By Brian Kirchner
You probably have a smart phone, right?
Okay, dumb question. (See what I did there?)
Take it out. Take it out and look at it. I mean, really study it. What color is it? How big is it? Does it have scratches on the screen, or maybe even cracks from when you dropped it on the pavement (something I’ve done many, many times)? Maybe it even has grease on it from that burger and fries you had for lunch. What apps are installed on it? Do you have pictures on it of friends, relatives, kids, vacation spots? Of yourself?
All of these things, all of these details, make your phone unique. It’s yours, and nobody else’s. You’d know it from a mile away, right? It’s almost like a signature or a fingerprint. It’s a unique expression of you, in ways that are intentional and many others that aren’t.
Now, think about what that phone lets you do. Or, maybe a more appropriate question would be, what doesn’t it let you do? There’s an app for just about any purpose you can imagine, available for download to your phone in a matter of seconds. Your phone has the potential to do so many things that listing them all would take up the rest of this post.
But if you had to sum up, in one word, what your phone represents to you, what would it be? Just one word.
Impossible? Your phone serves far too many purposes to allow for a one-word summary, right? I don’t think so.
I think our smartphones, above all else, represent connectedness. It allows us to connect. To mind-boggling amounts of information. To other people, to other cultures, to other parts of the world. To a vast web that stretches across the face of the planet to nearly every conceivable corner of it.
That one word, in my mind, sums up the primary role of our smartphones. And our laptop or desktop computers. And our cable channels. And a dozen other ways that technology brings the world within our reach.
This state of affairs, this very high level of connectedness, is a recent phenomenon. It’s the new kid on the block in terms of human-to-human communications. In 1992, when I was a senior in college in Indiana, I sent my very first email message. Here’s what sending that message entailed. My buddy Nathan, a dyed-in-the-wool, hardcore tech geek, sat down with me at a computer terminal that had a black screen with green text on it, and nothing else – no color, no images, no windows, etc. It might not even have had a mouse. I told him the email address where I wanted to send my message: a mutual friend living in Oregon.
Nathan proceeded to “program” the computer’s email system with the individual internet address of every single server through which my message would have to pass before reaching its West Coast destination. He, in effect, drew a digital road map, complete with turn-by-turn instructions, so that my little bit of text could navigate the information highway safely. It took well over ten minutes for Nathan to complete this process. (My message got to my friend out in Oregon, safe and sound.)
Now, of course, if you want to email someone, you either laugh at the very idea of email and jump on Twitter or Snapchat (if you’re a young person), or you dash off your message, click Send, and forget about it (if you’re closer to my age). The point is, email has evolved from a clunky, laborious, error-prone communication method that only techies like Nathan could pull off to something so much a part of the background scenery of modern life that many people don’t even bother with it anymore.
Connectedness. To progressively greater and greater degrees, particularly over the last two decades. A few paragraphs back, I used a web as a metaphor for the connectedness of the modern world. It might be clichéd, but there’s a reason it’s been used so much: it’s the perfect visual image to represent the crisscrossing, tightly-woven strands of digitized information that bind our world.
That web, in 1992, consisted of perhaps a few gossamer threads floating here and there, connecting rare nodes in widely scattered locations.
Now, our web is so thick, so tight, and so strong that it’s not only connecting us, but it’s pulling us inward, toward each other. Inexorably. Whether we like it or not.
Never before has a teenager in Cleveland been so close to a grandfather in Japan. Never before has an evangelical Christian in Bible Belt Georgia had the ability to speak to a Muslim in Iraq at the touch of a button. Never before, in all of humankind’s 200,000 year history, has each individual member of our species been so inextricably bound up with all the others with whom we share our planet.
You can see this at the smallest scale in the billions of individual interactions that take place among us every minute of every day. You can see evidence of this tight web of connectedness at larger scales, too: international trade agreements, transnational corporations, nonprofit organizations delivering humanitarian assistance half a world away from their headquarters.
Evidence of our tight connectedness is everywhere, if you look.
There’s no precedent for this. None. Humanity has simply never experienced it before. Nothing in our evolution prepares us for it.
It’s exciting. It’s fascinating. It opens doors we didn’t even know existed just a generation ago.
And…it’s uncomfortable sometimes, to say the least, because we are brought into contact, at least indirectly, with the “other” on a near-daily basis.
Who’s the “other”?
Anyone who is not like you. Anyone who looks different, cooks different food, follows a different religion, thinks differently, speaks a different language or has a different view of the world.
Thanks to our tightly connected web, each of us is routinely exposed to those who are not like us. Those who come from a different tribe. Those who are from elsewhere.
Human beings have a tendency, ingrained by hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, to be loyal to our own “tribe,” whatever that tribe may be. Whether it’s your own country, your own town, your own sports team, your own religion, or any one of dozens of other subgroups into which we humans divide ourselves, the driving instinct is the same: stick with your own tribe. It’s safer that way, evolution tells us. It’s safer for you and for the other members of your tribe. But the thickening and tightening web of technology that surrounds us, that is rapidly filling in the interstices between human tribal groups and making these gaps smaller and smaller, is a direct challenge to that innate tribal loyalty. It forces us to interact, at distances that are sometimes as close as the family next door, with a member of another tribe. Sometimes, that tribe can be as unfamiliar to you as the far side of the moon. Our tribal loyalty instinct tells us that this contact is potentially threatening. If left unchecked, it tries to convince us that this “other,” this visitor from another tribe, is an interloper who must be shunned out of a very reasonable desire to preserve our own safety.
Notice I italicized the words “if unchecked.” This is key. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of these two little words.
Because these two little words, and all that they imply, are vital, absolutely critical, to the future of humanity.
The jostling and friction between tribes that is occurring now, and will continue to occur more and more often as our technological web draws our tribes closer and closer, has an explosive potential made obvious by a five-minute perusal of a current newspaper or online news site (preferably a reputable one; distinguishing reliable news from garbage is the topic of a possible future post). The evidence of how catastrophic this inter-tribal friction can be is seemingly everywhere, in the form of wars, terrorism, dictatorships, and countless other manmade disasters. Sometimes it seems we are bombarded, on a daily basis, with the rotten fruits of inter-tribal conflict.
A case in point is the flood of refugees escaping the horrific Syrian civil war. Millions of people have fled the country. As of August 2016, 10,000 Syrian refugees had been accepted into the United States. They’ve settled in cities and towns across the country. In many cases, they’ve settled among people who have little or no experience with foreigners from the other side of the globe who speak a different language and follow a religion that has relatively few adherents in America as compared to the dominant Judeo-Christian culture. And this encounter between two very different human tribes has been made possible, in large part, by modern technologies. In generations past, it would have happened only very rarely.
Whether the consequences of such encounters look like this, or more like this, depends on whether the members of each tribe allow the base instinct of tribe loyalty to take the driver’s seat. Putting tribe loyalty above all else inevitably leads to suspicion, fear, and eventually hatred of the other tribe. Again, this instinct to fear the “other” made sense when human beings depended for survival on the support of their home group: for protection, for food acquisition, for companionship. When you’re sharing the African savannah with top-level predators, and with other tribes that may or may not be friendly, you need your people to have your back, and you need to have theirs. This loyalty, because survival literally depended on it, trumped everything else. Early human beings had no use for objective truth, or the recognition that we are all actually members of one tribe. They had more pressing matters at hand.
But…today, in the twenty-first century, that instinct for tribal allegiance above all, which served us so well in our ancient past that it’s become hard-wired into our DNA…well, I argue that we’ve outgrown our need for it. Or, at least, we are in the process of outgrowing it, and probably have been for several centuries at least. A larger perspective is gradually becoming clearer to us, a perspective of humanity that transcends the narrow tribalism that’s governed our behavior for millennia. A perspective that is nothing less than the recognition of a single idea, an idea that is simplicity itself and yet powerful enough to send shock waves throughout the old structures of our civilization.
The idea is this: we, all of us, every single human being on Earth, belong to a single tribe.
And this single, planet-spanning tribe is inexorably waxing ascendant over all of the small and splintered factions to which we have sworn allegiance for generations. Clans, villages, cities, nations, even races: as important as these have been to human development, and as important as they remain in certain respects, the undeniable fact is that all of us are members of one species. In reality, there are no races but one, no tribes but one. In reality, all other tribes are artificial constructions of the human imagination.
This larger perspective I visualize as being like taking off in an airplane – at first all you can see from the plane’s windows are the runway, the airport buildings, nearby objects such as trees or houses. But, as the plane lifts off and gains altitude, your perspective gradually widens, and the few things you could see on the ground find their proper place within a much grander pattern of streets, highways, forests, lakes, rivers, mountains, and plains. Humanity is ascending in the aircraft of its own interconnectedness, lifted higher and higher in our web of technologies until it becomes difficult or impossible to deny the larger truth to which our ancient ancestors were necessarily oblivious: that we all belong, ultimately, to the tribe of humanity.
To many people, perhaps to most people to one degree or another, this is an uncomfortable and even frightening new perspective. To be carried aloft, figuratively speaking, and shown the true vastness of the human species and the planet on which it lives, and the true depth to which all members of Homo sapiens are connected, is an experience with no parallel in our collective past. There’s no roadmap here. There are no guideposts placed by others who have gone before us. Humanity, in its billions, is walking (stumbling?) into the twenty-first century as trail-blazers of the first order, pathfinders that put Lewis and Clark to shame. They only explored a continent. Modern humans are forging a trail through a new reality.
Speaking of Lewis and Clark…another way in which we postmodern pioneers have a leg up on those gentleman is this: weaponry. They carried rifles, probably very good ones for the time.
We carry nuclear warheads.
We carry incendiary bombs.
We carry sarin gas.
We carry heavy machine guns.
Etc., etc., etc.
Do you see where I’m headed with this?
If you take a species with a penchant for fierce tribalism, force it into contact with many other tribes at a faster rate than ever before, and equip it with very nasty and powerful weapons with which to act on their animus toward the “other”…well, that’s literally an explosive combination.
Wars, genocides, terrorism…we see the horrific results of this combination of ancient tribalism and modern weaponry seemingly everywhere. Untold millions have died as a result of it; millions more have been marked by it in the form of permanent physical and mental scarring. The human suffering caused by it is beyond all measure.
The evidence couldn’t be more clear and abundant: the instinctive, inter-tribal fear inevitably triggered by our ever-tightening web of connectedness, when acted upon using modern killing tools, is as far removed from its once-beneficial role as a spear is from a hydrogen bomb. To allow this fear of the “other” to fester and multiply and continue to be manifested in ever more horrific ways will be the undoing of human civilization.
There is, ultimately, only one permanent solution, only one way forward that doesn’t eventually result in the extinction of our species by our own hand.
That solution is unity.
Unity among nations, unity among religions, unity among “races,” unity among governments. Most importantly, unity among individuals. Not only among individuals from the same tribe; that’s easy! No, what I’m referring to is unity with members of other tribes – people with whom you do not necessarily share a common background, and with whom you may even be uncomfortable. This is the challenge. This is the narrow path forward into a future in which humanity is no longer under the shadow of its own destruction.
Remember, the root cause of much of the turmoil in the world is fear of the other tribes into which we are being brought into close contact. Well…what if there were no other tribes? What if, instead, each human being believed that he or she belonged to the same tribe as every other human being, in a world-encircling human family?
Think about it for a moment. If such a thing were to come to pass, it would virtually eliminate the single greatest source of strife in the modern age, strife that has engulfed humanity in flames before and will do so again and again. Therefore, such world unity would seem to be not a luxury, not a pipe dream, but an absolute, critical necessity to human survival. If such world unity is, indeed, the only permanent solution to the inter-tribal friction from which we suffer, then its achievement should rightly be viewed as one of humanity’s most urgent tasks.
As far as I can tell, there are only two paths before us into the future. On one path, we continue to allow our baser, ancient instincts of narrow tribe loyalty to rule. This is the path of ultimate self-destruction. On the other path, we choose collectively to place loyalty to the human tribe above all else, and thus eliminate at the root the outmoded and dangerous ways of thinking that have governed human behavior for millennia. This is not an easy task. It’s uncomfortable, frightening at times, and can leave us feeling lost because there’s no precedent. But it can happen, and I argue that it must happen. Certainly not in this decade, likely not even in this century. But eventually, over many generations, this world unity can become reality.
To take things a step further, I argue that not only can humanity achieve world unity, but will. Why? Because humans are, if nothing else, adaptable survivors. No other species has spread as far and as fast as we have. No other species has adapted itself to every climate from the poles to the equator. No other species has come to inhabit such a bewildering variety of niches in every corner of the globe. We adapt, and we survive. Because this is true, it doesn’t seem likely that we will be the engineers of our own demise.
Yes, we undoubtedly possess the means of doing ourselves in. There’s no question about that. And our self-destruction is certainly a possibility, one that must be recognized and faced with courage. In fact, if we don’t face it, we make it much more likely. In fact, full acknowledgement of the truth that we could destroy ourselves is part and parcel of the maturation through which humanity must pass in order to ensure that we don’t destroy ourselves. Becoming an adult means recognizing one’s own powers, and keeping them in check for the good of one’s self and others. Homo sapiens must do the same.
And, as I said, I believe we will.
We have choices along the way, of course. Countless choices. Probably the most significant is the decision whether we will, as a species, make this maturation process easy on ourselves, or whether we will fight it with everything we have and in the process generate massive suffering.
There’s an old saying, “It is your resistance to what is that causes your suffering.”
Truer words were never spoken.
Anyone who has ever had experience with addiction recovery will be familiar with this concept. Much of our own pain is derived from our battles against what we cannot control. As children, we kick and scream when a parent tells us playtime is over and we have to go to bed. But no amount of tantrum-throwing will convince a good parent to give in and allow another hour of YouTube. Bedtime is a foregone conclusion. The child’s choice is whether to go the easy way or the hard way.
It’s the same with global unity. We can go the easy way, or the hard way.
We’ve gotten a good taste of how bitter the hard way can be. Do we want to keep going down that path? Or will we collectively choose an easier one? However we get there, global unity is, ultimately, our only other option besides self-annihilation. Personally, I’m too much of an optimist to believe we’ll end up destroying ourselves. But I’m enough of a realist to know that we human beings will likely continue to stumble, stagger, and crash even as we are drawn inexorably closer to acceptance of the only true reality: that we are all members of a single tribe, and that every one of us calls the same planet home.