Recent data from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) showed that life’s longevity in the United States has declined for a third year in a row. While opioids as a killer had declined slightly, suicide was up. And, increasingly, I am reading articles about a growing incidence of depression, sometimes the precursor to suicide.
The overarching message is clear: “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, while a profoundly important gift from this country’s founding, is not enough. The underlying questions that echo from the lives that are mere statistics in the CDC report must be understood.
Let’s begin with the words: what do they mean? Life? Liberty? Pursuit of happiness? Liberty for what? And what is happiness? Have we shaped a world where many convert happiness to now—the next hour, day or week?
What about medical progress? I am not a scientist and bear no burden to cast a more encouraging future in terms of new medicines or treatments. But, I doubt that the CDC statistics reflect insufficient progress by medical professionals.
What is on offer from a disruptive society? Too often the disruption takes dead aim at humanity.
While driverless cars might save some lives, what about all the people who drive for a living who will have to look for new work. Indeed, technological advances are often a part of a larger problem. Philosophers and theologians insist we need work—endeavors that provide something of value to mankind and ourselves. Are advances too often meeting our wants while working against our needs?
And what about our social entanglements? What is the cost of exchanging our privacy for being connected? Is social media all that social? Unfortunately many are pulled into compulsive use and new and often hurtful measures of self. How many friends do I have? What is my image? How do I measure up? Networked smart phones seem incandescent. They overwhelm as they wedge themselves, with our compliant assistance, between relationships.
We know that social media preys on time and works ceaselessly on the vulnerable. And it is said that the phone screen has provided pornography beyond anything imaginable just a generation ago. Again and again inferiority complexes are an all too frequent offspring of sexual attraction and performance. An article in The Economist reports that re-shaped buttocks and vaginas are increasingly a part of the cosmetic surgery industry. Imagine minds entangled in self-defeating imagery to the point of a surgeon’s knife.
Insecurity goes way beyond the sex industry; the detritus of obsolescence is everywhere. What jobs cannot be overtaken by robots and artificial intelligence? We wonder, are humans obsolete? Are we caught in that Brave New World that Aldous Huxley forecast?
Certainly technology can save us time and labor; often that leads to more entertainment. As Neil Postman warned, we risk “entertaining ourselves to death.” Entertainment is not free; it works on the mind.
Much of entertainment is underwritten by advertising and its constant call for us to buy. The narrative is simple. Many ads create a feeling of inferiority and then tell us what will make us happy.
Perversely, we underwrite disruption while forgetting foundational truths. On the practical level the foundation is education. On the spiritual level it is eternal truth—the importance of love—both receiving and giving. Modernity is too often at war with both.
Education and distraction are enemies. I know; much of my early education seemed less important than girls and sports. I majored in the latter. Fortunately 21st Century technology did not further disrupt my life. I had the impression that I could shape my career, not have to hold on for dear life.
In the slipstream of lingering Christmas feelings, let me take a quick look at eternal truths. Today, it is said, truth is relative. We can’t kill our neighbor, but we can pursue a zero-sum game without penalty. When life is a zero-sum game—winners and losers—society loses; indeed the winner ultimately loses.
It is certain that scientists and sociologists will parse the CDC data looking for a way to reverse the trajectory. I suggest they look beyond the easily measured data. Scientists need to collaborate with philosophers and theologians; answers will necessarily go beyond medicine. God is in the details.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.