THE POWER OF
No matter how much our high-tech
life isolates us, we’ll always need
By: Roger Rosenblatt
B EHOLD A PERFECT DAY IN THE EARLY 21ST CENTURY:
Your eyes are opened by a couple of perfect mugs of coffee made automatically by your perfect coffee maker. You work out in your home gym in pursuit of the perfect body. You order some pills online in pursuit of perfect health (though if truth be told, you’ve been feeling under the weather lately) and perfect sex. On the way to work, everyone jabbers on cell phones in pursuit of perfect reception, as do you. You spend ten hours at your terminal in your closed-off office in perfect isolation, where you pay bills and make other financial transactions perfectly without needing a bank teller, and send e-mails to those with whom you maintain perfect friendships, though you haven’t seen one another in years. In fact, no one has actually spoken to you all day (though for some reason you feel more stress than ever).
Returning home, you plug your iPod into your radio and play a perfect selection of songs chosen solely by you; operate the TV by remote, on which you order up the perfect movie for you; and use your cordless phone to call for the perfect pizza for you (sausage and onion, for the third time this week). Online again, you order more pills for the perfect night’s sleep.
With luck, you will still have time to plan a customized funeral, and to drop dead without having made contact with another human being. The perfect cremation is optional.
All of which is why, had I the choice, I would prefer to have lived in the 18th century rather than the 21st, in part because Donald Trump would not have been born yet, but in larger part because the 18th century bore a deep and informed distrust not only of perfectibility but individual freedom. Of course, the actuarial tables were shorter, but for what time was available, one would have lived more sensibly and in greater harmony with one’s fellow mortals.
What is especially interesting about the 18th century is that with all its efforts at human moderation (reason over passion), it was also the great and glorious time of political revolutions, notably our own. Thinkers of the 18th-century Enlightenment did not see the free individual and the stable community as an impossible marriage. Instead, they asked a question that applies to us right now: What is the connection between the individual getting what he or she wants, and the community getting what it needs? Or to put it in terms of our modern, isolated, perfection-seeking hero: How does one live freely and comfortably in the world, and at the same time live in the world?
One answer is simply to rid ourselves of the siren notion of perfectibility—a leftover from 19th-century Romantic claptrap, and a nutty foundation on which to build anything composed of normally imperfect beings. The other answer requires more concentrated effort. With all the bright new science and technologies that make our lives so dreamy, we have misplaced the standard of basic social usefulness. That is what the idea of community means, really—usefulness to others. Without the idea of the individual serving a wider world, we become the movies Zoolander, the self-absorbed male model played by Ben Stiller, strutting up and down a fashion show runway, and looking like a perfect jerk.
The odd thing is that the idea of serving one another usefully has never been removed from the American state of mind, no matter how vain or Sybaritic we appear, and it is not all that far away now Our 18th-century founders understood that people are easily swept up by self-interest, that left to our own devices (minds as well as iPods), we are not to be trusted. We will always favor the individual over the group; it is in our human nature. We readily acknowledge the usefulness of community, yet the gizmos we create only serve individual comfort and separated lives.
The driving force behind this strange new world we’ve made for ourselves is the desire to eliminate intermediaries. Entertainment, news and health are now routinely acquired without the mediation of authoritative sources. Religion too. Evangelical churches have grown because worshipers may make contact with God directly, circumventing the middlemen of tradition or an official clergy. Yet, the appeal of community is that it never required intermediaries. If you want to assemble to help the poor or sick, clean up the neighborhood, volunteer in a literacy program, no one is getting in your way.
It would follow that community would be a natural consequence of modern impulses. But we are what we are, and what we are too often refuses to make use of the most generous and useful of our common characteristics: simple courtesies and kindnesses, an aristocracy of spirit that recognizes the pain of others as one’s own.
Every previous world was high-tech to its inhabitants, and every generation requires the same exercise of human choices. Walk down the street with a cell phone clamped to your ear, or listen instead for the deeper sounds (are they cries?) of those around you . Can you hear me now?
During the Civil War, the U.S. Patent Office in Washington doubled as a hospital for Union soldiers. There the wounded lay among models of bright new inventions —inventions even brighter to them than are ours to us. Those who had created the sudden hospital had not intended the irony of the juxtaposed forces, but it was blatant, nonetheless: the most creative products of the human mind side by side with
the most destructive. They were that close, but they could not and would not make use of one another. Perfect.
READER’S DIGEST Magazine
August 2005. (Pgs.. 189-191) rd.com
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