Cones of Sand or Sand Castles?
Some years ago, on a beach, making a programme for the BBC, Brian Cox, he of ‘Everything that can Happen does Happen’ fame, had a sand castle and a pile of sand set up next to one another to ask a fundamental question of the Universe — Which one, the castle or the pile, is the more stable?
Montaigne, the French essayist, wrote:-
‘…in whatever position they are placed, men pile up and arrange themselves by moving and shuffling, just as a group of objects thrown into a bag find their own way to join and fit together, often better than they could have been arranged deliberately’
What Montaigne does not mention is he wrote this from a very privileged position. Here lies the rub; for all our talk of democracy and granting all, all, people voice and influence, there are some, the few, and possibly becoming fewer, who have a greater say. Have the ability to muscle to the top of the bag again and again.
Brian Cox’s example is one where he asked –
Which is more stable: the cone of sand or the sand castle?
Scoop sand up into a pile, it makes a natural cone does it not? Now get the bucket and spade out and build a castle, fetch the water to assist the sand to stick together in what, for the sand, is unnatural. Looks fantastic. Will swiftly be a few children to come and say ‘Wow’. A boy, almost inevitably a boy, will wait till no one is looking and blast the biggest tower just to shout Aaaah! As he knocks it down.
Let us add in Edmond Burke’s insights from two centuries ago — alas, despite the advances in infrastructure of all types, Burke’s words resonate:
‘…government and legislation are matters of reason and judgment, and not of inclination; and what sort of reason is that, in which the determination precedes the discussion; in which one set of men deliberate, and another decide; and where those who form the conclusion are perhaps three hundred miles distant from those who hear the arguments?’
Politicians, and more so the international community, seeing the past as means to build the future must now consider their castle building on sandy beaches.
Can politics learn from wider science beyond psephology? More importantly, can governance learn from science?
This is not about political soothsaying and goes beyond psephology related data analysis we are witnessing now. The fallout from the yea or nay ‘BREXIT vote, the data and discussion in the light of more recent votes for politiicans, and the debates around democracy and popularism have highlighted the power of new forms of media. What has clearly changed is the distance factor Burke spoke on. Three hundred miles is nothing for many of us now; for others, it remains a distance far greater than they will travel (physically) from their place of birth throughout their lifetime. There is a proliferation of anecdotes about influence on governance as families have spread across the Globe and are connected economically, socially and, increasingly, politically. We are interconnected, we are aware of so much and have so many influences on our lives and yet political systems do not appear to have come to terms with the lessons apparent from developments on society, governance and science. Yes, politicians are using the sciences underpinning new marketing and related data mining; it appears to only perpetuate the current settings. We are not seeing the necessary challenges to these current settings.
Sand castle building is great fun; how many of us have also dug the moat around them and bailed water helplessly as we protect our, our children’s and even grandchildren’s, creative endeavours? The inevitable happens as the tide rushes on through and we join Canute in retiring to a chair to argue no more with the inevitability of Mother Nature and the ebbs and flows of her cycles. Even as we have profound effect on the planet in the Anthropocene age, the Earth acts and reacts, possibly, to cause us to realise we are sand castle building and these sand castles are doomed unless we realise we need a paradigm shift in what, and how, we are building.
Some will already be arguing along the tides and sand castle analogy: Use different technology and we can defeat the tides. Doubtful. The Dutch are the masters and mistresses of managing tidal and riverine flows. Do they argue with them? No, they have employed foresight. Then continual maintenance and future thinking is required to ensure capital works stay ahead not of averages and ideals but the practical realities of ebbs and flows, maximums and minimums: Extremes. The reality of working not against nature, but with nature knowing the inevitability of arguing with open systems.
Social systems are possibly the ultimate open systems since people will act as individuals. An open system is one where energy comes in from outside and so is constantly changing, evolving or degrading, always changing. People are not grains of sand; they are individuals who will change shape in terms of opinion, willingness to act in this or that manner. Unlike grains of sand, they act on each other; allowing people who have the means to influence to create sand castles and maintain castles where tides of change should have reshaped if not transformed these edifices in the face of differing ebbs and flows in societal currents.
Those with power and influence have continued to be at the top of Montaigne’s bag.
The way forward has to be change; not evolution as a sand castle will remain a sand castle even with the odd bit of cement thrown into the mix. We need a recalibration of all things governance to reflect the open (social) system, the new age of inclusion through technology and the need to re-engage for us to feel equality of opportunity if not address the inequity we now have.
The United Kingdom looks decidedly disunited with its governance structures seemingly out of touch with people. Across Europe we have seen political changes in a number of countries. Perhaps, the European Commission with its layers of technocracy will review political integration at all levels? Interestingly there are notable exceptions where a steady course is being followed, perhaps, because there is an understanding of the physics in stability? Whilst there are notable people in, say Germany, the breadth and depth in the management of politics is founded in a social structure more akin to the sand cone than the sand castle.
The interconnectivity within structures is far more akin to the cone than the castle. Simple geometry of building cones or pyramids — respect the symmetry required to have a stable structure. Surely better than castles with Byzantine sweeps requiring constant maintenance if, big IF, the foundations are solid? Alas, numerous flaws in our political sand castle foundations are marked now.
Presently we continue to talk cone or pyramid development but insist on continuing to want castles — or at least the majority of us are told we want sand castles by those at the top of the bag, those in the minarets of the sand castles. Within these castle structures with their systems, then synchronicity reinforces the ability of the system to find a status quo, a set of relationships it will not change out of unless an external force acts on it to do so. We are being marketed a sand castle by clever people manipulating what we think we want and need.
Elements of synchronicity, sync, we have reinforced in the name of connectivity. We are apt to discuss things, ad infinitum, because, perhaps, institutional memory is wanting or hierarchal amnesia is practiced. As people, our own shortage of memory as promises are made and never honoured by generation after generation of politicians. Social media possibly acts to hide this by both broadcasting and then narrowing our views; how often will your circuit of friends create anything other than sync in your own opinion?
In conflict-affected states, we have clustering within security zones akin to the medieval castles our sand castles are modelled on. Such places then present connectivity between the like minded thus mutually reinforcing the setting, the syncing, and maintenance of the status quo. This phenomenon has insidiously crept back throughout all our societies where the threat of terrorism is continually paraded as the reason for ever-greater distance between the governing and the governed.
There are people who have continued to campaign for greater accountability; in the last month we have witnessed the commemoration of the murder of Jo Cox; a UK Member of Parliament, a campaigner and person seeking to stay in-touch with people to deliver something back into the rarefied political syncing circuits. Alas, the negative elements of sync create mind-sets and the manipulation of those struggling within themselves to find a place in society; it could be argued Jo was a victim of such a person, of such circumstances. Leaders, whether in a sustainable cone or in the present sand castle environment must realise what their words and actions can countenance in others.
The pile of sand Brian Cox built with his hands had symmetry. The symmetry of the grains coming together in a structure they were able to sit within given the Fellow of the Royal Society’s external forces; his hands gently piling the sand. A cone, with its wide base and a peak where no one-grain of sand, could clearly be seen to be above all others. In terms of us people, then we have choices: stay in sand castle mode and wait for the tide to come in or create our own external force to cause the changes for greater stability? All us people are a little different in shape and will shake ourselves to fit well in Montaigne’s bag; what we have to do is ensure we do fit together and press for real change to systems reflecting those at the top, remain at the top. We have opportunity to have new forms of governance for far greater stability because it is ‘we’ and not ‘us’ and ‘them’ — all in a cone and feeling a sense of togetherness, responsibility and accountability not apparent with the present distance between decision makers and those impacted by decisions.