Mark of the Beast
The signs were there all along ...
Richard DeGrandpre, Jan. 5, 2013
Look for the mark of the beast. Watch for an unfolding series of events: war and famine, disease and earthquakes, other heavenly signs. Beware the false prophet. When asteroids hit the Earth and the water turns to blood, the end times have come.
The signs were there all along but we were looking elsewhere. Rates of depression and schizophrenia were notably higher every generation since the Second World War. Researchers showed that the more immigrant populations gave up their traditional cultures and adopted western consumer culture, the more psychologically sick they became. And the more glossy images and ads girls saw, the more likely they were to be anorexic. We knew something was amiss. But even now, we don’t see straight.
The continual decline in our well-being reflected a plundering of the mental environment. That much was appreciated by some. But the decline in well-being was borne of something deeper – something so transparent it went unseen: economic progress had become unhinged from human progress, and as a result it had become part of the driving force in our own self-destruction.
As human gains were reduced to capital gains, wealth became a slow-acting poison. We were not all screwed in the same way, and not all were equally screwed up, but as is now clear, we were all screwed eventually.
But why did the system go unhinged? Was it just a bad run of history, or was it something built into our own human nature?
Was it, in other words, something in our brains?
It doesn’t help that the brain’s most useful quality turns out to be its most perilous: its utter adaptability. Busy re-ordering reality to serve ourselves, we failed to consider that, in creating a new human ecology, we would also create new human beings. Having not changed in 35,000 years, the brain remains remarkably equipped for adapting to almost any world. The problem arrived when we adapted to an evolving world that was not just abusive but downright contrary to our mental health.
From birth if not before, technological society delivered us an endless succession of mental insults, which began with its heavy diet of electrical brain stimulation – TV, video games, internet, movies, etc. Fewer kids played outside, they plugged-in inside, short-circuiting their social development. Then along came the millions of stories and images telling us what we should want and how we should feel. When we didn’t feel this way – because perpetual happiness is a myth hatched on Madison Avenue – we were told over and over again that if we only buy this car or that TV we would feel better. When this still didn’t work, the medical-pharmaceutical industry showed up, ready to battle our minds with chronic drugs.
So harried were we that we never stopped to wonder what we were becoming. The technology of spoken language thousands of years ago was useful and powerful, creating myth and greatly accelerating culture. The first technologies of media that followed were even more powerful, transforming the mind with their transporting narratives. Then came scientific knowledge, which extracted humanity from nature and melded us to the machine. How these external changes remade us across the centuries had hardly ever been considered.
Part of the problem is that we had so little collective intelligence. Technological progress, control of nature and societal complexity are all signs of human intelligence, but they are not inherent goods. Human brain power allows people to learn vast amounts and pass that knowledge on to the next generation, but time and again, this has led to worlds crashing down. Simply put, intelligence does not by itself solve the problem of what we should do with it, and for a simple reason: individual intelligence and collective, societal intelligence are two very different things. Failing to realize this, the successive achievements of individuals and groups have always culminated in a collective blindness. This is the individual bias of the human brain: we are egocentric beings, working from the bottom up instead of the top down. Enlightened, individual self-interest does not serve anyone in the end because it fails to take us beyond the individual, to put collective self-interest in its place.
Related to this is a another bias of the brain: short temporal horizons. In making decisions and choices, the brain is motivated toward short-term payoffs, discounting their long-term cost. Before the crash, you might have thought you were serving a grand, democratic master plan. In fact, you were really acting out the tiny, self-serving choices of your own local life, adapted to fit within the system. When cultural evolution was slow, collective intelligence was greater, although it hardly mattered. As it began to leap forward, however, the human tendency to build complexity bit by bit began to wreak havoc, from famine and wars to traffic jams and pollution to first and third worlds. All signs of the apocalypse. Automation, jet planes, microcomputers, biotechnology and global markets are all unintended outcomes of earlier technologies. They are not the product of socially agreed-upon end points. Nobody ever voted for nuclear bombs, yet suddenly people found they had to live with them. And here is something most surprising: one hardly ever plans a project that has no defined end; yet the human cultural project, lacking a collective intelligence, has repeatedly unfolded with this exact feature at its core. No worries, we told ourselves, as history repeated itself.