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.
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.
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.