One of my favorite riffs is on the color and style of automobiles today versus fifty years ago. If you walked through a typical American parking lot in 1968, you would have seen cars with fins, lots of chrome, a variety of colors and lots of brash styling. The colors would be what jumps out to the modern eye. Today, the three most popular colors today are gray, black and white. Fifty years ago, green, yellow, teal, blue, red and orange were the popular colors.
Like East German architecture, modern American aesthetics is something close to brutalism. Design is the slave of utility, or at least claims to utility. Our cars may be aerodynamic and efficient, but they are ugly and dull. The argument is the people want their cars ugly and dull and maybe so, but why has a vibrant enthusiastic people suddenly decided to live in a black and white movie?
The reason is that dreaded word “efficient.” It is the universal excuse for sucking the fun out of everything. Safety is its traveling partner, wreaking havoc on mankind. This Randall Parker post on self-driving cars is a good example of how it works. Self-driving cars will be “better” in the sense they will be more efficient. Then they will be considered safer as the technology exceeds the driving ability of the typical teenage driver. That’s when they become mandatory. Driving, as a simple pleasure, will be banned.
In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes wrote that the state of nature was the condition outside the political community or anarchy. He famously wrote that:
“In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently, not culture of the earth, no navigation, nor the use of commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Hobbes was not terribly wrong about pre-settlement man. Life was violent and uncertain. It was not a war of man against man, but more of a war between extended families whenever they bumped into one another. The lack of trust, beyond blood ties, made industry, commerce and the storing of value impossible. Therefore, civilization, properly understood, was impossible. Even early settlement was marked by high levels of violence. Getting murdered was pretty common right into the Middle Ages.
What was impossible for Hobbes to contemplate was the other end of the spectrum. Totalitarianism was an impossibility and not something worth considering in the 17th century. The custodial state was unimaginable. I would imagine if you went back in time and described the modern social democracy to 17th century intellectuals, they would assume you were driven mad by time travel. Regardless, we are heading toward that polar opposite of the state of nature. Instead of a lawless world of anarchy, we will soon live in a world of total law and absolute order.
That future will be sterile, dull and short. The brevity will be entirely driven by the sterility and the dullness. Declining fertility rates are a direct result of the dreary dullness of modern times. The decision of a people to stop reproducing is just another way of saying they wish they had never been born. After all, you bring children into the world because you expect them to stand upon your shoulders. Children are about optimism. People don’t bring children into a dangerous or violent world, unless they expect things to get better. It turns out that they don’t bring children into a dull, sterile world either. The leaden sky obscures any possibility of a brighter future, so having children makes less sense.
Aldous Huxley, another smart Brit, got a lot right about the future. In Brave New World, the Savage eventually kills himself rather than conform to the dull stability of the World State. I suspect that’s going to be a feature of daily life in the not so distinct future. Japan has always had a high suicide rate. In American, people are offing themselves more often. Europeans are making a business of calling it quits.
The great fear of critics of consumerism in the last century was that we would amuse ourselves to death. Entertainments would crowd out information, making it impossible for society to produce intelligent citizens or make thoughtful, collective action. It turns out that we will be boring ourselves to death. Everything that brings happiness will be regulated, controlled and eventually banned, in the name of safety and efficiency.