Tragedy of American Culture

Rain keeps falling, the very heavens weeping as our community mourns the loss of a child, taken too soon by a culture that values presumed convenience and a romanticized notion of personal liberty over a young person’s life.

Is the individual who caused this at fault? Of course. We must all be accountable to our actions. But there is something deeper going on here as well. Why is a man driving intoxicated through an area where people live and play in the middle of the day? Is this due entirely to his personal failing? It is easy to say it is, to escape our own complicity in this tragedy. But it would not be true.

Like those caused by guns, which similarly account for 12 deaths per 100,000 people in this country each year, this death was caused not only by an individual but also by an instrument, one glorified and perpetuated in our society. This instrument, the automobile, is the leading cause of death in the first three decades of life, followed immediately by self-inflicted gunshot wound.

By contrast, the country of France has 2.83 firearm- and 5.5 traffic-related deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. Why the disparity? Sheer numbers, brought about by cultural orientation. In other words, an obsessive infatuation with the car and gun. The United States has by far the highest concentration of firearms, a world leading 120 per 100 inhabitants, compared to 15 per 100 for France. And we travel double the road miles, 13000 vehicle kilometers per capita versus 6200 for the French.

It is important to note here that the French have one of the highest rates of alcohol consumption in the world, at 12 litres per capita per year. In comparison, the rate in the United States is 9. It should also be said that the ratio of urban to rural population in the two countries is essentially the same, at approximately 80% urban. This by way of dispelling the notion that alcohol is to blame for this tragedy or that automobiles are a necessity here more than France.

No, we in this country simply prefer owning guns and driving cars to protecting its youth.

Reflections

The thing about our time is that these constructs we interact with online are not real but virtual, so they are merely reflections of ourselves. We don’t like a YouTuber; we like what that YouTuber says about us. There is something about ourselves that we see in them. That is what we like. A reflection that we identify with.

Power Is the Problem, Not Privacy

Originally, this piece began as a response to Tobias Stone’s article Your Privacy is Over, but apparently, in addition, to dark places to hide, Mr. Stone also enjoys exercising the power to squash dissenting opinions. And since responding to articles on Medium is really just a vain attempt to get noticed anyway, it’s probably best that I simply post it here.

If you haven’t read Stone’s article, please, give it a read (and some claps, if you’re into that shit). It’s super paranoid, defeatist, and great. For some context, I’ll summarize.

Soon quantum computers will be able to access and analyze everything about you, whether you posted it voluntarily or it was scraped from the giant Data Warehouse of Pervasive Surveillance in the sky. To quote,

“Not only will you have no privacy in the future — any privacy you thought you had in the past will vanish as well.”

While I agree that our current society is unfamiliar with such a paradigm, I struggle with the idea now circulating that privacy is the default, that we are somehow losing something that was previously inherent to the human condition.

In actuality, the reverse is true. Early societies lived almost wholly without privacy. And they were better off for it. In terms of a well functioning society, utter transparency is preferable to total privacy.

Now I grant that the situation to which the esteemed Mr. Stone alludes is a somewhat different dynamic than that of a small tribe of nomads. Still it seems that what he is really saying is that a tiny cohort of elite will be able to know everything about all of us, and that they will use that knowledge to their advantage. Which is an entirely different issue than whether or not complete transparency is a good thing.

The question then, in my mind, is not how we might conceal our imprudence, but who are these individuals and entities we’ve enabled to weaponize our own actions against us? And why are we allowing them this power?

Again, to quote Stone,

“Ultimately, everything will be tracked by the state, connected by ever more sophisticated algorithms, run on ever more powerful computers, until dissent becomes impossible and there is no escape. How do you oppose a system like that?”

By refusing to accept its legitimacy, for starters.

As Mr. Stone points out, this is the new reality, and it’s not going away. But it should be noted that these are our actions we’re talking about, and we should be accountable for them. In this sense, pure transparency is a benefit to society. The literal eye of God, motivating us to be the person we know we should be. It’s a mental construct humans have utilized for millennia, only made material. I’m not convinced I need to be afraid of it. And I certainly don’t believe that the solution lies in creating ways for people to avoid it.

In a Motherboard piece, Jason Koebler makes the case that we should, if not actively safeguard it, at least not naively cede our genetic code to large, centralized data stores. While this is generally wise advice, what it does more than anything is illustrate the real cause for concern. From a biological standpoint, our DNA is an immutable fact. It cannot be meditatively altered or changed, post conception, even if I wanted to. It is who I am. So why should I fear its being common knowledge?

Because someone might use it against me.

This is the issue we ought be focused on, not privacy. Why do we condone, if not actively substantiate, a society where such behavior is tolerated? A society in which these types of activities are not only allowed, but requisite and rewarded?

This is what concerns me, not the likely disturbing abstract of my personality that could be created from my Google search history. My friends will grant me that minor indiscretion, and, in fact, already do.

Getting Back to Normal is the Last Thing We Need

When I think about the coronavirus pandemic, my mind often wanders to what I would be doing did it not exist. Going about my business. Continuing to be a cog in the machine. Perpetuating the status quo.

Is that what we want?

In our rush to get back to “normal”, are we perhaps overlooking the possibility that normal is precisely the problem?

Personally, I don’t want normal. I never have. And I certainly don’t want to get back to it.

Have you ever considered the impetus behind the massive appeal of the troves of aspirational media on the internet – photo blogs, Tumblr, Instagram? These microcosms of alternative reality – cosplay, virtual reality, van life, nostalgia. Could the source of their allure be because we find the real world, the one we have literally constructed around us, completely unfulfilling?

Ever since we ceased having to constantly struggle to merely survive, there has existed the opportunity to create, with intention, a built environment that doesn’t only meet our basest needs, but actually serves to evoke within us positive emotions – inspiration, creativity, courage, joy.

I have long considered what might result from the following experiment: ask everyone to render, in whatever medium they chose, their ideal landscape. The image they see when they look out their window, gaze upon their home or neighborhood, walk out their front door.

I suspect the vast majority of them would appear strikingly similar.

In my mind, there exists an image of a perfect world. I often think about what keeps me from realizing it.

When I watch scenes on the news or video clips captured on smartphones on the internet, I am struck by how unnatural and uninspiring the settings I see featured in them appear to me. Gray. Monochrome. Uniform. Concrete.

Contrast this with the image that we imagined above. Or any image from your favorite influencer or visual artist on Instagram. 

Do the two images evoke similar emotions in you? I doubt it. 

So why not? And, more importantly, what can we do about it?

The coronavirus has brought the “all stop” to the economic juggernaut that my wife and climate scientist Dr. Steven Running told me was utterly impossible and potentially disastrous. With that achieved, getting “back to normal” is the very last thing I want to do.