Narrative Direction and Rebellion

This is the fourth post in what has been a kind of accidental series on life narratives. Previously: Narrative Dissonance, Where the Narrative Stops, and Narrative Distress and Reinvention.

In Where the Narrative Stops I briefly mentioned the hippie revolution as a rebellion against the standard narrative of the time. This idea combined in my brain a while ago with a few other ideas that had been floating around, and now I’m finally getting around to writing about it. So let’s talk about narrative rebellions.

I’ve previously defined narratives as roughly “the stories we tell about ourselves and others that help us make sense of the world”. As explored previously in the series, these stories provide us with two things critical for our lives and happiness: a sense of purposeful direction, and a set of default templates for making decisions. So what happens when an individual or a demographic group chooses to rebel against the narrative of the day? It depends.

Rebellions are naturally framed in the negative: you rebel against something. With a little work you can manage to frame them positively, as in “fighting for a cause”, but the negative framing comes more naturally because it’s more reflective of reality. While some rebellions are kicked off by a positive vision, the vast majority are reactionary; the current system doesn’t work, so let’s destroy it. Even when there is a nominally positive vision (as in the Russian Revolution, which could be framed as a “positive” rebellion towards communism) there is usually also a negative aspect intermingled (the existing Russian army was already ready to mutiny against Russia’s participation in the First World War) and it can be difficult to disentangle the different causes.

In this way, narrative and socio-cultural rebellions are not that different from militaristic and geo-political ones. You can sometimes attach a positive framing, but the negative framing is both default, and usually dominant.

We’ll come back to that. For the moment let’s take a quick side-trip to Stephen Covey’s Principle-centered Leadership. One of the metaphors he uses in that book (which I didn’t actually include in my post about it, unfortunately) is the idea of a compass and a map. Maps can be a great tool to help you navigate, but Covey really hammers on the fact that it’s better to have a compass. Maps can be badly misleading if the mapmaker left off a particular piece of information you’re interested in; they can also simply go stale as the landscape shifts over time. A compass on the other hand (meaning your principles, in Covey’s metaphor), always points due North, and is a far more reliable navigational tool.

This navigational metaphor is really useful when extended for talking about narratives and rebellions. One of the most important things a narrative gives us is that “sense of purposeful direction” which carries us through life. Without it, as in Where the Narrative Stops, narratives tend to peter out after a while or even stop abruptly on a final event (the way a “student” narrative may stop on graduation if you don’t know what you actually want to do with the degree).

The problem is that rebelling against a narrative doesn’t automatically generate a fully-defined counter-narrative (roughly analogous to how reversed stupidity isn’t intelligence). If you don’t like the direction things are going, you can turn around and walk the other way. But there’s no guarantee the other way actually goes anywhere, and in fact it usually doesn’t; a random walk through idea-space is very unlikely to generate a coherent story. Even when you have a specific counter-narrative in mind, there’s good odds it still doesn’t actually work. See again the Russian Revolution for an example; they ended up with a strong positive vision for communism, but that vision ultimately collapsed under the weight of economic and political realities.

This lack of destination seems to me the likely candidate for why the hippie rebellion petered out. They had a strong disagreement with the status quo, and chose to walk in the direction of “free love”, and similar principles instead. But this new direction mostly failed to translate into a coherent positive vision, and even when it did that vision didn’t work. Most stories I’ve been able to find of concrete hippie-narrative experiments end up sounding a lot like the Russian revolution; they ultimately collapse under the weight of reality.

Given the high cost of a rebellion, be it individual or societal, militaristic or narrative, it seems prudent to set yourself up for success as much as possible before-hand. In practice, this seems to mean having a concrete positive vision with strong evidence that it will actually work in reality. Otherwise tearing down the system will just leave you with rubble.

Our Need for Need

It is a trite, well-established truth that people like being useful. But there’s more to it than that, or rather, there’s also a stronger version of that claim. People do like being useful, but useful is a very broad term. Stocking shelves at a Walmart is useful, in that it’s a thing with a use, which needs to be done. And it’s true that some people may in fact actively like a job stocking shelves at a Walmart. But on the whole, it’s not something most people would consider particularly enjoyable, and it’s certainly not something that is considered fulfilling.

Let us then upgrade the word “useful” to the word “needed”: people like to be needed. While stocking shelves at a Walmart is useful, the person doing it is fundamentally replaceable. There are millions of others around the world perfectly capable of doing the same job, and there are probably thousands of them just within the immediate town or city. If our fictional stocker were to suddenly vanish one day, management would have no trouble hiring somebody else to fill their shoes. The world would go on. Walmart would survive.

Now this is all well and good, but I would argue that there is an even stronger version of this claim: people don’t just like to be needed, people actively need to be needed. Over a decade ago, Paul Graham wrote an essay called Why Nerds are Unpopular; it’s a long essay with a number of different points, but there is one thread running through it that in my opinion has gotten far too little attention: “[Teenagers’] craziness is the craziness of the idle everywhere”.

The important thing to note about this (and Graham does so, in a roundabout sort of way) is that teenagers in a modern high school are not exactly idle. They have class, and homework, and soccer practice or band practice or chess club; they play games and listen to music and do all the sort of things that teenagers do. They just don’t have a purpose. They are literally unneeded, shut away in a brick building memorizing facts they’ll probably never use, mostly to get them out of the way of the adults doing real work.

This obviously sucks, and Graham stops there, making the assumption that the adult world at least, has enough purpose to go around. Teenagers, and in particular nerds, just have to wait until they’re allowed into the real world and voila, life will sort itself out. And it’s true that for some, this is the case. A scientist doing ground-breaking research doesn’t need to worry about their purpose; they know that the work they are doing is needed, and has the potential to change lives. Unfortunately, a Walmart stocker does not.

To anyone who has been following the broad path of the news over the last decade , this probably doesn’t come as a surprise. It seems like every other day we are confronted by another article suggesting that people are becoming less happy and more depressed, and that modern technology is making people unhappy. Occasionally it is also noted that this is weird. We live in a world of wealth and plenty. The poorest among us are healthier, better-fed, and more secure than the richest of kings only a few centuries past. What is causing this malaise?

The simple answer is that we are making ourselves obsolete. People need to be needed, sure, but nobody wants to need. Independence is the American dream, chased and prized through the modern Western world. Needing someone else is seen as weakness, as vulnerability, and so we strive to be self-sufficient, to protect ourselves from the possibility of being hurt. But in doing so, we hurt others. We take from them our need, and leave them more alone than ever before.

Of course, Western independence as a philosophy has been growing for near on three centuries now, and modern unhappiness is a much more recent phenomenon. There are two reasons for this, one obvious and the other a bit more subtle. To start with, our modern wealth does count for something. A small amount of social decohesion can trade off against an entire industrial revolution’s worth of progress and security with no alarm bells going off. But there is a deeper trick at play, and that is specialization.

In traditional hunter-gatherer bands, generally everybody was needed. The tribe could usually survive the loss of a few members of course – it had to – but not easily. Every member had a job, a purpose, a needed skill. That there were only a handful of needed skills really didn’t matter; there just weren’t that many people in any given tribe.

As civilization flourished, the number of people in a given community grew exponentially. Tribes of hundreds were replaced by cities of thousands, and for a time this was OK. Certainly, there was no room in a city of thousands for half the adult men to be hunters; it was both ecologically and sociologically unsustainable. But in a city of that size there was suddenly room for tailors and coopers and cobblers and masons and a million other specialized jobs that let humanity preserve this sense of being needed. If it was fine to be one of the handful of hunters providing food for your tribe, it was just as fine to be one of the handful of cobblers providing shoes for your town.

To a certain extent, specialization continued to scale right through the mid-twentieth century, just not as well. In addition to coopers and masons we also (or instead) got engineers and architects, chemists and botanists, marketers and economists. But somewhere in the late twentieth century, that process peaked. Specialization still adds the occasional occupation (e.g. software developer), but much more frequently modern technology takes them away instead. Automation lets one person do the work of thousands.

Even worse than this trend is the growth of the so-called “global village”. I, personally, am a software developer in a city of roughly one million people. Software development is highly specialized, and arguably the most modern profession in the world. At the end of the day however, I too am replaceable. Even if I were only one of the handful of developers in my city (I’m not), modern technology – both airplanes and the internet – has broadened the potential search pool for my replacement to nearly the entire world. My position is fundamentally no different from that of the Walmart stocker – I would not be missed.

At the end of the day, humanity is coming to the cross-roads of our need for need. Obsessed with individuality, we refuse to depend on anyone. Women’s liberation is slowly freeing nearly half of the world’s population from economic dependence. Technological progress, automation, and global travel are all nibbling away at the number of specialized occupations, and at the replacement cost of the ones that remain. The future is one where we all live like the teenagers in Paul Graham’s essay: neurotic lapdogs, striving to find meaning where fundamentally none exists. Teenagers, at least, just have to grow up so they can find meaning in the real world.

How is humanity going to grow up?