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15 Dec 2021

Yunkaporta // Sand Talk

I don’t know if Tyson Yunkaporta’s Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World delivers on its hyperbolic subtitle, but, then, what could?

It’s a great, outside-in look at the ideologies that dominate the globe at the moment, and it’s far more nuanced than the title leads to believe.

One of the key arguments in Sand Talk is that we tend to overly focus our observations on the nodes of a network (individuals, groups, corporations) and we might better understand the behavior of the network if we focused on the edges, the relational forces and interconnections between the nodes.

The main question the book left me mulling over was what is the natural endpoint of embracing a plurality of perspectives? That is, if we abandoned the centralizing narratives and systems (of liberalism, eg) and try to move in a direction even more tolerant of diversity, how do we coalesce all of the diverse perspectives and resolve differences? Does the system that resolves differences need to be agreed upon by everyone? Is this a possible task? These are not questions that in any way point out flaws in Yunkaporta’s position, rather questions that plague me whenever I consider what it really means to embrace plurality and diversity in a deeper way.


Some of my favorite bits…


On subjectivity and diversity of POV:

364 Every viewpoint is useful and it takes a wide diversity of views for any group to navigate this universe, let alone to act as custodians for it. I stand in this gully and see Rainbow in one place; you stand on the hill and see him in another, and he gives us different messages that we are supposed to share with one another.


I’m not so convinced this is a necessary feature of cities so much as it is of free market capitalism metric-ed on GDP:

376 The exponential destruction caused by cities feeds the exponential growth of infrastructure and population. For this they misapply laws like supply and demand: in order for economic growth to occur, there must be more demand than supply. Roughly translated, that means there must be more people needing basic goods and services than there are goods and services to meet their needs. Put another way, there must be a lot of people missing out on what they need to survive in order for the economy to grow, or in order for anything to have value. As the growth continues exponentially, so do the masses of people missing out. There is no equilibrium to be found here.


Focus on the edges (interconnections, relationships) of the network, not the nodes:

556 People today will mostly focus on the points of connection, the nodes of interest like stars in the sky. but the real understanding comes in the spaces in between, in the relational forces that connect and move the points. This symbol highlights those interconnections and de-emphasises the points. If you can see the relational forces connecting and moving the elements of a system, rather than focusing on the elements themselves, you are able to see a pattern outside of linear time. If you bring that pattern back into linear time, this can be called a prediction in today’s world.


Embracing diversity is more than paying lip-service to an abstract idea; it means interacting with people who are very dissimilar to you:

592 Diversity is not about tolerating difference or treating others equally and without prejudice. The diversification principle compels you to maintain your individual difference, particularly from other agents who are similar to you. This prevents you from clustering into narcissistic flash mobs. You must also seek out and interact with a wide variety of agents who are completely dissimilar to you. Finally, you must interact with other systems beyond your own, keeping your system open and therefore sustainable.


Yunkaporta argues governments “invented” adolescence to keep adults in a childlike state of compliance.

806 The government decided that if it could force people to remain children for a few extra years, then it could retard social, emotional and intellectual development and control them more easily. This was the point in history that ‘adolescence’ was invented—a method of slowing the transition from childhood to adulthood, so that it would take years rather than, for example, the months it takes in Indigenous rites of passage.

This delayed transition, intended to create a permanent state of child-like compliance in adults, was developed from farming techniques used to break horses and to domesticate animals. Bear in mind that the original domestication of animals involved the mutation of wild species into an infantilised form with a smaller brain and an inability to adapt or solve problems. To domesticate an animal in this way you must:

  1. Separate the young from their parents in the daylight hours.

  2. Confine them in an enclosed space with limited stimulation or access to natural habitat.

  3. Use rewards and punishments to force them to comply with purposeless tasks.



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