If you were to transport someone from the 1980’s to our age, they would be amazed by some things, like HD TV’s and streaming services. They would probably be a bit disappointed that the internet has not advanced very far or that cars are still pretty much the same as they were forty years ago. Of course, even the most jaded man of the 80’s would be shocked at the cultural revolution that has taken place. The thing that would be most shocking though, is the total collapse in social trust.
In the 1980’s, people generally thought most Democrats wanted to improve the lives of the working class and most Republicans wanted to protect the middle class. The media, while biased, had lots of people trying hard to get the facts to the public. Big business may have been motivated by greed, but most people in business were decent people. People who doubted everything were conspiracy nuts, who wore aluminum foil hats. 1980’s man would be astonished to see that only total fools trust anything in the public domain.
There are a lot of explanations for why no sensible person trusts anything now. The breakdown of homogeneous communities, mass immigration, the derangement of the civic religion by the Left, late phase empire and so on. All of these arguments are plausible in their own way and are all probably true to a degree. Human societies operate like the Julia set and the Fatou set. There are chaotic aspects that seem to defy explanation, but most of what happens in a society operates in a predictable manner.
An example of this may be how technology is changing a key relationship in Western societies that seldom gets addressed. That is the rise in the use of modern technology to insulate people from the consequences of their own behavior. This story on Zero Hedge about new Volvos threaten their drivers for driving drunk. The car will call the cops on you if it detects alcohol. Simply disabling itself is no longer seen as a enough to prevent people from self-harm, so now the car will initiate an intervention for the driver.
It is one thing to live in a world where no one can trust the public institutions. That’s something science fiction writers have imagined for a long time. There’s also nothing new with the surveillance state. The Orwellian idea of an omnipresent surveillance state, monitoring citizens as if they are prisoners is probably the most popular dystopian future in western pop culture. What no one thinks much about is a dystopian future where the state operates like an overly protective mother, rushing about to protect you from you.
That’s really what the Volvo business is about, when you think about it. It’s not about safety, as in protecting the innocent from the negligent. If that were the goal, the car would simply shutoff if the cabin sensors detected alcohol. The car notifying authorities is more like your teacher sending a note home to your parents, telling them you put gum in the hair of one of the other kids. In other words, Volvo is trying to protect you from you, with the threat of calling your parents if you don’t start acting responsibly.
Circling back to the rapid decline in social trust, what maybe happening is that these small technological changes are having drastic changes in our societies. Human societies are complex systems that have both a predictable, repetitive set of rhythms, but also a set of chaotic elements, that seem to be arbitrary. The predictable stuff, like putting up traffic speed cameras, has predictable results. People tend to be on their best behavior, as defined by social norms, when they know they are being watched.
Now, consider how children behave differently after exposure to the outside world. A part of growing up, at least it used to be, was finding out that the world was never going to be as forgiving of your mistakes as your mother. The adult world, relative to the safety of home, was a rough place. The normal process for a child transitioning from youth to adulthood was to go through a period of hyper-cynicism. Full maturity is when you realize the world is not out to get you, it is simply indifferent to your happiness.
In the evolving surveillance state, which promises to make sure citizens never have to leave the loving safety of mom, daily life is the repetition of that first realization that the world is a harsh place. That car with all the safety features did not keep you from hitting that tree and that seems unfair. The label on the shampoo bottle was not enough to prevent you from drinking it and that’s not right. Each of these realizations are met with greater demand for safety and greater efforts by the mommy state to protect us.
A great example is how gun control has become entirely feminized. In the 1970’s, gun control polices were about limiting crime. No one said it, but it was really about making it hard for blacks to get guns. It was a debate around facts about guns and crime. Today, gun grabbing is nothing more than an hysterical reaction by women to what they see on the news. It’s all about safety, by which they mean protecting people from themselves, not reducing crime. It’s mommy putting covers over the electrical sockets.
Perhaps one driver of the sudden decline in social trust is that technology now allows for the evolution of the custodial state. The future is not Orwell or Huxley, but both, operating like a mother and father, to protect us from reality. In this transition phase, modern people are regularly going through the jolt we associate with growing up, when you realize mom and dad were the only ones looking out for your interests. The cold wind of indifference and the loneliness it inspires, is making everyone into adolescent cynics.