April 23rd, 2020

Why do we praise the destroyers of humanity?

Around a year ago, I remember reading an article in some German magazine about some German athlete who talked about how he had been to America's Silicon Valley and marveled at how devoted the people there were to their work: In contrast to Europeans, whom the athlete characterized as too cautious, too slow to jump on a good thing, he praised Americans for being ready to embrace any innovation without delay, and how willing they were to put in overtime and give their all so that they can bring that innovation to life. In particular, he noted how impressed he was with the people developing self-driving cars, declaring that such progress could not be made in Europe where workers would immediately think about their vacations and workers' benefits rather than how they can design and develop the technologies of tomorrow.

I hope it is not lost on readers how absurd this perspective is.

It's bad enough when Americans spew this kind of ideology, because they've grown up in it, and so it's difficult for them to see any other perspective. Yes, I still remember the American businessman whom I met in a European airport while we were waiting for a flight to San Francisco who declared to me in amazement: "These Europeans are crazy! They take three weeks of vacation at a time! No wonder the euro is losing value." If you've been raised in a culture that thinks this way, it is difficult to think any other way, but for a European, someone who presumably understands the value of work-life balance, workers' rights, and limited working hours to roundly criticize these values as "old-fashioned" and declare that the most virtuous people are those who are willing to give up their personal lives and personal health, all so that some company can make self-driving cars, reflects a mental illness which I am not able to fully understand.

Of course, Americans tend to suffer from this illness collectively, as a group. They consider it entirely worth it to destroy their physical and mental health, personal relationships, and anything else which has "humanist" value if it means they could support their business or make some money. Your spouse divorced you because you worked too much? Doesn't matter; got paid! You have cancer and still need to work to pay for food? Doesn't matter; got paid! You have children and haven't seen them in months because you've been on business travel? Doesn't matter; got paid! And that pay makes it all worth it! That and the ability to support the business, which is much more important than any human life. In business law, a "corporation" is essentially a business which exists, for legal purposes, as a person. Law uses the term "natural person" to refer to a human being, which shows how far removed the legal concept of a "person" is from a human being, when you need to make up the term "natural person" because a "person" could be conceived as being a business. A business can be a "corporation" or "entity" which exists as something that has the rights of a person without having to be a real human being. And so the service of these corporations is, from a legal perspective, no less important than ensuring that humans are healthy; indeed, many people would say that the service of the corporations is considerably more valued than the service of human beings.

At one point in history, people protested these kinds of mentalities, but most people have been so pacified by the things which businesses produce that they can't imagine life without those businesses. If businesses were to disappear, who would produce the next season of our favorite television show? And who would manufacture the next smartphone model which we certainly need to buy even though it is identical to the one which most people already have? We as humans beings seem to instinctively not value health, security, or forethought at all--or we do up to the point where there is suddenly cheap, flashy entertainment to be had. As soon as cheap entertainment comes into the picture, people are happy to throw away everything they have to immerse themselves in it: "Sure, we've ruined our planet, made it impossible for people to earn a decent living or balance their job with their personal lives, and created a polarized social environment where every person only exists to criticize other people, but we have smartphones and Netflix, so it was totally worth it." These are the people who literally idolize Steve Jobs, who made his employees work 90-hour weeks and abandoned his own daughter because he was more interested in his business, but people think that he was somehow responsible for the iPhone coming into existence, and so that makes him a legend and a saint.

Why do we praise the destroyers of humanity?

The usual line which people use to make a point here is: Machines are made to serve us; we are not made to serve machines. Machines exist to make our lives easier, safer, and more pleasant; we were not born to ensure that machines keep running smoothly. I used to embrace this thinking as well, but as computer technology has advanced, there is a growing sense that computers are better people than people, that a computer program is more capable of being sympathetic, loyal, and comforting than a human being. Humans are so unreliable, so self-absorbed in their own endless lists of desires and impulses that they'll get bored of you, cheat on you, and ignore you; a computer program can put on a friendly face, adopt a soothing tone of voice, and talk to you whenever you want it to. In the mid-20th century, there was a project to create "Socialism with a human face". Today, the same idea is being applied, with much greater success, to the transistor and the pixel.

Yet even among people who love technology and consume it obsessively, there seems to be a quiet understanding that we, as human beings, have overstepped our boundaries. Even people who work in offices will often readily admit that we are destroying our planet. Now that we're living in one of the most sweeping epidemics in modern history (which may end up being the most widespread epidemic in all of human history, at least in terms of geographic spread and economic impact if not in terms of death toll), there is a growing uncomfortable sense that we, human beings, are the virus, and the Earth is defending itself. I've had this conversation with a few different people, and when the topic comes up, people tend to look guilty and sheepish, like a child who's been caught with its hand in the cookie jar; people know and will even readily admit that humanity in its current state is not sustainable, that we are not contributing anything of real value to the world anymore (if we ever did), that our unchecked expansion is obviously untenable over the next few decades, and that a massive crash is obviously inevitable. People know these things; people are not so stupid as to be unaware of them. But they go on living, consuming, and expanding, because what else can people do? Any living creature lives just to hunt, to seek, to consume. There really isn't anything else which we are physically or psychologically capable of doing.

I've always been a great supporter of workers, and I mean real workers: Not people who sit shuffling papers in an office all day, but people who do the real and necessary work that human beings need, like farmers, garbage collectors, construction workers, police officers, and so on. I've always been supportive of anything which helps these people, and that's why I believe that consideration for workers is essential. People need time off work, people need time to rest and socialize so they can be human beings. But people don't actually use their spare time for the things which we, in our imaginations, idealize human beings as doing in their spare time. Human beings mostly use their spare time to watch television and talk idly with their friends because they have literally nothing else to do. If you watch people, this is literally all that most people seem to aspire to: Every chance they get, they sit with a friend or a group of friends and just talk about random, pointless things, as if those conversations had value in themselves. If possible, they want to go to a place with loud music so they can dance, or just destroy their eardrums with some absurdly amplified beats. When they're alone, they mostly just want to watch television or listen to music. And this is a human life. I know that those people would defend their lives as having value by saying something like "It's my life, and if that's enough for me, then you can't criticize it", but that's where they're wrong. Saying that you like your life does not set your life above criticism.

Maybe the destroyers of humanity are right after all. Maybe the world would be better off being populated by self-driving electric vehicles and energy-efficient computers instead of human beings.