Friday, July 28, 2017

On an age-old question (is life really better now than it was?)

One of the interesting things about being alive, at least to me, is, no matter where one finds oneself in history, to think about the question of how much better or worse off one is in contrast to the past or probable future.

Slavoj Zizek engages in this in his recent book Trouble in Paradise: from the End of History to the End of Capitalism (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2014). He cites Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (NY: Harper, 2011), which gives a very sunny account of life today:

[we are far better off than our] Stone Age ancestors. The availability of almost everything a person could want or need has been going erratically upwards for 10,000 years and has rapidly accelerated over the last 200 years: calories; vitamins; clean water; machines; privacy; the means to travel faster than we can run, and the ability....  [etc. etc.]

Zizek is kind with Ridley and, while taking issue with the notion that we're better off today, grants that Ridley is overall correct in his listing of specific improvements humanity has enjoyed as history has progressed.

One thing that jumped out to me as idiotic in Ridley's assessment is the increase in privacy. Sure, we may have private bathrooms we can access and apps that at the push of a button allow food to be delivered to the privacy and comfort of our homes rather than going down to the alehouse for some mutton and homebrew, but we live in an age of unprecedented surveillance. A few minutes at a website like or a similar agency will show that as technology has rapidly increased and evolved in the last, say, 30 years, so have abusive ways in which big tech and government have colluded to spy on largely innocent technology users. Some tech companies more than others have resisted government demands for information about their users -- notably, Apple and Yahoo -- but disturbing stories continually emerge: the government used the Geek Squad to gain information without a warrant (or even reasonable suspicion) when people took computers in for repair; the TSA/Customs apparatus demanded social media passwords from international travelers at airports; net neutrality has been threatened for years and the current FCC Chairman is formerly a lawyer for communications giant Verizon; I could go on and on but would instead refer you to EFF or Fight for the Future for details. Not to mention the self-disclosure and oversharing people online take part in! A heavily-surveilled nation lets its own citizens do a lot of the spying and keeping tabs on each other....

In the physical world, there has also been the rise of security cameras, baby monitors*, and even the way technology has changed human behavior in that, when an incident happens in society, many people's first action is to film it with their smartphone (rather than, say, help a victim of crime). There is the rise of drones attached with cameras. Cyber-bullying. Revenge porn. The USPS photographing mail to alert recipients what mail is on the way-- but what is happening to these photos, and who is seeing them? Spying has always been an industry but this industry has exploded with the advent of technology in the late 20th century and early 21st century. Ridley's claim is absurd.

I would also argue that access to clean water has of course improved as sanitation and other improvements have occurred, but it's funny that Ridley is so optimistic, when the 21st Century is predicted to be one of significant resource wars**, water being a key resource to be battled over.

If we look at conditions in the Dark Ages, brought about by the fall of Rome around 500 AD and lasting more than 1,000 years, of course we for the most part have better lives than "back then." (Keep in mind I am applying a utilitarian assumption here.) Even the chapters on the Black Plague in Jerry Langton's book Rat: How the World's Most Notorious Rodent Clawed Its Way to the Top (NY: St. Martin's Press, 2006) show that life is in many ways better, especially in first world nations, where we don't generally have to worry about rats and fleas and bubonic plague wiping out a mind-boggling amount of the population in gruesome ways. People even only 200 years ago used to die of milk sickness. What the hell is milk sickness?! The fact that I don't know shows that I don't have to worry about it, as people in history once did.

So what we find is that we exchange improvements (dying from milk sickness is not a worry these days) for new horrors (the prevalence of government spying and one nation under surveillance). Interestingly, the very first paragraph of William Manchester's influential book on the medieval mind and times,  A World Lit Only By Fire (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1993), gives an overview that could as equally apply to 700 AD as it does today's postmodern, late capitalism times:

After the extant fragments have been fitted together, the portrait which emerges is a melange of incessant warfare***, corruption, lawlessness, obsession with strange myths, and an almost impenetrable mindlessness.

One of the most entertaining and insightful explorations of then vs. now is Russian sci-fi authors the Arkady Brothers' classic Hard to Be a God, in which a future human culture is able to move throughout the universe with relative ease and find an Earth-like planet nearly indistinguishable from Earth itself, who seem to be stuck in their own middle ages, but unable to progress out of them like we did. They send an emissary -- basically, a spy -- into this backwards culture to simply observe, but not make direct impacts on the culture (such as, hey guys, here's how to wash your hands, here's how to make a printing press, etc). The emissary tries his best but becomes so frustrated that he ends up slaughtering the entire village. Two film versions have been made -- a clunky one (with a cameo by Werner Herzog) in 1989 and a better one by Aleksei German in 2013. As good as the latter one is, I would still highly recommend the source novel.

I could say a lot more about this topic, and indeed many books have been written and debates had. In my own time I have witnessed the amping up of the police state (through both Republican and Democratic administrations) in the U.S. after 9/11, and when I look at memoirs like Cotton Joe Eddy's Hobo (2002) and Werner Herzog's Of Walking in Ice (1974) I wonder if these type of open road, on-foot explorations of the world are even possible in a post-9/11 world. (To be fair, Herzog does encounter some police on his mid-70s on-foot journey from Munich to Paris, and I haven't yet finished Hobo.) Serial killers still exist, but with the advent of high technology to track and capture them, the more fashionable (and pragmatic) thing to do is for people to be mass shooters and terrorists who go out in a blaze of glory along with their victims; can you imagine a killer like The Zodiac getting away with he did in this day and age? 

But I think we need to be careful basking in the sunshine of a perceived greatest-overall-prosperity-ever-in-human history mentality. There is still massive income inequality, social injustice, economic injustice, widespread suffering and tragedy, and we are teetering on the brink of converging global crises: overpopulation, global warming, resource wars, mass extinction, environmental pollution and destruction, fiscal instability, war, and, as always, X-factors of things we cannot possibly see coming. In the words of the band Godflesh, it may very well be a "New Dark Ages." 

* This may seem like a petty example, and these monitors have sometimes caught baby sitters doing harm to children, but if you include the movement to make even the dullest of household appliances a "smart" appliance -- thus vulnerable to hacking, spying, and abusive use -- you get an Orwellian situation. Note the recent rise of Amazon's Alexa home robot, who does everything from play songs to dim lights, and who, if asked whether "she" is connected to the CIA, will remain silent.
** We could easily employ a term such as "peak water," just like "peak oil," to describe the tipping point that has been reached wherein water -- or any resource that's been exploited and/or polluted via global capitalism -- is no longer an easily-attained necessity to be taken for granted.
*** I was born during the Vietnam War and have lived through the Cold War, multiple Middle East wars, the ongoing and indefinite (and profitable) War on Terror, as well as goofy things like the War on Drugs. 

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