Faust, Farms and Facebook

Thoughts on social media, the Agricultural Revolution and dealing with the devil...

Somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago, the nature of human existence changed forever.

From the Fertile Crescent in what we now call the Middle East to the Aztec valleys of Mesoamerica, humans, who had hitherto been wandering hunter-gatherers, surviving in small tribes and following the food they needed to survive, began to plant things in the ground.

It’s what we now call the Agricultural Revolution.

We discovered that, instead of stalking mega-fauna across the plains, instead of stumbling randomly from honey-comb to fortuitous bushel of nuts, we could plant things in the ground, stick around nearby, and food would eventually grow out of the ground for us.

We could even tame and cross-breed the friendlier, more useful animals we met and turn them into permanent milk-squirting, egg-laying machines (until they became too old, at which point we could just eat them anyway).

Suddenly, we needed permanent homes, since we had to live near our new crops.

We needed diverse societies, because some people would be needed to plant whilst others had to harvest, guard, build, heal or raise our children.

We exchanged germs with our new animal friends, becoming immunologically familiar with a whole host of novel diseases.

Having established consistent sources of food that we could rely upon, more or less, to feed us all year round, we bred like rabbits.

We had to: we needed the extra human workforce in order to grow enough food to support the population which, in turn, required ever more food.

Tribes became villages, towns, cities. Even empires. The global population boomed and hasn’t stopped booming since.

Pre-agriculture, estimates suggest there may have been just a few million human beings in total on Planet Earth.

Fast forward just 10,000 years or so — only 3% of our history as a species — and there are almost 8 billion of us.

It’s a hallmark of human progress that we change things first and then deal with the unforeseen consequences later.

Inventing agriculture must have felt like a no-brainer at the time.

Food - the scarcity of which had been the central driver behind every decision, movement, and relocation we had ever made - was suddenly able to pop up out of the ground, on cue.


We never needed to range across the tundra again.

We could build shelter and raise families and live out our days in a sort of Edenic fantasy - our every need provided for by the bounty of our own gardens.

Except it wasn’t like that for the average Homo-Sapiens.

Suddenly, instead of spending his days wandering the Great Plains, sleeping beneath the stars with his tribal brothers and sisters, healthy and muscular, free to go wherever the bison might be, he had a job to do.

Every morning he’d have to pull himself out of his hovel at dawn and tend the field.

That is, until a neighboring tribe tried to burn it down and take his wife as a spoil of war.

Or he caught smallpox from his cow.

Or the ‘King’ (there were ‘Kings’ now…) demanded he give most of his crops up and he found he barely had enough to feed the 12 children he had somehow fathered.

What else was he meant to do between shifts?

The problem was that the Agricultural Revolution perpetuated such a rapid explosion in population and such radical social change that, once it had taken root, it simply wasn’t possible to return to what life was like before.

In Goethe’s famous story of Faust, a man makes a deal with the devil. He gives Satan ownership of his soul, in return for a life of the ultimate luxury and power.

The Agricultural Revolution was, in some sense, a Faustian pact that promised us unlimited opportunities but seems to have imprisoned us forever.

That’s one pessimistic way of reading it, anyway.

As I drink my Americano and eat my breakfast burrito, I’m personally pretty grateful for the discovery of agriculture.

I’m not sure I’d be the best bison hunter.

I like things like modern medicine, flight, The Rolling Stones, and the microwave - none of which would exist were we still spending all of our energy chasing down our next meal.

But there are certainly growing pains that it’s hard not to notice.

Don’t forget, we’ve been around as a species for about 300,000 years.

If human existence was a 100-page novel, we’d only have discovered agriculture on page 97.

It is still an incredibly recent development, though, of course, history never feels like that.

And we’re still learning to deal with many of the changes.

Now that the food supply is effectively unlimited, our pre-agricultural genes still tempt us to gorge ourselves into a pre-diabetic state of obesity.

Now that everyone needs a specialism, a niche where they can provide value to our highly diversified, competitive societies, there are large swathes of us who simply don’t know how to contribute and fester in a sort of useless resentment, or turn to drugs and alcohol to fill the void.

Or, increasingly, their Tik Tok feed.

For me, there are plenty of parallels to be drawn between the Agricultural Revolution and the Digital Revolution we are all living through now.

I’ve been feeling more and more enslaved to my social media feeds recently, to the point of purchasing a separate app that tracks the time I spend on them per day and locks me out of them for three-hour periods when I’ve been looking at them too long.

I’ve had to pay for a digital nanny to take my toys away so I can concentrate on my homework.

I’m 33 years old; I have several degrees, own property, and even manage to get to the gym a few times a week.

What’s going on?

The worst part is that, even though I’d quite like to delete and be done with them forever, I don’t think I can.

Much like the Agricultural Revolution, the cultural paradigm has shifted so much thanks to the power of these platforms that I don’t think I can survive without them.

I’d be the lone hunter-gatherer, all rib-cage and desperation, a hermit in the cave on the outskirts of town.

It's like we've all signed another Faustian Pact, and there's no way to twist our way free.

How could I promote my music and try and build a career without Instagram or Facebook? It’s where the vast majority of clients find me for private or public engagements, it’s where new people discover me, it’s where I find the people I want to collaborate with. It’s often where I get inspired.

But it’s also where I waste hours of my life each day, conscious of the fact that these hours will amount to weeks and months over the course of my one precious life on planet Earth.

I don’t know how to square this circle.

Just as agriculture comes with endless labor, disease, and restrictive social hierarchies, Instagram comes with that feature that shows you short videos on a loop forever.

And it's impossible to resist.

I don’t think you can expect a mere mortal like me to use one aspect of it without being dragged into the swamp of the other.

Not when Silicon Valley has billions of dollars trained solely on the job of hijacking your attention.

It isn’t a fair fight.

So I’m sort of resigned to life in this strange post-Eden.

I feel like all I can hope for is to take advantage of the unprecedented communicational power social media affords me whilst guarding as best as I can against the mind-numbing, brain-killing hours I waste drooling over it every day.

Which means, try as I might, I’ll inevitably find my screen transforming in front of me into old Champions League highlights, people endlessly analysing The Beatles or women in tight gym-shorts (I know - and I'm sorry).

Maybe there’s a way of having the best of both worlds - of signing the devil’s contract but keeping my soul, of biting the apple whilst abiding in Eden.

Of having the farm and the freedom.

I doubt it, though.

Keep dreaming,


Rob Jones & The Restless Dream

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