The Triumph of Triviality

Was just going through a pile of old magazines and found this brilliant article by John F Schumaker in the April 2008 issue of New Internationalist. The basic premise is the sentence opening the second paragraph: “It wasn’t supposed to be this way.”

It really wasn’t. How could it be? Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs stated that when basic needs are satisfied, people can move on to meet their higher level needs – intellectual, spiritual, social, existential. Schumaker quotes from 1950s intellectuals full of hope about the “people of tomorrow” and how wise and fulfilled they would be now that their basic human needs had (in the West) been taken care of.

But Maslow’s theory broke down. We are the people of tomorrow, we have more stuff than anybody’s ever had before, and we are so stupid and self-absorbed that we can’t even bring ourselves to care about our imminent destruction of the planet (voting on the X-Factor, now, that’s a different story). We are trivial. We are foolish. We are willfully ignorant. We have the attention span of a hyperactive toddler stoked up on M&Ms. We are lost.

Schumaker is spot-on with his descriptions (“drowning in our own shallowness”, “human potential taking a back seat to economic potential”, “self-absorption on a spectacular scale”) and doesn’t shy away from naming “our dangerously obsolete socio-economic system” as the prime cause. He’s a bit light on solutions, apart from vague-sounding talk of “global consciousness”, but he gives some web links to “culture change” strategists that sound interesting. I will investigate them, if I can muster the attention span.


  1. Greg Sedbrook 7 May 2012 at 9:02 am

    If you sincerely want to follow up on this contact me – I followed up un everything I could get a hold of from Maslow – also Fromm, Watts, Gurdjieff, Krishnamurti, etc – and here’s something from Anne Herbert. Greg Sedbrook

    Anne was the first editor of the Whole Earth Review (Whole Earth
    Catalogue origin), originated the CREATE RANDOM ACTS OF KINDNESS AND
    SENSELESS ACTS OF BEAUTY expression. And the poem “SNAKE” on how competition
    has taken over “Fun”. etc.

    If there is a god, why are there crummy little jobs? If we made
    up god, why can’t we make up something better than a worldwide
    interlocking network of crummy little jobs?
    What if everyone were thinking? By thinking, I mean not the
    process of deciding which is the right answer on a
    SAT test, but noticing the situation you’re part of and noticing what
    you know about it and chewing on what you notice until you know more.
    To do many jobs, you have to turn off all the switches of yourself
    except one – the filing switch, the hitting the keys on the keyboard
    switch. Noticing the whole situation on a job and having an idea about
    it and telling the boss the idea often leads to being condesceneded to,
    being sneered at or being laughed at. People encouraged to have ideas
    will have others and one of them might save a lot of money, reduce
    suffering or make filing easier. Even a pleasant office may be filled
    with a great flat pressing feeling when you think of saying something
    about doing things differently. The very molecules of the
    air-conditioned room seem to say, “Shut up and do your job”
    A friend of mine said it was scary to her to hear someone say on
    the news that the reason the Polish government is having trouble now is
    that it educated people well, so now they think and the government is
    challenged. That scared her because she thinks we don’t educate people
    well in this country, we don’t educate people to think and the
    government isn’t in trouble.
    I used to think school didn’t give people any learning by doing,
    no preparation for real life activities. Now I think many schools do
    provide continual learning by doing of the most basic adult activity-
    enduring boredom. In school you learn to endure boredom which you will
    need to do many jobs. No explicit advice is given on how to endure
    kids are thrown into an ocean of it and improvise for themselves how to
    swim or how to live on though drowned
    Sometimes I have crummy little jobs. Sometimes I don’t. When I
    don’t boredom is just a word for me, and not a world of: Will I run
    screaming from the room now or in 3 minutes? When I have boring little
    jobs I think, Let me out of here. by which I mean: Let me out of here.
    I want to be a consultant(which I ocassionally am) and get paid to
    think and talk and ask myself the question, “Am I bullshitting and would
    anyone notice if I were?” I want to leave my workmates
    and wither on. I want out.
    You never know about utopia. PT Barnum said he knew only 50% of
    his advertising worked, but he didn’t know which 50%. Some utopian
    ideas stay as impossible
    as they seemed when first dreamed, but others, just up and happen and
    utopianly dreaming them is the first step toward a better life for
    actual folks. What if everyone thought and brought their unique wisdom to
    the world as part of their daily routine? How could that happen? What
    would be some results if it did? Now it seems that for things to go
    on, there must be many jobs where people stuff their hearts and minds
    and souls into a psychic space the size of a soup can and count the
    minutes till five o’clock. But work structure is not something
    inevitable, but something we chose day by day.
    Take five o’clock and the whole “40hrs. a week is fulltime” idea. That
    used to be utopian until the people with the crummiest jobs made it
    real, made their crummy jobs eat up less of their lives,and be done in
    less horrifying conditions. People did some good work on their working
    conditions- it might be time to work on content. The people united are
    frequently defeated, but not always.

    1. Andrew Blackman - Site Author 7 May 2012 at 1:04 pm

      Hi Greg
      Thanks for visiting, and for sharing this! I enjoyed reading the extract from Anne Herbert. A lot of it resonated with me – we really are not educated to think at all, which is a perfect preparation for a life in which most of us are not expected to think at all. Would love to hear more about your reading – will email you separately.


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