OK. How do YOU define who you are?
And once you have defined it, how do you maintain it?
Fungible is a legal and economic term describing a good or a commodity whose individual units are essentially interchangeable. Fungibility helps manage risk. If you are a unique individual working for me, and you leave in the middle of a project, I have a problem. If you are fungible, I can just find another project manager. No problem.
Perhaps a good example is in how fast coding has become commoditized. And, even more- pointedly in its’ consequences — how fast data is being commoditized?
Of course, both of these products — once hand crafted and intensely personal- need to be transformed by mass production techniques to serve the final industrialisation process- that of the human mind as machine.
And I am not talking about Artificial Intelligence. That would be boring. I am talking about the end of human autonomy, and an underpinning social functioning which seems to have much more longstanding antecedents.
So how much of a commodity do you think you are?
And how much time and effort have you spent making yourself different?
But not too different.
Of course, this started a while ago with mass production methods in education. You sit, bored out of you mind in a classroom surrounded by other bored children like yourself, and watch- bemused- as a teacher tries to make stuff “interesting” and “engaging”. You know, a lot like the Internet.
These are the technologies of Fordism which mean that when we go out we are largely all wearing the same clothes, and when we sit down to dinner, we are eating the same food. And we produce the same boring conversations with our boring friends. We go to the same boring locations for holidays, and sit through the same boring experiences. We read boring books and watch — increasingly- boring films which are generally reruns of stuff we have seen before. We post stuff about ourselves on FB, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and LI in a vain attempt not to be seen as boring.
An attempt to be…different.
And it’s getting harder. The pressure to conform is increasing.
In 1709, Bernard de Mandeville wrote a story about people- thinly disguised — as bees who live in a massive beehive. The metaphorical hive is a thriving community, respected by rival beehives, but populated by bees that show the same nastiness as humans. And just like humans, the bees are skilled in disguising their bad behaviour as both justified and — therefore -good.
One day, divine intervention occurs, and all the bees in the hive suddenly see through their pretensions to virtue, and the vice that pervades their behaviour becomes obvious. No longer able to live with their ‘real’ natures the bees embark on a new age in which every action is scrupulously examined to ascertain its basis in vicious motives- and change bad to good. The colony becomes a resolutely moral place: consultants, doctors and lawyers repent, the bees lose all sense of vanity and selfishness, and workers who are not performing socially responsible and competent work voluntarily switch to more virtuous and kindly endeavours.
Trouble is that the beehive — which interestingly seems to have formed some of Adam Smith’s thinking on economics-becomes boring. Everyone knows their place. The autonomy — difference and self-determination- which lead to conflict has been eliminated. But if difference is dead, so is creativity, innovation and novelty.
And whilst it would be a grave mistake to believe that conflict and threat is the only activator of human autonomy, it certainly helps.
There seems to be some agreement that the concept– or at least no word for -autonomy existed before the fifth century BCE, and that the events that required the coining of a new term took place in the same century. There are two different perspectives. The first suggests that the original appearance is in 446 BCE when autonomia was recognized in Aegina through the peace treaty between Sparta and Athens that ended the 30 Years’ War.The second is that autonomia had already been used in 480 to 479 BCE within the context of the Greco- Persian wars as related by Herodotus when Xerxes communicates to Mardonius that the Athenians must recover their own territory and add those who wish to be autonomoi. Thucydides also relates how, in 429 BCE, Platea made clear to the Spartan judges that Pausanias, at the end of the Greco- Persian wars, gave back to the Plateans their own land and possessions to benefit from autonomously.
So are you an autonomous human? Or are you a fungible bee? And how do you make the difference work?