Tackling Weighty Issues:
Mid-term Question One

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright July 2013


What do you feel are the greatest struggles that our culture faces today? How do our world changes affect those struggles? What are the greatest benefits that could result from those struggles? What would be the dangers of not engaging in the struggles going on around us?

That's a lot of questions, so I will handle them one at a time. (Note: The background for this answer comes from my book Evolution and Thought.)


What do you feel are the greatest struggles that our culture faces today?

The greatest struggle our culture faces is humans maintaining relevance in a world that is increasingly automated.

As machines and information processing systems become increasingly sophisticated and ubiquitous they are doing the legwork to provide the products and services humanity wants. They are making our world a better place. But in so doing they are also taking over much of humanity’s role in being on Earth. If robots are making everything and providing all the services, what will humans do? Answering this question is the big challenge for humanity over the next few decades.


Humans have been around a long time. During most of that time humans lived in what I call the Neolithic Village environment. In this environment humans live in small groups consisting mostly of extended family and they directly make most of their tools and food. In this environment humans are 100% involved in all the steps needed for providing for their own existence. This is also a semi-nomadic environment -- people move regularly when the supply of something vital runs out -- food, good weather, whatever. Because of the semi-nomadism the quantity of tools and other goods humans could keep was sharply limited: if there wasn't room to take it on the next move... ah well.

Adapting to agriculture

Living in the Agricultural Age changed this. It was the start of huge changes in how humans live. One big change was that people started living sedentary lives rather than semi-nomadic lives. One change this brought about was the practicality of collecting lots of tools -- and this became a whole lot of tools. In this context a city is a gigantic tool.

With more tools came specialization of labor. People started making parts of what they lived with, not everything they lived with. They started trading a lot more. One consequence of this is that today people understand less and less about where their goods and services come from and what it takes to make them. This means they are taking much of their lifestyle for granted. This taking for granted leads to expensive distractions. These distractions manifest themselves as various causes that survive because they stroke emotions, not because they help humans survive or directly improve their lives. Example: supporting animal shelters for cast-off pets makes some people sleep better at night, but it otherwise doesn't improve their lives.

The Industrial Age was the next big game changer. Tools were now made in many brand new ways. They were made faster, better and cheaper than ever before. This lead to another huge revolution: Growing the resource pie. Humans could not only store a lot more tools, they could make so many different and wonderful kinds! And so efficiently!

These revolutions mean that the questions humans face in their day-to-day living are completely different from those of the Neolithic Village lifestyle.

Some examples:

o "Will I be able to keep warm while I sleep?" has been replaced with, "What computer game will I play next?"

o "Will I have enough food that isn't poisoned or rotted?" has been replaced with, "Will I have enough cash for a Big Mac? Are they open at this hour?"

o "How do I make a spear?" has been replaced with, "How do I get a decent job?"

These are huge changes in thinking. The struggle we now face is updating our thinking to adapt well to modern circumstances. And by "our" I meet the whole community, not just a few individuals of the community.

The next stage of this struggle is coming upon us fast. As mentioned at the beginning, it's the struggle of humans learning how to stay relevant in a world where automation is going to take care of +90% of the goods and services we need to exist.

If we blow it then we will be leading "bread and circus" lives of irrelevance. If we get it right we humans will continue to the lead the world into realms of unbelievable possibility with a lot of assistance from all the tools we create.


How do our world changes affect those struggles?

Man is a tool maker and user. We use those tools to make our environment better, as in, more compatible with what humans need and want. We are also tool inventors. As we invent new tools our possibilities change right along with our environment.

As our environment changes, the appropriate questions change. This I have outlined above.

On the "big issue" side. We now have the questions of what kind of wealth to make and how to share it. These questions became big in the Agricultural Age and they have become even bigger ever since because we can now make so many different kinds of things and have so many different ways of cooperating as we do. And we now have to worry because we can do things in such big ways. We can can make a lot of pollution, we can extinct species, we can change our climate.

All these affect what are the right questions to ask. For this reason good educations for all people become more and more important. Our instinctive thinking is getting poorer and poorer at giving us good answers to our day-to-day questions.


What are the greatest benefits that could result from those struggles?

The benefit of "doing things right" -- very hard to define -- is that we open up even more possibilities for making the world better than the one we now live in.

Doing things wrong is a bit easier to define. If we do things wrong we stagnate, and then decline. This has happened many times and in many places in human history. Progress and success are not inevitable, far from it. This again, is why good education is so important to living our modern lifestyle.

An example of decline I write about regularly is "Midwest Disease" -- the decline of America's Midwest region from the world's greatest manufacturing powerhouse in the first half of the 20th century to the bankrupt and abandoned Detroits and Clevelands of the early 21st. I write about it because I grew up in Cleveland in the 1960's. I saw the start of this happening first-hand. I know we need good education to prevent Midwest Disease from spreading. An important lesson is: We need to keep researching and learning what works, and what doesn't, in how we distribute wealth.


What would be the dangers of not engaging in the struggles going on around us?

Engaging or not engaging in struggles is the wrong question. This "wrongness" is important because picking the wrong question leads to distraction, and distraction leads to decline. Picking the wrong questions is the heart of the Midwest Disease.

The right questions are:

o How do we find better ways of distributing the wealth we are creating?

o How do we educate ourselves and our children so that we are asking the right questions?

These are big, challenging questions. We need to do a lot of experimenting to find the right answers. And, sadly, this researching and experimenting is a process that scares many people. So it's not easy to get right and this is why Midwest Disease is so common.


--The End--