Anthropology of the Future
I know that when I tell people that I am an anthropologist, it conjures up images of working with remote tribes a la Margaret Mead or digging up skulls a la Louis Leakey. But I’m not that kind of anthropologist. I am deeply passionate about our future, and know that our future is seeded in the culture we find around us today.
Anthropologist Terence McKenna (all quotes his) is an inspiration to me, especially in his exhortation that we know the problems that exist on our planet, and we know how to fix them. So what is the resistance to change? It’s culture, and as we all know, culture can change.
It’s clearly a crisis of two things: of consciousness and conditioning. We have the technological power, the engineering skills to save our planet, to cure disease, to feed the hungry, to end war; But we lack the intellectual vision, the ability to change our minds. We must de-condition ourselves from 10,000 years of bad behavior. And, it’s not easy.
So how do we change culture? The first step is to understand it, and this is without a doubt the purview of anthropology, which began as a way to capture cultures in transition or decline. Anthropology has shifted, however, with the realization that culture is everywhere, and culture is highly dependent on context. Culture is an emergent phenomenon and sort of the tail wagging the dog as people invoke their personal agendas to the benefit (altruism, compassion, empathy, cooperation, peace) or detriment of society at large (a tragedy of the commons). Collectively we all hope for a better world, but systems and deeply entrenched interests tend to prevail. Cultural change is about changing minds, but even more importantly, it’s about changing hearts and igniting the fire for change within us. We are, quite simply, the guardians of the future.
You simply have to turn your back on a culture that has gone sterile and dead and get with the program of a living world and the imagination.
One of the things that has to change is that we accept our role in the creation of a future we will bequeath to subsequent generations. But when I say ‘accept our role’, I don’t mean what we contribute to creating these problems, but rather what we don’t contribute to solving them. Far too many otherwise well-meaning people have given up on changing the behemoth that we call culture. ‘Life isn’t fair’, we say. ‘Bad things happen to good people’. ‘There is nothing I can do’. Apathy and complacency are survival skills we develop in response to a culture that seems to not want to adapt to the needs of the many, rather than the needs of a few.
We tend to dis-empower ourselves. We tend to believe that we don’t matter. And in the act of taking that idea to ourselves we give everything away to somebody else, to something else. If you don’t have a plan, you become part of somebody else’s plan.
So what can the average person do? The answer is simple: promote new ideas, help change the words. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (linguistic relativity) posits that our ideas and words shape our worldview. By changing the ideas and words so prevalent in our culture, worldview shifts. This is the power of memes. Those among us who care about the future (most of us do) should try to be conscious of the effect they are having on culture with the ideas they promote and the words they use. What they contribute, as McKenna says, is part of the entire human story. We should share positive, constructive ideas and try to drown out the not-so-great, or downright destructive ideas, so prevalent in a culture that has mostly given up. We should also demonstrate our solidarity with other people and their ideas, so others know we support them.
The syntactical nature of reality, the real secret of magic, is that the world is made of words. And if you know the words that the world is made of, you can make of it whatever you wish.
So yes, there is an easy solution, but it does take a long view approach and it does require constant care and attention. Many of us would prefer more instant gratification, but this is the reality of how culture changes. It’s how reason was introduced, how scientific thinking happened, how we have evolved and been enlightened as a culture. It’s simple, promote the worldview that you want to pass on, recognize the seeds of the future in today, and help change the conversation.
The problem is not to find the answer, it’s to face the answer.
Dr. Lisa Galarneau is an applied anthropologist and futurist, activist and advocate, writer and artist, also Co-Founder of HireWisdom, a social impact creative think tank. You can also follow her on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.