What do we mean when we think of society as an ‘agent’? Or a state, or a culture, or any group of humans and human social forces?
We often think about the figurehead – the President is the country, the CEO is the company.
We might think of an emergent agentiness that exhibits some intelligence, like a swarm or a flock.
We might think of a structure of interrelated actors and phenomena, like a hive, an org chart, or a team.
We can’t conceptualise all 8 billion humans, and their contexts, and their relationships, and the structures they’ve built to manage their relationships, and the relationships between those structures, and the relationships between the structures and the people in them. Every conceptualisation, every simplification brings with it a set of attack vectors – if you want to destroy a group you destroy its symbols, the things it identifies as itself.
Each group also contributes norms and values that seep down into the wider cultural substrate and change it slightly, so that the context is slightly different all the time. CEOs as figureheads are vulnerable, but we somehow worked out a mostly-functional norm of not assassinating people and magically most people adhere to it. We haven’t gotten to the norm of not character-assassinating people but one could imagine it emerging slowly over time, as high-status people refrain from doing it and thus it becomes low-status.
We don’t have a good narrative handle for what it means to be a part of ‘humanity’, ‘the world’ or ‘the planet’ right now. Even within the terms themselves we see their ideologies shine through – humanity as opposed to animalism, the world as opposed to the non-materialist phenomena that we engage with, the planet as a passive victim of our atrocities to be saved.
How can we, as individual humans with brains designed to interact with agents that are mostly human-scale, even begin to conceptualise something as immense as the entire population of the planet, human and non-human, and the plant and physical environments the population is embedded in? We can’t think of a group of agents – it’s far too big for that. We can barely think of groups of agents, because humans don’t belong to only one group and the groups keep changing. We’ve taken to think in terms of ideologies – Blue, Red, religious, atheist, feminist, alt-right, and in doing so defined people and the world in terms of their rather arbitrary stances on complex social phenomena that change from context to context. That doesn’t seem to be working so well either.
Maybe it’s time to bring back the gods. Not the one big Abrahamic theist one, but the animist complex emergent phenomena that cannot be fully explained inductively. We are not them, but they are a part of us. And yes, the demons of ‘climate change’, ‘artificial intelligence’ and ‘nuclear annihilation’ are a start, but they are generally only outside of ‘humanity’ and not a part of us.
How do you behave in front of the gods? Reverent, humble, and in awe of their mystery. We pray to them and in doing so, change ourselves; and in doing so, bring about the changes we wish to see. All the current gods are owned by various ideologies, but might it be possible to discover, to notice, to pay attention to the godlike forces that transcend all ideology?
Peoples’ understanding of the economy, of gender, of the environment all look very animist when you inspect them closely. Why not accept that, and bow in our humility? When we accept the ocean’s rage, and power, and immensity, when we submit to it, we can harness it ourselves and surf waves, sail boats, and ride currents. When we believe we are its equal (just ask the lifesavers at Bondi Beach) then we drown. Why do we treat emergent social phenomena differently? Why do we expect we can make the climate do our bidding, unless we meekly throw ourselves at its feet in submission and ask for its understanding in letting us dance with it?
What we might need are new myths. We have plenty of urban legends, anaemic tales cherry-picked from scientific studies and political narratives to bolster such-and-such an ideological position. None are believed by everybody – they are too tied up with particular coloured tribes. Stories that place the great expanse of humanity in relationship with both its own complex emergent properties and the many varied environments it inhabits – these are conspicuously absent. We have too many hero narratives, and not enough multi-player games.
Oral traditions provided the rich stratum from which myriad iterations and forks of the original myths could emerge. With the improvisational nature of communication on the internet, perhaps we’re getting this setting back again, after years of unidirectional broadcasting from the powerful to the powerless.
What other ways do humans begin to intuit complex emergent phenomena? What tools are available to create these understandings, and how might they be made available to all humans and not only the technologically gifted ones?