I never tire of using Gerald Waller’s iconic photograph of an orphan boy with his first pair of new shoes in 1946. Thank you Gerald Waller.
Only the very hard of heart would not be touched when faced with a newly orphaned baby or child.
Only the very hard of heart would not be touched when faced with someone who’s lost a partner having spent their lives together.
We understand something about the importance of being not alone. And yet, in between the baby-state and the octogenarian-state, we spend a lot of time and energy fighting for personal independence.
When I was young, I was told repeatedly that both organisations as well as organisms went through stages of maturity. People, families, neighbourhoods, companies, even countries, went through a dependent stage, an independent stage and an interdependent stage. Interdependence was seen as a sign of maturity.
As an adolescent at the time, it made complete sense to me. I could see the need for me to flex my independent muscles, understand my bearings, my abilities, my limits, and then to “settle down” in peace and harmony with all around me. So I thought of interdependence not just as a sign of maturity, but as a form of “collective independence”.
For adolescents, being with other people is hard, harder than others would find it. Any form of agreement with others was hard, especially if the others were older people.
Grandma used to nag at me to straighten up my spine
To act respectful and read good books
To take care of what was mine
I hated being criticised and asking her permission
So what if her advice was wise, It always hurt to listen
Cat Stevens, now Yusuf, expressed similar views in a litany of songs: Father and Son, Wild World, Where Do The Children Play et al. [Many years later, I would learn that many of the songs in Tea For The Tillerman and in Teaser and the Firecat were written as part of a single work, Moonshadow, telling the story of youth and love across barriers of age and culture].
Photo below courtesy of Simon Fernandez. [A rare example of Che-wearing-a-Che-T-shirt IRL].
Getting agreement from a group is hard. That’s why teenagers are often seen lolling around, apparently disenchanted with everything in life, unable to articulate what they want to do next.
It’s not just about teenagers. If, as an adult, you’ve ever tried to get a group of people to agree to do something — anything — you know the challenge. Organising a golf day. Going to see a film. As soon as you need to gain the support of many people, even organising a picnic is no longer a picnic.
It’s not just about groups. The best marriage talk I’ve ever attended was given by a woman called Faith Forster at the wedding of some close friends. She asked us to imagine that every one of us was a house. Getting engaged meant becoming a semi-detached house. Getting married meant converting that semi into something larger and deeper and potentially more wonderful. But it took time. Working out the plans. Breaking through the walls. Choosing which rooms you’d merge to form a bigger one, which ones you’d choose to retain in preference to the other choice, which ones you’d keep both of, which ones you’d do away with. It took time, mess, compromise, agreement. All things that a true covenant relationship can deal with.
I remember the first time I learnt that every town had its own time, set by nature. That the very idea of a universal time came out of the need for synchronisation, something that the Industrial Revolution hastened via the steam engine and steam trains. As soon as you want to connect two things you need some basis for synchronisation. Common languages, standards, protocols. These ideas have nothing to do with computers or digital or data. Just about connections, analogue or otherwise.
Someone I have a lot of time and respect for, someone I’m privileged to call a friend, Robin Chase, wrote an article in the FT recently, headlined Disrupted transport will work better for us in the end. She has a new book coming out in a few months, which I’ve pre-ordered. I’d recommend you do the same].
One of the themes that Robin drives through the article (pardon the pun) is how the evolution of the digital age moves us from dealing with individual frictions to dealing with collective frictions. As with the car, in almost any walk of life, there is far greater value to be had in the removal of frictions faced by collectives. It’s a theme that has been tackled by people like Howard Rheingold, Steven Johnson, Clay Shirky, providing different yet complementary perspectives on this phenomenon. I am really looking forward to hearing Robin’s views in detail.
While on the subject of collective action. I loved seeing this video of Michael Green at EF2015. A classic example of how digital technology allows peers to work together to remove a particular set of frictions.
[An aside. I find myself unduly cynical about what’s happening with Net Neutrality over in the US, and almost as cynical about what’s happening with it here in Europe. It may appear that the tides are turning towards the support of neutrality on one side of the pond while leaning unexpectedly the other way on the other side of the pond. All I can say is “regulatory capture”: there is a reason why societies came up with laws to do with antitrust and anti-monopolies and anti-restrictive-trade-practices ; these laws appear to mean very little in a digital world. That must change. That will change.]
Being alone or being not alone, these are no longer choices. Many of the problems and issues we face as mankind require collective action. The tools for collective action exist and continue to be refined. Society everywhere is being redefined as a result, and it is normal and natural for incumbent structures of power to complain and to try and stave off the redefinition.
Being not alone used to be a state that some people chose because they could. Being alone used to be a state that some people chose because they could. And some didn’t have choice as to the state they were in.
But all that has changed.
Being not alone is no longer a statement of choice. It is an imperative. And one that can bear wonderful outcomes for humanity.