Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

Civilization vs. Responsibility

July 10, 2006

As designers, we’re occasionally greeted with moral and ethical tests. It is the nature of our profession that others invite us to participate in their endeavors; sometimes questionable or cloudy endeavors. Such is our lot, given the power we wield.

I read now and then about these sorts of dilemmas and how they impact a designer’s responsibility. And we should be in the habit of examining our responsibilities with sober consideration. But what of our responsibilities as humans and citizens? My thoughts turn increasingly toward the more fundamental responsibilities we have and I note that each day it becomes easier for us to shirk them. But at what cost?

Sorry, this essay has nothing to do with design. Surely, though, everyone is compelled to wax philosophical on occasion. As I’m pretty sure I’ve been on this earth longer than most of you reading this, maybe you can just chalk this up to curmudgeonly inclinations being indulged.

I fear for my species, at least the portion of it that inhabits the civilized West. I see clear evidence every day that we’ve become drunk with civilization and allow it to be our dedicated driver, too (as it were). More and more it seems we enjoy devoting our lives to abusing this very thing we’ve tasked with improving our lives. In doing so we’re forging a culture of irresponsibility that may well do us in. We may believe that we’re obviating certain fundamental responsibilities and survival skills, but this is illusion. It will have to be paid for.

We have redefined civilization according to the lies it would seem to tell us. Civilization should provide beneficial supplements to our lives and our existence, and it does. Additionally, however, we shape it to replace the natural fundamentals of survival, but it cannot do so. In this way, we position civilization in opposition to our natural and social responsibilities. This is a dangerous thing to do.

Civilized Lies

We have allowed civilization to dictate that convenience and comfort is our birthright and a baseline entitlement. Therefore, we’re taught, we should never do more than is absolutely necessary. Instead, let technology and chemicals to do it for us. Too fat because of a powerful, ongoing hunger? Take a pill. Math problem require more than a moment’s calculation? Use a computer. Office on the third floor of the building? Take an elevator. Thus dies responsibility to our species as we intentionally weaken each successive generation.

Human beings are the most adaptable organisms on the face of the earth. Our minds and bodies can adapt in seconds, hours or weeks to things that anything else requires generations. This is why we are the most successful species on the planet. This ability is a double-edged sword, however, and requires great responsibility of us. Just as our bodies adapt quickly to stress, use, and attack, they adapt equally well to disuse and torpor. The same is true of our immune systems and mental agilities.

The thing is this flawed system only works as long as we don’t require a high quality of health and don’t need to extend beyond the comfort and convenience created by civilization.

We would seem to be making harmless tradeoffs by allowing technology and chemicals to make up for our dispensing with distasteful or uncomfortable tasks, but it’s not harmless at all. Nature cannot be outwitted and we defer payment of the costly price only so long as we have the trappings of civilization to provide for us…since we’re losing the ability to provide for ourselves.

We have allowed civilization to lie to us about what we can and cannot eat so that we can seemingly indulge our every delectable desire. We’ve worked hard to create a world where if we take the right pills and reduce our physical demands to just the right level we can ignore the natural fundamentals of human dietary requirements. In fact, we don’t even need to know about human dietary requirements. We've become overrun by “diet foods,” whose sole purpose is to reward irresponsible behavior. See? Dont' worry, civilization is there to take up the slack for our growing ignorance and moral decline.

The thing is this flawed system only works as long as we don’t require a high quality of health and don’t need to extend beyond the comfort and convenience created by civilization. This irresponsible lifestyle also requires that we’re able to pay for the trappings of civilization to maintain our fragile bodies.

But what about when civilization doesn’t meet with our requirements or needs? Ask those who found themselves in New Orleans in August of 2005 how this plan worked out. In the aftermath of the flooding, many died or allowed family members to die because they shirked their fundamental, natural responsibility to be fit and capable of enduring hardship. This is a clear demonstration of how civilization must never be allowed to supplant our capabilities. Nature’s justice is absolutely fair, but it does not seem so when we’ve allowed our perspective to be corrupted.

Civilization has allowed us to abandon our rightful roles in society. Men are the natural and rightful protectors of our families and communities. However, the overall responsibility for this sort of protection is now relegated to specific agencies. Seemingly freed from this responsibility, the vast majority of men never work to develop and maintain the skills and cunning necessary for family and community protection. The State has deliberately, systematically usurped the role that rightfully belongs to men and fathers.

Just because we don’t often have to personally protect our families and communities from physical harm does not remove our responsibility to be capable of doing so. Nature mandates that it is every man’s responsibility to be a skilled and capable protector. But intoxicated by our definition of civilization, we forget this fact. So we are docile lambs who live at the whim of nature and those who would harm us and our families. We are not safe, but rather live with the illusion of safety, all because we believe we’re entitled to forego the requisite effort and inconvenience of acquiring and maintaining fundamental human responsibilities.

Living with this sort of irresponsibility robs us of other important dimensions of life, too. A man living in the civilized West today, as someone once observed (I forget whom), can live out his entire life never knowing whether or not he is a coward. This is a tragedy, for not only does the experience of personally confronting our own individual quality contribute to our existence, but lacking such experience ensures mistakes down the road. This fundamental reality surely explains some of the more regrettable conflicts that men and nations have been pulled into. It need not be so.

Cultural Demise

We’ve begun to trade the real experience of public interaction for that which we create through our own technological filters. And so every day courtesy and healthy social interaction dies a lonely death of indifference and neglect.

Our approach to civilization impacts our culture as much as it does the fitness of our species. For generations, civilization and the technology it spawned worked to bring us closer and closer together. That time is over. Today, we’re far more interested in becoming more and more physically isolated and sedentary while we craft virtual connections to replace the physical ones. We no longer crave to interact with each other, but instead devote our energy toward creating interactions with systems that represent other individuals.

The result of this preoccupation with false reality is that our physical and true social reality is dysfunctional in many ways. And it gets worse every day. Where once we worked to build common areas for healthy social interaction, we now build common areas for isolated, decidedly unsocial virtual activities. We seek public spaces for private endeavors, we gather together to be alone and we tell ourselves that this helps to create a healthy society. It’s a lie, by the way. Instead, our society is losing its soul and its culture. It’s also losing the fundamental building blocks of societal interaction.

Take the cell phone, for instance. The ubiquity of cell phones has facilitated a decline in the perceived need for responsibility and common courtesy. If you have a cell phone, you don’t have to be where you said you’d be. You don’t have to be back by the time you said you’d be back. You simply don’t have to adhere to the plans you promise others because you can always be reached and can always call in to explain. I’m not spouting theory here, I see this behavior put into practice every day. And I never see any concern for the harm done.

Additionally, cell phones and iPods have given birth to the inane and discourteous idea that every man is an island while out in public. While using one of these devices, we wrap ourselves in a perceived cocoon of privacy and secluded experience. This privacy is nothing more than illusion, but we respond with incredulity and anger when those around us voice displeasure at how we thoughtlessly impose our supposed private experience upon them. We’ve begun to trade the real experience of public interaction for that which we create through our own technological filters. And so every day courtesy and healthy social interaction dies a lonely death of indifference and neglect.

More than twenty years ago, Mitsugi Saotome noticed some of these same things and observed, (1)

We have at our disposal more free time than ever before, but instead of using it creatively for personal study and inner growth, we lean back in the controlled comfort of our living rooms and demand to be entertained, hypnotized by the endless parade of animated figures on a television screen.

…We are a society of spectators, voyeurs rarely experiencing the peace that comes from physical expression and personal accomplishment. We seek a life of ease and comfort, believing that this is the way to happiness, and then wonder why life has lost its flavor.

I suggest that life is losing far more than its flavor.

Must We Change?

I’m a web designer and web designers swim in the waters of technology. We exploit and work to extend the impact and dimension of technology on our lives and the lives of others. I’m often caught wondering if this fact poses one of those moral or ethical dilemmas I spoke of at the start of this article. Do I through my profession contribute to what I perceive to be the decline of my species and culture? Do I have a responsibility to circumvent rather than contribute to web design?

The answer, obviously, is no. I and others in my profession work to improve the lives of others, not destroy them. It is up to users to determine the positive or negative use of the fruits of my labors. And that’s rather the moral to this entire story: neither civilization nor technology (nor even web design) is at fault in these wrongs I’ve outlined here. Instead, it is how we each individually and as a society maintain or shirk our responsibilities that matters. Civilization is a tool. Technology is a tool. The proof lies in how we use these tools.

I’m convinced that in many ways people are currently doing great harm to themselves and to society and I fear for the future. Surely there are degrees of everything in life, but perhaps the first step toward a healthier and more responsible lifestyle is to not get into the habit of relying on civilization and technology for our every need and desire. Now, that would truly be a sustainable lifestyle.

As designers, we have a responsibility in society as bringers of change. Change is our business. We shape ideals and ideas. We shape and define the relevant and the popular. How will you choose to do so?

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(1) “Aikido and the Harmony of Nature,” 1986.

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