Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Nearly Overwhelming Influence of Technology: only for dumbing-down or distraction?

edited 5/29/19
"Consumerism is Communism." -- Comment (circa 1960) made by a head of a Philadelphia area Chamber of Commerce president critical of the evaluations published in the magazine, Consumer Reports.[1]

Teaching Clever Folks to be Discreet. Outside the university, clever thinkers, purportedly so prized in academia, can often be tolerated only if the mouths controlled by them stay shut. This is called "discretion."

Why? Because, to begin, clever thinking may obstruct otherwise easy commercial transactions. On the still just legal side of that narrow boundary separating clever marketing from fraud, bigger profits are more easily extracted, in the short run, at least, from naïve, misinformed or confused customers. The 1960 "Consumerism is Communism" comment in the epigraph alludes to this.

But the concern that only commercial institutions fear criticism is somewhat dated. To examine a more recent rhetorical exercise on the theme that Big Business, hand-in-hand with Big Government, is crowding us all into "Communism," see How consumerism leads to "communism".

Clearly commerce is not the only area in which ignorance can be exploited. Clever folks have a habit of nosing around in various traditional realms. Our legal, religious, governmental and educational institutions all have their own dirty wash to hide. For example
a. Scientists persistently complain that much published research is sloppily done, or non-replicable, yet is still often celebrated as an important breakthrough. (See Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science.)

b. Government regulatory agencies fall down in policing misrepresentation in financial transactions; or in medical exaggerations. (See
Why is the SEC Ignoring Its Greatest Asset in the Fight Against Corporate Misconduct?

c. Clergy who would impose a strict morality beyond the boundaries of their own congregations, themselves protect their confreres who indulge the vices they condemn in their flocks. (See The Catholic Bishops Lobby Against Legislation to Protect Children )

d. Lawyers and judges have colluded, for example, in facilitating incarceration of children in private prisons for payments from the proprietors. (See Pennsylvania Judge Sentenced For 28 Years For Selling Kids to the Prison System )

e. Educators and school governors have absconded with or misused monies given them in the name of reform. (See De-Regulation and Charter School Swindles)

f. Casinos prefer unthinking customers. (Why else the free drinks?) Clever players, e.g. card-counters, are ostracized and expelled from the gaming establishments. (See Local casinos use countless methods to discourage card counters.

g. Most ominous is that some institutions attempt to squelch whistleblowers or critics by adopting policies or laws that criminalize those who would reveal illegal or unethical goings-on within them. (See Silencing Whistleblowers.)

To reiterate: clever folks are tolerated only if the mouths connected to them stay shut -- or are being viewed on the Comedy Channel. Statistically, events of the types listed above may be but a small proportion of the activities of the gigantic enterprises they are found in. Happily, they still cause shock and outrage, since they are unexpected, because they are considered egregious even though they relatively small in scope.

Individual scandals of the types listed are often not paid much prolonged attention likely due to their overwhelming frequency -- there's always something new -- but also because there is little immediate issue of wealth involved. But such small misadventures will occasionally -- or always, in the supermarket tabloids -- be exaggerated as to their seriousness, especially if they make good media attractions.

Better Access to More Distraction? Perhaps it is the emphasis in our expanding culture of technology as the primary, if not the sole, hope for the future that has disemboweled our educational systems of the wisdom gleaned from traditional sources of moral, legal and educational knowledge. Or, it may just be a matter of ease of access to more entertaining options by a public generally not too interested in those issues. (We'd probably win any bet that more people play video games on a daily basis than watch The Science Channel.)

To take an optimistic perspective, easier access to information, true, false or otherwise, that new technology affords, answers an apparently vast curiosity possessed by multitudes of people enjoying ever more leisure time to indulge it. But is this accessibility making for smarter, better informed and wiser people? Recalling the concern about "teaching" clever folks to be discreet, we might well wonder how much and by whom smarter, better informed and wiser people are wanted.

All of the items on the list above involve attempts to shift authority, the recognition of trustworthiness and truth-telling, from more traditional sources to newcomers who hope to enjoy substantial gains in wealth and influence.

If we read widely -- another waning habit? -- we run across even Ph.D.'s in "hard science" disciplines engaging in intellectually ham-handed debate. For example, there is no end of quibbling as to whether brain-research bears on the question as to whether "mind" and "spirit" are separate. Similarly with the notions of "natural" and "supernatural." The participants in such arguments seem to define themselves as opponents without even checking first to see whether they mean the same thing with such words as "natural," "mind," "spirit" or "separate." Even less often do they bother to say, if they could, what kind of evidence they can offer that supposedly addresses the questions

Masking Struggles for Authority? Or Snatching For the Collection Plate? A more recent, more subtle grab for recognition is the attempt by technically trained practitioners in various "hard science" disciplines to replace older traditions as definers and arbiters of broad philosophical and religious concerns. (See Pseudo-Science: the reasonable constraints of Empiricism)

Perhaps the disregard for long-established procedures of investigation and debate are not so much oversights or sloppiness as indicators of a much more attractive pursuit, that is the purloining, the usurpation, even, of authority. But this usurped authority, not about the search for discovery or truth, but more intensely in the competition for benefits more familiar, more widely valued in our pluralistic, commodity-focussed culture: wealth and influence.

Cordially, EGR

Footnotes or References

[1] I have been unable to retrieve my original citation and its stated source either from a faded, distant memory or from the Internet. However, there is much similar to be found online using the search phrase, "consumerism is communism." -- EGR