Who paints the picture

There is a strange contrast between the level of attention that we give to parts of our lives, and this is dangerous for all of us.

Details get our attention. If you are a musician you may spend dozens of hours debating and deciding which strings to put on your guitar; if you are a scientist, you will spend countless meetings and read dozens of papers trying to decide what is the best reagent to use on some experiment; If you are a designer you will spend days choosing the best font  for your text, etc. And you will  revisit these choices, change your mind, try something else, and change your mind again. And this will go on for years and years. Yet we do no such thing for larger scale projects.

For example, if you ask a scientist why he/she uses that particular item, you will get detailed explanations about the shape, the weight, the material, and how they all relate to the content of the experiment etc.. but ask the same scientists about the nature of scientific progress, the funding decisions of his/her project,  the forces behind it, the goals it serves, etc.. you will get a confused look like you are missing the point. “But look at the shape!”. This is dangerous.

We need more people to pay attention to the large scale issues, otherwise those who control large scale resources will be the ones making these decisions, or they will be made with no coordination and thought. This might be fine for some things, but it can have serious consequences for others. To quote Quinn O’Niell:

We didn’t decide that we’d like to have widespread poverty and great social inequality and then implement political and economic frameworks to make it happen. The climate isn’t changing because we decided we’d like a warmer planet and then put a plan in place to heat things up. And we never got together as a species and decided to organize ourselves into our current nations. These things just kind of happen while we’re preoccupied with individual and smaller group concerns.

To spell out the obvious: widespread poverty and social inequality happened because a few people at the top implemented it “over” us; the climate is changing because we haven’t been able to translate our individual concerns into massive collective action; Nations have the borders that they do, because the few who controlled armies made it so. Individual experts with no big-picture perspective, will mostly serve the interests of those who control the larger systems of decision-making and their implementation. The uncritical expert will be put to use as the tool that he/she is.

To be sure, for those parts of the population who are poor, who focus on making ends meet, large scale concerns are far from being a priority. If you have to worry daily about putting food on the table and paying rent, then legislation on tax policy won’t be your primary concern – but it will affect everyone including you. So whenever possible we need to take a step back from narrower concerns,  take a look at the bigger picture, and see how we like it… Before someone else paints it for us.

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