Monday, February 06, 2006

Reflections on modern society

Reflections on modern society:
While watching the Super Bowl commercials yesterday I reflected on some of the currents of modern culture. We are so interconnected, but at the same time so ignorant. News screams at us from every portal imaginable, but so little of it has anything to do with our lives. We are titilated at every turn by horrific stories of murder, torture and unspeakable horrors. We all seem to be adrenalin junkies. It was not always thus. I grew up in the age where kids played outdoors and only consented to indoor activities when it was raining or when we were confined to the house either for punishment or because of illness. Our playtime activities always involved some element of fantasy and required a certain degree of creativity. Sometimes we did dangerous things, like swimming in polluted waters or riding our bikes across busy highways, knowing full well that our dads would murder us if we were ever found out. Now it seems like kids are entertained by the computer. A generation earlier it was the TV, but I believe the Internet is much more dangerous for young minds. Sure, they can learn about anything with the tap of a key, but they can also be exposed to dangerous ideologies and harmful images.

Everything today is vicarious. No one seems to experience life directly anymore; instead experiences are modulated and mediated through electronic mediums of one kind or another. Kids don't get a proper education and are thus more and more prone to blindly follow whatever religious or political ideology hooks them first. Kids aren't encouraged to think for themselves; instead there are all manner of cookie-cutter ideologies ready-made for consumption, served up just like at McDonald's take-out window.

Our country doesn't make anything anymore. Everything is made somewhere else. I don't care what economists say; I do not believe a great civilization can sustain itself completely on service industry jobs. Flipping hamburgers is one of the few jobs that cannot be outsourcing to some third-world country. Our "leaders" further bankrupt our country and saddle our grandchildren with an unpayable debt in order to pay the cost of a foreign war we had no business starting, while the "loyal opposition" sits by impotent, just as beholden to big corporations as their more fortunate brethren. Soon China will call the tune, and we will have to dance.

Why don't people think for themselves any more? Is it because the TV Generation has grown up spoonfed with the pablum of entertainment that passes for news? Is it because the school systems no longer teach students to think for themselves, but just prepare them to pass the next test so the teachers can keep their jobs? Is everyone just in it for themselves?

I'm concerned about the future of our country. I'm afraid the 20th century will go down in history as the "American Century," while the 21st will witness the dismantling of the dreams of freedom and liberty so intelligently conceived by those 17th century visionaries.

Back in the 1970s I reflected in my journal about our constant need for entertainment. I was puzzled by it; why do people need to be constantly entertained? "Entertainment" seems to have become our major industry. People aren't interested in expanding their minds, and they can't move outside their comfort zone. It looks to me like we are becoming a bunch of sitting ducks just waiting for the plucking.

I am worried about our economy, national and personal. The other day it was announced that our national savings rate has fallen into negative numbers for the first time since the Great Depression. Our healthcare system is in shambles, most Baby Boomers like me cannot afford proper treatment for the ravages of old age, and few of us have saved near enough for retirement. Some of this is due to bad personal choices, such as those of my parents' generation, who wasted their health with cigarette smoking and martinis. However, not all of this is due to personal choices. Our health care system, once the envy of the world, has fallen to third-world status, as has our public education system. Health care has been hijacked by Big Corporate interests, who drain off a significant portion of what we spend to pay big salaries for middlemen.

There are, however, some bright spots in modern culture. The Internet allows the free exchange of ideas (like these), and people can more quickly find answers to any question they ask. For example, I am using the Internet to electronically publish my memoirs and to create a legacy for my grandchildren.

I also realize that my perspective is limited to my own vision of the world, and that it is necessarily limited by my point of view. I was raised in what is rapidly becoming an antique era. But that will be the fodder for much of my storytelling. I want to tell the story of coming to work for the Commercial Department of the Telephone Company in 1969 just as they were finishing their first round of mechanizing customer records. Orders cut on five or eight-channel paper tape and were transmitted electronically over a hardwired, point-to-point network. The Service Order Typists whom I supervised demonstrated to me how they rolled long reels of paper tape by hand so they wouldn't tear. I still use that method to roll electric cables for my keyboard rig. I worked the 1971 strike as a cordboard operator in one of the last bastions of manual work that still existed at that time. That's a story for another time and place, but it will be interesting to tell and hopefully to read.

Another set of stories I want to tell is my experience as a rodman on a USGS leveling crew in the summers of 1963 and 1964. We used the same techniques that were used in the 1930s and which were probably little changed from the days of George Washington. I can look at a topographical map today and know how it was created. A side story is that during my second summer, I was a member of the first ever integrated USGS leveling crew. The other rodman was a black college student named Woody. We had many conversations while riding on the tailgate of the government station wagon. We were relegated to the tailgate because our boots were covered with tar that bubbled from the back country roads on which we did much of our surveying. Woody and I agreed that some racial attitudes would just have to die with the generation of our parents.

Early one morning on a hot summer day in 1964 the crew stopped for breakfast at a diner in Fredericksburg, VA. The four of us, three whites and a black, piled into a booth to place our order. The waitress said she would serve all of us but Woody, upon which we all got up and left. I know it wasn't a major civil rights protest, but back than I felt courageous doing something like that. For just a little while I felt like a pioneer, and it felt good. I was acting on my beliefs, something few of us whitebread college boys had the courage to do back then.

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