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Friday, January 10, 2014

Our Modern Minds

The belief in modernism is as old as humanity. Almost everyone who has ever lived felt modern; that is, up-to-date and adapted to their time and culture. The penalty for not being adapted is social rejection, and being thought of as eccentric, or worse, crazy. Not a pleasant fate in any culture. The Amish in America live as if it were still 1830, but they live in voluntary isolation from everyone else.

Every generation thinks they are modern and special, that "times have changed", that they're wiser than their parents and able to solve problems that afflicted society before they came along. Occasionally they're right. Times do change, youthful ideas sometimes work better than tried and true methods, and progress is real, to some extent. But it always comes at a price; sometimes a very high price. The England of 1850 was vastly richer and more powerful than the England of 1750, and had a burgeoning middle class; but it was also dirtier, much more polluted, and meaner, if Charles Dickens is to be believed. And he was believed by his reading audience, which became global, and they made him a very wealthy man. His character portraits - over 3,000 - are timeless and truthful, from the cruel and vicious to the kindly and generous, and he's ranked with the greatest dramatists of all time: Homer, Euripedes, Seneca the Younger, and Shakespeare.

How much progress have we made then, if characters from 500 B.C.E. resonate as much as characters from 1850 A.D.? Clearly, human nature changes very little, and people make the same mistakes, commit the same crimes, and perform the same generous and heroic deeds they always have performed. The costumes and circumstances change, but the Divine Comedy - as Dante called it - goes on and on. Or does it?

Things truly are very different now than ever before. We have powers to destroy life that were never dreamed of previously. Yet our powers to improve life are not so dramatic, and our character development hasn't kept up.. Our technical expertise improved more in the last one-hundred years than it did in the previous two-thousand, but our emotions, fears, and anxieties are much the same.

The pace of technological advancement is exponential; that is, it builds on itself and accelerates. Computers double in power every 18 months, and have been doing so for fifty years. This blinding rate of change will leave traditional human nature in the dust, and 'artificial intelligence' will gradually take over. Self-driving cars are already here, and they do a safer job of moving us than we do ourselves. They don't get drunk, fall asleep, or get mad at other drivers.

The internet is everywhere, and 3D printing will make weapons available to all. Powers never dreamed of are being put in the hands of sociopathic governments, the mentally ill, and people of no emotional development to speak of. How soon will it be before nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons are detonated?

We modern people have separated ourselves from our parents and forebears to a degree never before seen in history. Technology and science are largely responsible for this, but they haven't done it by force. We've pretty much willingly embraced the luxury, convenience, and ease that cars, computers, and iphones bring to us. In any case, we don't have a lot of choice, and would have to move to the wilderness to escape the modern world, the social network party, and the all-consuming media circus.

We are paying a steep price. Are we happier, richer, more relaxed, or more healthy? Poverty in most countries has not lessened in decades, meaningful jobs are still scarce, anxiety is increasing dramatically. In the less developed world, chaos, corruption, and religious fanaticism is growing.

This time in history was entirely predictable, and was predicted in ancient times. Because it's not "sustainable", it can't be sustained, and it will be transformed. God has said it will happen.