Much of out thinking has been shaped by Darwin’s theory of evolution. We tend to take the theory as a model of who we are but, is it? Certainly, the notions of survival of the fittest and genetic adaptations which promote greater abilities to adapt to the environment are rooted in biological fact and the fossilized record of history. However, one thing we have also mistaken to our detriment and taken for granted is the ‘environment’. We have taken it as an externality which is what it is apart from the activity of any particular species including Homo sapiens. We see ourselves as passive in the face of our environment where the only question is how well we can adapt to its demands and changes. However, what if the environment itself can be changed and manipulated strictly by one particular species; at least the virtual environment?
The ancient Mesopotamians started using tokens, scribed marks, around the 8th millennium BC to represent accounting for trade purposes. Symbols such as “spheres, cones and discs stood for measurements of grain, while cylinders stood for livestock.” (Clayton) Around 3200 BC writing systems in the Near East, China and Mesoamerica began to take on more complex forms as pictograms, pictures which, for example, represented the appearance of a grain of barley. (Schmandt-Besserat, 1992) Eventually, the pictograms began to stand for sounds, for phonemes. These phonemes began to mimic the ancient’s oral languages. Once these phonemes gained independence from a token or a pictogram, they could be written in ways which described spoken language and as such could be totally distinct and separate from the meaning of a token or a pictogram. This abstraction was the beginning of an alphabet.
In each successive stage of human development we see an increasingly higher level of abstraction. As such, we see an ability to represent our environment rather than to merely react to the externality of our environment. Over human history we have increasing seen this level of abstraction transform itself into vital and pervasive innovations through such things as the printing press and the Scientific Revolution from the 16th through the 18th centuries. We also see value understood through the lens of abstract capital rather than bartering for goods and services.
Also, in each successive stage we have developed a profound understanding of human behavior: id, ego and superego and how human meaning is acquired and maintained. We have developed sciences of psychology, sociology, and marketing. We understand how individuals maintain their beliefs and values for their own benefit and simultaneously at the expense of how others are perceived. The most noble values of human history have taken on dark and tragic underbellies both on an individual basis and political, cultural religious collectivities. The knowledge of the manipulation of values and meaning has filtered down from the elites of academic institutions to the transactional endeavors of average humans with such forms as mass consumption-ism and scammers. It does not take a genius now to figure out how to manipulate people and use their own valuations and devaluations against them. Now, with the advent of virtual reality and the sciences of mass marketing we have taken a further step away from our environment, the rules of the jungle, to an environment we can manipulate and change for multifarious outcomes including those of malintent. In effect, we can create our own jungle.
We can create an environment where people’s perceptions are procured and produced. They have their own facts, beliefs, values, and essential meanings conferred upon them from without but not from something such as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs which was tied to the externality of a Darwinian environment. Now, both attractors and detractors for human behavior and meaning can be abstracted, manipulated, conjured up in service to the power-seeking whims of power and capital. Even more so, at the expense of our own environment – Earth. Our abstracted counter-Earth is now on the verge of annihilating our organic and biological roots in our concrete earth – Climate Change. Additionally, we currently have 265,000 deaths and counting in the US with the COVID-19 pandemic and many of us are callously denying and ignoring the tragedy while making sure we reverently mark the tragic deaths of 2,977 people every year from 911. Where is all the grieving for 265,000 and counting? Ignored, denied – not a tear shed or even such a simple action as wearing a mask. What does this tell us about our defunct values? Or, more particularly, what does it tell us about how we perceive reality and how it gets created around contrived values.
The science behind our ability to create and change our ‘jungle’ is addressed in social network theory. I will not go into this now but suffice it to say that our collective identities have been formed from ancient sources in the form of gossip – the essential need for drama given by collective abstraction. Drama is not just entertainment anymore – it is our ability to abstract, to form an alphabet, to shape and have our environment shaped by an essential collectivity which goes deeper than our individualism. In fact, individualism has been an ingenious invention of our collectivity. It can only be accomplished through language. Language, thinking, and values are a kind of content broadcasting phenomenon that inscribes the possibilities, content, and ways in which we are. It is what makes possible and circumscribes our basic meanings and values; our dignities/shames, well-being/malaise, truths/lies, concerns/ignoring to the point of endangering the Earth and our own dejected, disdained and incriminated kind. All of this comes through the well known nodes of our social network. Now, we have a precise understanding of how these dynamics work and how they can be commercialized into an alternate form of reality.
What all this has brought us to is this: we are at another evolutionary stage of development where we MUST recognize who we are, what we have done and how absolutely pervasive our abilities have become to the point of changing the ‘jungle’ into an image created in our own image and imaginings. If we cannot surmount this clear and present danger Homo sapiens will go extinct not due to the defiled ‘natural laws’ or rules of the jungle but because we failed to think clearly and see critically the facts of our collectivity and sophisticated, inherent and essential abstractions. While we fiddle Rome burns. The brute facts of climate change with accompanying pandemics, agricultural devastation and weather catastrophes will overtake us. This is a brute fact of our bygone environment, the jungle we left behind. Our essential abstractions of religious/irreligious, justified/incriminated, friends/enemies can no longer be informed by our social network; that has proven to be untrustworthy as it can be capitalized and manipulated to the point of driving us all blindly off the cliff of existence. We must each do the hard work of thinking based on fact and science. Additionally, and most important, we must let ethics be our guide not the other equal and pervasive possibility – individual and egomaniacal power mongering in a sea of manufactured reality. Ethics as my obligation to the other before my individual place (or placement) can no longer be at the expense of the other but by my Decision, always at the benefit of the other with whom my collectivity, my web of meaning and action from which I spring, take me out of the unwieldy hands of reality constructors and place me in debt and in question to the stranger, the he or the she whom I do not know but whom I owe a debt which cannot be repaid, the debt of who we are.
Clayton, E. (n.d.). Why did humans start writing? Retrieved from https://www.bl.uk/history-of-writing/articles/why-did-humans-start-writing#:~:text=We%20travel%20back%20to%20the,tens%20of%20thousands%20of%20years.
Schmandt-Besserat, D. (1992). The Evolution of Writing. Retrieved from https://sites.utexas.edu/dsb/tokens/the-evolution-of-writing/#:~:text=The%20cuneiform%20script%2C%20created%20in,recording%20goods%20with%20clay%20tokens.