Alexander Pope was an 18th century English poet. He is perhaps most famous for being a satirist. His poem “The Dunciad,” for example, celebrates, satirically of course, a goddess called Dulness, as she spreads, through her chosen agents, decay, imbecility, and tastelessness. Yet Pope was no cynic, and his poetry was often uplifting.
One of his most famous quotes comes from his poem “An Essay on Man.” In it he argues that while the universe may seem uncaring or even hostile to us, we should realize that there is a natural order, that we are part of it, and that this order was created by God. The poem begins with:
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of Mankind is Man
Humanity has a remarkably poor understanding of itself. It has a perfectly good planet, capable of supporting incredible numbers of human beings comfortably. Yet humanity insists on inflicting enormous amounts of suffering upon itself. It stumbles along, often stagnating in dark places, or drifting into self-destructive extremism of one sort or another. Like a little parentless child getting stung by a wasp here or falling into a stumphole there, humanity lurches from one self-inflicted crisis to another because it doesn’t understand itself. It doesn’t understand its own vulnerabilities, its motivations, its evolutionary baggage. It’s beginning to, though.
For the first time in human history, we human beings are actually beginning to get at what really makes us tick. Why do we behave the way we do? What is it we really want? Why do we so often insist on behaving in self-destructive ways? How do we organize society so that people are happy and healthy?
In the classic movie Born Yesterday, Billie tells her tutor, Paul Verrall, “So as long as I know how to get what I want, that’s all I wanna know.” “As long as you know what you want,” he replies. How often do we find ourselves driven toward a goal, only to discover upon reaching it that we are still unsatisfied? Maybe we CAN’T be satisfied.
In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the ship’s android, Commander Data, creates another android, a child if you will. “I watch them and I can do the things they do, but I will never feel the emotions,” she tells him. “I’ll never know love.” “It is a limitation we must learn to accept, Lal,” he replies. “Then why do you still try to emulate humans?” she implores. “What purpose does it serve except to remind you that you are incomplete?” “I have asked myself that many times, as I have struggled to be more human,” Data answers. “Until I realized it is the struggle itself that is most important. We must strive to be more than we are, Lal. It does not matter that we will never reach our ultimate goal. The effort yields its own rewards.”
We humans cannot seem to abide stagnation. For this reason, it’s unlikely we can be satisfied with an unchanging environment, no matter how pleasant. A perfection that doesn’t include change would be no perfection at all. But this does not alter the reality that there are such things as suffering and pleasure, misery and joy, oppression and freedom, frustration and fulfillment. We can look around the world and see what conditions promote human happiness – good health care systems, good incomes, low crime, political freedom, low levels of government corruption. Yet relief from suffering, let alone anything approaching happiness or fulfillment, is still out of reach for many.
One of the things we are beginning to understand is how much of who we are is beneath the surface. There have been hints of this for decades from the field of psychology. But in this century we are really beginning to get a handle on the processes of perception, emotion, and cognition. Human qualities that have seemed elusive and intangible, like attention, motivation, creativity, and intuition are found to be not so elusive, as science and technology give the human mind the tools it needs to truly understand itself.
Because so much of what we do occurs subconsciously, psychologists and neuroscientists have had to be quite clever in uncovering these processes. In some cases people with very specific brain damage have given us tremendous insights. There is the phenomenon called prosopagnosia, for example. It is often caused by damage to a part of the brain called the fusiform gyrus. A person with this condition does not recognize faces, not even their own. Yet their visual recognition in general is unaffected.
Brain scans have revolutionized our understanding of the relationships between emotion, cognition, and neural activity. We can actually see the brain’s circuitry in action while a person is engaged in this or that activity. We are unraveling the chemical processes in the brain that occur when we perceive rewards. We are unlocking the process by which genes are expressed in the brain, and observing the changes in brain activity as human beings develop. We know that some mental processes are pretty localized within the brain. Others are highly distributed. We also know that we can stimulate certain areas of the brain and produce specific effects.
One of the most important elements in our advancement of the science of the mind is the digital computer, not only because it has enabled us to produce brain scans in real time, but because we are seeing clearly that processes we have thought of as “mental” can be performed by digital circuits. No serious neuroscientist now doubts that the human mind is a direct result of the activity of the human brain, and the human brain is an electrochemical machine. Although there is still plenty of debate about whether a digital computer can actually duplicate what the brain does, the matter of whether SOME sort of machine could, in principle, do it, is settled.
Meanwhile, digital computers have achieved sophisticated analysis, creativity, language, and adaptation. They are well on their way to surpassing human beings in all of these areas. Some believe that in the future we will see a kind of melding of humans with machines – that essentially we will see beings that we would still call human, but whose abilities will be far beyond those of any historical human. In any case, with the help of sophisticated analysis, we are almost certain to get a much better handle on why we tick in this century.
One question that will inevitably be resolved is this: Can genuine democracy really work? For most of human history, we had dictatorships. The few maintained their power over the many through force. Eventually democracy, of a sort, came along. At first, power was still concentrated in the hands of a few. But over time, enfranchisement has broadened, economic power has broadened, and intolerance has lost a great deal of its former legitimacy. Yet political participation is still very much concentrated in the hands of a relative few. The masses are still controlled – just not with the threat of violence. They are controlled with propaganda – what Edward Bernays, the father of public relations, called the engineering of consent.
Bernays argued that the masses can be readily manipulated, to the point that they merely “rubber stamp” the opinions that are properly fed to them by the manipulators. His views on this are worth repeating here: “The amazing readiness with which large masses accept this process is probably accounted for by the fact that no attempt is made to convince them that black is white. Instead, their preconceived hazy ideas that a certain gray is almost black or almost white are brought into sharper focus. Their prejudices, notions, and convictions are used as a starting point, with the result that they are drawn by a thread into passionate adherence to a given mental picture.” This is the state of so-called democracy in the world today. The masses of people have never been trusted with matters of great import. Instead their consent is engineered.
Can it be otherwise? Genuine democracy requires that individual human beings be amenable to evidence and reason. There are those, plenty in academia, who would argue that the masses are too susceptible to their own subconscious motivations. That left to their own devices, they will fall into the hands of hucksters and fascists. That well-intentioned manipulation is the only way to keep any semblance of democracy going.
One of the most fundamental concepts of democracy is the “free market of ideas.” It is assumed that as long as everyone is able to contribute to the public space, the bad ideas will be filtered out. Long before social media appeared, democracy-lovers were looking forward to decentralized media. Governments and power-mongers, they argued, would not be able to control the narrative and stifle dissent. Democracy would prosper and come to full fruition.
Now that we actually have social media, things have not exactly turned out as hoped. Platforms like Facebook were never intended to be used for political propaganda. But they are. The result? The unfiltered “free market of ideas” seems to consist of a proliferation of fact-free propaganda, an enhancement of tribalism via the creation of echo chambers, and a general loss of civility.
Research on social media is suggesting that falsehoods often proliferate more effectively than truths. This is really not too surprising. Most any collection of so-called “science” programming will include numerous shows on alien abduction, bigfoot, Atlantis, an imminent apocalypse, and so on. Years ago, Jerry Seinfeld played a history teacher in a hilarious Saturday Night Live skit, trying to educate his students about World War II – surely one of the most attention-grabbing episodes in history. “What did the Nazis do? Let’s think!” he implored them. One of the students replied, “Oh, they tried to steal that lost ark and their faces melted at the end.” Contrary to the wishful thinking of many professional educators, the real world of science, mathematics, and history is simply not as attention-grabbing as properly packaged fiction.
In the past, entry into the media space was filtered through journalists. Journalists are educated to have a fundamental respect for evidence and reason. They are educated in history. They understand how the masses can be manipulated by power-seekers. And they are taught to adhere to certain standards of evidence and reason. The “free market of ideas” is fine, but not divorced from evidence and reason. What is quite noticeable is that journalists as well as many American politicians, of every political stripe, are pushing back hard against attempts to subvert democratic norms, promulgate falsehoods, and put party or ideology ahead of country. The alarms bells are sounding, and the media itself is responding to these alarms with a lot more fact-checking and introspection.
This tells me that America has come too far and seen too much to allow its institutions and norms to be subverted. It will not allow itself to slide into dictatorship. Even so, I think it will get much harder for the country to avoid uncomfortable truths about the “free market” and its relationship to democracy. Social media platforms are the logical conclusion of a problem that has plagued our media for decades – the intrusion of the profit imperative into our public spaces. Giving people what they “want” for the sake of profit does not translate into democratic governance. On the contrary. If catering to people’s prejudices and fears, feeding their need for social acceptance, and manipulating their basic desire for instant entertainment puts enormous profits into your pocket – well, why would we think any of this would lead to an educated, informed citizenry, relying on evidence and reason to make good political decisions? 21st century technology is forcing us to confront this.
Part of basic education in a democracy must include the tools needed to defend against manipulation and hucksterism. My belief is that at some point it will become impossible to ignore the need for critical thinking as a fundamental part of basic education. Long-held assumptions, that somehow things are going to work out on their own, if we just ignore uncomfortable, deep questions about ourselves, are not going to stand up to the rapid advance of technology. We will have to start having national and international conversations about our vulnerabilities as human beings. We will have to understand ourselves, much better than we do. Are we capable of genuine democracy? I really don’t know.
In the 19th century America faced a crisis over slavery. It found that it could not stand still, it was either move forward or self-destruct. It moved forward, but at great cost. In the 20th century America faced another crisis, the spread of fascism. Again we found that the problem could not be ignored, it was either move forward or be destroyed. Again we moved forward, again at great cost. In the 21st century we will likely face another crisis, over the issue of the “free market” and the manipulation of the masses for profit. Again I think we will find that it’s either move forward or self-destruct. I think it will be the former. But perhaps at great cost.