I’m surprised that, despite writing in a lot of comments about how — and if — the world is changing, I’ve never actually written a post about it. I suppose it’s implicit in some of the things I’ve explored, but I’ve never focused on it directly. That’s odd because it’s a key topic of interest, and I’ve always intended to get into it here.
Maybe I tend to avoid it because, as a misanthropic aging curmudgeon, I basically think the world is going seriously downhill, and that’s not a point of view most people want to hear about. And, to be honest, it can be hard to separate out stuff I don’t like from stuff I think isn’t good. This is, in part, a search for objective criteria (and comment).
Premise: The world has changed, in many ways for the worse.
There are two major points to establish: Firstly, that the world really is changing. Secondly, that society is somehow “worse off.” To me, the first one seems easy to prove, but the second one is much harder. The complexity of social mores and norms make it very difficult to quantify what we mean by “worse off.”
There is also that a society can be in a difficult transition period due to changes in technology or the environment. We’re clearly in the midst of huge change with regard to online communication, and I’m seeing already an emerging consensus of what is considered uncouth behavior. We’re slowly learning how to handle our new highly connected reality.
In fact, in the presence of so much technology it might seem the first point isn’t much of a point of all. Of course the world has changed. Obviously, right? I mean, just look around!
But way back in Ecclesiastes (chapter 1, verses 9, 10) it says:
What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, ‘Look! This is something new’? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.
Old comedy movies are still funny; Shakespeare comedies are still funny; even ancient Greek comedies are funny. But comedy is a subtle art (which is why comic actors often make good dramatic actors, but the reverse is less common — comedy is harder). Yet it would seem our sense of humor hasn’t changed in thousands of years.
Our tools and toys have evolved a lot, but as people, we’re still pretty much the same old people we’ve always been for many hundreds, or thousands, of years. We have our passions, our goals, our humor — our humanity, intact and unchanged in all these years.
And while those tools and toys have changed, in many ways they, too, are nothing new under the sun. One of the distinguishing marks of humanity is our tools and toys. Stone axe, cell phone, really the same thing: a helpful tool. A ball, a video game, also the same thing: a way to play.
So the question is, even at this reductionist level, are there things that are truly different? I think the answer is “yes” and depends on two things: the ubiquitous use of powerful computers and global communication.
The latter, easy global communication, has brought Marshall McLuhan‘s “global village” to life. In fact, it’s been here a while. I realized it was here back in 1990 when I sat up all night, glued to the TV, watching the first Gulf War (Desert Storm). In real-time. From my living room.
The web was invented right about that time, and — in part driven by cheap, powerful computers — by the late 90s had exploded into a genuinely world-wide phenomenon. The new millennium saw the web become a true global, social platform, and it’s become ever more woven into our society.
So this is something new under the sun: never have so many been so connected. There has never been a global village; now there is one.
And never have all those people had access to powerful, inexpensive, easy-to-use computers. Never before have so many been able to find and create information. Never has it been so easy to publish your work, and never before have computers helped in making that work look good.
All that computing power has an interesting consequence with regard to our tools and toys. Our tools become more “lifelike” and more interactive (and do more of the effort for us).
Our tools become “friendlier” and easier to use. Our toys also become more lifelike and immersive. If we have an appetite for violence, destruction or pornography, our toys can now indulge that appetite in very realistic ways. And this is one place I think we get into a real dark side of the technology + humans equation.
We humans do have an appetite for sex and violence, and one new thing in the world is the level of realism that sex and violence has even in prime time commercial TV (let alone cable). The dead bodies we see in shows such as CSI are extremely realistic. Scenes depicting violent or sexual acts are also extremely realistic. Not just realistic, but HD big screen realistic!
TV has changed since the 60s in terms of how realistic the images are. It’s also changed in terms of what is acceptable, even expected, TV. The last 50 years has brought us to a place of high body counts and gun fire as a normal evening of family viewing. And in highly realistic, big screen digital HD quality.
Video games take the level of violence to absurd levels and, again, with great realism. (I’ve never been big on playing computer games, so I won’t say much about them. I am not, however, unaware of their content.)
Our news programs are mostly useless because they can’t compete with all the noisy action, so they’ve tossed out serious news in favor of fluff, distraction and controversy. We don’t care to know what’s going on in the world so much as we care about what our friends are tweeting or commenting about it.
The problem isn’t violent or pornographic media, per se. The problem is how much a part of one’s daily diet it is. Anyone under 16 or so has been steeped in the modern media barrage, but I think the problem really begins 50 years ago. More and more we indulge in what’s hot and current at the cost of other moderating experiences.
I can enjoy a violent or sexy movie as much as anyone, but I also enjoy many other kinds of movies. And I have many interests other than movies. The key, always, is balance and perspective.
This modern world, through computers and communications, creates an expectancy of immediate gratification. Send a text; get a quick reply. Got a question? The web turns up an answer P.D.Q. (it may be a wrong answer or, increasingly, someone else guessing, but it will be an answer). Everyone carries a phone these days, so everyone is just a phone call away. The line between “at work” and “at home” has blurred or vanished.
Texting, Twitter, comment sections, small-screen devices, touch screens and tiny keyboards all conspire towards short, immediate thoughts. (Or pictures; no thoughts needed!) The fast pace of the world today, the expectation of immediate gratification and the lack of venues or tendency for long and deep thinking creates a generation of people with short attention spans.
It used to be that an intelligent person could have a fairly good understanding of the world around them because it was a smaller, simpler place. Even the technology — cars, washing machines, telephones — could be understood with a little effort. Clever people could fix their own cars and dish washers with basic tools.
Now our world is global and very complicated. It’s not really possible to grasp everything that’s going on. I think many have given up trying to understand any of it at all. Few seem interested in developing their expertise beyond very narrow areas. Our general curiosity and knowledge about the world around us seems diminished because that world has become so hard to understand.
There seems a lower expectation — and a lower regard — for expertise. Perhaps that’s due to so many charlatans and pretend experts poisoning the well. Politics and Big Money cause a lot of dishonesty, and as science becomes harder to for people to understand, it’s harder for them to tell the difference between expertise and bullshit.
To my eye it seems to create a mood best summed up by the common phrase, “It’s all good.” We trust our guts (the most untrustworthy of friends) and distrust the experts (if we can even tell them apart). Science programs almost universally target a very low common denominator, and science and arts programs in schools languish.
Our value system seems off to me. We don’t value quality or precision as much as we value inexpensive and immediate (and disposable). We don’t value the intellectual and rational as much as the emotional and visceral. We don’t talk much about principles, ethics or morals.
“It was ever thus,” is a common cry when discussing how the world has (not) changed. I think that if you look around you, that’s a hard point of view to maintain. People may still be people, but I think the social fabric is rotting a bit these days. One can hope a new fabric emerges, but looking at some trends, I have a hard time predicting good things.