30 April 2009

Modern Lovers

Modernity has been in the language for years, if not centuries. My earliest recollection, and continuing, is hearing George Will use it with dripping sarcasm, as if a swear word. Conservatives, virtually by definition, abhor anything modern. But what, exactly is modernity? And what parts of it, assuming that it is separable, are worth having, desirable, or necessary? Let's take a walk.

To a Muslim, modernity is music. Not to be tolerated. To the Amish, electricity. To a Roman Catholic, mass in native language (assuming that Latin is no longer spoken anywhere conversationally). To a Boomer's parents, coed dorms.

So, what is modernity, negatively, to a horde of George Wills? Racial equality, enforced by law. Economic equality, permitted by law (unionization made easy). Gender equality, enforced by law. Gender preference, enforced by law. Marriage preference, permitted by law (miscegenation being the initial example). Universal health care.

But, what parts of modernity would a rational person want, at minimum? For concreteness, I'll define modernity to mean artifacts of culture and society which came into existence post World War II. That leaves out electric lighting, radio, TV (strictly speaking), air travel, and a host of other endeavors which a Boomer's grandparents didn't have at birth.

It is self-evident that the answer has to be medicine, broadly defined. I have no use for the iPhone; so far as I am concerned building them and the AT&T 3G network for them is a terrible waste of our capital. We don't need multiple, incompatible cell phone networks. Pick a standard technology, let all the manufacturers and providers implement it as best they can, and build it once. Use all that capital for other completely different purposes; rural health clinics come to mind. I like digital watches. I own a bunch, and get another about once a year. Complete waste of money, of course. One wrist. One time zone. One time. Manufacturers manage to design ever more intriguing, if only for a little while, models. I am a sucker for yet another variation on the theme of digital time. But they're modern and I really want them. Up to a point.

When push comes to shove, any adult is willing to relinquish some gadget for living longer. We all want to witness tomorrow's chapter of human history, regardless of how little we have to do with it. This is the essence of consciousness. The religious debate boils down to: if you buy our story, we guarantee you'll see all the remaining chapters of human history, just from someplace else. Now, go kill all those non-believers.

The evil in the George Wills of the world is that they are social Darwinists decrying modernity as permitting the survival of those not quite the fittest, but will go to great lengths to obfuscate their true intent. They wrap it up in words like freedom and self-expression, et cetera. Reality is that they want the many to die early to the benefit of the few. This is implicit in their campaign against unions, Medicare, Social Security; any aspect of the social safety net (so called).

The pathetic irony of Will and company is this. We are rapidly depleting the stuff in the ground, natural resources, which is required to make the gadgets we all want. As a colleague of mine (a math stat) put it: "the world is not linear". He made the observation long before it became popular as "the tipping point" and other similar aphorisms. If one assumes that a gradual change is part of a straight line, then the amount of change is tolerable and can be adapted to with sufficient time to avert permanent disaster. Non-linear phenomena, when misapprehended, don't forgive. They just fail. Oh, yeah the Irony. There are about 6,000,000,000 of us on the planet. From a resource point of view, if we neutron bombed Asia, Africa, South America, and the Pacific Islands (those low class folks) we'd get down to about 1,000,000,000. And we'd be no better off; we'd stave off disaster for a few years. Those 5,000,000,000 folks consumed resources in the neighborhood of 1% of the remaining 1,000,000,000 measured per capita. In other words, enforcing Darwinism doesn't buy us much. In order to stave off disaster for a generation or two longer, we'd have to neutron bomb half of Europe and half of the US (I vote for Florida as the first one).

In this country, the argument is that we are all living longer, but "we" can't support all those old people who refuse to die at the same age as old people died before Social Security happened. If you look at the data and cherry pick, well lie, you can say that between 1900 and 2000 life expectancy at birth went up by more than 25 years. That same data also tells you that between the start of Social Security and today, life expectancy at 65 went up by 4 years. That's it.

So, are you a modern lover? If swine flu visits your neighborhood, I'm going to guess yes.

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