Subject: John Higgs
Background: Author of nine books including The KLF, Stranger Than We Can Imagine, and The Future Starts Here
Topic: Trying to be less wrong
Listen: On Apple, Spotify, or in your browser.
“Keep trying to be less wrong. That’s really the goal. With seven billion people on the planet and no two people having exactly the same perspective on everything, the chances that you're the one person who's got everything right and the rest are all idiots — mathematically you've got to see the problems with that.” — John Higgs
Welcome to the Ideaspace.
The name of this publication comes from a phrase by the graphic novelist Alan Moore, who called the mysterious place where ideas come from “the Ideaspace.” A place so powerful it could transcend and even transform the physical world.
I first read about this idea in an amazing book by the writer John Higgs about the band the KLF. In that book, Higgs explores the group’s infamous decision to burn a million pounds — almost all their money — and how this was perhaps inspired by something like the Ideaspace.
I’m thrilled to introduce this Ideaspace’s interview series with a conversation with John Higgs. I’ve been fortunate to get to know John the past few years. After he read my book This Could Be Our Future, he sent me a magazine dedicated to pictures of people burning money. This is the kind of friend John is.
To have John Higgs, in many ways the namesake of this publication, as the first guest is a dream. The interview is being published as a written Q&A (condensed and edited for length) and as a podcast, which you can listen to above or on Apple, Spotify, or wherever else. John’s ideas — exploring metamodernism, the rise of empathy, and a new concept of individualism — are well worth your time.
YANCEY: The first time we met we were having lunch in London and you told me you were working on a book about William Blake. A book that’s coming out very soon: William Blake Vs the World. During that conversation I asked you if you thought people had always been fundamentally the same. If you looked back at William Blake and thought, “Oh, he's just like one of us today, just in that period of time instead.” And your answer was no. You thought people were different. Do you remember that conversation? What do you think about that now?
JOHN: I don't. But now I’d say that in some ways people are the same but culture changes, and what we think of us as our personalities is in fact just a bolt-on from the wider world that's constantly shifting. I just read a book called The Five by Hallie Rubenhold about the victims of the Jack the Ripper murders. It's just brilliant. She brings these five women completely to life. They become so vivid and real that the idea that you'd want to read about the person who killed them goes out the window. This book could have been written 10 years ago or 50 years ago. It could have been written 100 years ago. The information was all there. But it needed someone to come along and say what's interesting here is not this shadowy person with a top hat and knife in the fog, it's the actual women. That's where the story is. To do that she'd have to convince a publisher that's what the story is, and the publisher would have to think, “Well, the book-buying audience would buy into that.” It involves a greater circle of empathy than would have been around if you're writing books about Jack the Ripper in the 1970s or the 1990s. Things are constantly changing.
YANCEY: In The Future Starts Here you seem to suggest that we can track the point when people started to have a higher level of empathy or emotional intelligence. You point out that many cultural shifts happened around 2011 shortly after the launch of the smartphone.
JOHN: By the late 20th century we all saw ourselves as individuals. That was the big thing. We moved from this hierarchical system in the 19th century where it really didn't matter what you were like, it was what your role was. Whether you were a duke or whether you were a stableboy, that was what mattered. It didn't matter if you're funny or clever or something like that. But by the late 20th century the individual is an isolated thing. And the more you focus on that way of seeing the world, the more isolated you become.
But [Gen Z and younger] grows up with constant mobile internet access and they're totally networked. The sense of them as an isolated individual does not explain who they are or what they can do or what they can achieve. They realize that their connections are as much part of them. It's their networks, it's their relationships, it's their reputation. It's all these things that are out in the world that allow them to be an individual. It's not that they're not individuals anymore. They're not Maoist clones all wearing the same clothes. The individual is perhaps stronger than ever before. But it recognizes how connected it is.
YANCEY: I think of it as post-individualism. You take it as a given that everyone is an individual, but the most interesting things are all the ways that we’re similar despite our individualism. This is related to a key thing you draw out from metamodernism. It's a more utilitarian way of looking at the world. There’s an assumption that everything is flawed. But there's a counter-assumption that there’s the possibility of value in everything. So it's a flattening. Everything is on the same plane. Is that right?
JOHN: Yes. No one's saying that [metamodernism] is the perfect system. It’s more a recognition that those are our assumptions now. The perfect utopia isn't something to aim for because that's not going to exist. But if something works for now, hey let's go with that. If we can make things incrementally better slowly, then great. Whatever works is more important than what's ideologically pure.
YANCEY: So in a past world we were aspiring to a capital-T truth, an institutional truth, a spiritual truth, now it’s five different versions of truth and we're counting citations to see which has the most people ascribing to it? Everything is flawed and everything is true?
JOHN: It's a lot more practical. It's a lot more: what works? Is anyone hurt by this? Is this doing damage to others? Those sorts of things. The maps have run out and you just don't know what's right, you don't know what's true, you've lost your North Star. You don't know which way to go. This is the rise of post-truth and things of that sort.
It's not about being right. It's about being less wrong. Keep trying to be less wrong, that's really our goal. People have this psychological need to be right and to be seen to be right because that protects their own particular reality tunnel. But we need to synthesize all these different perspectives to get closer to some form of thing that, if not completely true, seems true. This requires a little bit of humbleness, which is a real sticking point for many people. You have to admit that you're one truth is probably as flawed as everybody else's. With seven billion people on the planet and no two people agreeing on everything, the chances that you're the one who's got everything right and the rest are all idiots — mathematically you've got to see the problems with that.
YANCEY: I read a new book by Robert Putnam called The Upswing which tracks America’s shifts between collectivism and individualism from the 1870s to today. One of the things the book inadvertently shows is that a lot of social change is driven by people dying. There are these two charts about changes in opinions about women’s rights. At first it looks like a steady climb in support. But when you look at opinions broken down by generation, most people’s beliefs stayed the same.The chart on the left shows public support for gender equality over time. The chart on the right shows support for gender equality by birth cohort, with older generations at the bottom and more recent generations at the top. From The Upswing by Robert Putnam.
Do you think society changes because people change or because people die?
JOHN: In the UK the real division in society now is based on age. It used to be class or wealth or something like that. That's just gone now. Old people vote Tory, young people vote Labour. And it’s the case that the youth don’t tend to vote very much. The millennial generation was notorious for not bothering to vote. But that's completely changing. Gen Z can't wait to get in the voting booth. And from what I saw of the demographics of the American election, that swing for Biden was an increased turnout from ethnic minority voters and the young.
YANCEY: Both of our books take an optimistic view of the future in part because of who these generations are and the nature of the challenges that we face. The climate is a collective problem unlike anything we faced before, however the internet makes us a collective organism unlike anything we’ve been before. Humans are being produced that may be our most adept at solving where we are.
JOHN: Yes! A real problem is the assumption that it’s current people who are dealing with future problems. That's how we look at it and it makes us just sort of give up. We can't see any way through it, we’re all doomed. That sort of fatalistic pessimism was around a few years ago. That was the thing that forced me to write The Future Starts Here. Because that's not the case at all. Future people will see things very differently. They will have very different prejudices and perspectives. They will come up with answers that earlier people wouldn't. That's what gives me hope.
You can listen to the rest of my conversation with John Higgs here, which dives into writing practices, who really broke up the Beatles, and much more, as well as on Apple, Spotify, or by searching for “The Ideaspace” wherever else you listen to podcasts.
John Higgs’ website
John Higgs’ books, including The KLF, Stranger Than We Can Imagine, The Future Starts Here, and William Blake vs the World
The Five by Hallie Rubenhold
The Upswing by Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett