Imagine for a moment that by next summer, through some miracle of capitalism, every product you purchase cost half as much as its price today. Every tire, every banana, every patio chair, every sheet of paper, the cost of all of it would be slashed. Now ponder these questions.
How would this happen?
Would you even notice?
Would you be better off?
How would such a change be reflected in our economic statistics?
Who would benefit the most, the least?
What sort of things might become relatively more expensive if the price of all our stuff collapsed?
This exercise is important because it reflects a reality we’ve overlooked. We are living through a collapse in the cost of nearly everything. That sounds like a wonderful improvement in human existence, and it is. However, it is producing some strange and sometimes counter-intuitive outcomes, starting with the fact that few of us even recognize it happened.
No transformation this powerful, no matter how good or beneficial, can occur without inspiring fear. Insecurities fueled by this revolution are triggering political earthquakes in both major parties. Our world has been turned upside down in the best possible way, but we are struggling to understand what happened and what it means. If we want this process to continue, and we should, then we will have to recognize its implications for our culture and our biology.
Most creatures evolve solely on a biological basis. We have conquered our planet by developing the means to evolve on three, loosely connected planes: biology, culture and technology. As a weak, slow, soft-bodied creature, our biology leaves us poorly adapted for life on Earth. Our capacity to develop sophisticated cultures and technologies has powered us ahead of the rest of the ecosystem.
Through culture we developed capitalism. As that cultural adaptation rapidly spread it has powered an explosion in technological innovation. Those innovations, and the disruptive replacements that they bring, are now coming so fast that they are tearing at our biological limits, creating ripples in our culture.
We are reaching a point at which our technical developments may be limited by our cultural and biological capacity to absorb them. Our pace of innovation is straining the adaptations that enabled them in the first place. Our biology is being overwhelmed, both at a human level and on an ecological scale. We are in desperate need of political adaptations that can ease the pressure on our brittle minds and our strained ecology, allowing this remarkable pace of advancement to continue.
Two things can happen from here. We could experience a de-escalation of our evolutionary pace in the form of a widespread political or ecological failure. Or we could develop a cultural/political adaptation enabling us to continue, or even further accelerate, our technological advance.
The Politics of Crazy is an attempt, through a collection of short essays, to summarize this situation and describe possible remedies. Ideas described in the book are perhaps worth revisiting and refining. It might be helpful first to expand on the following evolutionary question in the context of technological advance: Why don’t we recognize what has happened to us?
More specifically, why do we find it so difficult to recognize how much life has improved over such a short timespan? And how do those limitations impose obstacles to cultural or political adaptation?
Certain evolutionary realities limit our ability to operate in a radically dynamic environment. We do not naturally recognize macro phenomenon. We experience weather. We do not experience climate. We experience our work, our earnings, and our day to day purchases. We do not experience an economy. We experience interactions with family, friends, and a local community. We do not experience politics. We remember family stories and myths. We have no innate consciousness of history.
Most importantly, we do not natively compare the past to the present, especially a past that extends back prior to our own individual adulthoods. Our commonsense experience of the world is a kind of snow globe, isolated from any natural awareness of the wider forces that shape our existence.
Our minds evolved across hundreds of thousands of years to comprehend and communicate reality in terms of symbols, archetypes, and myths. Our minds possess an astonishing capacity to process symbolic information and yet a relatively trivial natural capacity for math. In a fraction of a second a human brain can identify which food will taste best or which face is most friendly, a task that computers still struggle to master. No human alive can perform math at the speed of an obsolete Blackberry smart phone.
Literacy is a brand-new cultural adaptation for which our biology has not yet adapted. Humans have experienced a near-universal capacity for reading and writing for about four-five generations, depending on region. No similarly broad mathematical literacy has developed in humans and thanks to the rapid evolution of our machines it probably never will. We thrive on symbols and while struggling to leverage empirical tools. We are biologically evolved to perceive reality through myth and magic.
Education can empower us to leverage an adaption delivered from one of our greatest cultural innovations: science. Even when we gain the capability to use critical thinking skills and empirical knowledge to analyze the world around us, our minds tend to rebel against the exercise. What we learn through critical exercises is almost permanently at war with what we innately “know,” creating a hum of constant tension sometimes described as “cognitive dissonance.”
Commonsense is an excellent guide to day to day matters in a world of slow, incremental change. Our heads evolved in slower world. For hundreds of thousands of years, changes on a large scale occurred either very slowly over the course of many lifetimes, or in highly infrequent, catastrophic bursts. Major, noticeable changes happened perhaps once in a lifetime wrought by political violence or natural disasters.
Relying only on our natural senses, we do not cope well with a world in which Blockbuster Video or Lycos or Borders Bookstores can travel from birth, to ubiquity, to collapse in a couple of decades. Our minds cannot innately comprehend a reality in which our daily choice of motor fuels can influence global climate. A world in which jobs, marriages, community ties and every other aspect of our existence and identity is transient performs a kind of slow torture on our brains.
Sustained exposure to high levels of stress creates serious physical issues. Those problems are reflected in health statistics. More Americans die every year from drug overdoses than from car accidents. Most of those overdoses involve prescription medications. We use anti-depressant medications on such an intensive scale that their residue shows up in measurable amounts in river fish.
There is a temptation to dismiss the crowds flocking to see Donald Trump as merely racist or dumb. This is too simple a response. First of all, exactly the same forces of fear and insecurity are driving crowds of ‘educated’ voters to Sanders’ rallies. Trump may be attracting a pool of low-prestige voters, but that shouldn’t distract us from the signal being sent by our environment. Like our rising sea levels, they are marking a form of evolutionary pressure, a pressure we will regret ignoring.
Those who recognize the massive human value in our technological advance must recognize an additional reality. To support this transformation over the long term we must work to adapt our culture in ways that are sensitive to our biological limits. There is only so much dynamism our heads can tolerate. A century and a half ago we began to evolve a social welfare system to make the relatively rapid disruption and dislocation of capitalism supportable. As we race toward a kind of technological singularity, we need a similar political adaptation for our age.
That adaptation is coming, one way or another. We could get political leaders in the mold of Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump, who slam on the brakes of economic and technological progress, triggering the same class of catastrophe wrought by any other sudden halt. Or we will develop something smarter, something that will enable us to not only endure, but to thrive in a far more dynamic world.
How do we embrace these advances in a way that our biology can tolerate?