What the Present Reveals: Possibilities

“I dwell in possibility.”

— Emily Dickinson

We cannot read the future but we can read the present. Both the probabilities and possibilities that what is occurring in the present will extend into the future are observable in the present. Chance may of course upend such reckoning and when we consider headline making sudden havoc caused by the explosions of weather, stock bubbles and maniacal minds, we recognize that Chance is a great and always unknown fabricator of the future. But a calculation of probabilities and possibilities remains because of forces that hold sway and dominate the thinking as well as the cultural imaginary of individuals and society.

It’s probable, for instance, that the drive to get the Federal government out of the way of market forces operating anywhere profit is to be made will not just go away in that stretch of the future that the present can disclose. Probability is that the U.S. will not become a Scandinavian-like social democracy or that wealth will trickle down and refashion a middle class or that racism will no longer draw voters or that gentrification will be something other than the practice of plutocracy. And so on.

Nevertheless, there exist also latent intentions and drives that may possibly emerge as dominant in the future, though what is possible in all probability defers to the probable. What is possible is always difficult to see when the dominating and the probable fix one’s perspective.  On the bright side — and possibilities reach toward a brighter side –, any hope for the future lies in such possibilities, regardless of how remote they seem now. The possible, then, also demands our focus, alongside probabilities.

Possible sites where we can possibly stop pitting “the mass of humanity against the natural world” are observable in the present. I focus on education, ecology and cyberspace. What must come first, however, in a prophecy of possibles are our illusions regarding a personal fulfillment of the possible.

Elizabeth Warren points out that we in the U.S. live under the burden of believing everything is possible while Rashida Jones believes that the perfect blazer makes everything possible. Firm ground between these two poles can probably be found in recognizing that what is possible depends upon the circumstances and constraints that offer what is available to the chooser. A step further back and we see that the chooser is fashioned by these circumstances and constraints, especially those that outshout, outplay and outlast all the others. I wish I could write “the more rational” is a determinant here but our rationality has been calculated by “market forces” since the last quarter of the 20th century.

The more powerful forces work outside our domain of personal choice, the narrower that domain and the scope of choice. And so we inevitably choose in situations that human consciousness, Nature (including our own genetically programmed organicism), time, place and Chance construct. Thus, it seems very odd to recommend as a public policy that someone on the edge or fallen into poverty “start a business”, invest in a diversified stock portfolio, or “just say NO! or YES!” And then, of course, assume personal responsibility.

It seems odd to put everyone under the yoke of an economic belief that pits the slow against the quick, the ailing against the healthy, the voice of money against the voiceless immiserated, the unsupported or disastrously supported against the well tended and ambitiously chaperoned, the lucky against the luckless, the compassionate against the predators, the privacy of the gated Manor against the public exposure of failure, money against harmony.

We do this because we hold that everything is equally possible to everyone. This stupidity alone makes it difficult to offer hopeful possibilities; it is an obstructive element of a surround that narrows such possibilities.

Education offers the possibility of deconstructing such stupidities and thus moving toward beliefs, especially economic, which doubtless drive both our political and social persuasions, which broaden the realm of what can be possible in the future.

We are now, however, in various states of confusion regarding education. The newly appointed Secretary of Education will continue in the days ahead what she has always been doing in regard to education, namely privatize public education, most especially in the direction of profit to shareholders. This profiteering of the last great frontier is to be accomplished by mouthing that magical word “Choice!” Why not extend personal choice beyond blazers, pizza toppings, and health care to education?

Learning, within this mania, is a product choice; competition generated by those schools seeking profit, unaccountable to any scrutiny or testing by a government that has funded them, and free of unions will supposedly lead to success in learning that public education has not achieved. Is not anything privatized and market driven superior to any public endeavor?

Once again, it seems odd that introducing profit into education will somehow give us the key to how learning takes place, especially in a social media oriented society that is displacing learning about the world with an absorption in the cybertech mediation of that world. Learning, then, appears to be changing in the ways that it is facilitated as well as in its domain of actualizing. The world as an ecological system to be learned is displaced by a learning of and within an alternative space that has become, as Baudrillard describes, a hyperreality replacing what it no longer has any connection.

This is clearly a paradigm change in learning, as if we were now Martians learning about Mars in the ways Martians learn. Education may be failing either because this is a deadly change in which reading beyond 140 characters will go the way of cursive writing, or because we are caught within two worlds of learning and have not yet transitioned to a hyperreal in which cybertech restructures both consciousness and its objects.

What is closer to the grasp of the present and therefore more revealing of what may be possible in the future is our capacity to learn within and about an ecological system threatened and thus threatening to us, both in need of recuperation. What success we possibly can have in recuperation depends on an educational system that right now fails to shape a kind of thinking that ceases to dominate and manipulate the natural world but rather find its place within that world.

According to the social ecologist Murray Bookchin, “it may be that man is manipulable …or that elements of nature are manipulable . . . but ecology clearly shows that the totality of the natural world — nature taken in all its aspects, cycles and inter-relationships — cancels out all human pretensions to mastery over the planet.” (“Ecology and Revolutionary Thought, 1964).

It is possible that we can move toward understanding our social world as an ecological system in which competition and the game of winners and losers gives way to recognition that within this system every human plays an equal part. We are more equal within this social ecology than within any politics; it is an equality we possess within “the totality of the natural world.”

A first step in this direction is a displacing of the effects of robotics and AI on wage earners by establishing communities of worker owned enterprises. They would understandably not seek their own extinction by a full scale adoption of robotics and AI. Workers will not exploit their own work or reduce it to a “cash nexus” because it is tied to the overall well-being of their lives. Work becomes part of a totality and not an item in a debit column.

The movement then from a segmented view of labor is one that ties it to a totality of life and extends it to the totality of the natural world. The idea that all work serves to enhance and not destroy the quality of human life expands to a recognition of that human life goes on within an ecological system that supports that life and so also cannot be eroded or destroyed. This is a possible communalism that no longer “pits the mass of humanity against the natural world.” (Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism, 1973).

It seems possible to reconfigure the exploitative force of capitalism toward the primacy of ecological concerns, shaping society, politics and economics toward a wholistic interrelationship in which we employ our rational gift not toward individual profit but toward remaining healthfully within that interrelationship.

Thus far, cyberspace has not so much encouraged a social ecological focus but rather seduced and distracted us away from such concerns. It poses, especially in the minds of Millennials, as a more interesting universe than our physical one, our dirt, sky and water world. It is odd to think that driverless autos or virtual realities or robotics and AI have as much a part to play in continuing the human lease on this planet as in increasing profits to shareholders. Once again, it is odd to think that a dominating force of capitalism will fund a technology that produces little or no profit but supports the bond between the social world and the ecological system of the planet within which we are embedded.

Cyberspace has most recently in the 2016 U.S. presidential election exposed itself as fertile ground for fake news, a low and brutal level of discourse that inhabits the dark side of our human natures. What seems clear in the present is that if we do not find a way to discount in everyone’s eyes the incendiary, mindless squawking of the most avidly espoused social media then the sense of the “social” so generated will obstruct and perhaps destroy an ecological sense of the social.

Right now, we are expecting Mr. Zuckerberg to find a way to make Facebook a form of online communication that does not both undermine both communication and the social world. Perhaps he and many others were surprised by an expectation that Facebook should be evaluated beyond an individual’s personal “Like” and held to a societal accountability. This sad state of affairs represents the extent to which our ecological interrelationship has found a presence in cyberspace.

It is not probable that the future will change this but rather the relationship will be exacerbated. However, there remains the possibility that humans may be forced to invest themselves more avidly in the social and ecological surround than in the attractions of cyberspace. It may be possible that the ways of learning and knowing that cyberspace underwrites will nurture our ecological interrelationships but, once again, the possible here must find a window in the probable.

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Joseph Natoli has published books and articles, on and off line, on literature and literary theory, philosophy, postmodernity, politics, education, psychology, cultural studies, popular culture, including film, TV, music, sports, and food and farming. His most recent book is Travels of a New Gulliver.

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