Friday, June 3, 2011

Braver New World

One of the signs of an impending Dark Age seems to be a loss of meaning or "way" in society.  We go through the motions, but we lose any sense of relevance of our actions.  Part of this is because we see that what we do will make little difference in the overall course of human civilization and part of it is because we aren't even aware that we have the capacity to effect change.  Or, if you want it boiled down to the essence, we suffer from apathy and ignorance.

Politicians, the media, educators, often get the blame for this state of affairs, but it really makes no more sense to blame them than it does the sun and the moon for someone's bunions.  Politicians spend most of their time trying to get out ahead of where the herd is going and say something that will win some votes.  The media spends all their time trying to battle fiercely for ratings or readership, fighting a rear-guard action against the new media of the web.  Educators take children from homes where education is valued somewhere on the same level as leprosy and try to teach them something, anything, while battling public policy and dodging political potshots. 

I'm not really sure where we could put the blame, where we would define the cornerstone event that led to this problem.  Maybe Huxley was right, that it is impossible to find a limit for man's capacity to endlessly amuse himself.  Prosperous societies never seem to be able to sustain that prosperity.  Is it because people get distracted and don't notice when problems start to crop up?  Or do they just prefer to kick the can down the road because the problem is too huge to address?

I'm really, really not sure what chance America -- and most of the developed world -- has anymore at sustained intellectual growth.  The heroes of yesteryear -- scientists, inventors, tycoons, engineers, explorers -- have been replaced by sports stars, pop stars and actors, all who live shoddy personal lives and can't string two thoughts together.  People like these are what kids aspire to become, while demeaning the contributions of people who actually matter and change the world as we know it.

Some readers might look at this as being one step removed from a "get off my lawn!" type of screed, and maybe it is.  Whatever people may say, there is still likely a vague sense of a loss of purpose and instead they feel unease at being bombarded 24/7 by new and greater distractions, hedonism as a virtue, the lack of adult thought and behavior from most people, the constant search for an endless childhood. 

On the other hand, I think most will agree that we've gone from being a society where things do matter, where we understand what our place in the world is and that we can change it, to a culture of general irrelevance.  The mechanisms of corrective change in the course of our society have completely evaporated and we're left with what is going to be an increasingly bumpy downhill ride even as we see that there's no driver at the wheel any longer.

He's off eating Cheetos and watching America's Got Talent.


  1. Its good to see you blogging again.

    I disagree about not blaming the media. I've been staying away from the mainstream part, and when I go back I am astonished about how much propeganda is broadcast. The thing about propeganda is that it is very effective, especially if broadcast widely, but will eventually become ineffective quite suddenly. People seemed to be happier about living in the Soviet Union during the famines and the purges than during the 1970s.

    And also I'm not sure if "mild hedonism" isn't the correct response. What is the ordinary person to do? I am more informed than most and I have no idea what is going to happen in the near term. One of the more striking things about the last few years is how the U.S. government, with the big bailout, just stopped taking account of public opinion, at least for big matters. I actually think the response of the Russians to the hollowing out of their society in the 70s and 80s was quite appropriate and somewhat dignified compared to what we are likely to get.

  2. Ed,

    Thanks. It's good to be able to spend time on the Leibowitz Project again and reach out to the community once more.

    In retrospect, I may have let the media off a little too easily, although I think the shift from the "old media" to the "new media" is showing what we already know -- that people will vote with their feet if they find something repugnant enough. All the lame responses from the old media, such as paywalls for internet news, trying to go after people who repost links to stories, and so on are going to backfire. The people who still watch the "big three" -- and take it as gospel -- probably don't register anything more out of it than their pets watching with them.

    The difference between the old Soviet Union and now is that we at least (for the moment) have alternatives to the official line and have the information available to us to make decisions about it. The downside is that I'm not sure we're still farther along in addressing the "credibility gap" of news stories than before. It's like the three blind men looking at an elephant -- even with good intentions, you're going to get a distorted view. With bad ones...well...and I think this is part of the reason for trying to step back and preserve the knowledge we have at hand, as well as some sort of epistemological methods to evaluate that knowledge.

    With respect to hedonism and non-hedonism...I suppose it's a matter of options and possibilities available to people. We've reached a point in western society where our optimum personal strategy is largely not related to individual growth, but more in how to hold on to what we have. There are fewer and fewer options available to us, more and more pitfalls. Your point about the lack of responsiveness on the part of the government to public opinion is well taken. I suspect that it's either arrogance (i.e. they "know best") or just apathy as they admit to themselves that there's no real way to prevent an economic collapse and that kicking the can down the road is the best response.


  3. Why are you working such long hours as posted previously? What do you do? I am an anesthesiologist that is why I am asking.

  4. Nathan,

    I work in the software industry. Good work, but working insane hours is a common situation when things get into "crunch time."

    I'm curious about your profession and if/how you see something like that transitioning to a post-collapse environment? Obviously, software isn't likely to be in much demand at that point, so I have a fallback trade, and I'm curious if others have done the same.


  5. Hi John,

    Should a person stay in the city(or his home and hide in it and hopefully no one discover him) or leave the city when there is anarchy in the city he staying in?

  6. Zheng,

    Each situation will obviously have different circumstances. For a long time, survival thought said that people should go to the country, but recent thought, study, and experience is showing that staying in a city makes sense as long as there is not some reason that staying there would be unhealthy or unsafe. The position of the Leibowitz Society is that we are in a state of collapse which is ongoing but is taking decades, if not generations, to happen.

    This means that we are able to adjust to circumstances. For example, a person would not want to stay in Detroit, but living in a smaller city with good water, lots of organic farming nearby and a good sense of community would make sense. Likewise, a person living in the country, at the end of a long road, would want to consider whether or not they would ever be able to trade with anyone or get medical help if gasoline was not available.

    I see too many people in the survival community who have a ready solution for every problem and I think people expect that they can look up those solutions and have them fit all circumstances. Like everything in life, this really isn't the case. While I would like to give a definite answer, it's really not possible, outside of what I wrote above. However, part of the Leibowitz Society is also about helping people learn how to evaluate their position and make adjustments as necessary, so they will be able to answer these questions for themselves based on what they know of their own lives and situations.


  7. In regard to Nathan's odd comment, let me add that I also do the same job when I say I pass gas for a living. There is a lot of expensive technology involved in passing gas to our sleeping clientele but I did a short fellowship in England as a resident and at the time the NHS had a requirement that anesthetists be at least passingly familiar with using ether open drop anesthesia as part of a civil defense preparedness paradigm. Ether was allegedly stockpiled in sites around the country. We did not use them on real patients so being shown how to induce anesthesia on a manikin instead of on a living human being or animal left our expertise in doubt. It wasn't so long ago that so called finger on the pulse anesthesia was the model and we could certainly do it again if called upon with or without the assistance of our fancy monitors, pulse oximeters and the like. I thought enough of the remarkable British foresight to actually stock 2 cases of ether but god help me or the patient if I actually had to use it! There would be a scary learning curve....

  8. It sounds like it would be prime material for a Monty Python skit... :)

    What strikes me when I hear anecdotes like these is that we think of older methods of doing things as being archaic, but they were once state of the art. Unfortunately, they get forgotten in the face of newer and more effective, but also more complex, methods, when the older method would work (or at least be better than nothing) and the newer methods would no longer be possible due to the failure of the systems which allowed it in the first place.