Brexit — Here is what happened

As Tony Soprano so eloquently put it, you can’t put the shit back in the donkey. What ever happens next, this cannot simply go away. Something fundamental about the course of this historied union will change and most likely the impact will have unpredictable global consequences for generations to come.

How did it come to this? Some of the most baffling statements seem to come from the electorate who prior to the vote seemed confused about who to believe and after the fact seemed shocked that their position won. Participation in the democratic process somehow mattered, much to their own surprise. This seems fundamentally ironic as the most reasoned argument for leaving the EU was with regards to having the will of the people, as represented by their democratically elected government, overridden by the unelected officials in Brussels.

The truly surprising thing is that nothing that has happened over the last 48 hours is truly unexpected. Everything, from the fall of the pound, talks of a break up of the union, resignation of the PM, the $2 trillion wiped of global markets and the upcoming recessions have been clearly stated as likely consequences by multiple sources. I could list them all but Google is your friend, use it wisely and pay attention to the date of publication. Alternatively, simply read this reasoned view from a man who both warned us about the gravity of the situation and bet against us listening to him. My biggest surprise, is that anyone is surprised.

Online commentary swings from outrage and anger from the losing side and dismissal as transient ‘buyers remorse’ from the winning one. I wonder if something has fundamentally changed in the human experience that questions the basis of the democratic process and the ideals that generations before us fought and died for.

Our lives are filled with distraction, we experience the highs and lows of our beloved sports teams winning and losing, the drama of our virtualised interactions and the emotions of our reality TV contests. They feel real but they are anything but. Our evolutionary responses have been harnessed by people wiser and more successful than ourselves to create opportunities for their own social and/or financial advancement and they have profited specularly. They must and they should, for if any of us were given the opportunity and clairvoyance to participate in the creation of the multi billion dollar global phenomenon that is football, would we not have seized it? If we did not, someone smarter and more ambitious would. We are now the children of a generation that has grown up without a direct or even visceral experience of war, poverty, famine or epidemic. These distraction pervade our lives and saturate our senses giving us a consequence free simulation of being part of something bigger than ourselves, something that matters.

Across the board, citizens of the developed world are some of the most successful human beings in human history. We are a generation that has grown up wrapped in cotton wool by an incredibly successful system of commerce and governance that both protects the weakest and most vulnerable members of society and allows for the spectacular success of ethnically diverse individuals possessing varying degrees of charisma, intellect, grit and luck in a mostly transparent manner. While not perfect, it finds a balance between the need for us to individually succeed and collectively foster a society we would like to be successful in. Let us pause for a second and note that is not an automatic right. Today, this isn’t even demonstrably a shared experience with most of the world’s other human beings. It is however imperfect and there will inventively be winners and losers giving rise to the next wave of emotion and angst, now recalibrated against a new baseline in Maslows hierarchy, for the expression of this dynamic range of feeling is fundamental to the human experience in healthy members of our species. The fore-mentioned distractions give us the environment to express joy and sadness without every having to risk anything material. Unfortunately we are now seriously at risk of being disconnected from reality to the point where we are genuinely shocked when our actions have consequences.

What a range of consequences. The world was never simple but we are at the vanguard of true and pervasive globalisation. We have mostly free movement of information and capital across national and geographic boundaries and over a billion people moving the knobs. In pure systems modelling terms, these is a truly mad. A average system with more than a handful of moving parts looks chaotic to us. How do we deal with it? Mostly we don’t, we try not to change too much too fast and we post-rationalise about cause and effect. It sounds crazy but our evolution was not optimised for this complexity and our mathematics and computing power is only now starting to develop techniques to model and predict this order of complexity with a level of confidence that exceeds a room full of monkeys selecting randomly from possible outcomes. Instead the this, modern policy making is a messy and glacially slow variation of the consensus, test, measure and iterate process that has allowed human beings to largely master their environment, rise to the top of the food chain (for better or worse) and put men on the moon and safely bring them back.

Yet this reality is boring and no longer holds our interest and attention. We want simple messages that can stir our emotions, sound bytes we can digest with the speed and simplicity of a social news feed and rallying crys that feed our most outdated tribal instincts. They give us the impression of certainty in an increasingly bewildering world. If the facts disagree with our newfound clarity, we look for the most compelling myths we have access to and use them as a shield against reality. Thanks to the disintermediation of information access, any myth is easy to find. Whatever I want to believe, I can find someone else who believes it more emphatically than I do. All I now need to do is find someone who speaks to my sense of self. I am not a terrible xenophobic racist, I can’t be seen to be thinking the same as that guy but this dude seem pretty decent and he makes a lot of sense. Of course the facts are also available but unfortunately facts and myths are not symmetric. Facts are dull, complicated and framed by probabilities. Myths are seductive and certain. Most critically, facts are only truly established after that event and myths by definition cannot be tested. Ultimately, this is all academic in a truly casual sense. Mostly, my choices don’t matter. I can believe what I wish and while it leads to entertaining social chit-chat, rarely does it affect my life and every more rarely does it even begin to touch the lives of any other human being on this planet.

Right up to the point it does. After feeding our intellect and training our decision making process on the equivalent of refined sugars, our minds are as muddy and ineffective as our bodies and echo our understanding of the world. We really have no idea what we are doing yet the institutions around us are required to listen to our collective voice, as they should. Remember, people died for our right to be heard. Wheels are set in motion, the abstract becomes reality and for a brief moment we understand just how fragile and beyond our comprehension the world today truly is.

The world will recover, mostly though the hard work of the same intellectuals, policy makers and much derided experts who didn’t want any of this but will do their duty to protect us from ourselves in so far as they are able to. The country I love and call home will be poorer and diminished. The currency will fall, unemployment will rise and companies will issue their profit warnings and shed jobs right when things were starting to look on the up. The global community will punish what ever is left of the United Kingdom and its people for bringing a harm to their own delicate state of prosperity as political unrest reverberates, pensions lose value and the already stagnant global growth takes another, entirely avoidable, hit. The adaptable, mobile, rich and intelligent among us will manage and some will even thrive as new opportunity emerges. Those who get left behind will join the ranks who failed to adapt to the last upheaval and find a new scapegoat to blame for their broken dreams. It will be a footnote in the history of the world and a new normal will emerge eventually making things look not as bad as it seems today.

Yet, in this most chaotic of moments, when half the country is slowly working through their personalised version of the Kübler-Ross model, the most significant event is the tragic demonstration of the growing power of populism and the impotence of reason. From Trump to Putin to Duterte, on topics as diverse as Islamic extremism to climate change, we are in the throes of a brave new world where intellectualism and inconvenient truths can be dismissed with no consequence and my ignorance is now far more powerful than your knowledge.

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