Ben Sixsmith, DCNF
As someone who is not American, my prevailing image of the U.S. has been one of an enormous, extravagant carnival. Static geographically but traveling existentially, it teems with the exotic and the entertaining. Are there carnies trying to rip off naive souls? Of course. Is there a House of Horrors? Sure. But the whole is still vivid and life-affirming.
This image, idealistic as it is, is under threat. Money-grubbing contractors are ramping up prices. Humorless scolds in management are closing the best rides. Below the surface, meanwhile, thieves are running rampant and the bodies of the sick and injured stud the fairground. The American carnival looks like a less fun, more dangerous place to be.
I don’t want this metaphor to outlive its welcome. My point, however, is that the U.S. is, in different aspects, becoming both more sterile and more dangerous as a place to live.
The behavior of law-abiding people is more coldly and irrationally regulated. Elite hypochondriacs, for example, are trying to insist that schoolchildren wear masks — an insistence that is not only oppressive but ignores the facts that (a) young people face minimal risk and (b) most masks have minimal effects on transmission.
At the bottom of society, meanwhile, many areas of the U.S. have been declining into a mess of crime, drug addiction and mental illness (ably explored by Mike Shellenberger in his recent book “San Fran-Sicko”). Murder rates rose sharply in 2021, and deaths from opioid abuse – especially synthetic opioids like fentanyl – have been soaring for years.
All of these problems have causes as various as their effects. In this essay, though, I will focus on one last disorder of the carnival that I believe affects them all: that of its technicians. The U.S. has led the world in terms of technological development, of course, leading to awesome and frightening innovations from space travel to the nuclear bomb.
Good and bad, such technological development has made the U.S. more powerfully strange and inspiring. The carnival might scare us but it is a sight to see. More recent technological advances do not have this sensational quality. Too often, they are atomising and enervating, with vital experience replaced by simulacra.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made this vividly clear. Work is done remotely, thanks to social media applications such as Skype and Zoom. Romance is pursued in a fleeting and fragmented manner through dating apps when it is not replaced by games and porn. Remote work and online dating can be valuable, of course, but the dehumanizing tendencies inherent to projects like “the Metaverse” and ideological projects like “the Great Reset” treat the excesses of these patterns less as vices than as virtues. Lone consumers have more disposable income, after all, and virtual carnivals have fewer costs.
So, people may continue to marry less, form fewer relationship, have fewer kids, have fewer friends and spend less time outdoors, for various reasons, of course, but partly due to technological and ideological enablement. The psychic consequences affect everything from middle-class neuroticism to working class dysfunction. It seems perverse that America is leading this. Even the fiercest critics of the nation associate it more with violent excess than with cultural and social infecundity.
Thus, American innovators must renew the commingling of the imaginative and the organic that makes us, as the critic James Poulos puts it in the title of his recent book, human forever. It is time to build, as Marc Andreessen wrote in 2020, concrete things rather than the idea of them. Technology should inspire our imaginations rather than merely smoothing the path of life. Say what you like about Elon Musk — and I find his Neuralink project rather sinister — but he understands this.
Technological and industrial production should enhance our communal life, by making public spaces safer and more beautiful, by giving people more time for family members and friends, and by stimulating thought and play more than passive and vicarious amusement. Culture, as Joseph Keegin and Micah Meadowcroft have written, demands “uncovering the fullness of the human person from where it lies buried beneath technicity.”
Of course, one can hardly deny the market appeal of our amusements, from Amazon Prime to Instagram. Yet as well as facing the disorders of atomisation, we should recognize how cultural life is saturated in nostalgia, from its endless reboots, prequels, sequels and re-tellings to our fascination for the retro and the vintage.
For all the ubiquity of progressive presentism, our imaginations dwell in the past. Clearly, much has been lost, in spiritual as well as material terms. The U.S. has to refresh the color and vividness of the carnival, which has inspired so many people at home and abroad.
Ben Sixsmith is an English writer who has written for The Spectator, Quillette, First Things and the American Conservative, among other publications.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller News Foundation.
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