One of my favorite movies as a young child was Lost Horizon. I believe I happened across this movie quite by accident (but then, maybe it was no accident after all). In any case, for those who haven’t seen it, the basic plot is that an Englishman, Robert Conway, ends up, seemingly by accident, in a semi-magical city high in the Himalayas, “Shangri-La.” It turns out that he was actually brought there intentionally to be the new head of Shangri-La. However, he heads back to England and later decides that was an error and nearly dies of exposure on the icy slopes of the mountains trying to scrabble his way back to Shangri-La. The plot echoes the idea of a lost Eden. In the Biblical account of Eden, humans lived a kind of carefree existence before defying God and thereby incurring his wrath which cursed all humanity to have pain bearing children, having to work, etc. There are many stories and myths of an earlier time or a magical place where life is much longer, more fulfilling, less filled with strife and disease, and generally speaking, better in every way than where we are now.
I believe that there really is a “Lost Horizon” in much of modern civilization and that horizon is a longer time horizon. In the book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argues that people used to have a tolerance for much longer and more nuanced debate about about public issues than we do now. For example, the famous “Lincoln-Douglas Debates” about slavery lasted all day! Now, we try to compress dialogue, discussion and debate into a sound bite or a 140 character tweet.
I never had the pleasure of climbing “real” mountains when I was a youngster. I never even saw the rockies till my early twenties. However, my neighborhood did have a large empty field. And in the middle of that field was a small hill. Because the land around was mainly flat, even this small hill provided a panoramic view of woods, fields, and nearby houses. Whenever I faced some particularly weighty decision facing me, I instinctively walked about a half mile to this hilltop. I went there, surveyed everything I could, and thought about the problem at hand. This seemed the most natural thing in the world and whether true or not, it certainly gave me the impression that I could think about the problem more holistically than if I simply sat in a chair or walked through a forest crowded with trees. On that small hill, the silence from human voices was broken only by the noise of distant traffic, the wind in the grass, and the trills of bob-whites. Sometimes, I would whistle to them for advice. Their “answers” always seemed timeless and untinged by hurry.
In 2003, I was invited to give a keynote talk at a conference in Madeira about my work on a socio-technical Pattern Language (some of which, not so coincidentally, encouraged a broader look over time and space). My wife and I decided to make a vacation out of it with our nephews, Mark and Ryan. On the way to Funchal, we visited Oxford University and a professor friend in cognitive psychology, Peter McLeod. We played “lawn bowling” (the English version of Bocci) at Oxford. While we did our best to out-bowl Peter, he pointed out to us a grove of gigantic Oaks. He said that they had been planted hundreds of years earlier and some of them would be culled soon for renovating one of the buildings. This, he claimed, was no accidental windfall. These oaks had been planted specifically for that purpose centuries earlier.
It wasn’t just Oxford, however, that had been planned with the future in mind. Medieval cathedrals often took a quarter century or a half century to complete. Notre Dam and Lincoln Cathedrals took about a century while the Cologne cathedral took 600 years! Meanwhile, here in the 21st Century, the US Congress seems powerless to pass legislation to repair our crumbling dams, highways, and bridges.
The US has an opioid addiction problem. In addition, there is an obesity epidemic. There are many reasons for these, but at least part of the problem with any kind of addiction is that people are unable, unwilling, or unpracticed at behaving in what is their own long term interests and instead doing what feels good in the short term. While one might imagine that the advent of widespread literacy, electronic communication and access to a huge amount of humanity’s knowledge via the Internet would encourage people to take a longer view of life and happiness, instead, many people seem more short-sighted than ever.
Think how we cherish the word “instant.” We have “instant coffee”, “instant pudding”, “instant messaging.” We have “speed dialing,” “speed dating,” and just plain “speed.” Software companies feel the need to release new versions and “subversions” at a breakneck pace that necessarily sacrifices sufficient testing. While people often used to invest in a company’s stock and keep it until they retired decades later, now people invest in a portfolio of ever-changing stocks and a CEO who doesn’t deliver quarter over quarter improvements may soon find themselves out of a job. Many people, in fact, do “day trading” to try to make money. Imagine investing and then uninvesting a few moments later in companies whose products and services change over month or years.
While parents encourage their kids to get good grades now so that they can have a good career later in life, the parents themselves often vote on their short term interests. Politicians cannot solve budget deficits or the over-reliance on fossil fuels. Large number of people who would feel demeaned to be or to be called a heroin addict, will nonetheless buy the SUV, throw the recycling and trash together, and generally accept the rhetoric that denies global climate change and its impacts. Together, our obsession with speed has sometimes been called, the “Cult of Celerity.”
Why does a society that has more material wealth and seems to require less of a “hand to mouth” existence, instead, seem ever more focused on the near term and less on the long term? I suppose one possibility is that it is a symptom of a transitional period in humanity’s evolution from a collection of individuals with strong ties to a small number of people to a world-wide interconnection in which individuals become more like “parts” in a giant machine and the “processing” of information that each person does becomes more and more fragmentary.
In teaching Intro Psych, I constructed an exercise for the students in which the class as a whole solved a simple problem. But each individual person had a slip of paper with simple instructions. For example, one student’s instructions might say, “Take a piece of paper from the person on your left. If the paper they hand you has a cross on it, pass it to your right. If it has a circle on it, pass it to the person ahead of you.” No individual person could possibly understand what they collectively were doing.
Indeed, this aligns precisely with “Taylorism” that shaped so much of the so-called “Industrial Revolution.” Some one person or small group of people designs an assembly line. They understand the overall process. But a person actually working on the assembly line may only know that they see a series of widgets passing by and for each widget, they are supposed to turn a screw. They are not supposed to worry about how their job fits into the overall picture. Indeed, they were not encouraged to take a broad view or a long view of their work. Many such jobs have been replaced by robots.
An alternative to ever-increasing atomization and automation of work is instead to structure small teams of people to design and build cars. They can do this, incidentally, with a view toward overall energy costs of manufacturing, distribution, and driving rather than just reducing the emissions of the vehicles after construction.
Even when people are part of a deconstructed process, it can still be worthwhile for them to “see the bigger picture.” Knowing how your job fits into a larger picture provides motivational advantages and knowledge advantages. As a common folk story goes, two travelers are passing by a wall where two folks are laboring. Each laborer selects rather large rocks in a nearby field; carries them to a wall and places them carefully then using cement to fill in tiny cracks. Objectively, these two workers appear to have the same job. However, one of the two was happily going about their work humming and smiling while the other slumped their shoulders and sported a grim visage; could be heard ever muttering beneath his breath. Curious, one of the travelers asked the Glum one, “What are you doing here, my good fellow?”
“Oh, what a pain! I’m building a wall, of course.”
Then, the traveler approached the cheery builder and asked, “What are you doing here, if I may ask?”
“Oh, what a joy! I’m helping to create a marvelous cathedral, of course!”
IBM’s Think magazine once contained an interesting example of the cognitive benefits of seeing the big picture. People who worked on the Endicott, NY assembly lines were given a few hours of training to see how their job fit into the overall picture. At one point, one of the mask inspectors jumped up and yelled, “Oh, no! I’ve been doing it wrong all these years!” It turned out that they had not wanted to “throw out” a mask that “only” had a few errors because they knew a lot of time and effort had gone into making the mask. They thought it prudent to pass masks as “okay” unless there were a lot of errors. Of course, each mask was used to make many thousands of chips, so it was vitally important not to pass a mask if there were even the slightest error. But until this training program, no-one had really made this clear.
At IBM, I managed a research project for several years on the business uses of stories and storytelling. One of the “knowledge management” consultants I worked with, Dave Snowden, told a story of the Thames Water Company. At that time, when people in this part of the UK had trouble with their water or sewer, they called up a help line and the people who staffed the help lines (almost all women) were to follow a script and dispatch engineers (nearly all men) to go and fix the problems. Of course, as is customary, they were measured on how many calls they could handle in an hour. Most of the help personnel were young, but one middle aged lady took about two and a half times as long to dispatch engineers. She was about to be fired for being so slow, when some enlightened individual decided to look a little more deeply. It turned out that, indeed, she was slower. However, it turned out that her husband was one of the engineers who fixed problems. Because of the knowledge she gained from talking over their jobs together as well as her long experience, she actually solved many problems on the phone herself. In fact, while the average service rep sent an engineer out into the field on about one out of every ten calls, this woman sent an engineer out only one out of a thousand calls. By taking slightly longer on the phone, she was actually saving the company a lot of money! Chances are excellent that he probably did a much better job as an engineer for having conversations with a dispatcher as well.
It seems as though more widespread public education and literacy would allow people to undertake their jobs as well as their political and personal decisions with a longer time horizon and a broader view of what the impact of their behaviors are on others. Beyond that, it seems to me that many of the problems of today require longer and broader views in order to take appropriate action. In fact, it seems the evolutionary advantage to early (and contemporary) humans does not lie in our sharper teeth or stronger jaws; it does not lie in our sharper vision or hearing; it does not rely on our superior strength or speed. Our only advantages are to be able to cooperate and communicate over a longer period of time and space. Yet, here we seem to be — focusing on smaller pieces of complex problems, over-simplifying both the problem and the solution, and insisting on instant answers and speedy resolutions.
Rather than pay a dollar more in taxes to build mass transit to help stem global climate change, we would rather wait for a hurricane and spend ten dollars more in taxes or thousands more to repair things. Rather than pay a penny more in taxes and find a cure for cancer, we would rather pay a hundred thousand in medical expenses. Rather than pay to repair a bridge, we’d rather wait till it collapses with scores of people on it. Rather than wait three years for a new software release with minimal bugs, we would rather wait three months and get the newest with a mosquito horde of bugs. Rather than take the time to fully understand a problem before trying to solve it, we’d rather categorize it quickly and apply a solution that might or might not be appropriate or better yet, “hand it off” to someone else. Rather than take the time to enjoy what we are doing at the moment, we’d rather jump ahead to the next moment.
Maybe “Shangri-La” is not a magical village hidden deep in the Himalayas. Maybe Eden is not something humankind “lost” but something we are yet to build. Together. Slowly. Over time. Maybe finding or rediscovering Paradise is not so much a question of scrambling up frozen mountainsides as simply taking a deep breath, a break, a pause in the action in order to see things from a more global perspective. Even a small hill can help you collect your thoughts and see the broader picture. It might be quiet there and you can hear, not the voices of bosses, managers, advertising and overlords urging you to buy more, get more, work more but instead you can hear the clear call of birdsong reminding you that Eden may only be a few deep breaths away.