Stop for a moment and look around you. You don't know how anything you can see was made, what's in it, or how it works, do you? You live in a world where everything you wear, eat, use and consume is a mystery. This is the only time in human history when mankind has been surrounded by a world it doesn't understand. And I think it's a really, really big problem.
You might think I'm exaggerating, but start with the phone on which you're probably reading this. Do you know how it works? Not just how to use it, but how the combination of metals and plastics combine to make a circuit board onto which it's possible to layer a screen and build software? Me either.
Okay, fair enough, phones are modern technical marvels. Let's go simpler. It's lunchtime and you've bought a sandwich. Bread. We could all make bread, at a push. But the bread in that sandwich doesn't just contain water, flour and yeast. It contains all kinds of stuff you've never heard of and wouldn't know how to get it. You couldn't make the sandwich you've just eaten. You wouldn't know how.
If you could hop in a time machine and go back 1000 years, what would you tell the people you meet? About travel and telecoms and electricity and medicine. Genes and germs. TV and GPS. “Help us!” they would cry, “Help us to experience these wonders!” At which point you’d jump back in the time machine (that you don’t understand) to avoid the baying mob, which very quickly realises you have absolutely no idea how any of these things work and are probably just a witch.
I'm not telling you this to make you feel bad. Nobody knows how to make these things, or how they work. How do they make the artificial fabric in your shoes and clothes? No idea. The tarmac in your street? The bricks in your walls and the product in your hair? Me either. Your life is built on magic. The internet is just the Penn and Teller end of a very wide spectrum of small miracles that govern your existence.
The thing is, for 99% of modern human history, this hasn't been the case at all. In fact, the extreme disconnect between the things in our lives and our own understanding of them is really a very modern phenomenon. Humans first evolved around 2 million years ago. People who were essentially identical to us, more like 100,000 years. Pick either as a starting place and you’re still looking at a species that developed in small groups, living close to the land, intricately connected to its surroundings and crucially, understanding everything it used in daily life. We’ve taken that same animal and dumped it into a technological wonderland in which it’s not adapted to survive. We do survive, but there are costs. We have incredible medicine, but a mental health crisis. We have mega-cities, but we’re lonely.
In our day to day lives, is this relevant? So what if we don’t understand things, we still reap the benefits of this collective knowledge. Does it matter, really? I think it does. As I see it, at its heart, it means we have a lack of agency. If you don't understand it, you can't control it. You can't talk to your tribe about the shelter, or the hunt. You can't contribute. It's out of your hands, all of it. You’re trapped, because the system is incomprehensible.
Imagine the reverse. All of a sudden (in evolutionary terms) your phone is snatched from your hand, your fridge, takeaway and ready meals disappear. You lose the technical clothing off your back and the lights go out. You'd be a little shocked, right? You'd struggle to adjust. Maybe you'd find a bear-free cave and huddle for a while. You'd be scared of a world you were woefully under-prepared for. It's hardly a leap to suggest it would impact your mental health.
This is where we are as a species. We've built a world we don't understand, can't control and don't connect with. We're making ourselves ill because we've let the world run away from us. In essence, we've built ourselves a shiny, glass-and-steel zoo to live in and we wonder why so many of us feel trapped and want to escape. It's not hard to work it out. We're natural, living beings and we belong in a natural, physical, comprehensible environment. Evolution hasn't caught up with the modern world and there's no chance that it will.
What can we do about it? Well, we can’t destroy the system (although if you have a non-violent, loving suggestion for how we can, I’m 100% in), but we can try to reconnect with our ancient selves. Get into nature, breath, meditate, roll around on the grass, be somewhere without artificial light. I put plant medicines at the extreme end of this, but its on the same continuum. Just do something that ties you to your origins. Be who you are supposed to be for a little while. You might quite enjoy the experience of being human. For some of us, that in itself comes as a pleasant surprise. You’re nature – act like it.