Whether all this was ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is an impossible question, and a pointless one. These changes came upon us like the weather; ‘we’ ‘chose’ them only in the broadest sense of the words. They were upon us before we could do anything about them. You may keep the TV in the closet, but you still live in a TV society. The possibility of divorce now hovers over every marriage, leaving it subtly different from what it would have been before. What’s important is that all these changes went in the same direction: they traded context for individual freedom. Maybe it’s been a worthwhile bargain; without it, we wouldn’t have the prosperity that marks life in the West, and all the things that prosperity implies. Longer life span, for instance; endless choice. But the costs have clearly been real, too: we’ve tried hard to fill the hole left when community disappeared, with ‘traditional values’ and evangelical churches, with back-to-the-land communes and New Age rituals. But those frantic stirrings serve mostly to highlight our radical loneliness. Even the surrounding natural world, as I argued in The End of Nature, no longer serves as a ground, a context; we’ve reshaped it so thoroughly, now changing even its climate, that it reflects our habits and appetites and economies instead of offering us a doorway into a deeper world.
The past five hundred years have elevated us to the status of individuals, and reduced us to the status of individuals. At the end of the process, that’s what we are — empowered, enabled, isolated, disconnected individuals. Call it a blessing or call it a curse or call it both, that’s where we find ourselves. Our greatest cultural artifact is probably Seinfeld, a television program devoted to exploring what it means to live a life that has no context, that has no meaning. A show, famously, about nothing. The great danger, in other words, of the world that we have built is that it leaves us vulnerable to meaninglessness — to a world where consumption is all that happens, because there’s nothing else left that means anything. In a way that was once unthinkable, we now have to ask ourselves. ‘Is my life amounting to something? Does it have weight and substance, or is it just running away into nothing, into something insubstantial?’ And the only real resource that many of us have against that meaninglessness, now that the church and the village and the family and even the natural world can’t provide us with as much context as before, is our individual selves. We have to, somehow, produce all that context for ourselves; that’s what a modern life is about. There’s no use moaning about it; it may well be better than what came before. In any event, it’s who we are, where we are, how we are, what we are, why we are. We’ve got to answer those questions pretty much on our own.
But now — and finally, here’s the heart of the argument — we stand on the edge of disappearing even as individuals. Most of the backdrops have long since been dragged off the stage, and most of the other actors have mostly vanished; each of us is giving our existential monologue, trying to make it count for something. But in the wings, the genetic engineers stand poised to slip us off the stage as well, and in so doing to ring down the curtain on the entire show. It doesn’t seem so at first; if anything, just the opposite. The engineers promise to complete the process of liberation, to free us (or, rather, our offspring) from the limitations of our DNA, just as their predecessors freed us from the confines of the medieval worldview, or the local village, or the family. They can, they promise confidently, remove the ties that bind us — the genes that allow us to fall into ill health, or that keep us from being more intelligent, or more muscular, or more handsome, or happier. It seems as if, with their splicing and snipping, they want only to remove one more of the stones that weigh us down; that without it we will bound even higher, be more truly liberated.
In fact, though, whatever you think of the past five hundred years, this is one liberation too many. We are snipping the very last weight holding us to the ground, and when it’s gone we will float silently away into the vacuum of meaninglessness.