This Is the World We Built

‘It’s our fault. This is the world we built’

Muriel in Years and Years

‘The Citizen Story is about the empowerment of us all to co-invent and nurture our own futures. … It’s a state of engagement, more verb than noun. We look around, identify the domains where we have some influence, and we roll us our sleeves and make things happen.’

Brian Eno, Foreword to Citizens by Jon Alexander

Conversations with Jon Alexander, and especially his book, Citizens, were one of a number of initial influences that sparked the idea behind Being Society. Even though the society in consideration in the simulation game is entirely artificial, the purpose is to encourage a certain mindset: the one in which society is not merely something that happens to us, but of which we are a responsible part.

In an era when many may feel that the world around them is in decline, it is easy to create an idea of ‘them’, the other, on whom blame can be placed. The ‘them’ may be politicians, voters who voted contrary to ourselves, a specific sub-group of society, powerful corporations, or even the sort of unspecified power that leads ultimately to conspiracy theories. The individual may feel helpless in the face of the ‘system’, as though the system is something that exists external to creation or change.

An image of a crowd in darkness against bright coloured lights.

It may be easier to see this in challenging times, but, as Alexander points out, the attitude may rather be highlighted, not created, when society doesn’t seem to be working the way one hoped.

‘In the Citizen Story, politics needs all of us, not just the Great Leader standing out in front, however benevolent and of whatever gender or disposition. When we look to the government official we ‘purchased’ with our vote to make all the bad things go away, to let us off the hook, that’s a fundamentally disempowering and anti-democratic arrangement.’ (Alexander, Citizens, 33)

Being Society’s simulation game offers the option for students to demonstrate a preference for different degrees of democracy, even the selection of a single dictatorial leader, but the idea of democratic participation is at its heart and decisions are always to be made through a discussion group. However, the nature of this small and challenged community encourages a grassroots attitude as well. There is no one to turn to beyond yourself and your immediate neighbours in order to bring about change. And change needs to prioritize those things that really matter to the members of the society, both practical and in terms of ideals for a better future.

The aim is to encourage two interlinked ways of thinking about a person’s role as a part of society: one is to consolidate their ability to think critically about political ideas in the abstract; the other is to consider the place of self and others in a community that could be better, and what every person could do to bring that about. The intended outcomes exist on a scale, from thoughtful engagement with the democratic process at the one end, to grassroots action or active political engagement at the other. The lasting point is that society should be recognized as ‘us’ rather than ‘them’.

Leave a Reply