A lot has been written in certain corners of the blogosphere about the macro aspects of the long decline of modern Western civilization ahead of us, like that of ancient Rome, currently in the initial stages of washing over our world. There are plenty of predictions about where it will take us, debates among fast-crash advocates vs. slow-crash, the forms it may or may not assume, and so on.
Of course, outside this circle, many if not most probably believe the current ills of our technological civilization are a temporary detour that will be righted once we get back on course — whatever that is thought to be. In conservative religious circles it is believed the proper moral course is all that is needed. In the business community, the right economic policies will be our savior. In the high-tech community, innovation. (Innovation in computers and iPhones continues! What, me worry?) For those of political bent, no matter what political party, it is a better vision and stronger leadership in government that will save the day.
Direct vs. indirect effects. However, while there are numerous statistics about the more or less stagnant economy, joblessness, the increasing number of families with children on food stamps, and the widening gap between the rich and the poor along with the hollowing out of the middle class, little has been written about how breakdown and decline are experienced by those of us seemingly buffered from the worst impacts — what most of us feel at the personal, individual level. And the decline does affect just about all of us, not only those who have been directly hit by one or another personal disaster.
Blind spots and self-blame. Certainly many people these days are affected acutely by job loss or income decline — or perhaps are managing to maintain their income by working longer and harder, only to see prices for essentials continue to rise, and these are serious impacts. I know a few people myself who have gone through or are going through such trials. To me, all of this is a given. But it has also become apparent to me how even the more commonplace, everyday aspects of our lives are affected by the decline going on around us. Yet these characteristic experiences we share tend to be “blind spots” in terms of failing to realize how strongly they point to the larger decline going on around us, or blaming ourselves for our responses, until one wakes up to the larger picture.
Declining civilizations: the big picture
For those who aren’t familiar with the perspective that the Western world is now in the early stages of long-term civilizational decline — as the lens of history would suggest — I’ve included some links below laying out the case for that larger picture as preface to the rest of this discussion. Most people who are unaware of the wider forces at work probably assume today’s societal ills are either temporary problems or relatively simple things that could be fixed “if only everyone would simply do blah-blah-blah.” For example, most commonly: get government off the backs of businesses and let the free market handle things.
Systemic breakdown, no quick fixes. But the plight we’re going through is systemic — the many decades of downward change that we face are not going away anytime soon, due to overarching forces that circumscribe any efforts we might mount. Ours isn’t the first nor the last society to experience decline, and the challenges ahead will only become more pronounced over time until the root causes play themselves out.
Fundamentally, these causes amount to too many people chasing declining resources within an environment and ecosystems that have now been heavily exploited, degraded, and ripped apart by 300 years of industrialization on a finite planet. In turn, our era of industralization has been financed by raiding the one-time cookie jar of fossil-fuel deposits that took hundreds of millions of years to form in the first place, and that drive the very motor of today’s high-energy, high-tech world.
Current shift underway likely centuries-long. While Earth’s biosphere will eventually recover, “eventually” in this context likely means decades or centuries for some renewable resources (perhaps soils in cultivated areas, if helped along by rebuilding techniques) to centuries or millennia in the case of others (depleted underground aquifers, for example), too long to provide any quick fixes for those currently living, or for the immediately following few generations. Other resources — nonrenewables — once mined, used up, and dispersed (metals and ores of all types) are effectively gone except for the reuse of artifacts and implements, or scrap-mining future industrial ruins embodying them. Which will leave us once again primarily with Earth’s annual renewable resources as our energy future, the same one that prior civilizations were built on.
Larger forces vs. personal responsibility. For me, gaining this perspective on the place of our current civilization along the arc of history provides a very helpful context for more objectively evaluating my own experiences, and what level of responsibility for them is primarily mine versus what is driven more by circumstances at large. I know a few people who are among the more seriously affected who probably don’t believe anything really fundamentally problematic in the world around them is going on other than short-term market-based ups and downs: that their own misfortune is their own fault. But at some point, even those who still have good jobs and move in circles where everyone is sailing along seemingly unaffected will experience increasing difficulties. Whichever camp you might fall in, here are links to provide the larger context.
Background reading. First, you might take a trip over to the Hipcrime Vocab blog, where Chad Hill has done a very thoroughgoing job over scores of posts documenting the realities for the many down-and-out Americans already experiencing the most serious of these problems in their lives. (Note that the blog recently moved to hipcrimevocab.com from hipcrime.blogspot.com. These links are from his archives at the latter.)
- What if a Collapse Happened and Nobody Noticed? So far his most popular post ever.
- Five Years into the Apocalypse. Probably the most well-written, balanced, and on-target assessment of Peak Oil’s predictive hits and misses I have yet seen.
- The Dying Americans
- Realities of Money and Class in America
- Automation and the Future of Work: Black Lives Matter
For a step back and a wide view of the ragged trajectory of collapse that typically plays out over a century or two or longer in declining civilizations, hop on over to John Michael Greer’s historically informed The Archdruid Report.
- The Era of Pretense. This is the first installment of Greer’s discussion of his five phases of civilizational decline, the first one being pretense, i.e., denial that it’s happening, which we’re currently in the midst of.
- The Era of Impact. Greer’s second phase of decline and fall.
- Whatever Happened to Peak Oil? Provides a higher-level perspective that looks at the ongoing depletion and affordability of the master resource — energy — that in its myriad forms (oil being the most versatile and useful in our society) fuels all work performed (“the economy”), powers our technological civilization, and enables the extraction of all the other resources that support our way of life.
- Renewables: The Next Fracking? is a shot of sorely needed “green”-busting realism, discussing why solar and wind power, desirable as they might be in some ways (who can really be against renewables?), like biofuels before them simply can’t produce enough energy on the industrial scale needed to continue powering our inherently energy-greedy, high-tech civilization, when looked at closely, even in theory.
Too close to it to see things clearly: creeping normalcy and moving the goalposts
While the above links provide a good crash course in how and why our current globally based, high-tech civilization is now beginning to decline, and furnish examples and statistics of the long-term economic decay emerging, there is another dimension I’d like to focus on and cover here. And that is to explore what the personal impacts are in our ordinary everyday lives, even for those of us who still have halfway decent jobs.
Unless one is more privileged than most — a part of the management class in business, or living in a gated community, say — when we look around us with our own eyes, truthfully, at what’s happening, the overall feeling that things in general are going downhill is hard to avoid. And this is evident regardless of innovations in certain narrow sectors such as computing, the internet, cellular and wireless communications, 3D printing, materials science, nanotechnology, and so forth.
Perception vs. consensus reality. But despite the overall impression, if we still have a job we are more or less satisfied with, often it’s hard to put one’s finger on exactly what these things are specifically, as they manifest in our personal lives. Are we simply imagining that our lives, that things in general, do not work as well as they used to? Are we just being complainers? Are we the type of person who, as some say, should just shut up if we don’t have anything positive to say? Are things really so bad?
In part, I think a good deal of the difficulty is because of what has been termed “creeping normalcy” (or normalcy bias) or “the goalposts keep getting moved” for what’s to be expected as customary in life. So Chad Hill’s post mentioned above, “What if a Collapse Happened and Nobody Noticed?” gives a good antidote, detailing how, yes, in fact, we are going through collapse — right now. In America.
Frog in slowly boiling water. The “catch” is the features of the breakdown aren’t necessarily what everyone thought they might be. No Mad Max or zombie-style apocalypses. What we see instead are:
- A continuing drop in the labor force participation rate.
- Fewer good full-time jobs, accompanied by more part-time and minimum-wage service-sector jobs that don’t make up the difference.
- Working harder for less, or working two jobs to compensate, with consequently longer work hours.
- Worsening standards of living.
- Concentrating on just getting by day to day rather than planning for the future.
- Less time for family and friends.
- Increase in personal bankruptcy filings.
- Increased suicide rates.
- Deteriorating public infrastructure: roads, bridges, aging electrical grid and water mains, etc.
- Deteriorating private property: homes often less well maintained due to overstressed budgets.
- Homes that remain on the market for many months, even a year or more before selling.
- Banks with foreclosed homes on the books keeping them off the market to avoid pushing down housing prices.
- Reduced business-lease occupancy rates.
- Desperate people stealing manhole covers, or copper tubing out of air conditioners, or copper plumbing and electrical wiring out of vacant homes to sell on the scrap market to make ends meet.
- Healthcare system in shambles, Obamacare or not.
- More and more costly healthcare with steadily worsening health outcomes, as evidenced by skyrocketing obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
- More cheaply built products that break down sooner or go obsolete more rapidly.
- Political gridlock.
- Large increase in white-collar crime and fraud, led by Wall Street.
And so on and so forth… The list is long but not particularly “dramatic” or “apocalyptic,” at least not when the items are looked at individually in isolation. It is only in the overall pattern that one can discern the decline, and even then only when one takes the time to educate themselves about it.
Another part of the perceptual difficulty is that economic and civilizational decline, like civilizations themselves, aren’t a unified monolithic event, but multifaceted, with various parts that may be moving out of phase with each other rather than in concert. To deal with perhaps the most obvious and oft-cited example of this, and the objection most often thrown up: “Yes, but what about our iPhones?!” Certainly there are some aspects of civilization still on the ascendancy and proceeding apace, such as the internet, computerization, and communications technologies.
Living inside the technosphere, blind to nature. On the other hand, many other aspects of life on this planet, particularly the wholesale destruction of the environment and ecosystems occurring worldwide — the very support system on which more complex life forms on Earth depend, such as mammals and human beings — are accelerating in an ever-downward spiral.
My phrase for this state of affairs is “best of times, worst of times.” To me, such a constellation of factors is a feature of systems barely past their peak, before the reality of decline becomes more readily apparent. Especially when different parts of the system are out of phase, there are going to be certain things still on the way up, others on the way down. This is particularly so right as the moment of “peak civilization” is passed — which will also be the point of “peak confusion” due to what appear to be many conflicting signals.
But to tie these points back together in the form of a question, all of the above has made me wonder: what exactly does decline or breakdown of the overall fabric of our civilization translate to at the individual level in our own personal experience, i.e., beyond the macro-level events and statistics? What follows isn’t meant to be a definitive statement of any sort, more of a start, as I think and mull over the various experiences and feelings coming their way into my own life these days.
The unheeded facets of decline in our personal lives
Here is one example of what it is like living in today’s age of decline: A good friend of mine and I who live in the same city have not been able to get together for a visit in months now. Why? It seems to come down to the fact that, in general, everyone is too busy. When my friend has had an opening in their schedule, I haven’t. Or when I have, they haven’t.
Sometimes I have weekends open, but those are the days they stake out for spending with family, the number-one priority for them. In the past, when I was exclusively self-employed with one primary occupation, my friend could drop by without much advance notice when they were out and about on a business or personal errand. Now that I have two or three part-time gigs going, with one involving daily appointments that have to be kept, my time during the week doesn’t permit the “drop by when you have time” approach any longer.
Everyone sucked up in their own vortex. Or perhaps one of us gets so wrapped up in keeping the plates spinning in their own life that all else is forgotten or has to be put at bay for a time. My self-employment gigs keep me busy enough it is hard to eke out spare time — at least during the week — that might not cause hardship meeting deadlines. My friend, having lost employment a number of months ago, is constantly spinning their own wheels either dealing with the limitations and hardships of a life with insufficient income on the one hand (no functioning car for two months at one point, for instance, being unable to afford the repairs, or to make the repair themselves), or trying to get income flowing again on the other.
Everyone is far “too busy” and we still call this progress?
It doesn’t seem to matter if people are working or not. Most are overly busy keeping their lives going. Even those who might otherwise not be too busy — the retired or semi-retired come to mind — if they are able-bodied, often pitch in to relieve the many burdens their children or grandchildren face in these times. So they may be busier than they would like too. Does being too busy describe your life as well?
Why are we all so busy? I would put it down to three or four things — at least two that are most obvious and important, and a third or fourth not so obvious.
- The first obvious reason is that more of us are working too many hours and/or have too many obligations in life overall.
- The second important factor is that our civilization has become much more complex over the years, pulling us in more directions than we can successfully cope with.
- A third reason is that due to the cost of living increasing at a faster rate than income (for many of us), we cannot as easily afford what we used to have — or maybe even just the basics needed to get by month to month. Not, that is, without either working longer hours, or making repairs and doing things oneself in lieu of paying repair people or contractors, and not always with the best results given the complexity of technology these days.
- And a fourth factor is that as a society we have become over-indebted, and therefore in many cases have no choice but to work longer hours. Over-indebtedness is another feature of decline, because a society that is no longer growing and generating more income typically takes on more debt in order to make up the difference. Or at least more debt is taken on if people do not exercise foresight (not one of the human species’ most notable characteristics), or feel entitled to certain things in life they are loath to give up by reducing their standard of living to compensate for the lack of income they formerly had.
Time pressure: the bane of modern life. Being “too busy” as a result of the above factors leads to much of the time pressure we experience: the feeling of being rushed, that there is never enough time. Which also leads to not being able to relax. When we have “dead time,” we may feel we need to do something with it to “catch up,” or to keep from falling behind because of too much to do. The “Getting Things Done” movement of some years ago, “Inbox Zero,” and numerous other strategies for keeping on top of the huge pile of things always clamoring for our attention — all are manifestations of too much complexity, being forced to work too many hours, because of either the higher cost of living, too much debt, or too many obligations.
Over-complexity’s central role and its fallout at the personal level
The idea that over-complexity is a feature of declining societies is of course the central thesis of Joseph Tainter’s well-known treatise, The Collapse of Complex Societies, that explores its role in the decline and fall of previous civilizations. Tainter explores how complexity in civilizations arises to deal with the challenges that arise as a society grows over the course of its existence. Eventually complexity reaches a point where it becomes an albatross around the neck and actually causes more problems than it solves — reaching and then exceeding the point of “diminishing marginal returns,” in economic geek-speak.
If something can go wrong, it will. Over-complexity is a factor that fuels longer work hours on its own — many of them, I would note, unpaid hours that don’t show up in any statistic, spent fixing problems (breakdowns) brought on by too much of said complexity.
There are entire careers built on dealing with complexity or its fallout as well: tech support, medical records technicians, and tax accounting, for example. An entire category of humor — Murphy’s Laws — has even arisen, bemoaning the common frustrations people today experience with how often things go wrong due to the complexity in our lives: “If something can go wrong, it will go wrong.” “Before one thing can be done, something else must be done first.” “Murphy was an optimist.” Et cetera.
Over-complexity: It just works. Not. How else do we experience over-complexity in our individual lives? One common experience is that “things don’t work as well anymore.” How so? When it comes to computers, it’s often experienced as the incompatibilities or perhaps user-unfriendly interfaces that can arise and spoil what was previously working better for a given set of needs. When the problems reach a point that they become maddening enough, you might refuse to upgrade software that’s critical to your daily tasks, because it causes too much disruption: too little extra benefit for the trouble it causes.
Too much friction everywhere. At a more general level, over-complexity is what we could term “too many moving parts,” the result of which is that one weak link in the chain can cause breakdown in function. Too many moving parts not only cause frequent breakdowns in mechanical things, but also affect our interpersonal dealings. One aspect of this is what we call “too much red tape”: Too many rules and regulations that take time to navigate, too many hoops to jump through, too many forms to fill out, eating up our time, or stymieing our efforts to get things done in our lives.
Another aspect is the scheduling difficulties I cited above, in the example where my friend and I can’t seem to connect for a visit — too many moving “social parts” on top of longer work hours or time-consuming hardships.
One thing after another
In a business I once worked for that hung pictures and other items on the walls after commercial and residential construction and remodels, my work partner George commonly needed to reschedule and shuffle appointments. It was a continual, ongoing issue often requiring extra time out of the day to handle. Events would suddenly crop up in customers’ lives, or unexpected developments would occur on jobs we were doing that meant we might miss an appointment later in the day.
Missed connections, scheduling overruns. Here’s an example from this business that occurred one day. For our first of two appointments one afternoon, we had a couple of heavy items to hang on an exterior brick wall that required L-shaped screw hooks to do the job, set into the mortar courses between bricks with the use of anchors. For most hardware we required, George already had at least a minimal inventory on hand, but not in this case — the hooks required were heavier-duty than usual.
So beforehand, George went to the local Ace Hardware store where he’d gotten such hooks previously, but this time they weren’t in stock. He called both the customer and me to let us know he’d have to go to Home Depot to get them, and we’d be fifteen minutes to a half-hour late arriving on the job. The L-hooks he was able to obtain weren’t quite as long or heavy-duty as he would have preferred, but he thought they’d do the job.
Oops. We get to the job, drill into the mortar courses, set the anchors, screw in the L-hooks, only to find out that while close, they weren’t quite long enough or sturdy enough to hold the weight and thickness required by the items being hung. Next trip: Lowe’s, where we finally found what we needed. Note here that just one of three stores in our area, all nationally franchised brands, had what we needed.
By this point we’d wasted enough extra time that we were overrunning our schedule and George realized we’d miss our next appointment unless we split up. So I go and handle the other appointment, but then run into an unanticipated snag — a picture-hanging issue I hadn’t encountered before. (I was still learning some things at the time.) Normally, if George were there, he could have coached me right through it quickly. Unfortunately, the customer had set another appointment for a little later that afternoon anticipating our job would be done quickly (which it otherwise would have been), so they called to reschedule it, and fortunately were able to get another slot about 45 minutes later, right before the day’s close of business.
Added stress. In the meantime, I’m struggling a bit — while projecting the best air of confidence I can — internally sweating a few bullets trying to figure things out on the spot myself. To work right, the job required tying a certain kind of knot with wire I hadn’t done before. I eventually figured it out and everything turned out just fine, but it ended up stressing me out somewhat, and ran the customer down to the last minute before their other appointment.
Sorry, we’re out of that item
The wonders of just-in-time inventory. The above chain of events was set in motion, as far as I can tell, because of “just-in-time” retail inventory practices, another complexity in how business is done these days with computer-driven supply chains. The drive for efficiencies of scale and the costs of excess inventory are such that stores don’t want to carry much inventory these days. Also, the fewer items in inventory, the wider a selection they can carry. That they have to carry — because of the wide array and/or over-complexity of today’s technology. And by so doing, they maximize the amount of sales per square foot of floor space.
But all of it depends on carrying only as much stock of any single item that’s needed until the next just-in-time shipment of the item arrives. And there is a downside: the margin for error is small, so if any one person or two or three happens to come in and buy too many extra of any particular item, depleting the remaining stock, the next guy who comes along is out of luck. There’s an old proverb I am reminded of here:
For want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For want of a horse the rider was lost,
For want of a rider the battle was lost,
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
While our situation above was run-of-the-mill and not dire, of course, still, it’s a good example of how the little things today — when there are so many of them — create the continual burden of missed connections and balls dropped that we fight.
Increasing frequency of coincidental breakdowns
Then there is the sheer frequency of random yet not-really-unexpected snafus occurring in succession at increasing rates these days, due to over-complexity. Take a week that happened to me not long before the above workday gone wonky.
Website goes down. Some months ago my web host on which this blog and website runs was taken over by a larger firm, which issued a notice they would be migrating customer accounts from the previous company’s servers to new hardware. In an advance email, they said they would notify account owners both before and after the server transition, and would communicate afterward the new IP address that each site had been shifted to, i.e., the site’s numeric address (needed for certain behind-the-scenes tasks and settings) as opposed to its public domain name. They did notify everyone ahead of time, but failed to do so afterward.
The way I found out the transition had been completed was that my site suddenly went down. Ordinarily, not immediately being informed of what the new IP address was might not be a critical issue. However, I have things set up so that visitor traffic going to the site is first routed through a cloud-based firewall security service, which requires a record of the correct IP address for the site in order for web pages to be served after traffic has been filtered through the firewall. So, I found out the new IP address for my blog site on my own, changed the settings for the firewall service, and the site then loaded fine for visitors again. In itself, not a huge deal, except that if I had not been online at the time writing a post and updating some design items, I might not have noticed for another day or two.
But then after the server migration, I also discovered I could not log in to the WordPress admin panel to manage the site or write new posts. It took two days of back-and-forth emails with tech support for them to discover that the reason was firewall security rules on their own (new) server. A different set of firewall rules than those that had been running on the previous server were resulting in false-positives that refused me admittance to my own site. Once that was fixed, I was good to go again.
Then, three days later, our home internet goes down. A support call to the local cable TV/broadband monopoly diagnosed our cable modem as the culprit — supposedly one of the most reliable on the market — which would need to be replaced. Which was exasperating because the modem was not even quite two years old, and had now already gone bad. (Modems should probably last five years at a minimum.) I went out, purchased another, called tech support back to get the new modem provisioned for service on their network, but we immediately ran into problems.
On this second support call, the techs could detect and see the modem as connected and functioning properly, but our computers still had no internet connection, even when, as a test, we hooked one computer up directly to the modem itself instead of via our usual intervening router. After the techs said all signs indicated the problem was on our end and not theirs, I hung up, and got to work troubleshooting. I have a fair amount of experience with these sorts of issues, but a couple of hours later we still had no internet. Late in the evening, I gave up and went to bed an hour later than I had planned and hoped to.
The next day, I called tech support again, with another hour of fruitless results, other than them reaffirming the problem was ours, not theirs. After using my cellphone to try and surf around on the ’net for potential answers, I finally located a potential fix that had to do with deleting some network preference settings on our computers, then setting them up again from scratch. This enabled a brief connection once or twice, but the fix didn’t last. After more research, it turned out that a second, closely related settings issue seemed potentially relevant. After deleting and reapplying those settings as well, we finally had internet service back.
All total, it took three separate tech support calls of about 45 minutes to an hour each, then another few hours of troubleshooting on my own. The new network settings were no different than the old, but for some reason the old ones were blocking access (it’s still unclear as to why). And it was both the first and second sets of settings that in tandem were the culprit, not just one or the other by itself.
Yes, computers are wonderful in many ways — I get to do this blog, obviously — but something of a Faustian bargain. When you add to the above incidents the others that also occur every so often (with increasing frequency, in my experience), or the ongoing maintenance and upkeep that computers take to keep them running smoothly, there is a very serious time cost that impacts the rest of our lives.
And we haven’t really mentioned security issues yet. For example, while I was still learning the ropes of managing my first WordPress website here (previously I had built a couple of hand-coded ones), it was hacked four months before I released it to Google for indexing, and infested with about 40 backdoors. That was a stomach-churning event of its own that I decided to handle by subscribing to the above-mentioned security service to clean up the damage afterward, as well as get set up with their cloud-based security firewall at significant yearly cost. Perhaps I could have eventually handled the incident myself, but I had gotten to a point with so many other things happening in my life that I threw in the towel, and said “enough.”
The “latest and greatest” also means continual churn and turmoil
It almost goes without saying that high-tech items go obsolete within a few years, and are often designed with that in mind or on purpose in some, if not many, cases. The tradeoff is supposed to be that we get the “latest and greatest.” Change of this sort is supposed to be good. But the obvious downside that everyone knows about but few want to admit as a real problem — or if they do, are shouted down or else treated with disrespect for being old-fashioned (elders, perhaps) — is the additional churn and turmoil that all this replacement and upgrading creates in our lives.
Yet the truth comes out when someone is asked at work or elsewhere if they want to take on some additional responsibility. If they turn the request down, they’ll say something like, “I would like to help (yeah, right) but I’m going to be spending the afternoon (or a day on the weekend, whatever) fixing the thingamahatchet that broke.” Or, “I wish I had the time (insincerity alert), but I’m going to be upgrading our whatchamacallit.” (At which, people nod their heads knowingly, since everyone has experienced this type of ever-present downside repeatedly themselves.)
Or on the other hand, if the person is a “trooper” and consents to the extra task or project, then they are burdened with yet another, often uncompensated, responsibility in their lives painting themselves into another type of corner.
Computerization today: diminishing or even negative marginal returns?
So… when one starts looking at the added complexity, maintenance, software updates, repeatedly learning new applications or features or the latest “new, new” things that render previous software or ways of doing things obsolete, we need to start asking the question: Have we reached the point of diminishing returns, or even negative returns?
Many people would say yes. For one thing, we are now almost as much slaves to our computers as their masters. The initial promise of computers was that of empowering individuals to do more. But the incompatibilities, the breakdowns, the endless emails and texts — all of it robs us of time, which we never seem to have enough of to accomplish all that we have to do to keep our lives afloat in today’s world. Now, computers often force us to spend more time on things perhaps we would rather not have to spend. Not to mention, it is arguable that they benefit government and large corporations far more than they do individuals due to advantages of scale. We are managed like sheep in many ways, not to mention spied on en masse, thanks to computers.
I don’t know the answer to whether we have reached the point of negative returns yet with computers, but it’s clear it’s a question that we need to start asking.
Too many responsibilities, too much to do, too much to know
Proliferating intermediation. Another result of over-complexity is mushrooming intermediation — all the “middlemen” that become involved in the sales and supply chain of almost anything. Since all of this intermediation takes time, and people have a limited amount, personal relationships and the amount of time available for personal contact in our business dealings suffers. Also, because of ongoing resource depletion at this phase of industrial civilization, the cost of most items is going up (with some exceptions such as computers and computerized tech such as flat screen TVs, cheap clothing from China, for example), so businesses are more and more interested in automation and cutting as many employees as possible to compensate.
Combine intermediation with reduced headcount, and what do you get? These opposing forces of increased intermediation with simultaneous workforce reductions mean the employees who are hired may be expected to do too much or handle things beyond what they were trained for, or that are outside their real talents and expertise. (You do know this from your own job, don’t you?) They may have less time to deal with individual customers, while they are at the same time less expert in any one thing because they are expected to deal with more areas of knowledge that they know less about. Further, they may be from a foreign country because of wage arbitrage that large companies utilize to reduce employee pay to rock-bottom levels.
Is it any surprise, then, that they may follow scripts; that they speak with a heavy foreign accent you can’t easily understand; that they may be judged on how many customers they serve in a given amount of time; with the result you get canned answers from someone you feel no affinity with, rather than individualized help from someone who takes a real personal interest? Does that sound anything like the last tech support call you had about your computer or other computerized appliance? Or perhaps your only avenue was via email or chat support with even less personal interaction.
Hallmarks of Industrial Growth vs. Decline in Our Personal Lives
One could go on, but as a way of winding things up, I’ve compiled the chart below to catalog in concise form the fallout our current industrial decline is having on many different dimensions of our personal lives compared to the civilization’s zenith in prior decades.
Some, such as John Michael Greer, put the apogee of industrial/technological society in the mid-1970s, at least in America which, as he discusses, was the point when the economic decline of the country’s manufacturing industries began, with the associated urban decay of the Upper Midwest and northeastern United States into the “Rust Belt.” I would also note this is roughly the same time that the prior norm of single-breadwinner families began giving way to two-income households as the new norm to help maintain the prior standard of living, but at the cost of extra work time and less leisure.
My list here focuses on our own culture’s specific circumstances, and isn’t meant to be universally applicable to the declines of earlier civilizations that lived closer to the earth with much simpler technologies, though there may be some features that apply. It is part of the irony of our times that some of the characteristics listed here as those of societal decline may be touted by priests of the hyper-competitive free market or technological “innovation” as necessary or advantageous in today’s age. And they may be, in terms of career advancement in the current regime, but are just as much recipes for human unhappiness and poor health instead.
Pre-decline years in USA (prior to roughly mid-1970s) versus current early-decline phase
|Growth, Abundance, and Simplicity||Decline, Scarcity, and Over-Complexity|
|One breadwinner usually sufficient||Two breadwinners often needed|
|Young kids usually at home with mom during day||Young kids often taken to day-care, with more moms working|
|Neighbor helping neighbor||Barely know your neighbor|
|Dreams for the future||Worry about the future|
|Expanded focus on bettering our world||Focus narrows to personal/family survival|
|Ethic of self-sacrifice for greater good||Get what you can while you can before someone else takes it away|
|Thinking of others encouraged; charity||Continual self-promotion encouraged; let the “market” provide answers to other needs without forethought|
|More leisure time||Rushing around, stress|
|Uninterrupted time easier to count on||Interruptions hard to avoid|
|Unplanned, serendipitous extended in-person conversations with friends and neighbors; talk till you’re done||Little time for unhurried conversations; only small bites of time, often interrupted: “sorry, I gotta go”|
|Long phone calls and lengthy letters; time to compose your thoughts||Off-the-cuff emails, texts, and tweets, the shorter and more concise the better|
|“Getting away from it all” prized||Fear of things getting out of control if we are out of touch too long|
|Scheduled two-week vacations, sometimes longer||Vacation time often taken in smaller bites to reduce work disruptions; may be postponed or canceled due to work demands or other contingencies; may still be required by boss to answer cellphone and emails|
|Golf clubs always with you in the trunk of your car so you can catch a game after work or on business trips (just joking here, gotcha!)||Cellphone always in your pocket or purse so you can play games on a tiny 3x4″ screen between classes or flights at the airport (sorry, more silliness — but true!)|
|Energy in reserve for creative and physical pursuits||Overextended from trying to cope with “too much”; passive TV-watching; sedentary computer use|
|More original writing and reporting; lengthy magazine articles and investigative journalism||Soundbite journalism; many brief, shallow, online echo-chamber articles hardly worth reading|
|Good-paying jobs easy to find||Below-subsistence “McJobs” plentiful; a multitude of desperate applicants for the few good jobs left|
|Enough extra income to live within means||Exceed budget, credit card debt, more bankruptcies|
|Ability to save ahead and pay cash for durable goods that you own||Accumulate debt by buying durable goods on credit, or forego ownership by leasing|
|Ability to save for retirement||Live month to month|
|College education relatively inexpensive||College education expensive, often requiring loan serfdom; otherwise, limited junior college or vo-tech education|
|More personal freedom and discretion||Creeping bureaucracy and red tape|
|Simpler, more private personal lives||Over-complexity leading to increased systemic control and spying on citizenry by government, intrusive employee monitoring by companies|
|Build things that last with abundant, high-quality resources||Throw out or try to keep cheap things from falling apart that are made with skimpy resources allocated by bean-counters|
|Simple, long-lasting, repairable tools and technology||Complex, error-prone tools and technology that go obsolete or fall apart after short useful life|
|Consumer goods looked at as investments to be cared for properly; maintenance is a virtue||Cheap “Mall-wart” crap thrown out when it breaks; more costly items may go unrepaired due to lack of time, funds, or know-how|
|Patience is virtuous||Impatience dominates, instant results demanded|
|Personal employee time respected by companies, clear limits. Other employees can fill in if needed when you’re gone so company can operate without you.||Corporations may make employment conditional on constant availability by cellphone, email, texts. Employee roles are so specialized, others may not be able to fill in easily for an absent worker.|
|Uncrowded daily schedule requiring only simple handwritten “to do” list||Overflowing computerized “to do” list that gets longer and longer with more and more undone items|
|Easy to remember and maintain focus on your primary work tasks||Forgetting to do things because of too many things to remember and overwhelming demands|
|Easier for people to honor their word and complete commitments with fewer distractions||Have to keep following up and prodding people to do what they said to make sure things get done|
|Mind more clear||Mind more distracted|
|One thing at a time||Multitasking|
|Planning ahead often possible and workable||Usually always behind, reacting to constantly changing contingencies and too much to do|
|Manageable change||Out-of-control onslaught|
|Most common health problems often due to acute diseases, infections||Chronic diseases dominate due to sedentary yet stressful lifestyle|
|Natural circadian rhythms and sleep/wake activity cycles; more sleep and rest||Round-the-clock, always-on, “24/7/365” society short-circuits downtime and adequate sleep/rest; sleep and mood disorders with drug-taking to compensate|
|Human body’s healthy requirement for intermittent work/break cycles respected more||Machines and machine rhythms disrupt human body’s need for intermittent work/break cycles. Mental burnout, repetitive stress injuries, or other on-the-job health repercussions.|
|More peace and quiet in less-technological society||Continual noise and hubbub from highly mechanized society and technology leave people overstimulated and on edge|
Time to wake up and get real
But we have iPhones, you say? Let’s pull our heads out of that tiny myopic screen and look everywhere around us. By comparison with 40 years ago, the changes don’t make for a pretty picture. The preceding chart details just what four decades of normalcy creep and moving the goalposts have led to. Which is perhaps exactly why we find it so much more attractive to bury our heads breathlessly in the new, new cyber world rather than look too closely at the declining physical one.
Perhaps with the awareness of what has been outlined here, one might expect to feel gloomy. However, I have found that the overarching perspective and understanding this knowledge provides, despite the anxiety for the future it may engender, also has a calming effect in the here and now. Instead of blaming primarily ourselves for the predicaments we face today, we can begin to recognize the much larger forces at work, and the current era’s place along history’s arc. Forewarned and forearmed, we have a better chance of adapting to the times, can shift our expectations to more realistic goals given the constraints we face, and rather than hanker after the “perks” of a bygone era that now may be increasingly out of reach, focus on the truly important things in life.
A quotation, in conclusion:
“Then came the realization that life goes on no matter what, and that people have always been able to find happiness even in the most immiserating times. Such happiness tends to come not from solving the big problems of the world (which I’d already accepted as being impossible) but from making a difference closer to home — among family, friends and my immediate community. This shift has allowed me to regain my optimism and joy about being alive, while still remaining fully aware of what’s happening (and what is probably about to happen) in the big picture.”