THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
The Price of Instant Gratification
The Internet makes it easier than ever
to overlook the consequences of desire
While listening to the "Humming Chorus" from Madama Butterfly on the radio the other day, I was struck by how much it sounded like something else. It didn't take long to realize that Puccini's original melody is remarkably similar to that of "Bring Him Home" from Les Misérables" (intentionally, one presumes*). Later that day, it was a simple task to verify my suspicion by finding performances of both pieces on YouTube, as well as to discover via Google that many other listeners had long ago made this connection between them. Buying the two would have been a matter of a few more clicks in iTunes, and cost a mere 99 cents each. What would have taken, not even a generation ago, a trip to the record store to hunt down the two tracks, perhaps even more than one trip to one store, and the purchase of two full-length recordings on the mere hope of finding satisfaction, was accomplished with virtually no commitment of time, effort or expense. It seems at times that there isn't anything in the realm of human experience that isn't available on the Internet in some form somewhere, and for little or no money. It is all there: the entire world of music, and much else besides, literally at our fingertips.
It is impossible to believe that such a drastic change in the way we access the things we want, and the things we want to know, does not come with commensurate changes in ourselves. There is no point in arguing against convenience; the drive to make life as effortless as possible is apparently built into our natures. Even the Puritanical demand of hellfire for the indolent has given way to the irresistible temptations of modern life. When have you last seen self-professed Christians cleaning their clothes by beating them on rocks at the edge of a stream, or growing all of their own food, or traveling by horse and cart? If that last image prompts you ask, "What about the Amish?", let it serve as a rebuke to our wastefulness, because their way of life does not exactly offer an alternative path for the rest of us. The Amish are but a living relic of a lost civilization, more like an historical re-enactment of 19th century self-abnegation than an example to be emulated, even by the most devout among us. (Do we not even gape at their habitat, while on vacation, as though visiting a museum or wildlife refuge?) Once the fruits of technology are tasted, no amount of wishful thinking can wash that taste away again. Calvinism is dead — swept away by the internal combustion engine, the washing machine and the supermarket.
The philosopher Mortimer Adler once said that no person should have to do work that a machine can do. When this observation was made, a century and a half into the Industrial Era, but decades before the advent of our web-cloistered world, it was closer to a description of pending reality than he could have possibly imagined. In the developed world, and in much of the rest of the world that is fast catching up to it, there are more and more opportunities for people to leave both farm and factory, and therefore fewer and fewer people who know what it is like to perform physical labor to earn a living. The number of workers whose daily toil entails looking into a screen all or most of the time has grown exponentially, and the number of those without access to the Internet via home computer or mobile device is shrinking by the minute. There are entire countries in underdeveloped parts of the world like Africa where cell phones are becoming common but land lines are nonexistent, societies that went from pre-industrial to wifi without ever laying an inch of copper cable. In some respects, their road to advanced communications has been smoother than in many wealthier countries, which are loath to abandon their enormous investment in antiquated technologies.
As we hardly ever escape the confines of the wired village, tethered by an array of invisible signals throughout our waking hours, our expectations about the ease of living have changed markedly. Diligence and patience cannot possibly have the same meaning for someone who never traveled faster than the speed of an animal's four legs, as it does for someone who can peer at will through an electronic window into every remote corner of the planet. The acceleration in the rate of expectations is most acute among the young who have no experience of the world without the Internet, though the rest of us who never used a computer until we were well into adulthood have come along without much coaxing. We are remarkably adaptable creatures, and preternaturally impatient for the things we want. The electronic age suits us nicely.
The greatest disconnect, though, and the one that is perhaps most alarming, is the one between our desires and the costs of fulfilling them. All human societies are to some degree kleptocracies, and people have always been adept at turning a blind eye to the consequences that others pay for their own happiness. But this disparity has been exacerbated by the instant availability of so much knowledge and so many things, and by the deceptively low cost of grasping them. Technology has made it possible to fulfill so many aspirations, and so quickly, that we take them as our due and barely register them as significant. For example, an entire generation has grown up believing that there isn't the slightest thing wrong with downloading music without paying for it, as though musicians could live on their fans' admiration alone. It is one of the immutable laws of the universe that there is no such thing as a free lunch, but we are increasingly pursuing our interests with scant regard for who is paying for that lunch, let alone for the trail of waste we leave in our wake.
Ironically, the computer itself provides a particularly apt example: it takes a toxic brew of chemicals to manufacture the components in our desktops, laptops, tablets and phones, risking the health and longevity of those who make them, as well as those who ultimately dispose of them. Both of those groups of unfortunates are largely in China, as our electronics traverse the Pacific Ocean to gratify us for a time, and make the return trip for dismantling, a full circle from factory to landfill. We have heard horrific accounts of young people melting down the poisonous metals in totally unsafe and unregulated conditions, and been confronted lately with stories of worker abuse at factories that make Apple's ubiquitous products. Sadly, these tales are merely representative of a vast pattern of mistreatment and indifference across many industries.
It is not that we don't care about the fate of others, but the problems are far away and mostly hidden from view, while the benefits are tantalizing close and increasingly affordable. We are accustomed by now to harboring many mutually contradictory interests: cars and clean air, cheap goods and high wages, automation and high employment, good government and low taxes. Even when our consciences are aroused, it is not a simple decision to abstain from the apparatus of modern life that provides our daily bread and sustains us in every imaginable way. As Upton Sinclair wrote, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." It matters not that we injure even ourselves in pursuit of the very things we claim to desire. How many unemployed Americans shop in Wal-Mart and Target stores that are filled to the rafters with inexpensive imported things that were made by the very same foreign companies that put them out of work in the first place?
The divergence between what we want and what we are willing to pay for it defies ideological description. However we vote, we all want to live well and pay as little as possible for the privilege, but have only a vague awareness of the inadvertent and indirect damage, some of it self-inflicted, caused by our own choices. Morally, are we any different from the robber barons we deride for being charitable only after they've ensured their own perpetual comfort? We may not have opportunities to exploit others on the same scale, but do we not also buy our pleasures and conveniences with the labor of others, give alms only sparingly to those left behind, and bolster our sense of moral righteousness by opening our hearts — over the invisible airwaves, and by credit card — to victims of disaster, both natural and man-made?
It is tempting to call this hypocritical, but, to return to a musical analogy, it is more dissonance than hypocrisy. The Internet presents a paradox: we are linked more closely than ever to more of our fellow creatures, and at the same time we are more isolated and insulated from the effects of our behavior. It is endemic to the way we live now, and the more easily we can get what we want without having to see with our own eyes the price in human suffering and ecological calamity, the greater the dissonance will grow.
* "Borrowing" is a time-honored practice in the art of musical composition. Mozart, once confronted with the accusation of stealing a melody from a now obscure contemporary, responded, "He wasn't doing anything with it." That the story is likely apocryphal makes it no less exemplary.
March 17, 2012
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