The Coming Demise of the “Now” Culture?

Human beings have always been creatures of the present, as exemplified by the old saying, “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die.”  Admittedly, that was originally a soldiers’ mantra, but it is beginning to appear that it’s become almost a way of life now, especially in the United States.

The most obvious aspect of this is texting and tweeting, where people literally risk death to get largely meaningless messages right “now.”  Emails have replaced letters, and a plethora of text abbreviations have proliferated because so few want to spell out phrases – or can – and the result, regardless of protests to the contrary [which have also proliferated], is that language has been not only truncated but cheapened as more and more electronic communicators adopt simplistic abbreviations, rather than attempting to take the time to express their own feelings in their own words.  But then, it may be that they’re simply incapable of doing so.

But there’s another physical problem created by the “now” nature of the internet.  More and more, those who use it are turning from text to visual images, not to mention the various real-time streaming features, all of which consume enormous amounts of bandwidth.  In less than a decade, even with all the planned expansions, the entire internet/world-wide-web is likely to come to a screeching overload/traffic jam halt… unless tens of billions of dollars are invested in new and expanded infrastructure or some new compression or routing routines are adopted.  Even so, the speeds of today may soon be a thing of the past.

As I’ve noted a number of times, the business/corporate sector has been totally co-opted by the “now.”   Long-term planning is 18 months.  The value of a corporation is strictly based on current stock prices, revenues, and sales, and at the slightest whiff of news – good or bad – that value instantly changes. Corporations have spent hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions, to gain an advantage of little more than nanoseconds in securities trading.  Yet, over the past few years, we’ve had several “flash crashes” in the stock market, the last one resulting from hacked phony information fed from an AP account.  And yet, for all these warnings, the need and desire for “profit now,” has resulted in even greater reliance on high-speed, algorithm-based computerized program trading… putting the global banking and financial system at even greater risk.

We have an national infrastructure crisis, with millions of bridges needing repair, a national power grid that has become increasingly overloaded and fragile, scores of cities with inadequate highway and public transportation systems, an air traffic control system that is already antiquated and susceptible to disruptions, a hundred nuclear power plants with nowhere to dispose of their spent nuclear fuel,  civic water systems losing billions of gallons annually to leaky pipes and conduits – and a political system that won’t deal with any of it because the politicians are too fearful of a public that opposes any tax increases now, regardless of the long-term costs and implications.

As more than a few readers have noted, we also have a parenting problem – because far too many parents don’t want to deal with the present “unpleasantness” of disciplining their children, and because we have too many those same parents not wanting anyone else to impose restrictions on those children, we have marginal, if that, discipline in far too many schools, and far too many young people growing up with little or no idea of the conduct requirements necessary to obtain and hold a job – such as showing up for work every day and on time.

Although everyone pays great attention and lip service to education, the emphasis in practice is almost totally on the present.  How do we raise test scores?  How do we get graduation and retention rates up now? Or at the collegiate level, how can we change education so graduates get jobs now?  Everywhere is the complaint that the cost of higher education falls too heavily on the students, but what is the reaction from state legislatures, who used to fund a significant share of the costs of state universities?  No one wants to raise taxes now; so we’ll hire more part-time adjuncts at near starvation wages and continue to raise tuition.

And what are the other proposed popular solutions to problems in education?  Let’s reward teachers for improvements in testing, graduation, and retention.  Just where is the emphasis on critical thinking?  Or the discussion of what kind of education is relevant for what types of learners?  Or what type of education will foster the ability to allow students to keep learning once they’re out of the education system, something that’s particularly relevant given that, according to an NCES study, 40% of  Americans are either functionally illiterate or are only able to read on the most basic level.  Other studies show that from 33% to 42% of all college graduates will never read another complete book after graduation.

Another aspect of the “now” culture is the inability or unwillingness to look at the implications of current “now” trends.  The other day my wife walked into one of the largest department stores in Salt Lake City, a store that is one of hundreds of a national chain, and walked out, unable to buy anything because “the computers are down.”  What happens when sales and inventory, and even climate control [the air conditioning was “down,” too] are tied into systems that, because of their increasing complexity, are more prone to fail?   Last month, I had to re-schedule a doctor’s appointment because, when I got to the office, I was informed that the doctor couldn’t see me – or anyone else – because the computers were down and no one could access my medical records.  That’s not a big problem for a routine check-up; it’s a huge problem if the emergency room’s access to records goes down.   Banks are trying to become more efficient by greater reliance on electronic banking and ATMs.  What happens when there’s a power failure or a computer failure?  Or a terrorist hacking of the financial system – especially when so many Americans, especially those under 30 or so, don’t even carry any cash and instead rely on their debit or credit card – or their IPhone – to pay for goods and services?

A recent article in the New Yorker featured an interview with the head of the FBI’s cyber-crime unit.  The upshot was that, with a literal handful of exceptions, essentially every single computerized system in the United States is vulnerable to current “spear-phishing” information piracy.  This includes power plants and power distribution systems, air traffic control, public utilities, and all corporate headquarters, including high tech and defense contractors. Even classified plans, such as those for the F-35, the advanced strike fighter, have been pirated, most likely by the Chinese government.  And yet, computer systems security is woefully underfunded at a time when everyone is using more and more computers for more and more information transfer.

Unless matters change, and quickly, I worry that the “now” generation may well end up having neither a “now” nor much of a future.  But then, the future’s not now… so almost no one seems to worry as much as I do.

8 thoughts on “The Coming Demise of the “Now” Culture?”

  1. j says:

    Nassim Taleb has written about some of these issues, especially the risk created by over-optimization and lack of redundancy. I think you would like his most recent book, Antifragile, if you haven’t already read it. A disaster seems inevitable at some near but unpredictable time in the future. But not a big enough disaster to force those in charge to fix anything. Just a medium scale disaster that puts millions more out of work.

  2. Corwin says:

    I agree totally with everything you say. I see the same trends here in Australia and as someone of your vintage, I don’t like it either. Sadly, politicians refuse to look beyond the next election and remain at the core of this NOW generation.

  3. Jay Oyster says:

    One of my favorite non-fiction books is ‘The Demon-Haunted World’ by Carl Sagan, published in 1995. It basically explains skeptical thinking to non-scientists. But in the early 90’s, Sagan was concern about just the issue you mentioned, the fact that U.S. culture is increasingly depending on the ‘high priests of technology’ to keep everything running, because the general population has never bothered to learn how things actually work. It is a real trend that we will have to deal with, but don’t forget that human society is never that simple. There are counter-trends as well. I see the Maker movement as a positive development in which non-priests are learning the sacraments. And the phenomena of myth-busting and Snopes investigations of Internet memes is a rudimentary, pop-culture-based process of teaching people critical thinking.

    The key problem however is one that we have often tried to overlook in the past century . . . human culture cannot keep up with the rapid pace of technological change. When the world changes too rapidly, forces build up within human society that will eventually need to be released. Unfortunately, and typically, it happens just like an earthquake . . uncontrolled and destructive. We seem to have given up on (or are actively destroying) the tools that society has created to attempt to handle such things with intelligence and planning. Government, Keynesian economic theory, robust middle classes, universal education that teaches skepticism and self-discipline . . . all either actively scorned or subversively undermined. I fear that events similar to those that occurred from 1914 to 1945 will happen once again, only this time in a world far more strained for resources and overpopulated with willfully ignorant human beings.

  4. Ryan Jackson says:

    Just as a bit of fun fact regarding computer security.

    I work in that industry to an extent. That is to say I work as a criminal investigator for one of the biggest credit cards in the world. Part of that involves security breahces and hacking.

    Going off a bit older numbers. A highly rated, recognized and skilled security company, one headed by one of the best criminal investigators and forensic analysts I’ve ever met. Found out, when looking through a years worth of work, that about 6 or 7 out of every 10 breaches could have been avoided if the company in question had picked a good password, or even just changed off the default password when they installed their security. Another 1 or 2 out of the ten could have avoided their problems with regular updates of their software.

    While Information Security is not funded as well as it could be, there is a far greater issue in people just not taking it seriously. If you look through the history of any major computer breach. You’ll notice that not once has it ever been a major credit card. You will not see reports of Visa, American Express, Mastercard or Discover getting hacked. Because all four of them take their security VERY seriously and poor all the effort and money needed into it. They’re not doing anything special that other companies can’t do. They’re just taking the time to pay attention.

  5. Kanonfodder says:

    Just throwing out the comment about your latest series of five books in the Imager series. This is really some of your best work to date with micro/macro human dynamics and motivations from personal points of view stuff to date.

    I’ve read all of your books, and I can see a more refined and detailed image. of the points you are trying to convey to the attentive reader, with each progression.

    I have especially enjoyed your latest pentalogy so far. The examples, sermons, and situations are some of your best, and examples I would use to teach other people.

    Keep up the good work, and now I’m back to Antiagon Fire…it pays to hit your bookstore and ask if the book is in stock if it doesn’t have a hard laydown date and they bring it out of the back.

    P.S. I once made a comment about 97% of Utah being federally owned…that wasn’t right, that number 97, I think it is that 97% of the natural resources Utah are on federal land.

    Keep up the good work, your books are in my SHTF vault to teach others.

  6. Brian says:

    I’ve been remiss in complimenting you upon ‘Princeps’ and ‘Imager’s Battalion’. I’m catching up on your blogs today for the first time in a about a month.

    On a Friday in April, the wind blew over a tree during an ice storm and took out the power lines. While I waited for the repair crew to arrive (it took 40 hours) I curled up in front of the wood stove (the temperature outside didn’t get much above freezing for the whole time) and finished ‘Princeps’. Excellent read! I thoroughly enjoy the characters and the story. I was pleased that I had a “Whoa!! Never saw that coming!!!” moment on pages 477-479 of the paperback edition (and I won’t say what it was for those who have yet to read it).

    At the beginning of April, my laptop got a virus and I had to get the hard drive wiped and my software reinstalled. During that time I finished “Imager’s Battalion”. The situations and the common sense philosophical ‘food for thought’ made for a thoroughly enjoyable read and reflection; extremism gets punished is a principle even our hero can’t escape the consequences.

    “Antiagon Fire” is due out in Canada on the 28th of May. There is no way I can wait for the paperback. I plan to have a copy next week. I just hope that a third calamity doesn’t occur and give me the time to read it more quickly than I’ve planned.

    Thanks again for your entertaining and thought provoking books. I look forward to diving into (I assume) Quaeryt’s last adventure.

  7. Rex Regis is certainly the last book I have planned about Quaeryt and Vaelora.

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