Social Question

bossob's avatar

Do you believe that the more advanced a society becomes, the more dependant it and its citizens become?

Asked by bossob (3791 points ) January 12th, 2013

Several years ago, I heard a radio talk show host make this statement. I have great respect for this host, though I rarely agree him. But his concept has been niggling at me since I heard it. The U.S. would be considered an advanced society when compared to a remote tribe that has had little outside influence. The concept bothers me because I think it is true, and I don’t like it!

When I look around my community, I like to think that I am more independent and self-reliant than most of my neighbors. But do my DIY and survival skills really amount to anything of significance in the big picture? I’m still reliant on some external food supplies and health care, and I’m not so stubborn about it that I would like to have less advanced health care for the sake of being more independent.

I observed years ago that more people are able to do less for themselves than ever before. Their time is spent making money so they can pay someone else to do the things that most of us did for ourselves 50 years ago. Despite their financial capabilities, they’ve become more dependent on others. Our banking, financial, and health industries have become so intertwined globally that we’ve become dependent on other nations to pursue objectives similar to ours. Failing to do so would create financial meltdowns and pandemics.

Are we more dependent than ever before? Is it a good or bad thing?

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19 Answers

poisonedantidote's avatar

For me, there is a key question, that causes me to alter between total agreement, and total disagreement of the statement.

I would say, the more advanced a society becomes, the more dependent its citizens become, if they wish to keep the life style and benefits that come with it.

If you are willing to die a slow death without medical treatment, you are not dependent on health care at all. I know that sounds insane to many of you, but a lot of civilizations in the world accept a slow death without medical treatment as a part of their day to day life.

If you are in the civilization long enough, you will get institutionalized by it, and will fear leaving it, and losing what you get from it.

However, if you are willing to throw caution to the wind, then it is quite easy to stand up and walk away leaving it all behind.

Imadethisupwithnoforethought's avatar

I think this is clouded thinking. If you imagine some magical time when humans acted independently, than this line of thought might have a point.

As far as I know, humans have always hunted in groups, taken 11–25 years to reach physical maturity, and even the Neanderthals buried their dead. Color blindness is not a genetic defect. When humans are hunting together, it helps to have a small percentage of the hunting party optimized to notice movement over color.

It is the most human thing in the world to imagine earlier human societies as full of stronger, more independent people. The Greeks believed in a previous heroic age, the early Jews imagined a Fall from grace.

I call Bullsh*t on the whole thing. Ever see a new mother try and breastfeed? It does not go well. Other women in the tribe fill in until she gets good at it. Because we are optimized to be dependent on each other.

bossob's avatar

@Imadethisupwithnoforethought I’ll agree that humans are tribal animals, and perhaps have an innate desire to help one another and to take advantage of the abilities of others in order to survive. But as technological advances continue to improve our lives, we have begun to consciously abdicate certain responsibilities of our survival to others: If I don’t want to know how to build my house, grow my food, or pull my child’s abscessed tooth, I can choose to pay others. It seems to me that we are narrowing our skills into very small niches (a job), and beyond that niche we are becoming more dependent on the skills of others for survival. As @poisonedantidote said, I could choose to forgo technological advances, but then my quality of life would suffer with respect to what I’ve become accustomed. Maybe it’s for the best; I fear that it’s not.

I wonder if we’re setting ourselves up for the perfect storm-like catastrophe where, because we’ve become so dependent on one another, we’ve lost the ability to fend for ourselves.

Imadethisupwithnoforethought's avatar

@bossob When would you have had to previously? When would you have to now? Zombie apocalypse?

People have never had to fend for themselves. If I am color blind, I can see the deer moving before the others and tap their shoulder. They in turn, slap a berry out of my hand if it is the wrong color and call me an idiot. There are and always have been layers of specialization based on technology levels. Look at Rome in the 4th century, then check in 400 years later.

Honestly, I think we have a lot of fantasies in society about manhood. One of those is being able to fend for ourselves. I don’t have any idea what that means other than “If you dropped me in the woods by myself, I could survive for years”. Ok, who cares? Who would know?

rooeytoo's avatar

When I compare my survival skills and coping abilities to those of my grandfather or even my father, I am sadly lacking. It is not only a gender difference, it is also, as you say, I pay to have others do what those who came before me did for themselves. But I would bet my parents and grandparents said the same things. Probably that is why most civilizations eventually seem to disappear, they wimp themselves into oblivion!

wundayatta's avatar

Non dependent, but interdependent, and it is a good thing. When you look at history, the most successful species and organization have grown ever more interconnected and that is directly related to their success. You need specialization when you are building an organization, but it relies on good cooperation and good communication.

Think about the human body. Originally, there were all these different kinds of cells who lived on their own. Once they figured out how to specialize and have different kinds of cells do different kinds of jobs, the larger organization was made possible. I think this is a good metaphor for human society. We are building better technologies that allow us to specialize and cooperate and achieve ever more.

I think this is necessary. To go back to times where we all did everything for ourselves would be to push us back a century or more in technology and capability. We can not achieve more without specialization. Fearing that you don’t know how to take care of yourself is retrograde thinking. Survivalist thinking. It is not realistic.

CWOTUS's avatar

As @wundayatta said: Not dependent, but interdependent, and richer because of it.

As society becomes more complex (and richer) we can afford to specialize and hone our particular talent and craft, and find markets for the things we produce, because we shall have become more adept at their production, and can find those who are willing to exchange with us. Being able to specialize like this – and exchange with others for their products and services – also affords us more free time to do the other things we want to do with our lives. And that, in turn, enables more people to specialize in even more arcane pursuits.

Free markets and free exchange are awesome. Franklin should have recognized these as “the Eighth Wonder of the World”, even more than compound interest.

Paradox25's avatar

I like this question, and my short answer would be both yes and no, depending on the circumstances. As we become more technically advanced we may actually become less dependent on things such the power grid, fossil fuels, medical procedures/issues and many other things.

As far as some other things you had mentioned above relating to being more reliant on others for the most basic things this is a yes and no answer as well to me. When more people are able to do their own work on cars, houses, appliances, cooking, etc this can be a good thing along with helping you to save money. Knowing the essentials can help prevent us from getting ripped off or cheated too, and can definitely help in the case of emergencies.
There can be a bad side to this as well, as it can take jobs away from small business tradesmen. This can also effect how well certain trades/blue collar jobs pay, and can actually devalue many of the skills of those who make a living doing these things. It is indeed a rare occurance today to find the tradesperson devoted to a single discipline, and what is more common today is the lesser paid multiskilled ‘craftsman’.

I’ll add one more thing here, new interests and avenues of pursuit will always arise with an advancing civilization. Being dependent upon others for certain things will allow one more time to adjust and take up knowledge of newer ideas. Computers are just as important as cars are today, so knowing more about your computer could be a benefit.

bossob's avatar

It appears the consensus is that interdependency is increasing; it’s inevitable; and generally a good thing. I can see it, but it’s not sitting well with me. Maybe I’ve reached the age where I’m wistful for a different time in the past that exists only in my head.

It occurs to me that the less we know beyond our sphere of expertise, the less capable we are to defend ourselves. Doesn’t increased interdependency and specialization leave us even more vulnerable to unscrupulous individuals and corporations? That’s been happening since people decided it was better to pay someone to build their house rather than build it themselves as their forefathers had: eventually some contractors began to use inferior products and take dangerous shortcuts to save time in order to increase profits. Building codes and departments were created to save the day. When people started relying on others for their food, unhealthy conditions and conduct in the food chain became a problem. Consumer health agencies such as the FDA were created.

I chose housing and food as examples because they are essential to survival. But the list goes on and on: banking, finance, insurances, automobiles, chemicals, etc. The more we specialize, the less we know about the products/services we purchase to improve our lives. Even lawyers have trouble understanding the legalize they create in contracts. Consumers don’t stand a chance. They once again must rely on someone else to protect them from unscrupulous individuals and corporations. And once again, the government steps in to save the day.

I acknowledge the advantages of increasing interdependency/specialization, but I’m also suggesting that vulnerability is a consequence. We’ve become less able to protect ourselves from the inequities in the marketplace. Sometimes it feels that every time I read the news, the government, at some level, is stepping in to protect consumers. I realize that is one of the on-going debates between Dems and Reps: the role of government. I happen to believe that one role of the government is to protect us from the things from which we can’t protect ourselves.

So as we become more interdependent, we also must rely more on government to maintain a safe and reasonable field of play. It seems like the situation is snowballing with no end in sight. Does anyone else see it that way?

wundayatta's avatar

@bossob I don’t think you know less about your list of things. It’s just that the experts know far more than you do, and the gap between their knowledge and the ordinary person’s knowledge is greater than ever. You feel uneasy because this means you can’t know enough about everything in order to keep up with the experts. You simply can’t do it. This would not be a problem if you trusted your advisers, but I guess you don’t. Or maybe you don’t like that you are forced to trust them.

This is the thing about interdependency. We must trust each other more. We can’t be independent. If we insist on being independent, we will be worse off. Many conservatives are like this. They don’t trust. Especially they don’t trust the government, which they helped elect. So they think the world is going to fall apart, and they prepare for it with all their survivalist notions and especially with guns.

One of the subtexts of the gun movement is about whether people can be trusted, in general, or not. If you own a gun for defense, you’re saying you can’t trust people. You’re saying more than “better safe than sorry.” You’re saying you believe you will need that gun one day. You’re going to need to be on your own and you can’t depend on anyone else.

We are so much more worse off when we can’t trust each other; when we have to do everything for ourselves. When you can trust bankers or brokers to invest your money and make returns that you couldn’t possibly make on your own, you are better off. When you can trust mechanics to fix the inverter on your hybrid, then you can have a car with a continuously variable transmission that runs smoothly and far more efficiently than any car you could fix yourself. We can have academics who conduct research into many, many areas of specialization that most of us could not hope to understand without a few years of study.

Most of these things are not even things you would do if you could. When you think about it, how many things do you want to know how to do on your own? What’s your bottom line? It’s probably little enough that you can do it. And that’s what most of us do. We study up on the things that are most important to us, and leave the rest to others who have much greater expertise.

What this means is that it is more important than even to be able to judge the character and capabilities of others without necessarily having those capabilities. In fact, you don’t have to learn much to be knowledgeable enough to evaluate other people’s expertise. The internet helps a lot with this. But also, people skills are crucial. I’m sure you have an opinion about the expertise of others on fluther. But we are developing new technologies all the time to help us get a better sense of each other’s reputations.

We have one method of evaluating reputation on fluther, and there are other similar evaluations methods on other websites. Amazon and EBay allow evaluations of buyers and sellers. On fluther, we are purveyors of information and our lurve score should be a pretty objective view of someone’s reputation. After all, to get a good lurve score here, you have to appeal to an awful lot of people, and you must seem, well, wise to a lot of them.

There are going to be more and more of these scoring systems for every conceivable field of endeavor. All you need to be able to do is use these systems, and you can be safely interdependent. You will be able to be confident about trusting the people you select to trust.

bossob's avatar

@wundayatta My sincere thanks for an excellent post.

Your suggestion that we as a society must trust each other more, is a tough one to accept. I have a couple family members with whom I would trust my life, but the farther I get from that core, the more skeptical I become. I understand that in order to live a civilized life, I must trust the airline pilot or surgeon to show up with their best game so that I may walk away at the conclusion of their task. But I don’t like being in that position.

I’ve never been terribly scarred by trusting another person. In fact, I consider having grey hair a big confidence booster by knowing that I’ve survived anything or anybody that life has thrown my way. Bring it on! But there are an increasing number of influences on our lives, by individuals and corporations, that are so beyond our ken that we can only relate to them as victims. Poisoned foods, bad policies by banks and insurance corporations, and environmental pollution are just the tip of the iceburg. As individuals, we can’t protect ourselves from them anymore.

I think most individuals are good at heart, and most corporations provide valuable services. But just as there are bank robbers from whom we need protection by the government, we’re dependent on the government for protection from the greed and avarice exhibited by some wealthy individuals and corporations. In a politically saner era, even Republican presidents realized the importance of protecting the commons. Government keeps growing and growing, and I don’t trust that it can keep up. Despite acknowledging that our country has been through more difficult times, it’s hard not to think of the current environment as a house of cards ready to collapse. It’s hard to trust that we’ll survive this too.

I’m glad you mentioned the positions of some conservatives, as I sympathize with some of their thought processes. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a prepper nor a fearful conservative. What makes me different is that I have no interest in living my life accordingly. I realize the world is going to continue plowing forward, for better or worse, and that trying to cling to perceived independence and self-reliance is a losing cause. Knowing it and liking it are two different things.

wundayatta's avatar

Nice response, @bossob. As you say, knowing it and liking it are two different things.

It takes a different skillset to navigate a world where we have no choice but to trust others. Reputation management and reputation assessment are the skills we need in this world.

Life is always changing, and won’t stop just because we’re getting older.

rooeytoo's avatar

I don’t know, I thing we are turning into incompetent wimps. I don’t think so much about car repair, cars used to have engines, I could work on them with a wrench and a screw driver, now they are computerized to the point no one can work on them unless you have another computer with a diagnostic program. So that doesn’t count. But so many minor things, I loaned my lawn mower to a young couple who didn’t know how to start it, didn’t know to choke and pull the rope. Tried to mow foot high grass without the catcher so the grass just clogged up the blade. Any fool would know there is no place for the cut grass to go without the catcher or at least the flap wired up. That is just one example, I could list so many. My generation is a lot more capable than the young of today. They might be more computer savvy in some cases but you can’t ride your computer to school.

And yes @wundayatta life is always changing but I don’t necessarily think it is always for the better.

wundayatta's avatar

@rooeytoo But of course your generation is more competent than the young. The young haven’t been around as long and haven’t learned as much. That’s not a fair comparison. Wait until they are the age you are not and see how well they cope. I’ll bet that we look worse in that comparison.

bossob's avatar

In her previous post, @rooeytoo acknowledged the generational decline of DIY skills in her family. I can see the same decline in my family, and can agree with her observation about the next generation who are coming into their own. Their priorities are different, and paying for services that they could do themselves seems to be the new norm. I imagine my grandparents and parents felt the same way about the next generations.

(I got a big smile when my son, who did not inherit my DIY genes, decided that spending a couple hours with dad getting our hands dirty, was more tolerable than spending $800 for a plumber to do a simple job. Alas, it was an anomaly.)

rooeytoo's avatar

@wundayatta – I think if you make it to your mid twenties without knowing how to start a lawn mower or have enough common sense to see that it is clogging up because there is no outlet for the clippings, you are pretty helpless. I wasn’t talking about 5 year olds.

It does seem as if the younger generations look with disdain on those who came before and yes always think they are “worse.” But that is the point of this question, had those who came before not been as innovative and competent, they would be sitting under a tree in the backyard surrounded by foot high grass!

wundayatta's avatar

@rooeytoo Hmmm. I wonder if they had a manual. Was it an electric mower? Mine came with a manual, which I read before I used it for the first time. I wonder if you’d be able to start it up without the manual. I have to tell you that the power switch is in a very strange place.

rooeytoo's avatar

hehehe nope @wundayatta it was a plain old honda with a briggs and stratton. It had a pull rope, I think it was the choke/on/off lever on the handle that confounded them. And they aren’t city kids, one is from Iowa and the guy from here. One has a BS in some obtuse field, that one can’t get a job because it is an occupation that only the government would have and since they are cutting budgets…......... The other is a pharmacist, now that is a worry!

mattbrowne's avatar

Except for modern infrastructure (electricity, phones etc) it’s rather the opposite. For daily survival hunters and gatherers depended on belonging to a group. Making individual decisions was difficult. Today, singles can live alone. The situation for basic infrastructure hasn’t changed that much. Today, we depend on the availability of food in our grocery stores. In primitive societies food was gathered and hunted. Unlike today, a local crisis was devastating.

We do depend on electricity and primitive cultures do not.

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