THE DISHARMONIOUS SOCIETY:
Human Nature in a Technological World
(a work in progress)
In the contemporary societies of advanced nations, modern people enjoy an unprecedented level of comfort, security, nourishment, and health care—and on average they have longer life spans than any other population in human history. Yet these benefits are seriously compromised by a darker feature of our technological world: a rising tide of mental and physical disorders—including free-floating anxiety, chronic depression, bipolar disorder, autism, ADHD, drug addiction, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes—that have spread like a plague over modern society.
The Disharmonious Society explores the ways in which the life-changing technologies of modern times have disrupted the once-harmonious relationship between our inherited human natures and the natural world from which we arose.
The Disharmonious Society begins with the evidence that there is a knowable, definable human nature, evident in the strikingly similar social behaviors and material cultures of all human societies. This universal human nature is then contrasted with the lifestyles of modern people, highlighting the disharmonies between our inherited natures and our technological world in childrearing, work, food, medicine, communication, sleep, aging, and family life.
The Disharmonious Society concludes by exploring the possibility that future generations might succeed in reforming the most disharmonious elements of our technological world. And that in the process they might restore the harmonious relationship that once existed between our ancient human natures and the world around us.
From early childhood I was fascinated and delighted by the world of nature, and the contrast between the city, where I grew up, and the countryside, which I visited frequently, became an abiding preoccupation. As a young man, my decision to become an anthropologist was largely motivated by desire to live for extended periods of time with preindustrial people, far from the habitats of industrial society. Later, as an anthropology professor, I taught an experimental course entitled “The Disharmonious Society: Human Nature in a Technological World,” where I explored with my students many of the themes I have addressed in these chapters. My goal in this book is to explain in detail how the disconnect between our inherited human natures and our manufactured industrial technologies has led to the profound mental and physical unease that now afflicts the world’s most technologically advanced societies.
Human Nature in a Technological World:
The Disconnect Between Our Inherited Human Natures
and Life in a Technology-Driven Society
Many behaviors that
are unique to the human species can be found in all human populations. These
include the making of stone tools and weapons, the control of fire and the
cooking of food, the fabrication of clothing and shelter, the use of a complex
spoken language, traditions of singing and dancing, and the uniquely human ways
we have of expressing emotions. The existence of these universal behaviors is
conclusive evidence of a definable human nature, encoded in the DNA of all
human beings, that is common to all races, cultures, and societies. This complex
human nature evolved during our species’ long history as hunters and gatherers
in the natural world, but in many important ways it no longer harmonizes with
the technology-driven life of modern times. Yet we go through
life with little or no awareness of this disharmony, because the human brain
has an astonishing ability to adapt to the most unnatural conditions if they
are persistent—and to accept other people’s perceptions, even when they fly in
the face of reality.
Living the Disharmonious Life:
Chronic Psychological Stress is the New Normal
Advanced technologies have bestowed numerous benefits on humankind, but the unnatural lifestyles they have created pose significant threats to our psychological well-being. These threats include the loss of personal freedom and autonomy, the loss of human companionship, a mental life drowning in information overload, the shock of rapid and continuous change, and an environment increasingly poisoned by toxic pollution that affects both our bodies and our minds. These hazards to mental and emotional health, which have become acute in modern times, have resulted in unnaturally high levels of chronic anxiety and stress in the world’s most technologically advanced nations.
Growing Up in
Childhood in preindustrial societies was once a time of freedom, exploration, intense peer interaction, and constant exposure to adult role models. But children in modern society are raised in isolation and captivity. Their daily lives are structured from morning to night, continually supervised by parents, teachers, and other authority figures. They are required to sit still in schools for hours at a time, prohibited from interacting freely with their peers. They come of age with little or no exposure to the world of adult society, and with each passing generation, they struggle—with diminishing success and ever greater desperation—to assume meaningful adult roles and develop satisfying adult personalities.
Overworked, Undercompensated, and Insecure
The work that preindustrial people did was woven into the fabric of their daily lives, and for most of human history the concept of employment did not exist. But modern society is built on the premise of employment for wages, in which most people depend for their livelihoods on doing jobs for strangers throughout their adult lives. For the majority of adults, the result is a working life characterized by boredom, alienation, insecurity, and anxiety.
Overabundant, Over-processed, and Over-Sold
The foods that dominate the contemporary diet are rich in calories, deficient in vital nutrients, loaded with chemical additives, and marketed relentlessly for profit. The result is an epidemic of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease without precedent in human history. Yet there is an argument to be made that some of the popular villains of the modern diet—such as red meat, saturated fat, gluten, and cholesterol—may not be harmful but rather beneficial, even vital, to proper nutrition and good health.
Over-treated, Overmedicated, and Overcharged
Modern medicine has greatly extended the average life span, but the practice of medicine has become so lucrative that it has been corrupted by the pursuit of its own financial gain. The result is excessive and costly over-diagnosis, overmedication, and overtreatment for a vast range of both physical and psychological disorders. Meanwhile, the human body's proven ability to heal itself through the emotional dynamics of the “placebo effect” remains to be either properly studied or usefully employed.
How the Art of Human Conversation Was Hijacked
by Radio, Television, and Social Media
The need for constant communication with others has been a feature of human nature since humanity's earliest beginnings, but face-to-face conversations have been suppressed for generations by the schools and workplaces that are an integral part of industrial society. As a result, the unfulfilled psychological need for human communication is now being provided by the media of electronic communications, which have become an essential element in modern life. In fact, the invention of mobile communications technology has led to more than just radical new ways of communicating with others. Most young people today have become so dependent on communicating by email, text messages, and social media that the art of face-to-face interaction and simple conversation seems to be slowly withering away.
How Artificial Light, Unnatural Work Schedules, and Chronic Stress
Have Disrupted Normal Human Sleep
When our prehistoric ancestors first began to use fire more than a million years ago, they extended the normal hours of wakefulness beyond the time of sunset. This made it possible for early humans to remain active and productive for much more than the twelve hours of daylight that limits the activities of all other primates. But when the dim, flickering light of fires, lamps, and candles was replaced by the artificial daylight of electric lighting, the human brain no longer took all of its cues from the rising and setting of the sun. Instead, humanity began to lose its connection to the rhythms of daylight and darkness that govern the behavior of all other forms of terrestrial life. Now that industrialization has made nighttime work commonplace, and the stresses of modern life have generated widespread and continuous anxiety, human sleep disorders have become commonplace, chronic, and debilitating.
The Loss of Companionship,
Comfort, and Self-Esteem
Not long ago, the rare individuals who lived into a ripe old age were valued as vital sources of experience and wisdom, and they were treated with respect and deference. But in our fast-changing society, the elderly have become marginalized, much of their knowledge and experience has become obsolete, and their lives often end not in the bosom of loving families but in the sterile solitude of a nursing home or hospital room.
The Disharmonious Family:
Weakened Roles and
For nearly all of human history, the family has been a bedrock of human society, but in modern times this bedrock has been crumbling. Traditional family roles have fallen by the wayside, the sharing of work, wealth, and property among family members has become increasingly obsolete, and a growing number of people live without homes, without families, and without a meaningful connection to society. In recent decades, the nation-state has assumed responsibility for the welfare, protection, and support of the elderly, impoverished, and disabled members of society. Has the human family finally become obsolete?
Reforming the Disharmonious Society:
Can We Succeed in Restoring Harmony
Between Human Nature and the Technological World?
The technological world is here to stay. Civilization is not going to evolve back into some form of preindustrial way of life, because that is not what people want. Yet in a world where the simple pleasures of happiness and satisfaction are in short supply, the thirst for change is strong. With luck, our society will be able to create new cultural traditions—and will begin to restore the harmony that once existed between human nature and world we live in.