6 Ways to Develop the Outside View
I recently wrote a blog post about a skill I’m calling The Outside View. This is the ability to see outside of our cultural and institutional matrix and imagine that we could live in a very different economy, society and world. In my last blog post I talked a lot about why we need the outside view to solve humanity’s pressing crises and about the forces in society that are holding it back. But I didn’t say anything about what we can do, both individually and collectively, to develop this skill. So, today I’d like to propose 6 ways to develop the outside view.
If you haven’t read the initial outside view post yet. I’d recommend you go and read that first here.
Go to Edges of Our Current Matrix
One great way to escape our cultural matrix, or at least to see the need for an alternative, is to start noticing the places where our current culture breaks down. If we go right to the edge of our society, right to its extremes, what do we find?
For a start, we find the total decimation of our natural environment, which has led to the Earth’s sixth mass extinction event — the largest since the dinosaurs.¹ We also find growing mental health crises largely fed by our increasing alienation from one another.² Then there’s the unparalleled inequality of our modern economy where the 8 richest men have more wealth than the poorest 3.6 billion.³ Seeking out these truths about our world and really accepting them on a deep level forces us to accept the outside view as a necessity. Our present culture and society are failing us. We need to find an alternative.
But often when you try to convince people that we need a big overhaul of human life on planet Earth, you run into one of our culture’s most dominant narratives. This says that even though our culture, society and economy has many problems, some of which could even eventually lead to our own extinction: there is no alternative. How we live now is the best and only option we have; if we switch to anything else then things would be far worse. But what this narrative ignores is the fact that many people in the world already live differently. People live in ways that don’t destroy the planet. They live with a sense of community, without the alienation of our modern lifestyle. So alternatives do already exist. Different ways of life are possible. The seeds are there: we just need to help them grow.
Seek Out the Weird, the Subcultures
Once you’ve gone to the edges of our current matrix and realised the need for an alternative, maybe you’ll start treating sub-cultures differently. Most people think goths, hippies and gypsies are weird. But when you realise humanities need for serious change you can start to look at them in a new light. These people have collectively rejected mainstream culture and are experimenting with alternative ways of being. To someone whose stuck deep inside our matrix they might seem crazy. But if you’re beginning to develop the outside view, you might start to see a real need for their craziness. Maybe there are things we can learn from them. Maybe they are actually living more authentically and more true to what it means to be human, than your average 9–5, city living westerner.
But unfortunately sub-cultures also have a dark side. Once you’ve seen the problems with our dominant culture, you feel at sea. You’re looking for some solid rocks to tie yourself down to once again. Being in a space between worlds is painful. And many of these sub-cultures will offer tightly packed cultural alternatives which can quickly ease this pain. Instead of continuing to develop the outside view, you shy away from the pain of being at sea, and jump into the first new matrix that comes your way. You might have managed to escape the dominant culture but you’ve just replaced it with another matrix, which will shut down the outside view just the same.
To really explore alternatives you need to be willing to try out ideas that on first glance sound pretty far out. Because where else will the solutions to the big problems of our era come from? But you’ve also got to be careful and not jump into bed with them too fast. Or you might find yourself sucked into a whole new matrix all over again.
Seek Out Different Cultures
Seeking out different cultures allows us to see other people living with different values, habits and philosophies to our own. This can shake the foundations of our cultural matrix. Noticing even the smallest differences, like how we relate to one another, can show us that the practices we thought were set in stone are actually very fluid. There is not just one ‘accepted’ way to treat each other. Not just one ‘accepted’ form of humour. Not just one ‘accepted’ way to settle our differences. Maybe we don’t have to always act in the way prescribed to us by our dominant culture.
This is why travelling is a powerful tool for opening up the outside view. For example, if you’re from Northern Europe, just going to a country further south, where the majority of people don’t take life quite so seriously, can help you to start questioning your own culture's way of being. Or travelling to traditional parts of Asia might help unpick our western concept of the individual. You might realise that our obsession with self is holding us back in some ways — that more collective lifestyles also have things to offer. Then when you return home you can really start to challenge our toxic cultural norms and begin building a new world.
Seek Out Anthropology
Unfortunately our world is becoming more and more culturally homogenous. Globalisation has spread one culture (western neoliberal consumerism) throughout the planet. This makes it far harder to find places that are truly culturally distinct.
So in order to find these cultural differences we’ll have to look elsewhere. One great place to start is Anthropology. i.e the study of other cultures themselves.
For pretty much any aspect of our culture you pick, you can find another culture, either in some part of today’s world or in history, who have done things very differently.
Take marriage. In the West, men and women get married, live together and then eventually raise their children as a new family. But in many other cultures they do things very differently. One example is the Mosuo people in small parts of Western China. Some anthropologists have called their culture a matriarchy⁴. Largely because they practice what are called “Walking Marriages”. This is where men just visit for the night and any children conceived are raised by the mother’s family.
Now, I’m not saying this is necessarily a better arrangement, just that the more we can see how people have and do live differently, the more we can start to challenge the foundations of our own way of life.
Seek Out Historical Differences
You might think that us westerners are so very different to some random culture in rural China that learning about their way of life is completely pointless. An alternative place place to discover the Outside View is in the history of our very own culture. Maybe you can find times in history when we did things differently to how we do now. Maybe the life we have now is all together better. But maybe there are some advantages of their way of life as well.
For example, our culture has a strong belief in private property, i.e. this bit of land is mine and I can choose what I want to do with it. But if you go back to before the enclosures of the middle ages people in England would largely farm land in common. And in the great agrarian civilisations such as Egypt and Mesopotamia there was little concept of private land ownership. The land was held in common with the produce going to the village or tribe rather than the individual. Things have been different if history, so why can’t they be different again now?
Seek Out People Creating New Cultures
If you can find people who are creating the cultures of the future and surround yourself with them then you’ll have an easy route to seeing the outside view. But unfortunately not just everyone counts as a future culture creator. Lots of people who you might call ‘innovative’ are just being creative within our present cultural paradigms. They are just making the systems we have at the moment more efficient rather than questioning the roots of it.
People who are truly culture creators are those who are creating radically new ways of life. Not just for fun. But with the goal of solving the problems inherent in our current matrix. To do this they themselves must make use of the outside view in order to realise that other worlds are possible but they also have the confidence and can-do attitude to make these dreams a reality.
One example of these culture creators are the groups of people creating eco-villages throughout Europe. These cultural creators have become disillusioned with our present matrix. They have seen the outside view. They’ve seen the problems with our culture, for example, how the majority of our food comes from terribly destructive, intensive agricultural practices, and are building the alternative: organic farming based around the concept of permaculture. You might think, oh but those hippies are never going to be able to grow enough food for the billions of people on the planet. But actually these methods often produce multiple times more food per hectare than traditional agriculture.⁵ So go visit, smell that fresh air and help build the future.
Seek Out Alternative Art
Most of my suggestions so far have been rather thinking-intensive. Thinking about the culture we currently live in. Thinking about the alternatives. Boring! But we can also discover the outside view in a way that is far more intuitive and potentially even more transformative. Through Art and Literature.
Most of the art and literature that you come across on a day to day basis obscures the outside view. It builds upon the basic truths of our culture. It doesn’t question them. It pushes you into believing: these basic truths are absolute. But this ‘within-matrix’ art can still help you see the outside view if you approach it with the right mindset. You can look at it and question: ‘What are the cultural assumptions that aren’t questioned by this work?’. There are also great youTubers can help you along with this. One I really like is The Pop Culture Detective who analyses popular films, series and video games and discovers where they are implicitly promoting particularly destructive gender or sexual norms.
But of course there is also a whole world of alternative art out there. Art that itself challenges our cultural norms and assumptions. Some of this comes from within the West. Fiction like Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed or Aldous Huxley’s The Island question the very assumptions of our society. But there’s also tonnes of art out there from minority groups, sub-cultures and other parts of the world, if you just stick your neck out and look for it.
So there are my 6 ways to develop the outside view. Can you think of any more? Let me know in the comments.
- Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam