The illusion of control

June 27, 2016 – 10:07 am

The stories we tell about “who did what” all revolve around the collective illusion that we are in “control” of ourselves, in control of our bodies, in control of what happens around us. Control metaphors all demand a distinction between the controller and the controlled.

When your car is hurtling down the motorway, adhering to the conventions, rules and practices of motoring, you are staying in lane, using signals, going the right way, at a speed matched to those of your fellow motorists. Your contribution to this whole thing is minimal. You twitch the steering wheel a little, and gently pump pedals with your feet. You are a component in a superordinate system, and all is well.

Now your car has a blowout, and it swerves violently, tumbling through the air, over the hedge and into a tree, where it hangs upside down, steaming. At the moment the tyre burst, the road markings and speed conventions lost their ability to constrain the car. At that moment, you got back control. We speak of “losing control”. The opposite is the case. You regained it.

No wonder Boris Johnson speaks of regaining control.

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