Changing World, Unchanging Perceptions

Every year the world changes, but in the beginning of human culture the changes would have been few and slow. But technology, even stone age technology, increases the rate and scope of change, and humans now have more technology than ever, to the point where, at present, the world changes far more quickly than do the perceptions of most people.

Those changes create perceptual conflicts. The other day someone commented on this blog that most Americans don’t live in cities. For most of U.S. history, that was true – up until 1920. Since then the population in “urban areas,” which includes small towns, has increased from half the population to over 80%. Some might say that denser and larger cities still hold only a small percent of the population, but since 2010, the top 48 urban areas, i.e., the big cities, have held more than half the U.S. population, and the suburbs, while growing, only hold 25% of the U.S. population. Yet a significant large percentage of Americans still hew to a more rural or suburban perception of where people live, and that perception strongly influences their politics and voting behavior.

More than a few months ago, I made the observation that the substandard minimum wage was effectively a subsidy for corporations and for small businesses. I won’t say that observation was disputed, but it’s a fact that’s been ignored or minimized, and recent changes in habits and demographics support my observation. Why are there so many low wage jobs going begging? The direct reason is that not enough people want to work for those wages, and there are several factors.

First, legal immigration of people who will accept those wages has been reduced and greater emphasis on requiring legal credentials [real or forged] has reduced the number of illegal immigrants inside the U.S. who can and will work, because getting caught working illegally will result in deportation.

Second, fewer and fewer young Americans are willing to take such jobs, and the reason they won’t is that they don’t have to. When I was that age, to be able to do what I wanted to do required cash. Any form of entertainment required money – for movies, drive-ins, taking girls out on a date, gasoline and insurance for my old 1952 Ford, even for clothes because, back then, clothes mattered, and while prices were much lower, without income, I was essentially isolated, except at school. Technology has changed all that. Teenagers today don’t have to meet personally; they have cellphones. They have more access to almost costless entertainment on any given day than my generation had in total over their entire teenage years. They don’t date, for the most part; they hang out. They’re not as interested in clothes, and, in real dollar terms, basic clothing is cheaper. All those changes mean that they need far less money for their non-scholastic pursuits. Then, too, because the job market for skilled professionals is getting tighter, many college students opt for professional “internships,” rather than part-time jobs, to increase their attractiveness after graduation. All this means that far fewer teenagers and young Americans are interested in taking what they regard as shitty low-paying jobs.

Americans and small businesses, in particular, have come to depend on goods and services created by cheap labor, subsidized by the ever-decreasing real value of the minimum wage. But with automation and technological change, those small businesses often can’t afford either to pay more or to adapt. Larger businesses automate and hire fewer people at all pay levels, where real pay is lower, except at the very highest levels.

The growth of cheap and personally selective mass communications, as I’ve noted earlier, has reduced social cohesiveness and increased political polarization, and that polarization has resulted in zoning and political climates that reduce the amount of affordable housing for poorer Americans, and that often means they can’t afford to live where there are jobs because those jobs won’t pay for higher lodging costs.

The massive growth of fossil fuels has created increasingly negative environmental effects, but, until recently, despite scientists pointing out the problems, most people’s perceptions wouldn’t allow them to see or accept what was happening, particularly when the need to reduce pollution costs jobs in high-polluting basic industries such as coal and oil and where the jobs that do exist are fewer and require greater levels of skill.

The real danger is that people can’t or won’t mentally accept, adapt, and react constructively to the rapidity and scope of the changes created by our growing reliance on technology and that they’ll react angrily to those changes which affect them adversely and ignore or take for granted the hundreds of changes that have improved their lives – and those reactions are based on perceptions of a world that no longer exists… and one that sometimes never did.

And to top it all off, technology has also massively increased the production and distribution of highly effective firearms at a time when frustration and anger are increasing.

We’re seeing that anger everywhere, and I don’t see it vanishing any time soon.

5 thoughts on “Changing World, Unchanging Perceptions”

  1. KTL says:

    Sir,

    This is one of your best discussions since I’ve been reading the blog. I’m sure we’ve all felt that certain technological changes we face at any given time are a real personal pain and either unnecessary or are part of a world that is changing too rapidly (today I visited my doctor for an appointment and noted the prevalence of automatic soap and paper towel dispensers and water faucet initiation – all through optical sensors that can be prone to failure if not maintained. Since I was in a good mood, I let this one pass without much concern. It’s just the way it is). I’d not thought so much that the pace will continue unabated in both favorable and unfavorable ways.

    The whole notion of these changes and their impact on large populations sounds like the basis of a good sci-fi novel. Any recommendations? 😀

    1. Tim says:

      Asimov’s Caves of Steel springs to mind as a possible and awful end-game.

  2. Tom says:

    … a significant large percentage of Americans still hew to a more rural or suburban perception of where people live, and that perception strongly influences their politics and voting behavior.

    … The real danger is that people can’t or won’t mentally accept, adapt, and react constructively to the rapidity and scope of the changes created by our growing reliance on technology and that they’ll react angrily to those changes which affect them adversely and ignore or take for granted the hundreds of changes that have improved their lives – and those reactions are based on perceptions of a world that no longer exists… and one that sometimes never did….

    … the prevalence of automatic soap and paper towel dispensers and water faucet initiation – all through optical sensors that can be prone to failure if not maintained….

    I perceive us Humans as bags of soup in a skin. We are sensory entities receiving information through our diffuse nondiscriminatory sensoria and the special discriminatory sense organs. We perceive what our brains sieve through their past experiences modified by our present mind’s roulette of desires affected by secondary internal milieu chemical signals.

    Mechanical failure is the baine of human replacement with machines.

    In the not so distant past we could simply replace the dysfunctional human servant/dispenser more quickly than we can fix a dysfunctional machine these days. Use of humans performing the functions of machines would seem to help unemployment; but, would we perceive ourselves as better off living at that level of existence? We maybe are forgetting the sage remark about the person blaming his tools for his personal failures.

    My “perception” of Caves of Steal was and is different. To me, Asimov helped to make most readers more comfortable with machines than with the devious unpredictable humans but his real point was to look ahead to the death of our sun and the need for humans to head off into space (assuming there are any of us left at that point in the space-time continuum). Machines of some type would be necessary to move us “… to boldly go where no man has gone before”!

    It is always up to us brilliant and inventive humans to solve the next problem – we just have to identify the specific problem rather than dealing with distractions (preferably before we kill ourselves; note the article in Bloomberg News on increasing use of aircraft/A15’s for murder-suicides). The alternative is (as suggested recently) to sing Kumbaya as we contemplate our ‘center’: this is not acceptable to a killing animal.

  3. R. Hamilton says:

    Food is not grown in cities, at least not much. Most manufacturing has moved somewhat away from cities.

    Cities therefore have lots of people in support roles: lawyers, administrators, insurance agencies, etc; and of course all those needed to keep a city more or less functioning. Some of them are more or less necessary to those who produce food or goods or buildings; but many are not.

    For those unhappy with minimum wage, if they get paid much more than they’re getting now, it’s just a matter of time before they’re automated out of a job, (happening already with cashiers and fast food workers) and a fraction as many more skilled people will maintain the automation. And eventually most or all of us may well be obsolete. Good thing none of us are immortal, because that would just mean we’d be parasites (on our AI heirs? or the 1-5% or so that kept them running?) for even longer.

    Compassion? Help some people directly or via voluntary private organizations yourself if you wish (some of us do), but keep government the heck out of it so long as they obey the law; but unlike some cities that enforce almost nothing, enforce every law on the books on those who are unproductive and disruptive, destructive, or violent.

    A majority consisting of big city dwellers is a liability to long-term survival of a society. We need half the birth rate for a couple of generations, dismantle the cities, and replace them with more, smaller hub communities. The declining population should mean that the remaining numbers should be a better match to non-obsolete jobs, and more smaller communities should avoid most of them getting baroque with complications, and have more redundancy, less loss if disaster natural or man-made takes some out.

    Of course that’s not going to happen by itself, and I for one would not be happy with anyone with either the ambition for sufficient power or strings to pull, that they would be able to _make_ it happen. Better if a lot of people started thinking about it and going that way of their own accord.

    But just forget about the socialism and redistribution. If you’re in danger of obsolescence, it’s on you to learn some non-obsolete skills…or suffer the consequences of not doing so. Nobody except farmers (and not all of them) is likely to get by with one career for a lifetime anymore.

  4. Tom says:

    … Compassion? Help some people directly or via voluntary private organizations yourself if you wish (some of us do), but keep government the heck out of it so long as they obey the law; but unlike some cities that enforce almost nothing, enforce every law on the books on those who are unproductive and disruptive, destructive, or violent. …

    “ … keep the government the heck out of it so long as they obey the law …”: aha, so the law does not come from “the government” – David Graeber was right. Eureka! Utopia!?

    It must indeed be wonderful to be accomplished in every way so that now and any time in the future, one can continue to personally manage one’s sovereignty and all aspects of one’s changing existence. We should indeed feel compassion for others who are not able to handle all aspects of their life as it changes. Let us ‘able’ individuals make sure that the ‘unproductive’ and those unable to handle the new circumstance are compassionately swept out of the way, out of their city cocoons, so that we do not stumble. Too bad if such a system will exclude the ‘producer’-people outside the magical “two deviations “ from the “norm” and thus most of our visionary inventors and problem solvers. What the heck, we do not need ‘beautiful minds’.

    Reminds one of “The Machine Stops”, by E. M. Forster.

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