Thursday, November 07, 2013

[Rant] For Better or Worse

For Better or Worse: I find myself wondering whether to be optimistic or pessimistic about the future of civilization. Pessimism is my frequent reaction, but I know that is mostly the result of frustrations and disappointments that have little to do with anything systemic. I also know that the accuracy of every memory I carry is suspect just by nature of my humanity, and so when trying to determine trends over the course of my life, I'm really not even sure what the starting point was like, never mind whether the direction is forward or back.

If I try to strictly adhere to rationality, I can say only with certainty the science and technology -- especially as it relates to health and information, which affect us very directly -- has undeniably made our lives better. And although it seems that technology may be encountering some diminishing returns, health and biological sciences feel like they are just getting warmed up. To this day, well past fifteen years since I had lasik, I am astounded at having my vision restored so simply and easily. Twenty years ago my gall bladder decided to pack it in. Had I been born one lifetime earlier I would have died. Had I been born a mere decade earlier I would have had my gut sliced open and been laid up for six weeks in recovery. As it was, I had outpatient surgery and was back to work in a couple of days. I expect this sort of thing to continue and be a source of betterment going well past my lifetime, until a new dark age hits.

But there's also the other side of the question. Is there actually social progress? Of this I am much less sure. One can point to all sorts of successful, progressive social movements, but the more I see the more I wonder whether much of this isn't just a change in form and appearance, while that the underlying state has changed little. I have a number of reasons for thinking this. One is that I now see how earlier times, times of my childhood or youth, are portrayed and I see the unfounded derision with which they are treated by popular culture. This leads to the natural extension: if popular culture can misrepresent times that I know to have been different, isn't it probable that it has misrepresented other times as well, including the ones that I have always believed were less socially advanced than my own? Another thing that gives me pause is are the mind-blowing ideas presented at Overcoming Bias, among other places, that show how deep and ubiquitous -- perhaps even primal -- is the human need for hypocrisy and self-delusion. As a result, anything I encounter that is a source of pride causes me immediate suspicion, and modern culture at large is certainly proud of what it sees as social progress. More and more, what is referred to as social progress look like trade-offs and changes in fashion that are passed off as objective advances. What was bad becomes good and we applaud ourselves for our right-mindedness when quite probably, a) it may have been the way it was for a reason and/or b) the change was superficial -- we adopted the form of a new idea but the underlying situation is still there. In either case, we get to delude ourselves that we are awesome.

Certainly, there has been a reduction is crime (in the U.S. anyway) by very broad based measures, although for some reason we feel less safe than ever. Nuclear annihilation is becoming (perhaps wrongly) an afterthought -- I have friends who were very seriously bothered by this as children, to the point of lying awake in fear -- but now we have Muslim terrorists. Still, on the whole, I certainly can't see security as a minus -- let's call it a tentative, cautious plus. This opens the door to whether there is too much security, and my head starts to ache.

The other potential plus is in the sense of empathy. Every once in a while you'll read something about how people seem to be gaining a stronger sense of empathy toward others. It manifests itself in much more considerate decision making -- less my-way-or-the-highway authoritarianism in social interaction. This jibes with my experience -- my potentially biased and deluded experience. Still, as careful as I am trying to be about being rationally accurate, this sticks out to me as something real. I'll give this a plus too.

Of course, there is some truth to the common reasons given for why the world is going to hell. I do believe there is a stronger sense of entitlement than in the past, although, again the change is smaller than your standard journalistic bombast would have you believe. My armchair speculation is that this is by-product of the world becoming less personal and more political. My sense is that in the past we were much more inclined to sort things out interpersonally or within a community. Now we immediately look for a legal and regulatory solution to any disagreement. But again, this is my prejudice speaking. Can I say for certain that this is a "downside" or is it just different?

Another typical reason for complaints about societal degradation is is the increasing crudity of popular culture -- music, drama, style, and manners in general have coarsened severely over the years. This has been going on for decades and is tough to deny. But still, though ugly, is it really a measurable degradation of life or just a change is fashion.

If I had to answer the question, "Have things gotten better or worse in my lifetime?" I would answer: mildly yes. But for every bit of advance much has been lost. So much, that I wouldn't take pride in any progress or be certain of its continuance.