Jan 25, 2011

Products of Our Time

(reposted from my personal site because I think this is somewhat relevant to this blog)

We are products of our time — unwitting manifestations of processes that are difficult to recognize due to the small timescale of a human life.

We grow up in cultures that form our basic attitudes, which some people begin to question in early adulthood. But where does culture come from? Many elements of culture "just evolve," much like languages, in a kind of self-reinforcing way.

Ultimately, no all-encompassing answer can be given to questions such as, "why do men wear ties to work?" A satisfactory answer would have to include the history of labor and clothing, the economic factors affecting this history, and a scientific discussion of the psychological and biological basis of conformism. Even then, there's no guarantee that we've actually found an answer. There's no guarantee that if we rewound history and started the game over, by the year 2000 men would be wearing ties to work. In the rerun, some "butterfly in Texas" could flap its wings a little differently, and in the end men would be wearing turtlenecks with stripes down the front instead of collared shirts and ties. If a whole flock of butterflies flapped their wings, maybe today men would all paint their fingernails, grow pointy moustaches, and wear kilts.

But there are other, more significant, elements of culture that are much less arbitrary and have traceable material causes. I would like to discuss a few of these causes in this essay: urbanization (overpopulation), information technologies, and fossil fuels.

1. Urbanization/overpopulation

We are products of overpopulation. Most of us spend our lives surrounded by strangers and packed into urban centers — conditions very different from those in which our species evolved. Higher population density translates into more complex social structures and societal institutions, as well as more information in general. This greater complexity takes more time to understand, and more information must be assimilated before one can become a "productive member of society," so we study longer and delay creating families later. Equipped with a strong exploratory instinct, in urban conditions people can't help investigating all the options, finding out what there is in society, what goods are available, getting to know more people, and trying out more things. All these actions "distract" us from reproduction. We extend our education, pass more time investigating options before settling down with a career, and spend years picking and choosing among potential mates before finally creating a family.

Overpopulation also causes an underlying stress related to continual interaction with complete strangers. We develop conventions for formalizing superficial interactions with strangers in order to reduce stress. These include handshakes and other forms of greetings, etiquette, and conversation patterns. Once surrounded almost exclusively by close community, Homo Sapiens now spends a great share of his time among strangers. This leads to conventionalized interaction, ignoring, and avoidance. People whose natural shyness would be easy to overcome in a communal environment find themselves easily isolated in an urban setting. Even naturally gregarious people find themselves susceptible to feelings of isolation as nobody has time to spend with them.

Reproduction begins to lose its value and allure in an overpopulated society. The economics gradually change to favor small families and even bachelorhood. Land, infrastructure, and education costs rise, requiring people to spend more time working to pay their own way and, consequently, less time working to feed dependents. Children become progressively more expensive and less useful to their parents.

Despite the rising costs and risks of reproduction, the reproductive instinct remains as strong or nearly as strong as ever (due to mild chemical suppression). Furthermore, continual contact with attractive strangers provides constant low-level sexual stimulation. In addition to developing anti-contraceptives, society channels this energy into increasing autoeroticism and voyeurism (viewing sexual behavior but not engaging directly in it yourself). Nonreproductive sexual behavior is increasingly accepted and encouraged, with a plethora of goods and services available to make it easier. This ultimately serves to lower reproductive pressure and hence population. So-called moral decay, then, actually serves the noble purpose of reducing population pressure.

Population pressure is also reduced through increasing acceptance (prevalence?) of homosexuality and by the rising prevalence of psychological problems inhibiting the formation of stable relationships. The causes of relationship problems at first glance appear unrelated to population density, but I would argue that they are by-products of urbanization. Commitment avoidance, for instance, traces to societal complexity and an overwhelming amount of information and opportunities. Emotional intimacy problems probably trace to excessive contact with strangers and insufficient contact with family. In addition, modern urban life presents difficult financial and career decisions almost unknown to previous generations.

2. Information technologies

We are products of the telephone, TV, and Internet. Increasingly effective communication technologies have allowed us to maintain increasing interconnectedness despite increasing isolation. Thanks entirely to telephones and, later, the Internet, each individual now maintains a staggering network of instantly available contacts, many of whom he will never see again in his life due to the vastly increased mobility of individuals (thanks to fossil fuels — see below).

As a result of increasing access to information, modern urbanites are now incredibly knowledgeable about things that have little to do with their personal circumstances. Our innate curiosity receives outlets that previous generations couldn't have dreamed of. Any question can be answered, any fact discovered, with just a few mouse clicks. A side effect is impatience with lack of knowledge — our own or others'.

Quick and easy means of communication favor short, spontaneous interactions. Messages become shorter and generally more mundane. Gone is the art and practice of letter writing. We lose our sense of distance; each friend or contact with Internet access becomes equidistant. Eventually all our friends are "contacts," and all our contacts are "friends."

A result of the growth of information technologies is information overload. The TV has more channels than you can watch simultaneously, and TV programs run round the clock. Everyone is available at the same time via phone or Internet. The Web never sleeps, and its content never stops growing and changing. Our biology predisposes us to become "information exchange junkies," and it's easy to become a genuine addict with information "fixes" so easy to obtain.

As a result of all this information, we're spending less time than ever on physical pursuits, and our minds are often overstimulated while losing some ability to focus. The more information there is, the less time we spend digesting each portion of it. A bit of depth is sacrificed to breadth. But the new breadth is incomparably vaster than the old.

Information technologies also feed our increasing autoeroticism and voyeurism by offering personal sexual and emotional adventures whenever we want through online pornography, chat rooms, and socializing. This can translate into decreased motivation to pursue person-to-person sexual and emotional contact, which contributes to the depopulation trend described above.

3. Fossil fuels

Fossil fuels are the reason why widespread urbanization (overpopulation) and the development of information technologies were possible in the first place. Fossil fuels have also produced their own unique set of unique culture-forming circumstances, described in my article on fossil fuels and their influence on communities and health. The main derivatives of industrialization are sedentarism, individual mobility, and rootlessness.

It's hard to fathom how much our attitude towards our bodies has changed as a result of industrialization. Our bodies have become basically irrelevant to our professional success. Healthcare has become institutionalized as a result of industrialization, urbanization, and advances in medicine and is no longer the full responsibility of the individual. At the same time, our outward appearance is still important for developing relationships, perhaps more so than ever now that we spend so much time among strangers.

The functionality of the body — that is, its ability to perform various tasks — is no longer of much economic significance. Those who continue to develop their bodies do so more for aesthetic than for practical reasons. Freed from the constraints of daily physical labor, the body has become a kind of art form to be honed and looked at by others, or simply be kept hidden under a layer of clothing. At the same time, industrial society presents formidable obstacles to maintaining a physically healthy lifestyle, and many people are unable to keep their bodies in good aesthetic shape. Orthodontics, cosmetics, and clothing today allow one to make a good impression despite an undeveloped physique.

Mobility — made possible by liberal capitalism and modern transportation infrastructure — allows us to choose from a greater number of life options than ever before. Not only can one choose from a plethora of professions, but one can also live almost anywhere one wants. More options means more time needed to make choices. Mobility contributes to delays in reproduction and increased social isolation mentioned above. Society-wide effects of mobility are discussed in the article linked to above.

One of those effects is widespread rootlessness. People who can go anywhere they want tend to have weaker ties to place. Furthermore, national culture becomes more uniform through deep-level cultural interchange facilitated by large-scale movements of people. A rootless person becomes, statistically speaking, more cosmopolitan, less devout, and less patriotic with regard to his land of birth. On the other hand, the personal benefits to be gained are often irresistible: professional opportunities, economic gain, and adventure.


Urbanization, overpopulation, information technologies, industrialization, and fossil fuel-derived mobility have formed a new kind of person — the individualistic, independent yet financially indebted, information-consuming, erudite, autoerotic, voyeuristic, morally decadent, rootless, highly mobile yet sedentary, aesthetically physical, emotionally isolated but socially connected Modern Urbanite.

This process is taking place across the entire globe and has reached an advanced stage in places as diverse as New York, Tokyo, Frankfurt, Shanghai, Moscow, and Sydney. Chances are, if you're reading this, a good two-thirds or more of what I've written applies to you.


Anonymous said...

you forgot the most applicable keyword: sociology! ;-)


Ричард said...

Thanks. I've added it.