Ten years ago I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. An autobiography that has nothing to do with Zen Buddhism or Motorcycle maintenance. The story is a reflection by the author on his own mental breakdown when he was much younger. The story contains many philosophical discussions of great interest to me when I was much younger. One of the stories has always stayed with me.
That story was about a great machine. A machine the size of an entire country. That machine does everything for the people in that country. They live in it. They get food, drink, clothes, entertainment from it. The machine gives them work to do, educates them on how to live and so on. This country sized machine is very old. Older than anyone remembers. It’s so large and complicated that no one understands how it works. One day the machine stops making clothing. The people look at the part of the machine that makes clothing and try to understand why it isn’t working. Half of them notice that seventy percent of the machine looks different to the other thirty percent. They conclude that in order to make the machine work again they need to make that thirty percent look like the other seventy percent. Meanwhile the other half of the people argue that since the machine isn’t working than the seventy percent must be wrong and the thirty percent is right. Both groups start trying to fix the machine.
I’ve retold this story to a number of people. They’ve always replied to me that people would know how to fix the machine. They would recognised damaged parts from non-damaged parts. On a surface level this is true. You can tell the damaged parts of a car from the non-damaged parts of a car when you’ve had a crash. What about internally though? Can you be so certain you could fix your car if it stopped working? Would you be able to identify what isn’t working?
You may wonder, why did this story have such an impact on me. So far it is the best analogy I have ever heard for society. Society is like this machine. A giant system that we are all part of; that clothes us; feeds us, and gives us education and employment. It is a giant system that we don’t truly understand and for many people don’t question. As a system though it is much harder to fix or to discover if there is something wrong. In the above analogy they noticed something was wrong because there were no longer any clothes. What if it was something far less obvious. Something like the food changed quality, or the children being educated in the machine didn’t know anything? That is when the analogy comes closer to society. We may notice the problems but our way of fixing them is not so different to the people fixing the machine. It is often just a surface repair that doesn’t seek to understand the true cause of the problems.
That said, one of the problems with the analogy is that society is actually always changing. Society is not a ten thousand year old machine, even if that is often how we see talk about it. If it was then my generation would look no different to the previous one and the one before that and so on. There would be no change. You would be able to place me in any era and I would fit in. We know that isn’t true so why do we delude ourselves with the idea “We’ve always done it this way.” Every generation improves on what the previous generation did. Every generation looks at their experience and says ‘I didn’t like that part, but I liked that part, let’s make a society in which that part I didn’t like isn’t there.’ This occurs in a reflective way but it also occurs in a reflexive way. It is part of being human and part of the systems that connect us and our collective experience as social creatures.
The curious thing is how each generation seems to take the changes the next generation make so personally. They insult and degrade the next generation because it doesn’t match the society they were trying to make. They don’t want the next generation to make changes. They want to make the next generation just like theirs. If you seek to create no change in the way society functions then I think you will create that world where no one understands how the societal machine works and when a problem occurs will fix it in ways that cause more harm.
I’m glad I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance even if that is the only part I remember of it.