I wrote not long ago about the fraying of the norms that bind Americans together as a coherent society. That process is been going on for long time now, and has almost reached the level necessary for complete social collapse. However, while the fraying of our norms is necessary for collapse, it is not sufficient to bring it about. Another process, operating in parallel to the fraying, is joined to it in the effort to destabilize us. Together they just might do the trick.
A significant array of considerations, influences, and forces act upon the typical American’s consciousness each day. Some of these are matters of necessity. Others arise from our routines; Those in a third group have little or nothing to do with our conscious choices. In aggregate, they induce individuals to perform mental context switching — i.e., leaving one chore temporarily behind to attend to another one – more frequently and therefore faster than ever before in the history of civilization.
Trust an old system software engineer to know about context switching and its hazards. It’s the blessing and the curse of contemporary operating system design. Computers today must handle more needs faster than any previous generation. Nor is the trend likely to be reversed any time soon. In consequence, multitasking architectures are now ubiquitous even in the designs of the smallest microprocessor-based systems. But that has elevated consideration of the problems that arise from a multitasking design. One of those is called thrashing.
A system afflicted with thrashing is switching contexts so frequently that it’s unable to attend adequately to “real work.” Needless to say, this is an undesirable condition. It usually occurs in “underpowered” systems: i.e., those that lack adequately fast processors or sufficient memory. However, any system, regardless of the speed of its CPU and the copiousness of its memory, can suffer thrashing if external conditions become perverse. For example, a sufficient frequency of device interrupts will do it. Whatever the cause, the effect is massively undesirable.
However, computer systems have an advantage over the human brain: no matter how severely they thrash, they don’t get numb. Subject a human to a sufficiently sustained, sufficiently rapid series of interruptions, each of which demands that he switch his attention from this to that, and he’ll shut down…blank out…cease to perform any task that requires attention coupled with rationality. This is what I mean by the numbing.
In many ways, contemporary technology is a great boon. I’m sure I need not detail the reasons for the Gentle Readers of Liberty’s Torch. Yet it also makes possible the bombardment of our senses with a series of interruptions – demands that we “context switch” – that can rise high enough to overwhelm us. Some, under such a barrage, cease to function at all. These may wind up in places where others will attend to their necessities for them. The rest of us aren’t so lucky.
Remember this classic soliloquy from one of the great movies of the Seventies?
I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TV’s while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
We know things are bad – worse than bad. They’re crazy. It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, ‘Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone.’
That closing plaint represents the numbing: the shutting-down of our interest in and attention to all inputs, however loudly they may shriek for our concern. It’s not the only possible response, of course:
Well, I’m not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get mad! I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot – I don’t want you to write to your congressman because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say, ‘I’m a HUMAN BEING, God damn it! My life has VALUE!’
So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, ‘I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!’ I want you to get up right now, sit up, go to your windows, open them and stick your head out and yell – ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ Things have got to change. But first, you’ve gotta get mad!… You’ve got to say, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ Then we’ll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the oil crisis. But first get up out of your chairs, open the window, stick your head out, and yell, and say it: “I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!”
That’s the alternative response to being overburdened and over-interrupted. And yes, some people will choose to lash out, whether with words or with deeds. But in the main, the numbing is what we should expect. It’s easier, requires fewer calories, and doesn’t draw complaints from the neighbors. More critically yet, it leaves the destroyers of our norms unfettered, free to continue their destruction.
So, Mr. Citizen! Your kids’ teachers are urging them to change sex, or experiment with sodomy, or call you a racist. Your neighborhood is going to Hell from rising crime and unfilled potholes. The prices of the necessities are rising but your income isn’t. Your income taxes make you feel like a mugging victim. Your property taxes are slowly forcing you out of your home. You can’t get away for even a weekend, out of fear that you’re return to find that your job has been eliminated. Your wife wants to know why you come home from work too tired for anything but sitting before the Idiot Box and eventually falling asleep.
Work used to stop when you left the workplace. Not anymore! Through the miracle of the Internet, today it can follow you home, and it does. Don’t shut off your smartphone; your boss could need you at any moment, and he won’t hesitate to call, regardless of the hour. He’ll take it badly if you fail to answer.
On the news the commentators are talking about mandatory bank account monitoring, and Internet censorship, and injections against some virus or other, and the elimination of cash, and the rationing of fuels and electrical power. It’s bizarre! Did we just declare war on someone and you didn’t notice? Perhaps so. At least, a number of talking heads are nattering about some dustup in Eastern Europe, our “duties” as world policemen, the need to sacrifice for “the common good,” and the possible reactivation of the draft…this time, for both sexes.
But you don’t have to watch the news. There are fifteen hundred channels of entertainment waiting for you. None of them are particularly entertaining, but at least they don’t demand anything of you. So what if you know that homosexual couples and interracial couples aren’t nearly that common in real life? So what if you’ve never met a black or female tech whiz of the sort all the crime and espionage dramas present? You’re not watching this stuff for its conformance with reality. You’re just not good for anything more demanding, so you “veg out” with the Box for a background light and noise show. That way they can program your brain with their preferred Weltanschauung when you’re too tired to resist it.
If The Numbing hasn’t got you yet, it will soon.
There’s no Last Graf. I have no solution, other than withdrawal to a laager insulated against the tide, in which you can defend your convictions and your rights against the tumult beyond. And yes, a significant number of Americans are constructing and moving to such redoubts. But it’s not a solution everyone can use.
Forgive me, Gentle Reader. All I’ve ever wanted for the closing years of my life was to sit under my own vine and fig tree, where none shall make me afraid. But our nation is crumbling as we watch. All the certainties of our youth are turning to ashes as we speak. Afraid is getting to be all I’ve got.
“Hey, I know a place. Let’s go.” – Russell Baker