Wednesday, August 31, 2016

On Adventure and Civilization

"Without adventure civilization is in full decay." Alfred North Whitehead

I heard this quote over the weekend for the first time.  It resonated with me deeply and in a flash brought to mind another potential cause of the world we live in today.

(The following, of course, is my own interpretation.  Your North Whitehead mileage or original intent may vary).

Whitehead is linking the existence of adventure to civilization avoiding full decay.  What is his proposed linkage?  What does adventure do that would halt decay of a civilization, that would act as a preservative?

It is not as if we do not crave adventure as a people, at least in the Western World.  But I think we substitute other things for it - for example, we replace "entertainment" instead of adventure and call it good.  But entertainment is a passive activity, something that we consume as we would a meal, the world revolving around us.

Adventure is outward looking.  It is something that we seek.  At one time adventure (perhaps) represented the great unknown, the "Here There Be Monsters" parts of the map, the calling of the new and strange that had not been seen and experienced.

Today we try to find this in other ways.  We create lands of imagination online or in video game platforms that are we understand to be places of adventure or places that we long to go but could never reach because they simply are not real.  We create challenging physical events (Obstacle Course Races) or intense physical challenges to places we do not live in (insert your favorite run/climb/ride/event here).

Which, as I write, captures a second element of adventure.  Challenge - we are challenged when adventure, often physically, sometimes mentally.  It forces us to do more, to be more, than we ever would be if we just remained at home.

Another thing that adventure does is that it builds community.  Whether explorers of old or MMORPG and physical challengers of today, adventure is done in community (yes, even trappers had to talk to others from time to time).  We associate at fist and then build bonds with those whom we are doing something with.

Compare that to those that live without adventure.  They are inward looking - not introspective per se but rather looking no further than the reach of their arm.  They are not seeking anything beyond day to day existence (the entertainment consumption mentioned above).  There is no challenge because there is no seeking beyond the challenge of every day life, which truly can be challenging but also is as a long slow grind.  And without challenge and seeking they can seek inward rather than seeking to build their own communities.  Life has become about self, bounded in only by my perceived needs of comfort.

A society like that becomes staid and placid, perhaps not outwardly "in decay" but certainly not advancing.  The world outside tends to get forgotten and ignored as long as my circle of life is okay.  And those that seek adventure come to be seen as "unusual" or even "disruptive" and "dreamers.".  The Shire, to those of you that have read The Lord of The Rings,, can represent this sort of thinking.

In the past, of course, the adventurers set off to find new lands or new adventures.  There are no new lands left to find and space travel still seems somewhat years beyond our lifetime.  So if we want to combat decay, how do we insert adventure back into the fabric of our civilization?  How do we transfer what in the past has been a largely physical and geographical activity (and as humans, we are both physical and geographic in nature) to other realms?  That may be one of the great questions of our time.

Because it strikes me that adventure without purpose becomes entertainment, entertainment becomes consumption, and consumption draws us directly back into the land of decay, no more than a societal substrate consuming and then in turn being consumed by others for their entertainment purposes.

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