Questions behind questions

Photograph by author. Postcards of works by M.C. Escher.

Photograph by author. Postcards of works by M.C. Escher.

I would wager that deep questions are a part of any meaningful relationship. The presence of deep questions might even be a good indicator of how meaningful the relationship is. This is because to ask a really deep question seems to suggest a genuine curiosity in the other’s understanding or perception of something. Deep questions might require one to step outside their comfort zone, and really listening to the answer could challenge the way one thinks about and themselves and the world. That can be scary stuff.

I have been in a long-distance relationship for about three years, and looking back, deep questions have always been a part of how we have grown together. But one question in particular has been present and unchanging over the past three years. Perhaps you have a similarly persistent question that hangs over your head, like a seagull at the beach who hovers over your half-eaten bag of whatever you brought until the moment you decide it is probably safe to venture away for a short while because, after all, you’re at the beach, and you’ll be damned if this seagull is going to dictate how you spend your only day off in what feels like forever. Yes, perhaps you know how I feel. There is such a question that has been a part of my relationship since it began, and it stands out to me in part because I have never been fully satisfied with its underlying premise. You may know this very question from your own relationships; you may have already guessed it. 

How would you rate this Skype call?

Ha ha! Very funny Mr. Jones. But I’m quite serious. True, the question doesn’t have any meaning for me in terms of the relationship itself- that is just the mechanism through which the question became a part of my everyday life. For years this question was non-existent for me, then suddenly it was as regular (in habit and frequency) as my morning coffee. For a while, I simply folded it in to my routine. But recently I have begun to think about the potential consequence of having done so. At face value, the question seems pretty harmless. How would I rate this Skype call? Gee, I suppose it was good, bad- it didn’t seem to matter. I never saw a real feedback mechanism between my rating and the quality of future Skype calls. Recently, I realized that the consequence is not in the content of the question itself. Rather, it is the question that this question sneakily glosses over, as though it isn’t a question worth asking: 

Do you want to rate this Skype call?

It took me a while to realize that my consent for providing feedback was not really being sought by the makers of Skype. The assumption goes something like this: we always want to improve technology, and we need your feedback in order to do so, so provide it to us so that we can continue forward progress. This line of reasoning has a tendency to mask the presumptive questions that prop it up: do we always want to improve technology? How do we define improvements? Is my consent an important part of the information-gathering process? And does progress necessitate technological improvement? 

Consider another example from here in the Phoenix Valley: self-driving cars. Next month, I will dive into some of the tradeoffs I see with self-driving cars. For now, we can simply consider our compelled contribution to this grand experiment of automation, powered in part by a vast and perpetual accumulation of data. Whenever I pull up behind a self-driving Uber or Waymo, my every automotive action is being absorbed like a Borg Cube scanning the Enterprise. I suppose my consent was given to these companies by the Governor of Arizona, the very essence of consent notwithstanding. 

Is this related to how I would rate my Skype call? The common thread for me is that neither of these situations are designed to call awareness to their underlying assumptions. They immediately reroute our attention to how we should respond or engage, not whether we want to or <gasp!> ought to. This tendancy is particularly relevant for sustainability as we examine the root metaphors that influence how we develop our values and patterns of behavior. After having noticed that my consent was presumed by these two experiences, I began looking for other such instances. 

As you might imagine… They. Are. Everywhere. As I notice them more frequently, I am beginning to explore whether my process of seeking out underlying assumptions helps me to perceive some of the invisible forces that have influenced my own attitudes and actions. There are, of course, myriad social theories investigating such phenomena, many of which I find both fascinating and convincing. But you don’t need to read Luke’s radical view of power to consider the implications of unconsciously consenting to what have slowly become everyday occurrences. Certainly you can. But I recommend doing a little digging during the course of your day into the ‘questions hidden behind the questions’, that you encounter regularly. And if you have any strategies that you already use, share them in the comments below! 

About the Author: Matt Nock is a third-year PhD student in the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University. His research is at the intersection of sustainability education and public pedagogy, and focuses on the ways in which the dominant discourses of social and environmental oppression are reproduced or challenged through formal and informal learning processes.