Some excellent points were raised by several people, both online and off, about my recent comments on technology's impact on our societal ability to trust and be trustworthy. So, some clarification:
Just because I blamed technology for the decline in one particular aspect of morality does not mean I am anti-technology. I am not a reactionary Luddite who thinks we would all be better off if we turned the clock back a few decades, or a few centuries, or a few eons. Obviously, technology is good for lots of things. We are fantastically more wealthy, live longer, endure less physical suffering, and have vastly more opportunities to learn and create, all for the sake of technology, and that's unambiguously a Good Thing. Yay, technology.
Just because pre-industrial societies valued trust and trustworthiness more than our current prevailing culture does, does not mean that I romanticize those cultures as paragons of virtue. A medieval peasant might well understand the importance of keeping a promise, but he probably also was an ignorant, bigoted, superstitious, chauvinistic oaf. We do not need to create a mythic "noble savage" in order to appreciate certain values of particular cultures, current and past.
Just because certain values have atrophied in our current culture does not mean thatÂ all values have atrophied. As I explicitly pointed out in my last post, our culture has developed greater regard for individual rights across a broader range of humanity. The moral and legal equality of the races and sexes is a welcome improvement in our culture. I think it's important to recognize that moral development is not an all-or-nothing proposition, and just because I critique certain aspects of the moral climate doesn't mean I think it's all bad. The converse also holds: just because we celebrate the triumphs of humanism doesn't mean we need to accept all new moral developments as unquestioningly good.
I think it's important to differentiate the effects of modernity (e.g. humanism, science, democracy, rule of law, etc.) from the effects of technology (automobiles, telephones, televisions, computers, internet, etc.). Both are forces that have arisen recently, and while they are interrelated they are not the same thing. One does not necessarily imply, or cause, or contribute to the other. I'm generally a big fan of modernity (though I think it has some blind spots). I am much more suspicious about technology, since technology often creates as many problems as it solves, and is capable of both creation and destruction.
For the last century, technology has changed so rapidly that our culture has not had time to react, especiallyÂ to fully digest the moral implications of what we are doing. We set of some atom bombs, andÂ only belatedlyÂ struggle with the prospect that we might destroy the planet before we get our shit together. We develop massive capacities for manufacturing and consumption . . .Â only later to find that we're using upÂ our resources at an alarming rate, especially the living ones. We build incredible networks of communication that can facilitate unprecedented knowledge and understanding . . . but then use them largely to rot our brains with depictions of sex and violence. We have the power of angels, and yet our judgement is not much better than any other animal. This is really what I was trying to get at in my last post -- we have barely begun to recognize the subtle and not-so-subtle effects of what technology has brought into the world. While I remain hopeful that our moral sensibilities will catch up with our power, I have plenty of evidence to suggest that the opposite is happening.
And since the comments were dominated by the topic, tomorrow I'll talk about sex.
First off, let me apologize for misspelling your name in my last post. I should know better. Were you to append an extra 'e' to my name, you'd end up with my wife's name. And that would be unforgivable.
You make many good points in this latest post. I do think you're diving into dangerous waters, though, by trying to disentangle the effects of modernity and technology. Assuming that this is more than a discussion of semantics, it's hard to imagine that modernity and technology are even marginally correlative. I think it's unfair (as well as a false dichotomy) to say that technology is simply "stuff" and that modernity is the realm of ideas. Technology has had a direct and immediate role in shaping much of the modern ideas you describe. By way of example, I'll restrict myself to the technology of photographs: the famous picture of the Earth from outer space helped inspire the modern environmental movement, and the picture of The Man in Tinnamen square helped plant the seed for a (more) open Chinese society. These moments are clearly MUCH bigger than technology, but they are also nothing without it. More generally, technology has given us the leisure and means to contemplate things like democracy, human rights, etc., and this is true both today and in 3rd century BC. You may be right in stating that "[modernity, technology] does not necessarily imply, or cause, or contribute to the other.", but I would say, one makes the other much more probable.
I agree there is much to be said about the pace of technology and our ability to evolve ethical attitudes with technological change, but maybe that should be left for a separate discussion.
I do want to return to your specific claim that 'trust' in our current culture is somehow on the wane, and that this is something worth lamenting. The concept of "trust" (IMHO) stands heel-to-heel with other vague and morally ambiguous terms such as "honor", "patriotism", "loyalty". Many horrors past and present have been committed and justified in the name of these over-glorified ideas. There are, of course, good kinds of trust, such as trusting that your neighbor will not poison your dog should you fail to keep it from barking. Then there is the trust that your neighbor will not turn you in to the police should he/she see you commit a hate-crime against another. This latter form of trust was endemic in the Jim Crow south and allowed many crimes to go unpunished; it is premised on a collective trust among a closed and like-minded group and is a significant factor among many oppressed groups around the world today. A little less trust might trigger a little more thought from would-be offenders, and perhaps raise an important question: "can I really trust that I'll get away with this?" I don't mean to overemphasize this point, because I do believe trust is needed for a healthy and well-functioning society. But I also think that it's possible that the amount of trust we've lost in this society (compared to generations and cultures past) has not been an unfortunate and unintended casualty of a progressive society, but instead has declined in the amount necessary to make way for new social and cultural mores.
In full disclosure, I should mention I recently finished two astonishingly similar books, one about a woman who escaped from the FLDS (polygamous cult in Arizona/Utah), and another a novel that realistically portrays the plight of women in Afghanistan over the last 30 years (by the same author who gave us Kite Runner). In these books, trust is something only the men enjoy, and it is used as a weapon in their sustained oppression of women. Short of everyone partaking and enjoying trust equally, perhaps it's worthwhile that everyone have a little less access to it.
Just to briefly disagree with the previous commenter, I think the attempt to substitute formal systems for personal trust is one of the worst diseases of our culture. Sure, trust shouldn't mean "I trust you to ignore it if I lynch black people" any more than it should mean "I trust you to ignore it if I [fill in your favorite crime here]" but the decline in racism and lynchings is not because we've all started trusting each other less.
In terms of modernity and technology, I guess it depends on whether "modernity" is meant to imply "everything that happens to be true now and didn't used to." The fact that we speak English instead of Latin probably doesn't have much to do with technology. (Silly example, I know, but I am making a point.) On the other hand, the breakdown of sexism and racism has, I believe, absolutely everything to do with technology, and if our technology back-pedaled, those two things would backpedal with it...in lock step...
I pause to try to get my metaphors back together...
Your closing line worked great. Looking forward to the post about sex, and hoping it has pictures!
I don't mean to flog this long deceased horse called 'trust', but I must address this idea that "substituting formal systems for personal trust is one of the worst diseases of our culture", for while a kind of agree with the idea as stated, I must disagree that I was in any way an advocate of this substitution. Quite the opposite! With a reduction of a social trust comes greater personal trust, as well as critical thinking, personal responsibility, etc. I am not attacking the idea of trust per se, just the reduction that "more trust is good", "less trust is bad" (you never really said this Georg, but you kind of alluded to it?)
I think there is such a thing as too much trust. Our constitution, with its checks and balances, rightly anticipates the need to have other people looking over each other's shoulders. This is true for relationships. Trust is essential, but too much trust? Leads to complacency and taking our partner for granted. And how much trust should we give our teenage son? (I have several years to go, but I'm guessing a modicum of distrust is in both our long-term interests.)
Referring back to changes in racial attitudes (and other backward cultural attitudes), I think trust and collusion go hand in hand. Of course distrust was not THE instrument in weakening racial and other prejudices, but it may have had a vital part. I just think it a real possibility that distrust may have played a direct role in shaping and securing many of the "progressive" attitudes we have today.