The road to hell

August 9th, 1945.  A date as good as any to signify the start of the modern era.  It was the day the first nuclear weapon was used on a civilian population.  An entire city razed in the blink of an eye.  Thousands of lives snuffed out faster than it takes for someone to flip on a light switch.

The true tragedy of the atomic bomb does not lie in its potential for mass destruction.  Cities have been wiped off the face of the earth since time immemorial.  Women and children have  always been casualty of war.  The a-bomb is terrifying simply because of how efficient it is.

It once took legions of highly trained and motivated soldiers to destroy a city.  It would take days to spread the destruction with fire, put all those who opposed it to the sword, and round up everyone else in chains to be sold into slavery.  With the invention of nukes, a single man in a solitary plane became an unmatched killing machine.  He became a one man army who takes no prisoners and spares no wounded.

A nuke is the most modern of all weapons.  It’s the McDonald’s of bombs.  It brought the fast food mentality to warfare.  Grand in scale and deadly in its efficiency, it is simply the fastest way to fight a war. It removes human error and human weakness from war.  It does not matter whether he vaporizes a saint or a sinner.  Its only concern is that all is destroyed.

Since that day in 1945, the threat of global nuclear holocaust has loomed over the world.  Each and every person in modernity has it hanging over their head like a radioactive Sword of Damocles.  In an effort to ensure the safety of their own citizens, other nations started to acquire nuclear weapons. It had the opposite effect on the world at large.  The fear of annihilation only grew stronger.

Fear of global nuclear winter reached an all time high in the ensuing decades.  The two world super powers of the era constantly had to prepare for countless end-of-the-world scenarios.  Eventually, they both concluded the only sane policy for this new kind of warfare was one of mutually assured destruction.  It led both to stockpile a countless number of weapons that could incinerate the world many times over. All in the effort to deter the other side from ever using one.

In an act of supreme cosmological irony, not a single one of these weapons has ever been used.  The most sophisticated, powerful, and costly weapons ever made were created for peace.  They sit dormant in a missile silos and submarines all around the world.  Their only purpose is to rust away into obsolescence.

The psychology behind this farce is a symptom of the modern mind.  Nobody wants to live in a world that can spontaneously combust at the whim of a tyrant.  Yet, once nuclear technology was out of the bag, it could develop in no other way.

This mentality can be found in any undesirable development of the modern world.  Nobody likes living in a world were they have to sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic at rush hour.  It takes most people hours after a long day at work just to get home.  Any sane person would prefer to be able to walk to their job.  Before cars, almost everyone did.

Cars started out as a luxury item.  It was a fad for the rich alone.  It was merely a status symbol.  However, as the technology became cheaper and more reliable, the benefits of owning a car were plain to see.  Within the span of a generation, car ownership shot through the roof.  It transformed itself from a novelty into a necessity.

Cities changed to accommodate this new development.  As cars flooded the streets, the infrastructure need to be updated. Old buildings were demolished to make way for expansive freeways. As commuting by a car became the new normal, valued any other mode of transportation. It soon became impractical to walk, ride bicycles, or ride the train in many cities.

The voluntary of the past becomes mandatory of the future.  When the majority adapt a new technology, it becomes the path of least resistance for everyone else.  Each bit of progress seems beneficial to the individual but it ultimately backfires when it becomes adopted en masse. Modernity is the tragedy of commons on the grandest scale.

Modernity kills freedom

“If you could go back in time to any period in history, which would you live in?”  It is a common fantasy to imagine how one life would be different in a another time and place. Everyone has answered this question at one point or another.  Occasionally, someone will try to be smart with his answer.  He will object to the premise itself.  Why would anyone would want to go back? Living any time but now would be terrible.  Modernity is the only sensible time period to live in.  Progress has made all of our lives so much easier.

The core of the argument is that modernity offers all sorts of comforts and securities. The people of the past could only dream of what we have now.  Modern people lead longer and safer lives, just look at how much longer we live now.  Humans used to live short, harsh lives, struggling against the elements.

It was a matter of life and death for our ancestors just to find food, shelter, and clean water.  They had no rifles to defend themselves when dangerous predators attacked.  They had no restaurants to gorge themselves when on they were hungry.  There was no doctors to prescribe antibiotics to them when they got sick.  They must have been miserable.  It is no wonder that our ancestors only lived to middle age.

To any one with a cursory understanding of history, it is obvious this is an extremely narrow-minded perspective.  Even if one accepts his assumptions, the argument itself is flawed. It assumes that our ancestors lived shallow and unhappy lives.  It assumes that physical security and longevity are sole determinants in living a  fulfilling and meaningful life.  They are not.

This is plainly observable by noticing the amount of unhappiness still present in modern society. Progress has never brought about a utopia.  It has only brought security to the individual.  It has prevented much of the pain and suffering caused by hunger, pestilence, and the climate.  Instead, modern man must worry about problems on a global level.  He worries about pathogens and pesticides polluting his food and drink.  He worries about power mad politicians sparking a global thermo-nuclear holocaust.  He worries about overpopulation and pollution destroying the environment.

Modern man has just as much to fret about as his ancestors did.  The difference between the two is the scale of the issues.  Modernity has brought problems that are much harder to address.  No one person, tribe, or even nation can solve them any more.  For example, not even the richest billionaires on the planet have the power to solve world hunger.

As a consequence, the modern man has an overwhelming and deep rooted sense of powerlessness.  Compared to his ancestors, he can do little to influence the environment around him.  Where once a man could defend his family against raiders and thieves with his own weapons, modern man must rely on the police to protect them.  When a man grows his own food, he need not worry about what chemicals he was feeding to his family.  Whatever sense of pride and security man once got through self-reliance has disappeared with the introduction of modernity.

Any sane individual would want to live in a society where they can make a difference.  Powerlessness breeds depression and despair in everyone. Man gets a sense of purpose and contentment from setting attainable goals and solving them.  Modernity is the systematic concentration of the power of life and death to the hands of an increasingly smaller amount of people.  True freedom is known to less people today than any time in history.  The past wasn’t a horrible place to live and die, modernity is.

Living backwards

The modern world is vastly different than all eras before it. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of history can it is very different than all that came before it. One only has to look at the past and look around at societies of today.

For thousands of years, the population grew at a stable and sustainable rate. It has since exploded at an exponential rate. The world has magnitudes of more people on it. Modernity has pushed the life span of the average person to near double what it was only a century ago. Where only the strong and prosperous lived into “old age”, it has now become the commonplace.

War used to mean meeting the enemy on the open field and killing each other in hand to hand combat. In modernity, war has many meanings.  It can now mean wiping out entire cities with intercontinental missiles carrying high yield nuclear warheads. It can mean controlling unmanned aerial vehicles behind a computer screen to wipe out dozens of people in a tactical yet indeterminate air strike.  All with the push of a button.

Buildings in modern cities are now taller than all eras before them. Each year that passes brings a new record holder for the tallest.  Bridges can now cover distances that unfathomable before. We can broadcast a thought to the entire world in an instant. It once took a single letter took years to reach the other side of the globe. Clearly, modernity has brought humanity to new heights of progress.

However, progress is not a given. Imagine an Italian peasant in the 9th century. Looking in his village, he could see ruins of an empire that came before him.  The architecture contained therein was clearly beyond anything his own society would be able to produce. The buildings were stronger, more beautiful, and more enduring. They were the product of a society long past.

These great ruins were built by his ancestors. The society that created them inhabited the very lands he now does. This society possessed something that his does not. This wisdom was lost long before he was ever born.  All he can do is look at the ruins.  He can do nothing that can replicate their past grandeur.

The peasant’s society has lost the technology that was used to create the ruins. The word technology comes from the Ancient Greek tekhnologia. It is comprised of the roots tekhne, meaning skill, and logia, meaning study or practical application. A literal translation of tekhnologia would be the practical application of skills.

This is what most people mean when they speak of progress.  They mean modern technology.  The skill to create new and ever more complex tools.  The ruins once held a significant purpose to the society that built them.  To the peasant, they only serve as a remind of what once was.

Modern man can look back to the accomplishment of his ancestors as well. The accomplishments of the ancients are many. While modern buildings might be taller, modern warfare more deadly, and modern travel faster, there are still many great things that modernity has ignored in pursuit of technology.

Modernity focuses on the tangible and the immediately recognizable.  In many cases, it has sacrificed much to achieve this.  When modern man looks at an impressionist painting, hears a romantic opera, or reads an ancient novel, he will experience something similar to what the Italian peasant felt looking at the Roman ruins.  He knows they are something that his society cannot reproduce.  For all of the progress of modernity, it still lacks the essence that made past societies great.  Until modernity learns this, all of its technology is doomed to triviality.  Technology is forever a means, not an end in itself.

The importance of purpose

Hat man sein warum des Lebens, so verträgt man sich fast mit jedem wie.

If one has a why in life, he can bear almost any how.

– Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

For most animals, the majority of their waking hours are spent on tasks that help them sustain their life.  If the animal is a predator, he will spend most of his time hunting for its next meal.  If the animal is trapped in a storm, he will spend a great deal of time trying to stay dry and warm.  If the animal is thirsty, he will try to find a cold and clear pool to drink from.

For most of our history, man was such an animal.  His purpose was immediate and apparent.  He had to survive.  Most everything else in his life was incidental and secondary.  If ancient man made any sort of error in these basic essentials, he was doomed to death.

In contrast, modern man, assuming he was born in a half way competent county, has no such worries.  Even the most incompetent members of modern society are given plenty of food to eat, a roof over their head, and safety from danger is as good as guaranteed from birth.

Not having to constantly be on the look out for panther attacks or worrying about your where your next meal is coming from has left modern man with a lot of spare time on his hands.  It has left man open to pursue the grandeur of high art, study the mysteries of science, and construct and tame his environment through engineering.  It has also allowed him to grow fat from excess, indulge every sexual whim without consequence, and own more shiny bits of plastic than he could possibly have use for.  Unfortunately, humanity chooses the latter pursuits more often than not.

What distinguishes noble pursuits from base ones is purely a result of their outcome.   These one type of behavior can lead to waste and destruction while the other leads to a better quality of life and creation.  When looking at it from a distance, the choice is clear what kind of behavior man should encourage.  Why is it the case then that so many people do not act with creative intent?

The answer lies in the kind of motivation that precedes each of these activities.  Think of the choice between eating junk food or something healthy.  Given the choose between a slice of pizza or an apple for a snack, the vast majority of humanity would choice the junk food.  Yet, almost everyone knows the apple is better for you.

The reason that people will choose the pizza almost every time is because it offers instant gratification.  It tastes great.  You will instantly feel pleasure while you consume it.  The apple offers essential vitamins and complex sugars needed for nutrition.  It’s effects can only be seen after a long time.

Consider now that you are on a diet.  You need to lose weight and you know eating bad food will prevent you from doing so.  If your will to lose weight was stronger than the desire for instant gratification, you’ll have the apple for the snack.  Your long term goal would allow you to weigh each option with that in mind and allow you to make the correct choice.

Societies live by these same principles.  Right now, modernity does not offer anyone a purpose. Our ability to survive has outpaced our societies ability to come up with reasons to live. As modern technology continues to make life easier and easier, we will continue to see more destructive behavior emerge from the general populace for the sake of pleasure. We will continue to degenerate until the very things that make life easy now are not so easily attained.  Perhaps then, nature will then have the final say after all.

Escaping modernity

Every now and then, all of us have dreamt about escaping from society.  It’s a common fantasy entrenched deep within popular culture.  It is an undeniably romantic concept to break free of modernity and start living like our ancestors.  We’ve all seen films and books that exploit it.  It often comes in forms of being lost in a desert island, exploring the frontiers of the past, or even post-apocalyptic science fiction.

However, rarely anyone ever acts on this impulse we collectively have.  It would require a lot of courage and determination, both which most of humanity sorely lack.  It requires you to rely on your own strength and deal with your own limitations.  In return, you’d gain a level of freedom a fraction that rarely anyone that has ever lived has seen.

This is the essence of living in a society.  You give up your freedom for security.  For many, especially the weak, it is an easy trade. The first farmers in the post-neolithic world gave up their mobility for an easier source of food.  Peasants gave a portion of their crops to their lords in exchange for protection in Feudal Europe. Today, we bind ourselves to multinational corporations to gain money.

As modernity marches on, the freedoms it demands as tribute will continue to grow larger.  Nature never gives without expecting something equal in return. It is easier to be alive today than at any point in human history, and never before have so many people less free.