A question that has proved vexatious over the past few years: is it better to do as you please in life, or sacrifice yourself to help others?

Equally relevant is the side question, “does art really matter at all?”

Answers: The dichotomy in the first question — selfishness versus selflessness — is false, and art may be the only road to creating a scientifically-literate society.

There are more enough self-help gurus in the world today. Many ventures of dubious value tend to adopt the glossy show-business angle of selling a “new you”, from entreprenuerial religious figures to celebrities shilling for the pharmaceutical industry.

Everyone wants to change the world in some way, usually starting with you.

If there are so many “success” gurus and self-declared “experts” giving inspirational TED talks about your awesome brain, how is it possible that we’re not all gorgeous happy millionaires by now? Shouldn’t the privileged one-percent have edged at least somewhat closer to being the “self-made hundred percent”?

One answer is that the game is rigged to keep almost everyone at the bottom. This is obviously part of the problem.

The other part is that humans refuse to learn.

If you want to have an impact in the world, you have to effect change in the behavior of others. The fabeled “neuroplasticity” touted ad infinitum by the TED talkers is essentially fancy jargon for a very old and pragmatic word: that word is “learning”.

And learning, especially learning anything worthwhile, is hard.

It’s no surprise, then, that you can practically hear the doors of young minds closing somewhere in the early-to-middle teen years. Schools are partly to blame, as anyone who has been to school in the current system knows. The other problem is a social one, or perhaps more accurately, a psychosocial one.

Think back to when you were in your mid-teens. What was happening around that time? People around you were starting to have (lots of) sex, everyone seemed to be in a rush to create an identity and become part of some clique or other, and suddenly you realized that you were old enough to start making money. Money meant that you could get more of the things that led to sex with desirable partners. Money also could enable buying objects that could help you “fit in” better — clothes, a car, gadgets and pocket money for “cool” things like drugs and partying.

The new sexual compulsions and socially-facilitated greed eventually forms a belief system that congeals later into a nearly cultish consumerist mentality. Get rich, get laid, and get more-better-newer stuff than your peers: this is the new value system that replaces the curiosities and desires of an otherwise intelligent and inquisitive child.

By the time the average kid leaves high school, the pattern is set. Sex, greed, and the obsession for egotistical social dominance become reframed as “being a grown-up”. The rat race is mistaken for what it means to live a “normal” life.

I used to vacillate between the idea of becoming a scientist or engineer, versus an inclination toward artistic pursuits. Who made a stronger contribution to society: Einstein or Mozart? Amelia Earhart or Britney Spears (I mean, Christina Aguilera)? Alexander Graham Bell or Sidney Poitier and Jay-Z?

Again, the dichotomy is false, because the constraints arbitrarily focus on the wrong set of options.

The predominant myth of modern society is the “self-made” person. It’s a variant of the “rags to riches” story that leads poor people to dream about being filthy (as in, wealthy) in the most short-sighted and cutthroat ways. The only way to be “exceptional” is to be better than everyone else — or to steal their share in a zero-sum game. And there can only be a very small percentage gloating at the top of any given population.

Accordingly, we have fairly boilerplate mythologies spun around people like Einstein, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs. The same is true for cultural icons like millionaire actors, platinum-selling rockstars and mixtape-famous rappers. Have you ever stopped and listened to the strangely similar plot points in the hagiographies of your favorite cultural superheroes? We’ve had the equivalent of Photoshopped photos long before software nipped, tucked, deleted, fuzzed and pushed pixels into pleasantly implausible shapes. The “genius” illusion is one that has inspired confused adoration and misplaced idealism (eventually giving way to cynical disillusionment) in young people for generations.

So you _still_ want to change the world…

If you want to change the world, you first have to accept the fact that you most likely will not change the world. Denial of reality leads to the distortion or willful ignorance of empirical facts. If you become some kind of persuasive zealot or denialist manic attempting to fulfill a titanic vision, the likely outcome is its opposite. Hubris leads to the de-valuing of others, which leads to ruthlessness and corruption. Even religions that emphasise pacifist ideals like “turn the other cheek” can be misused by their adherents to justify murder and genocide. The idea of a “superman” reliably creates secular religions that rationalize the displacement and destruction of anyone who is different or raises a voice of dissent.

I realize now that mobilization of a population is far more powerful and important than any individual.

Rather that one “genius” Einstein, imagine an entire society of people who are scientifically literate. Instead of one brilliant Bill Gates, imagine a culture that valued rationality and sought practical solutions for a better life both at home and abroad.

There could be thousands of young Einsteins and Gateses who never learn to care about science and technology until it’s too late — instead, they waste their professional lives building high-tech toys, privacy-destroying “social networks” and schemes to con people into clicking on ads.

To change the world, young children are really the only ones who can be trusted to learn anything at all. Adults are almost invariably trapped in the so-called “grown-up” world of sexual obsession (prudes and perverts alike), tribalistic religiosity (from organized religion to mass consumerism) and twisted irrational thinking (from lionizing corporate greed to normalizing the “fat acceptance” movement).

The only real hope may be to use art — music, films, novels, video games and other storytelling media — inviting and seducing the audience to seek a different path. Replace the dysfunctional melodrama of narcissistic self-indulgence with the lifelong beauty of seeking truth in the real Universe.

Forget the idolatry of Einstein and the pseudo-prophetic proclamations by clever self-promoters like Elon Musk. To massively change the world, society can shift in relatively small ways. Waiting for a benevolent billionaire to hand us our future is undoubtedly the worst of all possible capitalist worlds. Trying to re-make the world in our image is not only futile, it’s a power fantasy that leads to immorality and murder.

What’s most amazing is that nearly no one seems to have tried this truly revolutionary idea: use art as a means of seducing society to become more rationally-minded and scientifically inclined rather than less.

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