Atomized, in smithereens, we won der if our culture is becoming so, as mainstream churches, labor unions, political parties, handshake friendships, teller banking, are discarded in favor of virtualization. Like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, I went to Harvard, but didn’t quit midway to change the world.
Information zips outward faster than the ripples from a stone thrown in a pond. In fact, do people notice ponds, or tadpoles metamorphosing as they used to anymore? Instead, surmount a mountain range on Google Earth.
Gargantuan economies bump stomachs like Sumo wrestlers, as mite-sized, we watch. Masons, Knights of Columbus, Scout troops, garden or knitting clubs used to anchor a small town in a modest way, but are being sidelined by “friending” online acquaintances while listening to the shouting heads on cable TV. The so-called silos of like-mindedness that surround many of us are furthered, not perforated, by technology. We know which channels to turn to and what folks to hang out with, snapping the occasional selfie, smartphone in hand.
Maybe this velocity makes us live more consciously and therefore more fully. Yet is such multitasking fun? Polls indicate a downward slide in national optimism, toward a joyless democracy. Is home becoming just a website, and do any birds live there?
“Betting the farm” or “buying the farm” used to be commonplace figures of speech for risky behavior when people were still barnacled to a single location. Multiple marriages decrease your likelihood of knowing who is holding your hand on your deathbed.
Fireworks and Christmas trees have not yet flaked off from our round of annual customs, nor sharing a couple of beers, but we must keep childhood truly wondrous, and rituals of comradeship. Such requirements of our psyche need anchoring, having been imbued in us for survival in anthropological days, as we bonded together to hunt elands or bison or whatever and keep the bears out of our caves. Then civilization progressed to debasing bears by baiting them for entertainment, with bulldogs ripping at them, or forcing them to dance by burning their feet with iron rods while the tambourines shook. But now we’re so established in the driver’s seat we fret that these creatures may go extinct. We’ve conquered so many mountains, too, that it’s news when Everest takes a life.
We took over the planet until there was such a plethora of us that we’re worrying about too much salt water, as the seas rise, yet too little fresh. If it bleeds it leads, goes the old newspaperman’s adage, so we focus on bad quotidian news but not deteriorations under the skin; a cut we’ll look at, not systemic cancers. Addiction, ruthless violence, sneaky and front-and-center greed. We choke on plastics and congestion.
Knocking the mud out of one’s cleats, dribbling on the gravel driveway, or groping for a catfish hole under the bank of a brook was fun. “Thanks a million,” we used to say, in that era when Archie Bunker played Donald Trump. Divisive forces of resentment wound democracy itself, whereas permissiveness can be cohesive. Just as sunlight contains all colors, democracy congeals into a rainbow. Sunlight and democracy meld till thunderheads roll in, dust storms arise. More bandwidth in personality ensures the pep of chatter, though stooping toward denigration sometimes.
What’s needed is a flooring, ethical, spiritual, to prevent the citizenry from falling through. That church spire on the corner, the bolstering of a grange or union chapter—and Grandpa isn’t around to be consulted anymore nor regarded as germane. Democracy’s paradox is that populism so often effloresces into racism if encouraged to do so.
Majorities sway from Roosevelt to Reagan, as can be proper when tides turn, and it’s not Mussolini. I loved Grand Central Station as a kid for its seethe of humanity walking every which way, peaceful as an anthill but magnificently architectured, the policing minimal, every soul self-directed. A scene that seemed to personify the optimism of postwar, 1950s America, when we had forgiven our enemies and helped rebuild both their own and our allies’ economies. Prosperity proliferated, industry and trade, and booming populaces in newly freed nations.
Simultaneously medicine had donned seven-league boots to elongate life. What could be better? Longer, healthier lives on five continents. And remember how separate continents were? Exotic Asia, bewildering Africa, historic Europe, complicated South America. Rio, Bangkok, Nairobi, Beirut. Most people haven’t been there but the names have become familiar, and London like Jakarta is experiencing the climate’s change, foreshadowing the next decades’ exigencies perhaps much as 1916’s events did the twentieth century’s.
Virtualizing driving, banking, teaching, sightseeing, rambling, is a tectonic shift that shouldn’t be minimalized. People speak of “platforms,” everything situated as if for performance. Enclosed within our individual enthusiasms, a society of silos, as the argot puts it, we circle the wagons when horizons blur. Who wants new ideas when the current ones are still so novel? And few of us explore with gusto notions not already up our alley.
Blue state, red state, we seem content with this division, merchandise and dieting being alternative concerns. Cooking shows, Web assessments, a bucket list of destinations, once Florence is checked off. We’ve got a service economy, based on buying and selling domestically: the better mousetrap, the better hot dog. Cars that can outrace a cop car, the best ad blitz. We are a country brim full of spam, and “Man up!” we exclaim if somebody’s testosterone is not sufficiently displayed.
Speedways and concussive sports, pin up pageants and abrasive debates we go for. We’re not ashamed of having used atomic weapons, and not just one. Our exceptionalism has been an article of faith. In the “American Century” we could overthrow democracies in Iran, Chile, Congo, Guatemala, and support juntas in Greece or Brazil, while internally the American dream was easier said than done. Most of us try to do our best, however, smothering lawless impulses not simply to avoid jail time but to preserve our self-respect. Governance relies on convergence, a common criterion of law and order, and we sense this.
After the Puritans had been subsumed by waves of others, America became a global nation, perhaps the first one not imperial, like Rome or Great Britain, but within itself. Irish, Italians, Poles, Hispanics, Asians, and the descendants of freed slaves mingled to make us extraordinarily polyglot in a promising way. Now the world overall must accept an intertribalism more polylingual than ever before. Not only politically and culturally but meteorologically coherent. Indeed, our nation’s heterogeneity may even enable us to blend and synthesize, as a model, as we couldn’t in the past.
Edward Hoagland is the author of over 20 books and hundreds of essays. He lives in Edgartown.