Three Problems of Modern Life

Public life is beset by three problems. Each is an extreme expression of a fundamentally human trait, exacerbated and amplified by some aspect of modernity.

  1. Anonymous Atomization. It is a normal aspect of the human condition that we struggle to really take others into account as anything more than actors in our own dramas. Our modern society has amplified this to the extent that we have, each on an individual level, lost most of our sense of connection with others. We live in separate bubbles and the more our lives become driven by free choice, the less we see other people as “real.”
  2. The Promethean Impulse. We want definitive answers and certain results, and we have built system upon system to make us more efficient. We live in a world of interlocking institutional mechanisms. The desire for assurance is natural. The myth of Prometheus is about humans’ yearning for technical power. Today’s scale has made this the only sort of knowledge. This has squeezed out our fundamental human abilities to manipulate our environment through small-group, collective behavior. When faced with a problem, our first thought is to search for an institutional or organizational response. This creates a bias toward ever more mechanistic responses.
  3. Hyper-tribal-polarization. Humans naturally form groups and identify with them. Our most fundamental evolutionary piece of learning is that survival is collective and therefore our membership in a group is our one of our chief imperatives. This group identification is a double edged sword, and can create conflict between groups where they compete for some perceived or actual power or resource. Yet if survival is collective, then problems are best solved with others. In today’s environment, first two problems above have intertwined to create a hyperpolarized world of conflict in which our group identification is so strong, and our denial of out-group people’s humanity is also so strong — that we hate, and we even proclaim it as a mark of our allegiance. We hate to the extent that we cannot solve collective problems, we cannot interact individually with members of other groups, and indeed we ostracize those in our group who dare to behave moderately.

Are these the only three problems? No. But they are ones I have been thinking about the most over my career.

The good news is that the remedy in each case is within each individual person’s control. All by myself, without needing outside help, I can try to see other people as human beings, look to my immediate companions for problem-solving, and behave in more loving ways to my so-perceived enemies in other groups.

prometheus-1930-2017-ss-4.jpg
José Clemente Orozco, Prometheus, 1930, Fresco, Pomona College, Claremont, CA.

Published by

Brad Rourke

Executive editor of issue guides and program officer at the Kettering Foundation.

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