Meeting Mr. Bauman: A spicy collection of Utopian notes

January, Sunday 31st, 9.30 AM.

I jump out of the train and expose myself to the sun of Trento. I’m a young man who has (maybe) just found his way. I’m excited. Today I’m going to listen to one of “the world’s most eminent social theorists“, professor Zygmunt Bauman. It is no such a big deal, I know. But I have just decided to apply for Sociology, and I feel inspired: something is going to happen!

The conference has been titled “The Utopia of Utopia’s Future”.  Sounds Byzantine, right? Celebrating the 500th anniversary of Utopia‘s publication is worth having such an intricate plot.

I reported below my conference notes, trying to give them a little bit of context. The crucial attempt here is not to report any coherent theory; it is to bypass the Curse of Knowledge: a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.

When I learn something new, I always try to define it. Describing the gaps I’ve been filling, I hold on the possibility to remember what it felt like not to know. I wouldn’t otherwise be able to cherish ignorance. And that would mean sacrificing an useful perspective.

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Notes

Prof. Bauman describes biblical Paradise as “a place where you do not have to choose”. Remember Adam, Eve and the Apple Tree? That is our lost condition. Leon Battista Alberti’s definition of beauty mimics the utopian concept: “a state occurring when nothing may be added, taken away, or altered, but for the worst”.

Utopia tries to answer the question “how do we get back there?”, although it is clearly impossible. There is not such a condition where duality is extinguished. This whole thing reminded me of the attempts to make the choice process easier, evidencing how variety might impair our ability to choose. In The wisest one in the room, Ross and Gilovich point out that commitment boosts the psychological benefits of dissonance reduction. You’ll just tell yourself you made the best choice, selecting all the causes that led you behave that way and ignoring others. You’ll feel happy, and that is fine!

Bauman’s freudian background rephrases perfection as a sum of security and freedom. Social history is a pendulum between those two states. Civilization is the supreme example of such a compromise. Bauman argues that current social movements show a sacrifice of past earned freedoms to get back some security.

The conference reaches its emotional peak when Bauman loses the thread and stops mumbling for a minute. What a man! My heart is filled with tenderness. The audience applauds, and he is perfectly at ease showing his ninety-year-old vulnerability.

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Bauman later explains what the previous tendency was: whereas the welfare state concept was to provide people with a background to allow anyone to take risks, in the last decades we have been sacrificing social securities for the sake of greatest freedom.

My young, liberal soul immediately rebels: how is that more freedom could possibly harm anyone? I link up welfare state system and loss aversion concept from Thinking, Fast and Slow studies. If welfare state’s original claim is to provide everyone with a security net in order to risk and create wealth, the blind spot is loss aversion. Behavioural psychology has shown that loss aversion is two times stronger on average than gain evaluation: A 500$ loss has the same emotional intensity as a 1.000$ gain. By securing people against risks we are blocking them from creating value. There is a lack of behavioural fuel for social innovation. The importance of feeling safe in order to be creative doesn’t have to be undervalued, but beware! the result can be stillness.


 

The only question from the audience brings up a very interesting point: the difference between community and network.

Bauman explains that we used to belong to communities. Since the World Wide Web has entered in our lives, we are allowed to create our own: therefore, networks belong to us.

Bauman argues that fading communities get along with an unpleasant downfall of necessary conventions. He links nationalism ascent and Schengen’s crisis to an unsatisfied need for belonging, which is finding its revenge in today’s social movements.

I like much more the network alternative: it doesn’t have anything to do with legacy. Community is something that we inherited; network is something that we create for ourselves. Whereas “network” conveys a professional meaning of one’s relationships, “community” hands a broader sense of values, those which Bauman was pointing at as critically fading. I think today’s adulthood gets along with network creation much better. To choose with whom to spend our most valuable asset – time – is freedom.