Friday, March 09, 2007

Ultimately, monopolies fail...

An essay by Barry Smith argues that attempts to dictate our tastes, our preference, our culture, our media, our political policies, or moral choices are bound in the end to fail because of the basic nature of our human cognition.
...Restless creatures that we are, we seek out variety and difference, opportunities to extend the scope of our thinking and to exercise discrimination and taste. This may make us hard to satisfy, but, ultimately, it is this lack of satisfaction that leads to progress and spells the end of hegemonies in ideology, religion, or science...I am optimistic that people who are fed a constant diet of the same ideas, the same foods, the same TV programmes, the same religious or political dogmas will eventually come to consider other possibilities...The lesson is already being learned in the corporate world where monopolies try to cope with this by diversifying their range of services. Their chance of survival will depend on how cynically or sincerely they respond to this restless aspect of the human mind.

Human cognition depends on change and movement in order to function. Evolution has built us this way. Try staring at a blank wall for several seconds without blinking and you will find the image eventually bleaching until you can see nothing. The eye’s visual workings respond to movement and change. So too do the other parts of our cognitive systems. Feed them the same inputs successively and they cease to produce very much worth having as output. Like the shark in water, we need to keep moving or, cognitively, we die.

...there is a paradox in our nature and our restless search for change. For unless we countenance change for change’s sake, or the relativist doctrine that anything goes (—and I don’t) how do we preserve the very best of our thinking, select better quality experiences, and maintain our purposes, directions and values? How do we avoid losing sight of older wisdom while rushing towards something new? It is here, perhaps, that our need for variation and discrimination serves us best. For the quick and gimmicky, the superficially appealing but weakest objects of our thinking or targets of desire will also be the least substantial and have an essential blandness that can tire us quickly. Besides, the more experience we have, the larger the background against which to compare and judge the worth or quality of what is newly encountered, and to decide if it will be ultimately rewarding. Certainly, people can be fickle or stubborn, but they are seldom fickle or stubborn for long. They will seek out better, according to what they are presently capable of responding to, and they will be dissatisfied by something not worthy of the attention they are capable of. For this reason attempts to dictate their tastes, cultural goods, ideologies or ideas are bound in the end to fail, and about that, and despite of many dark forces around us, I am optimistic.

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