A clear blue sky. The sun shines over endless fields with a few remaining patches of snow. Two hunters of an Inuit community on Baffin Island slowly crawl towards a small group of Caribou. Their first shot scatters the herd, but they soon succeed and make a kill. It is key to work fast and proceed to skinning and gutting the animal, but before they do so a moment is taken for something special right at the spot of the kill. Standing over the Caribou, the men reach for their knives and cut off the tip of one of the antlers. Time for a healthy snack. The satisfying flavors are a reward for the efforts made, and they both agree on the same thing: ‘Mamaqtoq’. Next up are the eyeballs, served straight from the socket. Again they agree: ‘’Mamaqtoq’. That’s Inuktitut for tastes good. Raw antlers and eyeballs, yummy!
Unless you’re Inuit or share some character traits with the late Anthony Bourdain, you probably won’t be ordering that for lunch. I sure did cringe a bit when I saw that scene in an old school documentary (the soundtrack is an amazing blast from the past) on Spanish television channel RTVE. I was starting my design venture at the time, and decided to name it Mamotok, based on the word these two hunters repeated. The scene became ingrained in my mind as an example and reminder of what it means to perceive the world around us through the filters of our culture. And more importantly than that, why it is so important to be able to think and create without those filters.
Culture, environment and reality
All cultures interpret the world differently. During most of human history, that rang true much more so than it does now. Roughly 3000 years ago, separated by ‘just’ a few thousand kilometers, the Polynesian wayfinders lived in a very different shade of reality than the subjects of the Spiral temples in the depths of the Amazon rainforest of what is now Peru. In the now, while an Inuit hunter was eating raw meat after hunting on 62° northern latitude, 20° south from there somebody bought a peeled and packaged orange in a supermarket, which was grown on a massive farm another 20° south. On the same planet, at the same time, for all of these people it must have felt as completely different universes should they have exchanged a day of their lives with one another.
Anthropologist and writer Wade Evans coined the term ethnosphere to describe the sum total of all human cultures and languages, and consequently all of the answers to the question what it means to be alive that have ever been dreamed up. The interpretation of reality has traditionally always been deeply connected to the direct natural and/or built environment that peoples have inhabited and depended on to survive. While cultures and empires have been born and gone extinct for various reasons since the beginning of human time, the wave of global cultural extinction the Earth is going through since the last 500 years and especially the last century is quite unique in its scale and methodology.
Globalization of religion, politics and economies has had the mayor and often overlooked side-effect of culturally disconnecting people from their environments. Enormous amounts of knowledge and unique perspectives on life have been lost, forever.
Patterns in cultural structures
Culture can be seen as a set of stories, persuasions, habits and guidelines that does either one or both of two things: it can serve to make sense of the world around us as it appears to be, or oppositely it can act as an illusion that defines and creates the world around us. Our current globalized culture is a hardcore version of the latter.
In his wonderful book Creativity, Inc., Pixar founder Ed Catmull describes the workings of consciousness and the interpretation of reality with an example inspired by the work of philosopher Alva Noe:
One way to understand the implications of how our mental models work is to consider the magician’s sleight of hand. As he or she makes, say, a coin or a playing card disappear, we take a delight in being fooled, and our eyes dart about, trying to divide the trick. […] First, the magician must divert our eyes from where the hidden action is actually happening; second, our brains must fill in the missing information, combining what we already know with what we are perceiving in that moment. […] We aren’t aware that the majority of what we think we see is actually our brain filling in the gaps. The illusion that we have a complete picture is extraordinarily persuasive. However, the magician doesn’t create the illusion — we do. We firmly believe that we are perceiving reality in its totality rather than a sliver of it. In other words, we are aware of the results of our brain’s processing but not the processing itself.
Cultures do not function so differently from an individual’s psychology from that perspective. People internalize their life experiences (bad and good), which forms their character and deeply influences the way they interact with the people around them. On a slightly bigger scale, communities of people will synthesize recurring states of being — feast or famine; peace or war; etc. — into the collective psychology and create social interaction patterns. Zoom out again, and these communities will develop cultures that will govern the lives of generations to come. Just like an individual who teaches only what they know to their offspring, most cultures do the same and it can end up being very hard to bend the rules to answer questions like ‘what does it all mean and what are we supposed to be doing?’. It’s a cycle that can go on forever until that pattern is understood; only then can changes be consciously made to happen.
Science is a good example of how continuously updating the understanding of reality is a well accepted practice: economical, religious, political and social structures are not as flexible as that, as they usually do not follow hard coded universal laws. So, if we can indeed define and create the world around us through creative cultural expression, I can only conclude we can do much better.
I’m not saying we should all start hunting rabbits in the park and eating them raw on the spot. Convenience is not necessarily bad, and in a way we’re absolutely blessed to have such an abundance of food and comfort in our lives. Yet, we’re missing out on so many essential human experiences and it feels like we’ve come a long way from home. We spend a baffling amount of our precious time sitting in a chair in front of a small screen making money doing absurdly abstract things to feed a system that has grown out of control. We live in an empire without a face, the biggest and most complex empire the Earth has ever known. It‘s fairly obvious that this empire does not put the well-being of people and the environment they depend on first.
While I’m somebody who instantly gets depressed after seeing the evening news, I’ve never believed in protesting or being solely against things: I find endless joy in thinking of alternative ways and making new things. As Naomi Klein powerfully described in her book No Is Not Enough, the only way to make real change happen is to find new ways of being, and to live and share those ways with like minded people.
As for me, I find it very important to be able to live in an aesthetically fulfilling environment; beauty exists in many forms and generates enormous pleasure. It’s one of the main things I find deeply lacking in most of the human built environment.
I want to contribute to a world that understands that once we are safe and well fed, creating and enjoying beauty is a basic biological and psychological need.
Written by Ronald Postma