Modernity and Control

Sometimes I wonder whether humanity has made itself better off by choosing industrialization.  Are we really happier living long lives?  Was life more meaningful when expectancy was 30 but you had nature and love and tragedy?

But then I think that this expresses a characteristic modern conceit: that modernity is something we chose.  That it’s somehow less natural than the jungle that once hemmed us in.

The aluminum and plastic boarding tube in which I wait while queued to board my flight hems me in the way the jungle might have hemmed me in a thousand years ago.  I did not choose that it should arise and I certainly cannot stop it (as environmentalists have learned, bitterly).  I may think it’s a good thing and prefer it fervently, but that does not give me leave to ascribe my agency to it.

What sets modern culture so far apart from ancient culture is the conceit of control.  It’s so seductive: we produce our own environment!  But we do not control ourselves.

Yes, industrialization takes hard work and planning.  And that feels like control.  But think of it this way.  The history of the modern world is strewn with the carcasses of countries that didn’t industrialize and were stomped on by industrialized countries as a result (think China in the time of Empress Cixi).  Industrialization creates an arms race that makes industrialization indispensable.  North Korea might want in a sense little or no industrialization, but it still has to have enough to get nuclear weapons, otherwise it has no hope to persist.  Industrialization is power, and power is unavoidable.

Anyway, at some point, the conceit will wear off and we will relate to the forest of machines the way we used to relate to the forest primeval.