Friday, April 16, 2010

A Culture of the Unreal

One of the tenets of America’s Secular Christianism—in addition to our inflated exceptionalism and our belief that we are a City on a Hill sending forth the light of Liberty’s torch to the world-- is a belief in ongoing and eternal progress dictated by the Eternal Providence that has guided our destiny.

Those of us who grew up in the fifties grew up with a utopian view of the future, a future where everything would be automated, where labor and drudgery would be a thing of the past and where they was no limit to our economic growth. It was a time when nobody could understand why children “who had everything” were so unhappy and why the youth of the fifties were drawn to the strident discordance of rock ‘n roll.

A side effect of our belief in progress is the mistaken assumption that technical progress is the same as social progress. It isn’t. According to German philosopher Theodor Adorno, social progress is that which insures the “happiness of unborn generations.” There is no correlation between adding apps to our smart phones and world we will leave behind for our children and grandchildren. It is likely that the children of my grandchildren will live into the twenty-second century. I’d like to leave them more that smart phones, video games and a crushing deficit.

One could argue that social progress will begin when our obsession with technological progress ends, which it may well do as it runs head-long into resource depletion. It is becoming increasingly clear that technological progress is a parasite that has been slowly sucking the life out of Mother Earth. Technology does not necessarily make us better human beings, and given technology’s contribution modern warfare it could well be the instrument of our social regression.

Granted, technology has increased our efficiency, but the sad truth is that efficiency and freedom are mutually exclusive, and, no, being freed from the labor machines now perform for us is not freedom, its convenience. And convenience can make slaves of us all as we cling to our labor-saving devices and are quite comfortable with our militarized surveillance society as long as it keeps providing is with newer and cleverer toys.

There is a difference between hard and soft technology. Hard technology deals with needs; soft technology is pure fluff whose absence would be inconvenient but would be no great loss. Just before Christmas, our microwave went belly up. Panic set in and we rushed out a bought a new one. However, in the week between purchase and delivery, we discovered we really didn’t need one. Hell, bacon tastes better fried in a frying pan then it does when it’s nuked. It takes a little longer, but it’s worth the wait.

Without social progress there can be no ethical progress, which is why we have become so inured to torture, the crushing of our civil liberties, wars of aggression and the “collateral damage” that goes with them. And if we start feeling the stirrings of conscience, there’s always a screen nearby to divert our attention, or another happy pill we can pop that will make everything just fine.

Helena Norberg-Hodge argues that ours is a “synthetic culture” that is more media event than an organic product of people living in community together. Rather than being a product of community, synthetic culture can thrive only when the social bonds that hold together a community or a country have been destroyed and its people fragmented and isolated. She goes on to say, “In this sense, what is often seen as American ‘culture’ is not a product of the American people. It is, in fact, an artificial consumer culture being foisted on people through advertising and the media. This consumer culture is fundamentally different from all those cultures which for millennia were shaped by climate and topography—by a dialogue between humans and the natural world.”

Every once in a while I catch “Modern Marvels” on the History Channel. From time to time a voice-over intones, “Welcome to the twenty-first century. Things are going to be different.” It’s a pity how pop culture remains ignorant of its irony.

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