Not So Obvious

I got a long and thoughtful message from Dave Rogers which deserves a public answer, with Dave’s permission:

Much as I enjoy your weblog and as many of your thoughts as I’m capable of comprehending, I’m wondering why you think the Obvious Society will be a good thing

I’ve read The Lucifer Principle, though I haven’t read Bloom’s latest book. I think he flogs the meme past all rationality, but I think social organisms (he calls them “superorganisms”) are a legitimate phenomenon that deserve greater study.

It is in that context that I believe the Obvious Society that you outline, and I agree that is likely to be the way the technology will go, is going to be one of the worst things ever to happen to human beings.

I wonder, have you ever lived in a small town? I have. It’s not exactly fun when everyone knows what you do, especially if you do anything that isn’t in strict conformity with the “norm.” Small towns can be oppressive for people who are “different.”

And what about parenting? How do we nurture notions of “trust” and “responsibility” with our children? I was an intrusive parent for my oldest daughter. I often kept the things I learned to myself, I just wanted to make sure I had some idea of what she was up to. But there’s no way I think I could handle knowing everything, and there’s no way she could have grown into the wonderful young lady that she is, if I had.

And what of citizenship? How do we nurture quaint notions like “trust” and “faith” and “honor” among ourselves as citizens? Why have any of those when we can simply rely on our technology to intrude into people’s lives and ensure they’re not doing anything we wouldn’t approve of?

The Obvious Society is the authoritarian’s wet dream. Knowledge is a form of authority, as I’m sure you’re aware. Giving people greater knowledge of what their neighbors and children are up to is giving them a form of authority without any real understanding of the responsibility that must attend that authority.

In superorganisms, or social organisms, people try to use authority to advance in the pecking order, usually at the expense of others. The world you describe is undoubtedly a better one for social organisms, they will be much more efficient at ensuring their constituent members’ efforts and activities are consistent with the aims of the social organism. But I’m very certain that it will be a terrible world for creating healthy individuals with a strong sense of individual identity, and a knowledge of the values that make life worth living.

I’m no luddite, but the world you describe is not one I welcome, nor one I would wish to inhabit. I am afraid we are already too far down along that path, and the rate is accelerating with the likes of Attorney General Ashcroft in control.

Earlier, on 2/25, Dave had written,

let me point you to this little piece at Escapable Logic [The Obvious Society].

If there is a more frightening vision of the future, I can’t think of what it is.

Britt seems to believe human beings will use all of this particular technology in good ways. I’m not sure he’s ever lived in a small town. What he describes would enable the very worst of human nature to oppress and enforce conformity within the community. Suicide rates would sky-rocket. Hopefully, it will never happen; though I’m sure some fraction of it will to the extent that it will convey an advantage to one group. I can think of a half-dozen Twilight Zone episodes set in Britt’s vision of the future. I sure would hope I was Rod Serling…

Well, to kind of return to the religious theme: I suspect that technology is going to compel us to confront our spiritual problems in a way that nothing else could.

Irony is the fifth fundamental force of the universe.

David and I seem to agree that these technologies are inevitable and probably imminent. Is there any other information that might bring us closer to agreement? Let’s start with the expectation that Peer Brother will drown out Big Brother in a flood of personal video information that we’ll sort out among ourselves without government intervention. I’ve got my private web space here and David has his. We share what we choose to on our site, but not everything. Our captured video will reside in a similarly controlled repository. We can share whatever we want with whomever we want, when we want. As Personal Flight Recorders (PFRs) proliferate, as David agrees they probably will, our collective record will dwarf the records captured but ghettoized by the competing organizations using the cameras we see today.

The other softener in our disconnect is that none of us has any obligation to do any of this. At parties and locker rooms and home and perhaps church, our PFRs will be off. So we’ll be public when we’re out in public and otherwise I bet we’ll observe the kinds of limitations now accumulating around cell phones and smoking.

The Values Worth Living For

Let’s look at David’s core (I think) concern:

In superorganisms, or social organisms, people try to use authority to advance in the pecking order, usually at the expense of others. The world you describe is undoubtedly a better one for social organisms, they will be much more efficient at ensuring their constituent members’ efforts and activities are consistent with the aims of the social organism. But I’m very certain that it will be a terrible world for creating healthy individuals with a strong sense of individual identity, and a knowledge of the values that make life worth living.

Which are the values that make life worth living? If I had that answer, I might be a lot more decisive. Values seem to vary with the respondent and for each of us over time. John Ashcroft knows he has the values that make life worth living, but David and I don’t agree with him. I don’t know which values of the last two presidents I want to embrace, if any. What I can say with confidence is that there is nothing more human than being certain that one knows the “right” values, and that one’s “knowledge” of their rightness is unwavering. The value we both want to protect is our right to our own choices, discoveries, rituals and mysteries.

But within what framework might our choices be made? With no help from the Obvious Society, we’ve already abandoned a lot of freedoms. Our non-obvious society has done nothing to slow Mr. Ashcroft’s a
bsurd crusade against the real America he so obviously hates. In an Obvious Society, the video record would have laughed that sorry Bible-thumper out of the confirmation hearing. In an Obvious Society, we’d see Dubya arrested for his DUI and snorting coke rather than reporting for Air Guard duty as ordered. In an Obvious Society, youth will probably be a little more restrained. Perhaps it won’t ruin them for life.

David and I may have already lived in such a society. David is a retired Navy Commander and I was briefly in the Air Force. The visibility in an Obvious Society may be a lot like the visibility in the military, especially in combat, when you all live and work and horse around together. Like behavior on base, people in an obvious society are likely to be more formal out in public, but perhaps no more formal than people in the 1950’s.

Confronting our Spirit

I’m certain that the Obvious Society will, as David suggests, “compel us to confront our spiritual problems in a way that nothing else could.”

Now there’s a profundity I wish I’d thought of! What is our spirituality? My shorthand is that it’s our authentic self—the sum of thoughts, feelings and urges which spring from a deeper source than the face we put on for others. It’s the place we go when we give up being someone we’re not. What better outcome could we hope for than confronting our spirit? Perhaps we’ll even discern the distinction between spirituality and religiosity—how quiet and meek is the former and how petty and domineering is the latter.

Will it play out that way? I haven’t a clue, but I think so. I believe that deep reflection concludes that only closely held knowledge is “a form of authority” and then only if it’s owned by the authorities. Truly open, public knowledge is more like yesterday’s news—boring and toothless. To be effective, tyranny must hide reality rather than expose it. It’s likely that the Obvious Society is one where we collectively cancel government’s franchise on secrets and shame.

Further, our shared sense of fair play is more strict than our private ambition, else why would public officials work so hard at spinning their character? Being on stage brings out the best in us, if we can stand it.

The stink of money in politics is caused by the need for politicians to buy media time to present a false persona to the electorate. In an Obvious Society, it’s a waste of money and effort, since we’ll be clear about who each of us really is.

The Death of Privacy?

The question is whether we can stand being exposed to the rest of us while in public. It’s easy to forget that privacy is a recent invention, an artifact of the industrial age. It’s sometimes liberating but it’s not the usual human condition. All people through history and most people today live in full view of their family, clan, tribe, village. We’ll not abandon privacy though, since our living spaces sequester us far more than is possible in history and the third world.

But is the non-private life so bad? If you’ve ever seen third world villagers interact, you’ve noticed how cheerful they seem to be. Is it possible that our attempt to hide ourselves is a source of anguish? Here’s John Perry Barlow on life in Kabale, Uganda:

I also wonder how much of our world I actually wish on these people. They are desperately poor by our standards, but I don’t see any of them starving, and, taken as a lot, they sure seem a whole bunch happier than most of us Northerners.

People we see along the road smile and wave. I see them waving even from the distant fields, genuinely glad to see us. Their little gatherings are often doubled over with laughter at something someone has just said.

Imagine average Americans smiling and waving at a carload of passing Africans and you begin to appreciate how different is the vibe. Do I really want to endow other people with such blessings as we endure? At one point, we stop to take a picture and a boy walks past me, coming up from the fields with hoe over his shoulder.

“Hello,” he said brightly. “How is your life?” “My life is good,” I said, meaning it. “How is your life?” “My life is good, too!” he said, meaning it every bit as earnestly. He had no shoes. He was very dirty. He had probably been working for about 10 hours. Altogether, his family makes maybe 500 bucks in a decent year.

His life is good.

How is your life?

It’s a chilling prospect to be truly public in public, but it may be the best way to build ourselves a more liberal environment than the small towns David has escaped—the places that can paralyze its inhabitants into a lockstep conformity. Why might our world be more liberal? Because every voice will be heard, not just the voices of people who want to control others through politics and the religious wrongs. The current morality is skewed by and for those who have grabbed the lectern. Their values are broadcast by media whose members require access to the lectern, which they purchase with their complicity.

Most of our society has become more open than the little towns we remember, judging by the audience for the values and humor on film and in the video store. This blog tries to be a serious (not solemn) series of essays, but is anyone concerned when I proclaim the occasional holyfuckingshit for anyone to see? Not really.

Further, I’m convinced that small town morality and judgmentalism is as much a function of economics and boosterism as of firmly held mores. As access to online work penetrates those societies, your neighbor’s opinion of you loses its grip on your wallet and frees you to dialogue widely, as we are here. Interestingly, messaging lets you connect with like-minded, perhaps open-minded others a few blocks away, who may outnumber the self-righteous but, like oneself, are invisible.

I suspect there are are so many of us normal, red-blooded, slightly zany folks out here that, like the music collectors laughing at the DMCA, we’ll thumb our collective nose at the pathetically self-righteous minority and go have a beer, surf the web, play with our kids, do some yoga and not take ourselves as seriously as we’re told to.

We’ll learn together, Obviously, that an inquisitive, open-hearted, juicy and spontaneous humanity is the natural human condition, not the arid purgatory of artificial, fundamentalist “values”.

12:49:21 AM    

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