Isolated from our heritage

Loss of learned skills is messing with our heads, but John Gilbey wonders who needs to know

October 23, 2008

The cover of Everyday Survival made me curious, which I guess is a good result for the designer. Looking at the human figure walking along the top of a wooden breakwater, I wondered, was this the smart person - and was he depicted in the act of doing something stupid?

Intrigued, I had a closer look and found that the book covered a much wider range of issues than you might guess from the title. So extensive is the scope of the book, in fact, that I sometimes wondered whether the author had bitten off too large a chunk of the cosmos - but I'll come back to that later on.

After a quick skim through the text, I was sufficiently interested to read the prologue - not something I would usually do until after I had read the book, but I felt I needed to get an insight into the author's direction of thought. I quickly discovered that Gonzales has an engaging narrative style, one that uses the detail of his immediate environment - and especially the people he meets - to give the reader a taste of how his views have formed.

Everyday Survival starts out with the premise that as individuals we are increasingly isolated from our heritage of intuitive and learned survival, and the practical skills that go with it. He then scales up this concept to cover a range of corporate, research and technological situations where there have been negative outcomes that appear sufficiently counterintuitive to warrant further explanation. Being a pilot himself, Gonzales is keen to illustrate his arguments with examples from aviation, such as plane crashes which have been attributed to human error that compounded the original problem with dramatically fatal consequences. Human behaviour in response to tsunamis and volcanic eruptions also gets a mention: examples of how we have lost (or perhaps unlearned) our instinctive survival skills and tend to run towards, rather than away from, unexpected events. Many of the case studies presented will probably be familiar to the averagely informed reader.

Gonzales gives us an outline of some of the classic psychology studies, such as Phil Zimbardo's 1971 prisoner/guard experiment at Stanford, and goes on to look at the potential consequences of group-thinking in such events as the two Nasa shuttle disasters. This is followed by several excursions into the corporate environment, with discussions of how the personalities, groups and technologies of Intel, Xerox, Apple, IBM and the nascent Microsoft interacted in the early 1980s. There is nothing startling or original in the reporting of how risk is, or isn't, managed corporately - but the juxtaposition of ideas and concepts presented is interesting.

From here on, using a number of threads of experience-based writing related to the skills of (mostly vanished) human cultures, Gonzales begins to paint a bigger picture. He presents examples of how new technologies continue to take us further from our historical roots, especially the roots that link us to our personal survival, and how exposure to these technologies distorts our concepts of both risk and safety.

With this staging in place, the question of human survival on the gross scale is mooted. Climate change and environmental impacts, the end of the oil culture and excessive personal consumption are all used as emblems of risk on the global scale - as potential extinction factors for humanity.

As I said, Gonzales writes well. Reading the book for a second time, however, I can see a marked difference in the way he presents first-hand experience and how he reports the work of others. He has an obvious enthusiasm for the travel he has undertaken, the places he has been and the people he has met. His descriptive passages are very effective and convey a real sense of presence, but in his reporting of the academic research he sometimes seems too remote from his own experience - losing the personal connection with which he most effectively expresses himself.

I was left wondering who to recommend the book to. Despite having a reasonable bibliography, the book is not referenced to the degree that you would need to use it as a textbook, and in the advance copy I read, a number of the quotations would be difficult to trace to their original context. This book is, however, an excellent narrative of an interesting personal odyssey, and as a general interest book by an established writer and public speaker it will no doubt be successful. It would certainly make an excellent poolside holiday read.

The prologue is balanced with an epilogue. This is a passage of very personal writing displaying a degree of humanity and strong emotional frame of reference that highlights, for me, where Gonzales should develop his work.

Everyday Survival: Why Smart People Do Stupid Things

By Laurence Gonzales

W. W. Norton & Company

320pp, £15.99

ISBN 9780393058383

Published 17 October 2008

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