No, I Don’t Want To Be A Medieval Peasant

Admittedly, most days I tend toward critique, not praise of digital media and technology.  Aware of my proclivity, I try to compensate and hope that I strike a reasonable balance.  I’m sure everyone thinks they are successful in their efforts to achieve balanced views, so I’m probably the last person to judge how well I do or don’t.  That said, I do get into a fair number of discussions about technology in a variety of settings, and, more often than not, I’m raising certain questions and concerns, urging for discernment, moderation, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera … (The last bit best read in Yule Brenner tones.)  What this usually is taken to mean, judging from typical responses, is that I would like to be Amish, live without electricity, farm my own food, and wear black homespun clothes in the heat of the summer sun.   Okay, so maybe, there is a tiny part of me that wouldn’t mind trying that out for awhile, but generally speaking this actually isn’t my goal, and much less, the point.

What the reaction reveals, however, is that we tend to think in binary oppositions — this or that, either/or — and that the binary opposite of contemporary technology, in many people’s minds, is some past technological state, for some reason often associated with the 19th century religious sectarianism or Medieval Europe.  So it seems that on the assumption of this binary opposition, any critique of present technology necessarily groups you with either the Amish or the “bring out your dead” crowd.  In fact, there is a good deal of wisdom residing in the past and in intentional communities, but this is beside the more narrow point I’d like to make here.

Binary oppositions are often inherently unstable or else false dilemmas.  But even if we were to set up a binary opposition with present day technology being one member of the pair, who says that some past technological state must be the other member?  We could just as easily imagine the other member being some ideal future state.  I don’t mean this is in some strong utopian sense.  The idealized future is  more dangerous than the idealized past.  However, most of us have certain ideas about what a marginally better world might look like, even if only on the very limited scale of our own personal lives.   So why not make this desire for a better way, which at its best is informed by the past, the other of the present ecology of technology?  In this light, we might consider reasonable critiques of our technologies not as interventions in favor of an unrecoverable past, but rather as steps toward a better, attainable future.

It may be worth remembering that one very famous critic of technology, Marshall McLuhan, believed  that, “There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening” (The Medium is the Massage).  Sometimes, however, it is precisely the contemplation part that we struggle with.  Perhaps because in technology, as in politics, binary oppositions tend to undermine, rather than encourage, thought.

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