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 explains how the transformative technologies developed in recent decades have disrupted the ancient relationships between human nature and the human environment that evolved over the past five million years, creating profound disharmonies between our inherited human natures and the technology-driven environments in which we live.
The book begins by marshalling the considerable evidence for the existence of a knowable, definable human nature. Then, following the traditional approach of a cultural anthropologist writing an ethnographic study, the author describes the basic lifestyles of modern people, revealing the dysfunctional dynamics that have developed in each of the fundamental aspects of human life—in childrearing, work, food, medicine, communication, sleep, aging, and family life.
The Disharmonious Society concludes by describing the lifestyle changes and personal disciplines that many people find helpful in counteracting the toxic effects of modern life, and it suggests ways in which certain changes in our values and customs can help to reform the worst abuses of the disharmonious society. In the end, The Disharmonious Society argues that, while preserving the many benefits our technological achievements, we can and should begin, without further delay, to work toward a more harmonious human society and culture for the benefit of future generations.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
The origin of this book goes back to 1978, when I initiated an experimental anthropology course called “The Disharmonious Society” at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. Over the years, numerous books about one or another aspect of this problem have been published, but few of them have attempted to cover the whole picture. My approach here will be to describe contemporary society as anthropologists have described the preindustrial societies that have survived into modern times: by analyzing the fundamental building blocks of society and culture and identifying the ways in which they shape the thoughts, feelings, and daily lives of the people within them.
Human Nature in a Technological World:
Between the Human Natures We Inherit and Life in a Technology-Driven Society
The concept of human nature was largely rejected by social scientists after World War II, in reaction to the racist philosophies of the Nazis and their sympathizers. But anthropological research demonstrates that there is a universal nature—the heritage of both our primate ancestry and our long history as hunting and gathering nomads—that is shared by all human beings. This book explores the ways in which our inherited human nature is no longer in harmony with the unnatural life-ways that have developed in the age of modern technology.
Living the Disharmonious Life:
Chronic Psychological Stress is the New Normal
Modern technologies have bestowed many benefits on human society, but the psychological costs—including the loss of personal freedom, the shock of constant change, the conflict among competing world-views, and the persistent information overload from electronic media—have created a degree of confusion, distress, and anxiety rarely seen among the people of any preindustrial society. In fact, the psychological stresses of modern life have led to an epidemic of eating disorders, diabetes, heart disease, mental illness, emotional disorders, and substance abuse beyond anything that existed before modern times.
Growing Up in
Childhood in preindustrial societies was a time of freedom, exploration, and intense peer interaction. By comparison, children in modern society are raised in isolation and captivity: their daily lives are structured from morning to night, they are endlessly supervised and controlled by authority figures, forced to sit still for hours at a time, prohibited from interacting freely with their peers, and live physically and psychologically separated from the world of adult society.
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 the members of society are dependent on doing jobs for strangers throughout their adult lives. For the majority of working adults, the result is widespread boredom, alienation, insecurity, and anxiety.
Overabundant, Over-processed, and Over-Sold
The processed foods that have been developed in the past century tend to be rich in calories, deficient in vital nutrients, loaded with chemical additives, and marketed relentlessly by big businesses for profit. The consequence for modern society is an epidemic of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease without precedent in human history.
Over-treated, Overmedicated, and Overcharged
Modern medicine has greatly extended the average life span, but it has also become so lucrative that it has become 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 physical and psychological disorders.
How the Ancient Art of Human
Conversation Was Hijacked by Radio, Television, Email, and Social Media
The need for frequent communication with others is a universal feature of human nature, and this need has been both filled and exploited since the early 20th century by the media of mass communication. Beginning with the 21st century, the invention of portable and affordable digital devices has spawned radically new ways of communicating with others, and the lure of social media has intensified to a near addiction in the millennial generation.
Unnatural Work Schedules, and Pervasive Stress Have Disrupted Normal Sleep
When prehistoric hominids first began to use fire, they lengthened the normal hours of wakefulness beyond the time of sunset and reduced the hours of sleep that was typical of all other primate species. But when candles and firelight were replaced by vastly brighter electric lighting, when industrialization made nighttime work commonplace, and when the stresses of modern life created chronic and widespread anxiety, sleep disorders became chronic and severe.
The Loss of Companionship,
Comfort, and Self-Esteem
Not long ago, the rare individuals who lived into 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, as traditional family roles have fallen by the wayside, the sharing of work, wealth, and property among family members has become increasingly obsolete, and the nation state has increasingly assumed the primary responsibility for the welfare and support of the disabled, elderly, and impoverished members of society.
Surviving the Disharmonious Society:
Strategies for Achieving a More Harmonious Life
We who are the inhabitants of modern society can resist the worst effects of the disharmonious life by adopting new values and customs, including new habits of diet, exercise, companionship, and meditation.
Toward a More Harmonious Future:
Using Digital Technologies to Reform Society and Culture
How we can harness the power of computer technologies to change our diets, work habits, childrearing practices, and healthcare institutions—and begin to make our world and our lives more peaceful, more healthful, and more harmonious.