Traveling the Road to Perdition

by on June 24, 2013

Trail in Temperate RainforestIn a follow-up piece to “Transitionalism – The New Zeitgeist” I felt it was important to explore further the possible consequences of continuing our adherence to the liberal value structure. The argument is a simple one, if we persist in promoting self-interest and competition as positive values, the trend of social development in time will proceed along an increasingly negative trajectory. This would occur through a series of some significant, but mostly small decisions made at all levels of society. In contrast to other dystrophic visions of heavy-handed totalitarian states as, in the George Orwell’s novel “1984” or the 1982, film “Blade Runner”, technological advances aside, things may not look very different from what already exists. Political, economic, and social structures would remain familiar to us, yet what trust there is now will have since eroded, leading to increased mistrust and lack of willingness to cooperate. The near future will not all be negative, of course, but a state of perpetual conflict, competition, and corruption dominates where – instead of people working together – they will be fixated on what they can gain for themselves. Most others will express their sense of disconnection as a deep and pervasive apathy where, aided by increasingly sophisticated reality realization systems, and robot companions, retreat from substantive social involvement in favor of the personal pursuit for diversion.

How would such a scenario come about? Well, we might start by pointing out much of what could well portend for the future is already here. The problem for those of us who have been brought up in such an environment much of its impact is understood to be “just the way things are,” and so we are not likely to give it much thought beyond that. It is for this reason conditions for our progressively negative trajectory might not be evident at the moment. However, as technology develops and different groups seek to exploit those developments for their own purposes, there are going to appear further challenges to the perceived rights of privacy, personal freedom, regarding the place and role of government, the right to have a job, even the right to be human. When considering the issue of rights, we have to look beyond conventional law that establishes traffic laws for example or natural law, which pertains to the rights endowed to us by Nature or God. Additionally, there is the sense of what we feel we are entitled that represents our group and personal identity. Changes are already upon us that will challenge and redefine every aspect of how for thousands of years we have looked at the world for our sense of place. Artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, bioengineering and synthetic biology are the foundation of a broad range of technologies that are undermining traditional worldviews, and in so doing is pitting forces promoting their introduction against those who resistant them. Groups to protect their position, and by extension their identity, will feel compelled to aggressively defend that position further polarizing the society, which in turn creates greater dysfunction, which in turn creates more polarization in a descending negative feedback loop. If circumstances evolve to a point when groups see their position to be under existential threat, because there is little if any trust to hold the different sides together, during times of crisis general social breakdown looms as a real possibility.

There are many examples in the last four hundred years. The violence of the Protestant Reformation and Counter-Reformation emerged from a conflict of freedom of the individual and being identified as part of a Christian civilization. The American Civil War, between 1861-1865, when the southeastern and mid-southern regions of the United States perceived the federal government to be acting against their interests and way of life, responded by choosing secession. Open conflict between workers and employers got to the point where the Roosevelt Administration in the early 1930’s was forced to insert themselves to avoid a further escalation of labor unrest. The polarization of American society for the last thirty years, reflected in the struggles regarding abortion, religion in civic life, and rules pertaining to gun ownership, are also symptomatic of a portion of the population who feel underrepresented. Mistrust is built into the fabric of the American social contract as stated in Declaration of Independence, where in the event a citizenry loses faith in their government that they have the right to change their government and, judging from the actions of the American colonies, by the force of arms if necessary.

Beyond the conflict between progressives and conservatives, there is the intrinsic conflict between individuals and government. The individual demands privacy from government intrusion while also expecting it to provide security. From the government’s perspective, to fulfill its responsibility to protect lives and property, it needs information. In a crime and conflict-ridden world, it is easy to see a more advanced, invasive version of the recently divulged PRISM managed by AI technology, acting to strengthen the hand of network security efforts and law enforcement by tracking all communication systems. Also prominent will be the conflict between individuals and corporations in the desire on the part of individuals for the personal experience offered by our devices and applications. At the same time insisting on privacy from companies collecting data on users, even when for the technology to serve our needs it has to know most everything about us, requiring the collection and storage of the information in databases maintained by service providers. There are questions regarding the use of neuro-messaging for advertising and brand perpetuation, along with the developing issue of people who need jobs conflicting with the company’s goal to maximize profits through automation. Finally, there is the conflict between individual and individual, where a technology driving us closer together conflicts with the value and desire for autonomy and independence.

There will be those who are skeptical of such an outcome because liberalism’s proponents see the system based on competition to be resilient in dealing with conflict. After all, we have faced steep challenges in the past and have overcome them in most instances society came out better as a result. It works, liberalism’s advocates insist, by allowing the market to determine winners and losers, for parties to negotiate, by passing and enforcing regulations, of citizens exercising their right to vote, and if need be there are the courts to be just a few of the means by  which conflicts are resolved within the liberal context when conditions are reasonably stable. Yes, compared to authoritarian societies who depend on compulsion, liberalism’s advocates are quite correct. Yet, just because a liberal society is stronger when compared to an authoritarian society it does not follow it is intrinsically strong. Put under severe duress, liberal institutions have long been recognized to be vulnerable to particularly unstable social climates.

Trust is the glue that holds society together, and the overall level of trust reflects how resilient a society is. Founded on the principles of self-interest and competition, there exists little trust, and what trust that does exist is conditional leaving a weakened social contract. Of course, in real terms, liberal societies are more resilient because there is more trust between people than would be expected if we restrict our assessment to philosophical principles alone. The fundamentally social nature of people still expresses itself irrespective of what values are being advanced. Nevertheless, society’s values have a powerful influence in setting people’s expectations in how they should think and behave, leaving us with the question if people’s needs, over the long run, are really being served. I think not. Instead, the times require a new kind of social model in which the values of self-interest and competition are practiced within a larger value context of cooperation and self-inclusion as opposed, to the other way around, thereby making a Transitionalist social structure more resilient than its liberal correlate.

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