Beyond hypernormal zombified life for all

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

The many faces of busyness as usual

From a European or American perspective the stereotype of the Japanese salaryman [1] is easily recognised as a product of a social norms that are no longer compatible with universal biological and mental human needs. Perceived normality is a social construct, but from within a given culture it is often impossible to draw a clear line between universal biological and mental human needs and culture specific norms and practices.

Only outsiders and members of marginalised groups are well equipped to identify and articulate unspoken social norms. An understanding of universal biological and mental human needs can only be developed from a transdisciplinary and intersectional perspective, based on a commonality and variability analysis across many cultures and across the entire history of human evolution.

In terms of energy and resource consumption, the social customs in Europe and North America are even further removed from ecological sustainability than the culture in Japan. This insight is nothing new.

Growth economics were clearly identified as unsustainable in the Limits to Growth report [2] in 1973, and the latest data shows we are blissfully tracking along the busyness as usual scenario. Similarly the limitations our social institutions and the limits of digital technologies [3] were well understood in the 1970s. These two examples illustrate the reality and the power of paradigmatic inertia. Humans are the uncontested local champions of cognitive dissonance [4] on this planet.

Paradigmatic inertia is never beneficial. It constitutes an institutional collective learning disability, and it can only broken be broken by events that are beyond the control of the institutions within the system.

At this particular point in time, paradigmatic inertia still fuels our governments and corporations, driving them to strive for towards a seemingly reassuring state of “normality”. From within the established institutional framework it is impossible to understand or predict when the paradigm of normality has been shattered beyond repair.

The level of cognitive dissonance within hierarchically organised societies can build up over decades and sometimes centuries [5] before it is resolved via external forces. The industrialised paradigm of technological progress and economic growth has now been operational for more than 250 years.

Hypernormality

The paradigmatic inertia that paralyses our industrialised monoculture plays out in terms of Zombie-like levels of cognitive dissonance – what some people during the Soviet era referred to as hypernormality.

In his 2016 documentary “HyperNormalisation” [6] Adam Curtis shows how the concept maps to our era, where critical thinking and individual agency is increasingly replaced by magical thinking, including absurd beliefs in the powers of artificially intelligent systems [7].

Hypernormality can also be understood through the lens of institutionalised and sanctified bullshit. André Spicer’s detailed sociological analysis of bullshit (2020) explains how organisations get completely lost in competitive social games. The key ingredients of the analysis:

The origins of bullshit

During World War I ‘bullshit’ entered informal British, North American and Australasian English speech. The lexicographer Eric Partridge claimed that during World War I, British commanding officers emphasized ‘bull’. This meant paying significant attention to soldiers’ appearances by ensuring they were perfectly dressed and their shoes were shined, even when this focus on appearance hindered the daily tasks of waging war.

Australian and New Zealand troops mocked British officers by calling it ‘bullshit’. Partridge suggests the term became common in military life during World War II. Throughout this period, it was used to refer to excessive regimentalism and attention to appearances. For instance, if soldiers prepared their quarters for inspection by a commanding officer, they engaged in ‘bullshit’.  Partridge gives the following example: ‘We’ve got to get this place bullshitted up—the Commanding Officer is coming around tomorrow morning.’ The troops used the term ‘bullshat’ to refer to something which has been polished up for display purposes. For instance, ‘Don’t touch that, it’s just been bullshat!’ ‘Bullshit’ was also closely connected with high-level administration.

For instance, during World War II, New Zealand airmen referred to the air-force headquarters as the ‘bullshit castle’. The term bullshit entered into print during World War II. The first instance of the word recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary is in a dictionary of North American slang published in 1942.

Defining bullshit – and differentiating it from lying

While lying is an attempt to conceal the truth, bullshit is to talk without reference to the truth. ‘It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth – this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as the essence of bullshit’. Underpinning this is a ‘motive guiding and controlling’ the bullshitter meaning they are ‘unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are’. Recent psychological research considers the targets of bullshit by examining how some people with an ‘uncritical open mind’ are particularly receptive to bullshit. More sociologically oriented research has pointed out that in some social settings ‘bullshit’ is expected, enthusiastically embraced or silently tolerated.

Bullshit is a form of linguistic interaction. It involves characteristic patterns of communication such as evasiveness or not being held to account for one’s claims. Bringing these three aspects together, I define bullshit as empty and misleading communication. A more substantive definition of bullshit is that it consists of evasive and/or persuasive communication involving an indifference to the truth or attempts to pursue the truth which are driven by epistemically maligned intentions.

The bullshitter falls short of lying because they make use of insincere and misleading statements rather than outright falsehoods. Recent psychological work has found that established measures of everyday lying are sufficiently distinct from bullshitting.

The purpose of bullshit

The most intuitive explanation for why bullshit exists is the individual bullshitter. Many philosophical accounts assume that particular individuals have questionable motives or moral flaws which predispose them to bullshitting. For instance, Frankfurt points towards questionable motives of bullshitters such as intention to mislead their audience for personal gain. Others point out that bullshitters are driven by Machiavellian motives like deceiving their audience to gain power and resources. More recently, Cassam has argued that bullshitters are plagued by ‘epistemological vices’ such as carelessness, negligence, dogmatism and prejudice. Perhaps the most important of these is ‘epistemic insouciance’. This entails ‘a casual lack of concern about the facts or an indifference to whether their political statements have any basis in reality’. Some have argued that bullshitters suffer from cognitive failures. Finally, a recent study of school children found that bullshitters shared demographic characteristics; they were more likely to be males from better-off socioeconomic background.

Mats Alvesson argued that wider socio-cultural concerns with ‘imagology’ (looks and appearance) has encouraged organizations and individuals to generate clichés and bullshit. In my own book on the topic, I explored how the changing nature of bureaucracy created ideal conditions for bullshit. The rise of ‘neocracies’ which are obsessed with constant change and novelty has led organizations as well as people working within them to produce a large stream of bullshit.

Bullshitting as a culture

Bullshitting is not about hiding a secret from specific people at specific points in time, it is about pursuit of a hidden agenda, often associated with long-term goals. In this context a smooth blend of half-truths, falsehoods, and common sense (culturally endorsed myths) is much more potent than a set of lies.

One of the rare examples of an analysis of bullshitting as a social practice is Joshua Wakeham’s (2017) theoretical account. Drawing on studies of social epistemology, he argues that we gain most of our knowledge second hand. This means that we do not do epistemic due diligence ourselves. We are usually not cognitively equipped to do such due diligence, and even when we are, it is exhausting for us and alienating for others.

Furthermore, in most social settings there is not one obvious correct answer waiting to be found. So instead of relying on common standards of epistemology, we rely upon social cues to sort out which knowledge claims are true and which are false. These include the characteristics of the person speaking, the background knowledge that people draw on, and the interactional dynamics between parties. Often our reliance upon social cues means we systematically relax our epistemic norms to deal with ‘the social pragmatic need to get along’. This makes us ‘accustomed to faking it and going along with social fictions when necessary’.

The cult of busyness

Jackall’s (1986) study of a large American corporation found that bullshitting was systematically expected of middle managers in the company. One informant told Jackall that his job involved ‘characterizing the reality of a situation with any description that is necessary to make that situation more palatable to some group that matters. Everyone knows that it’s bullshit, but it’s accepted. This is the game’. A crucial aspect was not using too much or too little bullshit, and also being able to judge the appropriate moment to bullshit. Competent bullshitters also needed to become competent audience members for performances of bullshit.

When ignorance is noisy, uninformed actors do not simply stay silent about what they don’t know. Rather, they are compelled to speak about an issue of which they have little knowledge or understanding. A recent experimental study found that this compulsion to speak (coupled with a lack of accountability created by a ‘social pass’) was an important factor in explaining bullshitting. For instance, middle managers are often relatively ignorant about the work their subordinates are engaged with, but are under pressure to act as the leader by doing or say something. They fall back upon generic management speak rather than engage with the people they manage in language they find meaningful. A second example is British government ministers who find themselves with a new policy portfolio. Often these politicians have little or no knowledge of the new policy area, but they are under pressure to say and do something. To address this tricky situation, politicians rely on empty and often misleading language.

The cult of leadership and entrepreneurship

Many conceptual entrepreneurs operate in the management ideas industry. This is a sector made up of consultants, gurus, thought leaders, publishers and some academics. The quality of actors operating in this industry tends to be extremely variable. A consequence is that some of the conceptual entrepreneurs seeking to peddle their wares in the management ideas industry are bullshit merchants. There are some sub-sectors of the management ideas industry where bullshit merchants are particularly concentrated. One is the ‘leadership industries’.

This sub-sector includes many consultants, speakers, experts and advisors who create and distribute pseudo-scientific ideas about leadership. A second sub-sector with a significant concentration of bullshit merchants is the ‘entrepreneurship industry’. This is the cluster of mentors, (pseudo-)entrepreneurs and thought leaders who push poorly evidenced, misleading and seductive ideas about entrepreneurship. Often their target is so-called ‘wantrepreneurs’. In some cases, these ideas have been found to encourage vulnerable young people to adopt what are seductive but empty and misleading ideas about entrepreneurial success.

Institutionalisation and sanctification of bullshit

Successful bullshitting enhances the image of bullshitters. This happens when bullshitters are able to more or less convincingly present themselves as more grandiose than they actually are. External audiences are more likely to make positive judgements about them and be more willing to invest resources in them. Organizations often use trendy but misleading names to attract resources (particularly from the uninformed). In recent years, firms have gained a boost in valuation by adopting a name invoking blockchain technology.

As well as enhancing one’s image, bullshitting can also help to enhance self-identity. This is because bullshit can enable bullshitters to conjure a kind of ‘self-confidence trick’. This happens when bullshitters mislead themselves into believing their own bullshit. Self-deception enables individuals to present themselves as much more self-confident than they would otherwise seem if they had to engage in cognitively taxing processes of dual processing (holding in one’s mind both the deceptive statement as well as the truth). The self-confidence which comes from self-deception can aid resource acquisition. For instance, entrepreneurs are encouraged to ignore their objective chances of failure so they can appear self-confident in their search for resources to support their venture.

When bullshit has become part of the formal organization for some time, it can slowly start to seem valuable in and of itself. When this happens, bullshit can be treated as sacred. Sanctification happens when an element of secular life (such as bullshitting) is elevated, a sense of higher meaning is projected into it, and deep existential significance is invested in it.

As long as life is framed as a competitive social game failure is guaranteed – because then the suffering of others is simply another great busyness opportunity [8].

In the rear view mirror, with a bit more historical distance, say from the vantage point of 2050, the commonalities between corporate capitalism (the “Western” model) and state capitalism (the “Chinese” model) may become more apparent, and the differences may be recognised as superficial.

Similarly, the changes following the collapse of the East German regime and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s will be recognised as superficial in terms of cultural evolution – as processes of assimilation rather then as an evolutionary step change in social operating models. However, the changes in Eastern Europe do illustrate that assimilative changes are not predictable and are driven from the bottom up rather than from the top down within an established system. Changes from the top down tend to either amount to decorative window dressings or take on the form of violent conflict.

Wake up call

In aggregate, the COVID 19 pandemic, increasingly severe manifestations of the climate crisis, and growing levels of social inequities represent a powerful external force and an opportunity to cut through the façade of hypernormality.

While in earlier decades slower rates of ecological destruction and a lack of tangible climate related disasters have allowed baselines to shift with only few people paying attention, the rate ecological destruction and the frequency of climate related disasters has made it impossible for people to not notice the changes [9].

A growing number of people from all over the world are waking up to the fact that faith in leaders is what is likely to lead to the end of our species and countless other species. Any tools and sets of knowledge that are incompatible with a path of radical energy decent are likely to rapidly become legacy technologies that are only relevant from a historic perspective – to warn future generations about technological approaches that have lead to existential risks.

“Normal” busyness as usual is slowly killing all of us. The sooner we unplug from the collective delusion, the fewer people will die or suffer needlessly. De-growth (a genuine reduction in unsustainable energy and resource consumption) can play out over generations, and it can be the most civilised project of mutual aid humans have ever undertaken.

Cultural evolution vs cultural revolution

Revolutions can be understood as phase shifts that occur when the level of cognitive dissonance that a population experiences between daily life and the fictions that are perpetuated by rulers and elites can no longer be maintained. In a revolution a large part of the population openly dismisses established institutions as dysfunctional and establishes new institutions based on ideas that often have been “fermenting” within the population for decades. Only some revolutions constitute a genuine shift in the paradigm of governance. The typical result tends to be a new set of institutions, a revised composition of the elites, and a new set of rules for maintaining an oppressive primate dominance hierarchy.

In contrast, the language system of evolutionary design provides us with a collaborative framing and terminology for evolutionary processes that allows bottom-up social movements to participate in the evolution of a living system, and to integrate their knowledge into a living system that includes humans, non-humans, and human designed systems.

Where to from here? We live in a highly dynamic world, and our capability to understand the world we have stumbled into is quite limited. Our destination is beyond human comprehension, but ways of life that are in tune with our biological needs and cognitive limits are always within reach, even when we find ourselves in a self-created life destroying environment. All it takes is a shift in perspective, and corresponding shifts in the aspects of our lives that we value.

In a world of global heating and ecological collapse, the direction of cultural evolution will determine how much suffering human societies will experience over the coming decades, and what kind of world will be available as the starting point for ecological regeneration.

David Graeber had a refreshingly down to earth and entrepreneurial approach to activism, which consisted of embarking on actions that seem appropriate to create a new reality (rather than simply engaging in civil disobedience) – and ignoring the established status-quo as needed to overcome crippling paradigmatic inertia. He conceptualised the revolt of the caring classes [10] and encouraged the activation of bureaucratically suppressed knowledge, i.e. the things that people are not allowed to talk about, into a power that can transform society.

I have a very similar philosophy. Our team at S23M is actively involved in catalysing cultural evolution in the healthcare sector. If you are stuck in a place where busyness as usual is getting in the way of cultural evolution, just follow the money to know where to start building new models from the bottom up. As long as governments operate healthcare like a busyness, from the top down, rather than from the bottom up, based on the needs of local communities, whānau, and patients, healthcare organisations remain paralysed by paradigmatic inertia.

Related documentaries

[1] Studio Kronikeur. 2020. I Work, Therefore I Am (Life as a Salaryman).

[2] ABC. 1973. Computer predicts the end of civilisation.

[3] PBS. 1979. The Information Society.

[4] Double Down News. 2021. Why Jeff Bezos’ Space Dream is Humanity’s Nightmare by George Monbiot.

[5] No Future. 2016. Chapo Trap House Episode #65 with Adam Curtis.

[6] BBC. 2016. HyperNormalisation by Adam Curtis.

[7] Minhaaj Rehman. 2021. Natural Language Understanding with Walid Saba.

[8] WSJ. 2021. Theranos Founder Elizabeth Holmes on Trial: What to Expect.

[9] A Natty Nook. 2021. The Role of Literature in a Climate Crisis.

[10] Nika Dubrovsky. 2020. David Graeber Revolt of the Caring Class and Visual Assembly.

One thought on “Beyond hypernormal zombified life for all

  1. Pingback: The entire purpose of middle managers, scientifically, is to be absolutely full of shit – The Context Of Things

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s