Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The search for the last adult continues

In 1988, Robert Fulghum published a collection of somewhat hackneyed and sentimental essays entitled All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. The basic idea of the title essay is that the adult world would be in much better shape if we all still adhered to the simple rules of social engagement taught to young children.

But Fulghum’s title, read at face value, can be taken in a couple of distinctly different yet not mutually exclusive ways: (1) all that is really necessary to know in order to function in modern society can be—and is—easily learned by very young children, and (2) so-called adults in our society frequently operate at a level of maturity that, when you peer beneath a thin veil of pseudosophistication, is not very far removed from that of five-year-olds.

Now, of course, no one would be able to navigate the complex bureaucratic webs of technoculture with just a kindergarten education. People in the modern world need a protracted period of systematic indoctrination to acquire the skills and habits necessary to accommodate complex society. But a kindergarten level of social-emotional skills is all that is necessary as an adult to get along with other adults working on an assembly line or in a corporate boardroom. That is, the skills “taught” in school are not people skills as much as they are technological skills. And even those skills that look on the surface to be people skills are really people-in-interface-with-bureaucratic-technology skills.

What’s more, social-emotional childishness is actually necessary for bureaucratic technoculture to function. It would be detrimental—perhaps catastrophic—for the system if people regularly achieved a truly adult level of maturity.

Consider differences between the kinds of highly-egalitarian foraging societies that we have evolved to accommodate and our present circumstances. In an egalitarian foraging society, conformity is a matter of social pressure and tradition, employing sometimes very sophisticated leveling mechanisms to maintain equality (and social stability) among participants. Many of these mechanisms demand considerable self-regulation (i.e., psychological maturity) on the part of individuals.

In nonegalitarian societies, childishness, because it involves a high degree of dependency and a minimum level of self-regulation, works to the advantage of the system. Adult levels of independence and self-regulation have the potential to gum up the works. Bureaucratic technoculture demands that individuals pattern their goals after the hierarchical flow of power: individuals are explicitly required not to self-regulate and to allow externally applied forces to do the regulating for them. Conformity in our modern global industrial cluster-fuck is a response to economic coercion, powerful authority, and the perpetual threat of overwhelming violence. I don’t have to self-regulate if an authority is telling me what to do. I don’t have to exercise anything approaching autonomous decision-making if in each case I am offered a Hobson’s choice.

If there is by some fluke a single fully mature adult human being still out there somewhere, he or she is the most dangerous person in the world.

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