Human 2.0 Project

Permanence * Adventure * Culture

Human Metamorphosis

2014-02-01 00:00:00 Erik Lee

We are constantly surrounded by a sea of influence. All six of Cialdini's weapons of influence [1] are at work, shaping our behavior, all the time. This is a natural and vital part of being in a society with other people, even if it seems like some kind of dark, sinister plot at times. There's an important time when this is a real problem though - the time of transition between child and adult.

As kids grow up, the people around them (parents, friends, teachers) build up models of them, so that they know what to expect. Some of these models are incredibly intricate, like a parent who knows that her child would be fine if the mashed potatoes touch the meat, but not if they touch the greens. Over time, these models build into a massive infrastructure of expectations that are constantly and unconsciously applied to the child. However, kids outgrow expectations, which causes a problem. You get older, and suddenly it's irritating to have your parents constantly back-seat driving for you, because first of all you want some autonomy, and secondly, you're not a kid any more! Cialdini calls these "weapons of influence" for a reason - it's incredibly difficult to lose this baggage and win your full rights as an independent person while you're swimming in the soup the expectations of everyone around you. The child has become a new person, bottled up in an increasinly ill-fitting shell by friends and family. Pressure builds, and it eventually leads to fighting or resignation unless the bottled person is allowed out of confinement.

Escape By Metamorphosis

This is where the metamorphosis comes in. The human metamorphosis process is mostly a social process, where the old ideas of who you are and what you do are shed both by you and by the society around you. You are allowed to grow into a new identity that matches who you've become through your experiences. Many (most?) traditional societies have a coming-of-age process, where the children go in, do some stuff, and come out as "official" adults. The particular stuff that's done probably isn't very important - what's important is that there is a culture-wide agreement that the people who come out of the coming-of-age are not the same as the people who went in. They are now autonomous, independent people with the full rights of adulthood. It's a way to draw a line in the sand and get everyone to stop unconsciously trampling their autonomy, without having a series of big fights about it. I think that this process is crucial for becoming a fully-independent, functional human being, and you've probably already guessed that I also think we're Doing It Wrong as a culture today.

College isn't quite it

The closest thing I can think of to a coming-of-age process that's pretty universal in our culture is the time when kids are shipped off to college. It's a legitimate change, and it works out... partly. When you go to college, you're taken out of your standard group of friends and you leave family behind, so all of that social pressure to stay the same goes away. You're free to shed the baggage of your old child identity and become your new adult self, at least while you're away. The problem is that when you get back, unless you have some very unusual friends and family, they're going to expect you to be the same person you were when you left. It's a recipe for friction and sometimes disaster. If college was officially a coming of age in our culture, it would be great; it has all of the necessary ingredients (isolation, growth, reintroduction).

A Model for the Human 2.0 Project

There are still some subcultures in our greater culture that do a better job of this. One that comes to mind is the Mormon religion (no, I'm not Mormon). They have a custom that dictates that males will go out on a "mission" for a few years when they turn 18. Their stated purpose is to try to convert other people to the faith, but I think what's more important is that they're expected to do it on their own (without parents), and to survive on the kindness and generosity of others. This is a life-changing experience, and upon their return they are expected to be full-blown heads of household with all the rights and responsibilities of the position. So, they have the experience away from the power of social proof, authority, and consistency, and when they return their culture has agreed to respect the changes wrought during that period. As a concept, it's a powerful metamorphosis process.

If we bring the vision of diverse, independent communities of the Human 2.0 Project to fruition, it will give us an amazing opportunity for including metamorphosis in our culture on a wide scale. The atmosphere of these communities will be one of exploration, excitement, and progress, and they will all be unique. Different places will specialize and focus on different things unlike today's world where most places in a given nation are approximately the same. When our kids reach the age when it becomes important to let them exercise their own identity, they can go for a sojourn, traveling to other communities in other places. They will learn about them and becoming familiar with their ways, and at the same time they'll be spreading the ways of home. This will accomplish two important things: first, it fulfills the need for metamorphosis; second, it keeps the communities connected to each other in a vital way, and ensures that ideas spread and cultures grow and change. I think that one of the biggest failings that can happen when a community is established is to assume (or worse, require) that the kids will stay put. This gets to be an awful burden on them, eventually driving them out just so that they can become their own independent people, and the result is that the community dies after a generation or two. Vitality comes from diversity and change, and I think it can be baked into the culture if a conscious choice is made to respect and develop a metamorphosis process that brings them together while respecting their differences.

1) Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

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