Dr. Jan Meyer: Do it easier, faster, or not at all

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Dr. Jan Meyer
The Biker's Diary

In long ago cultural anthropology classes, I learned that traditionally, cultural values change at a snail’s pace. Changes were so slow that they were unnoticeable by humans. Values enable us to draw boundaries around right and wrong and those boundaries drive our behavior. So our behaviors are symptoms of our values that we can see, and count. When a “different,” or conflicting, behavior occurs, at first we are shocked. If it continues and spreads, sooner or later the underlying value and boundaries change to match the new behavior. Those who don’t approve of the new behavior sooner or later will change, or become the minority. Or die.

In the past, only a few behavioral symptoms of those deepest changes could be observed. For example, when I was a small child, bathing suits were at best modest. Our family joined two of my father’s siblings and families for a getaway every summer at “the lake.” Photos of those long-gone days are like something out of an old-time movie; the women were covered almost to the neck, and legs of the suits extended halfway to the knees. The men’s swimwear was just as modest, with the tops looking like men’s undershirts and the bottoms also very modest.

By the time I reached my 20s, bikinis began appearing on those family beaches and, a couple decades later, they became the behavioral norm, or the usual way of doing things. My mother, and to a lesser extent my age group, were very shocked, and mourned what we appeared to be losing: the underlying values of modesty and propriety, the boundaries that came with them, giving way to “anything goes” and “try it, you’ll like it.” There are no boundaries for behavior resulting from those values.

All the experts about culture agree that with the rampant speed at which technology is being developed, cultural changes have sped up. Developments in technology are implemented before anyone can assess whether that technology will always provide positive outcomes, whether it will change us for the good or for the bad, but change us it will. One example is that because as a culture we have had a long deeply-held value of efficiency, it makes sense that we would believe that creating devices and other means to do things faster and easier would be good. So we embraced new devices. After all, easy and quick trumps everything else.

For behavioral examples of that change, one need only listen to modern media advertisements. One recent ad invited people to learn how to not stand in lines by knowing what moves them along, signs that predict which one will move the fastest, and when to switch lines. Consider how many companies are now named EZ. Every state that has paid “EZ fast lanes” also has EZ auto passes. Add EZ to these company names: Camper Rentals, Auto Glass, School Pay, Renewal, Buy, Web, Band, Rent-a-Car, Inflatables, Lock, CPO, Sail, Pack, Park, Probate, and thousands more. If the term didn’t bring people in, they would not be named that.

Easiest and fastest seem to be inseparable and interactive. Everything has been or is being simplified for us; no learning curves are required. We marvel at the change in our lifetimes, from everyday chores to more complicated processes being made simple. With everything simplified, and moving faster, why don’t people have more time? But most people complain that they are getting busier and busier all the time. If that is true, then why are there ads for how to play the lottery from your phone. Seems to me that truly busy people wouldn’t have the time.

That all is bad enough because it is creating more and more big problems for our culture. But there is another element to be added: if it isn’t fast and easy, don’t do it at all. Again ads provide illustrative examples: One is about a father poring over books. When his college-bound son asked what he was doing, the father replied that he was searching for a way to pay for the son’s college expenses. The son said he didn’t have to worry, because they could go to a particular company that would navigate the student loan process for them. The end lines were that they could both relax and have fun, and not have to worry about money.

That ad was complemented by another which promised listeners that they could be shown how to get out of paying their college student loan debts. “OK, son, let’s file that information away for reference when you get out of school.”

There is another cluster of traditional American values that has changed drastically over a relatively short period of time. We have always valued individualism, and independence. But with those two came a price, also a value, which we acknowledged and lived by. That was individual responsibility. Interacting with these other changing values — expecting things to be faster and easier or not at all — those first two have been carried to the extreme. But we have dropped the need for any individual responsibility at all. Someone else will take care of me and everything, and anything bad that happens is someone else’s fault. Another example, this one from recent news: a young woman chose to do “vaping,” but that choice was obviously not her fault and her parents are suing the company. Maybe we can get some technical improvement, or better yet, laws, that will keep all dangerous things in this life from forcing themselves on us like that.

People who identify trends — which become new behavioral norms — do so by collecting many kinds of behavioral examples. I have just described a few representative ones. I wish they weren’t representative, but maybe that wish is just my age showing through.