Issue 4.1 | March 2013

In this Article: knowledge comes from the future, but wisdom from the past.

by Jonathan Wilson 

Earlier this year I transitioned, for just a few weeks, between universes.  I passed from the business world into the tribal world, from steely skyscrapers to rainforests, from crawling commutes and city noise to nothing but the wind caressing a lonely mountain trail, from falling snow to sweltering heat, and from a mechanistic worldview to an organic worldview.  Most intensely of all, I crossed from the looming future into ancient, but dimming, history.

In the Northern part of the globe, we love the future.  In the business sector especially, we breathe the pure oxygen of a relentless preoccupation with innovation, fed in turn by the twin priorities of progress and economic growth.  We love the new (a condition with a name: “neophilia“).  In particular, we possess a near-religious faith in the power of technology to solve all human problems.  As a result, we do indeed discover and design some remarkable, potentially life-improving, things.  Here’s a handful of current examples: 3D printing technology signals the potential to radically cheapen the large-scale distribution of complex and even customized products; Google Glass brings us closer to a seamless integration of the real and the virtual; and mind-controlled robotic legs for the paralyzed are currently in trial stages of development.

The Dimming Past

In the Yali village that was my childhood home – where thatched huts still nestle among trees beneath high mountain walls, and into which no road comes and where there is no electrical power – there sits a garage-sized metal-roofed shed beside which a large, white, concave dish points skywards.  Inside are six laptop consoles powered by solar panels and linked to the Internet by satellite.  When the afternoon rain and mist cloaks the village and the Heluk river thunders in the gorge below, the shed fills with young and a few older Yali seeking to get onto Facebook or, less often, to access the educational sites made available to them by the NGO who built the installation.

The Yali represent the ancient past.  Only decades ago, they emerged, in technological terms, from the Stone Age.  Then, they lived in utter isolation as hunters, gatherers and gardeners, in a life marked by myth, spirits, community, natural splendour, inter-village savagery, fear and even cannibalism.   They have benefited immensely from the changes they have subsequently experienced: vastly improved health care, unbroken peace (for fifty years!), literacy and new kinds of learning, a loss of fear of the ancestral spirits that resulted in taboos lifted on, for example, important dietary sources.  Still, they remained largely cut off from the rest of the world’s head-long hurtle towards the future, and in many ways remained quite thoroughly, and in the best ways, Yali.

The Trade-Off

The new Internet station is just one mark of the process by which the Yali are being on-streamed to modernity, and illustrates powerfully the trade-off that is occurring as new overwhelms ancient.

Our technologies and the structures we have built around them facilitate an individualistic mindset and the behaviours that support it.  We are quickly becoming isolated selves, able to customize our world to our precise, self-defined interests.  Via the Web, we create “communities” that are typically (but not always) networks of isolated selves.  I watch the Yali being drawn towards this and away from their ability to function at a very high level of interpersonal skill and interdependence: an ability that can only be learned in an in-your-face environment where the village is an organism with a purpose (to make life work well).  It is more instantly gratifying to surf the Web or watch a DVD than to gather around the fire in the hut.  They have not yet lost their ability to sit and ponder the meaning-filled story of the elder or to craft and tell their own stories around the hut fire, but I see them losing their grip on it.

The Yali live in a world with zero mechanical noise.  They possess an extraordinary knowledge of their natural surroundings.  This knowledge is not necessarily scientific (sometimes it is scientifically erroneous), but it is a relational knowledge akin to your intimate knowledge of your family, and thus it is irreplaceable.  Yet they increasingly interact with the systems of our future and all the corollary assumptions about what makes life work and what constitutes fulfillment: travel by car, branded clothing, instant food, cool friends, cool gadgets.  An elder showed me his cell phone with some diffidence (he can only use it when he goes to the town) and complained to me, “the younger generation is drawn only to things that are new.”  Slowly but steadily, the Yali are trading the instant for the old, the fleeting for the lasting, the gadget for the grandeur of their wilderness.

The Wise and Progressive Leader

The Yali journey is a warning to us to evaluate the things we pursue.  Just as we cannot easily diagnose ourselves without an external perspective, we cannot objectively assess our rush to the future.  We need an external perspective, and time being what it is, the only one available to us is from the past.  Gaining such perspective is harder than we might think: one reason we don’t take “the good old days” too seriously is that we can’t be sure our memories serve us correctly.  But there are voices from the past to which we can listen, and not just through questionable sentimental recollections or books, because these voices, the voices of the Yali, are still with us.  The Yali allow us the opportunity to check our rush to the future by pondering the wisdom the past has to offer.

We need the future.  New knowledge and new solutions lie in the future.  Progress (which should be synonymous with an increasingly flourishing world) lies forward.  But only the past can offer wisdom.  We need to be leaders who gaze, and ponder in thought, in both these directions.

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