Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Autism or Infantilism?

While I enjoy Andrew Keen's writing and admire him for entertaining the proposition that "the Internet is killing our culture," my own interests have led me to explore a malady of greater depth and breadth. Yesterday I suggested that a more critical question was whether or not we were become a culture, not of amateurism, but of autism. During the summer I pursued another perspective, that of the infantilism of our culture, manifested by symptoms such as our adoption of a lifestyle best depicted by the Eloi of H. G. Wells' Time Machine or our passionate and unreflective embrace of what I called "Secular Messianism." The proposition that we are turning into a nation of Eloi was reinforced today by an article for SPIEGEL ONLINE by Frank Hornig, published under the header "Oursourcing your Personal Life." Hornig has tried to assess the scope of the impact that outsourcing (still, as a rule, to a call center in India) has had on our day-to-day activities. Here is the lead to his story:

When asked to describe his new life, Michael Levy goes into rhapsodies. "You become lazy," he says. "It's just wonderful."

Up until this summer, the 42-year-old led a normal middle-class life in New York, working as a lawyer for the Department of Justice. Lately, though, he's had an entire staff at his disposal, who take care of his personal life around the clock.

Take, for example, a recent situation in Las Vegas, where Levy was holding his bachelor party. Sitting at the poker table with friends, he didn't feel like discussing the room arrangements personally with the hotel reception. "Please call and tell them to put an extra bed in room 21057," he instructed his assistant by e-mail via his Blackberry. Personal secretaries also arranged bridal shop appointments for Levy's fiancée before the wedding, and organized tuxedo rental for the guests.

Hornig's basic thesis is that the technology behind outsourcing to an Indian call center now makes it possible for middle-class Americans to have a servant class at their disposal. Furthermore, that servant class comes at an affordable rate: $29 per month for Levy. Presumably, even if his feelings about our President have changed, Tom Friedman is still holding up stories like this as examples of the virtues of globalization; but, from my own point of view, the real punch line is in that first quote from Levy himself. Wells' Eloi were peaceful and physically attractive; but they were also lazy, because, by their very nature, they did not have to do anything. Put another way, if the Catholics are currently down on Philip Pullman for attacking their institution, Wells did nothing less than deconstruct the Garden of Eden into a sociopathic breeding ground; and Hornig has turned this into a one-two punch by demonstrating that the American middle class (if not the middle class of the industrialized world) has embraced that sociopathy with all of its passion.

For Wells probably the greater tragedy of the Eloi was not that they were lazy but that they were unreflective. The underlying cause is still the same. If one does not have to act out of necessity, one hardly needs to act at all; and, if one does not act, one does not have to anticipate the consequences of one's actions. There is that word again. Through our inability to reflect on consequences (or, for that matter, to even recognize that consequences exist and require reflection), we have become a culture that "can't solve our problems any more;" and we react by turning even the slightest of our problems over to an Indian call center. As a result, we are as "mindless and ineffectual" as the Eloi; and we are in it so deep that we can no longer see what we have become. Perhaps this is the "whimper" to which the world will succumb, at least according to the "gospel" of the "Reverend" T. S. Eliot.

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