The first tool being used to numb people to themselves is our ever advancing technology. It isn't that technology is all negative. As someone who has survived cancer surgery, I can attest to the benefits of technology. And I didn't need to go through such surgery to appreciate technology. But, as with anything else, there is a point of diminishing returns when increasing our use of technology returns more negatives than positives. This is true especially when it comes to communication.
I really do appreciate cell phones. They give the wife and I a certain amount of freedom when we go to the mall. We only need to call each other to know where and when to meet. And I loved cell phones when the kids just got their drivers licenses. But with cell phones came texting. And with texting comes a less personal way of communicating. Texting dilutes the affect we express and receive when conversing with others. This makes our conversations less personal, less human. We don't have to be fully there with the people we are texting and we are certainly not fully there with the people we are with at the time. With texting, we exercise an absence while being present. And yet, we only need to ask young people how many times do they prefer to reach out and touch someone through texting than through talking in person to see its growing effects.
But not only does texting filter out our personal reactions, it limits the depth of sharing and the contents of our communications. In texting, communication tends to be brief and abbreviated. So not only does texting filter out our emotions, it sifts out depth and reduces the amount of content we can communicate and then handle.
And if the cell phone was not enough, there is whatever device we use to connect to the web. Yes, there are advantages to the web. We can reach out and touch more people from around the globe. But the web is similar to cell phones in that it too acts as a strainer that limits the feelings that can be expressed and decreases the amount of content that can be considered. In addition, people can hide behind avatars when meeting others. This can make the web, especially the social networking places, the world's biggest disguise party where we, nor the people we meet, have to see what we prefer not to. So we meet new people and become attracted and attached to the costumes being worn rather than the real people wearing them.
Sherry Turkle, from MIT, has already written about much of what I described above in her book Alone Together. In the book, she describes not just what we are doing to ourselves now but how we are conditioning others for the future. And if our social life was the only part that was being revolutionized by the overuse of technology, we could live with that. But it isn't. Education is now beginning to rely more and more on the virtual presence of instructors than being up close and in person. Educational institutions are currently pursuing a greater reliance on communications technology to teach. We now have universities that revolve around students learning from professors who can only provide an electronic presence. These institutions reason that students no longer need teachers who are fully present to learn. In other words, students need less and less the humanity from their instructors. Students don't need teacher reaction to students' feedback and teachers' mistakes. On the other hand, these educational institutions also reckon that teachers need no reactions from their students to get their points across. As was said by one police officer from the TV series Dragnet, "just the facts" is all that is needed in education. In short, there is an ever diminishing personal communication and relationships between those who teach and those attempting to learn.
Certainly there is more in technology that is changing us than our communication technology. Turkle emphasizes in her book the point that not only do we make our own tools, they, in turn, shape us. And if we wanted to anticipate how our previously mentioned communication tools could change us, just think of the following. The technology we use cannot sense when we are frustrated or angry when it fails or frustrates us. In addition, like all electronic tools, we expect our machines to blindly follow orders. If we are shaped by these communication tools, will we become less and less aware of how those around us feel and will life consist of nothing more than mindlessly following orders?
But our use of technology is not the only culprit here, there is another. And one such perpetrator is business. Let's face it, business is highly impersonal, especially when we seek to maximize profits and maximizing profits is the ethic of the day. For when profit is king, people are pawns. And being pawns means that we are the most disposable piece in the game. And the more expendable people are, the more our humanity becomes moot.
In today's world, all that matters is the accumulation of the wealth that those in the in group can garner. And as Chris Hedges so aptly said about the wealthiest, the only word they know is "more." For those for whom this is true, all others become invisible.
In the movie, Analyze This, Billy Crystal plays a therapist to a mob boss. When he was suspected of having become an informant, the mob boss's assistant points a gun at him to shoot him while trying to soothe Crystal's character by saying, "it isn't personal." Crystal's character gave the wrong response. He said that it could not get more personal. It was the wrong response because when business dictates ethics, the personal no longer matters. People's needs are easily discarded. People who cost more than others are regarded as an inflamed appendix. People who have lost their jobs because their existence could no longer be financially justified can attest to how dehumanizing and painful their experiences have been. But their feelings no longer matter. In addition, austerity cuts that maintains tax cuts for the rich spreads this heartache to those in the community.
Those in business have a ready reply to charges of being inhuman. They say that for the good of others in the company, they must be quick to let go those who do not contribute to the maximizing of profits. Otherwise, the company becomes at risk and shareholders lose what they deserve because of the laws of gravity, as they apply in the business world. But what such apologists forget is that the economic system we worship is one of choice. We don't have to continue to rely on an economic system that so heavily leans on competition. That is we don't have to unless the desire for more has precedence over the humanity of others. And yet, not only are we worshipping our competitive economic system, we are allowing our business environment built on competition to metastasize into other spheres. And again, education is seeing more than its fair share of a business mentality being forced on it. So whereas in the past, we depended on a certain degree of inefficiency in education because of how much we learn from our mistakes, we can no longer afford to be so wasteful.
Though we could list a few more coconspirators in this crime of dehumanizing society, we will stop with the next one, authoritarianism. We all know how many Nazis tried to defend themselves in court against charges of war crimes. Many claimed that they were merely following orders. And those orders not only enabled many Nazis to practice immeasurably gross crimes against humanity, orders shielded them from the threat of feeling what their victims felt. Orders were their defense and following orders caused their conviction of war crimes.
But the problem with using the Nazis to illustrate our point is that we don't see ourselves as being on their level of evil and most of us would be correct here. So the authoritarianism we practice, though not preferable, can't possibly be dehumanizing. And that reasoning would hold if the Nazi atrocities provided a minimal standard of evil or if the negative effects of authoritarianism were restricted to evil rulers only.
What authoritarianism does is to numb us to the pain others feel when we follow orders because we zero in on our duties. In addition, it takes away our freedom. It threatens all who would question and criticize and thus pushes us to become automatons that, not who, wait for the next set of instructions.
Truth is determined differently in an authoritarian environment than it is in a free world. In the authoritarian world, truth is determined by the credentials of the one speaking. If the person's credentials are good, we tend to accept what they say without question. If, however, the person's credentials are inadequate or questionable, then we refuse to listen. Thus, our listening to a person depends on the pedestal on which they are standing. This high dependence on credentials by the audience is a reason why we see the kinds of political campaigns that we have in this country. When acceptance or rejection depends on credentials, more time is spent on building candidates up or tearing them down than analyzing their views and proposals. And when what they say is scrutinized, the public depends on the "experts' who are provided by either the government, the media, or some other institution for an interpretation than on their own ability to listen and think.
Since the 9-11 atrocities, we have seen a spike in authoritarianism in this country from the federal government on down. We allowed the President to tell us that we were attacked for our freedoms despite the death and destruction our policies have caused in the Middle East. That the President was scapegoating our freedoms for the attacks indicated that he was looking for more power, more authority. For if the President acknowledged that our abuse of power in the Middle East was what motivated the 9-11 hijackers, then asking for more power and authority would be an impossible sell.
The marks that governmental authoritarianism leaves on society is the vast reduction, and even elimination, of accountability our officials have by either their citizens or the world. At the same time, our government will hold all others more accountable and even has assumed the right to attack anyone anyplace at anytime. When it does attack, as it did with Iraq, it cites violation of either international law or the will of the international community as the justification for using force. However, if the world even attempts to hold America accountable, our government nullifies it by claiming that such attempts violates our sovereignty.
At home, the progression that has occurred starting with the Patriot Act through the 2012 NDAA is frightening. That is because abuse of power that has been exercised overseas is now being authorized for use at home. The government can now wantonly arrest whomever they want at will so long as they claim that those they arrest are terrorists. The checks and balances that would have prevented such an overreach have been nullified by new laws and procedures.
Why do we the people accept this more powerful and authoritarian government? Why don't more people speak out than already do? The reason is simple. Our government has immunized itself from accountability by injecting fear into the population. As a result, we tend to see our government's growing abuse of power as necessary to protect us from foreign enemies. In the meantime, many current arrests and other harassments performed by our government remind us of the world that existed in the movie Minority Report. And less we question our government for this rise in authoritarianism, we should note that many of our institutions, including our educational institutions and our churches, are doing their fair share to indoctrinate people into accepting our new nation's order. We might add to this that there is a growing tend for those who are charged with enforcing the laws to be brutal and act as if they have no accountability when engaging with dissidents. And the public's perceived need for more protection quiets their consciences for their lack of solidarity with those who have suffered police brutality.
Our world is becoming a more scary place and it is not because of a growing threat from the monsters under our beds or in our closets. Rather, it is becoming more frightening because of those whom we have trusted to guide us and because we have a greater acceptance of and trust in machines, whether technological or institutional, than we have in being human. And it looks as if we have no will to change.
Regardless of the speed, we are surely making people lose touch with what it means to be human. We are desensitizing society to what should be felt when people suffer. We are caging people in, making them into machines, and thus stifling their creativity. And we are doing this with tools we have in our culture and around the house. And if we don't stop, future generations will feel less and less and will be less and less connected with each other as well as themselves.