From Iceland — Nominal Values

Nominal Values

Published December 8, 2009

Nominal Values

The recent National Assembly is a gift to the nation claim the organisers, who call themselves “The Anthill”. The name refers to their guiding analogy: the theory that crowds—like ant colonies—possess wisdom, or “collective intelligence,” that is inaccessible to individuals, unless it is extracted using the methodology of market research.
The spokes-ants consistently reiterate this analogy, yet provide precious little concrete information. Nowhere do they explain the scientific basis of their guiding assumptions. They don’t present a list of their foreign consultants (who, it seems, range from business consultants to pseudo-science (TM) mongers to theologians) or their credentials. And they don’t demonstrate how exactly their ideology fits the current situation in Iceland. For a state-sponsored event meant to shape the country’s future in the long term, this lack of information is worrying.
Do their assumptions hold up? Are crowds wise? There is some evidence for the affirmative in certain scenarios. Ask a diverse group of people to estimate, say, the weight of an ox. Chances are that the average will be much closer to the truth than most of the individual estimates. Threaten an anthill and it will shift to safety, with the average Joe Six-legs none the wiser.
Now give a nation the task of articulating its values and creating a future general policy for a whole country. Let’s do it on Saturday, from 9 to 5. Done and done!
How does this scenario relate, even remotely, to the ant and ox analogies? In each case there is a problem to be solved. For us a national bankruptcy and the corruption that caused it. But was the Assembly supposed to define the problem or come up with practical solutions? No.
Though the organisers claim that one of their goals was to start a discussion, the Assembly itself was not set up to be a debate. Conflicts were actively avoided and general optimism celebrated.
Basically, like ants, we should not argue but express ourselves instinctively. Blink. Think without thinking. Let’s generate a large jolt of positive energy and perhaps it will deliver us a perfect society, via the “Law of Attraction”.
Neither are the individual aspects of the Assembly’s implementation up for debate. Why, for instance, invite a handpicked group of “influential people” as participants instead of, say, as silent observers? Legitimate questions like this were not open for discussion but dismissed with clumsy excuses.
Anyway, assuming that there is such a thing as collective intelligence in the first place, why should this meeting reveal it any better than our democratic elections do? At the end of the day, the meticulously executed event boiled down to an elaborate, 20 million ISK opinion poll.
It’s the economy, a decline in the core value system in the cultural DNA, stupid!
Attitudes towards the meeting have been overwhelmingly positive. The government has now formally endorsed it. Participants described an uplifting atmosphere. Of course the nation most depressed (per capita) about the current Depression deserves eight hours worth of inspiration.
But the assembly organisers have been fairly criticized for producing nothing but slogans general enough to be useful only for political campaigns and marketing departments (even state church ministers immediately declared the results a clear call for Christian institutions).
Indeed, the real product of the assembly is a new narrative, a novel view of our navel. Icelanders like their answers chiselled down to a single word. What happened to the economy? Simple: “Greed”. What do we want instead? “Integrity”. The answer, it turns out, was hiding in plain sight!
Value number 1: Optimism
In fact, this sort of simplicity is characteristic of the whole endeavour. The output, available online, amounts to 1) a list of abstract terms, our “values” and 2) “future visions”, sentences of 20 words or less. The meeting didn’t involve any attempt to establish a consensus on the meaning or implications of any of the terms.
Why do people like this? One suspects that many people just don’t want to involve themselves in the messy analysis of what went wrong; they don’t want to hear the complex and uncomfortable story, in particular when the discomfort has less to do with our spending habits than with our collective shortcomings as citizens of a democracy.
We want the problem to be something we don’t like. That sort of stuff is easy to leave behind.
So we tell ourselves just what we want to hear. There is something called the Essential Nature of the Icelandic People. It is fundamentally benign, and if harnessed it will save us. We were momentarily seduced by alien forces like Greed. We forgot our true values. But now we’ve broken the spell and it is up to our “unique capabilities” to save us.
These are the views and terminology prevalent in testimonies and promotional material of the Assembly. What is jarring about this discourse is not only how nationalistic and naive it is but that it turns out to be identical to much of the dominant discourse before the “collapse”. Then too the Icelandic Spirit, displayed in business practices, was evoked to explain our perceived prosperity. And then too criticism was resented and dismissed as sabotaging the good work of industrious optimists.
Making a mountain out of an anthill?
Now, supporters may feel this is too harsh. Even if no concrete proposals will come out of it, surely there is no direct harm in a little teambuilding over meat-soup.
But there is harm in an event that actively reinforces a mindset that contributed to our current situation, while pretending to eradicate it. In order to restore the preferred values we must first discover why they were absent before. If lack of integrity—corruption—is characteristic of a society this means that more than a few people were dishonest—by implication, more than a few Assembly attendees. And the only possible way to actually make integrity our society’s guiding value is this: A lot of people must put themselves through the painful process of acknowledging and fixing the ways in which they lack integrity.
Could Iceland use a shift in values? Absolutely. But a rally like this isn’t even a tiny step towards such a shift. Wanting society to prize a certain value simply has very little to do with practicing that value. Even the most dishonest among us want to live in a society that honours integrity.
So instead of the team-building maybe we would do good to practice whatever values we really have. Perhaps the spokes-ants themselves would like to go ahead and set a good example.
There is a bright side, however. A society that was truly desperate would presumably have better things to do than compiling a wish list—just in time for Christmas—without a thought for the cost at which their demands can be met. They would act first and discover their unique capabilities later.  

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