Technology, Speed, and Power

Alvin Toffler’s 1970 book, Future Shock, popularized the title phrase and the concept which it named, that technology was responsible for the disorienting and dizzying quality of the pace of life in late twentieth century industrialized society. Toffler, however, was not the first to observe that technology appeared to accelerate the pace of modern life; he only put a name to an experience people had been reporting since at least the late nineteenth century.

More recently, Tom Vanderbilt framed his essay, “The Pleasure and Pain of Speed,” this way:

“The German sociologist Hartmut Rosa catalogues the increases in speed in his recent book, Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity. In absolute terms, the speed of human movement from the pre-modern period to now has increased by a factor of 100. The speed of communications (a revolution, Rosa points out, that came on the heels of transport) rose by a factor of 10 million in the 20th century. Data transmission has soared by a factor of around 10 billion.

As life has sped up, we humans have not, at least in our core functioning: Your reaction to stimuli is no faster than your great-grandfather’s. What is changing is the amount of things the world can bring to us, in our perpetual now. But is our ever-quickening life an uncontrolled juggernaut, driven by a self-reinforcing cycle of commerce and innovation, and forcing us to cope with a new social and psychological condition? Or is it, instead, a reflection of our intrinsic desire for speed, a transformation of the external world into the rapid-fire stream of events that is closest to the way our consciousness perceives reality to begin with?”

Vanderbilt explores both of these possibilities without arriving at a definitive conclusion. He closes his essay on this ambiguous note: “That we enjoy accelerated time, and pay a price for it, is clear. The ledger of benefits and costs may be impossible to balance, or even to compute.”

He goes on to say that the most important characteristic of accelerated time may be neither pleasure nor pain, but utility. It’s not entirely clear, though, how useful acceleration really is. Earlier, Vanderbilt had noted the following:

“Rosa says the ‘technical’ acceleration of being able to send and receive more emails, at any time, to anyone in the world, is matched by a ‘social’ acceleration in which people are expected to be able to send and receive emails at any time, in any place. The desire to keep up with this acceleration in the pace of life thus begets a call for faster technologies to stem the tide. And faced with a scarcity of time (either real or perceived), we react with a ‘compression of episodes of action’—doing more things, faster, or multitasking. This increasingly dense collection of smaller, decontextualized events bump up against each other, but lack overall connection or meaning.”

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At the turn of the twentieth century, not everyone was complaining about the accelerating pace of life. In 1909, F.T. Marinetti published “The Futurist Manifesto,” a bracing call to embrace the accelerated pace of modernity. The Italian Futurists glorified speed and technologies of acceleration. They also glorified war, violence, danger, and chauvinism, of both the male and nationalistic variety. At the Smart Set, Morgan Meis recently reviewed the Guggenheim’s exhibition, “Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe.” Early in his review, Meis cited the fourth of Marinetti’s Futurist principles:

“We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.”

“Speeding Train (Treno in corsa),” Ivo Pannaggi (1922)

“Speeding Train (Treno in corsa),” Ivo Pannaggi (1922)

The Manifesto also included the following cheery principles of action:

8. We want to glorify war — the only cure for the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.

9. We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.

Seis rightly insists that Futurism and Fascism were inextricably bound together despite the efforts of some critics to disentangle the two: “There is no point in denying it. Most of the Italian Futurists, Marinetti most of all, were enthusiastic fascists.” From there, Seis goes on to argue that the Futurist/Fascist embrace of speed, violence, and technology was a form of coping with the horrors of the First World War:

“Sensible persons confronted by the calamity and destruction of WWI felt chastened and depressed in the aftermath of the war. There were civilization-wide feelings of shame and regret. “Let us never,” it was said by most, “do that again. Let the Great War be the war that ends all wars.” The Futurists did not accept this line of thinking. They were among an odd and select group that said, “Let us have more of this. Let us have bigger and more spectacular wars.” […] “How does it make us feel,” they wondered, “to say yes to the bombs and the machines and the explosions?”

In saying “yes,” in asking for more, they discovered a secret source of power. It was a way forward. By choosing to embrace the most terrible aspects of the war and the industrial civilization that had made it possible, the Futurists gave themselves a kind of immunity from the paralysis that European civilization experienced after the war.”

In other words, there was power in embracing the forces that were disordering society and disorienting individuals. There is nothing terribly profound in the realization that embracing new technologies often puts one at an advantage over those who are slower to do so or refuse to altogether. It is only the explicit embrace of violence in the wake of World War I that lends the Futurists the patina of radical action.

In our own day, we hear something like the Futurist bravado in the rhetoric of the posthumanist movement. The future belongs to the brave and the strong, to those who are untroubled by the nebulous ethical qualms of the weak and sentimental. As Gary Marcus recently wrote about the future of bio-technological enhancements, “The augmented among us—those who are willing to avail themselves of the benefits of brain prosthetics and to live with the attendant risks—will outperform others in the everyday contest for jobs and mates, in science, on the athletic field and in armed conflict. These differences will challenge society in new ways—and open up possibilities that we can scarcely imagine.”

If we must speak of inevitability with regards to technology, then we must speak of the inevitability of the human quest for power.

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The French philosopher and critic, Paul Virilio, was ten years old when the Nazi war machine overran his home. He went on to devote his academic life to the problems of speed, technology, and modernity. Anyone who voices concerns with the character of technological modernity will eventually be asked if they are against Progress, and, indeed, such was the case for Virilio in a 2010 interview. He responded this way:

“No. I’ve never thought we should go back to the past. But why did the positive aspect of progress get replaced by its propaganda? Propaganda was a tool used by Nazis but also by the Futurists. Look at the Italian Futurists. They were allies with the Fascists. Even Marinetti. I fight against the propaganda of progress, and this propaganda bears the name of never-ending acceleration.”

A little later in the interview, Virilio was asked if he was annoyed by those who insisted that technological progress was an unalloyed good. He responded,

“Yes, it’s very irritating. These people are victims of propaganda. Progress has replaced God. Nietzsche talked about the death of God—I think God was replaced by progress. I believe that you must appreciate technology just like art. You wouldn’t tell an art connoisseur that he can’t prefer abstractionism to expressionism. To love is to choose. And today, we’re losing this. Love has become an obligation. Progress has all the defects of totalitarianism.”

Virilio has long argued that the “accident” is an intrinsic element of technology. Virilio’s use of the word “accident” is meant to encompass more than the unplanned happenstance, he alludes as well to the old philosophical distinction between substance and accidents, but it does take the conventional accident as a point of departure. Virilio does not, however, see the accident as an unfortunate deviation from the norm, but as a necessary component. In a variety of places, he has expressed some variation of the following:

“When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck; when you invent the plane you also invent the plane crash; and when you invent electricity, you invent electrocution… Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress.”

Elsewhere, Virilio borrowed a theological concept to further elaborate his theory of the accident:

“Now, this idea of original sin, which materialist philosophy rejects so forcefully, comes back to us through technology: the accident is the original sin of the technical object. Every technical object contains its own negativity. It is impossible to invent a pure, innocent object, just as there is no innocent human being. It is only through acknowledged guilt that progress is possible. Just as it is through the recognized risk of the accident that it is possible to improve the technical object.”

In yet another context, Virilio explained, “Accidents have always fascinated me. It is the intellectual scapegoat of the technological; accident is diagnostic of technology.” This is a provocative idea. It suggests not only that the accident is inseparable from new technology, but also that technological progress needs the accident. Without the accident there may be no progress at all. But we do not acknowledge this because then the happy illusion of clean and inevitable technological progress would take on the bloody aspect of a sacrificial cult.

In the face of the quasi-religious status of the cult of technology, Virilio insists, “It is necessary to be an atheist of technology!”

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In Future Shock, Alvin Toffler commended the reading of science-fiction. Against those who held science-fiction in low literary regard, Toffler believed “science fiction has immense value as a mind-stretching force for the creation of the habit of anticipation.” “Our children,” he urged,

“should be studying Arthur C. Clarke, William Tenn, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Robert Sheckley, not because these writers can tell them about rocket ships and time machines but, more important, because they can lead young minds through an imaginative exploration of the jungle of political, social, psychological, and ethical issues that will confront these children as adults.”

Bradbury, for one, marked an obsession with speed as one of the characteristic disorders of the dystopian world of Fahrenheit 451. In that world, traveling at immense and reckless speed was the norm; slowness was criminal. In the story, speed is just one more of the thought-stifling conditions of life for most characters. The great danger is not only the risk of physical accidents, but also the risk of thoughtlessness, indifference, and irresponsibility. Mandated speed and the burning of books both worked toward the same end.

Interestingly, these imaginative aspects of Bradbury’s story were already present in the Futurists’ vision. Not only did they glorify speed, violence, and technology, they also called for an incendiary assault on the educational establishment: “It is in Italy that we are issuing this manifesto of ruinous and incendiary violence, by which we today are founding Futurism, because we want to deliver Italy from its gangrene of professors, archaeologists, tourist guides and antiquaries.”

In Fahrenheit 451, a character named Faber is among the few to remember a time before the present regime of thoughtlessness. When the protagonist, Guy Montag, meets with him, Faber lays out three necessary conditions for the repair of society: quality of information, the time to digest it, and “the right to carry out actions based on what we learn from the interaction of the first two.”

If we credit Bradbury with knowing something about what wisdom and freedom require, then we might conclude that three disastrous substitutions tempt us. We are tempted to mistake quantity of information for quality, speed for time, and consumer choice for the freedom of meaningful action. It seems, too, that a morbid, totemic fascination with the technical accident distracts us from the more general social accident that unfolds around us.

It would be disingenuous to suggest “solutions” to this state of affairs. Bradbury himself steered clear of a happy ending. In the world of Fahrenheit 451, the general, cataclysmic accident is not circumvented. We may hope and work for better. At least, we should not despair.

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Another writer of imaginative fiction, J.R.R. Tolkien has his character Gandalf declare, “Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.”

Tolkien too lived through the mechanized horrors of the First World War. He would likely sympathize with Virilio’s claim, “War was my university.” But unlike the Futurists and their Fascist heirs, he did not believe that an embrace of power and violence was the only way forward. Interestingly, the counsel against despair cited above is taken from a point in The Fellowship of the Ring when a course of action with regards to the ring of power is being debated. Some of those present urged that the ring of power be used for good. The wiser among them, however, recognized that this was foolishness. The ring was designed for dominance, and the power it yielded it would always bend toward its design and corrupt those who wielded it.

It is worth mentioning that Tolkien once explained to a friend that “all this stuff is mainly concerned with Fall, Mortality, and the Machine.” He elaborated on the idea of the “Machine” in this way: “By the last I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of development of the inherent inner powers or talents — or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills.”

So rather than submit to the logic of power and dominance, Gandalf urges a counterintuitive course of action:

“Let folly be our cloak, a veil before the eyes of the Enemy! For he is very wise, and weighs all things to a nicety in the scales of his malice. But the only measure that he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts. Into his heart the thought will not enter that any will refuse it, that having the Ring we may seek to destroy it. If we seek this, we shall put him out of reckoning.”

The point, I suggest, is not that we should seek to destroy our technology. It is rather that we should refuse the logic that has animated so much of its history and development: the logic of power, dominance, and thoughtless irresponsibility. That would be a start.

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14 thoughts on “Technology, Speed, and Power

  1. Excellent essay — the stuff from Virilio (of whom I had never heard) is priceless. Your last graph gives me pause, as similar comments in earlier essays have given me pause. You suggest that we can have our technology and NOT submit to its logic of power and dominance (or, as Ted Ted Kaczynski put it, that we can eat our cake and have it, too.). Evidence suggests that’s unlikely if not impossible.

  2. I appreciated this post, Michael. I think we can somewhat mitigate the negative sides to new technologies by being clear about what their dangers are (along with the benefits).

    I wonder how we could characterize the “accidents” of some of the recent communications technologies? With increased ability to communicate, we also have increased potential for betraying ourselves, and increased potential to destroy important relationships. Maybe the “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS” tweet of Justine Sacco would be an example we could characterize as an accident? Is there an equivalent to the seatbelt for social media?

    • Perhaps a delayed-posting feature, where what you “post” is delayed for half an hour or longer from actually posting, and when the delay time is up, you are notified and asked again if you really want to post what you’ve written. Of course, this would be counterproductive on Twitter, but anything more timely (and robust) would require a “virtual secretary” — either an actual human being trusted with discretion reading your “pre-posts”, or a mature AI (currently nonexistent) doing so, before posting them “permanently”.

      • A delayed posting feature or admonition to reconsider what you wrote before posting would be more like a speed limit for driving. A seat-belt helps minimize damage when you crash. The question is what it means to crash with social media- to have an accident, in the language of Virilio.

        I suppose privacy settings on Facebook would be something like a seat-belt. They supposedly limit the speed and extent to which your communications can spread. If Justine Sacco had not posted in such a public, limitless way, her tweet would not have spread so far and damaged her credibility so much.

        Another kind of “seat-belt” could be a limit on how fast a message was spread or a request for confirmation to continue once your communication started being spread. If your tweet, or public posting started to get a certain amount of publicity, it would be partially hidden in some way until you confirmed that you were happy with the continued publicity. Or a very simple thing Twitter could add would be a maximum number of retweets allowed.

        In any case, I think the interesting question, spurred by this post of Michael’s is the question of how to characterize accidents on social media. What kind of damage can be done, and how can the platforms have more safety built into them.

  3. Michael, well done. A lot to respond to here, so if you don’t mind some unorganized thoughts off the top of my head…

    So how does one be a atheist of technology? The A/Theists contend that any structure of idealism amounts to theism, and this amounts to domination. http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2014/03/26/what-is-a-theism/

    Is it necessary to be an anarchist to avoid the logic of technology (perhaps similar to Heidegger’s technological understanding of being) you identify? He proposes art as the answer, but as you show the Futurists negate this as a categorical answer.

    And the accident…accidents are not just the downside of tech that in some ways is its creative force. The accident has assumed global proportions in climate change. A proliferation of zones of exclusion further questions our ability to manage all these accidents.

    I seem to be in a bit of a pessimistic mood today – thanks again for the fine post.

  4. I’m going to take the liberty of responding to all three comments above in this reply. I should add, before doing so, that you three are among the readers/commenters that I most value. My thanks to you all for your thoughtful responses, as per usual.

    Writing this post was an interesting experience. I started by wanting to say something about the Vanderbilt essay, but then an associative momentum took hold and I ended up stringing together a series of ideas that had been independently kicking around in my head for the last few weeks.

    That said, when I was done, it felt like a pretty pessimistic piece. It seems, though, that it may not have been pessimistic enough!

    Boaz, I take your point about being clear about dangers ahead of time. But as I’m sure Doug would add, part of our problem is hat we can’t really know what the dangers will be. At least not in a precise way. Perhaps we could say that we can be honest about that lack of knowledge. We can acknowledge the unknown risk so to speak. Not unlike the ancient Athenians who included who acknowledged the “unknown god.” I think, too, that it may not be entirely matter of trying to foresee risks, or even acknowledging those risks intellectually. It may also be a matter of casting the technological project in a tragic rather than triumphant light, including a recovery of the idea of hubris. This is not a solution, of course, it is just a matter of living honestly. By the way, Boaz, if you click through to read that interview with Virilio at Vice, you’ll catch some interesting comments by him on the Hadron collider. I’d be curious to get your reaction as a physicist to his remarks.

    Doug, I don’t know that I would quite put it as having my cake and eating it too. I can see, though, where you’re coming from. I don’t think any sort of absolute quietism with regards to the use of technology is workable. We must make decisions. We must navigate the technological waters by some lights. I don’t pretend that it is possible to escape all that may be problematic about technology. Yet, might we not find better rather than worse ways of relating to technology, as individuals and as a society. I grant that this may entail certain refusals and abstentions. It may also involve the achievement of a measure of critical distance, even if it is only to recognize our complicity. I think, too, that it is possible to mitigate the degree to which we submit to or adopt the “logic” of technology. All of this may not amount to a wholesale reversal of the present trajectory, granted, but if the alternative is doing nothing or surrender, I’m not sure that is better. Of course, I’m not sure that is what you’re suggesting either. I’d love to know how you would respond to some of these concerns. Feel free to point me to the relevant sections of your book!

    Regarding a/theism, anarchism, and accidents … indeed, much to consider. I find myself wanting to think long and hard about each of those. With regards to the accident, Virilio does suggest that the increasing complexity, power, and global interconnectedness of modern technology yields the possibility of what he called the general accident; not only the possibility, though, Virilio seems to think it well night inevitable. “Managing the accident” may be our chief form of modern hubris.

    With regards to being atheists of technology, I suspect Virilio means something like not assenting to the religious status technology is sometimes granted in our society, or refusing the narratives of techno-salvation, etc. Interestingly, two of the most passionate critics of our technological society that I am aware of–Virilio and Ivan Illich–were both associated with Christian anarchism. I offer that only as a thought spurred by your questions.

    Thanks again for these comments. They’ve been stimulating. Feel free to continue the conversation, but my replies as the week begins may be slow in coming.

    • Hi Michael,
      I wasn’t so much suggesting that we should be able to predict the dangers of future technologies than that we should analyze the dangers of present technologies. Once a technology is widely used, we start to understand it better, and can at least somewhat mitigate the negative sides. It seems to me that we haven’t really been doing this enough for some of the recent communication technologies. I remember when I first realized that one could post to twitter or facebook with the press of a few buttons on a smart phone. There were potentially 50 or more people who’s opinions I care about and I’d built up relationships with over my life who could see the results of this action. There is a speed and a scale to this kind of communication that can have destructive consequences if not used carefully. Reading this post of yours and the writings of Virilio brought back this memory and early sense of this danger.

      Regarding Virilio’s comments on the Large Hadron Collider, unfortunately, that was the one part of his interview that I did not think was particularly wise or intelligent. I agree that when scientists were first testing nuclear weapons, there was a recklessness to it. The scale of the experiments was beyond anything attempted before. I don’t think the LHC is similar. At this point, I think we understand elementary particles well enough to have a pretty good idea of what to expect. Of course, you never know if something catstrophic could occur from colliding protons at a higher energy than before, but such collisions also occur in stars. I think the public attention the “black holes from the LHC” got was partially encouraged by physicists themselves in an effort to maintain this sense of danger and power surrounding particle physics. But it is mostly disingenuous, and not positive for the field in the long run. It doesn’t sound like Virilio is very well informed on this topic.

  5. Michael,

    Just time for a quick reply to your (gracious, as always) reply to my reply.

    I agree we can’t surrender to technology, that some degree of discernment and discrimination is required. I like how Norbert Wiener put it: We are obligated to take the “imaginative forward glance,” recognizing as we do its inevitable limits.

    As you know by now, I take it as something of a crusade to point out the intractability of technology, but in the end there’s no question, as you say, “We must navigate the technological waters by some lights.” I also agree with you that it is “possible to mitigate the degree to which we submit to or adopt the ‘logic’ of technology.” My admitted overstatements to the contrary are aimed at pointing out difficult that is to accomplish, which in turn is an acknowledgement of how necessary it is.

  6. Mr Sacasas:

    I found your weblog through a keyword search for discussions on Paul Virilio’s work of which I’ve only read, to this point, Semiotext’s edition of The Administration of Fear. I was quite taken with the purpose of your weblog and would like to join this discussion.

    As a Christian, as someone also deeply critical of the technological project, as a public-school teacher who can note the effects of technology on teenaged children, I have a variety of perspectives to lend to this discussion. I should state that I come at this issue of technology with criticism and have enjoyed Ivan Illich’s critiques of in-temporary society (to use Virilio’s terminology) as well as Virilio’s. What I see as a response to technology seems to divide people into three camps, similar to the responses of various Christian denominations to society as a whole: complete withdrawal (Mennonites, monastics) or some deeply qualified acceptance of technology; tentative acceptance (some main-line denominations); and whole-sale endorsement (many evangelical and emerging-church denominations). I think the challenge that exists within technology is finding its proper scale, a human scale, something that both Virilio and Wendell Berry, Kentuckian poet, sheep-farmer, and agricultural critic, would probably endorse. In The Administration of Fear, Virilio states,

    Our relationship with others is a relationship of magnitude. Not ‘magnitude’ in a symbolic or
    abstract sense. We live with the size of the Other, of the world and places (p. 74).

    I appreciate what you wrote in your comments, above: managing the accident may be our chief form of hubris. I see that aspect most resonantly in two related questions: the continued nuclear meltdown of Fukushima, and adaptation to climate change by insurance companies and private-sector companies. Instead of arguing for de-growth and limits to what can and ought to be done, a question of limits has yet to be raised, except by environmental groups or Mark Boyle, the Moneyless Man. Other commenters have already raised these issues, above, and done so in a clearer manner than myself, so I’ll leave that there for now.

    It’s instructive, I think, to note that early Christians were considered atheists by the Roman empire for refusing to sacrifice to the emperor. By refusing to endorse technology and its accompanying political and economic programme, it is possible that people of faith could be branded with that language or a similar term. Virilio quotes Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics, saying, The world of the future will be an even more demanding struggle against the limitations of our intelligence (p. 77).

    Speed and access to technology certainly affect employability, as those who have access to the Internet, are most willing to embrace new technologies and the liberty afforded by them, and who can afford a vehicle in order to move quickly from job to job are those who come out ahead. These days, the devil does indeed take the hindmost. As far as acceptance of technology is concerned, insofar as the technology in question serves to increase face-to-face, off-line, humane communications, it should be endorsed. In short, technology should be working itself out of existence, not supplanting existence altogether. Any new ideas, things, considerations should not be endorsed until a small community–remember Aristotle’s rule that a city should be no larger than a herald’s cry–or a neighbourhood has had many chances to achieve consensus on the effects of that technology on its citizens.

    Thanks for the great discussion and opportunity to contribute.

    • Joshua,

      Thank you for your comment. I won’t be able to reply at length for at least a couple of days, but I shall. I owe couple other comments up here a reply, too.

      Cheers,

      Mike

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