Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypoth­e­sis. There are moments in his­to­ry when the sta­tus quo fails. Political sys­tems prove insuf­fi­cient, reli­gious ideas unsat­is­fac­to­ry, social struc­tures intol­er­a­ble. These are moments of crisis. 

Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into con­ver­sa­tion and torn apart inher­it­ed ideas, dethron­ing truths, com­bin­ing old thoughts, and cre­at­ing new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future generations.

Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours war­rant The Conversation? If they do, is it happening?

Anderson: We’ll be explor­ing these sorts of ques­tions through con­ver­sa­tions with a cross-section of American thinkers, peo­ple who are cri­tiquing some aspect of nor­mal­i­ty and offer­ing an alter­na­tive vision of the future. People who might be hav­ing The Conversation.

Saul: Like a real con­ver­sa­tion, this project is going to be sub­jec­tive. It will fre­quent­ly change direc­tions, con­nect unex­pect­ed ideas, and wan­der between the tan­gi­ble and the abstract. It will leave us with far more ques­tions than answers because after all, nobody has a monop­oly on dream­ing about the future.

Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re lis­ten­ing to The Conversation.

Aengus Anderson: Well, Micah’s off work­ing, so Neil and I are going to cov­er this one for you.

Neil Prendergast: It’s good to be back. I feel like I’ve been gone a lit­tle bit recent­ly, so it’s good to be back in the swing of things.

Anderson: Well, you guys oscil­late back and forth, one tak­ing one episode, one tak­ing the next episode. It’s sort of like a sine wave.

Prendergast: Yeah. And it’s not like we are try­ing to avoid each oth­er. We actu­al­ly get along quite well. Just sort of been the the recent pat­tern for rea­sons of circumstance.

Anderson: Or maybe it’s just that sine waves are inevitable and they’re nat­u­ral­ly reoc­cur­ring. And every­one of course is going to be won­der­ing why the hell I keep talk­ing about sine waves. And you’ll dis­cov­er, because I’m fore­shad­ow­ing today’s conversation. 

And today’s con­ver­sa­tion is with Chris Carter. He’s the founder of MASS Collective down in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s this incred­i­ble learn­ing space. If you imag­ine this gigan­tic, beau­ti­ful old brick build­ing filled with every sort of cre­ative thing you can imag­ine, and peo­ple there to help you use them and learn with them, that’s kind of what MASS Collective is.

We want­ed to talk to Chris because he’s kind of cre­at­ed a dif­fer­ent edu­ca­tion­al mod­el and also, he’s gone through the tra­di­tion­al edu­ca­tion­al mod­el and dropped out. It did­n’t work for him. Taught him­self elec­tri­cal engi­neer­ing, he’s real­ly a kind of pull your­self up by your own boot­straps guy, and then cre­at­ed a space where peo­ple could learn in the way that he’d always want­ed to learn.

Chris Carter: The idea behind MASS Collective actu­al­ly start­ed rather organ­i­cal­ly. My back­ground is in physics and elec­tri­cal engi­neer­ing. And I real­ly, through­out the course of var­i­ous dif­fer­ent friend­ships, fell in love with art and with music and with a lot of cre­ative endeav­ors that were out­side of my own. And I began to real­ize that the same insan­i­ty that drove me was the very same thing dri­ving my friends. And once we start­ed sort of col­lab­o­rat­ing on projects togeth­er, we found a kind of com­mon lan­guage through what we were work­ing on that allowed us to kind of learn from one anoth­er. And it was this very inter­est­ing apprenticeship-style learn­ing. It was some­thing that I had­n’t real­ly expe­ri­enced before. 

When you talk about learn­ing and tra­di­tion­al edu­ca­tion­al styles, there’s this very com­mon incli­na­tion to try and force infor­ma­tion upon peo­ple rather than hav­ing them just kind of dis­cov­er it of their own voli­tion or dis­cov­er it by acci­dent. And that was sort of the style that my own learn­ing came from, this acci­den­tal discovery.

I real­ly want­ed an envi­ron­ment where this com­mon lan­guage that my friends and I had cre­at­ed through appli­ca­tion of infor­ma­tion could be applied and could kind of be in a way stan­dard­ized, but stan­dard­ized in its lack of stan­dard­iza­tion, I suppose? 

Anderson: That’s real­ly intrigu­ing. And you men­tioned com­mon lan­guage, which is of course—that’s one of the big cur­rents in this conversation…

Carter: Right.

Anderson: But I’m real­ly inter­est­ed in what you and your friends were estab­lish­ing as a com­mon language.

Carter: So, we would work on var­i­ous dif­fer­ent projects, every­thing from… I had friends who were sculp­tors who want­ed to start pro­duc­ing kinet­ic sculp­tures. And I would help them out with the elec­tri­cal and mechan­i­cal engi­neer­ing aspects of that. And in turn, I would get this very inti­mate view of the process of sculp­ture, some­thing that was com­plete­ly for­eign to me. And because we were tak­ing the infor­ma­tion and direct­ly try­ing to apply it to this project at hand, it became very valu­able and very relevant. 

So, MASS Collective is actu­al­ly an acronym. It’s Music, Art, Science, Social Collective. And the idea is to sort of encour­age peo­ple to take on projects that are out­side of their com­fort zone, that are out­side of what they would per­ceive as their own area of spe­cial­ty. And do so moti­vat­ed pure­ly by their own cre­ativ­i­ty. So we ask that peo­ple just dream big and then fig­ure it out as they go along.

It’s also there to func­tion as a pub­lic work­space. One of the dif­fi­cul­ties in this style of learn­ing is that there’s a lot of infra­struc­ture. There’s a lot of phys­i­cal infra­struc­ture that’s required. You can’t real­ly talk about wood­work­ing, as an exam­ple, unless you have wood­work­ing equip­ment at hand. So we’ve tried to be as thor­ough as pos­si­ble in set­ting up the facil­i­ty that cov­ers the basics. We have every­thing from a wet lab which hous­es bio­chem­istry and chem­istry to pho­tog­ra­phy labs, ceram­ic stu­dios, tex­tiles stu­dios, music record­ing stu­dios. A machine shop. I mean, the list goes on and on. And the space itself is actu­al­ly designed in such a way where we encour­age peo­ple to kind of peer over one anoth­er’s shoul­ders and see what’s going on. We see our­selves as fill­ing the gap between tra­di­tion­al acad­e­mia and apprenticeship-style education.

Anderson: What is it about tan­gi­ble… The kind of hands-on qual­i­ty of this that works bet­ter? And what are its limits?

Carter: Well, its lim­i­ta­tions obvi­ous­ly are that it’s very dif­fi­cult to grasp abstrac­tions. It’s viewed cur­rent­ly as being sup­ple­men­tal to the sort of abstrac­tions that you’re pre­sent­ed in tra­di­tion­al acad­e­mia. So we in no way mean for this to, at least ini­tial­ly, replace some tra­di­tion­al form of education.

Anderson: What do you lose when you don’t have access to this stuff? A lot of peo­ple breeze through the edu­ca­tion sys­tem, and they’re con­cerned with oth­er things. Testing, admis­sions to colleges…

Carter: Right.

Anderson: Careers, salaries, things like that. Why should we know this stuff?

Carter: Well, I don’t think nec­es­sar­i­ly that you need to know any bio­chem­i­cal tech­nique. But more­over, it’s the sen­ti­ment that you can con­tin­ue learn­ing things which are beyond your scope. Or beyond your per­ceived scope. And I think that that’s an incred­i­bly impor­tant thing to rec­og­nize. I think that’s extreme­ly impor­tant. So lat­er down the line when they’re con­tem­plat­ing some prob­lem that they might have, my hope would be that they would approach prob­lems with a new­found confidence.

And sure, a diplo­ma’s moti­vat­ing. And sure, grad­u­at­ing mid­dle school or high school or get­ting your PhD, even, is very reward­ing. But it’s the appli­ca­tion of the things that you know that are more reward­ing, in my opin­ion, than any of that. 

I think fol­low­ing any large tech­no­log­i­cal shift, you get this huge par­a­digm shift in cul­ture. I mean, take for exam­ple the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution brought about glob­al­ized edu­ca­tion in a way that was com­plete­ly unprece­dent­ed. And the edu­ca­tion­al infra­struc­tures that exist­ed as a result of the Industrial Revolution were excel­lent at breed­ing with pri­ma­ry edu­ca­tion fac­to­ry work­ers, and with sec­ondary edu­ca­tion peo­ple capa­ble of design­ing and build­ing and run­ning factories.

We’re no longer in that age. It’s in my opin­ion a par­a­digm shift. And I think it was cat­alyzed by the advent of the Information Age. So, nowa­days we’re com­plete­ly inun­dat­ed with infor­ma­tion. There’s so much of it that we either can’t trudge through or just won’t have time to trudge through. And I think what we’re see­ing with the short­com­ings of tra­di­tion­al aca­d­e­m­ic mod­els is pure­ly a result of not being able to keep pace with this dras­tic social change. Every mod­el that we’ve had in the past will need to be revis­it­ed. And not in the least of which is edu­ca­tion. There’s this great TED talk by Ken [Robinson], and he says that edu­ca­tion does­n’t need to be reformed, it needs to be transformed.

Anderson: If we go back in time to 1890 or 1900, we’d also go back into a time where peo­ple look at edu­ca­tion very dif­fer­ent­ly. Try to cre­ate a pop­u­lace that is real­ly… Has a com­mon lan­guage again. And in this case a com­mon lan­guage relat­ed to pol­i­tics and civics and your civic duty and, to some extent, crit­i­cal thought. Speaking English so you can fit in. Crafting American cit­i­zens in a way. And so if we’re play­ing with new edu­ca­tion­al mod­els I’m curi­ous, do we still need that sort of com­mon denom­i­na­tor? Or should we have lots of dif­fer­ent mod­els pro­duc­ing lots of dif­fer­ent types of…

Carter: No, I think a fun­da­men­tal under­stand­ing is def­i­nite­ly still absolute­ly crit­i­cal. If we go back to a time where we did­n’t have some form of basic under­stand­ing of the world, we would find sort of a stark desert of dis­abil­i­ty to com­mu­ni­cate. Part of the rea­son why we can exchange infor­ma­tion so freely in the mod­ern era is because we do have com­mon lan­guages, com­mon under­stand­ings. And even if there are cul­tur­al divide or geo­graph­ic divides, we still can at least agree on a few things.

Anderson: Does it feel like that—the part of the par­a­digm shift we’re expe­ri­enc­ing now is los­ing that? You know?

Carter: I don’t think so. I think it’s build­ing on it. In iter­a­tive process­es like edu­ca­tion, it’s extreme­ly unwise to go back­wards. But what is impor­tant is that you keep being open-minded about your iter­a­tions rather than get­ting trapped in this rut of just repeat­ing the same revi­sions in slight­ly dif­fer­ent ways.

And again, I don’t expect orga­ni­za­tions like mine will be an imme­di­ate solu­tion. They’re not com­pre­hen­sive and they’re not near­ly as well fleshed-out as the infra­struc­ture that we cur­rent­ly have. But what I hope will spring from it is some case study that can then be applied to the larg­er whole and actu­al­ly chang­ing edu­ca­tion in a pos­i­tive way rather than just sort of tear­ing it to the ground and say­ing oh, it’s all worth­less. Recognizing the val­ue in the infra­struc­ture that we cur­rent­ly have and then being pre­pared to aban­don the things that don’t work.

Anderson: There are a cou­ple axes that I sort of plot every con­ver­sa­tion on. I always think of central/local as one of them. And edu­ca­tion is some­thing that can be approached in both ways. If you’re more on the lib­er­tar­i­an end of the spec­trum you might think maybe we have some com­mon stan­dards, maybe we don’t, but schools sort of fig­ure it out for them­selves and maybe you can address these in dif­fer­ent ways.

Carter: Right.

Anderson: And there are oth­er peo­ple who would say no, if you want to have a coher­ent pop­u­lace you’ve got to have this cen­tral­ly sort of decid­ed upon and admin­is­tered. And no, it’s not going to be per­fect but you’ve got to guar­an­tee every­one gets the same thing. Where do you sort of stand on that central/local spectrum?

Carter: Well, I think stan­dard­iza­tion obvi­ous­ly is done to try and cre­ate some com­mon denom­i­na­tor, some least com­mon denom­i­na­tor. I hon­est­ly feel like a lot of the ways in which edu­ca­tion is chang­ing is very sub­jec­tive and it’s very much a prod­uct of its local envi­ron­ment. So I think that hon­est­ly, the sort of pro­vi­sions that we’ll see are going to be local­ized. Locally dri­ven, local­ly admin­is­tered, local­ly created. 

But again, with the amount of dis­sem­i­na­tion of infor­ma­tion that we have today, I’m hard-pressed to imag­ine that there won’t be some com­mon denom­i­na­tors. I think of it as being some­what anal­o­gous to social unrest or rev­o­lu­tions or a Renaissance, where no one sat down and agreed upon what the art would look like or what the music would sound like. But yet, in any giv­en area there seem to be per­va­sive themes. And I think the same will be true of edu­ca­tion and the way it’s restructured.

Anderson: I think—you know, we’ve talked a lot about the tan­gi­ble so I want to bring in some tan­gi­ble exam­ples of oth­er places and oth­er peo­ple who I’ve talked to about edu­ca­tion. I’m think­ing of a response from a philoso­pher I spoke to named Lawrence Torcello. And he said the cri­sis we face as a society—which is a huge crisis—is one of stu­pid­i­ty. And essen­tial­ly how that’s man­i­fest­ing is that we can’t even agree on the same ele­ments of reality?

Carter: Right.

Anderson: And we are inca­pable of hav­ing a conversation—

Carter: Right.

Anderson: —because we aren’t edu­cat­ed to at least have enough self-doubt to think that we might be wrong some­times. So you end up with these dif­fer­ent points of view that are all com­plete­ly self-assured and you can’t have what he sees as a demo­c­ra­t­ic con­ver­sa­tion about press­ing needs like deal­ing with envi­ron­men­tal prob­lems and eco­nom­ic problems. 

So for him that stems down to an edu­ca­tion sys­tem that is long failed. 

Carter: Well, one that lacks a way of com­mu­ni­cat­ing rea­son­ing and log­ic. Because that’s one thing that I feel is absolute­ly imper­a­tive, the abil­i­ty to rec­og­nize you know, frankly…bullshit. And also to be able to catch our­selves on it and acknowl­edge our own fal­lac­i­es in reasoning. 

And so I think per­haps in that way yeah, the edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem has failed to pro­duce peo­ple that have all the tools to not just ana­lyze the soci­ety at large but them­selves in a very objec­tive and cold perspective.

You know, I think hon­est­ly it’s the over­ar­ch­ing struc­ture that’s the prob­lem. I know plen­ty of peo­ple who are won­der­ful teach­ers but can­not com­mu­ni­cate infor­ma­tion in the cur­rent edu­ca­tion­al struc­ture that we’ve cre­at­ed for ourselves.

Anderson: Right, right. Oh, but some­thing that was real­ly moti­vat­ing Lawrence Torcello was the idea that sort of, this is a moment that real­ly mat­ters. And if we mis­man­age our civ­i­liza­tion, that real­ly comes back to bite us in the ass. Do you think the stakes are that high? Is he being dramatic?

Carter: In the con­text of any you know, nat­ur­al sys­tem, any per­tur­bance of order leads to chaos. So I think that’s maybe what he’s get­ting to, is that if we don’t rec­ti­fy this prob­lem, if we don’t sta­bi­lize the sys­tem, then it’ll just degrade wild­ly into chaos. And I think that that’s prob­a­bly accu­rate. But, from chaos emerges pat­terns, emerges orders. And regard­less of the means by which it resolved, the res­o­lu­tion is usu­al­ly a lot more peaceable. 

Anderson: It’s dif­fi­cult to talk about those tran­si­tions, because they would be so awful. 

Carter: Right.

Anderson: Right. And a lot of peo­ple have talked about you know, we live in a moment where envi­ron­men­tal­ly we are maybe beyond the point of no return—

Carter: Yeah.

Anderson: You know, eco­nom­i­cal­ly we’ve got a very com­pli­cat­ed sys­tem that needs to work for all of these mouths to be fed. And so a lot of these peo­ple give me these real­ly scary sce­nar­ios and say, Well, it could col­lapse. But don’t wor­ry, we’re opti­mistic there’s some­thing bet­ter on the oth­er side,” right. 

Of course there’s this prob­lem, between here and the oth­er side some­thing hap­pens. But of course that’s no con­so­la­tion if you’re in Bangladesh and it floods, right.

Carter: Right. And, well… And it’s sort of an atroc­i­ty to just accept that because chaos exists and because atroc­i­ty exists means that we’ll emerge from it with some small­er but stronger whole. That’s a sort of gross lack of human­i­ty. I don’t think that the inevitabil­i­ty of chaos emerg­ing makes the prob­lem not worth address­ing. It’s how you actu­al­ly act to sta­bi­lize the sys­tem that’s important. 

Anderson: Hm. So it’s sort of like, beneath every­thing for you there is this giant sine wave—

Carter: Right.

Anderson: —between order and chaos?

Carter: You know, giv­en the fact that is a large, com­pli­cat­ed, nat­ur­al sys­tem, then yeah. I think that it’s def­i­nite­ly cycli­cal. Societies go through these peri­ods of rel­a­tive calm and then hor­ri­ble chaos. They go through that in var­i­ous dif­fer­ent facets of soci­ety, inde­pen­dent­ly. It’s when all of them cul­mi­nate that you real­ly have a prob­lem. So if we can address this one prob­lem as a chaot­ic sys­tem then per­haps we deter the greater problem.

Anderson: Pretty ear­ly in the trip, I was in Utah talk­ing to a com­plex­i­ty the­o­rist. He’s an anthro­pol­o­gist and a his­to­ri­an, and has writ­ten this mon­ster book called The Collapse of Complex Civilizations. He’s inter­est­ed specif­i­cal­ly in social com­plex­i­ty as a problem-solving tool. And you add lay­er after lay­er of this. And of course each lay­er of com­plex­i­ty uses more ener­gy, more social resources. But they always always always get to the point of collapse.

He real­ly cre­at­ed an air­tight argu­ment and it left him very pes­simistic. It’s just this com­plex­i­ty machine that gets beyond the point of repair. He feels like we’re maybe thir­ty to six­ty years out from real­ly hit­ting what he calls a reduc­tion in com­plex­i­ty.” Which is a bad thing. It’s just this…this euphemism. What do you think of that? I mean, I just sort of tossed that out there.

Carter: I mean again, nat­ur­al sys­tems oscil­late between chaos and order. On com­plex sys­tems such as soci­eties, on minus­cule sys­tems. You can get air tur­bu­lence which all of a sud­den sta­bi­lizes itself and becomes this lam­i­nar air flow, and then for seem­ing­ly no rea­son what­so­ev­er will degrade into chaos and it’ll just go through these oscil­la­tions over and over and over again.

That’s just the bump­ing of air mol­e­cules against one anoth­er. It’s fair­ly con­vo­lut­ed physics, but com­pared to the com­plex­i­ties of our soci­ety and what moti­vates our soci­ety and what cat­alyzes change in it, it’s a rel­a­tive­ly sim­ple prob­lem. And even the air tur­bu­lence prob­lem we have dif­fi­cul­ty mod­el­ing. So I think it’s a ridicu­lous and mega­lo­ma­ni­a­cal posi­tion to be in to think that we can actu­al­ly rec­ti­fy the sys­tem indef­i­nite­ly. I don’t think that that’s pos­si­ble. I think, giv­en the fact that there are so many vari­ables, that there are so many points that can change, it’s con­stant­ly going to drift through order and upheaval. 

Anderson: I want to talk a lit­tle bit more about you were say­ing it’s kind of the mega­lo­ma­ni­ac in us that thinks we can know all of this. So, one of the big ques­tions in this project is what can be known. There’s been a whole vari­ety of peo­ple who have real con­fi­dence that we can sort of do bet­ter than the nat­ur­al world in a lot of ways. And we can do bet­ter by under­stand­ing it.

Carter: I don’t think that that’s…even remote­ly accurate.

Anderson: You don’t think that our sci­ence or our under­stand­ing or our tech­nol­o­gy can get us to a point where we can make those decisions?

Carter: No, I think our under­stand­ing, again, is iter­a­tive. With each new iter­a­tive approx­i­ma­tion, we become clos­er to the truth. But I don’t think it’s pos­si­ble for us to ever tru­ly know…anything. We live in this world of infi­nite remain­ders. And try and quan­tize those and to try and cal­cu­late our way out of the box is extreme­ly naive. 

The fatal­is­tic in me screams, Sit on your butt, don’t do any­thing.” But I’ve nev­er been the kind of per­son to just sort of sit around and wait for the inevitabil­i­ty of demise. I sup­pose it’s dri­ven in a way by exis­ten­tial angst and also exis­ten­tial con­quest. And per­haps for me, sub­jec­tive­ly and self­ish­ly, it means nav­i­gat­ing the sys­tem through­out my life­time and then hop­ing that I’ve at least helped in some small way to con­tribute some bit of mean­ing­ful infor­ma­tion to the next gen­er­a­tion so that they can navigate. 

But again at some point it’s going to crop up, chaos must happen. 

Anderson: A lot of peo­ple are work­ing towards nav­i­gat­ing the present. But they’re work­ing towards cre­at­ing very dif­fer­ent presents. And they all have dif­fer­ent def­i­n­i­tions of the good. Throughout our con­ver­sa­tion, what’s kind of been the under­ly­ing def­i­n­i­tion of good?

Carter: I think that I would like to see a world where peo­ple are grant­ed the oppor­tu­ni­ty to pur­sue what they love to do and be edu­cat­ed in a wide array of fields so that they have a greater cre­ative pool to draw from. And also that they make an attempt at being objec­tive about their views on the world and their own per­son­al philoso­phies, and have the courage to change them when they rec­og­nize that they’re wrong. Having a fun­da­men­tal under­stand­ing in this soci­ety of log­ic and of rea­son­ing ix extreme­ly impor­tant, and that would have wide­spread impact. 

Anderson: I want to bring in an alter­nate def­i­n­i­tion of progress and good, from a neo­prim­i­tivist I spoke to.

Carter: Oh, god. I can see where this is going. But yeah, humans are a bac­te­ria, plagu­ing the Earth—

Anderson: No, not at all. No. Very dif­fer­ent than that. Humans are great.

Carter: Okay.

Anderson: Life is great.

Carter: Yeah.

Anderson: Technology is not the source of val­ue, though. The source of val­ue is in one’s rela­tion­ship with oth­er humans and one’s rela­tion­ship with the nat­ur­al world. And his name’s John Zerzan. He would argue that tech­nol­o­gy is actu­al­ly just get­ting us fur­ther and fur­ther away from sit­ting down and hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion. Going out and pro­vid­ing your own sustenance. 

Carter: It’s inter­est­ing and you know, per­haps this is my own con­tra­dic­tion to be eval­u­at­ed. I’ve often­times felt like the more tech­nol­o­gy we devel­op, the more we get away from the nat­ur­al world. The more we sort of teeter our­selves on the precipice of extinc­tion. In the nat­ur­al world there are all of these love­ly checks and bal­ances which are extreme­ly cold and very unforgiving.

Take for exam­ple poor vision. Poor vision in a pre-agrarian soci­ety is an extreme­ly bad prob­lem to have. Poor vision means that you may not poten­tial­ly be able to catch your next meal and that the like­li­hood of you starv­ing is sub­stan­tial­ly high­er than some­one with keen vision. If left to its own devices, soci­eties of peo­ple with poor vision would be vir­tu­al­ly nonex­is­tent in a pre-agrarian society.

The same is true of resis­tance to var­i­ous dis­eases. And as we devel­op tech­nol­o­gy, we make things like glass­es and antibi­otics, we dri­ve peo­ple away from from nat­ur­al sys­tems which stand to serve this sort of reg­u­la­to­ry func­tion, this sys­tem of checks and bal­ances to keep the human pop­u­la­tion from doing some­thing stu­pid like over­pop­u­lat­ing. In indus­tri­al­iz­ing, we’ve done a whole lot of undo­ing of nat­ur­al checks and bal­ances which pred­i­cat­ed upon our abil­i­ty to actu­al­ly be able to out­think nature.

A real­ly good exam­ple of why this’ll come to bite us in the ass is mono­cul­ture. We’ve found crops that were ide­al for meet­ing pub­lic demand. If you clone the plant that grows big­ger and faster and then copy it then yeah, you’ll get a heck of a lot of plants and a heck of lot of food. The prob­lem is is if you have one virus that comes along that tar­gets that one spe­cif­ic spec­i­men… It’s exact­ly what hap­pened in the pota­to famine. It wiped out their entire food source.

And so that was one iso­lat­ed exam­ple of indus­tri­al­iza­tion and of tech­nol­o­gy com­ing back to bite us in the ass. And I think that any­one involved in the study of biol­o­gy or even glob­al mar­kets as a whole will tell you that exact same sto­ry, that we’re sort of stack­ing a mighty tall house of cards.

It’s a sad prob­lem to have, because the solu­tions that we keep com­ing up with are more con­vo­lu­tion, are mak­ing the house increas­ing­ly high­er. But again if giv­en the choice between hav­ing to live with tech­nol­o­gy and with­out, work­ing to divert our­selves away from the harsh cal­lous­ness of the nat­ur­al world and build some­thing bet­ter despite the fact that it’s inher­ent­ly more con­vo­lut­ed and just as sus­cep­ti­ble as the pre­vi­ous, I would rather make the effort.

The ide­al­ist in me wants to believe in a world where we are actu­al­ly capa­ble of tran­scend­ing our own con­quest for pow­er? And instead focus more on the social aspects of our human­i­ty. I don’t know, I like to imag­ine that it’s possible. 

Anderson: There seem to be moments in his­to­ry where a lot of ideas change, and usu­al­ly there are a lot of peo­ple in con­ver­sa­tion, maybe not direct­ly. Maybe it’s the Renaissance where it’s…there’s real­ly a zeit­geist of the era. But maybe it’s like the US Revolution and there are a lot of peo­ple like, in the room togeth­er and they’re talk­ing about we have sys­tems that exist that aren’t answer­ing our ques­tions. There’s a bet­ter future pos­si­ble that we can achieve in some way. And they’re cre­at­ing solu­tions that look insane. And will look nor­mal a cen­tu­ry lat­er. Or some­thing like that. 

Carter: Yeah.

Anderson: And so we’ve been talk­ing about sort of like, how do you make a bet­ter system? 

Carter: Right.

Anderson: So I want­ed to throw that sort of hypoth­e­sis at you and say, do you think that holds any water? You know, there are peo­ple in this project who’ve been like, Oh, change is sort of a grad­ual thing that’s always hap­pened.” There’ve [been] oth­er peo­ple who’ve been like, Yeah, it’s def­i­nite­ly this big break moment.” There’ve been oth­er peo­ple who say, Conversation does­n’t mat­ter at all. It does hap­pen in break moments but it’s envi­ron­men­tal cat­a­stro­phes, it’s…” So there are a lot of dif­fer­ent ways to sort of riff on that idea.

Carter: There’s real­ly a choice. There’s real­ly a choice as to whether not you want to try and pre­cip­i­tate upheaval and upris­ing and dras­tic shifts that you were talk­ing about. Or whether or not you want to try and sta­bi­lize the sys­tem and ride the changes out and get the sys­tem work­ing a lit­tle bet­ter before, down the road, it breaks down.

I think the rea­son why you’re hear­ing such dras­ti­cal­ly dif­fer­ent respons­es is because they’re both on oppos­ing sides of that for­mu­la. You’re nev­er going to to be able to escape this sys­tem where col­lapse is always on the hori­zon. But what you can do is strug­gle in human­i­tar­i­an capac­i­ty to make it bet­ter for as long as is pos­si­ble. So I think that that’s firm­ly where I sit.

Anderson: Do you think con­ver­sa­tion matters?

Carter: I think peo­ple that have inter­est in solv­ing sim­i­lar prob­lems should start a dis­course. But I don’t think it’s entire­ly nec­es­sary that every­one sit down and decide what the real prob­lems are. There again I think that’s where cre­ativ­i­ty comes in, and where being objec­tive and log­i­cal comes in, is it allows you the oppor­tu­ni­ty to iden­ti­fy prob­lems and solve them with a degree of autonomy.

And whether or not you’re doing that in par­al­lel with oth­er peo­ple, or whether or not you’re doing that pure­ly autonomous­ly, is real­ly irrel­e­vant. What you want is a soci­ety that’s capa­ble of that. Which is why there again edu­ca­tion is such an impor­tant aspect to it. So if we can solve some of the issues cir­cling edu­ca­tion, I think that we make one hell of a step in the right direc­tion towards fore­go­ing the collapse.

Anderson: Does that leave you optimistic?

Carter: It’s my own ide­al­ism that keeps me mov­ing for­ward and hop­ing that I can make some change. In the imme­di­ate world around me and then the obser­va­tions that I make of soci­ety as a whole, I usu­al­ly become fair­ly pes­simistic. So it’s this jux­ta­po­si­tion between my opti­mistic ide­al­ism and my obser­va­tion. And rather than try and put the two at these sec­tor­ized por­tions of my mind and nev­er the twain shall meet, I would far rather put them in com­bat togeth­er and see what resolve they can come to.

Aengus Anderson: So we’ve talked to a lot of peo­ple about opti­mism and pes­simism. And a lot of peo­ple seem to be of two minds. But I don’t think any­one’s talked about pit­ting them against each oth­er. So I liked that as an end­ing note.

Neil Prendergast: You know, we’ve seen so many peo­ple talk about edu­ca­tion as per­haps the solu­tion. And he’s kind of I think hope­ful about edu­ca­tion but also seems to not turn away from pes­simism, either.

Anderson: Right. And I think if we pull that apart… I mean, we can get into edu­ca­tion first, and I feel that his pes­simism seems more root­ed in a sense of human soci­eties as an ana­logue of nat­ur­al sys­tems oscil­lat­ing between order and chaos—there’s our sine wave again. 

But let’s get to that in a moment. Let’s start with edu­ca­tion first. It real­ly feels like he feels that edu­ca­tion’s issue is struc­tur­al. It’s not a ques­tion of more edu­ca­tion or less edu­ca­tion, it’s real­ly a struc­ture of education.

Prendergast: Right. I mean, you real­ly, lis­ten­ing to the inter­view, get the sense that this is an indi­vid­ual who enjoys learn­ing. So there’s not any of a sense here that this is some­body who’s some­how become dis­en­chant­ed with the edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem and then by exten­sion also with learn­ing. I did­n’t get that sense at all.

Anderson: No, it’s kind of the oppo­site. It was like he was dis­en­chant­ed with the edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem because he liked learning.

Prendergast: Right. It was almost like… There was­n’t a sense of social sta­tus that he thought should be attached to learn­ing. That it real­ly seemed to be more about the build­ing of knowl­edge. Seeing what you can sort of fig­ure out, but not real­ly being con­cerned about climb­ing the class lad­der, for example.

Anderson: Right. And there’s some­thing I mean, just awful­ly refresh­ing about that. And maybe it’s the part of me that is kind of a nos­tal­gic for ear­li­er cen­turies’ ideals of edu­ca­tion. Education is about self-improvement rather than your eco­nom­ic func­tion. And I felt that that’s in what Chris is push­ing for here. And it’s not just about self-fulfillment or self-improvement, but he also real­ly has a civic com­po­nent, does­n’t he?

Carter: So, I absolute­ly do see that civic com­po­nent there. And I think to me it kind of works in two ways in that it seems like the doors open to any­body who wants to real­ly do some­thing there. Then also the oth­er way in which it seems to work is that when they leave, the notion is that they’re going to some­how do some­thing that bet­ters the community.

Anderson: And I real­ly felt there was a con­nec­tion with Torcello there.

Prendergast: Ah. How so?

Anderson: I think it’s the con­nec­tion with the Enlightenment. And it’s a con­nec­tion with Torcello but it’s also a con­nec­tion with Mykleby in that both of those guys talked about the need for us to be self-aware as actors. To be aware of our own fail­ings. To be will­ing to…maybe not always com­pro­mise but to know where we can com­pro­mise and where we can’t. And to have a sense of a greater civic good. And I think you would get a real strong under­cur­rent of that with Chris.

Prendergast: And I think you’re right. I think the point that he’s mak­ing is one that is run­ning through some of the oth­er oth­er inter­views as well. You know, we keep on going back to what’s it take to have the Conversation. And it seems to me like he’s real­ly struck a chord here that real­ly a require­ment is that we take respon­si­bil­i­ty for under­stand­ing our­selves about where we’re com­ing from.

Anderson: Kinda chang­ing gears for a sec­ond here, there is a big assump­tion that we fore­shad­owed ear­li­er, the sine wave, that’s beneath a lot of Chris’s thought. And so if we visu­al­ize MASS as being part of an edu­ca­tion reform that cre­ates peo­ple with a new type of cre­ativ­i­ty, bet­ter cit­i­zens, more adap­tive, more resilient, prob­a­bly more sat­is­fied?, a lot of that is to com­bat the inevitable onslaught of chaos.

And I think we con­nect the dots here, that’s what this whole con­ver­sa­tion leads towards. You know, we start with edu­ca­tion, we end with the great oscil­la­tion between order and chaos. Do you buy it?

Prendergast: Well you know, it’s kind of fun­ny. Because the oscil­la­tion between order and chaos seems so very well-ordered to me. It’s such a nice, neat sto­ry, right? Well you know, those metaphors help one per­son explain it to anoth­er per­son but they don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly prove that the con­cept is actu­al­ly oper­at­ing, right.

Anderson: Well let’s let’s bring Joseph Tainter into this. We can’t not bring him into this. I mean this is his the­sis. If you look at his­to­ry for long enough, all you see is rise and fall and rise and fall and rise and fall. And if you wait long enough, one of those things is always going to hap­pen. And there’s sort of a futil­i­ty to resist­ing. You know, you can postpone—which Carter says as well. But you can’t stop it. 

Prendergast: So then the ques­tion becomes what’s the human role in all of it if all of these back and forths are inevitable. That what’s the point of indi­vid­ual decision?

Anderson: Mm hm. Yeah, and I think that’s a very impor­tant ques­tion. What kind of soci­ety does an ide­ol­o­gy like that cre­ate? Do you have a pop­u­lace that feels par­a­lyzed, like they don’t have the agency to affect change? Chris talks about kind of the need to keep try­ing, the need to sort of fore­stall chaos, the need to work towards more humane ends. Just like Tainter says that you know, we’ve got to try to have a con­ver­sa­tion about this.

But both of them are pret­ty pes­simistic that it’ll real­ly…do any­thing in the long run. And I won­der if they’re both kind of pes­simistic about that. Even if it’s true, is it a dead end ideology?

Carter: Well you know, I don’t think— I think they’re both pes­simistic. But both Carter and Tainter are both peo­ple who are inter­est­ed in edu­ca­tion. And you know, Tainter described, prob­a­bly in one of his most sort of pos­i­tive moments in his inter­view, the sort of plea­sure he took in edu­cat­ing younger peo­ple. And Carter’s doing the same, in a total­ly dif­fer­ent way, not at a stan­dard uni­ver­si­ty. But if they real­ly believed that this oscil­la­tion was fate, then there would­n’t be any point. No need for edu­ca­tion, you can’t do any­thing about it anyway.

But I think what they’re iden­ti­fy­ing is not fate but a trend. And if it’s a trend, then it’s some­thing that can be changed a lit­tle bit. And ulti­mate­ly I think that they’re both actu­al­ly opti­mistic. At least they’re opti­mistic in their behav­ior.

Anderson: If I was to chan­nel a lit­tle bit of Richard Saul Wurman here—

Prendergast: Okay.

Anderson: —I would say that maybe they’re both a lit­tle bit opti­mistic about their own spans. That this effort to fore­stall can coex­ist with a full sense that doom is rolling in, but they’re just kind of try­ing to kick the can down the road a lit­tle bit. You know, I’ve had mul­ti­ple peo­ple in this project—Oliver Porter was the last one, Gary Francione—who said, Boy we’ve got some big prob­lems com­ing down the pipeline,” and then say­ing this to me like, I sure am glad I’m not your age.”

And so maybe part of the opti­mism with Tainter and Carter— And this is so dark and I don’t think this is nec­es­sar­i­ly true, but I think I do want to chan­nel Wurman here and say like, let’s look at our self-interest. Let’s put this in a Nietzschean light and say, are we just try­ing to push that chaos on to the next generation?

Prendergast: Well, I think that we have to be care­ful that when we sort of make that assess­ment that if we’re push­ing the chaos down to the next gen­er­a­tion, are we mak­ing it worse or are we sim­ply try­ing to keep things togeth­er for a lit­tle bit longer? Those I think are two dif­fer­ent propo­si­tions, right. And I think that Tainter and Carter seem to fall in the camp of, Well, if we can fore­stall the prob­lem and not make it any worse, maybe we’ve done some­thing good and worth­while.” And maybe say­ing that is also a way of say­ing, in a way with great humil­i­ty, that we don’t actu­al­ly know that we can solve all these prob­lems. And maybe that’s the type of objec­tiv­i­ty that Carter was real­ly talk­ing about.

Anderson: That was Chris Carter, record­ed at The Goat Farm on November 28th, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia.

Micah Saul: And you are of course lis­ten­ing to The Conversation. Find us on the web at find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.com.

Neil Prendergast: You can fol­low us on Twitter at @aengusanderson.

Saul: I’m Micah Saul.

Prendergast: I’m Neil Prendergast.

Anderson: And I’m Aengus Anderson. Thanks for listening. 

Further Reference

This inter­view at the Conversation web site, with project notes, com­ments, and tax­o­nom­ic orga­ni­za­tion spe­cif­ic to The Conversation.