Sunday, December 28, 2014

A Faustian Bargain?

To keep up to date on the optimism/pessimism debate, we turn this morning to Roger Cohen’s rebuttal of Steven Pinker’s rebuttal of RogerCohen’s original assertion that, to his mind, something is wrong with our world.

Two days ago, without naming Pinker, Cohen wrote:

I know that by almost every measure of prosperity and well-being we are better off than back in the fast-fading 20th century, with its conflagrations and long shadow of nuclear Armageddon. I know curmudgeons are a bore. I remind myself that for my children this hectic era will constitute “the good old days,” a thought that makes one wonder what precisely it is that will consign the technological wonders of today to that quaint Jurassic Park where voice-mail and the fax already reside in the excellent company of the three-martini lunch.

Still, progress cannot hide the fact that something is amiss in this more perfect world, something fundamental. Nobody emerging from 2014 can escape that feeling. People are angry and worried, with cause. Their pressured lives are not getting better. A million apps do not a happy camper make. Injustices grow more acute. Tax systems, grossly skewed toward the wealthy, are warped. Global affairs can look like a scam put in place by the privileged, the trimmers of corporate fat who have no idea what is happening down on Desolation Row.

One can understand that things are very good while still entertaining the possibility that the good days might not last forever. As most stock market participants know well, euphoria goeth before a fall… or a crash.

Nowadays, we have an abiding faith in the divine powers of the Federal Reserve and are persuaded that we have wrung such possibilities out of the system.

In the meantime, Cohen emphasizes a point that I have often remarked: people today have notably bad manners. They feel no need to keep their word. Thus, they make appointments without really intending to keep them.

Cohen is correct to assert that nothing very good can come of character flaws. Material well being is a good thing. Yet, it should not be gained at the expense of moral well being.

In his words:

Anxiety is a growing scourge. Humanity is twitchy. It has become harder to make a firm appointment because people wait to see if something better may emerge. “Are we still on for today?” is a frequent refrain, as if the absence of confirmation of something already confirmed a week ago must be a source of concern, even if there no reason for it.

Serendipitously, Joel Kotkin addresses the same topic from the perspective of the tech revolution. We have lost our religion but have put our faith in technology. We live through technology. We worship at the churches of Apple and Google.

The result is that our relationships with our fellow human beings are diminished.

Kotkin writes:

Despite the annual holiday pageantry, in the West religion is on the decline, along with our society’s emphasis on human relationships. Atheism seems to be getting stronger, estimated at around 13 percent worldwide but much higher in such countries as Japan, Germany and China. “The world is going secular,” claims author Nigel Barber. “Nothing short of an ice age can stop it.”

In contrast, the religion of technology is gaining adherents. In a poll in the U.K., about as many said they believe Google to have their best interests at heart as God. Religious disbelief has been rising particularly among U.S. millennials, a group that, according to Pew, largely eschews traditional religion and embraces technology as a primary value. Some 26 percent profess no religious affiliation, twice the level of their boomer parents; they are twice as irreligious at their age as any previous generation.

People do not just buy Apple products. They believe in Apple. They are loyal to Apple. They belong to the Apple community. They line up for days to buy the latest Apple products. Apple stores are today’s new churches.

In Kotkin’s words:

Not surprisingly, religious organizations are in a digital panic. In recent months, some have bemoaned how companies like Google or Apple have replaced churches as creators of the ultimate values. Apple, in particular, notes Brett Robinson, author of “Appletopia,” has adherents who back their products with “fanatical fervor.” Tech products feed into “a celebration of the self” that contradicts most religious teachings, he argues. Even the protocols for using our phones or computers emulate those found in religious services, writes Robinson.

Apparently, fewer people have real friends. More people have Facebook friends. One does not understand, as David Goldman noted, how Facebook adds value to the economy, but one suspects that its true function is to create an alternative way of socializing… one that does not require anything as messy as keeping an appointment, sharing an experience or showing up.

Kotkin writes:

As a people, we are becoming digitally detached, argues De Paul professor Paul Booth. Many particularly millennials, increasingly prefer “mediated communication” over face-to-face interaction, also preferring to text than talk on the phone. “Friends,” as defined by Facebook, has little to do with friendship as understood down the centuries: people to talk to and spend time with in a social setting.

Perhaps most disturbing, reliance on social media tends to work against forming intimate ties, which rest on such real-world factors as proximity and shared experiences, says Rachna Jain, a psychologist who specializes in marriage and divorce. Many millennials have delayed marriage and family formation, in part due to the economy, but it’s possible that technology-enabled distancing is also playing a role.

The more we rely on technology, the more we function like machines. We do it because we believe that technology can help us to perfect ourselves. Thus, we are willing to sacrifice our humanity, our privacy and even our freedom to our technomasters.

Kotkin says that:

… the insistence on seeing information technology as the solution to basic human problems rests on a new vision that we are machines that can be infinitely improved. 

Pinker is right to say that, in material terms, life is vastly better than what it was. And, no one wants to go back to the old days before industrial sanitation, modern medicine, communication, transportation and manufacturing.

Both Kotkin and Cohen are hinting at the possibility that we have paid a very high price for this progress, that we have made something of a Faustian bargain… one that feels great now, but that might not feel quite so great later.

Kotkin recommends solutions that I have been advocating on this blog… ethical conduct and improved personal relationships:

Whatever the advantages that we can derive from technology, this vision of the future violates the basic moral principles of both civil society and religious faith. Before we plug ourselves in for eternity, we might consider, this holiday season, to take a non-digital path to reviving our soils, whether by reading your bible, enjoying Shakespeare, tossing a football with your kids, or simply taking a walk in the woods. Technology might help shape what humanity can do, but it cannot make us any more human. That’s up to us.


Ares Olympus said...

I much agree with this collective prognosis and individual prescription for ethics and relationships. But what does this really look like?

The problem would seem to come down to abdicating personal responsibility, allowing our attention to focus on access to money by any means.

I think of a 20 year old quote from Wendell Berry's prescription for saving rural culture.
... If we think this task of rebuilding local economics as one large task that must be done in a hurry, then we will again be overwhelmed and will want government to do it. If, on the other hand, we define the task as beginning the reformation of our private or household economies, then the way is plain. What we must do is use well the considerable power we have as consumers: the power of choice. We can choose to buy or not to buy, and we can choose what to buy. The standard by which we choose must be the health of the community - and by that we must mean the whole community: ourselves, the place where we live, and all the humans and other creatures who live there with us. In a healthy community, people will be richer in their neighbors, in neighborhood, in the health and pleasure of neighborhood, than in their bank accounts. It is better, therefore, even if the cost is greater, to buy from a small, privately owned local store than from a chain store. It is better to buy a good product than a bad one. Do not buy anything you don't need. Do as much as you can for yourself. If you cannot do something for yourself, see if you have a neighbor who can do it for you. Do everything you can to see that your money stays as long as possible in the local community. If you have money to invest, try to invest it locally, both to help the local economy and to keep from helping the larger economy that is destroying local communities. Begin to ask yourself how your money could be put at minimal interest into the hands of a young person who wants to start a farm, a store, a shop, or a small business that the community needs. The agenda can be followed by individuals and single families. If it is followed by people in groups - churches, conservation organizations, neighborhood associations, groups of small farmers, and the like - the possibilities multiply and the effects will be larger.

Berry offered his suggestion as a sort of desperate position of "what do we really need to do to get the world we think we want?" But the reality of complex society is everything is interconnected and its nearly impossible to identify the "ideal" boundaries to fight for local autonomy over central government or corporate powers who can offer high short term rewards for compliance.

If I thought things could continue, that the positive we know now would always be with us, most namely individual freedoms, and a promise that hard work is nearly always rewarded, I admit I'd be tempted not to rock the boat, and play an honest game.

But that shows some of the problem. What is "ethical conduct" in a world where hype and selling yourself to the highest bidder is the path to financial success? And what are "improved personal relationships" when we're too distracted by technological toys to take the time?

But the trick is it might be impossible for us to live in a world of integity now. That is to say, you have to accept there is a zero-sum game going on now, and even if you can afford integrity, you'll be dealing with others who can't, honest or dishonest thieves who believe they are acting to provide for their family.

Or like the Sinclair Upton quote:
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

So the Faustian Bargain means we benefit now from corruption, and there's no way around that, and things will fall apart because of that, so somehow we have to be able to "afford" to not always take the cheapest route to our success, because that hides our future vulnerability when things break.

n.n said...

The normalization of behaviors and policies that denigrate individual dignity and devalue human life is evidence that we are approaching a dysfunctional convergence. Perhaps an inevitable conclusion for every civilization as it adopts an atheist faith (i.e. narcissistic) and a libertine religion. A progressive dissociation of risk only diversifies and accelerates the convergence. The corruption of both the top and bottom of society, thereby squeezing the productive middle, reduces any opportunity to avoid this fate.

There are other societies that are further progressed, which may serve as canaries in the wild, while we hide our psychopathy in the privacy of a clinic.

That said, while the social misalignment and inertia are enormous and progressive, the dysfunctional convergence will likely be caused by liberal spending habits, as well as an accumulating inertia in the nearly 20 trillion dollar and growing debt. Either the financial bubble will burst, and take out many of the world's economies, or we will struggle to overcome a seemingly insurmountable wave. We may need another world war to reset our current trajectory.

sestamibi said...

I find it hard to believe that atheism is ascendant. If it is, it won't be for long, as liberals/atheists are highly unlikely to reproduce.

Don't believe me? Consider the following scores so far:

Mitt Romney, 18
Bill Clinton, 1

Michelle Duggar, 19
Sandra Fluke, 0

Need I say more?