A spiritual deprivation permeates throughout modern life. Originally, this decrepit order was limited to a materialistic upper-middle and upper-class, but with the proliferation of modern computing technology, it has extended into the depths of a socio-economically stratified society.
This spiritual bankruptcy is not literal — for instance, it is not evinced in the falling rates of religious practice, per se — rather, it is displayed through a plethora of emotional failings seen in modern human interaction. It is seen in the fall of sincerity. It is seen in the inability for us to communicate without an incessant need for cynical humor.
American author David Foster Wallace phrased it better than I ever could: “What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human ... is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic.”
Equipped with irony and cynicism, people avoid genuine behavior and openness, and thus, evade all the failings that come with being a human being. That disconnective toolbox enables us to rise above the very stark, very real falterings of our imperfect selves.
This fear of ourselves is not without consequence — the unfortunate fact of the matter is that quite the opposite rings itself true. Without sincerely connecting to our peers, we miss out on a cornerstone of human life — the ability to forge real, meaningful connections. This most dangerously manifests itself into isolation, and perhaps this can be chalked up as a reason for the rising rates of depression our generation has been tasked to endure.
Ernest Hemingway pioneered aesthetic cynicism with his post-World War I masterpieces, most notably, I would argue, "A Farewell to Arms." Who could blame a generation deemed “lost” for holding a grudge against this collective, brief excursion into existence?
Hemingway originated the normalcy of cynicism, but sincerity was revived post-World War II. The '50s — though incredibly ugly in its underbelly — were a time when sincerity, no matter how hypocritical as its pervasiveness was, was the mainstream.
As silly as this may initially sound, sitcoms are a great indicator of how a society is currently conducting itself. Sitcoms are supposed to mirror — of course, not perfectly, as they are still a form of entertainment — the minutiae of the world they are airing in. In the '50s, when sincerity was the norm, shows like "I Love Lucy" and "Leave It to Beaver" were of popular consumption, and those shows were comedic without being ironic or generally mean-spirit. The characters connected with each other through their humor, rather than putting each other down with it.
Fast-forward to the '90s: "Seinfeld" and "Friends" dominate the airwaves. Both shows — despite their legitimate humor — are supremely mean-spirited. The focus of both shows are groups of friends and despite this, the characters are constantly putting each other down for a quip. That is not a complaint about either "Seinfeld" or "Friends," but a complaint about the society they mirror.
What happened between the '50s and '90s that made everybody so ironic, so cynical and so mean-spirited? Why, during that period, did we turn more bitter? Why did we renounce sincerity?
As affirmed in the opening paragraph — rampant, unchecked technological progress.
Technology itself — mainly computing technology — has been known to restrict self-reflection and effectively harm mental health in the process.
Psychological expert Sherry Turkle outlines this well in her work "Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other," where she writes: "Today’s adolescents have no less need than those of previous generations to learn empathic skills, to think about their values … But technology, put in the service of always-on communication and telegraphic speed and brevity, has changed the rules of engagement with all of this. When is downtime, when is stillness?
This lack of self reflection — exclusive to modernity — disallows us from truly finding out who we are. People are not in touch with their authentic side and resultantly resort to irony as their predominant method of communication.
Now onto the “progress” bit: Prior to the Industrial Revolution — and, in a more pronounced manner, prior to the computing technology revolution of the '80s, '90s and onward — things changed subtly from generation to generation. You grew up in the same world as your parents, who grew up in the same world as their parents, who grew up in the same world as their parents and so on and so forth.
The world is now an ever-morphing entity, one that changes year to year, month to month, week to week and day to day. It is not the still, inelastic world that we evolved to live in but a variable exercise in chaos. There is an aching sense of powerlessness that comes with this which further alienates ourselves from ourselves.
This is only going to worsen as technology continues to proliferate and grow at an even more rapid pace. I, as a 19 year old in university, can see a major difference in how my elders — who were not as harshly subject to rapid technological growth — and my peers communicate. While my elders are still less sincere than their elders, they are more-so than the younger generation, who seem unable to communicate without some half-witted quip baked in.
It is not all doom and gloom. I do have hope that we will wake up to the damage of our ironic ways. The requirement for that would be a widespread recognition of technology’s widespread consequences.
Jake McGowan is the Opinions editor for The Daily Targum.
*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.
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