Saturday, March 19, 2011

Societal Myopia

There is a movement afoot – and when is there not – to get the Ten Commandments placed in every courthouse in Georgia, as if the mere presence of this Biblical coda can somehow imbue all those who read them with the moral fiber they lacked previously. Strangely, these commandments have been around for centuries, but they do not seem to have made much of an impact despite the number of adherents to the faith from which they spring. It could be posited that these words contain no power, save where the individual who reads them chooses to incorporate them into their life as precepts to be followed. Other than that, they are simply relics of an ancient time, like hieroglyphs on an Egyptian tomb.

It would do no good, really, to go about putting such holy inscriptions on government edifices or government-supported public buildings, even were it not a violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. For, to have any impact, these words would have to be seen, interpreted, and incorporated by those exposed to them, and they could be written on every wall and sidewalk and building, and have no greater affect than they do now, sequestered between the covers of a religious tome. Our society has developed myopia, a collective short-sightedness that does not allow us to see the true nature of the world around us, and therefore, we do not recognize what is put before us.

You can see it on the streets, in libraries, in museums, on television... people, oblivious to their surroundings or to the meaning of what stands before them. If they are not staring blankly at some display of something important, failing to recognize its relevance, they are stooped over, eyes glued to tiny screens, watching information scroll along. The head-down posture is becoming so prevalent, that one suspects that evolution will eventually fuse the cervical vertebrae into that position permanently, to facilitate the use of such devices in the future. One wonders if nature could somehow alter DNA to create these devices in utero, so that a child borne into the world need never know a second of life without the glassy-eyed stare.

We turn inward, even as we turn outward. The Internet, the great uniter of nations in the bonds of information exchange, now enslaves us, tying us to little boxes, stealing the preciousness of human interaction and replacing it with cold comfort and baleful radiations. Even the greatest events of our time, disasters, revolutions, advances in science or medicine, seem of no import unless they are filtered through the medium of the global computer network. We pay less and less attention to the actuality around us, than to the virtuality before us. We are outraged by what we perceive to be unfair judgment on Dancing With The Stars or American Idol, but not concerned in the least about the poor judgment shown in our court systems, or even from the highest bench in the land, the Supreme Court. We show greater concern for the plight of our tiny plots of land in Farmville on Facebook, than we do the very real family farms in such desperate trouble all around our nation. The meltdowns of the famous and infamous are of greater import to us, than those of our own family members and friends. We are more concerned with watching the outcomes of other people's travails (Teen Mom, Intervention, Celebrity Rehab) than we are with solving the problems that bring about those travails in the first place. With each passing day, we become more insular, and less human.

Turn off your laptop, put down you smart-phone, shut off your HD-TV, and look around you; our world is in some parts well off, in other parts, in tatters. Staring at screens and posting paeans to the world may seem like they are accomplishing something, but all they do is separate us further from our fellow human beings. There are people in this world in dire need of help, of compassion, of the touch of a human hand to reassure them that things will be all right, or get better, or be set right. The soft glow of a tiny screen does not reassure or provide comfort – it is the cool stare of a dispassionate society, patting itself on the back for having “done something,” before it goes back to read about the latest celebrity gaffe or laugh at the latest video of someone doing something idiotic.

The interconnections between us are going from the physical to the ephemeral. A crowded room is less a mob than a series of individuals, each in their own little world, camping by the light of their portable electronic campfire. Stories are told, information shared, but the sum total of it cannot be said to have arrested the creeping malaise or societal degradation that envelops us. We cannot seem to apply this knowledge to rectify the problems of the world: ending violence and want in the myriad forms they take, ending war and stifling disease, or even ensuring at minimum, a decent standard of living for every human being on the planet. We marvel at our new age, even as it crushes much of humanity under its ever-turning wheels.

Almost the sum total of human knowledge, no longer sequestered in books in libraries and homes, is now accessible by anyone, anywhere. It could, if used properly, lead to solving the most intractable problems of our society, if only the information were used right. Productivity, though, is not the hallmark of the Information Age; we are more interested in minutia and fluff than in applying our knowledge to the betterment of all. This makes the siren call of the conservative more enticing – return to an age of simplicity, where everyone's place was established for them, and no one had to worry or fear. It is, of course, a time that never took place, but they would have us live in it, and would use the tools of the Information Age to pollute the atmosphere with their calls to mediocrity and simplistic ignorance.

Our epitaph may very well be in the writing now, the civilization that had the power of everyone at its command, and frittered it away on trifles while their world burned. Our planet may become a burnt husk far sooner than the five billion years hence, when the Sun will burn the last of its fuel and swell to beyond the orbit of the Earth. We have no hope of evading that fate if we remain in our present course. We must ponder: do we continue to focus on the tiny world before our eyes, or turn our heads to look out and up on our planet and the vast universe it inhabits? Our fate lies in the answer.

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