Utopia Postponed

The 1960s were in many ways the summit of our civilization. We had beaten polio, smallpox and plague. Surely cancer and the rest would succumb in due course. We had beaten the Nazis. Surely the Commies were next to go. Social problems like poverty, racism, illiteracy, crime, and mental illness would be engineered out of existence. Everything pointed to unlimited growth and continued triumph: atomic power, robots, space, artificial intelligence, maybe even immortality. But in the words of Patrick Farley, the future has been running a little behind schedule.[8]

Hints that technology was not the vehicle of Utopia began to emerge early in the Industrial Revolution, but its successes were so spectacular that it was easy to believe that social and environmental problems were merely temporary impediments, engineering challenges we would overcome through the same methods, mindsets, and techniques that had solved previous problems: more technology, more control. Today the successes are less spectacular, the crises harder to deny, the promise of Utopia “just around the corner” more hollow, but we still act as though more control were the answer.

For example, the medical establishment is having more and more trouble hiding the fact that, with the sole exception of emergency medicine, forty years of “advances” have had little impact on human health and mortality. Consider the overall effect of the successes. Organ transplants were a real breakthrough, but their effect is limited to a few thousand patients annually. Most of the new pharmaceuticals merely control symptoms, often with severe side-effects. Hormone replacement therapy is turning out to be a disaster. The same for cholesterol-lowering medication, anti-depressants, and many of the painkillers. When a new medicine is unveiled, a “twenty percent improvement in outcomes among a significant group of patients” is considered a great success. Despite decades of huge investment, it appears that the age of dramatic cures is over. There has been no “cure” for any of the poster child diseases such as muscular dystrophy and breast cancer. Certainly no major disease has been wiped out since we conquered the great killers of the nineteenth century. Coronary artery disease has retreated little, if at all, in thirty years. Cancer is doing just fine, thank you. Arthritis is just as devastating as ever, strokes nearly as common, Alzheimer’s disease on the rise. Meanwhile a host of formerly uncommon conditions, for which conventional medicine can offer palliative remedies at best, have grown into epidemics: diabetes, autism, allergies, multiple sclerosis, lupus, obesity, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, multiple chemical sensitivities, inflammatory bowel syndrome, chronic fungal infections, and many others. Not only have formerly rare diseases become epidemic, but entirely new diseases such as AIDS have appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Finally, to add insult to injury, some of the “conquered” diseases of the past such as tuberculosis seem to be making a comeback, usually due to antibiotic resistance. This state of affairs constitutes a great unspoken crisis in medicine. Despite unprecedented billions of dollars in pharmaceutical research, medicine seems to be losing ground in the “battle against disease.” Typically, the response is more technology, more precise control at the genetic and molecular level. A continued search for the “cure”.

Life expectancy has similarly failed to live up to predictions. For half a century now, futurists have been predicting dramatic increases in life expectancy: there is no reason why 120 years shouldn’t be common; perhaps with gene therapy this could be extended indefinitely. A glance at the statistics, however, shows that the most dramatic gains in life expectancy all occurred in the first half of the 20th century, not since 1970. From 1900 to 1950, life expectancy at birth rose by an impressive 21 years; since then it has risen only 9 years.[9] Moreover, much of this improvement must be due to lower infant mortality and emergency life-saving procedures, because if we look at life expectancy at age 65, we find a paltry 4-year increase over the past half-century.[10]

Gains in life expectancy show the same familiar pattern of diminishing marginal returns that we see in the agricultural application of fertilizer. The first application of technology (fertilizer) brings dramatic results, but subsequent applications have less and less benefit until enormous amounts are eventually required to boost yields a tiny bit, or even to prevent yields from falling. As burgeoning healthcare expenditures demonstrate, we are presently pouring enormous technological effort into healthcare with only tiny gains compared to the dramatic improvements that accompanied the comparatively modest expenditures of the early 20th century. We can expect that unless the fundamental direction of medical technology changes, life expectancy will stagnate and probably even begin to fall within ten years.[11]

Nor has technology lived up to its promise to usher in an age of leisure. In the United States, leisure time did seem to be increasing throughout the 20th century until about 1973, when it began a gradual, sustained decline. Most researchers agree that leisure time has decreased in the thirty years since then: we are spending more time working, more time commuting, more time running errands, more time meeting the obligations of life.[12] The computer, trumpeted as the final key technology that would do for the drudgery of mental labor what machines had (supposedly) done for physical labor, has brought about the opposite: more time spent in offices, at desks, at keyboards. By now it is apparent that the computer has not eliminated the drudgery of office work, any more than the steam engine eliminated the ordeal of physical labor. Despite the “information revolution”, few people would argue that office work has become more intellectually stimulating or meaningful in the last thirty years. The solution? Again it is more technology, more labor-saving devices, greater efficiency, better “time management”.

Technology has similarly failed to bring about a world of plenty. While the food supply has indeed grown enough to feed a doubled world population, hunger and famine are no less prevalent, and for the same old political and environmental reasons: war, repression, and drought. Moreover, vast areas of land that were once agriculturally productive have turned to desert, so that we face the prospect of a food crisis, not a cornucopia. (At the present writing, world grain stocks are in decline,[13] and most of the great fisheries nearly depleted.) The last forty years of “development” in the third world have not brought the promised prosperity. To the contrary, the gap between rich and poor has widened globally and within third-world countries themselves. Travel in the Third World and you can easily see for yourself that the destitution, disease, and dislocation of our own Industrial Revolution are still common today. And the justification is the same too: It is just a temporary phase before you become a “developed” nation like us. We had to go through it, and so do you; it is the natural order of things. The prescription, then, is again more of the same, further “advances” in agriculture and more vigorous economic development. Now, people around the world are starting to disbelieve this dogma, simply because the decline in third-world living standards has continued unabated for too long. That wasn’t supposed to happen. In many Latin American countries, the middle class has almost disappeared altogether.

In space, the triumphs of the 1960s and 1970s never led to the space colonies, Mars landings, and interstellar space travel that were confidently predicted by the year 2000. There have essentially been no significant advances in propulsion technology since the rocket, developed some seventy years ago. When I was growing up in the early 1970s, space fever gripped the minds of all my contemporaries: we had space board games, space lunch boxes, even, I recall, rocket-shaped shampoo bottles. We landed on the moon; then we did it again. And again. We have not returned to the moon since the 1970s, however, and there is little enthusiasm for such a mission today. Been there, done that… where has it led? At the time of this writing, President Bush has just proposed a new drive to establish a permanent moon base and a manned mission to Mars, yet there is not even a shadow of the excitement that enthralled the nation in the days of my early childhood.

The age of leisure and easy plenty, technotopia, is forever just around the corner. First it was the Age of Coal that was supposed to free us from labor: in the dawning Golden Age of the 19th century, coal-fired steam-driven machines would do all the work. Instead we got the sweatshop, the coal mine, the foundry, the Satanic mills and Stygian forges (no idle metaphor, these), the eighty-hour work week, child labor, industrial accidents, starvation wages, fabulous wealth alongside wretched slums, childhoods spent in coal mines, horrific pollution, shattered communities and ruined lives. But not to worry! The Golden Age was just around the corner, thanks to electricity! Chemistry! The automobile! Nuclear power! Rockets! Computers! Genetic engineering! Nanotechnology! Unfortunately, none of these ever quite lived up to their promise.

And now we are in the 21st century, which was supposed to have been the Age of Leisure, the Information Age, the Knowledge Economy. In the latter phrase some key prejudices of the ascent myth are laid bare. It implies a progression from the industrial age, mired in materiality, to a separate, exclusively human realm of pure knowledge. The base concerns of material production were to be left to less advanced countries; our society was to have risen above that to deal in the products of the mind. Eventually, with the perfection of robotics, all societies were to follow us there.

The aspiration to rise above materiality defines modern religion as much as it does modern economics and modern technology. This is no accident. All arise from a common source that I will discuss throughout this volume. All are variations on the theme of ascent, the ascent of humanity. “Materiality”, after all, is just a pejorative word for nature, and we identify the ascent of humanity with a progressive transcendence of nature. Once nature’s slave, now its master. So of course it is higher, better, more ascended to be in the realm of the mind than the realm of base material production.

This is why occupations such as “executive” and “consultant” carry a cachet absent from “industrial engineer” and “plumber”. For the last twenty years or more, young people have aspired to such roles without even caring what their actual subject matter is. They major in business, marketing, and finance, hoping to be an “executive” somewhere, anywhere. Part of the reason is the wealth and status that accord to such occupations, but a deeper principle is at work, too: the separation of spirit and matter, mind and body, human and nature that is as old as civilization. From the first social division of labor, prestige went to those whose hands were not sullied by the dirt—the soil of farming at first, but eventually the entire material world. Thus it was that ancient kings’ feet were not allowed to touch the earth. Today’s knowledge worker was supposed to be the consummation and democratization of that trend. Every man a king.

The bankruptcy of the ambition encoded in the words “knowledge economy” is now becoming plain. Office work is no less tedious than that of the assembly line or vegetable monofarm—and for the same systemic reasons I will describe in Chapter Two. Much of today’s knowledge economy consists of data input. Furthermore, the recent migration of “knowledge-intensive” jobs such as engineering and computer programming to new industrial powerhouses such as India and China demonstrates that the realms of mind and matter are not so separate as we might wish to think.

The promise of Utopia just around the corner to justify today’s sacrifices is a common thread connecting every application of the Technological Program. We saw it in the Age of Coal, we see it in the Computer Revolution today: We must undertake the vast project of inputting all the data; then computers will run everything much more efficiently. We see it in the Third World in the IMF’s austerity programs, which call for sacrifice today to bring prosperity tomorrow. IMF policies are often criticized as instruments of globalization that benefit the already-wealthy, but their systemic necessity springs from a much deeper source than that. Sacrifice is a built-in feature of any capitalist system based on interest-bearing money: sacrifice now to scrape together the money-that-breeds-money. Even more fundamentally, it is a defining mindset of agriculture, in which we must sow today in order to reap tomorrow. The same mentality affects religion, which calls upon us to sacrifice worldly pleasures for the sake of a hypothetical future Heaven. The problem with all this is that, whether in the Third World or in the endless task of data input, the sacrifice seems to be perpetual. Heaven never comes. Speaking from the bowels of the Industrial Revolution, William Wordsworth said it best:

With you I grieve, when on the darker side

Of this great change I look; and there behold

Such outrage done to nature as compels

The indignant power to justify herself. . . .

Then, in full many a region, once like this

The assured domain of calm simplicity

And pensive quiet, an unnatural light

Prepared for never-resting Labour’s eyes

Breaks from a many-windowed fabric huge;

And at the appointed hour a bell is heard– . . .

A local summons to unceasing toil!. . . .

Men, maidens, youths, Mother and little children, boys and girls,

Enter, and each the wonted task resumes

Within this temple, where is offered up To Gain, the master idol of the realm,

Perpetual sacrifice.[14]

Perpetual sacrifice. It is an ideology that invades nearly every aspect of our lives. What is being sacrificed? What is the common thread? Most fundamentally, it is a sacrifice of the present for the future. Cut back today so you will have enough for tomorrow. Work comes before play. No pain, no gain. Control yourself. Whether it is in diet, education, or personal development, we find the same sad prescription. Why is it that for so many people, the Heaven of physical fitness, or financial independence, or cessation of an addiction remains forever just as distant as technological Utopia? How long do your New Year’s resolutions last? Well, try harder. It is like the man who decided to walk to the horizon, and failing to get there, concluded that he needed to run instead. This book will uncover the origins and evolution of the regime of perpetual sacrifice that we have endured in our attempt to build a tower to Heaven.

Because the exhilarating “Gee Whiz!” aspect of technology has failed to deliver the futuristic wonderama we all expected in the 1960s, the dark side of technology has become more difficult to ignore. Certainly there has been ample evidence for centuries that technology is not an unqualified good, but until the twentieth century the ideology of progress dominated all but the most independent thinkers. The horrific conditions of the industrial revolution could be explained as merely a temporary sacrifice on the way to Utopia. Only a few romantics had the vision to resist this ideology, people like William Blake, Wordsworth, Lord Byron, Henry David Thoreau, and Mary Shelley, who saw the ruination within mass industrial society not as a temporary phase or an engineering challenge, but as its fundamental character.

All this started to change in 1914, when the world finally got to see the result of industrialization applied to warfare: battlefield carnage on the mass scale of industry, a whole generation of young men decimated, extending thirty years later to encompass entire civilian populations in the conflagration of total war, and ending in the first application of the century’s greatest scientific triumph: the atomic bomb. At the same time, the organizational principles of the industrial revolution, based on the same scientific tools of analysis and control, reason, logic, and efficiency, were applied to the purposeful mass extermination of innocent people under Hitler, Stalin, and their imitators.

Ironically, it was precisely these principles of logic, reason, and efficiency that were supposed to elevate humanity to a more noble state, just as the technologies of physical and chemical engineering—used in the world wars—were supposed to elevate humanity to a new level of material comfort, health, and security. The irony was not lost on artists, writers, and other cultural sensitives, who have been grappling with the resulting feelings of betrayal and despair ever since.

From Plato onward, Utopian philosophers thought that reason, planning, and method would bring the same progress to the social realm as material technology brought to the physical. Social planning would conquer the wilderness of human nature, just as technology subdued the wilderness of physical nature. The failure of both is seen merely as evidence that we need more of the same. The ambition of nanotechnology, to extend physical control to a new level of microscopic precision, parallels the social technologies of education and law as they strive toward ever-finer regulation of human behavior.

Underlying both material technology and sociopolitical methods of control we find the same conceptual foundation. Is it mere accident that from this foundation, the same decimation has visited both the human and natural realm? Obviously, there is a flaw in the common position that technology is neutral, up to us to use for good or for evil. The pogroms and the genocides, the ethnic cleansings and wars of extermination, the despoliation of the planet and the wrecking of indigenous cultures, all these are attributed to the misuse of technology, not technology itself. But perhaps this position is mistaken. Perhaps something basic to the very mindset of technology has generated the twin crises in the social and environmental realm.

In some quarters the faith in technology continues. Ozone layer destruction? We’ll make new ozone. Soil erosion? We’ll find a way to grow food without soil; maybe we’ll just synthesize it. Total environmental collapse? No matter, we’ll colonize the stars. Who needs nature anymore? The can-do spirit that has brought us this far will surely overcome any future obstacles. Human ingenuity is unlimited. If things seem to be getting worse, not better, if people seem to be getting sicker, busier, and more anxious, if life seems more stressful and the environment less healthy—rest assured! This is a temporary sacrifice, one step backward necessary to take a giant leap forward.

Today, though, the rhetoric of progress is wearing thin. It looks as though the future, always just around the corner, is never going to come. Since the mid-20th century, that feeling of betrayal and despair has spread beyond artists and intellectuals to engulf the entire population. Superficially, many people still affirm that the onward march of technology will someday render all our present problems obsolete, but on a deeper level they have lost confidence in both science and technology. The long-promised marvels—the next step in our transcendence of nature—have failed to materialize, while new and unforeseen problems multiply faster than we can solve them. Gone is the Sixties optimism that sparked the War on Poverty, the War on Cancer, the Conquest of Space. Now we hope merely to stave off the problems that threaten to overwhelm us: the convergence of crises in the environment, health, education, the economy, and politics.

 

Footnotes:

[8]Farley, Patrick. The Guy I Almost Was. www.e-sheep.com/almostguy

[9] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, National Vital Statistics System. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/lifexpec.htm

[10] ibid

[11] That is my personal estimate, but already even some mainstream researchers are claiming that the new generation will be the first in 200 years to have a lower life expectancy than their parents. In a paper published in the March 17, 2005 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, a team of scientists claims that the obesity epidemic could shorten lifespans by up to five years in the next few decades. Other authorities disagree, citing “advances in modern medicine” that will offset these losses.

[12] Juliet Schor. Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure. Basic Books, 1993.

[13] “Grain Stocks Continue to Shrink, Despite Record Production”, USDA Foreign Agriculture Service Circular Series, May 2004.

[14] From The Excursion, Book Eighth, starting on line 150. Kirkpatrick Sale quotes the same passage in Rebels Against the Future, which is how it came to my attention.