The Reasons for the Unexpected Difficulties of Modern Life

by Nancy Owlglass

"[T]he human race is beginning confusedly to understand at last that it is living in a new and unfamiliar universe. The new order was meant to be a buffer between man and nature. Unfortunately, it has evolved autonomously in such a way that man has lost all contact with his natural framework and has to do only with the organized technical intermediary which sustains relations both with the world of life and with the world of brute matter. Enclosed within his artificial creation, man finds that there is 'no exit'; that he cannot pierce the shell of technology to find again the ancient milieu to which he was adapted for hundreds of thousands of years."

- Jacques Ellul

To Whom it May Concern:
I apologize for the title. It's more formal than I really intend to be. I think I've come up with a pretty good explanation for why so many people seem to be so unhappy, dysfunctional and degraded while all around them society succeeds in so many incredible and novel things; the title is my summary.

I've got about half-a-dozen notebooks that I've been carrying around with me to hold my scribblings as I work on translating my ideas into something presentable. One of the notebooks is currently being held as evidence in People v. Owlglass (and has already been used by the prosecution as evidence of the defendant's "disordered thought processes"). The notebooks are mostly filled with attempts to find new angles to tell this story.

I've tried my hand at everything from science fiction to mythic poetry, with plenty of ordinary, sober, well-footnoted essays taking up much of the space inbetween. I've settled on something more like a personal letter to you - it seems like a natural format for trying to share an idea.

An explanation for why so many people seem so unhappy while all around them society succeeds in so many lofty tasks

Our Culture's Myth

Every culture has a myth explaining who they are and how they came to be doing whatever it is that they do. Our world is changing faster than our myth is, and I'm hoping to help us keep up by reviewing and revising our myth. Our culture's myth has a part that goes something like this:

As long as there have been people, we have tried to come up with new and better ways of doing things. Over time, we acquired new knowledge and skills and technology that gave each new generation benefits that its predecessors could only dream of. Of course, there have been a lot of missteps and dead-ends along the way, due to flaws in the human make-up, such as our superstitious, selfish nature. Sometimes these missteps erupt into bizarre and ornate cultural displays - sometimes terrible, sometimes just baffling. We still engage in barbaric wars and the ruthless pursuit of wealth and power, but at some level we really know better, and over time we're improving. Just as today people live free from the fear of smallpox and the plague, some day (if we're lucky) we'll stabilize our population growth, solve group conflicts peacefully, and lose some of that back-breaking labor. We're getting better all the time.

Okay - more or less that's how it goes. And, with maybe a change here or an addition there, you'd probably agree that it matches up pretty well with common sense. I think that it's fundamentally wrong.

Like myths of a flat earth, a cartesian universe, the distinct natures of matter and energy, and a god-created set of species, this myth fit well what we knew about the world at some point in the past, but it is an inadequate explanation for the facts of the world as we know it today. I think that like those myths, it is wrong on a fundamental level.

Although my reformulated myth may also be vulnerable to fundamental inaccuracy and be in need of revisions, I think that it tells us more about where we're at and where we're going, and allows us to frame our questions in a more well-informed context.

I've got a hard sell to make here. The standard myth is incorporated inferentially in so many of our other myths and metaphors that its assumptions are easily visualized and portrayed in shorthand. For instance, when I summarized our myth earlier, I spontaneously used words like "misstep" and "dead-end" - and without explicitly comparing human history to a journey with a destination, I used metaphors that reinforced that idea.

For my own "new and improved" myth, since at many points it directly contradicts common sense (another name for our cultural myth), I have to be more deliberate and careful.

Our culture's myth is an inadequate explanation for the facts of the world as we know it today

A New Myth

In my myth, cultural and technological progress has been accompanied by an erosion of the happiness, dignity, and standard of living of the typical human being. In my myth, there is a reason why we have "conquered" smallpox (we haven't, really) and aren't conquering hunger and war. In my myth, the human species is undergoing an unprecedented and frightening transition the nature of which has rarely even been hinted at before.

So this may take a while. To start: Any new myth must explain why we live so differently today from the way people lived 100 years ago, and why they lived so differently from people 1000 years before that, and so on.

According to the standard myth, this change is explained by the fact that humans are propelled by cleverness, imagination and unfulfilled desires to change their environments and their habits, and that the most well-received of these changes survive and are passed on from generation to generation, being improved along the way - each generation building on the accomplishments of the generation before it, and being the beneficiary of the accumulated improvements of the ancestors.

For instance (says the myth) for a long time people couldn't get to somewhere 100 miles distant without taking a few days out of their busy schedules and putting in a lot of effort; today, thanks to the automobile, it's a comfortable two-hour ride. Now a huge number of people own cars, and a long-unfulfilled human need has been met.

But in fact most car trips are taken today not to fulfill some deep longing to be 100 miles away two hours from now, but because those of us in automotive societies have so little time in which so many tasks are demanded of us over such a great geographical area that it would be impossible to accomplish them without something like the automobile.

The actual mechanism by which this technology has become so pervasive is not by meeting an ancient need so much as by helping to create the needs which necessitate it.

Many people spend over an hour commuting to-and-from work. Many people live in cities where the atmosphere is so thick with accumulated exhaust fumes that they cannot see through the sky and their lives are shortened by smog-related health problems. Many people do not own cars, but live around modern cities that were shaped by the automobile and must live their lives in a civilization that expects people to reach highway speeds.

About fifty thousand people are killed in auto accidents each year in the U.S. alone. Eliminating cars would be the lifesaving equivalent of finding a surefire cure for breast cancer.

If, as our myth would have us guess, we clever humans built the automobile to meet our needs more effectively, I think we blew it. Offer someone in the 19th Century the total transformation in the life of a human being that the proliferation of the automobile has brought - giving the complete story, pros and cons - and I'd bet that person would turn down your offer.

The financial cost alone might discourage. It takes hundreds or thousands of dollars to buy even a cheap car, and then there are the accumulating costs of registration, repairs, insurance, tickets, fuel and routine maintenance. If money grew on trees, this would be one thing, but for most people, money translates to time performing labor that they would not be doing if they were not getting paid. When I owned a car (for shame - an S.U.V.!) I estimated my annual direct costs for its operation (not counting the substantial proportion of my taxes that supports the automobile infrastructure) were at least $2,000, probably more.

At my salary at the time, that was about 80 hours of doing stuff I wouldn't be doing if I didn't need to support my money habit (and those hours don't count the time I spent pumping gas, pacing at the mechanic's or waiting in line at the DMV). If I weren't so fortunate and had to work a minimum wage job, it'd be more like 400 hours.

So okay, Mr. & Mrs. Nineteenth-Century, I've got a deal for you: If you work an extra 80-400 hours a year, and don't mind spending a lot of time sitting alone concentrating on a task you've done time and time again, if don't care if the sky isn't blue most of the year or the air smells funny, if you just can't get enough of the æsthetic joy of asphalt, and if you don't mind sacrificing thousands of children and adults yearly in the process - Well, then: I can give you a deal whereby you can sleep in an extra 45 minutes on Sunday morning and still get to church on time, you can visit your brother in Des Moines more often, if you get sick you can get to the hospital more quickly and safely, you'll never have to muck around with horses again, and the oranges that were picked in Florida yesterday morning will be on your breakfast table tomorrow.

The automobile doesn't exist to serve an unmet need so much as because it was packaged along with the needs it meets

What do you say?

Did you ever go through this process? Do you know anyone who did? Can you think of a time in history where mankind pondered this question and said, "well, I've given it some thought and weighed the pros and cons and I think on the whole it's worth the sacrifice and risk to go forward with an automotive society." Never happened - nobody made the decision. We live in an automotive society because we live in an automotive society, and one of its properties is that it fortifies its position by creating conditions that necessitate and perpetuate it.

The Disowned Ugly Side of Progress

I didn't mean for this to become an anti-car rant. Under close examination, many other great examples of progress turn out to be the pretty side of a two-sided phenomenon, the ugly side of which more than compensates in its toll of dependence and harm for the benefits of the pretty side.

When we tell the story in the context of our culture's myth, we leave out the ugly side of the elements of progress. According to our myth, these elements are invented and chosen by people seeking to advance their condition and satisfy their wants; nobody would choose the ugly-side things, so they can't be explained by the myth (which is to say, the myth must ignore them or write them off as unexplanable).

If we had to do it over again...

I don't want to argue that everything we think of as progress has been bad, or even that all examples of progress have an inevitably worse dark side. I do believe, however, that cultural and technological progress in general is more harmful than helpful to individual people. Not just a few unfortunate victims - what I'm saying is that any randomly selected person is most likely to be worse off in the aftermath of any particular episode of cultural "progress" - that averaged out over all of humanity, any cultural or technological advance will decrease well-being, satisfaction and dignity.

I want to stress that this is not a pessimistic outlook based on my personal opinions about particular historical examples of progress. As I will explain, it is an inevitable result of how cultural evolution unfolds.

Those of us literate, wealthy (even if we may think of ourselves as just getting by), comfortable people reading this letter on the internet may have a hard time thinking that our culture has been an impoverishing one rather than an enriching one.

I think that it's very possible that the worldwide social impoverishment of modernity is something that the rich and poor alike suffer more than they know, but even if you're far from being able to entertain that possibility, you'd have to have your head in the sand not to know that the material prosperity of some of the people in this world is being paid for by terror and cruel slavery among many others.

Judging the Quality of Life

If I'm going to talk about how people feel and how their quality of life changes over time, I need a way to describe how people make qualitative judgements about their lives. A naïve approach, but one which may be useful is this: If our lives are full of pleasant things, we consider ourselves to be doing well; and if our lives are full of painful things, we consider ourselves to be suffering. The task then becomes to determine how to classify something as pleasurable or painful, and to decide whether a given process that shapes culture is more likely to produce effects that, on the whole, are pleasurable or are painful.

On the most fundamental level, people suffer or frolic in response to sensations and emotions conveyed and processed by a nervous system belonging to an organism that was designed by natural selection, a process that (by and large) rewards organisms which engage in behavior that helps them survive and reproduce. So it should be no surprise that such things (eating, winning, falling in love) are encouraged by feeling good, while things that have the opposite effect (malnutrition, third-degree burns, public humiliation) feel rotten.

There are exceptions to the rule - some because even the patient and extremely creative process of natural selection is doomed to never reach perfection, others because a competing organism or predator has learned to masquerade and manipulate our preferences to its own advantages. Many examples of exceptions, perhaps most, come in the form of changes in the environment - things that weren't on the scene while we were evolving, and so our preferences in regard to them were not shaped to coincide with the interests of our reproductive success.

Heroin, for example, may feel great, but it may also cut your reproductive success down to zero in a hurry. And being immunized isn't a particularly pleasurable or fulfilling process, but it's great for you.

How can we decide what changes are helpful and what changes are harmful?

In a fairly stable environment, members of a species like ours are pretty well off just following their instincts - in other words, do what feels like the best course of action, it's probably good for you (or, if not, maybe it'll get you laid). Evolution is constantly kicking out creatures designed to do best by doing what they feel most inclined to do.

In a changing environment, however, what was once an adaptive tendency or inclination can become maladaptive. The right thing to do to save your skin can be a painful and nonintuitive thing, and on the other hand, things that feel perfectly wonderful and wholesome can kill or maim you.

A species that wants its members to feel most happy, satisfied, at home, etc. will have a reason to defend the environmental status quo - or more accurately, to be biased towards a blending of the environments in which the preferences of the species have evolved.

Our species has spent incredible effort in an attempt to completely redesign our environment into one that in strikingly many ways is different from that in which our species evolved. We've become so fucked up in the process that not only do lots of us fight and kill each other like rats in a crowded cage, but some of us even kill ourselves, and lots of us are miserable or are living lives without the dignity a penguin would take for granted.

The question: Why?

The standard-myth answer is that our species has learned ways to maximize our pleasure far beyond the capabilities of our natural environment. We like the safety and security of the campfire - now we have electric light. We hate the pain of injury - now we have aspirin and morphine. We enjoy boinking like Bonobos on ecstasy - now we have birth control and antibiotics. The "dark-side" of this is nothing but unforseen and unfortunate side-effects - essentially, bugs we're still working on.

Our species has remodeled our environment, and this has made many of us dissatisfied

The Answer is Memes

My answer - memes. If you aren't already familiar with the emerging science of memetics, I'd encourage you to take a look at the collection of papers Dave Gross has put together on-line, or to read Richard Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene. Familiarize yourself with the concept - it's essential to understanding my argument, and to understanding the world we live in.

Memes continually mutate and emerge. Some survive, others are forgotten and lost. Those that are good at surviving tend to; those that aren't so good at surviving dwindle and vanish.

Memes that serve our genes, which is to say "memes that when posessed and transmitted tend to increase the reproductive success of the host organism," have an obvious edge (the infected host sticks around to do more infecting). And because of the linkage between things that increase our reproductive success and things that make us happy, that's good for us. But memes that serve themselves first and us second (or not at all) will always win out in the final count.

So the ideas that survive the test of time tend to have some ratio of how much service they give us to how much service they give themselves. But when I say "they give" I'm disguising the fact that we're doing all the work - a meme is just an abstraction that is empowered through enaction by a human being, the way a virus is dead matter until it has a cell to hijack.

It would be more accurate to say that memes tend to have some ratio of how much they direct our energy into action that benefits ourselves (because this indirectly serves the meme), to how much of our energy they use purely on themselves to aid in their reproduction and survival.

Part of what memes do to serve themselves is to alter our environment in ways that lead to the memes' survival and reproduction. They may mimic things that trigger emotional or other aversion/pleasure responses in us, for instance. They will frequently adapt to alter their environment (which to a large extent is human culture) in such a way that it becomes dependent on them or necessitates them.

Each meme produces action of some sort, if only replicative action. And at least some of that action will be beneficial to the meme but wasteful or even harmful to the host. Yet the host is the only one expending energy on the process, and the only one capable of making a good/bad, pleasurable/painful judgment of the process.

It would clearly be to the advantage of the host in this circumstance to dislodge all of the memes that are wasting its time and energy, and devote itself to the hedonistic pursuit of those behaviors that are personally advantageous.

Unfortunately, the memes have changed our environments so much that their effects, even the terribly unpleasant "side-effects" or dark-side effects, have become necessary for our survival, livelihood, and mating success. So in one fell swoop, or maybe a couple of swell foops, the process of living has become more unpleasant, and memes have made themselves indispensable parasites.

One of the keys to their success has been to increase the reproductive success of us, their hosts. The increase in population density, and the pressure for migration, warfare and trade that results, has been instrumental to the success of memes in the recent history of humanity.

But this apparant symbiosis should not be misinterpreted as evidence of the benevolence of memetic parasites. They increase our reproductive success by providing artificial encouragement to engage in unpleasant behavior that has become beneficial to reproductive success only because of the meme-induced changes in our environment - changes that have made Eden into a minefield, and memes the only map.

Memetic parasitism may explain why our species has been acting so strangely over the past 10,000 years.

Exceptions to the Rule

Okay; now I want to back up a bit and expand on a couple of things I said earlier. I want to introduce the idea of a superorganism that is in the process of assimilating humanity (a pretty out-there sci-fi concept on its face), but first I want to expand on the "by and large" I inserted parenthetically in my earlier statement that

On the most fundamental level, human beings suffer or frolic in response to sensations and emotions conveyed and processed by a nervous system belonging to an organism that was designed by natural selection, a process that (by and large) rewards organisms that engage in behavior that helps them survive and reproduce.

There are a few exceptions to the general rule that natural selection rewards organisms for engaging in behavior that aids in their survival and reproduction.

If a monkey is blissfully swinging on a branch and it breaks and the monkey crashes to the forest floor, breaking its back, and it's eaten by a lucky tiger; the monkey was being rewarded for branch-swinging behavior that ended up killing it. Okay, so natural selection isn't perfect. It can't predict and adjust for every rotten branch. It works with probabilities and averages and plays the cost/benefit game as best it can.

There are also cases where an organism will give assistance to mate, kin, and offspring, at risk to its own hide. This is all behavior that is understandable using the premise that natural selection is operating on the genes that promote such behavior, and those genes are quite likely to exist in the close relatives and offspring of an individual who has the gene. A somewhat risky sacrifice that is very beneficial to such a relative will help the gene survive and reproduce, and therefore natural selection may encourage such behavior.

Reciprocal altruism is another exception that's attracting attention. Seemingly selfless acts of sacrifice that benefit one's fellows are compensated for by a relationship in which one's fellows will return the favor and offset the sacrifice.

Another important exception, and one which is most relevant here, is that of the hive insects. A bee, for instance, will sting a threat to the hive, killing itself in the process. How could such a clearly self-destructive impulse have evolved, when a gene which discouraged such self-sacrifice would enable its host-organisms to survive longer?

The answer has to do with the structure of the hive: a single insect that does the reproducing, and a bevy of closely-related insects keeping the reproductive "queen" protected and well-fed. The self-sacrificing bee can only reproduce its genes through the agency of its reproductively-inclined sister, the queen, and so protecting the queen is worth the sacrifice of a pawn or two, even from the perspective of the pawn itself. From the viewpoint of natural selection, the hive itself is an organism, and the individual insects its cells or organs.

What I'm going to suggest is that for some memes anyway, to the extent that a human being is devoting energy to that meme's life and reproduction, the person becomes a potentially expendable cell or organ in that meme's organism. Some of these memetic hives run into the millions of human cells.

It is in the interest of a successful meme to protect the healthy cells that make up its "body," but, just as our body is willing to sacrifice cells to perform important tasks like defense and reproduction, and just as the hive is willing to sacrifice individual insects, so are memetic bodies willing to martyr their human cells for the good of the cause.

Examples of memetic hives and sacrificial insects should be springing into your head - I'd mention some likely candidates, but that would risk stirring up a hornet's nest.

The hive model is one in which individuals are sacrificed to the reproductive success of the replicating entity

The Puzzle of Human Identity

But what is a person, anyway? Who are you? We aren't just the animal formed by natural selection warping this branch of primates. We are also a creature formed by memetic evolution. We define our selves partially by those memes we've grown attached to (or the ones that have attached to us).

So the person we feel we are and owe our loyalty to is (and I would add: "and is becoming more so day by day") partially at least a being created by memetic, not just genetic, replicators. Some believe that the important part of a person is the "soul" or "ego" or "consciousness" - things that arguably are almost entirely memetic in nature.

What does it mean that our identity is partially (or even largely) shaped by a replicator system that does not have the same interests as the replicators that created and shaped our pleasure/pain instincts, and that seems to reproduce well in the hive model in which one source disseminates and many cells serve and defend?

It means that we will have motives that our ancestors weren't plagued with to do unpleasant and harmful things. Things that we do not out of self-interest or altruism, but in order to help a parasitic meme propagate.

Is there a way out of this trap? Well, honestly, things start getting a lot less clear for me at this point. I'd like to think the Buddhists were on to something with their denial of the reality or importance of the ego/soul and their skepticism towards words and symbols. On the other hand, there's no meme-hive quite so stunningly illustrative as, say, a Zen monastery.

The perennial "back to the garden" movements also seem appealing at first, but it may be too late to disinfect the planet of its memes and memetic infrastructure without taking us with it.

There's a problem with confronting these ideas and then formulating an answer like "just be natural." As appealing as it sounds, it was good advice only when we were still in Eden; after the fall it was no longer useful. Part of being natural, for reasons I can go into at another time, is to want to play with memes.

We think of ourselves as hybrid genetic/memetic organisms

We must somehow learn to play safely - to play with memes without letting them attach to us, or letting us (as it would be more conventionally put) get attached to them. I don't have a very sophisticated understanding of "non-attachment" in the Buddhist sense, but I sometimes imagine it in this way.

If this attitude becomes a doctrine rather than a skill, it is self-defeating. Buddhism at its best isn't designed to make people into Buddhists but into buddhas.

The solution includes turning every action into a spontaneously chosen one, and not surrendering to the direction of a script - either one designed by the vicissitudes of individual psychology or by selective pressure acting on social rôles and mores.

Whether such infection can be countered by exposure to intensive care in the form of an anti-spontaneous, ritual-centered, dogma-infused tradition like Buddhism is quite a riddle. While many Buddhists would complain that this is an invalid description of Buddhism, even the renegade Zen heroes were operating within a heavily-scripted tradition.

A form of weaning, perhaps, is necessary, or an inoculation with a relatively benign and protective memetic hive that shelters the practitioner as s/he tries to cast off even Buddhism - as the saying goes: if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him! (Or so I've been infected.)

An absolute war of extermination on meme hives such as churches, mass media and governments may be an unavoidable step as well, if our species does not relish a hive-model future.

The only alternative would be to somehow embrace the collective hive as the next evolutionary step of our species and our planet. Abandon the outdated individualist models and merge your ego with the meme queen. This could be advocated, but it'll have to wait for someone with a stronger stomach than my own.

How can we avoid a future as slaves to a memetic hive?

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