Australia and the World at the Dawn of 2017

Report of an OPUS Listening Post® held in Melbourne on 19 January 2017


In this part, the Listening Post participants were invited to identify, contribute, and explore their experiences in their various social roles, be they: in work, unemployed or retired; as members of religious, political, neighbourhood, voluntary or leisure organisations; or as members of families and communities. This part was largely concerned with what might be called, ‘the stuff of people’s everyday lives’: the ‘socio’ or ‘external’ world of participants.

12 participants attended this year’s Listening Post in addition to the three convenors – 6 men and 9 women in all. The event was held on the eve of the US President’s inauguration, and noted as having influenced a discussion narrowly focused on ‘the citizen role’ to exclusion of all other roles.


In Part 2, the aim collectively was to identify the major themes emerging from Part 1.

‘Trump’ was the most frequently mentioned word throughout the evening’s discussiobn. While this might have led us to  consider ‘Donald Trump’ a major theme, it is what the incoming US President represented that pervaded the 2017 Listening – a disruptive shift away from ‘rules for a civilised, connected society’ to ‘perverse thinking that activates fear and paranoia’.

The major themes in the discussion are identified as :

  1. Fear of a dystopian future
  2. Losing a sense of agency
  3. Rule of technology
  4. Post-truth ideology and attacks on thinking

Theme 1: Fear of a dystopian future

Many of the contributions made to the Listening Post seemed to relate to a dark mood and apprehension about a dystopian future. There was a sense that the situation had been foretold and that the world had been here before – this was, by and large, spoken about as war. The term war was used many times indicative of the wish to be rid of unbearable feelings of powerlessness, or as the ultimate disruptor that would cleanse the world of despicable behaviour.

Some felt that citizens had colluded to realise dystopia while others felt strongly that they had had nothing to do with it. Others wondered about whether it was ‘the universe’ and whether somehow the current experience was leading to something better, via some kind of cleansing.

It may be that the proximal timing of this Listening Post the inauguration of Donald Trump as the US president heightened awareness and sensitivity of group members. Significant and repeated mentions of Donald Trump were made through the evening as if he represented the dystopic future. Barack Obama was not a feature of the evening although ‘leadership’ was identified as a major theme during part two of the Listening Post.

The fears of a dystopian future convey a sense of loss of hope, that ‘the system’ and society has become perverse, disconnecting, un-decent.

We’re in a new dark ages. Trump. Leaders globally engaging in repression of citizens

We’ve surrendered. 1984 is more than a possibility.

My partner is a philistine – he can navigate with a sextant. We had a conversation about the black view he has of the world. He talked about a computer virus wiping out everything. Then we discussed robots. He envisages a world where robots control everything. It is the robots who are wealthy. The army is controlled by robots. It was quite a chilling conversation.

Will Trump become a metaphor for a 3rd world war? The disruptor. Will this redraw the lines? Keating has said that it will be good to have a different relationship with Russia. But it is more likely to be turned into trading blocs, not actually helping one another.

What will it take to move to a new system where citizenship isn’t nationalism? My kids have friends all around the world. They don’t feel value in voting in the Australian elections.

Is Trump a way of achieving homeostasis? A cleansing? Like all the women born in WWII. Did the universe know?

Maybe we’re already in a war; a data war.

Since 9/11 it has felt like a war environment. Is it my paranoia?

This reminds me of Nuremberg. Those things weren’t crimes before those trials.

Now you can’t trust any institution. I’m anxious and angry.

As the mother of two daughters I think – are they vulnerable because they are in the public sphere (because of their jobs)? What will it be like for them? Have I protected them enough? Will there be room for people who think and feel?

People are vulnerable. I’m Angry.

Global political arena is causing fear. People are removing themselves from public life because of it.

(Following from comments about loss of agency)… now I am moving back to the country. Will it be different? Should I buy a gun? Should I be shooting rabbits? I recognise it as a paranoid state but I have had those fantasies.

I try not to feel shame for being American.  My family voted for this guy. We can’t even have a conversation about it. But my 21 yo niece put up something on social media that said “Love will Conquer All”. She’s vulnerable.

By chance I tuned into something called Californication. It was disgusting. It was permissiveness run riot. Bizarre sexualisation. It was indecent. No. Un-decent. We are headed towards or are already in an un-decent society where we don’t feel the need to be decent to one another.

We don’t know where the boundaries are anymore. That’s my preoccupation.

I’m annoyed. Trump is seen as an acceptable leader. He mocks disabled people. He has confessed about assaulting women. If women decision-makers defunded testicular cancer would it be accepted?

In the old days at the Ashes, old crusties introduced to one another would say “Did you play yourself?” If you did you were more likely to be civilized. What are the new rules? What is civilized? How do we connect with each other competitively without destroying each other

Theme 2: Losing a sense of agency

Disbelief, anger, impotence and  annoyance were some of the responses that were described as people shared their preoccupations. People are concerned that members of society no longer know how to think, and that they don’t recognise this loss. People described no longer having the capacity to care, citing distractions, disconnectedness and isolation as sources of their malaise.

In defence of these invisible forces, people described individual acts to reclaim agency and dissociate from a situation they described as scary, perverse and appalling.

I can’t believe how accepting we are of atrocity. I am appalled at myself. I am trying to find my citizenry. During the Vietnam War we were out on the street. Now I don’t know what to do. For the first time in my life.

I’ve been thinking about perversity and Trump. (In the Trump administration) the person in charge of education doesn’t believe in public schools. The person in charge of health doesn’t believe in vaccination. There is nowhere in the States for Q&A. People watch what meets with their beliefs. Inequity is even more scary. I don’t know what to do but to keep thinking and analysing. I made a decision to go back as a youth worker, so I feel less impotent.

I’m finding it difficult to remain curious, to have a mind for why.

There is not much questioning of why it’s happening. No one is asking why. The relationship between permissiveness and authoritarianism – it is a straight line.

It feels like something strange is happening. “But why would it be any different?” It’s so far out of control that it’s already in control. Don’t know if it’s a force of evil. Is it something evolutionary? Will something come of it? Bion says the workgroup triumphs. But will it?

I worry about my capacity to care. For a number of years I was worried about the plight of asylum seekers. Now they are out of sight and out of mind in detention centres. It’s the same now with politicians etc. Now I am so distracted I have no capacity to deeply think about these things.

Theme 3: Rule of technology

‘The algorithm is in control’ expressed a concern with technology being in control rather than humans. The algorithm was said to contain logic but lacks capacity to apply  any human morals and ethics and conveniently turns the grey area of human judgement into black and white rules. There was a sense of the non-human taking over society, with examples given of technology running our lives on social media, pervasive GPS, use of robots in the army and warfare, reference to TV series such as Humans, and the recent debacle of automated debt recovery by CentreLink. The focus on economics reduces, and in many cases eliminates, human face-to-face contact. Obsession with ‘efficiency’ is another kind of algorithm.

The discussion pondered whether humans are losing the capacity to work things out for themselves in the face of increasing reliance on algorithms. How might one learn, important things like, self-restraint if there is a rule for everything?

There was some to and fro about whether the algorithm was the starting point or the result; this was explored during hypothesis-forming when participants also discussed the role of citizens or citizens colluding to let ‘the algorithm’ be in control.

The first contribution to the listening post was a Michael Leunig poem “I want to be sub-human” about wanting to be less human and more creaturely.

More and more preoccupied with politics. Not only local but also Britex (sic) and Trump. What is my ability to have impact in that? I feel compelled / forced into living lives through social media. It isn’t the real world. My nephews aged 12 and 17 live their lives through social media. They’ll be making the laws in the not too distant future.

I now make more of an effort for face to face. I don’t like it, am not comfortable that a bit of code is determining what I see on social media. I can’t control it. So I go outside of the technology. At the same time I am obsessed with reading the news online. But it drives me mad.

If the synthetic can become conscious, will it be human? There are so many TV series on this subject. And these shows can remove what’s decent, but it’s okay because they are not human so they can do indecent things. It is interesting that TV is grappling with social issues.

It feels like the economy has trumped humanity.

Re: algorithms, and the Centrelink [debacle] – we lose the capacity to work things out with other people.

Is the stripping of humanity by algorithms deliberate, or a by product?

2000 Years of moral principles aren’t in the algorithms yet. In a driverless car it’s the pedestrian or the passengers. Who will it be?

A minor related theme was an expressed ambivalence towards technology. We have technology to manage the experienced busyness that is often driven by the very use of technology. And on the other hand, how could we do without the mobile phone and computer? If technology is available, it will be used typically with latent ethics applied.

Theme 4: Post-truth ideology and attacks on thinking

Post Truth Ideology was identified as a major theme although much of the commentary related to a loss of faith in traditional sources of truth (government agencies, institutions) and associated that with dystopia. The notion of “Post Truth” seemed to be an irritant and associated with the loss of personal agency.

In my citizen role I’ve been thinking about a post-truth world, the move away from evidence-based thinking. It’s a new dark ages. Vaccination. Climate Change. It makes me think this is nothing like the ideal world I know from history.

I’m irritated by Post Truth. The repurposing of words concerns me.

Dramatic drop in applicants for studying journalism. There seems to be a shift to relying on doing one’s own research.

I’m anxious about what is being said [here, now]; see myself saying the same things. But what preoccupies me in society today is that there seems to be o asking WHY this is happening.

Being watched makes me cross.

I am too distracted by Trump. Do not have the capacity to grapple with these serious issues.

Limited capacity, makes it difficult to remain curious. It just becomes a judgement.

It’s hard to slow down. It’s difficult to think with constant bombardment from local, national & global issues / politics.


In Part 3, the participants were working with the information resulting from Parts 1 & 2, with a view to collectively identifying the underlying dynamics both conscious and unconscious that may be predominant at the time; and developing hypotheses as to why they might be occurring at that moment. Here, participants were working more with what might be called their ‘psycho’ or ‘internal’ world: their collective ideas and ways of thinking that both determine how they perceive the external realities and shape their actions towards them.

Hypothesis 1: Backlash against the familiar known system

Because of a backlash by ‘others’ (the un-decent and perverse) against the system we felt we knew and understood, members of society feel shock, terrified and angry, resulting in denial of our own part in the creation of the system and the reasons for the backlash. The denial is manifest in a paranoid fantasy that these ‘others’ are doing this to us, with algorithms as their tools and instruments of power.

Hypothesis 2: Economics saturates thinking and behaviour

Because of the saturation of economic thinking and behaviour, and of becoming subject to hidden algorithms that are blindly accepted, members of society experience isolation and fearfulness through a sense of loss of agency, resulting in enablement of un-decency and dissociation in human relations.

To these we add a third working hypothesis, the nightmare that the system fictionalised in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New Worldis becoming realised. While several references to George Orwell’s 1984were made during the evening, the themes and the above two hypotheses resonate more closely to Huxley’s futuristic fantasy.

Hypothesis 3: Nightmare of ‘Brave New World’

That members of society experience intolerable anxieties about loss of a way of life and familiar systems that have become perverse, attacking the capacity to think and humanity itself, resulting in a paranoid fantasy that society is heading towards an unstoppable ‘Brave New World’.

Convenors:Jinette de Gooijer, Claes Agin and Heidi Vestergaard


An addition to this report is a review of the themes present in the Listening Posts held since 2007. We suggest that 2016 marks a tipping point in global society that has been building up for many years, the roots of which can be discerned in the themes observed for over a decade

A review of themes in the working hypotheses since 2007:

Reflecting on the themes of the listening post over the past 12 years which have been tracking a societal anxiety about ‘the end of a way of life as we know it’, shows a movement of this anxiety from failing containers for sustainable life through to loss of trust in political leadership and establishment institutions, hopes for a new messiah, onto retreat to safety in local communities and families.

As pointed out earlier in our report, there was something different about this year’s preoccupations in that participants were so very focused on the feelings and experience of citizenship. This may have had a lot to do with the next day’s inauguration of Donald Trump to the US Presidency, but it also feels to be something bigger in the zeitgeist than just his election. He comes at the pinnacle of a whole lot of preposterous events in 2016.

So it leads us to hypothesise that 2016 is a tipping point, that the collective anxieties about “end of the way of life as we know it” have tipped over into “there is no going back”. The future is a complete unknown / blank slate because we no longer recognise the society we live in and can’t imagine what it will become, except to fantasise that it will be a dystopian world.

At this point in the trajectory we find it hard to think about how it got to become like this, our part in its creation, or what the possible solutions might be. We feel overwhelmed by bombardment of ‘news’, fears for our security, the sheer complexity of global interdependencies, and the myriad of everyday pressures to survive. We are in a paranoid-schizoid state of mind, under the illusion that ‘our goodness has been desecrated’ by the ‘others who are despicable and deplorable’.

Summary of working hypotheses themes:

2016 – Hope projected into local communities, while shame & destructive impulses projected into public institutions

2015 –Public demonstrations of oneness, but the unity is delusional; a false oceanic oneness denies our own destructiveness, un-governability and terrorist self.

2014 –Perverse political leadership resulting in vulnerability split off into the most vulnerable; loss of faith in establishment authority; curated reality displacing relatedness resulting in amplification of the ‘false self’ and loss of relatedness with the ‘true self’

2013 –Counter-dependency and regression as a defense against feeling betrayed by institutional authority; hope placed in grassroots authority to counter increasing vulnerability

2012 – Denial of part played in creating a fractured society; awareness that American capitalism is coming to its end causing paranoia about survival; helplessness projected into political leaders; increasing exposure to polarities in society is resulting in loss of capacity to think and judge

2011 – Disappointment with institutions, power elites and political machinery; angry and cynical of misuse of power for self-interest; world feels out of control; anger and blame is projected onto others – both the powerful and the vulnerable; small actions feel powerful; profound fear human race is facing destruction.

2010 – Citizens powerless to change the environmental effects of human activity, unable to mobilise as a global community to create change; shrink into insular behaviours and short-term actions, resulting in a radical fragmentation of community, society and individuals. The world feels as if it is at a tipping point, or close to it.

2009 – End of the world we know is nigh; a hope for / desire for the end of the culture of narcissism, but afraid that hopes will be dashed; new US President evokes phantasy for a new saviour who will redeem, forgive and save us from ourselves and our complicity in the disasters facing the world

2008 – Survival anxiety in face of profound global changes and sense of powerlessness driving people into an individual world; small signs of hope in next generation and new cells of social connection

2007 –A search for new containers and familiar containers are no longer good enough; failure of denial as a defensive mechanism for communities but not for corporations; anxieties about sustainable human life tempered by belief / hope in resilience of life to emerge / evolve

Over time, a discernible strengthening of persecutory anxiety and splitting of ‘we are good’ (as individuals and in our local community), and ‘they are bad’ (institutions, political leaders, powerful elites) has developed. From this trend, a person such as Donald Trump could readily rise and take up the most powerful leadership role in the world today.