Saturday, April 04, 2009

Conformity at warp speed

Columnist David Brooks analyzes the mindset that paved the road to ruin.
To me, the most interesting factor is the way instant communications lead to unconscious conformity. You’d think that with thousands of ideas flowing at light speed around the world, you’d get a diversity of viewpoints and expectations that would balance one another out. Instead, global communications seem to have led people in the financial subculture to adopt homogenous viewpoints. They made the same one-way bets at the same time.
Jerry Z. Muller wrote an indispensable version of the stupidity narrative in an essay called “Our Epistemological Depression” in The American magazine. What’s new about this crisis, he writes, is the central role of “opacity and pseudo-objectivity.” Banks got too big to manage. Instruments got too complex to understand. Too many people were good at math but ignorant of history.
Click here to read the entire column in the New York Times.

The point Brooks mentions about conformity -- "instant communications lead to unconscious conformity" -- struck me as on the money, in particular. In this case "unconscious" could also be called "mindless."

Over the last 25 years, for most Americans thinking for themselves was out of style. Rather than pay attention to public affairs, too many citizens chose experts they followed, then they followed them blindly. Over time that sort of convenience-first habit led to believing in a mess of slogans, without any real understanding of problems or policies.

If the politicians and pundits they followed said government regulations were stifling capitalism, in spite of the fact that working people were working more hours for less buying power, the consumers lapped it up. If the experts told us that allowing huge mergers was in our best interests, we just shrugged and bought into it.

During that same 25-year period technology has driven the culture. Our thirst for fast information has led us into a conformity of thought and expression that has made us turn our backs on anything that smells of independent thought, let alone a maverick spirit.

In the early 1980s, I remember reading how camcorders and VCRs were going to create a generation of filmmakers that would overshadow their predecessors. We were told that with young people growing up fluent in the language of the filmmaker, because they would have the technology, wonderful new things would happen.

Well, is hasn't happened.

And, I doubt all these telephone cameras in our midst are going to make new Charlie Chaplins and Luis Buñuels come out of woodwork, either. If there is a renaissance to come in movies, it will come from independent thinking, from inspiration, not the widespread availability of cheap cameras.

Conformity isn't even an issue any more. Nonconformists today are seen by most people today, especially young people, as eccentric and perhaps threatening. I'd like to think the upheaval our society is going through will change this. Without fresh thinking there's no way our situation is going to improve itself.

Thinking for yourself in pursuit of truth is no vice. Conformity at warp speed is no virtue.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

We need more long term thinking. I guess I could cite the Native American belief in basing decisions on '7 generations'- what will be the effect of this decision 7 generations from now?- but perhaps that is considered cliche now also.