Taken for Granted
Uncharacteristically, I watched "60 Minutes" last night and got to observe the brain stem activity of my fellow citizens. I say brain stem because their thinking was localized to replication of existing events, with some comparison to previous results but not much. The scope of their thinking never made it past that repetition. This reminds me of drunken people trying twenty times to insert a key in their door before the occupant behind the door patiently reminds them they're at the wrong house.
The subject was politics, one that I'd like to enjoy if it were not so repetitive. To some degree, once you've done your research, thought about the topic, and come up with solutions, there's not much to debate or talk about. Yet these people natter on as if discovering that a fetus can fart at 3 months will somehow mystically debunk abortion, or that scientists think we're 99.6% genetically similar to chimps instead of 99.3% somehow makes us all the same.
And so the chatter goes on about the election, but very rarely do you see deep engagement of brain -- it's unwise to do that in public, because it reveals how smart you really are, having to actually think on your feet like that -- and so the answers are like hands of cards dealt at a poker game: recombinations of what is expected, with some pattern or another hinted at and so we hang our hopes upon it. At some point, I wandered outside for an extended break and was glad for the lonely silence, because at least it was not innocently deceiving.
My point of view at this point in my life is that most people are misguided, and because their brains are overwhelmed with the sheer amount of data and emotion that modern life generates, they are unlikely to out think that misguidance. They are able to look at ten sheets of paper on a desk and pick the right solution, whether a software implementation or purchase of a new car, but beyond that they drift inward to a place of stability. This place is insulated in repetition, and usually consists of enough ways to bolster their self-confidence so they can make it through the day. Constantly assaulted by demands, and questions beyond their scope, they revert to what they know and take it unseriously, because to really get involved with it on an intellectual level would reveal limitations.
There are exceptions, of course, but when one lives in a time where popularity is more important than intellectual accuracy, politics becomes a necessary defense. For this reason smart people chip away at the truth through oblique angles and the management of details, ensuring that their work is rarely interpreted in anything approaching the scope it deserves. It's hard to blame them when one sees what happens to truly controversial college professors or corporate leaders, and the witch-hunt mentality that is used for those who violate society's sacred taboos. And the list of those is lengthy, and not relevant to this article.
When dissidents squawk that society is headed in a bad way, the underlying assumption they're addressing is this lack of ability to face the truth. We live in a schizoid time. One level of "reality" is the publically-accepted truth, which suffers under two faults: (1) finding consensus among people of varied inclinations produces a lowest common denominator compromise and (2) given a choice with no immediate consequences, most people choose what they would like to believe over what they fear to be true.
The other level of reality, the world as an interconnected and functioning phenomenon, is never fully experienced or understood because we are in it and part of it and so can only know what we perceive. But when we compare what we perceive to the results of tests we design to verify the accuracy of our beliefs, the response from "reality" or "the universe" or "the world" is consistent. So to what detail do we need to know it to know what is right? Even knowing little, if we work upward from the verifiable principles we discover, we can know enough to predict our future. That knowledge is what we in the vernacular call "reality," and although it is not reality, if the data is close enough, it is for us as accurate as it needs to be.
But in a time where popularity, and by extension product-buying perception and democratic voter perception, are more important than accuracy, the value of truth is questionable. This op-ed calls into question our valuation of truth, and points out a simple fact: truth is unimportant until you stop taking survival for granted, and realize that statistically our species is more likely to fail and die out than to survive and go on to greater heights. "Who wants truth?" a philosopher once famously asked, in his way of saying that we cannot "prove" truth to people not inclined for it, so stop wasting the effort and start applying what we find beautiful, which since we are born of a mathematical universe often corresponds to the union of form and function that we call beauty.
We live in a schizoid time because what people think they want is more "real," in our interactions with others, than reality. Our current dysfunction originates in this attitude, which comes about when a large numerous group overwhelms those of higher intelligence and, thanks to the head start and infrastructure set up by those of greater ability, is able to rule itself for some time before decay catches up. We can call it crowdism, or selfishness, or even mass revolt, but at its core the crowd is composed of individuals sharing this same delusion: that what we want to be true is more true than what is true. Does humanity's error come down to a simple lack of maturity, like a six-year-old confronted with a choice of dinner between broccoli and ice cream? Nature does replicate its structures.
What allows us to continue is that we take our survival for granted. We see this vast society around us, with its machines and sciences, and we assume that it can never fail. What is left to do but divide up the spoils, and to argue endlessly over who gets what while the few who don't care about such moral concerns amass great fortunes at our expense?
We cannot take our survival for granted, and stagnate, without facing problems when the events set into motion by our (in)action culminate. These things take time, and over the past centuries our great-grandparents and beyond have been content to ride out the problems, brushing them off with the knowledge that facing the music was far off. It is no longer so far off. In the past century, as technology has expanded beyond Europe to the world, the population of the globe has shot skyward with few breakpoints in sight. The stakes are further raised by the environmental damages created by this technology and the new weapons it allows. Our problem, environmentally, is not a place to put all these people but the space and resources required by the support systems needed for them to have modern lifestyles. And of course the waste it generates: landscapes of compressed discards decaying in the slow abrasion of time and corresopndingly leeching breakdown products into the soil.
It is pointless to complain without a contrary vision in mind, and what forms as concept after thought is what might be called a naturalist futuristic society: a civilization that recognizes technology as a tool and not a goal; can differentiate between wants and needs; separates tokens from reality carefully. Such a civilization will inevitably be opposed by those it would save from themselves because it imposes limits upon their economic and social freedom, including their ability to buy and discard technological junk. Instead of being based on the idea of consequentialism, a big brother to utilitarianism which supposes that the actions which most people think make them happy are the best for society at large, this society would be based on leadership. In doing so, it would fuse the wisdom of the past with the abilities granted us by technology.
Imagine a small town in this society, which would probably have more small towns and fewer large cities. The goal of a job is to be a contributing member of a community, and to get home as soon as possible. Consequently, people work harder and faster, and are often done in six hours or fewer and home with their families or out with friends. The inside of their homes are mostly wood, cloth and stone. Technology might be visible, a computer in the corner and a few electric appliances, but the general rule is that there's not much of it. Devices like clocks or cooking implements are made of metal and glass and designed to last a lifetime. There is no car, but there might be a golf cart. Air fresheners, televisions, plastic packaging, digital displays and things that beep have gone the way of the Dodo bird.
Naturalist futurism is so called because it does not give up on technology and return us to mud huts. It simply seeks a place for technology, and recognizes this happens through the death of preference-based reality. It would resurrect the ancient Indo-European concept of vir, or seeing more than individuals a single consciousness of which we are all vectors, and thus in unhesitant love for the whole not hesitating to nurture or prune where a higher level of organization could be offered. Naturalist futurists do not bulldoze forests, but build selectively in them. They do not blindly slather the world in iPods, billboards, screaming cars and televisions, but find the function of each device and apply it -- or deny it.
They tell us, these modern sages with the intellectual responsivity of brain stems, that people are made happier by our society but I have yet to see the evidence of it. They are made wealthier, surely, and life is easier, but surveys routinely return a majority who would opt for a simpler less lucrative lifestyle if they had more time for family and other pursuits. The reason more do not pursue this is as simple as the reason it cannot be discussed: what motivates normal people toward wealth is fear. Fear of having a home enveloped by ghetto. Fear of not having health insurance, of being broke in the face of legal problems, of being unable to buy their children the luxury day care and private schools required to keep them out of the morass of hopelessness. Fear of not having money and being old, in the ghetto, surrounded by toxins with no money for cancer care or even euthanasia.
Yet when people are given space to talk where the taboos are not so vicious, and prodded as to the things that they value in such an idealized state that we modern functionalists categorize them as (waking) dreams, the answers are similar, if the people are of reasonable intelligence. They speak of romantic, idealistic, hopeful things. Marriage is dead, yet everyone dreams of that perfect match and a life mostly happily ever after. Fidelity to friend or nation is dead, but something stirs our soul at the thought of a cause worth dying for. We speak of the death of culture, and its obsolescence in a time of instant messages and 500 cable channels, but hearts melt when they speak of rituals of grandparents, ancestral lands, things we value... in a time where preference is king, and disposability the norm, people long for something that motivates them more than convenience alone. When asked bluntly if we want convenience or reality, we stumble, because the question in itself is like a machine: input/output. Given a chance to draw outside the lines, people give us not just wants but soul-desires.
Now that the path on which humanity has embarked makes clear its endpoint in ecocide, culturecide, urban decay, endless petty wars, loud cancerous cities and lonely isolated paths apart from others who understand our dreams, people are reconsidering this modern society option. Perhaps there is a way to retain the benefits without the ills, they are thinking, because modern society is more a "design" than it is a tangible thing. We can motivate ourselves another way. It is fortunate they do this, in the last pit stop of a race to head off our corruption before it becomes final, because with the realization of what we desire instead of want, we have the potential for change. Someday people may understand; humanity is not yet doomed. Despite all the negative signs, and the presence of mostly talking brainstems, I see a new future unfolding: one where do not take survival for granted and struggle instead for dominion over ourselves before the world.