Virtual Reality vs. The Oregon Trail

So where did this entitlement mentality come from?  Obviously, this is a huge question with no easy answers.  Many factors have likely contributed, but I doubt whether the Five Minute Transformational Montage is one of them.  Even if The Karate Kid was more representative, it’s hard to credit every Hollywood ugly duckling-to-swan story with America’s growing sense of entitlement simply because this phenomenon isn’t pervasive enough to have such outsized influence.

I also believe this view gives too much credit to movies, which is not to deny that film is a remarkably powerful (perhaps uniquely powerful) communication medium.  But how many hours each week does your average American spend inside a movie theater?  And don’t viewers typically choose films that already appeal to rather than challenge their tastes?  Assuming they do, this would mean that most of the audience watching a transformational, feel-good Hollywood movie was already receptive to its message before they bought their tickets, and this disposition had to come from somewhere else.

If I had to pick one culprit for Americans’ growing sense that they are endowed not only with the right to pursue happiness, but to achieve it with a minimum of effort, my choice would be information technology.  IT has pervaded nearly every aspect of our lives, and it will only become a more dominant presence in the future.   Information technology has also dramatically altered the relationship between effort and access to a wide variety of desirable things.  Or, to put it another way, IT has reduced the amount of elapsed time between wanting something and having that wish fulfilled, and this diminishing gap between desire and satiation changes both our perceptions of and expectations from the world.

It is now commonplace to obtain information, entertainment, and other services nearly instantaneously and sometimes at no cost.  This instant access to resources stored in cyberspace can make people devalue the constraints that exist in physical space and the efforts that are needed to overcome them.  These constraints naturally involve man’s relationship to the material world.  They also include the unique bundle of capabilities, quirks, and limitations that each individual inherits from God, or the genetic lottery (depending on your perspective), and which is literally embodied in their physical being.  Every individual must identify and develop his ‘best self’ from this grab-bag of potential if he is to flourish and live a satisfying life, but with rare exceptions this kind of self-mastery can only be achieved through considerable effort.

If you want to understand the difference between the material reality man has experienced since the dawn of time and the “virtual” IT reality of the last couple decades, a good place to start is Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail.  For those not familiar with this classic, it is Parkman’s historical account of a two month trip he took across present-day Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming in 1846, when significant numbers of Americans were first beginning to settle the Plains and Western states.  Of course this migration became an important chapter in American history, and Parkman vividly illustrates the geographical complications involved in the journey and how hard settlers had to work to make lives for themselves in this new country.  The knowledge necessary to survive was often learned first-hand from confronting dangers and unexpected challenges along the way (Parkman himself was often weak and ill because of the stresses of the frontier).  Moreover, the people Parkman encountered had no illusions about these difficulties.  They really had no choice but to rely on their own efforts and co-operation with fellow travelers to address the material problems they faced, and they were not prone to complaining.

These migrants along the Oregon Trail had a direct, tangible understanding of physical constraints.  They knew from experience that material barriers stood between them and their ultimate objectives.  It was worse than folly to deny these obstacles, or expect immediate solutions:  it was dangerous.  These difficulties could also only be addressed through the settlers’ own brains and brawn.  Demanding a world of instant access and gratification would have been as alien to these 19th century Americans as the surface of the moon,

Reading Parkman also provides perspective on Jim Geraghty’s speculation that perhaps people are developing “an unrealistic sense of what it will take to unlock their human potential.”  The people traveling the Oregon Trail were all forward-looking, hopeful and optimistic, determined to “unlock” their own potential and motivated by what would soon be known as the American Dream.  Politicians of all stripes (including Barack Obama) still tap into this national touchstone when they exhort lawmakers to enact the legislative agenda du jour in order to build a better tomorrow.

Unlike these current rhetorical calls to action, however, the hopes of 19th century settlers had a solid foundation in the material realities of day-to-day life.  Their dreams were, literally and metaphorically, grounded in the territory they were settling.  The extent to which their dreams were realized also depended overwhelmingly on their own actions, both individually and through voluntary, co-operative efforts.

This remained true for at least the first 120 years of American history, until the time another prominent historian, Frederick Jackson Turner, noticed that the American frontier had closed and wrote about the impact of the frontier on the American psyche.  It is worth re-reading Turner’s essay today to see how much he emphasized the importance of the physical realities of the frontier in shaping Americans’ beliefs.  The difficulties of settling a new land provided immediate and unmistakable feedback on whether a given course of action was “realistic” and would prove effective in expanding human potential.  Subsequent calls to create a “new frontier” through primarily political means have had a weaker foundation in the tangible realities of time and place.

Tomorrow:  The Relationship between Cultural and Technological Change