Easy Virtues

6 03 2011

Progress?

Modern culture increasingly connotes beauty with technology, goodness with gigabytes, truth with progress. America was built on a foundation of pragmatism, and we’ve made it as “far” as we have because we worship in the Church of Pragmatism. In other words, the sole criterion for what we deem valuable is how well something works. Forget whether it’s good for you, or the environment, or your soul, or if you need it, or should have it, or even want it. If it works, it must be good, and if it works really good, it must be better.

Some progress, of course, is nice. Cars that are more efficient, winter coats that you keep you warmer, coal that burns cleaner… all good things. But a faster car doesn’t mean a better car; more RAM doesn’t mean a better computer; a more lethal bomb doesn’t connote a better bomb… or does it?

Herein lies the problem. We’ve allowed science and technology to co-opt the word “progress” to simply mean faster, more powerful, more efficient, so that it’s become a word of quantitative and not qualitative value, bereft of any ethical or moral or spiritual substance. The iPad 2, then, is a must-have not because we need it, or because having it makes our lives measurably better in any way that truly matters, but simply because it’s faster, more powerful, more efficient, and (here’s the kicker) because it’s newer. Newer must be better, right? Newer iPad, newer wife, newer friends…

Having separated practical concerns from any moral or ethical considerations, we’ve morphed as a species from homo sapien (thinking man) to homo emptores (buying man) without so much as a blink of the eye. And Capitalism will tell you that this is progress, since the less we think, the less we question, and the less we question, the more impressionable we are, and the more impressionable we are, the more we buy, as long as we have half a reason ~ or even no reason at all ~ to do so (as long as the mammalian impulses in our brain light up like a Christmas tree).

All of this leads to the acquisition of easy virtues. Goodness is found in convenience (the easier the better), truth in power (which is computation ability in our computerized world), and beauty in novelty (the newest gadget). The transcendentals have become the elementals. We’ve reduced everything to its basest form, cut everything down to size. Life is defined on its own terms and virtues are accessible because we’re the final cause we serve.

And so progress moves along, unabated and unquestioned, and the iPad 2 comes out just in time for a mad rush of people who were silly enough to purchase the now old, antiquated, out-of-date, six-month old iPad. But get this… they left some things out of the iPad 2!!! Perish the thought. No SD card slot, no retina display, no NFC technology…

Is anyone over the legal drinking age actually naive enough to think that any company, much less Apple, would put everything they could into the latest iteration of anything? Where would that leave room for the iPad 3, or the Xoom 4, or the XBox 361… or… or….?? Sorry, but Pavlov’s dogs come to mind here. Don’t mean to sound so cynical, but the hard reality is this: technology survives off of consumers, but it thrives off of chumps.

Virtues help define a culture and shape a generation. What would happen, though, if the whole notion of virtues became passe, something so last century? Who needs virtues, after all, if everything becomes easy, and all is convenient? I’m reminded of a line from C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters:

“Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

So feel free to move about the cabin, folks. Looks like we’re going to have a nice, smooth ride all the way to our destination.

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