A paradox of life in these times is the inverse relationship between technological wizardry and the satisfactions of being a live organism in a real place (i.e., on the planet Earth). It probably boils down to a proposition that the American public is not ready to entertain: that the virtual is not an adequate substitute for the authentic. Eventually it will be a hard lesson to learn.
Ours has been an age of producing ersatz substitutes for just about everything. We call the housing subdivisions slapped up by the production builders “communities” when they are just cartoon simulacrums of a community. The houses within them are called “homes” in order to confer emotional allegiance that they have not earned by being things worthy of our affection in places worth caring about.
The manufactured products we call “food” are visibly poisoning the public in epidemics of obesity, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. And the manner in which this “food” is dispensed to solitary “consumers” — from drive-in-windows, microwave ovens, and convenience store racks — has drained all nurturing social ceremony from the act of eating as surely as it has drained out all the nutrition.
Having scores of “friends” on Facebook is not about personal association but is rather a marketing racket for a company set up to be an advertising enterprise.
Computer graphic wizardry has only damaged our ability to tell meaningful stories in the dramatic arts media and reduced it to sadistic spectacle. Personal computers, now including phones and tablets, prey on our genetic weakness for novelty and rob us of our waking hours when we might be doing more satisfying things than email.
Where public affairs are concerned, Federal Reserve interventions, pervasive accounting fraud, and computer-derived market manipulations are not an adequate substitute for a real economy of volitional transactions based on purposeful activity. And so on. The list of bad bargains is very long.
The Cost of Technology
Lately, we run most of the critical systems in our culture on the basis of the proposition that if we can just measure everything we can control everything. This delusion has only produced an earth more out-of-balance and a humanity too distracted by its own dazzle to notice that we have a problem.
At the heart of our perilous romance with technology is the peculiar near-religious sentiment about progress. Victims of future shock vie for better seats on the Starship Enterprise hurtling into the event horizon of human extinction. Our techno-narcissism drives us to seek ever more “cool” applications (apps!) and embroider them into a matrix of deadly hyper-complexity. And, despite the veneer of glamor attached to novelty, these things end up making life worse and leaving us less than human. Techno-narcissists of the Ray Kurzweil stripe would probably reply that to become less human is exactly the point, since we are destined, soon they say, to leave all that flabby-fleshed rubbish behind and transmute into immortal computer vapor bots in the thrall of never-ending cosmic orgasm. But this is merely proof that some very smart people never grow up.
What’s perhaps more troubling is that the memory of a pre-hyper-complex techno culture fades a bit more each day and we may be losing the ability to recover the cognitive skill necessary to function without technological crutches — at least not in time to prevent us from losing a lot of ground in the project of remaining civilized. Prior to the onset of computer thralldom, these cognitive skills enabled us to interact socially without prosthetic extensions of Facebook and LinkedIn. They enabled us to understand where we stood in relation to others, to locate the boundary between the sacred and profane, and to achieve real artistry in our art — as opposed to the mere attention-seeking stunt-mongering that passes for art in our time. Obviously, a lot has been lost in a culture where the Kardashians battle with Duck Dynasty, Pawn Stars, and Grand Theft Auto VI for supremacy of the captive national attention-span. It remains to be seen whether a generation addicted to smart phones will be a lost generation in an era of epochal economic phase-change moving in a direction that very few of expect: a long emergency of resource and capital scarcity with all its attendant hardships.
The recognition that technological progress has a dark downside is not new. It has been articulated by figures ranging from Thoreau, Goethe, Max Weber, Henry Adams, Lewis Mumford, Albert Einstein, Morris Berman, Jane Jacobs, Ronald Wright and many others. Before them, the phantom of Ned Ludd haunted the knitting mills of Britain, and older mythologies are replete with stories about the hazards of dabbling in black magic. The last hundred years of history have produced an eerie balance of techno-magically induced thrills and horror, with things like powered flight, radio, motion pictures, microsurgery, Photoshop, and Kevlar on the happy side of the beam and trench warfare, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, 9/11, and Fukushima on the other. One might wonder how the human race stayed sane through all this. I’m not sure it did.
Our current behavior suggests a rather new incapacity to survey the horizon of reality and come to some consistent conclusions about what we ought to do next and how we ought to act, and it is beginning to look like we won’t act but rather just let history break over us like a great punishing wave, drowning the spellbound observers on the shore and washing away the monuments we erected to our own specialness. This cataclysm, where peak resources meet climate change, will bring on a time-out from the worship of “cutting edge” progress — since the cutting edge will have severed many heads in its transit around the earth — and it could bring on something we might characterize as a dark age where we’re too busy toting up the losses to do anything else but struggle to stay alive. But, we should desire deeply to want more than that. We should want to play a part in the healing of the planet and the redemption of our species and some people in some places will be more successful in this endeavor than others in other places. It will require the re-enchantment of everyday life.
Wittgenstein remarked, “It is astonishing that anything exists” (or as Keith Richards put it, “It’s great to be here; it’s great to be anywhere”) which implies that we begin by reestablishing some reverence for the simple privilege of our conscious lives. This is what religion might be about, perhaps what it started out being, before it became a vehicle for guilt trips, punishment traps, revenge fantasies, and the concentration of wealth and power. Religion carries the obvious appeal of set programming. You just open the package and play it. One downside is that it tends to become despotic in periods of historic tribulation, as secular government withers. The culture of United States is already prone to a high level of religious hysteria. If we’re fortunate, this strain of fundamentalism will burn itself out sooner rather than later in the phase-change to a post-industrial society.
Where To Next?
The questions will otherwise arise: what will people who can think for themselves do? What kind of narrative about the world might they construct outside of superstition? How will it prompt them to act? And might their actions make the world a better place for human beings and our other fellow passengers on the planet?
In Part II: The Future of Living, we surface the answers to many of these questions. The trends clearly underway in world affairs point to human communities that will be smaller, more localized, less complex, and less alienated from our primary ties to the natural world. These conditions will probably entail reduced access to the kind of advanced technology we’re immersed in for the moment, so we look at the career skills, solutions and living models that are likely to be needed most for entering this new — more reality-based — future with as much grace and prosperity as possible.