Posted by: JDM..... | October 14, 2012

About that “Moral Compass” thing…..

…and a changing world….

I blog for the fun of it and have more mosquito bites than “hits” on the fruits of my labors (It’s October; in Maine), but I always check out the sites of those who take the time to stop in and leave their cards. One that caught my eye not too long ago was from a young blogger, a college sophomore, who made the remarkable observations that we lack a moral compass and that politicians don’t seem to hold the best interests of their constituents as a priority. I only say “remarkable” mostly because it sounded more like the gripes I would expect to hear from my own age group. I was impressed. The guy said he wants to make a difference.

He was right on the mark, in my opinion, but I wonder if he arrived at his conclusions in the same manner as I did.

I believe a number of factors have come together to create the social, cultural, and political environment we find ourselves in today, including the apparent lack of a moral compass. I stumbled onto one such contributing factor when I was writing a piece about the changes our nation has seen since my grandfather was born. It was 2010, and my grandson was two years old. I had been looking at a picture of him and noted that “he’s about the same age I was when my own grandfather was the age I am now.

I’ve touched two generations from two very different worlds.

When my grandfather was born, the population of the United States was 50,189,209. There were only 38 states in the Union then, and the US Cavalry was still fighting with the Apache, Sioux, Nez Pierce, Cheyenne, and other native peoples of the far west.

There were no automobiles, airplanes, radios, or televisions when my grandfather was born. Goods were transported by horse drawn wagons, rail, or by sea. Although steam was coming into use on the ocean, sailing ships were still the primary vessels of commerce until after my grandfather finished school and began his first job. I recall one of my grandmothers remarking how she found it amazing that she had gone to school in horse drawn cart and did her homework by the light of a whale oil lamp, yet had lived to see the television broadcast of a man walking on the moon. A lifetime can seem rather short when we look at it from a different perspective. Keep in mind that the numbers for “current” populations are more than two years old at this writing. For example, on the day that I wrote the essay, the population of the United States was 309,620,000. Right now it is 314,577,796. I wrote:

  • “When my grandfather was born, the population of the country was 50,189,209.

  • When my father was born, the population of the country was 100,546,000.

  • When I was born, the population of the country was 138,397,345.

  • When my daughter was born, the population of the country was 205,052,174.

  • When my grandson was born, the population of the country was 303,202,683.

  • The population of the USA this morning was about 309,620,000. (314,577,796 on October 14, 2012).

Or, how about this?

  • The World population when my grandfather was born was about 1.4 billion.

  • The World population when my father was born was about 1.8 billion.

  • The World population when I was born was about 2.4 billion.

  • The World population when my daughter was born was about 3.7 billion.

  • The World population when my grandson was born was about 6.65 billion.

  • The World population today is about 6,854,834,551 (6.85 billion). (7.05 billion on October 14, 2012).”

During the two year interim, the population of our country has increased 1.6%. Heck, during the same period of time, the population of the entire world has fattened up by 2.8%. If I had a penny for every new pair of feet on the ground, I could join the same golf club as Obama or Romney.

Anybody feeling crowded yet?

I went on with some other comparisons….

“All of these people need to eat, have roofs over their heads, and get from one place to another. When my grandfather was born, people were still walking halfway across the country. This morning I drove to the post office about 1,100 feet down the road. We have two vehicles. My wife drives one to work. We used to have three, but I sold the sports car. The remaining one sits in the driveway most of the time, but it’s there in case I want to go somewhere or don’t feel like walking to the post office.

When my grandfather was born, there were no cars. He graduated from high school about the time Henry Ford built his first car, and five years after the Duryea brothers put the first gasoline powered car on the road in 1893. By 1900, there were still fewer than 8,000 cars in America, and many of them were electric, another relatively new convenience (irony?).

When my father was born, there were about 3,000,000 cars in America, though many of the roads were still dirt or crushed rock.

My family didn’t own a car when I was born. My father finally bought a 1941 Ford around 1949. He drove it from coastal Massachusetts to south western Ohio when his company transferred him there in 1951. He upgraded to a 1949 Ford before the family drove back home to New England a year later for vacation. It was a thousand mile trip, and other than the ten year old Pennsylvania Turnpike, it was mostly two-lane roads. The Interstate Highway system wouldn’t be started for another few years. When I graduated from High school there were about 83 million registered passenger vehicles in the US. Today, there are nearly twice as many.”

The point is that the world, and our nation, differ in many ways from what they were like when it is assumed that we had an intact “moral compass”. Being a shameless observer of humankind and their infinite capacity for aberrant behavior, and having more than a passing interest in history, I can’t help but suggest that such an assumption might be on shaky ground. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised had my grandfather been moved to assemble similar figures for his own time, he’d have made a similar if not identical indictment. He had some reason for chewing on that cigar so vigorously. As did, most assuredly, his grandfather before him.

The second factor that I have considered as contributory would be the impact times of significant change have on all aspects of human existence. It has been said that there are several such times that have changed the course of history from each of their moments forward. One that comes to mind would be the advent of agriculture. Another would be the invention of the printing press, and yet another would be the industrial revolution.

The latter, for example, triggered an accelerated centralization of populations in America, bringing people in from the fields and fishing boats to work in factories and mills. In addition to the financial benefits of somewhat predictable, if rather skimpy incomes, this urbanization brought with it disease and other not-so-nice consequences.

No such time or circumstance stands independently or untouched by others, of course, and history’s defining moments are by their very nature cumulative, each building upon or replacing its predecessors.

Today, we are in the midst of a very new “defining moment” in the form of the Digital Revolution. For my sophomore blogging acquaintance, it defines a lifetime and represents all that is normal for him. But for me, it’s seatbelt time. The changes that have taken place in the ways we communicate, engage in trade and commerce, and entertain ourselves, just to name a few examples, are nearly incomprehensible to someone like me who listened to Straight Arrow on the radio for entertainment as a child and studied Statistical Analysis in college with a pencil and paper, doing the math “longhand”.

One adjunct of such rapid and radical changes in the way things are done is a simultaneous and similarly radical change in the way we define things. We have progressively changed the way we define and understand not just communication, but the tools and procedures involved in accomplishing it. Language hasn’t kept up, so we invariably use archaic terminology.

“Telephone”, has almost completed its transition to “archaism” status, yet, when I was a child, the woman next door had been born before the namesake device was invented.

Up until recent times, however, linguistic archaism referred to quaint words and phrases unused in common practice for a century or more. Now, it seems like a matter of months before the naïve begin to get funny looks from the knowing when referring to virtually any modern electronic device.

The first “telephone” I used didn’t have a “dial” or numbered buttons. In fact, it wasn’t even made out of “plastic”. To use it, I would pick up the “receiver”….using both hands….(the damned thing was heavy)…and tell the lady who spoke to me through it what I wanted her to do, such as “ring W on this line, please”. Or, I might ask her what time it was.

My daughter carries her “phone” around in her pocket. It’s about the size of a deck of cards and only about a third as thick. In addition to being able to talk on it, if she should choose to do such an “archaic” thing, she can take pictures of my toddler grandson and instantly “send” them to me. She can access the “internet” with it, play video games on it, write a term paper on it, or “text” message with it. It is a dictionary, a calculator, and a translator. She can shop on it, do her banking on it, and more. The question I have yet to hear a reasonable or at least an amusing answer to is “why the hell do we call it a phone?”

There have been economic shifts as well, fueled by changes in the way trade and commerce is conducted. In fact, wealth is a series of ones and zeros now, zipping about the globe faster that you can read one word of this sentence.

Virtually every aspect of human existence is being transformed at this very moment by ongoing changes in technology and digital science. It stands to reason then that the ways in which we perceive each other and interact with each other must be changing as well, and they are.

Much to the consternation of we who learned a different culture, one of the things that has been changing is the concept of “boundaries”. Individualism, once a virtue, is giving way to a more “hive” like social philosophy where personal information is a public commodity. Electronic entities gather and trade in everything from the misnamed “private” citizen’s sensitive financial matters to personality profiles created through the analysis of whatever he transmits or receives via cyberspace or electronic communication. This has raised some interesting legal and ethical questions.

The mention of “ethics”, of course, brings me around to where this writing began. What about our moral compass? How is it defined, and what is it?

Well, I know with reasonable certainty what mine is. What the collective moral compass will become in the foreseeable future is being determined by my young blogging acquaintance and his peers at this very moment. The world he will live in, and the challenges he will pass on to his children, remains to be….defined.


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