Imprisoned with the infinite – the philosophical implications of an imaginary visit to Sweden

Yesterday our household returned home from an imaginary holiday. Despite being in lockdown, we realised that we could imagine going on a trip anywhere in the world. Our daughter suggested our Sweden. Too far to easily get to under normal circumstances without flying, with that constraint removed we thought, why not? Now back home, I have been using this visit as an opportunity to explore some philosophical arguments about how we deal with choice and how this affects our creativity.

Over three days away we:

  • Went on a virtual tour of the Stockholm museum of modern art
  • Exercised in Eastville park, imagining we were exploring lakes and pine forests
  • Listened to and played along with a lot of Swedish pop
  • Our daughter dressed as a traditional Easter witch
  • Built a den in the shape of a kota structure (a bit like a yurt)
  • Ate various Swedish-themed foods including potato pancakes for lunch, Rivita and cheese for breakfast and ginger biscuits baked in the style of Pippi Longstocking
  • Watched a Swedish film and tuned in to Swedish radio

But the highlight for me was embracing Fika, to have coffee and a sweet thing with friends. Our Fika was made all the more sensational by the delivery of delicious homemade cinnamon buns from a local, Bristollian Swedish bakery – it might have seemed like an extravagance but we had saved a lot of money on train tickets.

Our visit was an interesting experiment in how to live with the lockdown predicament: being imprisoned with the infinite possibilities of the internet. On the one-hand, there is no end to the choice of stimulus and information with which our screens can provide us in our isolation. But on the other hand, the choice can be overwhelming and anxiety-inducing.

To help navigate a path through this infinite choice, I have gone back to reading philosopher Matthew Crawford’s book, ‘The World Beyond Your Head – how to flourish in an age of distraction’. He makes a key argument about the difference between individuality and individualism that helps to shed some light on this unusual landscape that we are in.

Individuality is a relative term, it concerns what distinguishes us from other people. Being a relational, individuality is inseparable from our relation to others. Our relationships provide the context within which we establish our individuality. I am interested in individuality because I think nurturing it helps to build self-confidence. From this secure base we can propose new ideas, develop thought that is distinct from what has gone before and to test it in our social milieu.

Individualism is something different, it is the principle of being independent – self-reliant. Crawford argues that our modern age of infinite choice offers advertises individuality but delivers individualism. You can have ‘a thousand tunes in your pocket’ as the old iPod slogan used to go, but everyone is listening alone.

Even more paradoxically, when everyone has exactly the same easy access to lots of of options, there is very little relative meaning or value to our choices. In this sweetshop of unlimited pick-and-mix, everyone can have whatever suits them. Our distinctiveness diminishes; the relational landscape within which we identify ourselves is flattened.

In pursuit then of some other way to understand the individual, Crawford argues that we develop an understanding and expression of ourselves through the opportunities and limitations that the real world beyond our head presents and how we respond to them. This real world beyond our head is distinct from the imaginary world in our head that is easily manipulated by the unlimited virtual represenations of the world delivered to us through our screens. He describes many ways through which the world beyond our head reveals itself, which I have summarised as four lenses:

  • Through physical interaction with the world in which we act.
  • Through collaboration and conflict with real people.
  • Through adherence to some sort of jig, which in his framing is an external device that guides a piece of work by limiting freedom of movement or action.
  • Through submission to learning from communities of practice and hierarchies of knowledge.

Although not intended as an experiment in exploring the world beyond my head, I find it interesting to look at our imaginary Swedish adventure through these lenses.

Physical interaction with the real world in which we act

It is the physical parts of our imaginary trip that I enjoyed the most. These are the parts that are shaped by the affordances and limitations of real objects, local connections and the nearby physical landscape: the contours of the local park shaped our make-believe visit to forests and lakes; sitting in the den made from objects we found at home. The most satisfying part of the whole adventure was the real-world delivery of buns from our local Swedish bakery. This delivery is a unique affordance of our postcode – they don’t deliver further afield. Had we ordered something from a large-scale distribution warehouse that can deliver anywhere in the country, it would not have been a function of our local physical environment. They also smelt and tasted great.

Collaboration and conflict with other people

Our visit was a household collaboration and a shared experience of joint attention – we enjoyed the buns together and we noticed each other enjoying the buns together. This is another manifestation of the physical world that surrounds us. Conflict also emerged to help shape our trip, in this instant around choice of music. My daughter and I saw our nordic journey as an a licence to listen to unlimited Abba, but my partner disagreed. We had to negotiate an agreed daily Abba dose in response to our individual tastes. The alternative might have been for us each to have put on headphones and listened to our personal musical preferences, but this would have been individualism, and that would not have felt as good.

Adherence to a jig

Choosing an imaginary destination created a cultural jig that says of the infinite possibilities of action we can take we will only select that relate to Sweden. Whilst a limiting factor in response to which we could demonstrate some individuality, the choice of Sweden did feel somewhat arbitrary and was probably the only slightly unsatisfactory aspect of our trip. Jigs I suspect work best when there is some more robust reason for adhering to one, otherwise we might easily choose another shape and therefore no longer toil to keep to that shape. I realise now an example of a physical jig we could have adopted would have been to choose a tiny suitcase into which pack our clothes for the visit – that would have caused us to make some interesting choices.

Submission to communities of practice and hierarchies of knowledge

With hindsight we missed an opportunity to experience the fourth lens, submission to communities of practice and hierarchies of knowledge, by not learning any Swedish. Language learning is a pursuit in which you have to submit before layers and layers of socially acquired knowledge. You can’t just click your way through it; you can’t bend it to your will; you can’t just say I am going on an imaginary trip to Sweden and now I need Swedish (download now, Matrix-style). It is a hard landscape that requires difficult exploration, and how you account for yourself on this journey is an expression of your individuality.

I have written up this imaginary trip and philosophical tour to help make sense of the lockdown predicament: being imprisoned with infinite possibilities. What I conclude is that what feels good, that what creates a sense of a meaingful self, is pursuing that which you can uniquely do in response to your physical and social setting and that you need to work for. Through interaction with this world beyond your head you will develop individuality that can be a foundation for personal creativity.

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