The key puzzles of identity and of our perceptions of our own physical bodies are changing due to the forward march of technology. As a matter of fact, our bodies and their importance in the functioning of society have largely been eclipsed by robots, and the assault on the dominance of the human mind is well underway. It seems that in the future the active participation of people may not be necessary for the well-ordered functioning of society at all.
The oddities created by the God-like knowledge of the fundamental processes of the universe are apparent just below the surface. Look at the advertising for exercise and eating healthy, for example. They are sold as balancing an equation that will produce optimal health and fitness. The body is increasingly seen as an object that can be perfected, that can be poorly or expertly crafted. Genetics will be able to be engineered for our children. Erasing imperfections and mistakes, our natural processes will be optimized.
Technology has distorted our views of ourselves and enlarged the gap between perception and reality. Technology and the proliferation of media have created a situation where more people are in poor physical condition while simultaneously being more concerned about their physical appearance and condition than ever before in history. More filters separate us from a direct perception of reality, and we are more and more living in a virtual world overlayed on the real one. We are already cyborgs, in a practical sense if not a literal one. We are attached to our smart phones and the digital world constantly and live entire aspects of our lives inside of invisible structures constructed of code that live inside of servers.
The upheaval caused by the lack of employment is only the tip of the spear being plunged into the heart of the human species. If fundamentally, the question of life is one of meaning, there will soon be no object for which there is meaning to contemplate. Our desire for perfection and ease will lead to the destruction of everything that makes humans human. Biology’s weakness is overpowered by the superior computing power and efficiency of robotics and digital memory. It is only a matter of time before we are entirely fused into computerized systems. More than jobs to do, people will need a philosophy that justifies our continued existence.
One marked social effect of changing technology has been to distort the human experience of observing one another. It is now easier than ever to peek into people’s private lives and to experience a wide range of emotions and obtain a good deal of pleasure or entertainment while doing so. One effect of this is to increase the sense of superficiality that permeates modern life. We are all being surveilled all the time by not just corporations and the state, but by each other, and we project ourselves accordingly.
We may, before a first date (if we didn’t find our potential partner online), Google someone to perform a brief background check. This manifestation of our voyeurism can be potentially destructive but is perhaps the least dangerous aspect of this modern process. Voyeurism tends to cause fetishism. People are reduced to objects and ownership of these objects can be conferred on the viewer. This is why dating sites and apps like Tinder are problematic for society. They reduce our empathy and our view of people as unique and deserving.
Outside of personal relationships there is the baser parts of life that are now in full consciousness for the first time in human history. The modern era has shown an ever increasing incongruity between the public acceptance of sex and violence and the private ability of people to view it. Pornography and filmed violence permeate the internet. The discord between public and private life, and the increased scope of public life, are also damaging to society. A society that looks on death and sex as taboo in public, but as mundane in private, is bound to develop a shame complex, as well as dehumanizing the participants and victims of sex and violence respectively.
One example that vindicates the mass-development of shame, which is caused by the public revelation of private embarrassment, is the proliferation of cringe-comedy in documentary or first-person style. It enables a catharsis for people to experience vicariously, and voyeuristically, other people’s shame.
The long-term effects of shame and dehumanization cannot be good for the public health of society, and it may be a primary cause of increased anxiety, depression, and mental illness, as well as feeding sexual deviancy.
In May of last year, Boeing, the enormous defense contractor and aerospace company, threatened to take its headquarters out of the country if the Export-Import Bank wasn’t reapproved by Congress. You can argue if the Export-Import Bank is a good idea or not but it is painfully obvious that Boeing’s ability to move out of the country is a grave challenge to American sovereignty. The true power of corporations in the modern world, especially in wealthy countries, is not their financial might, but their ability to employ thousands of people. Politicians know that if unemployment rises, if the economy retracts, their positions are vulnerable. This weakness gives corporations a huge advantage over states in this century.
States and their governments are restricted and defined by their borders, and borders are old-fashioned. Globalization, communications technology, and the rising economies of previously impoverished Asia and Africa are allowing large corporations to move around the globe to better serve their bottom lines. Another problem with states (and many corporations’ biggest gripe)? Taxes. Governments rely on taxing residents, goods, property, and commerce within their borders in order to fund their services, edifices, and institutions. But how can you tax a corporation if they’ll just leave? We often see this within the United States, corporations will relocate to a state with lower tax rates, and the states that those corporations move to are willing to trade tax revenue for employment. All of this gives rise to the impression of inequality: “the sovereign corporation gets whatever it wants but I have to slave away and bear an enormous tax burden.”
Another obvious example of the weakening position of the nation-state is the continuing rise of non-state actors. The gold standard for this was al-Qaeda before, ironically because of their aspiration to nationhood, the Islamic State. ISIS has destroyed the boundary that separates Syria and Iraq, a line set by the Sykes-Picot agreement between the British and French during the First World War. Few nation-states have arisen organically, most have had lines drawn for political reasons, Iraq and Syria, before the French and British drew their borders, were not nations but provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Communications technology and entropy has allowed non-state actors to gain power and redefine the physical spaces in which they operate. The decentralization of power is a key feature of the modern age.
There are two overwhelming psychological challenges that are going to face humanity as we move deeper into the 21st Century: 1) profound mutations of society brought on by new technology, and 2) a nihilistic outlook on life. I will address the first in this post.
Disruptions in economic life are already becoming apparent, and are in fact at the heart of the political crisis that has faced the United States for the last 10 years. As time goes on the economic changes brought on by technology will begin to deeply change society. Inequality, unemployment, and changes in social connections will upend people’s sense of security and could completely disrupt existing political structures. Technological changes will create an ever-increasing under class with a lack of skills to thrive in a new economy. This will create a sizable minority of people who feel alienated from society and culture at large. Politicians have done almost nothing to address this problem, and many plans, such as protectionist trade policies and increasing the minimum wage are nothing but band-aids on a gaping wound.