There was an article in The Guardian Weekly in early January pointing out that our lives are more scrambled and complicated than they have ever been. The writer, John Harris, called modernity “a mess: multiple user accounts, endless password filling in, smartphone contracts, computer and internet problems that so few of us really understand” and the “generalised insanity of consumerism”. Our lives are lived in ever-increasing speed and complexity, and all it offers longterm are diminishing returns. And what for? Epicurus would deem us all crazy.
One of the diminishing returns is peace of mind, or Epicurean ataraxia. I was reminded of John Harris’s article owing to a just-completed and particularly fraught period inducting a new computer, a new modem, a new range extender and downloading a massive piece of software (7 tries). Various helpful people from India kept me on the phone for what seemed like several days. While wrestling with the downloads there was a sudden drop in internet strength to 1.3 Mbps and increase of the ping rate to 1046 when it ought to be under 100. Result: the downloads failed after all-night sessions. It might sound as if I know what I’m talking about, but actually I haven’t a clue. All I know is that a computer controls the internet speed of millions who deal with Verizon, and if it encounters a problem it automatically reduces the internet speed to that of a sleepy snail. Problem: it omits to tell the customer it is slowing his computer to a crawl. We are no longer in control.
Initially, complicated systems deliver big economic benefits. But in due course the average man in the street ends up frustrated and angry because his time and his pitifully short life is being eaten up by useless complications, and he starts to think the whole thing is unrewarding and ridiculous (any takers?). He feels he has no influence or control over his life. Some people think that the collapse of the Roman, Mayans, Minoan, Hittite, and the Chinese Zhou dynasty all succumbed, in part, to the fact that ever-increasing burdens were not matched by material rewards, leading to revolts and breakaways.
One cannot blame complexity for everything going on today, but I can attest to the fact, as an elderly gent, that I cannot keep up and that I get frustrated and anxious about what is supposed to be “progress”, couched in incomprehensible technical language devised to exclude most of us, so-called educated or not. Ataraxia seems to be ever more elusive as we toil for our hi-tech masters who think it all should come naturally, without the need for instructions in plain English.