April 29, 2009

How Chic Was My Progress

When it was hip to be hep, I was hep.

–From “I’m Hip,” by Dave Frishberg and Bob Dorough

At one point in The Labyrinth of Solitude, Octavio Paz quotes the German philosopher Max Scheler, who asked, “What is progress?” It’s a crucial question, and in the United States there is basically only one answer, involving the visible expression of technological innovation and economic expansion. Paz was not impressed with this notion of progress in 1950, when he wrote his famous essay, and it is a safe bet that he was increasingly disenchanted with the American model as the years wore on. Although he saw the flaws of his own culture quite clearly, he never felt that the American Way of Life was any kind of solution for Mexico or indeed, the rest of the world. Paz was prescient: at a time when everyone was celebrating America as an unrivaled success, he correctly pegged it as a wounded civilization, one that saw the future strictly in terms of novelty and never questioned what it was doing.

This extremely limited notion of the good life, combined with almost total unconsciousness, presents itself as daily reality in the U.S. I recall a friend of mine telling me, a few years ago, about a train trip she took up the California coast, during which she decided to walk through the cars very slowly, from back to front, almost pretending to be an invalid, so that she could eavesdrop on conversations. Every last one of these, she said, was about some gadget, some aspect of consumer technology–software, computer attachments, iPods, cell phone variations, etc. This is where, she concluded, Americans put their attention; it is what really excites them, makes them feel alive. Nor is this limited to Americans, of course. In the mid-eighties, when I was teaching at a Canadian university, my colleagues were literally ecstatic over the introduction of personal computers, firmly believing that these machines would write papers and books for them, perhaps help them get tenure or upgrade their entire careers (promises that failed to materialize, needless to say). As for south of the border, I was recently riding around Mexico City with a colleague of mine when we saw a huge billboard ad for some cell phone, with the caption, in three-foot high block capitals (in English, for some strange reason), KILL SILENCE. “Well,” I remarked to my colleague, “at least they are being honest about it.” “Oh,” he quipped, “you are fixated on cell phones.”

It’s hard to know how to reply to a dismissive remark of this kind, since even the brightest people don’t get it, and usually have no idea what George Steiner meant when he called modernity “the systematic suppression of silence.” Silence, after all, is the source of all self-knowledge, and of much creativity as well. But it is hardly valued by societies that confuse creativity with productivity. What I am fixated on, in fact, is not technology but the fixation on technology, the obsession with it. Unfortunately, it is hard to persuade those caught up in the American model of progress that it is they who are living in an upside-down world, not Octavio Paz.

For it doesn’t have to be this way. Notions of progress might conceivably revolve around how we treat each other in social situations, for example, not around the latest electronic toy. Some years ago I taught in the sociology department of a major American university, and marveled at my colleagues, who were constantly interrupting their conversations with each other to take cell phone calls–as if a conversation with someone who was not physically present were more important than one with someone who was. They had no idea of how rude they were on a daily basis, and regarded my own views on technology as “quaint.” Considering the damage this behavior was doing to human social interaction, and the fact that these folks were sociologists, I was impressed by the irony of it all. It was like being at a convention of nutritionists, each of whom weighed more than 300 pounds. After all, if obesity is the new health, what is there left to say?

This brings to mind the famous phrase coined by the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “defining deviancy down.” Moynihan pointed out that there was a process in American culture by which behavior traditionally regarded as selfish or vulgar–e.g., abruptly breaking off a conversation with one person to initiate one with someone else–rapidly becomes acceptable if enough people start doing it. Deviancy, in short, goes down to the lowest common denominator, finally becoming the norm. Indeed, the vulgarization and “narcissization” of American society had become so widespread by the mid-1990s that books were being written on incivility, and conferences held on the subject as well. But none of this made any difference for actual behavior, as even the most casual observation of contemporary American society reveals.

I remember, some years ago, then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice talking about American (non)relations with Cuba, and stating that “we don’t want that model to be able to replicate itself”–the old contagion theory of communism, as it were. Well, I’m not big on dictatorships myself, but what about the danger of the American model replicating itself? When you go to New Zealand and see the Maori people talking on cell phones and watching American sitcoms, you know that Moynihan’s prediction about the world turning into trash is not very far off.

China, which is all set to replace the U.S. as the next hegemonic power, is of course replicating the American model with a vengeance. “To get rich is glorious,” declared Deng Xiaoping, and the 1990s witnessed the stripping away of time-worn (non-Maoist) Chinese models of good citizenship and moral participation in collective goals. The race was on to crank out as many cell phones, DVD players, televisions, shopping malls, and highways as possible. Monthly car production went from 20,000 in 1993 to 250,000 in 2004, and Wal-Mart and McDonald’s have spread through the country like wildfire. In China Pop, Jianying Zha gives us a vivid (read: garish and appalling) portrait of a country wallowing in mass consumerism, from soap operas to pornography and beyond. China is now dotted with privileged consumption zones, theme parks, and beauty pageants. Cosmetic surgery clinics abound, promising to give young women more rounded, Western eyes. In fact, the beauty industry grosses more than $24 billion a year. ”Consumerism became a religion,” writes Rachel Dewoskin in Foreign Babes in Beijing, as “street kiosks made way for sleek boutiques and cafés, where Chinese and foreigners lounged together, drinking lattes and Italian sodas.” Companies arrived like missionaries, she recalls, seducing the average Chinese with products they never knew they needed. In the progressive China of today, everyone, according to the British anthropologist David Harvey, “speculates on the desires of others in the Darwinian struggle for position.”

This is why we have more to fear from the American model of progress, and its replication on a world scale, than from some aged caudillo in Cuba. For what does it consist of, finally, when “freedom” means little more than “free enterprise”? As Harvey tells us in his remarkable study, A Brief History of Neoliberalism,

“that culture, however spectacular, glamorous, and beguiling,
perpetually plays with desires without ever conferring satisfactions
beyond the limited identity of the shopping mall and the anxieties
of status by way of good looks (in the case of women) or of material
possessions. ‘I shop therefore I am’ and possessive individualism
together construct a world of pseudo-satisfactions that is superficially
exciting but hollow at its core.”

This beguiling quality–the notion of culture as chic–is an enormous shell game, as Harvey demonstrates in his summary of what happened to New York City during the 1970s. A fiscal crisis arose, the product of rapid suburbanization that was destroying the tax base of the city. Financial institutions were prepared to bridge the gap between income and expenditure in the city budget, and expansion of public employment via federal funding was also being considered. But in 1975 a powerful group of investment bankers, led by Citibank, refused to roll over the debt and left the city technically bankrupt. Union activity was curtailed; cutbacks took place in education, public health, and transportation; and wealth got redistributed upward, to the rich and super rich. It was, says Harvey, “a coup by the financial institutions against the democratically elected government of New York City.” Both the social and the physical infrastructure of the city deteriorated, and the city government, the municipal labor movement, and working-class New Yorkers were stripped of their power.

That wasn’t the end of it, however. The next step on the part of the business community was to turn New York into a “good investment opportunity.” “Corporate welfare,” writes Harvey, “substituted for people welfare.” The idea was to sell New York as a tourist destination, and “I [Heart] New York” swept through the town as the new logo. As Harvey notes:

“The narcissistic exploration of self, sexuality, and identity became
the leitmotif of bourgeois urban culture. Artistic freedom and artistic
licence, promoted by the city’s powerful cultural institutions, led, in
effect, to the neoliberalization of culture. ‘Delirious New York’...
erased the collective memory of democratic New York....New York
became the epicentre of postmodern cultural and intellectual
experimentation. Meanwhile the investment bankers reconstructed
the city economy around financial activities...and diversified con-
sumerism (gentrification and neighbourhood ‘restoration’ playing a
prominent and profitable role). City government was more and more
construed as an enterpreneurial rather than a social democratic or
even managerial entity.”

Progress (so-called) has to be chic, in other words, and this integrates well with the neoliberal equation of freedom with lifestyle choice; which effectively kills democracy, or renders it irrelevant. Again, it’s a question of how you define it. Home visits by doctors, for example (the norm, when I was a child), have vanished almost completely, and Americans would hardly regard the return of this practice as progress. It may well be a life saver, but it’s not particularly hip. SUV’s that destroy the environment are chic; mass transit is not. Dog-eat-dog competition is chic; a social safety net, or a health system that actually works, is not. Best sellers praising globalization are chic; community and friendship, rather passé. And so on. Children get excited by toys, bright colors, and the latest gimmick; adults, by the prospect of a truly healthy society. As deviancy is defined downward across the planet, whether in New York or Beijing, it leaves very few adults in its wake.

As far as technology goes, the irony is that it seems to be failing in its own terms. The social and psychological damage of “life on the screen” has by now been documented by numerous studies; but when the technology is actually delivering the opposite of what was originally promised, one has to ask what it is all for. The literature on this is fairly large, so all I can do at this point is touch on some of the highlights.*

In Tyranny of the Moment, Norwegian anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen argues that while the period from 1980 saw a rapid expansion in so-called time-saving technologies, the truth is that we have never had so little free time as we do now. The Internet has made possible a huge expansion of available information, and yet all the data show an increasingly ignorant population. Changes that were touted as boosting creativity and efficiency have actually had the opposite effect. Air travel is now so heavily congested that by 2000, fifty percent of the flights connecting major European cities were delayed. In the U.S., road traffic tripled during 1970-2000, and the average speed involved in getting around decreased every year. In fact, the average speed of a car in New York City in 2000 was about seven miles per hour, and we can guess that it is even less today. Etc.

One activity heavily promoted as “progressive” was multitasking, made easy by the use of a variety of compact technologies. Yet a study conducted by the University of London in 2005, according to the journalist Christine Rosen, revealed that workers who are distracted by e-mail and cell phone calls suffer a fall in I.Q. of more than twice that experienced by pot smokers. In 2007, she notes, a major U.S. business analyst (Jonathan Spira, at a research firm called Basex) estimated that multitasking was costing the American economy $650 billion a year in lost productivity, and a University of Michigan study revealed that it causes short-term memory loss. In general, writes Walter Kirn, “Neuroscience is confirming what we all suspect: Multitasking is dumbing us down and driving us crazy.” Specifically, it interferes with areas of the brain related to memory and learning; it actually slows our thinking. The problem seems to be that when you move from one task to another, you have to keep “revving up” to get back to doing what you were doing before. Hence, the quality of work gets compromised due to loss of focus and loss of time. In general, the Net lowers the brain’s capacity for concentration and contemplation; “reading on the Net” is almost a contradiction in terms. “We inevitably begin to take on the quality of those technologies,” writes Nicholas Carr; “our own intelligence...flattens into artificial intelligence.”

All in all, it now appears that endless technological innovation and economic expansion, which have only themselves as their goal, finally undermine social relations, redefine common sense, and interfere with our ability to think. Harvey hits the nail on the head when he argues for the existence of an inner connection between “technological dynamism, instability, dissolution of social solidarities, environmental degradation, deindustrialization, rapid shifts in time-space relations, speculative bubbles, and the general tendency towards crisis formation within capitalism.” We are caught in a contradiction, he says, between “a seductive but alienating possessive individualism on the one hand and the desire for a meaningful collective life on the other.”

Personally, I don’t think there is much doubt as to which of these two options is going to win out. By 2050, the planet is expected to have a population of 10 to 11 billion people. Competition for food and water will be fierce; resources in general will be scarce. The majority of this population will probably be living on less than two dollars a day, and “iron” governments will arise to manage politically unstable situations . And yet, there may be an odd silver lining to this, as Blade Runner descends on us in earnest: clutched in the hand of every man, woman, and child will be a state-of-the-art cell phone, and in front of each individual the hippest of personal computers. Granted, we may be collectively dying, but at least we’ll be chic.

©Morris Berman, 2009

*To mention a few key sources: Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Tyranny of the Moment (London: Pluto Press, 2001); Nicole Aubert, Le culte de l’urgence (Paris: Flammarion, 2003); Christine Rosen, “The Myth of Multitasking,” The New Atlantis, No. 20 (Spring 2008), pp. 105-10; Walter Kirn, “The Autumn of the Multitaskers,” Atlantic Monthly, November 2007; Nicholas Carr, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2008.