Tuesday, January 22, 2013

#516. The Age of Mediocrity

Our civilization is in a bad way.

I'm not talking about guns or the state of our entertainment or politics.  I'm talking about people in general.  Whatever you think about anything, hopefully by the end of this you'll start thinking about people a little differently.

I'm talking about mediocrity.  I'm talking about the end of the space race, the end of innovation, the end of self-respect.

Well, let's start somewhere.  I read in a book that JFK only embraced the space race pragmatically.  For all the grand talk he didn't actually care all that much about sending people to the moon.  It was all about the Cold War, which for a time was a lot better for everyone than the nightmare it turned out to be.  After WWII, when the world's best minds were engaged in their best ideas and sometimes worst, we challenged ourselves with some of the biggest goals imaginable.  And we eventually walked on the moon.

For some reason one disaster after another started hitting NASA's continued efforts.  I believe this affected everyone's opinion of scientific progress more than what was actually achieved.  It began to seem like more of an expense than a project.  The last time anyone knew what any astronaut was doing we got the International Space Station, ushering a new era of cooperation.  Yet now of course all we do is bunk out in the most expensive tree house in history and take pictures.

I'm not lamenting the lack of speedy results.  I'm saying that it's emblematic of a bigger problem.  We now live in an age where we think technology and innovation means that our cars have more toys and our phones function as tiny computers.  I think there's a problem with this.  A lot of this is due to the typical greed of big business.  The auto industry figured out that it could roll out a new line-up of cars every year and there would always be suckers believing that any forward progress was being made, other than another new car.  There was a huge push at one point for gas-guzzling SUVs, and then the reactionary fad of hybrids.  We figured out how to make computers work for everyone, and then we just sort of started to stagnate and line up for the latest incremental and let's face it completely bogus "improvement" in the new model.

Our cries for social progress usually sound really good these days.  We keep repeating the mantra that teachers don't get the respect they deserve.  Teachers hardly get paid less than your typical customer service associate.  They have a whole system that supports them, and a set of rules that keeps everything in balance.  Those poor schmucks helping you and everyone else find what you're looking for?  Not so much.  I've said this before, but here we go: we're now officially a society of butlers.  We expect everyone else to pick up after us.  There's no civility, or maybe a modicum of it.  We go to a store and trash it.  We go to a movie theater and trash it.  I'm not talking about literal trash (although we do that, too), but looking at a product and then not bothering to put it back the way you found it, much less where you found it.  Or leaving the remnants of the stuff you bought in the lobby all over the floor (some of the trash to be considered).  Because someone else will deal with it.  We drive distracted, not just because of phones or anything else you probably hear about, but because we simply don't give a shit about anyone else.

In fact, the basic truth is that most of us function as if we're the only real thing in existence.  My mother likes to say it's the video game effect, that we don't think anything around us is real.  I wouldn't go that far.  We simply don't acknowledge anything out of our own experience.  We get a lot of mediocrity out of this.  Businesses who operate this way are able to fool themselves and believe they're fooling everyone else by consciously doing bad business because it suits their short-term goals and makes the ludicrous management culture a reasonable amount of money.  People who operate this way wear blinders that tell them no matter what they do, they can always apologize rather than do things right the first time.  Bump into someone?  Apologize, because it's a lot easier to do that than pay attention in the first place.

And god forbid you actually try to raise your kids.  It's the vacuum effect.  The more clutter there is, the more everyone seems willing to give up their responsibilities.  It's no longer about broken homes.  It's about parents not being the slightest bit interested in being parents.  They treat their children like a disenfranchised employee views their job, like a chore.  They don't seem to grasp that they're supposed to be guiding their children into an understanding of how the world is supposed to work.  Instead, they let their kids wallow in the way the world works.  Let them figure it out themselves.  Let them be messy and obnoxious and thoughtless.

Personally, I think about poetry, too.  The last time anyone really cared about poetry was the Beat Generation.  This was more or less the same time as the space race and the hippy revolution, the idea that counterculture solves all problems.  Yet we've discovered that the more we rebel against basic social structures the worse we all become, the more mediocre our lives become even as we convince ourselves that things are generally getting better.  In some ways they are.  And in others, we allow automobiles to stagnate and for computers to become smaller but no more effective, just more social, so that a lot of people squawk about nothing much significant at all.

We don't believe in the big concepts anymore.  That's the real problem.  We deconstructed the big concepts of the past but replaced them only with small ones.  I think we've proven that this doesn't work.  We end up with an age of mediocrity.  We allow ourselves to wallow in our base instincts and increasingly don't seem to notice, because we're just not paying attention.  As long as we get what we believe is coming to us, we don't notice that everything around us decays.

This isn't about impatience or personal setbacks or disgust at what I see around me, but rather a desire for pettiness to go away, for people to perhaps think more critically, consider the wider implications of their actions and decisions, how they affect those around them, not in how they project their moods but how what they choose to do leaves nothing positive in their wake.

I don't always blog like this, but when I do I like to rant.


Andrew Leon said...

People always talk about how things are so much worse today than they were yesterday, and it certainly seems that way. However, when you look back over history, really look at it, you'll find that people have always been this way and today isn't really worse. People aren't worse. The problem, as I see it, is that we're not better. 5000 years to evolve ourselves into something better, but, yet, we still act in the same selfish, greedy ways we always have. That's what I find sad.

PT Dilloway, Superhero Author said...

For the most part I agree with Andrew. If you think we're slobs now back in the 19th Century and earlier they just chucked their garbage in the streets.

That being said there are a lot of really annoying people these days. I mean the kind of people who can't pay attention at a stoplight for 2 minutes to wait for it to change because they're too busy dicking around on their iPhone.

Anyway, I do worry what kind of world my nieces will inherit. Especially since they're girls and nowadays girls all idolize stupid sluts like the Kardashians or all those other reality TV stars.

The whole world needs to just get off my lawn.

Tony Laplume said...

True. But what disappoints me is that instead of the big promise we had fifty years ago we've settled into our same old selves and don't seem to notice or care, and in some ways are backsliding, because that's what many of the things that define us today allow us to do.

Tony Laplume said...

PT, you sound grumpy. Like a bulldog...


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