Sunday, April 27, 2008

Everything's the middle and the edge

Eventually it should be possible to link-hop and stumble your way into every website that is not password-protected. With sufficient skills or clearances, you could enter those as well. But it does not happen automatically, any more than you sense the connection of all life automatically.

Or do you?

Some people seem to have at least a moment of reflection when faced with another life form, however small or alien. Really creepy life forms might elicit less of this response, but the plethora of anthropomorphized animated characters demonstrates our tendency to project our feelings onto anything we remotely believe might be capable of sharing them. We're looking for company. This is true even if we ourselves aren't very good company.

Paradoxically, people tend to live within their own perceptions even as they look for connections to the wider world. Some people are frankly xenophobic and clear about the limits they place on the company they wish to keep. Others acknowledge it less, either because they do not realize it about themselves or because they realize the value of concealing it. Act nice and people tend to be nicer to you. Later on, if you have to screw them over, it will be easier if they trusted you.

As we seek to improve our own nation in the coming election, how many people acknowledge that the only truly sustainable way to improve our lot is to recognize that it is connected to the fortunes of everyone else on this globe? As weapons proliferate and desperate philosophies masquerading as benevolent religions turn more readily to murder-suicide, how long can we choose short-term solutions favoring prosperity now at the cost of ever-larger paybacks later? The debt is more than monetary even now.

Oh, the economy's a mess. Can we borrow our way to greater spending and maybe kick the environment in the ribs a few more times and get away with it? Can we talk the owners of the world's oil into dropping the prices a tad, slap a few adhesive bandages on the irreconcilable differences of the so-called Holy Land and eke out a year, two years, four years, a decade, of easy living for the shrinking, beleaguered middle class of a handful of industrialized nations? Can we make do-nothing health insurance available to all citizens, call it "health care" and walk away dusting our hands in satisfaction at a job well done?

No one's really proposing major improvements to the Executive Branch except in the area of IQ and vocabulary. Anything would be better than what we've had, but the bar is set very low. Is driving at an angle toward a cliff that much better than driving straight at it?

We debate issues in the context of an election, where one side wins and the other loses, instead of carrying on a constant, substantive conversation about what we can improve and how we can improve it. It goes beyond the political, but it shows its face only in the political process, where we resort to snappy put-downs instead of seeking solutions. Schools of thought get divided between two camps instead of attended by interested minds. Intellectual territory belongs to one group or another when it should be public domain, like a library or a park. I don't mean that intellectual property should not be protected for its creator or discoverer to be compensated for the effort that went into the creation or discovery. I mean that in the realm of social solutions, team pride needs to give way to a higher good.

When discussing the outcomes of various philosophical approaches we must be brutally honest about what they mean. No answer will be perfect. Total, unfettered freedom quickly leads to the end of freedom, as the free strong dominate the free weak. Equality of opportunity has never existed, but if it did it would still not guarantee fair results. Equal opportunity should lead to meritocracy, in which good qualities of intelligence, hard work and good character lead to the greatest success. And yet, with all societies ours to invent, we've never managed to bring about that one. And what happens to the middle and lower tiers in that society? Do they take their status like good sports, even if it means shorter lives with fewer amenities?

Just keeping babies alive and Africans from starving is not enough. What do they do next? What do we all do?

From a biological standpoint, most organisms just want to create more of their own kind. Then whatever happens happens. It's gotten us this far, but now humans seem to be able to make ever larger and more malignant things happen. Up to the middle of the 20th Century, our wars got bigger and bigger, the weapons got bigger and bigger and the strain we put on our planet and each other got bigger and bigger. In the latter half of that century we held off the humongous war that our humongous weapons would have made possible, but continued to dig bloody gashes in everything else. And it all started with the urge to make more of ourselves, in number and stature.

What now? How do we advance? What innovation will save us, short of the cooperative attitude that has eluded us up to now?

No comments: