On Non-Conformance

Abstract: A poorly researched, selective, biased and yet unfinished case for thinking beyond technology. Arguing that non-conformance is required to monitor and reign in technology’s impact on our lives.

From a young age, I was partial to non-conformance. One main factor in it, I believe, was the Third Reich narrative. From 1933-1945, the overwhelming majority of Germans conformed – with disastrous consequences.

To me, the principle of non-conformance is: If everyone around you supports a view, an action, a party etc., this alone doesn’t make it right. You need to form your own judgement, and consider the possibility that you’ll be at odds with everyone around you.

Obviously, it isn’t nearly as simple. On closer inspection, lots of factors muddy the water. It’s worth recognising some of them:

When I say ‘I am partial to non-conformance’, what I really mean is ‘I am partial to non-conformance that conforms to my personal values’.
Non-conformance goes hand in hand with conformance: Joining a group of non-conformers is an act of conformance. A group of people, subscribing to a notion of non-conformance towards mainstream culture, will naturally establish conformance within that group. Conformance is what binds people together; groups of any scale, from a couple to millions, wouldn’t function without conformance.
Still, I stick to the thesis that today’s world would benefit from more non-conformance.

Non-conformance is needed to question what’s no longer being questioned

My sense is that the societal climate, over the past 30 years or so, has shifted towards a mesmerised state of compliance, with a set of unquestionable rules:
1 Technological progress is inevitable. From its inevitability follows that it’s useless to question it
2 Big corporate players are in control. From their omnipresence and power follows that it’s useless to question their impact
3 The system is what it is. It’s ok to contribute to the solution of its obvious problems. But it’s useless to question whether something is thoroughly wrong with the system as such.

And along with that, the big ideas about what life and this world could be like have somehow faded into the background. Nowadays, radical ideas come from extremist groups setting out to prove that there are no limits to human confusion.

To make the point, let’s take the perspective of an outsider – a fictional, impossibly impartial character comparing the Western industrialised nations of 1989 with those of today.

They may wonder what happened.

They’d probably notice the progress in many areas of science and technology. And notice that there are massive tasks left – social injustice and inequality, environmental degradation, lack of a sustainable model of socio-economic development, lack of a holistic/systemic understanding of terrorism, lack of an ethical/spiritual foundation of society and education – to name a few.

When turning to what the people do on the planet, everyday, our impossibly impartial character would notice that Western people’s lives have changed a lot since 1989. Technology has taken centre stage. People have apparently fallen in love with small devices.

Thinking has become device-sized

The sobering effect may come when looking at what’s on people’s minds. It may seem that people adjust their mind space to fit the size of their devices. And increasingly people lose the ability to think ‘outside of the device’ – beyond the technology that surrounds them. Meanwhile, the places where people live – the big cities – are being cleaned up, gradually removing everything that is unique and points to the possibilities of life. Technology makes city life convenient and seamless – at the cost of eroding what makes cities worth living in.

Our impossibly impartial character may conclude that this type of progress is a strange one, putting technology in people’s hands that somehow manages to shrink their mind space and spirit.

It is in view of this type of progress that I see a need for people who think outside of devices, beyond technology. In other words, a need for non-conformance.

Not in the sense of a rebellion against technology per se. Rather, in the sense of coming up with ideas how to reign in technology’s negative impacts – where those ideas most likely involve technology.