The separation of individual from cause

Photo by Sander van der Wel

“Thank you for answering my questions. Do you have anything you would like to ask me?”

“How often do you get to see the impact you have made with the work you do? I like to do something where I can solve a problem and see the fruits of my labour, so to speak.”

“In the past, to be honest, we really didn’t see what happened that much. But it is more and more the case that we get to see changes after we have done something.”

This was more or less one of the questions I asked during the interview for the first job I had. I seemed somewhat satisfied with the answer, but by the way it was answered, I had a feeling that I was probably not going to get what I was looking for.

Photo by Sander van der Wel

The world has begun to put more and more of a conscious effort into figuring out how to improve subjective well-being. Happiness and life satisfaction has undoubtedly become more and more of a relevant issue in modern society. From attending a TEDx talk recently, I was made aware that the leading cause of death in males under 40 in the UK is now suicide. As society has solved increasing numbers of objective external problems (income, crime, disease, food/sanitation, war), internal problems have emerged as a serious issue. That’s not to say they were not always there, but attention has often been diverted to things we can see. The study of the mind in a formal way is a fairly recent development in the timeline of human history.

My claim for today is that industrialisation, whilst improving objective standards, has somewhat harmed what it means to be ‘human’. The industrial revolution brought about a number of key innovations and discoveries that allowed us to begin to automate many tasks that had required a large amount of human effort. Along with the way economists had theorised that an efficient market should work, this increased the scale of specialisation. Specialisation had been in operation before as well, but not to the same extent.

Picture a village or town hundreds of years ago. There were some key jobs that were required in order for comfortable, co-operative survival. You have farmers who provide the town’s food. You maybe have a healer. Someone to manage the books. Someone to craft tools. Someone to deal with the dead. Someone to enforce the town laws. The point is the following: people were doing things that were necessary for collective survival and comfort. People had a clear purpose and responsibility to each other. If the baker didn’t make any bread one day, the town would be without bread.

You could see the consequences of your actions, and you could see the entire system at work. It was more salient, more accessible. What happened when you had accomplished what you set out to achieve? You lived. There was no ‘9 to 5’. You do what is required and you move on. The goal of the system was clear – to help each other to have a pleasant life. Of course, objective standards would have been nowhere near what they are now. But relatively speaking (research has shown that relative comparisons are often far more important than absolute ones for things like performance, and income), there seems to be some level of egalitarianism embedded in this idea of a community.

Over the years, economies of scale have taken over. It’s true that it makes it far more efficient to produce bread, say, if you build a factory that only produces bread, and have hundreds and hundreds of workers with that same job. You do this with every other industry in order to maximise the amount of ‘stuff’ available in a wider region. Then you allow for trade. It means that everyone has more ‘stuff’ (so long as it is distributed evenly, of course).

But as this happens, each individual becomes more and more like a tiny cog in a giant machine. It’s very difficult to get a sense of what you are working towards or whom you are working for in actuality. You become detached from the individuals you are doing things for. You can’t really see how your labour is helping people for the most part. You can’t see how other people’s labour is helping you. From an evolutionary standpoint, this is not good at all. We know all too well that if we distance ourselves from issues, we can pretty much forget that they even exist (pushing a button to drop a bomb on a city, neglecting people in poverty on the other side of the world).

You might argue in the baking factory example that people can see still the results of their labour (loaves of bread that will feed people). That may well be true. However, take specialisation further and you’ll see what I’m trying to say. Factories will have very particular tasks (attaching a door to a car) which are assigned to one person. You may never see the end product. As we’ve moved into the service industry, abstraction has gone up a level. Now you may be sitting in front of a desk doing one particular thing that is so marginal in its impact on the overall system that you have almost no idea how it fits into anything.

Psychologically, as humans, we need to see first hand what we are contributing to in order to feel like we are actually contributing. After all, our survival instincts wire us towards dealing with proximate issues first. Stuff that isn’t in front of us just isn’t as relevant at that point in time. What happens then, in theory, if we were to distance someone from every relevant stimulus? In other words, we surround that person with things that are psychologically distant, have no personal importance or meaning as it pertains to their own survival or life goal? What happens when we are forced to compete with others, go through the motions, only to find that there is no ‘living’ to be had at the end of it, but just more motions to go through? I believe that in present society, we are finding this out for ourselves first hand. It ‘dehumanises’ us. Removes a sense of relevancy and self worth. What happens when you take the essence of vitality away from an organism? It has no reason to exist.

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