Shouldn’t we know the tastes, preferences, needs, and desires of the people we will be next year—or at least later this afternoon?

Posted by

We tend to think of leadership as inherently a good thing, but as the essays on Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin point out, it is in fact completely morally neutral, as capable of leading mankind to the abyss as to the sunlit uplands.(loc.xi)3

The mistakes we make when we try to imagine our personal futures are also lawful, regular, and systematic. They too have a pattern that tells us about the powers and limits of foresight in much the same way that optical illusions tell us about the powers and limits of eyesight.(Loc.xi)1

In the late summer and early autumn of 1621, a succession of ships set sail from England bound for Jamestown, Virginia. On board were fifty-six young women of certified good character and proven skills, hand-picked by the Virginia Company of London to make wives for the planters of its fledgling colony. The oldest was twenty-eight (or so she claimed) and the youngest barely sixteen. All were reputedly young, handsome and honestly brought up, unlike the prostitutes and vagrant children swept off the streets of London in previous years and transported to the colony as cheap labour.
The Virginia Company’s aim in shipping the women to Virginia was that of money men everywhere: to generate a profit by bringing merchantable goods to market. Since King James had abruptly suspended the Virginia lotteries on which the colony depended for funds, the company’s coffers were bare. Importing would-be brides was one of four moneymaking schemes designed to keep the company afloat, and its leaders in London hoped to ensure the colony’s long-term viability by rooting the unruly settlers to the land with ties of family and children. While the women travelled of their own free will, the company had set a bride price of 150lbs of tobacco for each woman sold into marriage, which represented a healthy return for individual investors. These were businessmen, after all, doing what they did best: making money.
But the women – what did they want from the enterprise? Why did they agree to venture across the seas to a wild and heathen land where life was hard and mortality rates were catastrophic? Had anyone whispered a word to them about the dangers they faced, or warned them how slim their chances of survival really were?
The Jamestown Brides sets out to tell the women’s story: who they were, what sort of lives they led before falling into the Virginia Company’s net, the hopes and fears that propelled them across the Atlantic, and what happened to them when they reached their journey’s end. I have stuck as doggedly as I am able to what the ‘evidence’ tells us, but the record is worn as thin as a vagrant’s coat, requiring a bold leap of the imagination to appreciate from the inside the shock of transitioning from one life to another, made all the harder by the four centuries that separate then from now.
Considered a mere footnote to Virginia’s colonial history, the story of the ‘maids for Virginia’ first came to me in Colonial Williamsburg’s John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library, where I was researching Strange Blooms, a dual biography of John Tradescant and his son (also called John), gardeners to the Stuart kings and early collectors of plants and curiosities.
Distracted by guides in eighteenth-century costume who were visiting the library to check their facts or simply to escape the tourists, I chanced across David Ransome’s scholarly article, ‘Wives for Virginia, 1621’. The story of these women shipped thousands of miles across the Atlantic to procure husbands has stayed with me ever since for reasons that are only partly personal. Then soon to be divorced myself, I could also be said to be looking for a husband, but how far would I travel to find one? (Answer: not far enough to find one.)
Beyond that, I wondered what combination of faith, hope, courage, curiosity or just plain desperation might encourage me or anyone else – at any time – to journey into the unknown.(Pg.2)5

The starting point for my researches was a series of remarkable lists that survive at Magdalene College, Cambridge, among the papers of Nicholas Ferrar, a London merchant closely involved with the Virginia Company who would later retreat with his extended family to found an informal Anglican community at Little Gidding in the historic county of Huntingdonshire. Intended as a kind of sales catalogue for prospective husbands, the lists record the women’s personal histories: name, age, marital status, birthplace, parentage, father’s occupation, domestic skills, guarantors and testimonials from their elders and betters. Dry as they are, lists such as these quickly come alive as you make connections, chase after hares, interrogate possibilities, scramble into and out of dead ends like the ‘Kremlinologists’ identified by the Virginian historian Cary Carson – ‘decoders of elusive clues’ from the few surviving scraps of evidence, much of it buried underground. (Pg.3)5


How can this happen? Shouldn’t we know the tastes, preferences, needs, and desires of the people we will be next year—or at least later this afternoon? (Loc.xi)1


Multystability

WHEN I WAS TEN YEARS OLD, the most magical object in my house was a book on optical illusions. Its pages introduced me to the Müller-Lyer lines whose arrow-tipped ends made them appear as though they were different lengths even though a ruler showed them to be identical, the Necker cube that appeared to have an open side one moment and then an open top the next, the drawing of a chalice that suddenly became a pair of silhouetted faces before flickering back into a chalice again. I would sit on the floor in my father’s study and stare at that book for hours, mesmerized by the fact that these simple drawings could force my brain to believe things that it knew with utter certainty to be wrong. This is when I learned that mistakes are interesting and began planning a life that contained several of them.
But an optical illusion is not interesting simply because it causes everyone to make a mistake; rather, it is interesting because it causes everyone to make the same mistake. (Loc.115)1

When we said yes we were thinking about babysitting (for example) in terms of why instead of how, in terms of causes and consequences instead of execution.
Seeing in time is like seeing in space. But there is one important difference between spatial and temporal horizons. When we perceive a distant buffalo, our brains are aware of the fact that the buffalo looks smooth, vague, and lacking in detail because it is far away, and they do not mistakenly conclude that the buffalo itself is smooth and vague. But when we remember or imagine a temporally distant event, our brains seem to overlook the fact that details vanish with temporal distance, and they conclude instead that the distant events actually are as smooth and vague as we are imagining and remembering them. For example, have you ever wondered why you often make commitments that you deeply regret when the moment to fulfill them arrives? We all do this, of course. We agree to babysit the nephews and nieces next month, and we look forward to that obligation even as we jot it in our diary.
Then, when it actually comes time to buy the Happy Meals, set up the Barbie playset, hide the bong, and ignore the fact that the NBA playoffs are on at one o’clock, we wonder what we were thinking when we said yes. Well, here’s what we were thinking: When we said yes we were thinking about babysitting in terms of why instead of how, in terms of causes and consequences instead of execution, and we failed to consider the fact that the detail-free babysitting we were imagining would not be the detail-laden babysitting we would ultimately experience. Babysitting next month is “an act of love,” whereas babysitting right now is “an act of lunch,” and expressing affection is spiritually rewarding in a way that buying French fries simply isn’t.(Pg.117)1

“Knowledge,” Niels Bohr once noted, “is itself the basis for civilization.” You cannot have the one without the other; the one depends upon the other. Nor can you have only benevolent knowledge; the scientific method doesn’t filter for benevolence. Knowledge has consequences, not always intended, not always comfortable, not always welcome.(Pg.14)2

Bohr proposed once that the goal of science is not universal truth. Rather, he argued, the modest but relentless goal of science is “the gradual removal of prejudices.” The discovery that the earth revolves around the sun has gradually removed the prejudice that the earth is the center of the universe. The discovery of microbes is gradually removing the prejudice that disease is a punishment from God. The discovery of evolution is gradually removing the prejudice that Homo sapiens is a separate and special creation.(Pg.13)2

It is still an unending source of surprise for me to see how a few scribbles on a blackboard or on a sheet of paper could change the course of human affairs. Stanislaw Ulam.

In an enterprise such as the building of the atomic bomb the difference between ideas, hopes, suggestions and theoretical calculations, and solid numbers based on measurement, is paramount. All the committees, the politicking and the plans would have come to naught if a few unpredictable nuclear cross sections had been different from what they are by a factor of two. Emilio Segrè.“

It is a profound and necessary truth,” Robert Oppenheimer would say, “that the deep things in science are not found because they are useful; they are found because it was possible to find them.”The discovery of how to release nuclear energy, like all fundamental scientific discoveries, changed the structure of human affairs—permanently. (Pg.19)2

We tend to think of leadership as inherently a good thing, but as the essays on Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin point out, it is in fact completely morally neutral, as capable of leading mankind to the abyss as to the sunlit uplands.(loc.xi)3

True self-help is just that: helping yourself. It’s an act of personal leadership and direction. (Loc.xxi)4

These tactics, knowing how we deal with events at a temporal distance, can provide a pathway to deception. If you want people to forget the details, wait for the memory to get fuzzy. We are born with a bunch of talents. It’s up to us to become skilled as magicians. (EZM)

Ask how?

Edited by: EZorrilla.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s