The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
16.2 (Spring 2016)
Faith vs. Cultural Meltdown
Progressive Economics: The Starship Enterprise, the Good Ship Lollipop, and the Titanic in One Blueprint
John R. Harris
The progressive economics proposed by academics like Marina Gorbis evoke a pre-lapsarian Never Never Land—a romantic return to a fantasy childhood—that can only obscure and complicate impending problems.
For some odd reason, I devoted an evening a couple of months ago to watching a documentary on Netflix about the creation of Star Trek: The Next Generation (titled Chaos on the Bridge). Though never a fan of any of the series’ multiple incarnations, I have friends and relatives who swear by this stuff, as a somewhat younger set of cultists swears by the Star Wars saga (none of whose branches, likewise, I have ever been able to sit through for five minutes). I’m glad that I invested the evening as I did, primarily because of a single “find”. I learned that Gene Roddenberry, the original serial’s creator, made life impossible for most of the new show’s writers with his insistence that there should be no more friction among crew members. It seems that Roddenberry, an outspoken atheist, had long envisioned the generation of star travelers after Captain Kirk (William Shatner narrates the documentary and interviews its contributors, by the way) as having shed the human propensity to quarrel. In practical terms, every episode had to bring the Starship Enterprise in contact with yet another less evolved civilization so as to manufacture something resembling a plot. I suppose the odd mechanical malfunction might have served as well… but you can do only so many of those before the Superior Race’s engineering competence is called into question. Writers being writers, furthermore, there was an invincible tendency around the drawing board to give the major characters assertive personalities. Roddenberry’s formula, in contrast, demanded robotic little Maoists flitting about in harmony as the Klingons threatened to neutralize the defense shield.
I realized that I was looking at the progressivist psyche’s snapshot in full frontal nudity. On Planet Roddenberry, nothing that goes wrong in life is ever OUR fault: it’s always THEIRS—the others’, the ones who won’t accept our vision and play by our rules. Our vision cannot be flawed, and our rules cannot be skewed. That never happens. The guarantee against it may be taken on faith. Things go awry because the backward infidels who surround us haven’t yet heard the gospel. That the US national debt stands at around twenty trillion dollars as of this writing, for instance, would pose no problem if the troglodytes who weigh our society down would not view a debt as something in need of being paid off. Money itself isn’t a necessity. It is a convention that lubricates our trade of goods and services until such time as we finally understand, collectively, the meaning of trade itself. When we trade, we “gift” (a new verb that blends five grams of mysticism and one of LSD with “give”). In the Next Generation of Captain Picard, we will have ascended to a more cosmic level of consciousness. Our paper currency will turn worthless, yes: glory be to Roddenberry! Then we shall realize that we need only have been giving (or gifting) each other what we individually needed, all along.
I have just offered a thumbnail version of Marina Gorbis’s 2013 mass-marketed opus for Free Press, The Nature of the Future: Dispatches from the Socialstructed World. Gorbis holds a Master’s degree from U Cal Berkeley (where else?) and is currently executive director of a Silicon Valley non-profit, the Institute for the Future. Berkeley, of course, is just a Planetary Disembarcation Module’s ride from Hollywood. Roddenberry’s retreaded galactic band-bus eventually went on tour after he himself grew too decrepit to meddle under its hood (though the writers, one and all, expressed admiration for his worldview). If the real thing ever launches, I enthusiastically nominate Ms. Gorbis to be its Chief Officer of Morale and Propaganda. Is there a chance, I wonder, that the entire population of California might be beamed up to staff the fleet?
It’s not that Gorbis’s interpretation of our future is dead wrong. On the contrary, what I find most perplexing about her little book (and about progressivist thinking generally) is its blindness to highly significant distinctions in sorting through genuine evidence. My original bone of contention with her thesis concerns centralization in the high-tech world: a topic on which I had two classes of freshmen writing last fall. Indeed, thanks to my recent immersion in the subject, I wanted very much to read Gorbis’s work upon seeing a brief description of it. I soon grasped that her and my perceptions of the centralizing (or centripetal) phenomenon in contemporary life are diametrically opposed. Gorbis views the Internet as the great liberator from centripety. No longer is there any point of triage through which everyone must pass in order to participate (as, say, in the early days of the telephone). Now you may contact your desired party directly. Your initial solicitation and subsequent flow of data move through a loose, flexible web rather than traveling to the congested hub of a wheel and then back out along a different spoke. You can put together groups of tailored interests whose members physically inhabit every landed area of the globe. You are free to create or shape these groups with very personal touches, as opposed to yesteryear’s compulsion of taking whatever Town Hall or the local church or marketplace had to offer.
This, to me, turns everything on its ear. I am not particularly concerned with the network’s technical dynamic—with whether it has one nexus or a thousand nodes. In either case, and in all possible cases (as regards the Internet), the experience remains one of an infinitesimal participant’s having utter dependency upon several factors and forces wholly beyond his control—and, usually, his understanding. If the power source switches off locally or nationally, no Net. If software is “upgraded” into something whose download is a bit cryptic… no more group. If hardware “advances” to a form whose cost is at first beyond one’s means… goodbye, distant friends. If the government (a government—somebody’s government) should decide to impede certain kinds of traffic… hello, isolation. For that matter, if a ruthless hacker should decide to “capture” one’s devices on a lark… back to smoke signals. Nothing in all of this has any of the autonomy implicit in taking a walk and greeting a new neighbor.
Gorbis makes our brave new world sound like a utopia of enriching social contacts. Leaving aside the absence of direct human contact in e-communication, I would stress from the outset the gross dependency of it upon a multitude of complex circumstances. If our transmitted photons are not streaking to one receptor before being redirected, they are nevertheless the minions of faceless entities (perhaps not even fully human) that determine how the message moves, and if it moves. We have not grown decentralized just because we can no longer put our finger on a geographical center. Centralization, as I understand the word, is the experience of having en masse to submit to a fixed protocol and conform to certain behaviors in order to appear on the human grid. I would have thought that someone whose mother had lived most of her life under Soviet despotism would comprehend as much. Does Gorbis, then, believe that her mother—a physician—inhabited a decentralized environment just because her patients would pass her food and shoes sub rosa when the shelves of shops were empty? It was centralization that forced such exchanges to go underground; and it is centralization that leaves me, at this moment, not even knowing if the words I type are being monitored by some new NSA monstrosity in Utah.
(In fact, all of our exchanges—including cell phone conversations—can be recorded now. Our major defense is precisely that so many are being recorded. As Dana Priest and William Arkin report in Top Secret America, the collection of private exchanges has become so sweeping that those assigned to review the data are hopelessly inundated.)
That Gorbis’s “success stories” consist almost entirely of unencumbered people (as in “no mouths to feed”) who volunteer their expertise online is not an economic drawback utterly invisible to her. Of that, more later. Yet even before I come to her handling of the little snafoo involved in paying one’s bills, I’m bound to cry foul at her styling the Internet as a collection of deeply enriching personal experiences. I will hasten to say that my own work through The Center for Literate Values has introduced me to persons whom I consider true friends, perhaps the truest I shall ever know; but I say that also with a certain sadness, since I understand that I have little chance of ever meeting any of them face to face. Why are the academic colleagues whose bows I cross (often at some risk) every working day so unfriendly, by comparison: why have I needed to surf the Net in order to find people more open to honest exchanges and less prickly about any hint of tarnish to their reputation? The Age of the Internet must be held at least partially responsible for creating people who are so disappointing in the flesh. The very proliferation of alternative “virtual” societies” has suborned us (some of us—far too many of us) to neglect the society before our eyes. There is something of the phenomenon here of the “perfect partner” found through a dating site who turns out to be a predatory sociopath. Not that I suspect any of my Praesidium friends of being such frauds (I have encountered so many types of personality so intimately through my writing over the years that I’m an expert profiler: I have indeed evaded further contact with a couple of would-be contributors after noticing how often their emails were “on the prod”)…. Yet it remains a distresing fact that these neighbors are not and cannot be my literal neighbors. The arrangement is not ideal, and clearly not an improvement over yesteryear’s calm, mannerly village.
To see Gorbis warble on and on about our “technology-enabled sociality”, under the circumstances, leaves me rather dazed. Cheerfully acknowledging that digitalization and robotics are rapidly squeezing warm bodies out of the conventional workplace, she seems determined to transform lemons into lemonade, if not water into wine. Sure, people are losing their jobs, as jobs were once understood. ”But the new work is all about the social and personal,” she announces breathlessly. “It draws on the power of personal connections and the diversity of personal tastes, talents, and quirks” (28). The Internet and related technology, in other words, only appear to have exiled us to the unemployment line. What they have really done is to liberate us from regimented, mind-numbing drudgery so that we may reach out to our fellow beings with generous offers emanating from our unique qualities. Like so many technophiles, she uses the economic gun at our heads as a reason to alter our perspective and leap with joy. ”This shift is likely irreversible, which is why we are increasingly going to be called on to capitalize on our unique human skills to engage in new types of production that socialstructing is facilitating” (37).
Happy, happy day! Now we can not only go AWOL from our jobs (because we no longer have any) but enjoy a perpetual vacation doing just what we always wanted to do, like children in a dream! Researchers can invite field workers or test subjects to participate in projects that trace the spotted owl’s movements or explore the effects of a cinnamon-rich diet. Writers can ask readers whether the butler should prove to have done it in an unfinished manuscript. Cooks can enlist chocoholics to try out a new recipe. School’s out—it’s summertime!
If I present Gorbis’s sunny economic forecast with an acerbity that renders it extraordinarily insipid, I may nevertheless plead on my behalf that I have stayed well within her parameters. And let’s face a few facts. We live in a time when joggers can raise hundreds (or thousands) of dollars by recruiting “sponsors”, and when video-gamers can make tens of thousands (or more) by gunning down virtual helicopters or picking the weekly line-ups for sports teams. Perhaps the joke is on me. Self-promotion on outrageous YouTube videos has carried the possibility of lucrative reward for years now.
Such, however, is not the kind of economic viability that Gorbis foresees as sustaining an entire society of quondam machinists and secretaries permanently dismissed from their employment. Before I come the details of to her stunning alternative, I must emphasize one last time how immensely unconvincing I find all these collaborations as the face of resurgent of social skill. Endless strings (or threads) of chatter and counter-chatter are not necessarily a triumph of cooperative labor. One can find on the stalls in men’s restrooms (cover your eyes, girls) tasteless serial commentary that successive occupants have filled out, sometimes with illustrations or diagrams. Is that, then, an enhancement of “sociality”? Back in the days when the office or the factory still hired bipedal primates, didn’t women exchange recipes during breaks, and didn’t men make friendly bets about the next weekend’s playoff game? Why is our species being ushered into a higher phase of its evolution just because people with time on their hands are commenting on each other’s Facebook posts? Is this really a warm, profound kind of interaction such as the human world has never before witnessed?
One gathers, though, that the Great Step Forward awaiting us may, in some sense, be a return to our primal state. This sort of conceptual vacillation, verging on unconscious contradiction, appears so often in what we might call “romantic” thinking that it well deserves to be classed as a distinguishing characteristic of progessivism (which is a mainstream variety of romanticism). Progress is primitivism: to move forward is to find the way back to an all-natural simplicity. Gorbis cites Bronislaw Malinowski’s work on the Trobriand Islanders of Melanesia (42-43) in explaining how the electronically “linked in” life will allow us to dispense with money. The Trobrianders apparently observed a ritual passage of seashells among themselves—called Kulu—that initiated exchanges of vital supplies along the way. For good measure, our futurist guide then tosses in the annual Burning Man gatherings in Black Rock Desert of northern Nevada (44), whose attendees take a break from farming medical marijuana and tracing tattoos to barter old guitars, bowls of chili, Tai Chi instruction, spare tires for VW Beetles, beadworked moccasins, tallow candles, origami butterflies, haircuts (well… probably not), for a few hours or days, until they wake up. No coin or bill of tender ever besmirches a finger. This, of course, is a mirror-image of what the Trobrianders did with their seashells… kind of.
Again, I am dumbfounded. One might protest that the Melanesian island clan was essentially using seashells as currency. (Certainly our currency at this moment is nothing but stamped paper; no serious adult can believe that gold and silver underpin it any longer.) Yet even if a preliterate tribe of fisherfolk is merely giving (or gifting) in an open generosity elicited by the seashell ritual, embracing this sequence of events as an analogy for how a high-tech society of three hundred and fifty million might operate is alarmingly naive. A fish may be caught by anyone, though some are surely more adept at fishing than others; and in a climate where leafy huts sufficient to ward off rain pretty much fulfill the list of habitation requirements, just about anyone may also become a master-builder. How, though, do I convince New Balance to send me a pair of shoes for a pair of poems? Or if we keep our discussion on that richly personal level of “enhanced sociality” (where it’s practically impossible to locate Hans the handy shoemaker), how will I convince a programmer to make The Center’s website more spiffy? By overhauling his résumé for him? That might work… but what if I don’t like what he does to our site? Should I demand a re-do? How? Do I deliberately mess up his résumé, so that he becomes unemployable (always assuming that he can still be employed somewhere), and then agree to straighten it out if he does the same for my site?
I will offer a real-life example of “charity” exchanges from my own recent experience (so recent that I am pained to write of it). I volunteered my publicizing assistance to an Iranian Christian living in Germany whose conversion from Islam, she claimed, had placed her and her congregants (for she is a minister) at grave risk from the new influx of Middle Eastern refugees. Since I supposed lives to be in danger, I proceeded with all dispatch to circulate her letters on every blogging site to which I have access, keeping her apprised of my efforts at every step. This cost me no little bit of time, but I was eager to help. For my troubles, I received a curt email advising me to desist and accusing me of betraying the trust implicit in confidential correspondence. Since neither of the letters (and I had received only two) contained anything substantially different from what my persecution victim had trumpeted over a loudspeaker and posted on YouTube, I was stunned, and I remain so. I had offered “free gifts” and was prepared to sustain the shower indefinitely. My end of the swap was a slap in the face.
Ms. Gorbis, can you tell me what happens when someone throws the plate of food in your face that you exchanged for a book—or that you gave gratis? Or do you suppose that such things happen only once in a blue moon (as opposed, say, to almost half the time)? May I come to live on your planet? Or, that failing, would you please consider not making mine more miserable than it already is?
Of course, canny readers will recognize in such pabulum the daily fare served up by an academic establishment that loathes capitalism and loves to reduce complex economic issues to “either/or” propositions. Though the “c” (as in “Red”) word is never invoked in Gorbis’s book, utterances are abundant that equate competition and acquisitiveness with a learned perversion highly destructive to human happiness. And I, for one, will not vigorously disagree with that thesis: we are fallen creatures, and the libido dominandi corrupts even our most altruistic efforts. Capitalism has certainly run amuck in our time. The most successful capitalists have steadily yielded to visions of dazzling power; yet in doing so, they have increasingly commandeered the tentacles of progressive government. They have stifled the ability of smaller entities to compete with them and limited the ability of ordinary people to acquire, all so that they might rule the roost uncontested. The degree to which starry-eyed products of the Left’s educational assembly-line like Gorbis play into the hand of corporatist monopolies while decrying the inhumanity of competition is enough to make one long to live on the Moon. Who, one wonders, does she think provides the “technology for enabling socialstructing”? Does she suppose that Internet search engines are a year-round atmospheric condition, like the magnetosphere?
Granted, then, that capitalism can grow into a monster that strangles free enterprise, and perhaps even does so inevitably without certain checks that we as yet poorly understand: the pitfalls of “charity” are scarcely less numerous or less deep. If I might tip my hand a little, I intend to conclude this discussion by observing that so many West Coast professionals and intellectuals are so passionately committed to destroying our few surviving cultural traditions because they have amassed thick layers of material comfort yet have no family, no “other”, for whom they might sacrifice. They therefore require a cause—and the more improbable and hare-brained, the better (since a bottomless pit will receive sacrifices in perpetuum). Gorbis preaches the “money can’t buy happiness” sermon at some length. She even draws a very disturbing (to me—not, alas, to her) citation from Jonathan Haidt’s Happiness Hypothesis:
We are, in a way, like bees: our lives only make full sense as members of a larger hive, or as cells in a larger body. Yet in our modern way of living we’ve busted out of the hive and flown out on our own, each one of us free to live as we please. More of us need to be part of a hive in some way, ideally a hive that has a clearly noble purpose. (62)
What a staggering passage to have drawn the admiration of someone who claims to celebrate the decentralizing effects of modern technology! The “insectification” of humanity, even as a metaphor, is no less revealing, in my opinion, than Machiavelli’s comparing the mastery of flighty fortune to the rape of a coquettish woman. Yet perhaps the “clearly noble purpose” at the end is most troublesome of all. What, pray, is the definition of nobility? And what makes nobility clear? Clear to whom? Is this not just another version of Chairman Roddenberry’s maxim that WE never quarrel because only THEY misunderstand the good?
To state the obvious: the manufactured “charitable” ends of social-revolutionary progressivism partake of just such self-serving circularity. Imagine an elite of pampered, privileged darlings of the system, vaguely guilt-ridden about their comfort yet also thoroughly invested in their personal pleasure, who eventually feel a calling to dedicate themselves. That calling is natural enough: most sane, responsible adults have known it. A cause or “noble purpose” must be found, therefore… and it is. The “team” experience—as in the annual Burning Man Socialist Cookout—proves quite satisfying, as a communal effort; and, since the participants are wholly absorbed in the orgiastic “team” thrill, they fail to notice that their act is really one of rank self-indulgence. Competition and acquisitiveness, after all, have their redemptive side, too: the competitive person pushes his potential to the limit, and the acquisitive person generates energy and becomes a resource for the more dependent types around him. These and other characteristics turn squalid only when they fester in personal egotism. Charity decays through the same process. The sacrificant, the self-styled Christ-figure, the romantic idealist, the eternal “gifter”, can be just as egotistical in his bid to lead the team in giving.
What we need in our worrisomely mutating economy is a means of catching our own fish, building our own hut, and then guarding the fruits of our labor both from freeloading marauders and from “gift-crazy” mandarins. I speak of “we” as those who have families dependent upon them, who do not rest regally upon a government sinecure or an inherited fortune, who are susceptible to being replaced by software, and who have too much pride to live off of public subsidies (and too much sense to believe that such subsidies can be funded indefinitely). To such as we are, quoting the “eminent economist” Duran Bell offers little reassurance; yet Gorbis volunteers, “To increase the benefits of trade, the decision makers in the gift economy attempt to make improvements in the technology of social relations, given the technology of production” (45). In my dull, plainspoken way, I interpret this as meaning that we need to keep convincing each other—or, I should say, get better at convincing each other—to browse in the marketplace of “stuff”. We need, apparently, to retain our acquisitive breeding, and even to whet our appetite for acquisitions, especially of the frivolous sort; for only then will we be content to trade a seashell necklace for a pound of garden-grown potatoes. Socrates’ exclamation upon wandering through the well-stocked agora—“How many things there are of which I have no need!”—will not do at all in this impending utopia.
The idea, rather, is to get out there and get chattering. Be social (i.e., be active on social media). “I’m Suzanne. Eat my torts de chocolate.” “I’m Ricardo. Let me design your website.” But if my children are starving, they don’t need cake; and if I must find work right now, it isn’t because I need a website to advertise my dry-walling skills. There is an urgency to real-life financial crises that Gorbis, Bell, and the Burning Man Gang just don’t seem to understand. I will confess that no single passage in The Nature of the Future annoyed me more than the vignette about one Robin Sloan, “a strategist at Current TV [who] left his job and decided to pursue something he’s been passionate about for a long time: writing” (57). Mr. Sloan ended up raising fourteen grand online for his new novel by playing at huckster the way boys once played cops and robbers, cutely promising various upgrades of the book for higher contributions. As someone who has labored unsuccessfully to market books on the Internet for two decades, I found Gorbis’s “see, it’s that easy” assessment of Sloan’s experience altogether stupefying. I will not question that the young man made out handsomely in hawking his tome, nor even that “peer-to-peer websites like Prosper, Lending Club, and Kickstarter” have raised millions of dollars and are showing a healthy profit-margin (57-59). I do very much question, however, whether all this activity is strictly apolitical: I strongly suspect from Gorbis’s evidence, rather, that many “donors” are major promotional engines for political propaganda. Even our more stodgy lending institutions are being pressured into becoming money-launderers for social-revolutionary causes. A conventional bank today, for instance, dare not ignore the applicant’s race when reviewing a request for a housing loan. On the other hand, if Mahin Mousapour wished to publish a little book about the persecution of resettled Iranian Christians by Syrian “refugees” in Germany, would the people who ponied up for our burned-out communications “strategist” do the same for her?
In short, if these New Age, cash-exempt marketers are addressing others of their class with their heightened “sociality”, they may be quite successful. We may see Burning Man in Malibu. And that, frankly, may be precisely the objective. The rest of us, the ones who don’t fit the Roddenberry vision of perfect harmony, will simply be written out of the script. We will go somewhere and do whatever people like us do when they disappear… and the world will be a better place. As one progressive has put it, to make an omelet, you need to break some eggs.
Finally, I must say a few words about alternative currencies. When Gorbis discusses these (46-53), the plastic chips in betting games, the Bit Coin, and the Greek Volo are indistinguishable. All simply show us that “creating alternative currencies is only one way we are beginning to bring the social bank into our economic relationships” (53). Well… yes and no. As with most of her assertions, this one contains a grain or two of truth—although, as I have already suggested, one can hardly argue that the paper dollar of 2016 stands upon anything but blind trust. And therein lies the unhelpful line-scuffing of treating alternative currencies as tokens in some sort of board game. An elite, well-educated, tech-savvy group of Gen-Xers can afford to go wrong with the Bit Coin: for them, the whole venture is a cool experiment in how to move commodities and exchange services in the twenty-first century. I can assure Ms. Gorbis that the Greeks are not so toying with the Volo. Their currency has collapsed, and some of them are trying to put bread on the table. We Americans may soon be following suit. When and if I offer to educate my neighbors’ children in return for cow’s milk or fresh eggs, I will not view myself as journeying into the future so much as sinking into the past. Makeshift currencies probably await us tomorrow, I agree—but not as a lubricant for some Internet-based socialism. They will rather designate the last step before we redescend into a medieval bartering system. Our seashells will circulate among those whom we trust (i.e., not among economists who believe that two minus two equals four), the better to remember that Jim has taught Joe’s child for one month and Jill’s three daughters for two. They will resemble beads on an abacus.
And is a higher quality of socializing involved herein? Certainly: if I don’t know Jasmine at all, I will not risk agreeing to teach her children for a year—not on airy promises, and not when I need exchanges to keep my own children alive. Such trust, however, will have to be built through face-to-face contact. The Internet will not only prove insufficient to the task: as a favorite refuge of rogues adept at projecting false personalities, it will throw up one prohibitive red flag after another during the screening process. To be sure, if we are trying to imagine the Weimar scenario where sand dollars become silver dollars as realistically as possible, we should assume that neither Jim nor Joe nor Jill nor Jasmine will even enjoy Internet access. Things, by this point, will be pretty basic.
This essentially ends my discussion of The Nature of the Future, though I have scarcely covered a third of the book. (Had I any interest in mockery, I would have devoted a few paragraphs to the long chapter, “Governance Beyond Government”—whose title, perhaps, says about all you need to know regarding the author’s brand of decentralization and independence.) I have not intended to write a book review, but rather to fathom some of the almost unfathomable absurdities of progressive economic thinking. I do not perceive Marina Gorbis as a sophistical ideologue and devious propagandist out to snare as many naifs as her net will hold, despite the terms that I have used occasionally. She seems sincere in her claims—which only alarms me all the more, because she is plainly perceptive and intelligent. I will go farther: I believe she evinces genuine concern about humanity. Her later comments about her son’s frustrating experience of our education system after enjoying a non-traditional school for his eight initial grades remind me of my own son’s bittersweet schooling adventures. I hate our system. I hate the regimented curriculum, the game of chasing after the A, the standardization of testing, the ice-cold “instruments of measurement”, the “goals and objectives” behaviorism… but I have seen these and other ruinous tendencies grow exponentially worse in my lifetime as government bureaucracies at all levels have intruded themselves into the classroom. The systemic failures belong to the new and evolving system, not the “little red schoolhouse”; and that new system is defined by nothing so much as by gadgetry and “information” lifted from vital context. Computers and the Internet are not liberating us from this cage; they are padlocking its door. I have heard ad nauseam the refrain about students now being able to look up the capitol of Uzbekistan in an instant. And so what, exactly, have they learned thereby? How to use a smartphone? If Gorbis’s more science-based model of the educational process can gather input from brilliant minds all over the world in mere hours, how is this superior to a child’s being challenged to build a miniature windmill that withstands a box fan at full blast and doesn’t collapse when wet? How do “data” and “solutions” substitute for forming useful questions and making—with one’s own hands—instructive mistakes?
At best, I think what Gorbis is inadvertently describing is the home-school movement. Here is the ultimate hands-on, barter-friendly, face-to-face, flexibly scheduled, debureaucratized answer. Naturally, she wouldn’t dare mention it in her book. She is bound to have sensed that the people who trade cupcakes for downloaded songs are also passionate enemies of charter schools and the Religious Right.
I have published elsewhere in this issue a long piece about the indispensable value of truth to our spiritual growth. Nothing so isolates us from our fellow beings as falsehood, and nothing so hampers our escape from a childish egotism into the objectivity of the responsible adult as pampered fantasy. One would think that arguing for a currency supported only by thin air (i.e., not even by the stable production of necessary items) would partake of patent falsehood to most sane minds. If we all agree to admire the emperor’s new clothes and employ his tailors to make similar suits for us, then perhaps we will be better off in some sense as a nudist colony; but the fact remains that the tailors have gotten very rich by doing nothing. Or if they accept my classic novel filled only with empty pages as payment, then they and I both should probably be fitted for a straitjacket: real variety.
The people most responsible for filling our daily lives with lies, however, are not overtly mendacious. They deal in half-truths—and they cling for all they’re worth (since their self-worth is the vapid currency of these exchanges) to the truthful half of their story. Most of us, I suppose, want or need to believe that the dragon of advanced technology is smiling and not leering at us. We cannot accept Bill Joy’s prognosis that the human race is doomed to be rendered obsolete by its robotic creations; we prefer the mantic Ray Kurzweil’s vision of human-robotic hybrids that live for millennia in perfect health and without anguish. In the same way, if we can regard the accelerating digitalization of life as paradoxically increasing our opportunities for warm human contact, we’re apt to embrace the story-line. Why should we make ourselves gloomy? A mushroom cloud is a beautiful thing.
But at some point, by easing the passage of misconceptions into the popular mind and even the cultural psyche, we become the worst (if not the greatest) kind of liar in our complaisance. We make those around us more vulnerable to lies. That we ourselves may believe the fabrications underlying a given fantasy may somewhat redeem us… but it is the redemption of diminished capacity—of the lunatic or the fool. And if the evidence shows that we are, after all, fully sane, then… then, yes, folly unnourished by lunacy eventually becomes mendacity.
Say that I wanted to cast a rosy glow over the Titanic’s story. I could write that her catastrophe taught many lessons that saved countless lives in subsequent sea travel; there would be some truth to that. I could write that we don’t really know of very many deaths resulting from the sinking; except for the bodies that floated to the surface, no casualties were confirmed. That would be strictly correct, but also ridiculous. I could write that the ship carried a high volume of the exploitative wealthy class, and that the demise of such people improved society and even stood as a lesson to those who would flaunt their plunder-based success in luxury. That would be an opinion clearly justified neither by the statistics of the victims’ income level nor by good taste. I could write, finally, that all of the supposed casualties remained alive and well in some parallel universe, like the survivors on the television serial Lost. That would be a fantasy whose truth or falsehood was wholly indemonstrable—but whose evasion of the raw material facts might license a cavalier attitude toward safety issues in the future.
I have seen one “academic” study after another in recent years that modeled my approach to the Titanic above. To paraphrase what the Claude Raines character in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia says of half-truthers, we have not merely hidden the truth: we have forgotten where we put it. And pretending that the immovable veil shrouding the future licenses us to utter nonsense about tomorrow is unworthy of a trained mind. I should like to ask Ms. Gorbis and the Burning Man Brigade what they foresee happening to the millions of unskilled immigrants pouring across our borders (often illegally). What is their likely role in the Internet revolution? To be sure, many are already bartering staple items; their families haven’t stopped doing so since the Anasazi settled Chaco Canyon. But how will Ms. Gorbis’s friends pay them for mopping out toilets and changing bedsheets? For they will continue to do dull manual labor for the “foreseeable future”—which means, in this case, until the sun explodes. Certain jobs will never be performed by robots, which are expensive to develop and require maintenance, as long as a helot class exists to do them. Will our helots, then, be literal slaves, paid with room and board? They certainly won’t have any use for Bit Coins.
A likely scenario is that they will be bred to manageable numbers, in Huxleyan fashion. They may, indeed, end up being the last surviving full humans, as Kurzweil’s hybrids pay them in booze and porn to feed cats and kill roaches.
I offer a concluding speculation, however, whose focus is very much now rather than tomorrow. Reading Gorbis’s book and considering many related issues has brought an anomalous condition sharply into focus for me. How, I kept asking myself, can so many elite intellectuals sign on to such blockheaded ideas? Haidt’s “beehive of happiness” may have precipitated my moment of epiphany (and Haidt is himself a professor—of psychology). Western society is littered now, as at no other time in history, with unattached people. Gays who cannot have a family, feminists who do not want a family, couples who choose not to marry, married couples who choose not to have children… all of these people have nothing to live for but themselves and their own satisfaction. And most of them are or will become moderately wealthy, with respect to the statistical mean. Why wouldn’t they? Their education is exceptional, their jobs are white-collar, their freedom from distraction at home has allowed them to win promotion: they are the economy’s equivalent of Navy Seals when it comes to wealth production. And what, then, do they do with all this wealth? Money can’t buy happiness… and they have no one in their lives, or maybe a faithful lover who as grown as familiar as old bedroom slippers. What else… who else? As they (along with any lover-appendages) embark upon the downward slope of their fourscore years, what meaning does their time on earth acquire to their highly educated eyes?
A “clearly noble” cause must be supported. They must find some such mission upon which to lavish their savings, even as the dutiful footsoldier willingly lies down to die in the breach that his brethren may climb over him and capture the city. And the cause, also, must encounter stiff resistance: it must have enemies far and wide around the land. Otherwise, it might be won while twenty or so years of life yet remain to beguile away. Preferred, therefore, is the cause that never ends: progress! Anything that promises to make us other than we are now will do. “Better” rather than “other” might seem indicated, as well; yet “other” is always “better”—the important thing is always to change. Who are we, in our present state, to judge the right and wrong of evolution?
N’importe où, hors du monde, wrote Baudelaire with exquisite irony of the self-deceptive romantic: “Anywhere out of this world.”
Anomalous, marginal, alternative, minority, diverse, non-traditional… whatever we choose to call this socio-economic sector of our high-tech, postmodern community (or whatever its members choose to call themselves), it is immensely influential, due both to its financial resources and to its emotional detachment from everything except “the cause”. It is a Petrie dish of prosperous fanatics; and, if I may don my own “futurist” cap for a moment, it is destined only to expand, both in volume and in resources. If contemporary Western societies do not learn how to oppose this phalanx of careerist- and nerd-kamikazes effectively, it is certain to destroy everything our ancestors so painfully constructed.
That is my own dire prognosis. I personally rate its fear factor as superior to Bill Joy’s robotic takeover, if only because I’m really not prophesying at all. Just look around.
John Harris holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Texas at Austin. His most recent book is Climbing Backward Out of Caves: A Case for Religious Faith Based on Common Sense.