Things are in the saddle and ride mankind. — Ralph Waldo Emerson
Numerous times in the 19th century, a period that notably included New England Transcendentalism, the only worthwhile American contribution to philosophy, it was observed that our things, things, had got hold of us and were driving and using us rather than the reverse. Though difficult to recognize, one product of the Machine Age and emerging Information Age was World War I, the Great War, the first truly worldwide conflict, the first mechanized war where fighting could be staged at substantial remove beyond the perimeter where one could see the whites of the eyes of one’s enemies and thus dehumanize them. Something in human character broke in that conflict, and we nearly destroyed ourselves then and in more than one follow-on conflict (including multiple genocides). And yet we still haven’t stopped trying to destroy ourselves. That may well be the dominant aspect of the last 150 years of history, though only a few are sober enough and willing to reach that conclusion. Makes for depressing blogs and lousy careers. There are many folks, however, who can at least see that we’re marching off a cliff but don’t really know why. We’ll get the job done soon enough; we will drive ourselves to extinction while chanting incantations to the gods of renewed economic growth, the lovely bounties of technology that enable us to live (at least temporarily) in self-satisfied luxury, and management of climate chaos and severe population overshoot (and then die-off). The first two of those aren’t philosophies or religions in the proper sense of either word, but they have become de facto substitutes.
I quote fellow blogger Hal Smith of The Compulsive Explainer from time to time. He puts the problem as follows:
[H]igh-tech made people who were no longer people. And so people did the only thing they could do – they set about destroying the world that had destroyed them. One more thing needs to be emphasized — all this happened in the collective unconscious, which has been denied completely. We live in an era of universal despotism — where the despots are not human, but something bigger than human that we can hardly comprehend — especially when our thinking ability has been seriously compromised.
I think the problem goes further back to the Machine Age and is only more recently exacerbated by high-tech. Hal Smith states and restates this diagnosis periodically, but I suspect hardly anyone gets it.
What makes objects of desire, mostly things, so irresistible that we are content to destroy ourselves in their pursuit? As a younger, more idealistic man, not yet given over to the profound pessimism the reality principle has demanded of me as I learn more about the world, I had believed that if religious transcendence were unavailable to me in an increasingly profane, secularized world, then at least transcendent beauty in objets d’art and music were still worthy pursuits as either creator, practitioner, or audience. As I learned more about those endeavors, their remorseless cooptation, commodification, and corruption (e.g., when did paintings become pure investment vehicles?) faded the bloom from the rose. One pursuit after another grew tarnished, which appears to be the terminal trajectory of all things, and I, like everyone else, have turned to alternatives in search of beauty, meaning, and transcendence. Some find meager substitutes in food, sex, drugs, drink, sports, gambling, wielding power, fighting wars, etc. and throw themselves into their enthusiasms with willing abandon, unconcerned whether the logical result be self-destruction. Even the glimpse of something transcendent is a price worth paying.
But to the zombie masses, less willing to shoulder known and foreseeable risks, the objects of desire are mere things, commodities, which seemingly offer a last hope in an otherwise played-out world, since progress is the affairs of men is hopelessly stalled while refinements in the goodies continue to leave us gobsmacked. For the American public, the automobile is probably the principal object of cathexis, since its nearly mythical associations with power, freedom, and license are by now well established in our hearts and minds. Electronic devices run a close second as they deliver other substitutes for our yearnings, namely, entertainment, pseudosocial connectivity, and a firehose of information, news, and ephemera. I won’t say that I’ve succumbed entirely, but I’ve definitely had my flirtations with stuff/things, mostly recently with high-end audio equipment. It’s hard not to admire and covet well-designed, well-made, high-quality goods that serve useful purposes, just like it’s easy to have one’s head turned by strictly fashionable items (brands and prestige goods, such as clothes and jewelry), which beyond their effectiveness at enhancing one’s appearance also function as markers of class/wealth. But as I have averred repeatedly, for the most impressionable among us — our youths — electronics and the virtual world they invoke have in particular become so alluring that awareness of something else — anything else – to strive for is easily eclipsed. If the message of philosophy and religion (of most any type) is to look and think beyond oneself, the message of electronics is to look no further than one’s own thumbs and think hardly at all.