The Way We Live Now

MAY 31, 2017

Leading up to The Gathering at the end of July we are sharing weekly blogposts written by Art Earth Tech Institute members Rufus Pollock and Liam Kavanagh. This week’s post is titled ‘The Way We Live Now’ and is a reflection on the world’s current situation and its shortcomings.

Photograph by Sarah Hickson

The Way We Live Now

by Rufus Pollock and Liam Kavanagh

The Situation

Today 7.5 billion people live on this planet and the total is projected to be 10 billion within our lifetime. This extraordinary growth is testament to an incredible material and technical progress, progress which has enabled major improvements in healthcare, education and general material well-being despite the vast increase in population.

Recently, the digital revolution in information technology offers the potential for a new kind of production and, perhaps, a new culture — whilst also contributing to our material progress. The substance at the heart of this revolution - information - is practically costlessly copyable making it naturally abundant and shareable, in stark contrast to the traditional physical goods from bread to steel with which we are familiar for millennia. The continuing advance now includes the possibility of thinking machines, promising (or threatening) to eliminate the need for human labour and presenting profound philosophical and social questions.

During the last two centuries market-based consumerist capitalism has flourished, and as Marx observed, modes of production do much to influence culture. Capitalism and rationality have become a dominant social ideology and economic model, at least among “the elite”.

In the last thirty years, the triumph of the liberal market state, itself a creation of the enlightenment, has become partially tarnished. Awareness has grown of its imperfections, most notably its susceptibility to the influence of concentrated power and wealth especially in the form of multinational corporations. This influence has been perceived to be at odds with the popular interest, but efforts to replace market democracies with more “rational” alternatives have instead produced tyranny, and more recent attempts at reform have produced political disillusionment and ineffective disunity. As a result those most disaffected with “the mainstream” have been relegated to creating private “bohemian” niches within the larger economic system rather than true alternatives.

Though explicit criticism is muted, there has spread, especially in the last thirty years, a widespread feeling that something is wrong, perhaps seriously so. At the same time, there is little consensus as to what exactly it is that is wrong — or what to do about it.

What’s Not Working

The increase in productivity and consumption are seriously straining the earth’s capacity to support life. Societies are increasingly marked by stressful competition for fixed amounts of wealth, leading to inequality and reduced well-being. Even so, in comparison to other areas, physical safety, growth and economy seems to be what is most clearly “going right.”

More concerning are the effects of our profit-oriented consumerism on values, community and well-being. The positive effect of material progress on psychological well-being clearly decline rapidly after basic needs are met. However, this has been little reflected in our way of life. This is, at least in part, because of our deep immersion in an ideology that emphasizes and promotes individualistic, competitive acquisitiveness and focus on “the bottom line”. This has eroded “investment” in the “public goods” of community, trust, and the humanitarian education required for a well and well-rounded citizenry. Powerful, industrially-crafted temptations overwhelm our (largely unimproved) self-control. As a result our free-time is spent on semi-addictive distractions such as TV, drugs, porn, shopping and blockbuster movies. Despite periodic counter currents (e.g. “the sixties) we find ourselves wondering if we are on a slow drift towards something like Huxley’s somatic society — but without the smart elite to hold it all together.

Among the elite of our own era we see a deterioration of enlightenment ideals such as public service and educated humanism. In their stead has been put a selfishness — either directly expressed or, more commonly, dressed up in a neo-liberalism verging on the libertarian.

Such decay brings to mind Marx’s old metaphor that capitalists are like sorcerers who have summoned forces beyond their control. Our society has become so complex that nobody can claim fully to understand it — global warming and the modern financial systems being obvious cases. If we are challenged in making choices and taking action even in these situations where the danger is clear and present and evidence abundant, how much faith can we have in our governance system when we consider upcoming issues like managing artificial intelligence?

In short, intellectual, emotional, & spiritual progress has been insufficient to cope with and guide sociocultural change. Traditionally, religion acted as a counterweight to greed, but this has tended to wither away, being replaced either by hedonism or new worryingly reactionary variants (evangelical Christianity or radical Islam).

A sense of direction and purpose in “modernity” has given way to a “postmodern” world that is bewilderingly complex, ambiguous and, impersonal. The psychological strain is evidenced in the explosion of mental illness in the most “developed” sections of the world.

Despite the longstanding feeling that something is wrong, widespread acceptance of the ascendancy of market-based consumerist capitalism has largely eliminated the space for experimentation with alternatives. Most traditional opposition movements have lost their charisma due to in-effectiveness and/or inactivity in recent times.

One potentially effective form of resistance to the anesthesia of alternatives has lain in the spiritually informed activism embraced by Gandhi, King and Buddhists more broadly. There is a rising western Buddhism which is more compatible with modern science, but this focuses more on coping and sanctuary rather than directly challenging the nature of reality or society’s values and organization. Its practices are in danger of being coopted as a technology for the use of the ego (to “accomplish”), rather, than a means of escaping it.

Science which is one of the most successful of modernity’s projects has seen its reputation tarnished. Seen by some as the answer to all of our problems by others as a pox — over-extending our technological capacities and creating a petty reductionism. The need for replacement of religion is often ridiculed among scientists, while science is ridiculed among those who find a rationalist worldview unsatisfying and fundamentally incomplete. Conversation between mystics and rationalists is sadly all too often counter-productive and we lack those who could cultivate both mindsets and bridge the gap in debate. This leads to divides even among non-capitalists.

Almost paradoxically, at the same time driven by enlightenment ideals of equality, the scope of empathy is broadening, encompassing women & reaching across ethnicities. This has been seen as a necessity to make democracy and meritocratic international capitalism work, and may give opportunity for broad cooperation across nations.

Edited by Brigitte Arndt