Human beings work best when they are recognised by others as "members" of the group. Maintaining your "membership" demands that you are recognised as a modern person by other people. This essay explores what being a modern person might demand.
You can cease to be a member of your community for reasons of age, or training, or experience, or culture, other people no longer see you as one of them. If you can't get selected in the team, you can't play the game. So I began to think about what a modern person should be, and to make an effort to become one.
To become a "modern person" you need to understand who you are in the context of being a member of your own local community. Hence what is appropriate for me may not be appropriate for you, or may not be appropriate in your local community context.
The alternative to being a modern person is to be a person deprived of power. People without power are told what to do, told where to go and how to behave. People without power are offered the jobs other people don't want at menial rates of pay. People without power learn to defend themselves by becoming tribal people. They join gangs of various types seeking collective security. Some of these groups operate openly and legally, others are pushed to the margins and are illegal.
In New Zealand in the past 20 years companies and government departments have downsized, and government has withdrawn from as much commercial activity as possible. This is called deregulation and light-handed management. New Zealand is almost fully exposed to every change in the international economic climate. (The USA, which claims to be a champion of free trade is highly regulated, compared with us.)
In particular we are exposed to the unpleasant fact the world pay rate for labor is about as much per day as most of us expect to earn every hour. Goods are relatively cheap in New Zealand, but many industries that once thrived here have ceased to be. Trade unions have been decimated by changes in the law and the fact that there's no demand for labor. New Zealand society is being described as "atomistic" in the sense that we are split apart into individual units.
New Zealand is an early adopter of new technology. Internet use here is behind the USA, but not far behind. The number of ISP connections per 1000 people in NZ is high. Even so the community is dividing into those who use the Internet intensively every day, and those who only use it on a casual basis. The Internet is certainly changing what it means to be a modern person.
I've looked through my journal over recent months and made a new list of characteristics of modern people. Below is the 1999 version. I can't be sure how helpful this is. My list of characteristics makes sense to me, but it's quite unlike any list of desirable characteristics I've seen before. The list arises from my journal, from my unique collection of data. The information I can extract from my journal is likely to be adapted to me and my community. I trust the view I've developed as it applies to me.
Being a "modern person" (1999)
Only after working on this essay for many hours did I realize that the 1999 list is much more idealized than the 1992 list. Those changes are largely the effect of my experience on the Internet.
How do I cope in trying to live as a modern person? I spend about two hours a day just processing data for personal reasons. I am a member of four specialist lists, and I get most of my "news" from non-commercial radio or from my social network.
Generally I don't search the WWW unless I know what I'm looking for. I listen to the radio in background mode 3-4 hours a day. I read a lot, but not fiction, and in recent times not usually books. I don't write in my journal daily. I tend to have bursts of enthusiasm for writing (2-3 times most weeks.) and I usually explore the connection between my life and the world. Finding time to exercise (dancing and running) is a problem.
The philosopher Nietzsche said, "Every idealism that ignores reality is a damaging illusion." Love may be such an illusion. If the love is overplayed, unrealistic, an infatuation, there is a sharing of pseudo-information, each kiss is like a poisoned kiss. Eventually the "great love" is revealed as "a false love." False data, pseudo-information, propaganda and false statements are the poison that a modern person must defend against.
This is a significant challenge to people who live in the information age or a knowledge based society. The art world has been torn by misrepresentations of grand masters. There have been many cases where "Rembrandt's" sold by the most reputable agents still turn out to be "fakes". Buyers are not very happy to know that the very nice painting, is still a nice painting, even if it's not a Rembrandt. The lesson here is that each of us has to be responsible for our own decisions about what has value.
Tribal people live by superstition and fear. The tribal leaders chose the way; and acceptance of the elders view is expected. Modern people need to deal with real data, and develop an independant of viewpoint, yet not so independent that one is seen to be outside the team. Having your own carefully selected and evaluated data puts you a step ahead. Not having your own data forces you to rely on the information other people offer you. This is equivalent to outsourcing your ability to think and evaluate.
A modern person tries to live in the real world. That demands the ability to deal with huge amounts of data every day. The process of continually rejecting a flow of data, be it advertising, propaganda or other irrelevant communication, impacts on stress levels. A modern person will turn off most of that noise, listen to select radio stations, read only a small section of the newspaper, and watch minimal television.
Advertising at a modern person is likely to be ineffective. He or she is turned off or tuned out. Life is filled with more important and more interesting things to do than consuming political and commercial propaganda.
Each individual needs to construct an inventory of skills and knowledge so that he or she can become "a good instrument" in the community. In making that choice you decide who you will be. You choose the "myth" that you will live by, the story of your life. This choice finally answers the question "who owns you?" To what source of influence or authority do you defer? What is the source of legitimacy?"
This story replaces the authority of the tribe, replaces chaos, and also provides you with a clear identity. People who do not have the courage to choose who they will be, remain tribal people rather than becoming "modern people". Living your story allows other modern people to recognize you as a member. If you maintain a journal it will contain lots of evidence of who you are and what's important in your life.
We develop an allegiance to certain products, beliefs and behaviours that seem to be part of us. Everyone has interests to protect, reputations, sources of income, power bases, friends and family, or ways to have fun. Protecting these interests may appear more important in the short run than the truth.
Our allegiances prevent us from making the best decisions. In order to be seen as responsible and professional we are forced into positions where each "problem" has a "solution" but we also need to be "right" at all costs. We are forced to compromise. Accepting the lies that support our allegiances as "truth" is destructive to our normal defenses against harm. We judge ourselves by our intention and we judge others by what they do.
When things go wrong for us we invent stories to cover our tracks. There is likely to be a touch of fraud in our lives. We don't deal with that fraud even when we become aware of it. We agree not to rock the boat. We become selectively aware of what's happening, or selectively blind to what we don't want to know about. There is a conspiracy of denial that aims to maintain status, respect, membership and incomes.
A modern person is not immune to having conflicting allegiances and confused values. However a modern person is more likely to be aware of these conflicts and may on occasion be able to draw attention to the problem.
In a society where good information is critical, our entire mode of operation is sabotaged if the information base is corrupted. If our information is unreliable there can be no knowledge based society, in the extreme case no civil society at all.
Martin Luther discovered that the price of standing up for the truth was likely to be death. He had been the idol of the Church, the shining light among its scholars. Yet by following that path and being true to what he knew, he came into direct conflict with the Church, and an outcast from it.
If the knowledge based society becomes a reality, people who have that sort of personal integrity will be sorely needed. That's why I think those who maintain journals have much to offer. Journal writers seek to understand and become defenders of the truth as they know it. That stance has an honourable place in the history of the world.
A modern person understands the critical role that knowledge plays in daily life. Modern people are human, they can make mistakes, but they also have self knowledge. They look in the mirror and see what's really there, they see with open eyes. Modern people know that for themselves most things can be changed by attitude, by action and by choosing friends wisely.
We can create "hell on earth" for the whole world, environmental destruction, economic chaos, resource wars, corrupt religious and political practices, the enslavement of impoverished people is the possible future most easily achieved. When millions of people understand the need, each one at a personal level and each community at a local level, building a new world might be possible.
When I was a child I dreamed of a better world. I fully expected that by now we might be some way towards that objective. That's not the case. I am responsible for the shambles we have made. I have a vision now of what went wrong and why, but far too late. Many of the ideas that I've supported for much of my life are themselves the problem. I can't be sure now that good outcomes are possible, but I know we must try. Perhaps that understanding is the mark of a modern person.