‘It can be done’
What can we achieve together that can’t be done alone? Reimagining our unsustainable reality as a celebration of human ingenuity. Musings on survival, the fabric of reality, culture shifts — and a love of life, inspired by Stephen Hawking’s wit and wisdom.
Every now and then, a notable personality will pass away and the world stands still as a litany of tributes highlight the best attributes of their flawed humanity. The staunch individuality of David Bowie, the defiant integrity of Muhammad Ali, and now, the intrepid fortitude of Stephen Hawking. Of course, the unabridged list is much longer. For me, the most important things his death pulls out of the periphery of awareness, and into the spotlight, are the unbounded possibilities of the human mind.
1. ‘Look up at the stars and not down at your feet’
If your Facebook feed was anything like mine, I bet it was strewn with Hawking quotes, and tributes to the man. A friend joked that suddenly everyone’s gripped by a philosophical paroxysm. Why has his death captured our imagination so? The simple answer is, ‘he was an inspiration’.
Trapped in a paralysed body. Yet blessed with an almost supernatural ability to roam the cosmos through his mind in pursuit of understanding the mysteries of time and space. Diagnosed with a debilitating disease. Yet outliving his 2.5 year prognosis by half a century. The resilience speaks to us. The brilliance humbles us. The wit disarms us.
I’m pretty sure that last night the whole world looked up at the stars and not down at their feet — just as he urged us all to do. The stars, in turn, looked back, and all of humanity’s crises — the wars, the cruelty, the greed, the melting of glaciers, the mass extinction of species, even those Brexits and border walls — seemed insignificant blemishes in the history of time. They still do. But does our relative insignificance mean we should carry on as we have done? Eat, work, sleep — rinse, repeat?
2. ‘Never give up work. Work gives meaning and purpose and life is empty without it’
In some ways Hawking’s passing is timely. We stand amid a maelstrom of change, a tectonic transformation — and yet our lazy leaders meet this onslaught of evolution with retrograde visions for the future. ‘Make America Great Again,’ being the most prominent example of such insidious populism.
But can we blame people for falling for it? With the decline of creationist outlooks, don’t we all secretly hope there is some meaning, some design, some purpose to our existence? With God out of the picture, surely we are somehow special? Hawking’s answer to this was rather matter of fact:
“We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special.”
Sure, not all of us will have his prowess in theoretical physics. And so that complexity of understanding is beyond us. But we can grasp some simple things about the universe, such as change being a certainty.
The second law of thermodynamics — the branch of physical science that deals with the relations between heat and all forms of energy (and everything is made of energy, innit) — states that all closed systems tend to maximise entropy. That’s order and disorder — chaos, to you and me. And guess what’s a closed system? Earth. And what do we have all over earth? Chaos.
‘Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change,’ said Hawking. Yet here we are, wrapping glaciers with blankets to stop them from melting. Choosing siloed, stopgap measures, instead of altering our behaviour as a human race — in line with what change dictates. Does not change of global magnitude call for a global intelligence?
Could a new meaning be found in pulling our socks up? In reorganising ourselves around a mission that can only be pulled off collectively? Could we find a new manifest destiny-style purpose in coming together to surf the waves of change — instead of passively and inadvertently drowning in them?
Because in a globalised world, problems are global too. Just look how a few funny-sounding firms called Fannie May, and Freddie Mac crumbled on one part of the planet. Yet shockwaves of financial instability rippled through the entire world. It’s high time we upgraded our identity to extend beyond our family, friends, and home country, in line with what we truly are: a global organism called ‘humanity’.
3. ‘If you are lucky enough to find love, remember it is there and don’t throw it away’
For those of us working to protect this one and only home we all love, and the breathtaking spectrum of life within it, finding a way to communicate the need for any changes in behaviour is a huge challenge. How do you pop someone out of the confines of their habitual mental groove?
Ever heard of the overview effect? It’s a cognitive shift in awareness reported by astronauts during spaceflight. The firsthand reality of Earth from orbit, or the moon, leads to a sudden understanding of this planet as a tiny, fragile ball of life, hanging in the void, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere. From space, national boundaries vanish, the conflicts that divide people become less important, and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this “pale blue dot” becomes both obvious and imperative.
Astronaut, Edgar Mitchell, of Apollo 14, the first mission to conduct science on the lunar surface, put it this way:
“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’”
But we can’t all go to space to have such an experience, right? Wrong. Well, kind of. This is where VR technology could fill the gap — and, fingers crossed, help us save the day.
Think big. Start small. And have a lot of fun
This is all well and good. But where on earth do you start? The pun is very much intended. Because I propose we start in Greece. My argument being there is no culture more well placed to take the reins in this endeavour than the one that birthed much of western civilisation. And yes, it’s my home — so I’d like to see its dignity restored. Is that so bad? Plus, things being globalised, Greece’s problems are emblematic of the world’s. Our aim with Oi Polloi, the arts and culture-led development and placemaking agency a small team of us set up to reboot Greece, is to solve local problems with an eye on the global horizon.
It is, of course, a legitimate question. In attempting to overcome our narrow identities and expand them beyond our borders, how do we straddle the fine line that separates a love of home from nationalism? By framing things logically. And there’s no better way to convey this logic than the Japanese concept of ikigai (pronounced icky-guy). It roughly translates to a “reason for being”, a raison d’être. It encompasses joy, a sense of purpose and meaning — as well as a feeling of well-being. It’s a compound noun bridging ‘iki’, life, and ‘kai’, the realisation of hopes and expectations.
Your personal ikigai is usually worked out using a Venn diagram. I’ve scaled it up to explain why we should revive the story, flawed as it is, of humanity’s aspiration for perfection, beauty, and joy. No one will deny these are dark times. Terrorism, corruption, abuse of power/ sexual assault, mass shootings, senseless war, fear, hatred towards our fellow man, trash TV, a degraded pop culture, the list goes on… Now is the time to aspire to a legacy that resonates through the ages. To create something we’ll be proud to tell our grandchildren ‘I was part of that.’
What does ‘that’ look like? Imagine an Olympic Games for innovation, where teams compete alongside each other to solve design challenges which tackle global issues at the local, human scale. Note, it’s not a competition against the other. I stress this because in Greek there are two words for competition: ανταγωνισμός, antagonism — combining anti, against, and agon, the sustained effort towards an aim. And συναγωνισμός, synagonism — which differs due to its prefix syn, or with. We’re doing the latter. We’re working together, spurring each other on, cooperating and sharing in each other’s success.
I call it a ‘murmuration of humans’. It’s what happens when a self determining, self organising collective of humans pushes in the same direction.
You see, life raises us up, and throws us down like waves on the shores of life. I’ll be damned if I go out without having at least tried to make a difference. When there’s a crisis we have to reach for what is the most important, first. That which is essential. Crisis helps us see our values. And what could be more important than our loved ones? Celebrating each other, the ‘many acting as one’, is one hell of a way to start small while thinking big.
Mind over matter
It’s not the first time a cognitive revolution has transformed the fabric of reality. When our ancestors, Homo Sapiens, developed a pre-frontal cortex, it allowed them to out-evolve all our other human cousins, including the physically superior Neanderthals. According to Yuval Noah Harari, author of the seminal book, Sapiens:
‘[Story,] the ability to transmit information about things that do not really exist, such as tribal spirits, nations, limited liability companies, and human rights [enables] a. cooperation between very large numbers of strangers [and] b. rapid innovation of social behaviour.’
And so, the story I have chosen to tell with Oi Polloi, is one that unites people behind co-creating a new model of society. It uses words like ‘renaissance of humanity’. Because in dark times, the story that unites us must be full of hope. And it must be full of light. So it calls for reigniting Greece as a ‘beacon of civilisation’ — a role the world sorely needs it to step up to.
These labels are not platitudes. They are firestarters leveraging the superpower dormant in each of us: our imagination. Practically speaking, they define a sandbox within which everyone can find their personal ikigai, while pushing towards a common aim. An agon.
How does this murmuration of humans succeed? By spreading a new socioeconomic blueprint for society — the Sharing Economy — and amplifying it through the Commons. You can also think of this virtuous cycle of bottom-up change in this way:
From crowdsourcing (enlisting the services of a large number of people)
To open-sourcing (a term derived from computer science in which the source code of a programme is available to the general public for use or modification from its original design. Open-source code is a collaborative effort, where programmers improve upon the source code and share the changes with the community)
Why sharing economy and the Commons? As Jessica Conrad says in her book, ‘The Sharing Revolution: the essential economics of the commons’:
‘Sharing has always been essential to human life, but “What’s new,” says Neal Gorenflo, founder of Shareable Magazine, “is our blindness to it.” Through our individualized pursuit of happiness — a lifestyle ushered in during the Industrial Revolution — many of us have forgotten that for centuries the most promising source of security came from our ability to build and maintain strong social connections and respect the commons.
From water and forests to public transportation systems and public health to human knowledge and the Internet, the commons includes all that we share. But it’s not just stuff, it’s also the ways we work together — a whole new economic and political paradigm. Elizabeth Royte, author of Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It, aptly notes, “In a world of hyper-individualization…sharing our stuff with friends or strangers can be a political act.”’
Joke’s on us
‘Life would be tragic, if it weren’t funny,’ said Stephen Hawking. Perhaps it is this levity that’s been missing from any attempts to face the many threats to our wellbeing (climate change being foremost among them) and threats to our freedom (inequality, and systemic profiteering spring to mind). Threats so damaging to our daily security that they require a mass mobilisation of people on the scale of World War II. By that I mean not the amount of war, but the fervour with which people cooperated in defeating a great threat.
But let’s not get too heavy, shall we? Cue Hawking, and his inimitable humour — his secret to surviving his terrible condition.
“You’ve stated that there could be an infinite number of parallel universes,” the host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” asked Hawking. “Does that mean there’s a universe out there where I am smarter than you?”
“Yes,” Hawking replied from his wheelchair, his lips bending up into a slight smile. “And also a universe where you’re funny.”
What a guy.
So long, Steve. You’ll be missed. But you got us all to stop and think about our place in the universe. How:
‘For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk and we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn’t have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking.”
So, thank you, Professor. For getting us to talk about the #KindfulnessMovement, an #EmpathicCivilisation, and a #RenaissanceOfHumanity. For that, and so much more, history will remember you well.