In those delicious quiet moments retirement can afford, I find myself asking if I’m living the tired cliché of ‘dropping out!’ I hope not but there is a sense in which stepping back from the intruding intensity of modern life has become, frankly, refreshing.
Arlene and I both came from the corporate world before retirement. Our experience was in a high technology environment in the midst of the information processing revolution. Nothing seemed to have a shorter half-life than yesterday’s new computer software algorithms. It was a guiding principle that survival depended on a high threshold for frustration in dealing with constant change. Who had time to think about it? The world in which we all live brings evidence the speed of technological innovation continues to be increasing at an ever more rapid rate. Many of these changes have been beneficial but change of this magnitude is not happening without complex consequences.
Social scientists and humanist thinkers have been asking about the societal and interpersonal implications of this issue. The resulting ‘Futurist’ visionary movement began in earnest in the last half of the twentieth century. In particular, the question was raised as to whether contemporary society is adequately equipped to accommodate to technologies that are not only rapidly expanding but also becoming more and more difficult to comprehend.
After the scientific revolution of the late eighteen-century it became apparent that significant changes in the intellectual climate were happening faster than society at large had a capacity to absorb. Novelists, including Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, began addressing this issue. Verne and Wells followed earlier commentators, such as Charles Dickens, who recognized the largely unforeseen negative consequences of rapid industrialization not adequately moderated by sensitivity to the human condition. The largely unforeseen implications of increasingly rapid change on society were later captured in the expression of the “Principle of Unintended Consequences.”
In looking into this concept, I discovered sociologist Robert K. Merton popularized it in 1936. His analysis concerned itself with potential side effects of actions resulting in social change. If Merton were writing today, I suspect he would add the pressures of an intensely competitive globalized market economy. In the contemporary world, market share prospects of new innovations are measured in months rather than a longer period. Gain and profit margins appear to be calculated over shorter and shorter periods. The result is an incentive to increase the rate of innovation and reinforce the expediency of short-term utility. Here there is an added potentially negative consequence of an inherent trend toward acceptance of rapid expendability.
It appears the whole calculus of determining intrinsic value has been disrupted. Value and worth are becoming viewed as temporary at best if not lost in maximizing calculations of immediate, short-term gain. The exponential increases of advances in science and technology have also, apparently, diminished a societal capacity to adequately examine the resulting broader consequences. Diminished capacity appears to be leading to indifference to even attempt to comprehend important matters.
Thomas L. Friedman is best known as an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times and an author of a number of important books exploring the modern globalized world. In a November 4, 2014 editorial, Friedman commented on the recent mid-term elections in the U.S. In essence, Friedman decried the fact that so little of the real critical issues of the day were discussed. Vast sums of money were spent to generate emotionally laden propaganda that was long on hyperbolic emotional tone and very short on real substance. The larger, critical problems are increasingly complex and our society has apparently become incapable of comprehending them. It seems our choices in governance are being conditioned in much the same way we are induced to buy a particular beer or toothpaste.
Friedman returns again to his basic message that “the world is fast” – the implications of the increasing pace of change. There are serious issues that need a much more intense scrutiny than there appears to be either a will or capacity to undertake. To name but a few, a globalized and increasingly complex market economy, destabilizing global warming and an increasing dependence on digitized technologies. To this latter point, Friedman points to Moore’s Law which states that the power of digital microchips doubles every two years. The obvious implication of automation is that the ability to accomplish complex tasks at higher rates of speed is resulting in the reduction of the amount of direct human labor required. Have we built a process of facilitating making redundant more and more of the human capacity to do meaningful labor? These implications are far from insignificant.
It appears much of contemporary society has become so accustomed to finding increasingly complex larger world events too far beyond its grasp that there is a willingness to not even try to comprehend but to simply defer to perceived authority. To fill the attention gap, a market-centered economy is very happy to fill the vacuum with ‘show-biz.’ Given the choice of having to do any hard thinking or being entertained – it is no contest.
And here again, back in 1936, Merton was very astute in recognizing that major issues involve highly vested interests. It is in the natural order of things for vested interests to be determined to retain and increase their power. In his 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman observed, “Americans are the most entertained and least informed people in the world. They know nothing of what matters most.” The last thing vested interests have any desire to promote is informed inquiry. And the truly unfortunate aspect of this scenario is that it appears a significant portion of the body politic doesn’t really want it any other way.
It took some time for this state of affairs to dominate our lives. It stands to reason it is going to take some time for any meaningful correction to get enough momentum to make a difference. Once, America had been thought of as the ‘land of opportunity’ and self-determination. We are now living in a world where so many have lost any such potential. Historically, oligarchy has dominated human affairs for longer periods than a functioning, humanistic society. An increasingly narrow concentration of power is the theme of our time. America has taken on characteristics that look more like the long history of Europe.
I am making inevitable comparisons between the culture in which I was raised and my early attempts to grasp the culture in which I now find myself. An idea surfaced recently when I started thinking about how I perceived my parents and how I think I am beginning to perceive an older generation here in Italy.
A perception of my parents that has stayed with me is one of quiet resignation almost to the point of stoicism. On broader reflection, considering the differences in their earlier years and mine, it should not be surprising. They were born and raised in Appalachia. The economic devastation, particularly during the ‘Great Depression,’ was felt everywhere but probably in few places as severely as in rural Appalachia. In adolescence, both my parents lost parents of their own and then had to endure the loss in infancy of three of their five children.
Because the family relocated to New York City where my father found work in the growing industrial preparation for World War II, my brother and I grew up in quite a different environment than Appalachia. For my parents, making do and simply focusing on survival was the natural order of things. That is a very different experience from their offspring who matured in the post-WW II boom that held all kinds of opportunity for the firsts in the family to have University educations. That was a heady time when education matched by determination mattered.
Italy has known strife, suffering and bitter disappointments with the various institutions upon which it might have otherwise hoped to provide some relief. Beneath the pleasant sociability of the Italians, one senses an undercurrent of pathos in Italian life. Given how pervasive suffering and disappointment have been part of the Italian experience, it should not be surprising that an indelible imprint has been left on the Italian soul.
What I am sensing is a striking commonality with the core personalities of my parents and in what I perceive just under the affable exterior of many Italians. There is a sense of a stoic resolve to survive and to make the most out of what is at hand. The indefatigable Italian spirit is steeped in a generation-to-generation determination get past present difficulties and a belief, that in spite of how things look, ‘there is always tomorrow.’
But something else I sense in the Italian temperament I did not perceive in my own parents at least not to the same degree. I have commented before on the Italian predisposition for reaching out for a common connectivity. Social bonds, particularly within an extended family, are the foundation for making life worthwhile. I am beginning to sense this may be a very positive reaction to build a support network in a world where the possibility of disappointment may be close at hand. Having a sense that in the face of adversity there will be those nearby willing to help has to bring some sense of stability.
On reflection, I sense the Italians have developed a more positive and functioning strategy to adapt to adversity than I saw in my own parents. In the case of my parents, they seemed to lack sufficient mechanisms to reach out to build a larger social support base. Perhaps, the anonymity of life in a densely crowded New York City didn’t help. And no doubt being forced at a very early age to become self-reliant is another critical factor. But I have a sense of regret that their lives seemed to have missed an opportunity for enrichment through a higher degree of social connectivity. After all, Americans were supposed to be fiercely self-reliant. Perhaps the Italians are demonstrating that self-reliance has its limitations and perhaps even deficits.
So what of the contemporary world where globalization ensures problems spread like an epidemic? I have begun to wonder if American optimism isn’t placing too much hope that something or somebody outside themselves will come along and make everything OK. In the meantime the operative theme seems to be, ‘lets wait it out with diversion and let somebody else figure it out.’
In the past, America’s finest moments came when the larger community was collectively engaged. The present entrenchment of vested interests doesn’t appear motivated to promote having anything like that happen anytime soon. Perhaps, sooner or later, the American present fascination with canned laughter TV shows and increasingly stimulating exhibitions of graphic, extreme violence in entertainment may loose its appeal. What then? Perhaps America might better spend the time and resources to develop better social connectivity mechanisms. If we could come together with anything approaching the zeal with which we follow a favorite sports team there might be a whole new atmosphere. And who knows, maybe in coming together more effectively the Americans, who seem to be sitting back waiting for something to happen, might just turn to making something happen. You never can tell.