Culture Hacking at the Dawn of Time

on December 4, 2013

Suppose as a thought-experiment that you are the first true human, living some 400,000 years ago. You have been awakened by a stroke of higher knowledge to a sense of your own nature and potential — but you have no one with whom to share that awareness.

The near-humans around you are by no means dumb. Their brains are probably larger than ours today. They have prodigious memories and an encyclopedic knowledge of the local plants and animals and inorganic materials. But they are very literal minded. They take their guidance from a collective belief system that tells them what to think and how to act, and they are incapable of seeing beyond that.

What would you do? How would you go about breaking them out of their limitations and raising them to a higher level of awareness? You are, after all, just one person, with a narrow lifespan and little chance of finding disciples among your contemporaries.

Your only option is to institute changes in the belief system itself that will live on after you.

Those changes will have to fulfill three criteria. They must have an immediate social value that will cause them to be accepted and maintained even by the unenlightened. They must include a subversive element that will chip away at rigid assumptions and speak directly to those who are prepared to break free of their cultural conditioning. And they must contain coded information that will provide those few with clues on how to further the great project of humanization.

One approach would be to wean your fellows away from their animal instincts by introducing norms of civilized behavior. It’s no accident that the Dreamtime stories describe the First Ancestor as a culture bringer who introduced the arts of music, dance, and story and laid down taboos regarding food and sex.

But that in itself would not produce the freedom of thought and action that comes from standing outside the structure of things-as-they-are and perceiving it as contingent and malleable. To accomplish that, you’d need to do something more radical. You’d have to take command of the collective vision from which your culture draws its sense of reality and deliberately dislocate it with glitches and internal contradictions.

Dreamtime stories also describe the First Ancestor as a trickster — and the trickster is the original culture hacker. His outrageous pranks violate our norms of permissible behavior, shake up our sense of what is possible, and cast doubt on everything we know. Trickster stories have been passed down for ten thousand generations precisely because of their undiminished ability to baffle and disconcert.

But the trickster’s deconstruction of reality does not merely fuel skepticism about the validity of our beliefs. It also literally reprograms our brains, increasing their receptivity to higher knowledge.

When I’ve written here about higher knowledge, I’ve tended to describe it in terms of sudden intuitive flashes that seem to come out of nowhere. However, these insights rarely arrive unbidden. Most frequently, they are the result of wrestling with a problem to which there is no obvious, rational answer.

By engaging with problems of that sort and handling them successfully, we gain a increased willingness to trust our intuitive judgments. And the more fully we open ourselves to the insights of higher knowledge, the more likely we become to identify ourselves as agents of a higher reality, with a dedication to transforming ourselves and the world around us.

However, this shift in perception will never happen if we are convinced that we and the elders of our society already know all there is to know. We have to start off with a belief system that is leaky enough to offer unsolved problems and reasons for skepticism. There have to be gaps in our knowledge and mutually exclusive answers to basic questions if we are to move beyond the dead end of intellectual certitude.

And if those gaps aren’t there to begin with, we need the services of a trickster to introduce them.

Half a million years ago, our prehuman ancestors may have been similar to Neanderthals, who lived in small family groups and rarely left their home valleys. Under those conditions, any holes in the group reality would have been minor and easily ignored. But over time we developed longer legs and greater social skills. We traveled further and were on friendlier terms with the neighbors — and that meant we were more likely to encounter unfamiliar situations and people whose ideas of things were different from our own.

When this threatened to overturn our primal sense of a single, unbroken reality, we responded by improving our language skills and story-telling abilities and using them to create a more expansive belief system that could incorporate a broader range of experiences.

Of course, this expanded consensus didn’t actually get rid of the glitches and contradictions. It provided a certain space for “I don’t know but I been told,” and that enabled most people to keep on believing that their central assumptions were solid and airtight. But it always left room for doubt — doubt that eventually struck the right person in just the right way and awakened the First Ancestor to a realization of his or her true nature.

And once that happened, it was like introducing a computer virus into the system. The First Ancestor started telling stories that were so bizarre and yet so strangely compelling that they were quickly pasted into the communal belief structure without anyone quite realizing what was happening.

Some of these were trickster stories, ranging from simple jokes to extended sequences of outlandish japes and mishaps. But others, I suspect, were similar to the stories we know today as urban legends.

Urban legends have two distinguishing characteristics. One is that they are typically told as having been witnessed by a friend-of-a-friend. They are not set in a mythic past but are passed off as something that occurred not very long ago or far away. That means they are easily pasted into people’s assumptions about the way the world really works.

The other is that most of them are intended to be unsettling. These are the stories twelve year olds tell around a campfire in hopes of making the surrounding darkness seem threatening and creepy. Stories of midnight encounters with ghosts or spirits. Stories of monsters lurking in the bush to maim or kill the unwary. Stories about giant spiders and the corpses of dead grandmothers and other sources of fear and loathing.

Stories like these are two-edged. On one hand, they reinforce the existing social order by serving as object lessons in what happens to those who violate its customs and taboos. But they also project a tantalizing sense of the uncanny. They shake the nerves and rattle the brain — and for some few, they point in the direction of higher possibility.

Urban legends can easily go viral, and present-day debunking mechanisms did not exist 400,000 years ago. As more and more such stories entered the collective belief system, it grew increasingly leaky and open-ended. However, not everyone would have been equipped to handle that leakiness.

Even today, a lot of people want nothing more than to do things by the numbers and be told what to believe and how to act. They are uncomfortable with the disruptive power of higher knowledge, and even if you hit them over the head with stories about long-ago prophets who shook up the established order, they’ll ignore the shaking-up part and turn the prophets into one more source of rigid authority. These people are commonly described as “conservatives.”

There is another large group of people, often labeled “liberals,” who display a greater tolerance for ambiguity and contradiction and enjoy having their expectations challenged and trying new things. But even liberals tend to revert to the old rigidities if they feel threatened. All you have to do is bomb Pearl Harbor or demolish the World Trade Center and they obediently fall into line.

Then there is a third subset, consisting of those with the greatest resistance to prevailing group-think. Some of these will never be more than diehard cynics, but other will have the courage and determination to follow the trail of clues planted within their own cultural institutions until they find themselves standing in the footsteps of the First Ancestor. At that point, they gain the perceptiveness to add their own adjustments to the great project of humanization.

Most of those adjustments are fairly trivial, but periodically the system reaches a crisis point where major alterations become essential.

There are several ways a belief system can fall into crisis. It can become overly rigid to the point where it starts closing down options and burning heretics at the stake. It can become excessively leaky, so that society is thrown into a state of extreme skepticism and positive action becomes impossible. Or it can break apart into factions, each of which sees itself as guardians of the truth and is prepared to go to war against all the others.

Each of these things has happened many times in the course of history, and they continue to happen today. But such crises are also valuable. They provide an opportunity to not only restore the social fabric but actively upgrade the project launched by the First Ancestor.

And that periodic upgrading may be what ultimately drives the cycle of visions. Each new vision serves to reconcile the social divisions created by the visions before it — but it is able to do so only by providing a deeper sense of what it means to be truly human and a broader understanding of our collective destiny.

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2 Responses to “Culture Hacking at the Dawn of Time”

  1. Cheryl says:

    fascinating. the first person to become aware of being aware. What do you think of Julian Jaynes’ book/theory The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind? here’s an interesting introduction:

    • Cory Panshin says:

      I thoroughly despise it. It’s the only book I ever had to stop reading because otherwise I would have thrown it against a wall — and I couldn’t do that because it was a library copy. I think it was when he started calling the Homeric Greeks “noble robots” that I really lost it.

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