[Update: there's a short follow up post to this here.]
“Give me absolute control over every living soul
And lie beside me baby,
That’s an order”
Leonard Cohen, The Future
“Control is tied to the idea that we can limit energy expenditures and funnel them down paths of our own choosing. We call this greediness “efficiency.” Life processes require the broadest form of energy dissipation into the finest possible “mist” of flow instead of the fire-hose we tend to hold as the ideal. A mist feeds, a fire-hose erodes and destroys.”
What’s the difference between mastery and control? I wrote recently about industrial agricultural control of the biosphere, to produce the Goods for us. As the brilliant TV Smith
“You can force it, drug it and exhaust it, pick the fruit of the rape of the land”
The post brought forth Antonio Dias’s comment (see above). So, is there a useful distinction to be made? I suppose mastery involves knowing that not everything can be controlled, that messy life will always leak out the sides, and that there must be “bohemias” from whence good ideas can come, or things-we-don’t-need-now-but-may-in-the-future can be left to keep reproducing.
…Harwood blinks. ‘It’s what we do now instead of bohemias,” he says.
“Instead of what?”
“Bohemias. Alternative subcultures. They were a crucial aspect of industrial civilization in the two previous centuries. They were where industrial civilization went to dream. A sort of unconcious R&D, exploring alternate societal strategies. Each one would have a dress code, characteristic forms of artistic expression, a substance or substances of choice, and a set of sexual values at odds with those of the culture at large. And they did, frequently, have locales with which they became associated. But they became extinct.”
“We started picking them before they could ripen. A certain crucial growing period was lost, as marketing evolved and the mechanisms of recommodification became quicker, more rapacious. Authentic subcultures required backwaters, and time, and there are no more backwaters. They went the way of Geography in general. Autonomous zones do offer a certain insulation from the monoculture, but they seem not to lend themselves to re-commodification, not in the same way. We don’t know why exactly.”‘
William Gibson, ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’
But surely this vision of mastery – just enough humility to know that you’re messing around too much in God’s domain amounts to nothing more than a kind of Green Confucian warning against the dangers of hubris – of believing that our knowledge and power are sufficient to keep the entropy at bay?
Is ‘mastery’ linked to the fifth stage of competence to that effect, of consciously knowing that you have unconscious/automatic ability to solve problems.
Is the difference between self-mastery and self-control to do with their (intended) outcomes. We like self-mastery when it leaves enough of the biosphere intact to keep us going, but we dislike self-control when it prevents us from having fun in the here and now, or leads to the accumulation of capital (deferred gratification blah blah blah) and thus power?
And let’s not forget, control has created miracles of co-ordination and resource exploitation. If you’re sitting somewhere with electricity and running water, and a supermarket that brings produce from around the world to your door, then you should acknowledge the benefits of “control” (alongside the costs!!).
What wisdom can we take from religion, from ecological thinking, from feminism? Has this all been done before? If people have useful things they have thought – or links to what other people have thought – please do pitch in…
A few random poems
If by Rudyard Kipling
God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
And here is a very very funny cartoon about the serenity prayer…
SEE HERE FOR A FURTHER POST ON MASTERY VERSUS CONTROL
Fly by Wire by William Langeweische (This is very good – on the possibility of error and what happens when people won’t admit they might be wrong…)
Better by Atul Gawande (He’s a Boston surgeon. Great stuff on how great performance is based not on flashes of brilliance but paying attention to the small details. See also his fabulous and essential “The Checklist Manifesto“)
The Control Revolution by James Beniger
(see a review here by the very very smart Cosma Shalizi)
The Singularity, for those who believe our control of Nature will lead to us Teching Out…
Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James C. Scott.
Derrick Jensen on the Tyranny of Entitlement (Linking environmental abuse and abusive relationships)
Blink: Think without thinking by Malcolm Gladwell
Pandemonium: the rise of predatory locales in the post-war world by Branden Hookway et all
Concept of Earth Jazz from “The Ecology of Eden” by Evan Eisenberg
“trusting yourself when all men doubt you, but making allowance for their doubting too”
“Unconscious competence” (stage four)
Fluidity, adaptiveness, innovative
Systems thinking, based on notions of stocks and flows
Often conscious competence (stage 3)
Rigidity, protocols, hierarchical
Numerically focussed on throughputs and outputs.
Hat tip to Johnnie Moore – his tweet of the PGST post gave me a much-needed to push on on this theme.