Saturday, September 18, 2010

Troubled Times In The 21st Century. History, Turmoil, Apathy, And The Inevitable Future

(miscellaneous ramblings of mine to be concluded in several parts.)

History can often be a compelling lens through which one can view the very world they live in today. Though some would think this “too easy” of a view and fall back on the old cliché of history repeating itself it is I feel a very apt way of approaching any level of understanding today’s world. And though this may be a hard thing to do, especially if you're not truly conversant with history, the problem with applying this approach today is that we're in what I feel is a unique position in human history.

One of my favorite authors, social anthropologist Desmond Morris, made much of this way of examining the world clear to me in his documentary series “The Human Animal”. I've long since (this aired 16 years ago after all) indulged myself in other personal studies of human behaviors as well as the study of human's use and reliance on tools. We have a modern word for human tool use, known as technology. Keep this in mind, as it's important to the larger social topics I'll discuss.

To put it frankly the unique position I'm referring to is the fact that we are careening inevitably towards a single world in every sense of the word. And though it may be cliché to start tossing around “the internet” as a prime factor in this, it is at least symbolic of the connected-ness we enjoy today. Nearly 70% of the population of the earth has a cell phone. That's pushing 5 billion people. Let that nudge your noggin for a few seconds.

Throughout human history major change has ALWAYS come with the synergy of new technology and perhaps more importantly HOW PEOPLE END UP USING IT. One of my favorite examples of this in history is the Protestant Reformation. Very few people can grasp that, given an understanding of history, this would have NEVER HAPPENED had not the printing press just been invented. Johann Gutenberg likely did not set out to invent moveable type printing merely to fracture Christianity, but it most certainly played as big a role as Martin Luther himself did. This is but one of many examples of the social and political upheaval caused by Gutenberg's little toy, but it was probably also one of the least intended. What this tells us is that technology catalyzes change, but that people drive the change. Given that technology evolves (and I use that term loosely) at a pace orders of magnitudes faster than organic life forms, one can at least make fair predictions about latter part of that truth.

Human behaviors, political systems, and market economics all follow patterns. And rather predictable ones at that, given a clear assessment of history to judge them by. At times in history you also have certain synergies that develop across these behavior “systems”. The dilemma we face today is a bit more complex owing to the rising tide of technology and the social pressures that itself creates due to the ever increasing rate of change we live with today.

We tend to sugar-coat our experiences of the world around us because in general our experiences of that world are actually quite limited, or at least they used to be. It was but a scant couple of centuries ago where a human beings existence in all likelihood stretched out at most 20 miles from where he or she was born. Given the utter lack of population density issues two centuries ago this truth led to people's world view having very little to do with the actual world. The world was simply too vast, and too unknowable. More importantly this sort of knowledge was irrelevant to the process of living.

Human beings are still fundamentally tribal creatures, as every sociologist and social anthropologist will tell you. This innate tribalism though occurs on micro and macro scales, and both scales are intriguing to examine. On the micro scale it's been shown repeatedly with numerous experimental models over the last several decades that human beings, whether they live in L.A. Or Bangledesh have an extended circle of friends and acquaintances that usually rounds out to roughly 150 people when studied precisely in urban settings (necessary to have that level of social interaction). This behavioral truth among humans seems to be indifferent to social-economic status and even things like access to technology. It's a set of limitations built into our biology, and it's a telling one. On the macro scale human's traditionally rally in a tribal sense around ideological meme's, whether they be national/political or dogmatic in nature.

These two fundamental truths of human existence lead to predictable outcomes in the case of most people that function in groups. The first being that human's congregate tribally around sets of ideological or dogmatic systems that usually rely on a narrow set of influences that may (or more importantly may NOT) reflect reality. It might seem that the influences of 150 people on your world view is an overwhelming amount to consider, but given the worlds nearly 7 billion human inhabitants one can easily see just the math problem here. The second truth is that these tribal groups organize into systems Desmond Morris coined as “Super Tribes”, and these usually congregate around a smaller but better defined set of concerns or dogmas generally relating to nation or belief.

In my travels and experience, I've personally found that most humans are (at least on a one to one level) fundamentally good. It's in our best interest as cooperative social animals to be good. The lessons we learn and apply in our life work, because they work, and given that we are fundamentally social creatures the basics of positive social interaction are baked into our biology and psychology. We wouldn't be so successful a species otherwise. However, throughout history we can see time after time that this truth means little when your speaking in the tribal or super-tribal senses. Human interaction is and has always been messy on those borders, oftentimes bloody on those borders as well.

The upcoming storm revolves around many factors all coming to the fore at once in the present and not too distant future. Technology, commerce, environmental, resource, and population pressures are all coming to a significant head making the whole concept of those “borders” I mentioned above less necessary and desirable for many reasons. And yet human existence for its entire span has relied on those borders in order to prosper. As those borders begin to fall away both symbolically and literally, we are beginning to see some rather ugly truths about ourselves as a species that we tend to convince ourselves we're better than in order to give ourselves an agregiously false sense of our own superiority and nobility as a species.

As we careen towards this inevitable and messy future I do have to spell out some personal convictions. I believe in certain ideas because they fit within my moral framework, and because my study of history has at least shown they can be made workable anywhere. The concept of Liberty and the individual power and free will that is implied with that concept is one I feel vital to any steps towards a common human future. And yet it is one that has to be constantly examined and reexamined. Lest we forget, our founding fathers in this country are the ones who truly elevated this ideological tenant to worldly status. But let us also not forget these were men who also easily justified treating women and children as property and slavery as ok within that ideology. Our understanding of what is important to us has to evolve with time as we better understand ourselves and how we can function socially and societally...

(more to come...this installment wore me out this morning). :)