The prophets are our unflappable sat-nav, not the lost car in front

February 4, 2006
The Bright Sun Blue Sky Clouds
Published in The Times, 4th February 2006

I have acquired a wonderful tutor in the art of hope. It is called a satellite navigation system, and it lives in my car. All you have to do when setting out on a journey is to key in your destination. It then tells you how to get from here to there.

It is a marvellous device, but I suspect that whoever designed it had never met a Jewish driver. What happens is this. Once the machine has worked out the route, a polite lady’s voice tells you something along the lines of: “Keep straight for 300 yards, then turn right.”

Normally, this would suffice. But as anyone who has shared a journey with a Jewish driver knows, the response is likely to be: “What does she know? I’ve been driving this car for 20 years. I know the neighbourhood like I know my own mother. Anyone knows that in 300 yards, you turn left.”

Watching the computer’s response is an education in itself. It has done what it was asked to do, and with impeccable politeness. Now, for no apparent reason, it finds its advice ignored and its instructions flouted. With commendable patience, it makes no immediate response. It does not say, as it has every right to: “If you’re such a maven, why did you ask in the first place?”

Instead, it goes silent for a few moments, perhaps meditating on the shortness of life and the lengths of human folly. It then sends up a signal: “Recalculating the route.” Seconds later it provides you with a new set of instructions, based on wherever you have landed up as a result of going left when you should have gone right.

From this marvellous machine I have learnt one of the great lessons in life. However many wrong turns you may have taken, if you know where you want to be, there is a route from here to there. If that isn’t a source of hope, what is?

Reading James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds, I came across the opposite phenomenon. He tells the story of how the American naturalist William Beebe came across a strange sight in the jungle of Guyana. A group of army ants was moving in a huge circle. The ants went round and round in the same circle for two days until most of them dropped dead. The reason is that when a group of army ants is separated from its colony, it obeys a simple rule: follow the ant in front of you. The trouble is that if the ant in front of you is lost, so will you be.

Surowiecki’s argument is that we need dissenting voices: people who challenge the conventional wisdom, resist the fashionable consensus, disturb the intellectual peace.

“Follow the person in front of you” is as dangerous to humans as it is to army ants. To stand apart, to question where the group is going, is the task of the prophet through the ages.

In a sense, the great religions are satellite navigation systems. They attempt to chart our position in the universe absolutely, not just in relation to the car in front. They do so in roughly the same way, by bouncing a signal (prayer) off something that stands outside the earth, and listening carefully to how it returns. The earliest navigation system was the pillar of cloud and fire that accompanied the Israelites on their journey through the wilderness. Since then we have tried to internalise it through the inner voice that speaks to us when we come to a crossroads and need to know whether to turn right or left. The alternative — follow the ant in front of you — doesn’t always work.

Human societies have had a pretty bad record when it comes to protecting the environment, preserving species, conserving resources, promoting justice, respecting strangers and pursuing peace. Yet most of them were convinced at the time that they were doing the right thing. The fate of the army ants — going round and round in a circle until most drop dead — could serve as a metaphor for the march of human folly.

That is why, at troubled times like these, we need the satellite navigation system’s message of hope. However many wrong turns humanity has taken, if we know where we want to be, there is a route from here to there.