Tuesday, July 9, 2013

In search of the last adult human being

Ponce de León was not looking for the legendary fountain of youth when he made landfall in Florida in 1513. Gold and slaves were his primary concern—and he found plenty of both. But legend was right to situate the mythical fountain in the New World, the future global wellspring of corporate-crafted youth culture. And five hundred years after de León, New World technological innovation has pushed the envelope to the genetic limit and beyond in terms of extending the lifespan of an elite minority, some of whom are no doubt the distant heirs of conquistadores, with winter homes in Florida.  

Of course merely to live forever has never been the point of the fountain of youth. Merely to live forever, to continue to exist, is to become old beyond all reckoning. Such a fate would be a curse not wished upon your worst enemy. The mythic appeal of the fountain of youth is not the conquest of death, but the conquering of the aging process itself, the promise of eternal youth. The reward for consuming the potent water is to be permanently transported to that imagined state of youthful perfection at the very fulcrum of maturation just before the degrading erosions of time take hold. It is in this, not in the evasion of death but in the eternal paralysis of aging, where the technological fount of modern civilization has been most successful.

Sure, we have several methods for maintaining youthful vigor and extending a more youthful appearance well into what was once considered to be old age—some more effective than others (diet and exercise programs, hair dyes and implants, plastic surgery, Botox, Viagra, joint replacement, etc.).  But that’s not what I’m referring to here when I claim that civilization has succeeded in paralyzing the aging process. A more youthful appearance and participating in activities traditionally associated with youth are just the superficial trappings of youth. Where the technology of modern civilization has delivered on the fountain’s promise is in preventing people from actually becoming adults in the first place: forced dependence on mass technology prevents the development of adult patterns of social, emotional, and psychological maturity.

Maturity can be defined simply as an increase in the capacity for self-regulation. A newborn has virtually no capacity to self-regulate. An infant can’t stifle a cry or keep itself awake, and its emotional state is entirely a function of internal and external environmental conditions. A toddler can direct its body in the pursuit of its own goals, but is unable to override the dictates of its emotional state, and has extreme difficulty redirecting its behavior or disengaging from a particular activity once begun. It is only with looming puberty that the child gains some proficiency at severing behavior from the dictates of its immediate emotional state. Over time, we see a proliferation, expansion and extension of the behaviors, domains, and venues in which the child is able to exercise a modicum of self-control. Maturity in this sense is parallel with autonomy: a mature person is one who has the capacity to engage in independent thought and self-regulated behavior.

The machine of civilization functions by tightly restricting and directing (and redirecting) the behavior of its human components. Independent thought and self-regulated behavior do not merely run counter to the efficient operation of the physical and bureaucratic systems of mass “society,” they pose a direct and potentially catastrophic threat to these systems’ continued existence.

Modern global mass society—through the development and increasingly irresistible implementation of uncountable psychological, social, physical, and bureaucratic technologies designed to increase compliance and inhibit self-regulation—has managed to engender a more or less static state of immaturity among its “adult” participants.

Ours is a society of chronically immature children.

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