Our Grand Illusions vs. Survival

I was an undergraduate student in anthropology when I saw a remarkable documentary film depicting the lives of the !Kung people. Also known as the San, they lived in the Kalahari Desert of southern Africa as hunter-gatherers, still undisturbed by outside forces in 1952-3 when some Harvard ethnographers shot the film. The social structure of the small band met the requirements of that harsh environment in intricate ways. The San people worked very hard to survive yet had plenty of leisure time and seemed quite happy. Later incursions of Europeans seeking diamonds changed all that.

In stark contrast, the victims of America’s “sacrifice zones” such as Camden, New Jersey, and Pine Ridge, South Dakota, live very hard lives in environments devoid of ecosystem resources from which to build a life. They are dependent upon the larger industrial-consumer economy from which they are structurally isolated. The rest of us live in consumer bubbles, where we are equally dependent but allowed to participate. In both cases, people have no direct connection to the land where they live; all relations are indirect, mediated by large national or international institutions over which we have no control.

The Cultural Problem of the Illusions Complex

Having long since abandoned any sacred or direct relations with the order of Nature, industrial-consumer economies have briefly enriched some, excluded many, but at great peril to all. Their elites have constructed a story of unending progress through industrial expansion. But that story of unnatural ambitions is no longer valid on this finite planet. The foundations of our grand illusions crumble as we seek to build more on top of them. The Great Transformation that launched the industrial age began by “enclosing” traditional communities in England and Scotland to accelerate industrialization and never looked back.

I was fortunate to have grown up experiencing much of nature through involvement with the Boy Scouts, despite living in a working-class suburb of Los Angeles. We learned so much about the natural world beyond the suburban bubble that was a small part of the “Great Acceleration” of fossil-fueled economic expansion of the late 1940s and 1950s. I will never forget those adventuresome days. I understood later experiences of people whose lives were entirely urban partly in those terms. Their lives and beliefs develop entirely within the culture of industrial consumerism, devoid of any sense of the natural world.

Devolution of Education

The education system has not helped much. In college, I believed that education could be the source of solving most of the world’s problems. However, educational institutions, like science itself, developed as part of the modern world built on the foundations of rational humanism that viewed “Man” apart from and meant to dominate Nature.

The Earth seemed an unending source of materials to be plundered at will. The emerging industrial system became the vehicle for exploiting the natural world. Education became a means to prepare workers for obedient contributions to the growth of that system, not a method for cultivating the skills of thinking citizens. In the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s, the American education system expanded with the rest of the economy. That growth allowed some slack for faculty to explore learning in diverse ways, partially fulfilling the goals of developing thinking citizens.

From the very beginning of my university career in 1970, for thirty-five years I watched the quality of education in the U.S. decline as corporate economic interests pressured for the university to produce trained workers. Elimination of the progressive income tax system severely constrained public budgets, putting additional pressure on education to operate like a profit-making business instead of a public service.

Education became a commodity delivered like a sack of potatoes. Now we have the sister of the head of the private Blackwater mercenary army heading the U.S. Department of Education, attempting to “privatize” all education for corporate profit. Education today sidelines intellectual development, critical thinking, literature and the arts in favor of training new workers for technical performance in corporate environments. From George Bush’s “no child left behind,” to the privatization of educational institutions, the decline of education in America serves the corporate state, not the people, and sets the stage for the rise of fascism.

The broader attack on the public sector through “privatization,” whether schools or prisons, parallels a range of policy choices favoring corporate control of both politics and the economy that Sheldon Wolin calls “inverted totalitarianism.” Trained workers, whether on the factory floor or in corporate offices become technical functionaries with little sense of citizenship other than by adherence to the group- think of the “righteous mind,” cultivated by corporate propaganda and economic insecurity.

Dumbing Down the Culture, Anti-Intellectualism, and Social Chao

Culture is the collection of our beliefs. In our marketed consumer culture, efforts to exploit personal anxieties and collective resentments work directly in opposition to “thinking for ourselves.” Fads grow out of people trying to “be different.” Branding manipulates the desire to express our “individuality.” Persuasion works best on imagery and emotion, not on rational thought. The dumbing down of education aids the dumbing down of the culture, leaving more and more people susceptible to commercial advertising and political propaganda. Demagogues express distinctly anti-intellectual beliefs that exploit anxiety and fear while inciting hatred of any group not part of one’s own.

A shrinking job market and diminished incomes deplete the middle class formerly dominated by white male workers who resent the “browning of America.” Techno-toys provide distractions from dwindling prospects for a life with any intellectual content or personal meaning. Hate speech distracts attention from one’s own problems, allowing their projection onto feared groups of others deemed outside the pale. People form their beliefs in groups of like-minded people, not in contemplation of facts or evidence.

Confirmation bias allows “peace of mind” by acknowledging only beliefs consistent with one’s group perspective. Well-documented facts disappear before emotional imagery supported by group identity. When realities are too hard to face, such as loss of status and opportunity, people become more vulnerable to political manipulation. It all blurs together as opportunists tout scapegoats such as minorities, immigrants, Muslims and uppity women as the source of personal losses.

Two hundred years have passed since industrial culture reduced the person o an artificial commodity known as labor and economic individualism severely constrained the viability of communities for increasingly detached individual workers. Individual freedom became the veil hiding alienation and limiting severely the apprehension of reality.

Defending Society from Its Grand Illusions

Numerous attempts to protect society from the damage caused by free-market economies have occurred throughout the industrial era, with mixed but discouraging results.

The English poor laws and the American New Deal offered temporary palliatives without addressing the underlying problem. The revolutions in Russia and Eastern Europe, China, and Cuba replaced the tyranny of capital with political totalitarianism. Western “democracies” substituted growth and the “McDonaldization” of consumerism for the resolution of social problems.

The grand illusions of multinational dominance over societies have gone global, right when the impacts on the entire Earth System approach tipping points toward collapse. The crises of ecosystem and climate, caused by pushing the limits of economic growth, continue to deepen. The limits to growth are physical, not ideological. Yet, corporate controlled media and political institutions perpetuate ideological illusions that threaten our very survival. Nevertheless, growing numbers of people realize that something is very wrong.

Creative Destruction of Our Grand Illusions for Survival

Here’s the thing. A New Great Transformation of humanity’s relations with planet Earth upon us. If we continue to ignore the deep changes humans have triggered, leading us into the unknowns of the Anthropocene, we will lose all control of our fate. Our grand illusions support a headlong rush to planetary chaos and potentially human extinction. Survival – never mind the “good life” – will depend on whether humans are up to the revolutionary task of paying the debt we have incurred to the planet and finding new ways to live in harmony with the Earth System we have already changed so radically.

Interaction Effects: Human and Digital

How do humans communicate, emote, interact, and bond (or not) in the “Age of Digital Devises,” and what’s next? What, if anything, will be required of us in our “digital freedom”?

Often, it seems, the dog trains the master as much as the master trains the dog. Who is in control? Whenever we become involved with another, be it a person, a pet or a tool, certain obligations ensue, even if unconsciously. We have purposes and seek their achievement, but the means often become the end. When does a tool become an addiction? And, who is the dealer? Is this drug not such a thrill anymore? Well, here, I have another more potent.

Remember the PDA? (That’s the Personal Digital Assistant, for you really young ones.) It came along after the cell phone. But back then, a cell phone was still pretty clunky and didn’t do much else but communicate with other phone users. Gradually, the cell phone got smarter and eventually it was able to do just about anything a laptop computer could do, except serve up a large image display. So, why not a tablet, a clumsy marriage of the two? But, oh, it’s new!

So, where are we going with all this? What has anyone actually thought through, except on the sales side? Does anyone actually want to control and integrate her/his entire “digital life”? And what of substance do you want so carefully articulated? Do you really want all things known to your personal “devices” fully synchronized on the corporate “cloud”? Do you know how much electricity those server farms use? To whom does that matter?

Why not throw in the HVAC system with the garage door, your soon to be delivered self-driving car, Netflix account, and washing machine, along with your wearables, smartphones, laptops, and remaining desktops? It’s all out there on Facebook anyway, right? So, flesh out your full submersion into the “internet of things,” and help complete the circle of surveillance and control. But just remember, it won’t be just you who is doing the surveilling.

Texting while driving, eating, studying, working, just about anything ….texting-while-eating

Attaching identity to one’s device(s)…

Smarting the phone…

Computing the World…

Sharing every imaginary importance and all the unbounded unimportances of daily life… and to what end?  “No sé lo que significa,” as we say south of that imaginary WALL of expanded exclusion. Will your devices build bridges to beggars with mobile apps?

They thought radio and TV would ‘corrupt our youth.’ Then came the credit card, the computer, the cell phone, laptop, tablet, smartphone, and all the new wearable devices. Oh, we must not forget the pager and Blackberry! All that digital freedom, and nowhere to go… What is left to do in the actual world? Certainly not find a good job.

The whole sequence of digital-devise development, all the innovations in communication technology – if not content – have massively expanded the quantity of communications. We pay the NSA to store and search that swelling trivialized human database. Searching for tidbits legitimizes surveilling us all. We routinely contribute to increasing the indeterminacy of meaning, while also expanding central control, which, of course, optimizes opportunity for tyranny.

A whole new universe of meaning is emerging out there as we enter the New Great Transformation of how humans must relate to the world and each other if our species is to survive. It is not so surprising that most of us have not yet noticed the urgency of the lives we have digitally forgone.

Is that a fork in the road just ahead, or is it a dead end? Look up from your screen; it’s going to be a wild ride.

PS: I wrote this on my iPhone.

Always at a Distance: The Decline and Fall of Direct Human Relations

The other day, I called around to find the best deal in town for getting my cracked windshield replaced.  I had been given a couple of recommendations, one form a friend and one from my mechanic.  So, of course, I did an internet search for windshield replacement shops nearby.  I picked three the two that had been recommended and a third that was a larger corporate operation.

I looked at customer reviews and saw a very bad one for the shop my reliable mechanic had recommended.  I always look at internet reviews with a skeptical eye, since some can be either self-serving in all the wrong ways, or spiteful for questionable reasons.  With windshield repair shops, you don’t find large numbers of reviews such as you might for books on Amazon.com.  So, I called all three and found a wide range of prices, from around $150- to $225-.  But something more interesting and annoying happened.

When I called “Safe-Shield” at its 888 number, it turned out to be a national corporate telemarketing site, tho the local shop.  I should have known.  When I told the woman on the other end of the line that I wanted a quote, she began asking all sorts of demographic and identifying information about me.

Finally, I said, “you don’t need my life story to give me the price quote I asked for.”  That was not what she wanted to hear.  She attempted to get through her scripted marketing pitch on all the reasons “Safe-Shield” was a better choice.  When I finally insisted on and got a price from her, I was shocked that it was nearly $75- more than the price my friend’s recommended shop had quoted.  That’s a third more!

I had finally gotten that quote after having run through a long automated menu tree before being subjected to the tedious sales pitch.  Why?  Because the local shop that is either a franchise or a wholly owned subsidiary entity had no control over its own relationships with its local customers.

Fact is, auto windshield repair and replacement is an inherently local transaction.  Each shop does not produce its own product or have its own supply chain.  They all draw needed parts from the same wholesale distributors of auto glass.

Later, I had a conversation with the owner of the locally owned shop, which I had chosen for the job.  He had the best price and had quoted it to me immediately without asking me for any information other than the make and model of my vehicle.  I could not resist telling him that the corporate shop’s telemarketer had quoted about $75- more than he had.  He simply replied that he could not understand how people could charge so much.  This man sells and installs products for people in his own town, with whom he may have other relations as well.  His responsibility is personal not merely a matter of being employed by a largely anonymous organization headquartered in some other state.

The implication I took was that an honest man would be embarrassed to be known to overcharge his neighbors like that.  Such a man does not objectify his business relationships with others as a distant telemarketer would.  He views them with human respect and makes a good living in the process.  Whoever runs that local shop for the corporation probably makes much less money than an honest shop owner.  The corporation, of course, makes more.

The point here is not how much anyone makes, but how humans relate to one another in an economic context.  As complex modern economies have “integrated” and corporations merged and consolidated, less and less room has been left for immediate interaction between two individuals, each of which has a personal stake in the interaction.  “When Corporations Rule the World,” as David Korten puts it, humans interact at greater and greater social distance from one another.  Their mutual indifference to their mutual humanity is correspondingly greater.

A lot of people are starting to get it.  They realize that the way things have become organized, nothing human matters any more in the conduct of business, except the pretense of human caring.  They [we] want to engage with other people in real transactions close up, as actual persons — not just actors in a scripted business ritual.  This is part of what the “buy local” movement, as well as the “slow food,” the “farm to table,” and the local and public banking and finance movements are about.  People in communities are doing business with their neighbors instead of being subjected to distant corporate criteria for economic transactions about which no negotiation is possible.

It is important to note that reducing distances in economic exchanges is a critical element in transforming the corporate growth economy into many local ecological economies.  Only by breaking the cycle of growth addiction and financial centralization will there be a chance to transform our failing economic systems to make them both humane and compatible with the earth systems upon which they depend.

Solutions to seemingly diverse problems appear to converge.  A recent and growing body of research on happiness and human well being is informative.  Beyond the basics, happiness and subjective wellbeing do not increase with greater wealth and power.  Happiness is greater in nations with lesser GDP [gross domestic product] than in the economically “advanced” nations.*

Both happiness and survival of the human species is now dependent upon reorganizing social relations.  We need steady-state local economies where transactions occur primarily among  people who engage with each other, not at a distance,, but in good old face-to-face interaction.

——————–

* James Speth provides a good summary of the research fields of happiness and well-being in chapter 6 of The Bridge to the Edge of the World (Caravan Books, 2008).