Modern life? It’s the best yet
'Attach it to pretty much anything you (don't) like, from scientific research to supermarkets, and the prefix "modern" has become a boo-word, to be pronounced with a sneer.'
I am writing this note from my sickbed, laid low by some nasty virus (no, not that one. Although it has been allowed to create a crisis more befitting the Black Death, foot-and-mouth disease is still no threat to human health).
Lying in my centrally heated, double-glazed bedroom, keeping in touch with the world by email, mobile, and digital cable TV/radio, while the new super-strength antibiotics get to work on the lurgy, I was thinking that even being ill ain’t what it used to be. Meanwhile, in her heroic efforts to cope with children, home and groaning old man, my wife is able to call upon the assistance of every domestic appliance from the microwave to (my personal favourite) the dishwasher, backed up by the family car and the half-dozen huge supermarkets within 10 minutes drive of our north-east London home.
Yet I fear that, in my feverish state, I may be hallucinating. Because at the same time as I am lying back on the cushion of the twenty-first century, the message I am being bombarded with by my multimedia communications system is that modern life is a disaster. Modern farms are ‘like Auschwitz’, modern food is ‘toxic’, modern medicine is ‘unsafe’, etc. In fact, attach it to pretty much anything you (don’t) like, from scientific research to supermarkets, and the prefix ‘modern’ has become a boo-word, to be pronounced with a sneer.
This is a remarkable turnaround. Until quite recently the few voices likely to express such reactionary prejudices in public were people like an elderly neighbour we had (the only house I saw with a Tory poster in the window at the last election), for whom ‘modern’ (as in ‘these modern mums’) was almost as dirty a word as ‘coloured’. Now, by contrast, all manner of sophisticated liberals apparently feel free to sneer about modern farms, supermarkets and cheap food (and, by implication, all those who eat it), while dreaming of a return to some imaginary organic idyll.
So what is going on? There is obviously no substance to most of these stories about the horrors of modern life. People now live longer, healthier and wealthier lives than ever before. Many of those now classified as poor in developed societies such as the UK have access to goods and services beyond the imagination of the super-rich a century ago. Not least among the improvements we have experienced is in the food that we eat, now cheaper, safer and better than it has ever been.
Of course, we all know that plenty of problems remain. But that should not blind us to the huge advances that have been made so far – or to the potential for human ingenuity to overcome those problems and take us further in the future, as it has done so often before. The lesson of history is that there are no solutions to be found in the past.
It is bizarre to imagine that the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease is somehow an argument against modern life. It is thanks to modern farming techniques that the UK has not experienced such an outbreak since 1967, while the disease has remained rife throughout the developing world (1). No, what the reaction to foot-and-mouth this time reveals is not a crisis of modern industry or science, but a crisis of the modern mind.
Ours is a society that has largely lost faith in its own finest achievements. Anything that involves human intervention in the ‘natural world’, from farming to medical research, is now automatically considered suspect. So we end up with the ironic spectacle of highly educated people using the wonder of the internet to spread all manner of global panics against science, technology and industry.
At spiked, we think it is time to take a stand in defence of modern life, starting with the articles published here. We know many others share our concerns, and hope they will join in the good fight. Take UK prime minister Tony Blair, for one. ‘I am a modern man’, he declared with pride around the time of his election in 1997. Now would seem a timely moment to prove it.
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