Castles in the Air (A 9/11 Jeremiad)

In Roman times, roads meant trade, so new villages were built beside roads. In Anglo-Saxon times, roads meant marauders, so new villages were built far from roads. Tells you most of what you need to know, I reckon.
—dearieme, commenting at Samizdata.

As the West wages desultory war against its enemies, we have too often taken our eventual victory for granted. Those among us who hope that we lose, the acolytes of Noam Chomsky and his ilk, likewise do not really believe that the West can actually be overthrown; they suppose that our imperial ambitions will be thwarted, and we will withdraw from the international scene smarting with humiliation but otherwise whole. Western society would remain largely as it is, perhaps with fundamentally minor changes in economic or political policy, in one direction or another.

This assurance is born in large part from our tremendous material wealth, which translates into military power. Just as importantly, our wealth comes less from our (admittedly prodigious) natural resources than from our entreprenurial and technological prowess. Our superiority is made self-evident, so we imagine, just by comparing our own technology to that of our foes. Our technology is seen not only as a measure of power, but of creative ability and the mental agility to live in such a technological world. Our enemies, the backward peoples of the Muslim world, surely cannot hope to match such wonders!

This is in truth a thin reed on which to base such complacency. Two points are neglected in this triumphal narrative:

First, one man may use a tool crafted by another. That we created the atomic bomb ex nihilo, as it were, only makes it that much easier for Iran and other malevolent powers to imitate us. That we did it first will soon become a point of historical curiosity.

Second, our matchless technologies are driving tremendous change thoughout the world. Much of this change is good, lifting millions from poverty and threatening to destabilize tyrannies across the globe. But this technology is also laying bare our own existential nullities as never before.

Yesterday, I came across two older pieces by David Wong, proprietor of the website A Pointless Waste of Time (warning: sporadic profanity). In 7 Reasons the 21st Century is Making You Miserable, Wong argues that our increasing reliance on the Internet for communication and social interaction is turning us into alienated, maladjusted, small human beings. Read the whole thing if you have 15 minutes or so, but here are some key paragraphs:
Studies show that for almost everybody, the number of people we really trust is shrinking. About a quarter of the people they talked to said they had NO ONE to confide in. Walk down the street, one out of four people you pass have nobody…

The problem is we've built an awesome, sprawling web of technology meant purely to let us avoid [being annoyed]… And that would be awesome, if it were actually possible to keep all of the irritating s--- out of your life. But it's not. It never will be. As long as you have needs, you'll have to deal with people you can't stand from time to time. But that skill, the one that lets us deal with strangers and tolerate their shrill voices and clunky senses of humor and body odor and squeaky shoes, is being burned right out of us. Our Annoyance Immune System is being weakened. So what encounters you do have with the outside world, the world you can't control, make you want to go on a screaming crotch-punching spree…

Half of what sucks about not having close friends has nothing to do with missing birthday parties or not having a second person to play basketball with. No, what sucks is the lack of real criticism… I've been insulted lots, but I've been criticized — and I mean the way a wife or a best friend can criticize you — very little. And I've been made worse because of it. The difference is of course that insults are just someone who hates me making a noise to indicate they hate me. It's them telling me how they feel. Criticism, on the other hand, is someone telling me something about myself that I myself didn't know.

And as much as we hate to admit it, most of what we know about ourselves we've learned from other people…

There's one advantage to having mostly online friends, and it's one that nobody ever talks about: They demand less from you… But here's the thing. You are hard-wired by evolution to need to do things for people. Everybody for the last five thousand years seemed to realize this and then we suddenly forgot it in the last few decades. We get suicidal teens and scramble to teach them self-esteem. Well, unfortunately, self-esteem and the ability to like yourself only come after you've done something that makes you likable.
Previously, the sheer imperative to function in society carried with it innumerable opportunities for minor and major kindnesses. It is certainly possible to go out into the real world and be an absolute jackass, but it takes a lot of effort. But now, an internet user can easily go long stretches without doing kindnesses for another, simply because there is much less face-to-face interaction. Moreover, people are becoming less able to communicate in general, and there is a powerful incentive to close yourself off in your own private world, with your own private amusements (which are getting more sophisticated all the time).

(In Japan, this tendency has manifested to a pathological degree in the hikikomori, adolescents and young adults who confine themselves to a single room of their house for months or years, never emerging even to speak to their own parents. Some estimates number the hikikomori at up to a fifth of Japan's adolescent population.)

In short, people are becoming more spiritually stunted. Because of our lessening human contact, empathy is rarer, inner contentment is waning, and people are losing the mental strength necessary to do hard deeds, rather than simply disengaging from the world and its pain. And they know that something is wrong. A creeping discontent with life, a sense that some vital component is missing, becomes ever-stronger.

In desperation, many are turning to the Fahrenheit-451option of endless amusement, endless games, endless thrill-seeking. And this choice is about to become easier than ever. In Wong's other piece, A World of Warcraft World, Wong anticipates a time when online roleplaying will have all but displaced the real world, for growing numbers of people. (The article was written some time ago, and his numbers are out of date. My brother, an employee of Blizzard, tells me that "World of Warcraft" now has over 7 million subscribers.) Read it, but here are some key paragraphs:
If you don't understand the gravitational pull of an MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game), I'm going to enlighten you with just a dozen words: you get to pick what you look like and what your talents are… And this idea is what's going to push the expansion of MMORPG technology in the way that porn pushed the expansion of the internet, the desperate-but-untapped desire to interact with others without the bothersome interference of genetic flaws and poor diet and exercise habits…

Total immersion, the kind that could really fool you, won't happen tomorrow. But as time goes on it is absolutely inevitable that the graphics will become life quality, that visual displays light years beyond monitors or cumbersome headsets will hit the market. The keyboard and mouse will be long gone, everything done by thought and voice. It is the logical end of everything game developers and console makers are trying to do today and they will not stop until they have it.

And that, my friends, will be a watershed moment in human history. The point where we can trick the senses into thinking a piece of software is real, thinking a real supermodel is in our bed or a dragon is in our front yard or our dead mother has come back to give us advice, that's when everything changes. The metaverse will still be less important in many fundamental ways. Goods won't be produced there, food won't be grown there, babies won't be born there. But in the minds of a whole lot o' people, visits to the physical world will be just brief interruptions to the "real" world as they live it, the world where all of their friends and hobbies and ambitions are.
Why is all of this significant? Because this is happening at a time when we need to be more aware of the harsh realities of the real world, not less. If it were a simple matter of marshalling the will for a long war I would not be as worried; it will be trivial to have military robots controlled by internet users, who would see the carnage as just another game. No, the problem is that the Long War is fundamentally a war of warring epistemologies; in particular, the long-reviled idea of religion is coming back to the forefront of history, with a vengeance.

An all-encompassing belief in a Supreme Being, who has specific mandates for the true believer, shows all of the signs of being a Darwinian survival trait on a societal level. The believer has strong reasons to engage in social behavior with other believers; he has powerful incentives to carry out a shared societal program with his coreligionists; part of that program is usually to spread the belief system to others; and — most importantly — the true believer cannot compromise his fundamental beliefs without adulterating his certainty in the Supreme Being. This sort of foundational stability is lacking in the secular West, in which societal institutions are based on nothing more durable than human reason. Indeed, of late it has become the practice to tear down all societal institutions, without replacing them in turn. In such an environment of philosophic void, a spreading religious system can find much nourishment.

But what happens when the aforementioned Darwinian traits are joined to a religious system that is fundamentally evil? Then you are faced with what amounts to a viral epidemic. You can slow such an epidemic by quarantine, or cauterizing infections, but to truly vanquish it you must develop a robust epistemological immune system. And it is precisely this faculty, philosophical robustness, that is attacked by the widespread descent into fantasy worlds. There is no need for a philosophy when one is slaying notional dragons, in a world with specific rules coded by a team of programmers laboring in a corporate campus. You know what the score is. You face few, if any, moral dilemmas. The world is predictable, without unpleasant surprises.

And your spiritual fortitude, your strength of character, wanes away.

At the last, you will lack the mental steadfastness to fight against the oncoming rush of religious warriors. Because you will have trouble understanding why they are wrong. If you doubt this, consider the growing ranks of people today, even at this early hour in the Long War, who make excuses for the Islamist faction or who actively encourage it in order to further their own petty goals.

The idea of the secular state, as a guiding principle of nations, is less than three hundred years old — a historical novelty. Many naively assume that secularism is the next stage in a unidirectional arrow of human development. But there is nothing to prevent the tides of religious war from swamping the weakening philosophical dikes of the Enlightenment, and scouring secularism from the sodden earth. Unless we of the West have the strength to man the dikes. Unless we believe the dikes to be worth manning.


Anonymous said...

More than leaving a passive population devoid of human contact and social skills, these games could very well spell the end of industrial civilization as we know it, as people will not be able to tear themselves away from their computers long enough to marry, procreate, or develop life goals to share with others. How very sad.

TJ said...

Didn't spend much time looking for an email contact, but didn't find one, either.

Wanted to commend you on your writing: I disagree with quite a bit of what you have said here, but you've said it with unusual eloquence.

I'll be reading. Best of luck.