It’s been a while since I reported on traffic flow at The Spiral Staircase. I know the results will be a shocker: nothing has changed. I’m safe in my obscurity, which is perfectly fine with me. There is some ebb and flow in how often I blog, but the hits hover between 12 and 30 per day, which I suspect represent the background noise floor. No matter. The blog still functions primarily as a venue for me to work out some ideas, not as a vehicle to burnish my vanity. The topics driving hits to my blog have changed from pimped-out SUVs to skyscrapers, the night sky, and The Boneyard. I also get a few clickthroughs now and then from a top ten list of well-written blogs.
I thought I might come clean and mention two blogs from which I gather ideas but for my own unstated reasons don’t list on the blogroll: Ran Prieur and How to Save the World. Both blogs provide quite a lot of thought-provoking content. Both writers also write a lot in the first person, which doesn’t seem to me to be about vanity so much as about personalizing the perspective and reporting on the writers’ own activities. (My intent on this blog has been to avoid the seductive trap of first person perspective, which has been difficult and perhaps at times unnecessary.) Both writers are also pretty well convinced of the imminent collapse of civilization, which is the conclusion I’ve come to, though I don’t want that as the sole focus of this blog.
In 1984, fully a quarter century ago, Albert Borgmann came out with a book of social criticism and philosophy called Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life. (The link is to the paperback from 1987; the hardcover is from 1984.) The book appears on lots of syllabi in college sociology courses, so it’s hardly an obscure academic tome. One of the book’s principal metaphors is the device paradigm, which is how technological devices are perceived and consumed in modern society. Borgmann contrasts the device paradigm with focal things and practices, which are things of ultimate concern and significance that are often masked by the device paradigm. It’s worth noting that Borgmann’s insight was in 1984, just after the appearance of the first video games but before the advent of the personal computer, the Internet, the WorldWideWeb, the pager or cell phone, the Blackberry, the iPod or iPhone, and texting or twittering.
Our relationship with technology has been a concern since the appearance of radio, and more ominously, television. However, despite many varied warnings that our very humanity might well be imperiled by uncritical embrace of every new electronic medium that appears in the marketplace, the device paradigm has only intensified with time. And so when such an insightful surveyor of cultural trends as Oprah.com profiles a family who went cold turkey without their individual electronics, it should come as no surprise that the family discovered each other and some of the quiet, contemplative joys so easily masked by being too plugged in. The related joke in the movie Wall-E is humans walled in by video screens who never even look out the window of the spaceship at the stars (or bear their own weight on their legs). We’re certainly on that trajectory.
Curiously, one of Borgmann’s focal practices is the culture of the table. This is found especially in the ritual of the family dinner, with which the family members profiled at Oprah.com apparently had little experience. In the context of Borgmann’s focal practice, the idea of eating well takes on an entirely different meaning from the obvious notions of eating healthily or having high-quality foodstuffs instead of junk food. The culture of the table is in fact about more than just food; it’s perhaps foremost about cultivating a refined palate, good manners, and stimulating conversation. In short, it’s a social behavior, not just feeding.
Several competing narratives keep popping up in the media that purportedly assess our current state of affairs while ongoing war and economic woes threaten to undo gains made in the postwar era. One narrative suggests that we are not yet over the worst of our economic problems. Another suggests we are already seeing cause for optimism as consumer confidence and other indicators move tenuously in positive directions. A clear consensus is lacking, making it difficult for regular folks to choose which narrative to believe. Even if a consensus were to emerge, there is no guarantee that it would be accepted as the truth. Consider the existing scientific consensus on global warming or evolution. A consensus can be wrong, too.
The colorful phrase “failure to process manifest reality” (taken from J.H. Kunstler) applies equally well to both narratives. In the optimistic narrative, the willful denial of the true gravity of our historical predicaments (social, economic, and ecological) represents our collective incapacity to fully process what is going on. To do so would be to recognize and admit that humans have overshot their ecological niche and are due for significant retrenchment in both numbers and standard of living. So we instead pretend that trends do not in fact point toward water and energy shortages, food insecurity, insolvency, and the inability of governments to function. We then conjure a paradoxical processed reality, not unlike processed food, that has some original elements of actual food (truth) leavened with generous bits of nonfood (spin). In the pessimistic narrative, our failure to process means that lots of trends and government responses have not yet realized their full impact. For example, while the disappearance of wealth in the form of easy credit has caused many to lose their jobs, homes, healthcare, and hope, and though businesses are in a phase of folding up, closing down, and/or declaring bankruptcy for lack of income, the essential elements of society continue to function and day-to-day life for many of us continues relatively unaffected. But the expectation among doomers is that in time (good luck predicting precisely when) all the cascading crises waiting to be fully processed will finally drag us down to a sober reality that can no longer be denied.
Although I have tried not to dwell too much on it, regular readers of this blog know that I believe the time is near at hand for history to catch up to us. The current recession/depression is but one of a series of dominoes poised to topple. The confluence of so many trends pointing to catastrophe on scales ranging from the household to the globe cannot be simply shrugged off as the perennial paranoia of the professional doomsayer. Worse, as crisis piles on top of crisis, it will be increasingly clear that we lack the character, wisdom, technology, forbearance, self-restraint, or political will to solve our problems. For years I have been puzzling over what an ethical personal response to such dilemmas might be, and at the risk of being fatalistic, I have concluded that there may be no such thing. Unless one takes steps to exit society and live freely and locally, one is along for the ride, subject to the deep forces that drive human nature and human culture, without being able to direct or influence them to a degree great enough to matter.
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