Losing Control

By Sheila Kennedy

[Originally published at SheilaKennedy.net on November 30, 2013]

Source: http://bigthink.com
I have a theory about why people are so agitated these days. I think it is because our daily lives have become too complicated–because it is increasingly impossible for any one person to truly understand–let alone master– the various social and scientific systems on which we increasingly rely. 

Let’s be honest: how many of us really understand how the financial sector works? How government policy affects the Internet? The intricacies of tax or regulatory policies? Reading the current punditry about the Affordable Care Act leads inexorably to one conclusion–no one knows very much about medical practice, the healthcare industry or the ACA. Not to mention the construction of a website. 

Technology is an increasingly important part of our everyday lives, but I know I’m not the only person who can’t fix my own car, and whose first and only response to a computer malfunction is to reboot. Very few of us have the background or expertise to independently evaluate claims about climate change or the loss of biodiversity. 

My programmable thermostat says its 69 degrees in my house. It feels colder, but who am I to argue with that sophisticated new piece of technology? 

As the world around us gets more complicated, our discomfort over losing personal control of our lives increases. Different people react differently to this perception that we are at the mercy of systems beyond our ken or control: some simply “opt out,” become disengaged. (“My vote/participation makes no difference, so why bother?”) Others retreat into simplification and ideology. (“If government would just get out of the way/ if we lived by biblical principles/if parents would ban video games everything would be better.”) 

As we lose control (or the illusion of control) over ever greater portions of our lives, we need to recognize what may be the most pressing issue posed by an ever-more complex modern society: the need to know who to trust. How do we identify those who are truly expert and honest, those who are not spinning or denying or manufacturing evidence, those who are reliable interpreters of their particular disciplines? 

It’s hard enough to find a trustworthy auto mechanic when you don’t really know how your car functions. 

Right now, Americans don’t trust anyone. Not the media, not the government, not academics, not business people. As a result, we can’t even agree on what our problems are, let alone agree on solutions. 

When you don’t trust anyone, when you don’t know whose description of the world you inhabit is correct, that world becomes a very scary place. 

We won’t regain a sense of control until we collectively decide who we can trust. I have no idea how we do that.

Sheila Kennedy is a former high school English teacher, former lawyer, former Republican, former Executive Director of Indiana's ACLU, former columnist for the Indianapolis Star, and former young person. She is currently an (increasingly cranky) old person, a Professor of Law and Public Policy at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis, and Director of IUPUI's Center for Civic Literacy. She writes for the Indianapolis Business Journal, PA Times, and the Indiana Word, and blogs at www.sheilakennedy.net. For those who are interested in more detail, links to an abbreviated CV and academic publications can be found on her blog, along with links to her books..