The image of a forest burning is tragic.
Forests capture carbon. And carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas emitted by human activities. Changes in forest carbon can mitigate climate change or make it worse. But forest fires are important. They help the natural cycle of woods’ growth and replenishment. They clear dead trees, leaves, and old vegetation — this creates room for new plants to grow.
If you don’t let forest fires burn, they collect a lot of dry branches. The amount of flammable material keeps increasing. But if it burns, then the forest can be wiped off into a desert. A little bit of fire at the right time can stop everything from burning to the ground.
The analogy here was used by Jordan Peterson to make the point: you must constantly destroy the old parts of yourself, so that new parts can grow in its place. The trouble is that many people hold onto past ideas and identities. But what used to work in the past does not always work in the future
A change in opinion is required to accommodate new information. A change in skills is required to accommodate a change in the marketplace. A change in identity is required to accommodate a change in society. Adaptability does not get old — most other things do.
I do not know whether I am praising or excusing myself, but of all those qualities I possessed but one-namely, flexibility.
In The 48 Laws of Power, Greene makes a similar point in Law 25: Recreate Yourself. In a world where perception is often more important than substance, it is important to know how to alter one’s identity and behavior to match expectations.
In the year 1831, a young woman named Aurore Dupin Dudevant left her husband and family in the provinces and moved to Paris. She wanted to be a writer. She felt that marriage was worse than prison because it left her no time or freedom to pursue her passion. She was determined to make a living from writing. But the harsh reality was that without money, freedom was impossible — particularly in Paris. And at the time, a women could only make money through marriage or prostitution. No woman had come close to making a living from writing. Some women wrote as a hobby, or were supported by their husbands or an inheritance.
When Dudevant first showcased her writing to an editor, she was told, “You should make babies, Madame, not literature.”
Dudevant had arrived in Paris with an impossible mission, but eventually, she did something audacious. Something that no woman had attempted before her. She played the role of a man.
In 1832, she published her first major novel, Indiana, under the pseudonym, “George Sand.” Everyone thought this impressive new writer was male. She embraced her new identity, she dressed in men’s clothes, smoked cigars, and expressed herself like a man.
After she had enjoyed her success for a while, and had affairs with the most famous artists of Europe (Musset, Liszt, Chopin), she realized that her character “George Sand” could become stale or predictable. So, every now and then, she would dramatically alter her character. Instead of having affairs with famous men, she began meddling in politics, leading demonstrations, inspiring student rebellions.
Sand refused the limits her society would have set on her. She did not attain her power by following the cliche “be yourself”, but she created a persona that got her the attention and presence that she needed.
A social identity is different from a personal identity. A personal identity is authentic, a social identity is not. Whatever social role you have now was assigned to you by the world. And once you accept this role, your destiny is sealed. Your power is limited to the amount that is given by this role.
But the social stage requires an actor that is capable of playing many roles. Forge a new identity when it is pragmatic to do so. The only choice you have is whether you are going to be a good actor or a bad actor.
To become “George Sand”, the identity of Dudevant had to disappear. Most of the time, such a dramatic shift is not necessary, and yet few are willing to sacrifice the remnants of the past for something better. But to willingly get rid of what is no longer useful is much easier than having it taken away from you by force.
The ideal that you aim towards should not be abandoned once it is not reached, it should be lowered. Instead of lowering one’s expectations, the common reaction is to get rid of them completely. In a modern society, Duderot could have become a successful female writer. But such an ideal could not be reached in her own time due to social realities that she had to accept. But she didn’t abandon her dream of becoming a writer, she lowered her ideal of being a successful female writer to becoming a successful male writer.
In 21 Lessons For The 21st Century, Harari points out that the future will look very dissimilar to the past. So much so, that the perennial lessons that stood the test of time will no longer be relevant. The individual will need to reinvent themselves, and while older people will find this more difficult to do, they will be more compelled to.
Children today are educated according to the Industrial Revolution model, in prison-like square classrooms with same-aged peers. These rooms are made up of rows and desks, and are in a concrete building with many identical rooms. They are lectured by adults on different subjects, which may are becoming increasingly less relevant to the modern economy.
The problem is that in a highly unpredictable future, relevant advice is lacking. And while technology is very powerful, it can control you. During the agricultural revolution, a tiny elite was enriched as many workers were forced to master the technology of the time. Similarly, modern technology can, in subtle and not so subtle ways, enslave you.
If you think about how much time you spend interacting with screens, you will realize that you have much less control than you think.
The plain advice that used to work for countless generations was to rely on your own judgements. But the truth is that we don’t know why we have the thoughts that we do. In the modern environment, much of our conscious thought has been shaped by Hollywood and Disney films. We may have an authentic identity, in that we are not exactly like everyone else, but we do not know to what extent our most important ideas about the world are authentic.
It is more likely than not, that many years of commercial advertising, state propaganda, and ideological brainwashing are truly at the root of how we think and even what we think.
Given the accelerating pace of technology, we are left with two options, according to Harari. One is to do what the sages of history have advised us to do for thousands of years. “Know thyself.” But to do so, you need to compete with algorithms that are getting much better at figuring out the answer to that question than we ever can. And the most powerful corporations are investing plenty of resources to make these algorithms more effective.
The second option is to be docile to the authority of algorithms, relax and enjoy the shadow. You don’t have to do anything if you don’t want to.
But if you do care about autonomy, for whatever reason, and you opt for the first option. You had better run fast, and don’t let the heavy baggage of past illusions weigh you down. They are too heavy.
Originally published at https://unearnedwisdom.com.