In “Blinded By Nostalgia“, Yuval Levin looks at lingering narratives about the future that are left over from the post-WWII anomaly (“America’s postwar strength was a function of unrepeatable circumstances.”) that was cheap oil, a perceived social consensus, and near-global dominance. All of these conditions no longer exist—and never existed.
But still, the author so eloquently typifies what I continually rail against (summing up my critique of our whole culture, to be honest) with this supposedly reasonable, mediating call to realism: “To regain our footing in the twenty-first century, we need to get over our blinding nostalgia for that unusual time.”
1. What does “regain our footing” mean, exactly? Occupy or sabotage more countries, extract more resources, grow our population endlessly?
2. Who is “we”? The article explains quite well that nostalgia for the ’60s mostly tends to gloss over the burning neighborhoods, the foreign
quagmires bloodbaths, the counter-culture and growth of the police state, and the countless other blights on an otherwise rosy picture of the American glory days. Did most Americans really have a “footing” then? Can they regain what they never had in the first place? And why would they want to gain a footing—however defined—in the first place?
3. Why do people worship the Baby Boomers?
Here’s a good post about the risks of genetically modified organisms (GMOs): “Genetically Modified Organisms Risk Global Ruin”. The authors of the study in question point out the difference between local and global ramifications:
When harm is localised, it can be used as part of the learning process to prevent the same set of circumstances occurring again. Global harm is different. “We should exert the precautionary principle here because we do not want to discover errors after considerable and irreversible environmental and health damage,” conclude Taleb and co.
I don’t think the precautionary principle should be discarded even in the case of local harm (every problem is local to someone, right?), not to mention the fact that everything in nature is connected in ways that we simply don’t understand. You don’t even need to employ chaos theory to notice that everyone is downstream of somewhere.
But as the Jerry Mander quote I posted last weeks alludes, it doesn’t much matter when the precautionary principle is used, because it’s never taken seriously by people who can make risks with everything to personally gain while externalizing all the possible negative (catastrophic) consequences for everyone else. Do people who drill fracking wells give a shit about the short-term consequences, let alone the long-term ones? Is there a forum to air all of the possible—and likely—drawbacks of blasting the water table with chemicals and irrevocably disrupting rock formations? Do corporations lose anything more than drops in a the bucket when the inevitable accidents (i.e. not accidents at all, but the calculated cost of doing business) occur, destroying ecosystems for generations?
“It turns out that most of the effects of technology are actually known by the people who invent and disseminate them. This is logical because those people put a lot of money into figuring out all possible uses of those technologies. They can then develop marketing strategies based on the assessment of the positive effects. At the same time, they figure out possible negative effects and proceed to downplay those. The car is promoted as freedom—private and noiseless travel, comfort, and so on—without any suggestion of its profound multidimensional effects. There’s no mechanism in our society for hearing the downside. There are no controls on technological invention or evolution.” – Jerry Mander
Here’s an article (“Speed Kills”) about one of the downsides of “progress”: the loss of free, unstructured time:
Moore’s Law, according to which the speed of computer chips doubles every two years, now seems to apply to life itself. Plugged in 24/7/365, we are constantly struggling to keep up but are always falling further behind. The faster we go, the less time we seem to have. As our lives speed up, stress increases, and anxiety trickles down from managers to workers, and parents to children.
There is a profound irony in these developments. With the emergence of personal computers and other digital devices in the late 1960s and early 1970s, many analysts predicted a new age in which people would be drawn together in a “global village,” where they would be freed from many of the burdens of work and would have ample leisure time to pursue their interests. That was not merely the dream of misty-eyed idealists but was also the prognosis of sober scientists and policy makers. In 1956, Richard Nixon predicted a four-day workweek, and almost a decade later a Senate subcommittee heard expert testimony that by 2000, Americans would be working only 14 hours a week.
Obviously, things have not turned out that way. Contrary to expectation, the technologies that were supposed to liberate us now enslave us, networks that were supposed to unite us now divide us, and technologies that were supposed to save time leave us no time for ourselves.
I think it should be obvious at this point that I am highly skeptical of almost all new technology—as long as there’s an oligarchy around, just waiting to undemocratically make such technology ubiquitous to serve its own purposes, at the detriment of everyone and everything else. It was Arthur C. Clarke who once said that all sufficiently advanced technology should be indistinguishable from magic, and I agree—except that I don’t apply the rosy connotations that most others do to the notion of “magic” (magical reasoning, more like it). I more agree with Marx, who described technology as a sorcerer’s spell that has become wildly (and dangerously) out-of-hand.
“It is apparent that one of the primary reasons we have not experienced a revolution of values is that a culture of domination necessarily promotes addiction to lying and denial. That lying takes the presumably innocent form of many white people (and even some black folks) suggesting that racism does not exist anymore, and that conditions of social equality are solidly in place that would enable any black person who works hard to achieve economic self-sufficiency. Forget about the fact that capitalism requires the existence of a mass underclass of surplus labor. Lying takes the form of mass media creating the myth that the feminist movement has completely transformed society, so much so that the politics of patriarchal power have been inverted and that men, particularly white men, just like emasculated black men, have become the victims of dominating women.” – bell hooks, from Teaching to Transgress