"Everything is Broken"


I stumbled across a very interesting article today in Tablet Magazine. It's by Alana Newhouse, and is entitled, "Everything is Broken." I must admit, the title caught my eye, because when I feel melancholy--a mood that seems to creep over me every time I contemplate the direction of our nation by benchmarking it with the Book of Mormon--it does seem like my society is broken.

Newhouse relates a story about her child who was brain injured, and how it took a miracle for him to be correctly diagnosed. The person she related the story to makes this comment:

"I don’t know how else to tell you this but bluntly,” he said. “There are still many good individuals involved in medicine, but the American medical system is profoundly broken. When you look at the rate of medical error—it's now the third leading cause of death in the U.S.—the overmedication, creation of addiction, the quick-fix mentality, not funding the poor, quotas to admit from ERs, needless operations, the monetization of illness vs. health, the monetization of side effects, a peer review system run by journals paid for by Big Pharma, the destruction of the health of doctors and nurses themselves by administrators, who demand that they rush through 10-minute patient visits, when so often an hour or more is required, and which means that in order to be ‘successful,’ doctors must overlook complexity rather than search for it ... Alana, the unique thing here isn’t that you fell down so many rabbit holes. What’s unique is that you found your way out at all.”

My own family has had a similar tussle with the American medical system, and we have learned so much--so much that we would never have wanted to know--about the caprice and even total irrationality of our medical system. This very personal brush leads Newhouse to a more worrisome set of questions: "Was everything in America broken? Was education broken? Housing? Farming? Cities? Was religion broken? Everything is broken."

When she attempts to explain how this happened, she lights on a few important catalysts, the first of which is flatness, which started near the end of the 20th century:

"Flatness is the reason the three jobs with the most projected growth in your country all earn less than $27,000 a year, and it is also the reason that all the secondary institutions that once gave structure and meaning to hundreds of millions of American lives—jobs and unions but also local newspapers, churches, Rotary Clubs, main streets—have been decimated. And flatness is the mechanism by which, over the past decade and with increasing velocity over the last three years, a single ideologically driven cohort captured the entire interlocking infrastructure of American cultural and intellectual life. It is how the Long March went from a punchline to reality, as one institution after another fell and then entire sectors, like journalism, succumbed to control by narrow bands of sneering elitists who arrogated to themselves the license to judge and control the lives of their perceived inferiors. Flatness broke everything."

This trend was then revved up by the internet and its frictionlessness:

"Today’s revolution has been defined by a set of very specific values: boundarylessness; speed; universal accessibility; an allergy to hierarchy, so much so that the weighting or preferring of some voices or products over others is seen as illegitimate; seeing one’s own words and face reflected back as part of a larger current; a commitment to gratification at the push of a button; equality of access to commodified experiences as the right of every human being on Earth; the idea that all choices can and should be made instantaneously, and that the choices made by the majority in a given moment, on a given platform represent a larger democratic choice, which is therefore both true and good—until the next moment, on the next platform . . . You could get people to send thousands of dollars to strangers in other countries to stay in homes they’d never seen in cities they’d never visited. You could train them to order in food—most of their food, even all of their food—from restaurants that they’d never been to, based on recommendations from people they’d never met. You could get them to understand their social world not as consisting of people whose families and faces one knew, which was literally the definition of social life for hundreds of thousands of years, but rather as composed of people who belonged to categories—“also followed by,” “friends in common,” “BIPOC”—that didn’t even exist 15 years ago. You could create a culture in which it was normal to have sex with someone whose two-dimensional picture you saw on a phone, once. You could, seemingly overnight, transform people’s views about anything—even everything."

Newhouse discusses the institutional capture perpetrated by those to whom power flows from flatness and frictionlessness: "[I]nstead of reflecting the diversity of a large country, these institutions have now been repurposed as instruments to instill and enforce the narrow and rigid agenda of one cohort of people, forbidding exploration or deviation—a regime that has ironically left homeless many, if not most, of the country’s best thinkers and creators. Anyone actually concerned with solving deep-rooted social and economic problems, or God forbid with creating something unique or beautiful—a process that is inevitably messy and often involves exploring heresies and making mistakes—will hit a wall. If they are young and remotely ambitious they will simply snuff out that part of themselves early on, strangling the voice that they know will get them in trouble before they’ve ever had the chance to really hear it sing."

What to do, then? Counterintuitively, Newhouse believes there is a way to harness flatness, though perhaps not frictionlessness:

"[O]ur aim should be to take the central, unavoidable and potentially beneficent parts of the Flatness Aesthetic (including speed, accessibility; portability) while discarding the poisonous parts (frictionlessness; surveilled conformism; the allergy to excellence). We should seek out friction and thorniness, hunt for complexity and delight in unpredictability. Our lives should be marked not by “comps” and metrics and filters and proofs of concept and virality but by tight circles and improvisation and adventure and lots and lots of creative waste.

"This disconnect between culturally mandated politics and the actual demonstrated preferences of most Americans has created an enormous reserve of unmet needs—and a generational opportunity. Build new things! Create great art! Understand and accept that sensory information is the brain’s food, and that Silicon Valley is systematically starving us of it. Avoid going entirely tree-blind. Make a friend and don’t talk politics with them. Do things that generate love and attention from three people you actually know instead of hundreds you don’t. Abandon the blighted Ivy League, please, I beg of you. Start a publishing house that puts out books that anger, surprise and delight people and which make them want to read. Be brave enough to make film and TV that appeals to actual audiences and not 14 people on Twitter. Establish a newspaper, one people can see themselves in and hold in their hands. Go back to a house of worship—every week. Give up on our current institutions; they already gave up on us."

I'd like to share her optimism, but we're doing family scripture study on the Book of Mormon . . . Tonight we read Moroni's commentary on Ether in Ether 8:18-26. That would dampen anyone's optimism about our present situation. Everything is broken.