The virtue of fidelity is perhaps the hardest idea for anyone to appreciate in this age of robots. The concept of faithfulness and loyalty to a person, cause, or ideal feels like a relic from a time before our own, and attempts to espouse the merits of this otherwise simple concept flounder on the twin moral calamities we face. Understanding why fidelity is something valuable – indeed, invaluable – means defending against both of the catastrophic corruptions of ethical life that have afflicted our time, and showing how both are rooted in an abandoning of fidelity for something lesser. Yet before it can be argued that fidelity is worthwhile, we must recognise that we currently lack it, and appreciate how this came about.
A brief warning is required. When we enter the fault lines of our ways of thinking, it can be difficult to remain open to new perspectives. Moral horror, what psychologists call cognitive dissonance, makes it hard to even listen to a new perspective that strikes us as beyond belief. Thus to talk about fidelity and freedom in the paradoxical way I am about too is likely to set in motion all manner of resistances. Objections will loom large and make it easy to miss the point I am trying to make. By all means consider the arguments against what I am presenting; I would expect no less. But always leave open the possibility that no matter what I may have got wrong, there might be an essential truth at the heart of my argument worth grasping.
To understand the subtle problem I wish to outline, we must be able to appreciate the cybernetic networks (or cybergs) that we are enmeshed within, and how they relate to the moral catastrophes of our time. Consider first the disaster of individualism that tells us that we only have to be loyal to ourselves, and celebrates breaking free of tradition as a triumph of the individual will. There are indeed situations worth celebrating here, and movies like Footloose and Bend It Like Beckham rely upon this for their drama: parents enforcing religious standards bar their children from behaving in certain ways. Yet these stories serve to re-illuminate Christian and Sikh practices; Footloose is as much a lesson for Christians as it is a celebration of individual freedom, and while Sikh traditions are a smaller part of Bend It Like Beckham, the same general point remains.
Conversely, individualist doctrine serves to valorise any exit from religious traditions as a victory for freedom. Yet this escape is of the most fragmentary kind: those who make a clean break from their family and its locally-social network merely transfer from one small cyberg into the dispersed gigacybergs that absorb us all. Without ties to other practices, those founded upon people, the result is a chimerical existence as a free individual, one whose freedom consists solely in the choices of consumption being placed before us. This is the disaster of individualism at its core: we say we value individuality, yet foster a way of living that sacrifices any more substantial freedom in favour of merely pre-prescribed market decisions.
We have misunderstood liberty as individual choice, and in so doing have lost any grasp over authentic freedom. This mistake is so subtly concealed from view that our typical understanding of our situation is the inverse of what a closer examination reveals. For we think that breaking free of the traditions and practices of our parents or extended family is the mark of freedom because we remove from our lives an influence that seems to impede our autonomy. Yet the core practices of both individual and group remain the same after this alleged ‘split’: we are still embedded within the cybernetic networks of money, digital media, medicine, cars, and transportation – the spaces where we are assured of our individuality through participation with a common culture of movies, games, scientific discovery, news and so forth that tells us we are free because we can change job and move to a new city – that we are free, in other words, because we are nomads, unbound from tradition.
Except, of course, for the traditions of money, media, medicine, technology, and transportation, which are (in the case of money) as old as the religious traditions that it is supposedly an expression of freedom to break with. The point being that we have equated our capacity for infidelity as freedom because we do not see any expression of liberty in the possibility of disentangling ourselves from the various cybergs that enclose us. Moreover, we do not even see that possibility at all. It is entirely beyond our thought.
Within the cybernetic networks that enfold us we possess only the minimum freedom of choice within a closed market, never the mark of authentic freedom that would come from the liberty to disengage from the cyberg itself. The car makes this clear: please, choose which motorized vehicle you wish to use to participate in transportation... you must do so if you are not to be radically disadvantaged by being unable to move around in the ways required by our planetary infrastructure. It is, paradoxically, only the human who lives outside the road network who possesses an authentic freedom of movement – the physical nomadism of the Tuareg shows a genuine personal freedom when measured against the cultural nomadism of the city-dweller, who claims their infidelity as freedom, while having no choice but to engage in transportation, money, and so forth.
Yet this is done willingly; it does not seem like a lack of choice because accepting all of these enmeshing networks is clearly desirable to us all, since the values by which we gauge our decisions to participate are taken to be beyond question. This is the moral disaster of consequentialism: we know unequivocally that outcomes matter (this is beyond doubt), and thus utility – the capacity to bring about desired outcomes – is the yardstick of all choices. Who could doubt that better technology is more useful than the tools remaining the same, or that living longer is better than dying young, or that getting between two points faster is better than doing so slower, or that superior entertainment beats boredom? Who could doubt that more money is better than less?
We weigh outcomes and think that this is the measure that cannot be doubted. But when this is the only way we evaluate things, we are being shallow sighted. Yes, once we level transportation down to mere time between points, its a relatively simple question of what is better. Yet this hides the way roads replace other, more egalitarian spaces; how pedestrians and cyclists must choose between going further or gambling with their lives; how both the cost and the impact of living is raised by mandatory car ownership. Do we want to give up cars? Probably not. But we ought to look at them more closely than measuring them by expense, fuel consumption, and speed. You don’t just buy a car, you buy into the automotive infrastructure that the car requires to work. You buy into the car’s cyberg and all that entails, every submerged aspect that is buried beneath the imagined ideal of faster travel and the fantasy of driving conveyed by automobile commercials. A higher top speed won’t get you to your destination any sooner when you spend most of your journey stuck in traffic, as cities are learning far too slowly.
So too medicine: no-one can look at the frequency that women died in childbirth just a century or so ago, nor the number of children that perished as mere babes, and not feel compelled to speak out against those who, for instance, opt out of vaccinations that benefit everyone. But again, we are shallow sighted about medicine. The medical establishment causes almost as many problems as it cures, not least of which because this view of life – as permanently extensible as long as we have the right tools – sets us up for certain failure. Unlimited health care asks that we identify every problem as a disease, to research a cure, and to administer all cures to all people. Yet this is an ever-growing task, becoming more and more expensive and either distributing the best health care only to the wealthy, or gradually bankrupting nations that attempt to pay for everything for everyone. Do we want to give up medicine? Absolutely not. But still, we shall all eventually die, whatever we do, and medicine does not help us deal with that inevitability – it is rather our most effective way of hiding from it.
Money is the subtlest trap of them all, because the idea that more money is better is so effective at concealing the radical unimportance of money to well being. That is not the same as saying poverty is great – by definition, those living in poverty don’t have enough. But what standard do we aim for? The moment you are living inside the car cyberg, your cost of living just skyrocketed because transportation is taken as expected for each individual instead, as humans once took for granted, as a community good. So you no longer need just food and shelter, now you need a car too. And the more money you have, the worse it becomes... second houses, sports cars, private jets – expense rises to match income, ensuring dissatisfaction. Worse still, the large accumulations of money become cybergs all of their own: capital chases its tail in a game of perpetual commercial deployment that has little benefit to anyone but the venture capitalists playing with the networks of extreme wealth.
Now the point here is not the critique of these specific cybergs – although there are dozens of unthought, undiscussed problems and crises hidden just beneath the surface. It is that our supposed expressions of individualism – breaking from tradition, leaving the family business, moving to another city or country – do not adequately represent personal freedom since whether we stay within or break away from our childhood culture, we remain inside all the gigacyberg networks of our time. This is not even a new critique: Ivan Illich already outlined these problems (albeit from a different perspective) in the 1970’s: we are beset by radical monopolies, dominating systems that replace freedom with choices set upon their own rigid terms.
Christian, Hindu, atheist, Sikh, Buddist, pagan, Muslim... all are taking part in the same practices – technology and all it’s messy fruits. The decision to break with your parent’s practices is at the same time the utter continuation of the medical, transportational, commercial practices that you acquired from your parents. So individualism is a crisis not because it is wrong to want to be free, but because we say we are free merely because we can vary the minutiae of our lives and beliefs and do not recognise how the common basis of evaluation remains unchanged. Individualism destroys fidelity because ultimately it is unbreakably allied to consequentialism in its narrow guise of utility.
High technology, low fidelity. We always go for the better, the new, the taste of the future over loyalty to the past. We do so because we are cultural nomads, and we have all chosen to live in essentially the same ways – not out of loyalty, but out of a bitter necessity borne of our dependence upon the cybergs towards which we cannot even claim fidelity. For how can we be faithful to something that we cannot even imagine the possibility of leaving?
The opening image is by Banksy. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked by Banksy, which seems unlikely.
Next week: Faith in What?