Progress, but to what end?

“Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity” – Charlie Chaplain

Its funny how popular – almost to the point of clichéd – talking points soon lose their immediacy. Issues that should be at the fore of our minds, motivating us to action, instead melt into the ether of the mundane. It is bitterly ironic how it is their initial vitality, which encourages their spread amongst people, is that which ultimately saps them of their energy. They become the “popular consensus” – and what is more wearisome than that? Life continues, and like an impending submerged glacier, the issue at hand looms before the hubristic ship of humanity. Those on board talk of the dangerous waters in which they find themselves and some perhaps correctly predict their fate, but what is to be done? The course is set, we’ll get through to the other side… and if not? Make sure I’m near a lifeboat.

And yet, it is always surprising as to how little is sometimes necessary to wake one from such delusions. Last week I came across a piece of information that arrested my attention. No, that would be unjust – angered would be more appropriate. It turns out that in schools today, five to seven-year-olds are being taught how to read facial expressions. It is clearly presumed that they lack an intuitive understanding of how to do this; that their initial forays into this world have been unsuccessful in learning how to understand other people and the world around them. Brought up in a landscape of emoticons, iPads and the fuzzy world presented to them on various entertainment platforms, children today are, quite literally, losing touch with reality. And although this effect will be most damaging to those being brought up in this world, the effect is palpable on all of us. Indeed, we should not forget that this is merely the latest development in our self-inflicted wound by the double-edged sword of the Enlightenment. In our noble striving for truth, liberty and progress we also cut ourselves; cut ourselves off. What exactly from, I am not too sure and in any event perhaps words, or my words at least, would fail to do it justice. Throwing off the shackles of scientific restraint and arrogantly disregarding claims that I am romanticising some ‘noble savage’ ideal, all I can say is that I am in little doubt that our ancient ancestors, gathered around the campfire in primitive ritual, song and dance knew full well what that was.

We have tethered ourselves to a supposed exponential curve of human progress, facilitated through science, technological advancement and material wealth – whilst simultaneously walking, with eyes wide open it seems, into a colourless realm of hyper-rationality and the drab modernity of converging cultural uniformity, as we think more and feel less than perhaps we ever have before. If we can just know more, we tell ourselves, then we’ll understand. But I don’t believe we do.

I am all too painfully aware of how my words may come across and would be little surprised were the terms ‘luddite’ or perhaps ‘new-ager’ thrown in my direction. But do not mistake me – I am no preacher. For me to pre-suppose how anyone, not least society, should change would be akin to the blind leading the blind. And I am grateful too. The Enlightenment was a double-edged sword. It has also given us so much, of which I am under no illusions that I am a wealthy benefactor. We enjoy a society with a historically unparalleled justice system and the rule of law, we are living longer, in no small part to the tremendous leaps in bio-medicine and related fields. The many mysteries of life, once thought unknowable, unravel before us at an alarming rate. For most, life is easier than it ever has been, with more leisure time and the material wealth to enjoy it with. And yet, and yet, something is amiss, and I believe worse is looming. Wrapped in our fuzzy straight-jackets of limitless internet access and comfort, we are more inoculated and isolated than ever as cases of mental health issues climb. Of course, its just diagnostic procedures they say – people always have been unhappy. And that could be true, were it not every ounce of my intuition and understanding telling me that is not the case.

So what is to be done? As I mentioned earlier, I am loathed to offer personal or universal solutions. Each individual must make their own choice as to how they should live in light of the evidence available to them. We all know that an over-use and reliance on technology is likely to do us harm and that the impending reality of Artificial Intelligence as a significant force is just around the corner. But I think few of us truly appreciate how potentially dangerous the trajectory on which we are now headed really is. Like someone stumbling home drunk after more than a few too many at the pub, we don’t realise we are slipping or about to fall until we are in a headlong tumble. It’s time to sober up.

Written by Will Fitter

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