Idiocracy and the Inhumanity of Incentivized Incompetency
Hello and happy Tuesday! I hope you had a great labor day. Now, let’s get to the stuff.
ONE FROM THE AGES
16th-century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne on the importance of play:
“For truly it is to be noted that children’s plays are not sports and should be deemed as their most serious actions.”
ONE FROM TODAY
Political philosopher, writer, and motorcycle mechanic, Matthew Crawford challenging the ideology of safety:
“Safety is obviously very important. But it is also a principle that, absent countervailing considerations, admits no limits to its expanding dominion. It tends to swallow everything before it.... one must venture beyond the mental universe of risk reduction…. That universe takes its bearing from the least competent among us. This is an egalitarian principle that is entirely fitting in many settings, a touchstone of humane society that we rightly take pride in…. But if left unchallenged, the pursuit of risk reduction tends to create a society based on an unrealistically low view of human capacities. Infantilization slips in, under cover of democratic ideals. I will insist on the contrary, that democracy remains viable only if we are willing to extend to one another a presumption of individual competence. This is what social trust is built on. Together they are the minimal endowments for a free, responsible, fully awake people.”
ONE FROM US
In the 2007 comedy, Idiocracy, Joe Bauers is selected for a one-year hibernation experiment after a battery of tests indicates that he is the most average person in the entire armed forces. But soon after Bauers is cryogenically frozen, the officer in charge of the experiment is arrested and Bauers is forgotten. He remains frozen until 2505 when the collapse of a gigantic garbage pile awakens him to a world he hardly recognizes. People named after corporate brands spend most of their days in plastic homes, seated on chairs that have toilets attached to them, watching television programs that would make Beavis and Butthead look refined. Bauers assumes that he must be experiencing hallucinogenic effects from the hibernation experiment so he checks into a hospital. This eventually leads him to take a 2505-style IQ test, which reveals that the once-average Joe is now, by far, the smartest person alive.
Similarly, the 2008 Disney and Pixar film Wall-E features a robot garbage compactor of the imagined future. Wall-E patrols the now-toxic earth centuries after humans have been evacuated by Buy-N-Large, the corporate giant who came to own everything. Wall-E eventually finds his way onto a starliner where we see the devolved, morbidly obese human population of the 29th century. People are conveyed across the spaceship on loungers. Screens hover in their faces, prompting them to consume, as robots zoom around to meet their every need.
Fun as these films are, they convey something about the trajectory of civilization that we’ve all felt. Humanity in mass is growing less capable of an increasing number of basic human skills - from navigating, to running and climbing, to building shelter, to adding numbers in our head, to dealing with boredom or pain. Technological progress is creating a level of convenience, security, and distraction that seems to be making us less human. And if this lack of development makes us less human, the indication is that some level of skill-honing is fundamental to our humanity. Without something pulling us to development, we become a lesser version of ourselves - less capable, less activated, and less likely to engage in the transformative experiences that might change us. Even more, we are less likely to be fulfilled.
Nietzsche said that happiness was the “feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome.” There is a vitality that comes from being totally immersed in a mission and seeing how our efforts can change our environment. This is especially evident in our kids.
Children are doggedly committed to building up their power and agency in the world. They want to manipulate their environment just to see that they can manipulate it. They want to make a fort and then climb on top of it. They want to take these toys from their organized baskets and hide them in small crevices or stockpile them in a new fort. They want to climb that bench, step onto the window-sill, and traverse across it as far as they can. Even after finding themselves stuck in a precarious position, yelling “Daddy!” in order to be saved from falling, they remain undeterred. Three minutes later they are back on their perch. Life is doing.
But I’ve watched these same amazing tinkerers, lost in their play, suddenly pulled in and entrapped by the glow of a screen. Saturday night my two kids spent an hour running back and forth between sections of their nugget tackling each other and laughing the entire time. My wife and I were enjoying the show while sipping a glass of wine when she decided to turn the TV on to stream some of our favorite live music. With the sound of the television’s click, playtime was over. Two kids now stood motionless under the TV, like the puppy from 101 Dalmations, engulfed in its aura.
The same happened last Wednesday when my wife and I took the kids out for ice cream at a new local spot. Sweets aren’t the norm in our house so going out for ice cream has always been a real treat. We ordered and got settled, but couldn’t avoid a TV playing The Incredibles. My chatty boy who would typically be dancing with euphoria as he ate was quiet and entranced - seemingly eating on autopilot. I kept asking him questions and putting my face in his field of vision, but he seemed oblivious to my words as he maneuvered to see around me. A fun family experience hijacked by an unnecessary screen.
I’m not Mama Boucher here to tell you that TV is the devil (after all, that is my fourth movie reference). I grew up watching the Sandlot and The Lion King and to this day I enjoy quoting Ron Burgandy and talking with friends about what happened on Game of Thrones or Homeland. Shared stories have always been a part of the human experience, there to convey values and bond communities - there to connect and ignite our imaginations. The issue isn’t these easily quarantined televisions but that these screens are now in our pocket and they are designed to learn from each of our unique choices so that they can prompt us to the next juicy morsel - the one our past behavior demonstrated to be too alluring to pass up. Without setting intentional boundaries there is very little chance of utilizing the amazing benefits of modern technology without falling prey to it.
Throughout history, the pursuit of competency has been essential to human survival and the survival of our communities. Civilizations had to develop a social apparatus that pulled people to a baseline level of competency or they would not last. Usefulness was a requirement of life and, consequently, humans developed a deep yearning to be useful. But advanced technology makes it possible for society to thrive even with a majority who never reach a baseline competency. People can now go their whole lives without being useful except as scrollers, eaters, and buyers. But this need not be the case.
When we talk about progress, we tend to think in terms of increasing technological capability. Progress is the development of technology like map apps and driverless cars that eliminate the need for human competency. This honors one or both of the chief values of modernity - safety and convenience - but runs contrary to the cause of human flourishing, as evidenced by like every metric of human wellbeing. We have to put human flourishing at the center of our notions of progress. This is far harder to quantify than income or economic output. It requires a culture that rallies around an honest pursuit of an approachable, yet unattainable truth - a culture devoted to developing the capacity to engage in a productive dialectic. In absence of this shared priority, society devolves.
The imagined future of Star Trek is far brighter than Idiocracy or Wall-E. Extreme technological progress frees people to pursue human growth. Culture drives people towards expanding their minds and personal capacities. This doesn’t seem outside the realm of possibility. History shows that our social species can be quite adept at creating mechanisms to pull people to overcome impulse.
Technological progress can work with our human needs. We now have access to an infinite number of avenues for development. Nearly any skill can be learned at a modest expense. The best thinkers are only fingertips away. We just need to re-orient our priorities around an understanding of human needs and to consciously work to create boundaries that reduce the power of technology to co-opt our lives.
This is the focus of the e-book that Justin and I made and it is a large part of our 30x30 Challenge Program. For the next week (through September 15th) you can get the 30x30 Challenge for only $5 (normally $39.99) by using this link.
In addition, there are a few resources I highly recommend for parents who are concerned about creating good tech boundaries:
The Screen Time App (This thing is amazing!)
Thank you for reading! Life is too short to be normal.