A wise friend taught me something yesterday that is so profound, simple, and fun that I couldn’t wait to share it. Her lesson came in two parts. First, we each have a superpower. This is a talent or predilection that comes so effortlessly, we might overlook it, or assume that everyone has the same ability. It’s a familiar idea. Michael Meade, for example, calls this our genius, that spark inside that each of us is born with. It fuels our work and allows us to offer our gifts to the world.
What my friend said next surprised and delighted me. She said, think of when you were a kid and you kept doing that thing that you couldn’t help doing, to the point of driving everyone around you crazy. Your most annoying habit. Your mom, dad, siblings, and peers would tell you—beg you—to stop. But you couldn’t help yourself. That’s your superpower.
Bingo. Hearing it that way, I instantly knew that my superpower is asking why. I would pester my mother endlessly, asking why about everything and then asking why in response to her every answer, until she would finally order me to stop. To this day, my husband has banned the asking of why, which he insists is aggressive and puts people on the defensive. (I am in near constant need of the Buddhist practice of “skillful means” when it comes to interacting with my intimate family members. But that will have to wait for another post.)
Why ignites me, it energizes and prods me into both thought and action. Why are things the way they are? Why do we have factory farms and fracking, colony collapse and climate change, addiction and exploitation?
I’m listening to Tom Friedman’s latest book, Thank You For Being Late, which is his fascinating take on the state of world culture today: the interlinked phenomena of exponential technology growth, runaway climate change, and globalization. Friedman is an unapologetic technologist, but he also understands that stories are really about people, more so than events or ideas. I’m only into chapter three, and already I’ve been yelling “but why?” as I listen.
All the effort that goes into the development of technology to improve productivity, does anyone ever ask why? There’s an underlying assumption that it’s best if we design with the intent to back ourselves out of the system. In a passage about the use of sensors and Artificial Intelligence (A.I.), he tells the story of dairy cows in Japan being fitted with pedometers. Cows only go into heat for 12 to 18 hours every 21 days, and often at night. It turns out they become restless, so they step and move around more. The sensors alert the farmer by text message so he can go in and artificially inseminate the cow. As Friedman puts it in a journalist geek-out phrase: “A.I. meets A.I.”
According to the technologists behind this wonder, the cow sensors free the farmer up to do other things, thereby increasing his productivity. My immediate question is, why do we want to increase productivity and back ourselves out of the equation? What is our purpose within this system? To do less and less useful work? To have less and less contact with other beings like cows? We are so beholden to the mantra of “increased productivity,” that we don’t even consider that maybe some dairy farmers like being around their cows. Maybe I’m romanticizing it, having never been around a dairy farm.
My point is that all of Friedman’s sources, and the man himself, are bedazzled by the Story of Progress. No one questions the need for increased productivity, or even whether it is necessary—or desirable. No one wonders what people will do who have been backed out of systems that previously had plenty of room for their skills and experience. Indeed, the loss of manufacturing jobs over the last several decades in this country has been due primarily to the increase in automation, a direct result of the explosion of technological advances, including A.I. Those displaced workers have now been “freed up” to the point of having no work at all. Unless you count greeter at Walmart.
I wonder if having the job to ask why necessarily relegates me to being a threshold dweller. Why has a way of distancing me from the mainstream. To ask why is to stir things up, make messes, and step off the conveyor belt of the dominant paradigm. I’ve been watching episodes of the excellent British TV series “Black Mirror” lately. Hardly anyone asks why in these future technology-saturated worlds. People are enslaved by technology, isolated from the living world and each other, even as they are connected to enough data and computational ability to put our smartphones to shame.
Often, the catalyst to challenge the status quo in these scenarios is a simple question like, “Why are we living like this?” Why is there such rampant poverty in inner city America? Why do college and health care cost so much?
The project of going upstream to get at root causes can devolve into avoiding direct engagement with the people who are grappling with very real problems. Is it better to go into a neighborhood where people are suffering and ask them what they need? Is it better to give food to a hungry person than to ponder the Big Question of why hunger exists in the Land of Plenty?
I tend to see all these questions as streams leading to one answer at the source. And I do understand the caution of that old maxim, “If all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.” Asking why isn’t going to fix the world or solve every problem. Still, it can guide us to peek behind the curtain of pathologies that characterize life in the 21st century.
Fancy sensors and A.I. will not give us the answers to these kinds of questions. So far, what I’ve gleaned in answer to all these whys is that our self-concept of individuality and uniqueness keeps us separate and isolated from the living world around and within us.
It’s true, of course, that each of us is a unique individual, independent of others. And we each have our gifts that are so needed in the world. It’s also true, and fatally overlooked, that we are interdependent. We are intricately woven together into the fabric of Life. Our failure to acknowledge, accept, or even to see this interdependence is something that no amount of technological advancement can correct. Asking why has been my way into this understanding. I know it annoys people, but I just can’t help myself.