Thursday, May 12, 2016

No way back to the human side of the screen

I see others around me, those others I care for the most, jacked firmly into their handheld universes, leaving only the barest shell of a human being behind, leaving me treading in desperation over the thinnest surface of a relationship, hoping to occupy those fleeting moments of transition in the ongoing flow pulsing across the slick screens in their palms.

And I frequently end up there too, of course. I all-too often find myself seduced into digitally constructed worlds of distraction. The irony here is that the more time we spend distracting ourselves with these invented worlds of hollow meanings, the more we need to be distracted from our ever-hollowing lives. We are filling ourselves to the very brim with emptiness in a frantic attempt to keep our feelings of emptiness at bay.

Research has confirmed the association between time spent with online social networking sites and depression, for example. And regardless of the direction of the causal relationship—whether online socializing causes depression or depressed people seek relief in online social distraction—our insatiable desire for increased connectivity suggests that there is something lacking in our lives, something essential, something authentically human.

The biggest lie of all is that technology is neutral, that it is merely a medium for us to use as we see fit. Technology doesn’t dehumanize people, people dehumanize themselves with their technology—or such is the myth. Humans have always relied on technology. We are members of the only species currently in existence who could not exist without technical assistance. This was as true for our prehistoric ancestors 250,000 years ago as it is for us. But there is something about our tools today that reverses the natural relationship between us and our devices. Human devices used to serve human needs and goals. Now it is clearly the other way around.

Participation is our choice, after all. But peel back the veneer of techno-propaganda only slightly and it becomes clear that it is never a matter of free choice.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Everywhere in chains

"Man is Born Free but is everywhere in chains" is the opening line to Rousseau’s Social Contract. It was not meant as hyperbole, but rather as a statement of the self-evident fact that participation in civilized society requires us to abnegate the lion’s share of our personal freedoms.

John Gray, in his book The Silence of Animals suggests that there is something "fishy" about Rousseau’s statement by relating it to an analog that is literally about fish, something Gray calls an "ichthyophil" take on Rousseau. Suppose Rousseau’s statement is changed to "fish are born to fly, but everywhere they swim." And, further, suppose that you use the fact that there are certain fish that appear actually to fly for short distances as evidence that even though fish are water-bound for the present, they are continually striving toward flight. Of course this is absurd. Fish are water beings, with a host of finely-tuned adaptations that make them specifically suited for life underwater. They were born for no other purposes than the ones they in fact pursue during the courses of their subaquatic lives. Fish are precisely what they are meant to be.

But why, Gray asks, should we humans be different from other animals? Why is it that we are not what we are meant to be, that we are born for freedom but are everywhere living as slaves? Civilization is obviously a human creation. To claim civilization as some kind of anti-human mode of existence seems as absurd as claiming that fish aren’t really meant for a life underwater. Termites build termite mounds, humans build cities. Fish move in schools, antelope in herds, ants and bees in colonies; and humans occupy violently guarded, bureaucratically structured systems of power and authority. Surely civilization is a natural part of the human design. Civilization is the human analog to the fishes’ water.

But this doesn’t feel quite right to me.

The logic of Rousseau’s statement might be attacked from a slightly different direction, and one that takes a more parsimonious route than Gray’s fish analogy. Man is an abstraction. Mankind—the species—is not born in a literal sense. And it makes little sense to say that man as an abstract category can be free, sad, strong, or any other adjective designed to describe the condition or circumstances of an individual agent. Individual men and women can be free or not. It is, however, a mistake to say an entire species is in possession of a characteristic that can exist only in concrete form in some proportion of individual members.

But this approach seems artificially dismissive of what feels to be a truly substantive set of issues—most notably the fact that you and I are not at all free.

There is a third possible take on Rousseau, one that has the potential to redeem at least a small measure of the original intent of his statement, perhaps (although it might render the rest of his Social Contract a moot exercise). Consider man in the abstract sense of the term, as the human species, and interpret born as a metaphor for the evolutionary emergence of humanity. Man was indeed born free in this metaphorical sense. The human species emerged in the complete absence of violently imposed hierarchies of power and authority beyond those found in simple (and perpetually shifting) primate dominance relations, and has spent the bulk of its existence as a species in this primordial state of freedom. But now, and for only the last few millennia—a relative blink of an eye—the overwhelming majority of humans on the planet are forced to live in ways that reflect a profound absence of freedom, living lives that are far, far removed from the hunter-gatherer egalitarian prototype.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Democracy is a euphemism

"Doctrines that prevent people from understanding the cause of their social existence have great social value." –Marvin Harris

Modern democracy relies on the illusion that there is something special about majority consensus beyond the majority’s physical superiority if things were ever to turn violent.

The power of the majority is a matter of simple physics: greater collective mass.

The rules, laws, and social expectations of civilized existence rest upon a single moral principle: might makes right. This is as true today as it was in ancient Babylon.