Think About The Way XVI
The sixteenth of a never-ending series
By Doctor Gonzo
6 March 2001
Minneapolis — Just another day. Get up, go to work, pretend I know what I am doing, go to a meeting, draft a letter, go to lunch, hear about another school shooting, debate the religious, avoid people, go home, go to sleep. Nothing that set this day apart from any other in recent memory, nor is it likely that it will be different from many days in the future. It is common these days to pretend, to shoot others, to do crazy things in the name of God and try to get credit for them.
I am just a bit of flotsam floating around in a sea of the weird. Perhaps I should say average; the two are starting to get pretty much interchangeable. I head that there are now more overweight people in the United States than there are people of healthy weight. As Jay Leno pointed out, doesn't this mean that overweight is now the average? After all, it should. Therein lies the odd little position we have put ourselves in.
A whole cottage industry has sprung up to debate the moral fiber of our nation: why kids shoot other kids, why intolerance seems to be on the rise, why we all can't just get along. Well, I really don't care about any of that. I am not going to rant about the evils of guns, or about how parents should start raising their kids and stop spending so much fucking time trying to make money and get ahead of the neighbours. No, I just want to kick this issue around for a bit, see where it goes, punt it through the uprights, and hope it gets stuck on a nail somewhere, deflating it, and putting it to rest.
Is it any real question that things are hella fucked up these days? What makes it so odd, though not much more so than a couple of decades ago, is that everybody is blaming everybody else for it. We used to be able to get together and agree that the Commies, the Krauts, the Ayatollah, or the Fascists had to get their asses kicked. Of course, there was always some dissension, but it was overshadowed pretty easily. Everybody got along, because they had to. Lives were at stake, freedom was at stake. Yeller-bellies need not apply.
But today, things have changed. Racial profiling is a disgrace! No, wait, reverse discrimination and affirmative action are travesties of justice! Women should have as much power as men! Women should get the hell back in the house and raise their kids, for just look at all these unparented children causing problems! Kids who do stupid things should be tried as adults to teach them a lesson! We should ban pop in schools to protect even our 18-year old children from themselves! More guns! Less guns! Free Mumia! Pardon Ollie North! More money for me, less money for you, and we'll all send our rebate checks to buy a Twins stadium!
It's easy to be cynical with all of this going on. It's even easier to be cynical when you work for the Legislature. Sure, many of the people who are there really do have problems, and their intentions are pure. But as for the rest of them . . . I see a group of people wearing stickers and I wonder which group is coming to plead for money today. Some issues are important, but do we really care about the profit margins of grocery stores? Perhaps if they spent less money on lobbyists, they could take home a few more dollars.
What has happened to us? Don't we have anything better to do? The answer is no, and this is the flip side of the whole economic expansion/productivity gain coin. In the good old days, you had to work 14 hours a day to make enough money to buy two slices of bread. You didn't have much time to complain to your boss that the spindles poking into your abdomen at the yarn factory were not good from an ergonomic point of view. You could easily keep track of your kids, because they were tethered to a machine right next to you in the factory. Kids didn't see violence on television, they just saw it when a pack of starving dogs fought over one last bit of meat. Ah, the idyllic times.
Things are a whole lot better nowadays, from a standard of living point of view. But from a quality of life point of view, I don't know if we have come all that far. We have so much free time these days we don't know what to do with it. We send gifts to Planned Parenthood in Dubya's name (I'm guilty of that one). We play games on our Sega Dreamcast so we don't have to take the risk of inhaling fresh air. Even though we have much more free time, we aren't reading more books. We aren't doing much to culture ourselves. Fox isn't showcasing the Light Opera, but Temptation Island. Vicarious Living.
So what's going on here? Have we really pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps and solved all of our problems? No, for we still have wars, we still have discrimination, we are still killing our planet. There is plenty to fix, but we are starting to get bogged down. Making the big changes -- changing the laws, ending the wars -- seemed to be the easy part. The hard part is changing our minds, and changing the minds of others at a fundamental level. Minds and prejudices seem to be much more cast in stone.
It doesn't seem very intuitive that it would be harder to stop the racist thought in your head than it was to repeal all racist laws, but it is. And I don't think this problem can be blamed entirely on the difficulty of changing a mind. No, I think we have simply become more inefficient, because we can afford to be. We have far too much time on our hands to put to use. Even though people say that their lives are more hectic now than ever before, they fail to realize that it is easier to get away with it now. Families can synchronize four or five increasingly busy schedules because of technology, because the extra time that has been put into work these last few decades is finally paying off. In fact, a good debate is which came first: the time crunch or all the ways time crunches could be alleviated.
In the end, it is too bad for us. Just because we can successfully pull off these complicated lives doesn't mean they are really any better than an uncluttered life. People can hold down jobs, take the kids to five sporting activities and three after-school programs and still be able to make signs for the "Save the pig fetuses" rally on the weekend. However, these technology improvements can either allow more things to be done or things to be done better, not both. In the end, people just end up doing everything half-assed. Hell, it looks like the recent submarine accident was caused by a commander in a rush. Surrounded by the latest in equipment, the captain of a nuclear submarine still managed to miss a huge Japanese boat because he and everybody else were careless. Lunch had run long, see, and they needed to make up time . . .
Families and jobs aren't the only things that suffer; that "Save the pig fetuses" march suffers as well, for people are protesting as half-assed as everything else. A few decades ago, serious social protest was a way of life; you couldn't do it and hold onto a family and job at the same time. It was a pretty big choice, but in the end that meant people who were protesting had a lot of time and energy to put into it. These people lived their philosophies twenty-four hours a day, because there was no other choice. No straddling the fence. All or nothing.
However, these days people don't have to make that kind of sacrifice. All they need to do is spend five minutes at a website to donate some money to a crackpot group. The long days of avoiding the law, handing out leaflets, and generally sticking it to the man are over. Sure, these things still continue; they have to. However, these are carried out by a hardcore group of believers, smaller than the groups of yesteryear. They are supported by all those people who donate their money in order to assuage their consciences. It's so easy to get involved to make this world a better place these days; just give somebody your credit card number! They will take your generous donation and make sure it goes to the people who really need it. Problem solved, mind put at ease.
More and more people are, as one researcher put it, "Bowling Alone." Charitable giving went up drastically in the past decade or two, but for all that dough being pumped into charity, wouldn't you expect more to have been done? The ghettos still exist, things still fall apart, people still sleep outside without food. Those who do manage to get out of that trap owe it more to businesses so strapped for workers that they will take anybody. They don't owe it to any ridiculous Reagan-era increase in charity. People were just giving more money, they weren't giving more of themselves. The only way to improve life is to do more of the latter.
We've reached an impasse, and you don't have to be Jesus to see what it is. Our current capitalist system was not really set up for a time when we were so damn productive we didn't know what to do with our time. A fun exercise, one which I do from time to time, is to look at Star Trek. Far in the future, those people are to us what we are to 16th century serfs. I can't even begin to fathom the hella increases in productivity they have achieved. And their society is pretty damn different: no wars (except for those treacherous Klingons), no poverty, not even money. All in all, it seems like a pretty fun way to live, zooming around the galaxy cataloging gaseous anomalies. Not a care in the world.
It should be pretty obvious that their social system is not like ours, nor is it hard to understand why. It would be hard to explore space from the viewpoint of a pure capitalist. Nobody would build big spacecraft to make a profit; if you have enough free time to do that, you obviously live in a world where trade is so easy you need not explore. Captain Kirk wasn't warping around looking for exotic spices and cloth to bring back to Earth. He wasn't worried about the price of gas or heating bills. No, it seems that everybody was living to live, not living to make a living.
If we are to avoid blowing ourselves up in the future, we are probably going to have to live like Spock and everybody else. That is obviously different from the way we are living right now. So how do we make that change? What are we changing to? Technology is already forcing us down that path. It is not inconceivable that fifty years from now, barring a huge disaster or huge overpopulation, we will be so productive we won't know what the hell to do with ourselves. If we thought we had it hard now, determining which European country to go to for our vacation, imagine how it will be when we only have to work two weeks out of the year, and the other 50 are made up for by computers. Most people that I know couldn't stand to be with themselves for so long. It's teddible, teddible.
We obviously won't solve that problem by just going down the road we are traveling. Wealth and knowledge are being concentrated in this country at a pretty alarming rate. If we don't do something, we will have those gains without any benefits for the masses. A wealthy, technologically-savvy will have the know-how and the tools, while the vast majority will have shitty lives because those at the top can do that. We've all read 1984 and seen The Matrix; it ain't pretty when the vast majority of people are out of the loop. While technology gains could be used to make a dramatically positive impact on everybody in society, they could also fall by the wayside as more and more people at the bottom fight to get to the top, killing and destroying in the process. We may laud capitalists like John Rockefeller and Bill Gates now, but are they the examples for the future? It is hard to see how that can be.
The process has already started, and that is why we have so many of these problems today. While year-long vacations are still fantasy right now, people can have more and more time on their hands to do whatever they want. Of course, many of them choose to simply work more to get the gadgets they need to make life simpler, so they can work even more, so they can move out to the suburb and buy the $500,000 house, so they can increase their commuting time and effectively work even more . . . ad infinitum. The kids are not so much a part of this, but they too are feeling the effects of modernization. Always trying to fit in one more extra-curricular activity to put on their Harvard application, but since everybody else is doing it you need to go that much further to distinguish yourself.
Which is not the point; those over-achievers are another matter. There still are kids, however, that stay at home by themselves much of the time because their parents or older siblings are living the above lives. They don't really spend their time constructively. They are not helping in a family store, taking care of their baby brothers and sisters, or milking cows on the farm. They are not all shooting each other, but they aren't doing anything that is much better. And they might end up shooting each other, or taking drugs to pass the boring time.
This problem is only going to get worse as we become more productive. More "free time" means less actual time spent improving the world, despite the ease with which people can donate their money. People don't live their lives for anything in particular, but for everything in general. They try to do as much as possible, and in the end do nothing of any value. The double-whammy of more time and fewer things to live for will only result in a decline in our quality of lives.
It is really too bad that we are all trapped in this. I certainly don't feel that all these tech improvements have made my life better, or have increased my contribution to the world. If anything, I think that I am doing less for the world right now than ever before. I am become impersonal, another faceless voice that people talk to in order to have their problems solved; or a machine that eats up concerns and spits out canned responses. I can do it, but I feel very little attachment to those around me. I am in my cubicle, my bubble, and I only have contact with other people through the filter of a computer or phone. Even if the person I am talking to is right next to me, I will send that e-mail. It's so much more productive.
So I drift around, knowing that these days are not anything special, feeling more anti-social than ever, wondering if this thing called humanity really exists anymore. There are things worth fighting for, but we have taken all the fight out of fighting. We are slipping into that dreaded downward spiral. We need a wake-up call, and fast. Things need to change drastically if we are to survive much longer. Jebus, where are you?
Category: Think About The Way , Last Updated: Tuesday, 06 March 2001 16:41 , Written by Nathan Hunstad
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