A Technological History of Modernity

I’m writing chiefly to commend to you what Alan Jacobs has recently called his “big fat intellectual project.”

The topic that has driven his work over the last few years Jacobs describes as follows: “The ways that technocratic modernity has changed the possibilities for religious belief, and the understanding of those changes that we get from studying the literature that has been attentive to them.” He adds,

“But literature has not been merely an observer of these vast seismic tremors; it has been a participant, insofar as literature has been, for many, the chief means by which a disenchanted world can be re-enchanted — but not fully — and by which buffered selves can become porous again — but not wholly. There are powerful literary responses to technocratic modernity that serve simultaneously as case studies (what it’s like to be modern) and diagnostic (what’s to be done about being modern).”

To my mind, such a project enjoys a distinguished pedigree, at least in some important aspects. I think, for example, of Leo Marx’s classic, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America, or the manner in which Katherine Hayles weaves close readings of contemporary fiction into her explorations of digital technology. Not that he needs me to say this, but I’m certain Jacobs’ work along these lines, particularly with its emphasis on religious belief, will be valuable and timely. You should click through to find links to a handful of essays Jacobs has already written in this vein.

On his blog, Text Patterns, Jacobs has, over the last few weeks, been describing one important thread of this wider project, a technological history of modernity, which, naturally, I find especially intriguing and necessary.

The first post in which Jacobs articulates the need for a technological history of modernity began as a comment on Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head. In it, Jacobs repeats his critique of the “ideas have consequences” model of history, one in which the ideas of philosophers drive cultural change.

Jacobs took issue with the “ideas have consequences” model of cultural change in his critique of Neo-Thomist accounts of modernity, i.e., those that pin modernity’s ills on the nominalist challenge to the so-called medieval/Thomist synthesis of faith and reason. He finds that Crawford commits a similar error in attributing the present attention economy, in large measure, to conclusions about the will and the individual arrived at by Enlightenment thinkers.

Beyond the criticisms specific to the debate about the historical consequences of nominalism and the origins of our attention economy, Jacobs articulated concerns that apply more broadly to any account of cultural change that relies too heavily on the work of philosophers and theologians while paying too little attention to the significance of the material conditions of lived experience.

Moving toward the need for a technological history of modernity, Jacobs writes, “What I call the Oppenheimer Principle — ‘When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success’ — has worked far more powerfully to shape our world than any of our master thinkers. Indeed, those thinkers are, in ways we scarcely understand, themselves the product of the Oppenheimer Principle.”

Or, as Ken Myers, a cultural critic that Jacobs and I both hold in high esteem, often puts it: ideas may have consequences, but ideas also have antecedents. These antecedents may be described as unarticulated assumptions derived from the bodily, emotional, and, yes, cognitive consequences of society’s political, economic, and technological infrastructure. I’m not sure if Jacobs would endorse this move, but I find it helpful to talk about these assumptions by borrowing the concept of “plausibility structures” first articulated by the sociologist Peter Berger.

For Berger, plausibility structures are those chiefly social realities that render certain ideas plausible, compelling, or meaningful apart from whatever truth value they might be independently or objectively assigned. Or, as Berger has frequently quipped, the factors that make it easier to be a Baptist in Texas than it would be in India.

Again, Berger has in mind interpersonal relationships and institutional practices, but I think we may usefully frame our technological milieu similarly. In other words, to say that our technological milieu, our material culture constitutes a set of plausibility structures is to say that we derive tacit assumptions about what is possible, what is good, what is valuable from merely carrying on about our daily business with and through our tools. These implicit valuations and horizons of the possible are the unspoken context within which we judge and evaluate explicit ideas and propositions.

Consequently, Jacobs is quite right to insist that we understand the emergence of modernity as more than the triumph of a set of ideas about individuals, democracy, reason, progress, etc. And, as he puts it,

“Those of us who — out of theological conviction or out of some other conviction — have some serious doubts about the turn that modernity has taken have been far too neglectful of this material, economic, and technological history. We need to remedy that deficiency. And someone needs to write a really comprehensive and ambitious technological history of modernity. I don’t think I’m up to that challenge, but if no one steps up to the plate….”

All of this to say that I’m enthusiastic about the project Jacobs has presented and eager to see how it unfolds. I have a few more thoughts about it that I hope to post in the coming days–why, for example, Jacobs project is more appealing than Evgeny Morozov’s vision for tech criticism–but that may or may not materialize. Whatever the case, I think you’ll do well to tune in to Jacobs’ work on this as it progresses.

3 thoughts on “A Technological History of Modernity

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