old, 98% of the kids could think divergently. By age 10 that number dropped to 32%. As they hit their teens only 1 in 10 still had the ability to think divergently.
When the UK test was expanded to 200,000 people in their mid-20s it only got worse with none but 2 in 100 who could think divergently. I assume these results were so depressing that the scientists abandoned the research before testing middle-aged and senior adults. Oh, and the study is 15 years old, so the numbers could be worse today.
I should confess that I got these numbers from a Ted Talk from Sir Ken Robinson. Despite my digging, I can’t find the actual source of these numbers. They could be hot air. For now, let’s accept those numbers at face value.
How does a civilization function when the ratio of clones to creatives is 99 to 1? Well, until recently, humanity has managed just fine with these skewed numbers. That’s because there is stability in a population that accepts the ideas that are handed down to them by their tribe leaders. When there are only a few free thinkers in the mix, they can be tolerated or ignored without damaging the comforting cocoon of conformity most of us inhabit.
Maintaining the peaceful equilibrium of the status quo requires humanity to push the free thinkers into entertainment industries where their ideas are isolated from the gears of production. We separate science from divergent thoughts to keep it clean, sterile, reproducible, and most of all, unquestioned. We defund the arts because clamping down the valves of creativity lends stability to a system that relies on one thing above all else: nobody rock the boat. If the population of creative minds exceeds 2%, chaos erupts as too many rules get broken.
This is why educational systems feel so permanent, the stability of the system has hardened around traditions that keep the re-inventive powers of creativity safely at bay. It would take a cataclysm to cause a system that stable to fail. Which brings us to 2020.
Permission to party used to be the spoonful of sugar that made the medicine of college go down. Should studying impinge on your hedonistic lifestyle too much, don’t worry, you get spring break to reclaim the buzz. But in 2020 students find themselves paying the same bill for online classes minus the good times. Even the dullest of students is going to question the value of this transaction. Why maintain the education illusion when the frat house is replaced by a webcam in your parent’s basement? Education has always been a click away, so why pay for it after it becomes clear to everyone that a diploma is only worth the paper that the pdf is printed on? Lockdown has revoked the American dream because you can no longer exchange your diploma for a job.
And for those who have degrees, those who have already cashed in their golden ticket are losing the jobs they thought they were entitled to. If we are lucky enough to keep our jobs we’ve been forced to work from home or endure the risk of exposure to a deadly disease.
Can these genies ever really go peacefully back into the bottle? Will students return to the system of ridiculously expensive diplomas just because they are allowed back in the dorms? Can the office workspace of the past ever really return? You used to be able to check your email in an office filled with teams of workers who were all committed to maintaining the appearance of productivity. How do you prove your value to your boss if you aren’t taking up space in his office? If you are a boss, why would keep paying the bill for dim bulbs to procrastinate in their pajamas?
When the old reality of education and employment dissolves, what are you left with? Of course we have riots. Is it a surprise that so many people want to destroy any symbol that smells like the ghost that produced the classroom to cubicle con? Who could blame you for hating the system now that the lie is exposed?
Is it possible that the 1% of minds left still capable of divergent thought (again, if we accept these numbers) can save us? That puts a huge strain on the 1%. That’s a lot to ask of somebody. We’ve been breed to vilify all opposition to our beliefs until we can’t distinguish an ideology-free idea from a personal attack. Can we really expect an outnumbered free thinker to stand up to the mob? All the creativity in the world fails when you are facing down a population that’s been systematically trained to accept single answers to questions.
I know what you are thinking. I said I was going to fill you with hope and now I’ve painted a picture where the fate of humanity hangs on the shoulders of 1% of the population, a sliver of humanity that’s shrinking, a population of thinkers that for all we know might not even exist any more. Stick with me…
When the world is split into tribes we are left with a comfortable illusion that our side has the answers to the big problems. We forget that we don’t know what the solutions are yet, but if those nasty red/blue villains would stop blocking us then we could get to work implementing the yet-unknown solution.
We somehow believe that the path to utopia lies within our side’s silo despite lacking any actual vision. The best we can muster are vague ideas “Make America Great Again” or “Build Back Better.” Pick your poison, but either way you are basically saying, “go back to the way things were before” or “replace it with what other people are doing.” Again, we lack the imagination to see outside of our army’s trenches. That’s not a path to change, but what’s the alternative? Buckminster Fuller said,
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
Solving the world’s problems is a bit out of the scope of this essay, but for the sake of demonstration, I want to at least point in the direction of what divergent thinking actually looks like. I’ll pick two of the most contentious issues I can think of, guns and abortion. Watch as I offend both political parties without ever saying anything partisan.
First, guns. Don’t like them? Linear thinking says if you believe guns are bad then you need to ban them. Go house to house removing them from citizens if you have to. I’m not even saying that won’t work, but we won’t know for sure until everyone runs out of bullets. Is the best solution we can come up with to force a stand-off between the gun-banning raiders and well-armed private citizens? But if your worldview was manufactured by a system where there is only one right answer to every question (like we were taught in school), this experiment seems like your only option. What’s worse, it sort of feels rational.
Divergent thinking allows you to imagine an alternate reality where guns are different. Maybe they are so safe that nobody can die. Or perhaps the future changes so much that the problems that people are hiring guns to solve disappear. I don’t have the answer, I’m just showing that the answer lives outside of traditional thought, it requires divergence from tradition.
How about abortion? If you are Pro-Life, linear thinking will put you outside Planned Parenthood with a bomb feeling perfectly justified. Creative, divergent thinking lets you imagine a future where the problems with pregnancy are irrelevant. But like the gun standoff, we find ourselves in the bizarre situation where our only option seems to be to force women’s rights to battle with unborn life in a fight to the death. Nobody can imagine a better alternative?
Abortion could eventually be a footnote of the past, a funny quirk of a society that hadn’t evolved yet, a story future generations wheel out at cocktail parties to make them sound smart, like reminiscence of the manure that once clogged the streets when horses were still the dominant mode of transportation. Again, I don’t have the answer, I just believe the solution exists outside of the mental framework that school equipped us with.
You are thinking, “Sure Adrian. Just because you can imagine utopia doesn’t mean you can make it a reality. Guns and abortion don’t just disappear because your imagination can erase them.” And you are right. That’s where this gets interesting…
Prior to 2020, you believed that two of the most permanent institutions man ever created were immovable. The education system felt immortal and so did your job. Today, that illusion is gone, replaced by uncertainty and fear of what it will be replaced by. Very few stop to realize what a miracle it is to have the permanence illusion evaporate, to be given a chance to start over with a design that matches the needs of 2020 rather than the industrial revolution.
The edifices of education and employment have grown old and decrepit. People have pointed out the cracks for years, decades even. But when you have a machine that is operating so efficiently, that feeds the wheels of industry so reliably, there’s no human way to turn it off and replace it with something else. It would take an act of God. The virus showed us that everything we thought was permanent is malleable. Until today there was no viable path to change. We’ve learned that we don’t have to be stuck with the existing reality.
But its not just schools and your job, an incredible thing will happen when you grasp the significance of this thought pattern:
If education can change…
If employment systems can change…
Why stop there? There is nothing, not a single thing, that can withstand the world-altering power of your imagination. If there is a Goliath that you want to slay, if there is an immovable mountain standing in your way, there has never been a time in history when our future was more malleable than it is right now.
Want to blow up the government? Guess what, you don’t have to abandon democracy. Buckminster Fuller describes a divergent path for politics that looks like this:
“Devise a mechanical means for nation-wide voting daily and secretly by each adult citizen of Uncle Sam’s family: Then — I assure you will Democracy ‘be saved,’ indeed exist, for the first time in history.”
What else? Science? Environmentalism? Pick your immovable object. Climb out of your silo! Abandon the deep trenched ideas that were handed down to you from once-permanent institutions. Reinvent things.
At the beginning of this chapter I asked you to return to your childhood, to the time when everything was still possible. And you did this effortlessly, you transported yourself back to that place, you stood in the shoes of the version of yourself that dreamed. It was easy because we never really grew out of this phase.
This is why I question the validity of the study that concluded that less than 2% of people retain the ability to think divergently from childhood. Just because school doesn’t teach divergent thought, that doesn’t mean we lost that ability. Almost all of us have it we have just gotten so good at playing the game of adulthood that we are extremely careful about when we publicly exercise it.
The dullest of jobs are helmed by incredibly creative people. My hypothesis is that the unmeasurable skills (call it creativity, divergent thinking, or soft skills) are the secret weapon of the humans that inexplicably perform above the potential they show on paper. Even if they don’t exercise it at work, creative people find an outlet for their ideas in their free time. It’s not that people are incapable of wielding creativity at their job, it’s just that the incentive structures are setup to discourage divergent thoughts. If I’m paying somebody to support my institution, why would they jeopardize their paycheck by reimagining my business?
Once we understood the game, after we internalized the rules, we played along. Sure, some people punch the clock in dead end jobs because they’ve reached the pinnacle of their human potential. But most people do it because they know how to game the system. They make more money propping up the facade than if they were to point at the penis of depantsed emperors.
In 2020 we proved that schools and jobs can function differently. You can’t unsee that. The guards have left those mental prison doors unlocked, all we have to do is step through the bars. It’s not that there is a magical 1% of humans who are capable of rescuing us from disaster. No, we all have the ability to reimagine the next evolution of our world. It’s just a slight shift in mentality, perhaps a 1% divergence that points our ship away from dystopia and towards a golden age.
That’s the tiny shift that tilts the scales, it’s the idea virus that spreads faster than any disease. It passes through masks, transcends politics, infects hearts with a vision that can’t be unseen. We are so close, perhaps a percentage point shift in bearings is all it takes to turn the ship. And if you can see it, then others will see it too. I believe in you, in your ability to see the utopia available to us right now.
Thanks for reading. If you liked this essay you need to know about my next book, User Zero: Inside the Tool that is Reshaping Dystopia. It’s the story of out of control Navy ships, toxic homes, tragic user errors, absurd traditions, and our inability to cope with the technological marvels we have created.
Every week I write stories like this for friends who subscribe to my weekly email. It’s free and as a bonus I am giving new subscribers a free copy of my first book, Art of the Living Dead.
Thanks for reading. Stay creative.