The Dehumanizing Religion of “Progress”

Can a political ideology be a religion? I suggested in my post entry that people who are willing to countenance the murder of their political adversaries in pursuit of a glorious cause are in fact not engaged in politics at all: they are members of a religious cult. But how can a belief system be styled “religious” if acknowledges no deliberate agency in cosmic affairs other than the human? If it recognizes no spiritual reality but only the material version, if it accepts no afterlife other than the bequest of technical learning that allows one’s grandchildren to live longer and better… then where is the religion?

Let me try to state this “faith” as fair-mindedly as I can. Jules Romains, a French novelist whose most successful works were penned almost a century ago and about whom I’ve written quite a lot, authored a manifesto early in his career for a movement he called “unanism”. I can bring its general terms to mind without too much effort–and it’s about as eloquent an expression of the progressivist vision as I have ever seen.

The unanimist (or exponent of “one spirit uniting us all”) sees the human race as fulfilling a kind of destiny into which it has stumbled, but which is now its grand and inescapable calling. We might have continued living in trees and caves… but we didn’t; and once we evolved the ability to manipulate our environment and to organize our societies, we became permanently endowed with the power to perfect ourselves. Diseases could be conquered; violent weather events could be mitigated; hunger could be minimized through agricultural innovation and social discipline; crime could be bred out of us slowly through education; even the inevitable degeneration of our planetary home as the solar system entropically wears out could be averted if only we might reverse certain forces, travel to a new solar system, or create one ex nihilo out of our genius.

In a sense, we would live forever; and individuals might quite literally live for thousands of years with the help of nano-technology and cybernetics. Yet that failing, our species–our human collective–would bear our vision and our values undyingly into the future. And in that certainty within each of us that our efforts had laid one more brick onto the great ascending wall, we would partake of a kind of eternity, even though our personal consciousness would have been terminated somewhere along the way.

If this is not a religion rivaling others on earth today–if it is not, indeed, the dominant religion of the Western political and economic elite and of our educational institutions–then I can’t think why it should not be so. Its faithful may protest, “But the system you have outlined has nothing of the irrational about it! Religion clings to belief in invisible spirits flitting about behind the scenes: this is all science and reason!” No, actually: it’s not. The most basic assumption that we have some high duty or other to continue evolving has no empirical basis whatever. Where would this duty come from? If it was always in our genetic material, then some mysterious Creator must have put it there; but if we just happened to beat dolphins and crows out in the battle to survive, then our “mission” would be to continue surviving and thriving at the expense of anything in our way. We might build spaceships in the future–but we would do so to keep from getting fried when the Sun explodes–not “to boldly go where no man has gone before” (splitting infinitives and dropping sexist referents along the way).

Finally, the whole “grand’ enterprise would end up an exercise in futility–an instance of what the deconstructionists liked to call “postponement”. No matter how many solar systems we might create or colonize, all suns all throughout the cosmos must eventually burn out; or if the universe’s matter collapses upon itself and re-ignites, then we and everything belonging to us or stemming from us must all likewise be melted down utterly. So where is the omega in this quest for perfection if not in a fantasy to which no materialist has a right?

Yet the votaries of progress are willing to kill people who get in their way right here, right now–or at least to crack jokes about such murders and shrug. “Small loss… no big deal.” About the only thing that can make people forget their common humanity to this degree and morph into the glassy-eyed nightmare-robots of a sci-fi flick is cultic fanaticism. Naturally, the fanatic resents his faith being labeled a faith, a belief system, because… because it’s true, damn you!

 

Show Me the Way to Go Home

What should have been a nine-hour drive yesterday turned into eleven grueling hours for my wife and me. The cause of this was mostly the complete absence of adequate signage at critical points, or else the ambiguous placement of signs at spots where they might be beckoning you to take either of two exits or turns. At one point, I simply had to stop and ask directions (especially since the skies were clouded up and I hadn’t the slightest sense of where true north lay). The answer I received was a bewildered, “Well, I’m not sure, but… don’t you have a GPS?”

We did, actually—but the roads had changed so rapidly in certain areas that our unit couldn’t handle all the conflicting information. Sometimes the little box reminds me pathetically of that robot in the Isaac Asimov story walking circles on Planet Mercury and going crazy because the elements of its basic programming have been made contradictory. Funny how you almost feel sorry for your unit at those moments (“in 800 yards, turn left—turn right, turn right”)… after you get over being furious at it and then feeling shame because “it’s not the poor thing’s fault.”

What’s really interesting here is how fully we have already surrendered our sense of direction to the machine. For years, I’ve been hearing people say, “If this keeps up, nobody will know how to read a map.” That day has arrived. Maps are obsolete. The notion of inferring direction from the slant of the shadows at a particular time of day has grown bizarre. Even locals in small towns don’t seem to know how to tell you to get from Sunset Boulevard to the Joe Kowalski Sports Complex. “Well… don’t you have a GPS?”

And apparently the various state and local departments responsible for posting signs don’t care much about the situation, either. Seriously, I think we may be very close to the time when these government entities alert us (to nobody’s great surprise or concern) that they will no longer be squandering funds on signage. Just tell your car’s dashboard where you wish to go, and then listen to instructions—or turn over the driving entirely to the vehicle. That’s another stop or two down the road, but it’s surely coming, as well.

And the technophile will mock, “So what? Why does anyone need to know east from west? Unless your plane crashes in the Sahara and you have no bars and no radio, why would you ever need to know which way to go? Even then, after the crash, your best bet is probably to stay put and wait.”

Yeah, yeah… but what happens when you have to pay through the nose for system updates (the refusal to accept which blackmail was the specific cause of our GPS’s inadequacy)? What happens in the event of a solar flare? What happens if the data are simply wrong for any one of a thousand reasons, ranging from accident to sabotage? I don’t like the sound of a world where I must absolutely have a machine to transit from A to B.

Yet we’re already there: that’s what I learned this weekend.

The Dumbed-Down World of Peak Efficiency

I almost feel guilty, as if I’d been remiss in fulfilling a duty. Some of my best students are among those who haven’t submitted papers on time as the semester shuts down. The deadlines were published in my syllabus four months ago, and I also announced them verbally at every class meeting for the past two weeks… but today’s student tends not to read the syllabus and doesn’t soak up merely verbal comments. If the alert isn’t uploaded onto a “device”, then it will fall on deaf ears (so to speak: allusion to a quaint time when human beings acquired information by listening).

I say I almost feel guilty. I also feel really ticked off at my profession for encouraging—and often even requiring—this shift of focus from responsible reading of published matter and listening to formal utterances to a casual, passive peeking at repeated electronic prods. The latest technology is supposed to allow us to “do this for” our students better than ever next year.

Why should we? Shouldn’t a member of the grown-up world be capable of searching a document for deadlines and then remembering them? If pinging the student every hour like some kind of alarm clock when an assignment is due the next day is to be viewed as producing more efficient results, then wouldn’t yet greater efficiency be achieved if I just did the work for all of them and submitted it to myself? Then I would obtain both a hundred percent submission rate and a hundred percent “pass” rate. What efficiency!

Isn’t this exactly where we’re headed, though, as we approve more and more supplemental hardware and software to make life “quicker, easier, and more successful”? How far away are we from merely inserting chips into tiny portal at the base of the student’s skull with immense amounts of “knowledge” ready to be downloaded?

Is a critical mass of the professoriate still opposed to this kind of thing… or aren’t most of us in the Ivory Tower so enamored of looking progressive and so honest-to-goodness dumbed-down ourselves that we can no longer distinguish between successful regurgitation of “knowledge” and the ability to think?

I’m going to downgrade those few superior but scatterbrained students for being too slovenly to look up due dates and retain them—and I’m going to do so because I want them to prosper as human beings. I hope they will feel ashamed of their oversight when, inevitably, they contact me and demand an explanation for not receiving their A. I hope they’re still capable of feeling such shame. If so, then they may yet have a bright future ahead of them.

Baseball: A Tidy Morality Tale of Degradation Through Technology

Baseball season officially begins tomorrow. I love baseball… but not as I used to. Or, rather, I still love the game, but I don’t much care for the way professionals play it now. It used to be so much more tailored to the pastoral motions of a country lad swinging a scythe or an axe, with all the body’s members working in concert and clever hands getting every last bit of possible acceleration out of a handle. Now it belongs to big, muscular men who hurl their equipment around like barbells in the weight room and are carefully insulated from flying debris by special gloves, special pads, special flaps and guards. The finesse is gone. The higher skills are gone. Even the fielders’ mitts are virtual butterfly nets. The whole dance has grown comparatively predictable and boring.

The late Ralph Kiner was the only commentator I ever noticed awarding proper credit to the altered bat for the game’s degeneration. Bats were once a yard long, with little tapering. Hitters (or “strikers”, as the nineteenth century knew them) used their sticks to balance as a tightrope walker does before they actually carried a saber-like swipe straight into the pitch, smacking it with spread hands whose fingers were as cunningly positioned along the handle as a flautist’s on his melodious instrument. Even when I was a boy, Mantle and Mays still had very level strokes and could make split-second adjustments with their feet and hands.

Wooden bats were always cracking and shattering, though—and replacing them cost money. High schools and colleges were only too happy to shift to aluminum models in the Seventies that could be used all year long and were hence much kinder to the budget. As the metal alloys employed were refined, the new-age bat was reshaped to proportions that wood couldn’t possibly have imitated (though big league models would come ever so close by the Nineties). Barrels grew massive and handles toothpick-thin. Length also diminished to allow yet more mass to be packed into the barrel. In turn, this meant that loss in the acceleration of the longer bat’s sweet spot had to be supplemented by placing the hands all the way down on the knob—and also (as soon became apparent) by recruiting taller boys with longer arms. Tall boys seldom have quick, clever feet. Fortunately, fine footwork wasn’t required for the evolving swing: the lower body grew almost stationary, allowing the upper body to wale down on the pitch from high over the rear shoulder and put maximal backspin on the ball in the (ever less likely) event that contact was made. A backspun ball will climb very high; and if a really tall boy hits it really high on a slightly windy day, it will end up sailing over a fence. Otherwise, and especially for shorter boys, it becomes a simple pop-up—a “can of corn”.

So thanks to technology, baseball became a big boy’s game, and then a big man’s game. The steroids scandals of the Nineties might never have happened if bats had not shifted shape so as to reward blunt upper-body strength. Now we spectators have become so used to seeing the home run as the only alternative to the tedious pop-up (or the weak ground ball—the consequence of a steep downward swing that comes too early and meets the ball on its upward follow-through) that nothing else in the game interests us. We prefer the annual Home-Run Derby to the All Star Game that it precedes; and certain “innovators” are seriously suggesting, even, that we cut extra-inning affairs short by staging a home-run shootout the way soccer breaks ties with penalty kicks.

For those who care, this is quite a fascinating morality tale. A massive, across-the-board degradation of skills among players, strategy among coaches, and even patience and taste among spectators was all set in motion by a seemingly benign adjustment in the bat’s building material at lower levels of the game. We practically never see the entire range of consequences that will follow from technological change: the variables are too numerous and human behavior too complex. Yet once we have embarked upon the changes, we can almost never work our way back up the road after rethinking our selection. Indeed, we can almost never rethink it, because the new ways too quickly reprogram our entire outlook. We become trapped in the devastating folly of supposing our lifestyle better and better merely because it’s not that of our grandparents. We have no idea what we’ve lost; and, in our Lilliputian cocksureness, we scoff at the notion that we have lost anything at all.

Dismissing Conspiracy Is the Shortcut to Being Duped

No one wants to be a “science-denier” these days. As insipid and fatuous as the phrase is (I thought that skepticism and receptiveness to revision were essential to scientific thought?), twenty-first century Americans accept it as an especially caustic version of “stupid idiot”. If experts in white coats tell us one thing in peer-reviewed professional journals, therefore, while relatively uncredentialed protesters howl away at them from personal websites, we smirk at the protest. What a bunch of losers! What a lot of wacko conspiracy-buffs and flat-earth troglodytes!

At the same time, we—the general public—are pretty troglodytic on any given issue. We really don’t understand the intricacies of the cyber world or the medical world. How could we? How could any one human brain? Perhaps a brilliant, devoted professional might understand in some detail the current state of learning in one advanced science; but of other sciences (and often ones related to his own field), he is necessarily as ignorant as a Dante scholar of electrical engineering. Ours is the age of the specialist—and as Ortega y Gasset noted a century ago, every specialist tends to think that he knows everything about everything just because he knows almost everything about one tony group of things.

Well, maybe that’s not quite true. I incline to believe, rather, that we invoke holy “science” in areas where we have none because we’re all too aware of our deficiency. By endorsing what the “scientists” have discovered in that field, however, we demonstrate to the world that we understand the pedigree of true knowledge. No, we’re not biochemists… but we’re smart enough to know when biochemists should have the last word, unlike those loony conspiracy-theorists!

This makes us easy prey for genuine conspiracy. Since our egotism inhibits us from asking such obvious questions as, “What if they’re cooking the books?” and, “What if no one dare blow a whistle lest he or she be forever banished from the profession?” we’re left sprawling in childish gullibility. We simply take it as an article of faith that the “science god” wouldn’t lie to us. What if the flu vaccine really isn’t any good, or what if chemotherapy is so liberally prescribed simply because the pharmaceutical-medical complex wants to recoup its immense investment in researching and developing a bunch of toxic drugs? How would we know… because professional ethics would compel the white coats to come clean? Really?

I suppose another reason why we scoff at wacko whistleblowers is what used to be called “whistling in the graveyard”. We need to put on a brave face… because if we once admit our enormous degree of unknowing and exposure, we’d hardly be able to shut our eyes at night. Better to stop our ears, shut our eyes, and repeat in a loud voice, “It’s science! It’s science! It’s science!”

And yet… quis custodes custodiet? Who will guard the guards?

Doctors: The Village Priests of the Twenty-First Century

It sounds really strange to people… but I haven’t seen a General Practitioner since I had to take a physical for my first job, about forty years ago. A doctor set my arm once upon a time when, as a kid, I broke it roller-skating. Thank you. A dentist once told me, when I was in my early twenties, that I’d had the world’s smallest filling. Now, I’ve never had a filling in my life—I think I would have remembered, and I didn’t have much to remember back then. Yet he was adamant, and… doctors are never wrong, you know.

Except when they are. An anesthesiologist almost sent my wife into a coma during what was supposed to be out-patient surgery. Another of the same noble calling shrank my father’s bladder to the size of a pea, so that he had to wear a catheter for the rest of his life. Several members of my family have been given prescriptions for blood pressure medicine which tormented them with unpleasant side-effects, and the few who finally refused to take any more pills never suffered any negative consequences. The flu vaccine has also introduced its share of miseries into my household… and who knows if it works? How would you ever possibly know?

The largest medical database in the world will categorically not consider any studies of homeopathic treatment, yet the medical-pharmaceutical complex’s standard approach to treating cancer—surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy—is itself dangerously carcinogenic in two of the three strategies. Indeed, the role of radiation in spawning cancer had long been known not only to include x-rays and radioactive material, but also electromagnetic energy in certain doses. While the public fear of power lines strung over one’s back yard has declined before a steady bombardment of professional derision, I well recall that children were warned back in the Seventies not to sit too close to televisions. The computer monitors before which I sat directly during the Nineties contained the same cathode ray tubes and affected my overall health in numerous ways. To this day I feel somewhat diarrheic if I sit for a couple of hours even before an iPad, and most of my computer work has to be done behind an improvised Faraday Screen. Yet medical minds of my acquaintance or that I encounter online continue to pooh-pooh my concerns. I’m a crackpot, and they know everything.

Why should I trust a profession like that? Now, there’s no denying that competent, conscientious doctors exist; but I’m nevertheless amazed at commercials that urge us to “ask our doctor” about this or that drug that will improve our mood, remove an irksome rash, or reduce our stress. If you listen closely, you can usually hear the narrator warn in a rapid-fire undertone of “harmful or fatal side-effects in rare cases” involving destroyed livers, kidneys, and stomach linings. And yet, I’m supposed to have “my doctor” ready and waiting for a quick consultation the way, in a different time, people had a village priest handy to hear a confession.

It’s the arrogance that bothers me the most. Any real person of learning isn’t afraid to say, “I don’t know.” When is the last time you heard those words out of a doctor?

What’s Insecure About “Security”

I came back from my spring break to find that I could no longer check the email at my place of employ. First I had to add a “device” through which I would initially identify myself: then the email would load. Security, of course: an “upgrade” to respond to new “risks”.

There’s simply no end to this. The new security protocol will last until aspiring hackers devise a way to circumvent it easily… which may take a few months. Then I’ll have to add another device, or else there will be some more arcane and complicated procedure. Then the hackers will render the latest measure obsolete… and on we go. And on and on.

One annoying thought that always nags me in these situations is how many techies we’re paying royally to make our lives more complex and miserable. The cost of doing something as simple as checking your mail has become inflated by a factor of ten or twenty since the days when we just wrote a note and slipped it in a box. What am I saying–that didn’t cost anything but a piece of paper! Try multiplying the cost by several thousand!

And, without fail, the next other thought is precisely, “What was so bad about paper?” You had one transmission confined to one space. To “hack” it, someone would have to break into the mail room. Or you could leave a phone message on an answering machine, which was almost as cheap, a little easier to check, and immensely more secure (inasmuch as one trespasser into the mail room could have access to everyone’s cubby hole, but the same desperado would have to break into X number of offices or houses to raid each answering machine).

I’ve actually been requested several times during the past year to submit in print some kind of report that I had already–under orders–submitted online. The reason? A superior found tracking down the material online to be far too time-consuming. Especially with all the new security measures (and more coming every month), trying to gain access to information not only becomes more intricate but also incurs greater risk of freeze-up or shut-down when the software updates don’t quite mesh with previous gears.

How much of what we do really needs to be secure, anyway? Sensitive info about bank accounts or identification numbers or health problems or (in my case) course grades would be better off sitting in a file cabinet. Why does an online class need to be resistant to Chinese or Russian hackers, though? A lot of such stuff finds its way to YouTube (if it’s good enough to draw a general audience). Could it be that the people who “secure” us for their living have a vested interest in exposing us ever further to embarrassing or disastrous invasions of privacy? As long as we feel “at risk”, they will be assured a lucrative gig.

I wouldn’t be posting this piece without the Internet. I’m not waging a war against the Web. But why do we have to use every technology for everything to which it might possibly be applied, just because we can? Why don’t we select appropriate uses and decline others that involve us in never-ending headaches and nervous sweats?