Coming Soon: The Convivial Society, a Newsletter

I’ve had a Facebook page for this blog for a few years. I began using Twitter in 2011. For a brief while I experimented with Tumblr. In each case, the idea was to find an audience for what I wrote here. Lately, I’ve been rethinking my use of both Facebook and Twitter for this purpose.

Regarding Facebook, it no longer seems consistent for me to maintain a presence there. It’s the sort of inconsistency we ordinarily tend to live with, begrudgingly, because we imagine that we accrue some slight net benefit. I don’t even imagine as much, so, at no great cost to myself, it’s time to let that go.

Regarding Twitter, for most of the time that I’ve used the platform, I’ve done so awkwardly and half-heartedly. More recently, I’ve been more engaged with the platform, enjoyed more interactions, and have found that its use has come to feel a bit more natural. I’m not entirely pleased with the consequences. I find that if I imagine myself to be moderately well-informed about the negative effects of a technology, I’m tempted to imagine myself immune to them. Of course, this is far from the case. That said, I’m cutting back significantly on my use of Twitter.

While making these choices, I’ve also been thinking about alternatives ways of reaching an audience, something, of course, which I imagine most people that write care about a little. The end of that thinking led me to launch a newsletter. It seems at once more consistent and more effective. The newsletter is a simple, non-coercive tool: it arrives unfailingly until you no longer want it.

I’ve titled the newsletter The Convivial Society. The title is a nod to both Jacques Ellul and Ivan Illich, authors, respectively, of The Technological Society and Tools for Conviviality. The first is a thoroughgoing critique of a society given over to what Ellul called technique, which included but was not limited to technology. The second, while also deeply critical of industrial society and its technology, offered a way to imagine a world where our tools served more humane ends.

Together, they embodied the kind of technology criticism I think we urgently need.

The newsletter, as I envision it right now, will feature important news items and essays related to technology, links to what I post here, and readings from the tech critical canon. I hope to include not only tech criticism but also whatever might help us to imagine alternative ways of being with technology.

As for its frequency, only time will tell. I aim to send out the inaugural installment late next week. You can subscribe here: The Convivial Society. Please feel free to share the link, of course. I’d like to imagine the newsletter being a useful source for anyone who wants to think more critically about technology and society.

Finally, I am open to suggestions and feedback.

Posting will continue here as per usual.

A Proper Education

Wendell Berry, writing not long after September 11, 2001:

The complexity of our present trouble suggests as never before that we need to change our present concept of education. Education is not properly an industry, and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. It’s proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible. This cannot be done by gathering or “accessing” what we now call “information” – which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority. A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting first things first.

How (Not) to Learn From the History of Technology

One of the first things I wrote on this blog nearly eight years ago, on an “About” page that has since been significantly abbreviated, was that we should aim at neither unbridled enthusiasm for technology nor thoughtless pessimism. Obviously no one is going to accuse me of unbridled enthusiasm for technology. While I may more justly be accused of a measure of pessimism, which in my view is not altogether unwarranted, I trust it does not come across as thoughtless.

So what I would like to know, from those who tend to be on the other side of the divide, is what constitutes, in their view, legitimate expressions of concern or worry that will not be dismissed with handwaving rhetorical gestures about how people have always worried about new technologies, etc., etc. (For starters, let us set aside the words “worry” and “concern” altogether. They too readily evoke the image of fainting couches and give off the odor of smelling salts.)

Consider Zachary Karabell’s piece for Wired, “Demonized Smartphones Are Just Our Latest Technological Scapegoat.” Karabell is responding to a series of recent articles exploring the fraught relationship between children and smartphones. Most notably, two groups of Apple investors publicly called on the company to take action to combat smartphone addiction among children.¹ Karabell cites a handful of other examples.

I have tried to read Karabell carefully and sympathetically, but I am not entirely clear what I am to take from his piece. Chiefly, it seems he simply felt the need to bring some calm to what he perceived to be a panic about technology. (Given the title of the article, however, I’m not sure it’s the critics who are panicking: smartphones aren’t being criticized, they are being demonized!)

The first move in this direction is to remind us that “Alarm at the corrosive effects of new technologies is not new” followed by obligatory references to Plato’s warning² about writing and the Catholic Church’s response to the printing press after which we get brief mention of similar warnings about a series of other technologies from the telegraph to Grand Theft Auto.

This is an all-too-familiar litany, and my question is always the same: What’s the point?

This question is not meant to be dismissive. It is an honest question. What is the point of the litany? It cannot be, of course, that I should therefore discount the present warnings because this would be a non sequitur as Karabell himself acknowledges. “Just because these themes have played out benignly time and again,” he writes, “does not, of course, mean that all will turn out fine this time.”

Indeed not. And this is so for a reason that is easy to grasp: each technology is different. This is especially the case when we consider the capacities and scale of more recent technologies when compared to earlier examples. Early in his piece, Karabell asked, “Is today’s concern about smartphones any different than other generations’ anxieties about new technology?” The answer seems straightforward to me: Yes, obviously so … because we’re talking about different technologies.

But let’s go a bit further. How sure are we that things “have played out benignly time and again”? How would we know? Is mere survival the bar? If not, what is? By what standard are we to conclude that the impact of these more recent technologies has been altogether benign? As Karabell acknowledges, these earlier complaints are often not wrong; we just don’t care anymore. Should we? Does this say more about our insensibilities than it does about their anxieties? Frankly, I’m increasingly convinced that we must be prepared to ask such questions and consider them with care and imagination.

After we’ve been reminded that we are not the first generation to express a measure of concern about new technologies, we are presented with a brief catalogue of the problems attributed to smartphones. Karabell seems both to believe that these are genuine concerns that should not be ignored and that we are not in a position to give them much weight. It’s an intriguing tension within this piece. It is as if the author understands that he is dealing with valid criticisms but cannot quite bring himself to take them too seriously.

Chiefly, it would seem that Karabell wants us to be open-minded about new technologies. The jury is still out in his view, and we don’t yet know with certainty what the long term effects will be. This paragraph is representative:

Some might say that until we know more, it’s prudent, especially with children, to err on the side of caution and concern. There certainly are risks. Maybe we’re rewiring our brains for the worse; maybe we’re creating a generation of detached drones. But there also may be benefits of the technology that we can’t (yet) measure.

It’s hard for me to read that and draw any firm conclusions as to what Karabell thinks we ought to do. Which is fine. I don’t always know what to do regarding the stuff I write about. But this piece ostensibly aims at relieving concerns and dismissing warnings; I’m not sure it succeeds, at least I don’t see that it give us any grounds to be relieved or to set warnings aside.

What’s more, if things do in fact play out benignly (assuming that everyone affected could agree on what that might mean), it would seem to me that the warnings and criticisms would be at least part of the reason why. Writers like Karabell assume that whatever early turbulence a new technology causes for a society, in time the society will right itself and cruise along smoothly. You would think, then, that such writers would enthusiastically welcome criticisms of new technologies in order to figure out how to steer through the turbulent period as quickly as possible. But this is rarely the case; they are merely annoyed.

It’s rarely the case because these technologies are often proxies for something much larger, something more like a worldview, an ideology, or a moral framework. Technology is code for Modernity or Progress or Reason, so to call a technology into question is to call these deeper values and commitments into question. Karabell’s closing paragraphs reveal as much.

“More than not,” he writes, “the innovations we call ‘technology’ have transformed and ameliorated the human conditions. There may have been some loss of community, connection to the land, and belonging; even here, we tend to forget that belonging almost meant exclusion for those who didn’t fit or didn’t believe what their neighbors did.”

It is difficult to overestimate the degree to which those sentences unwittingly betray a host of moral judgments the author seems unable to perceive as such. “[L]oss of community, connection to the land, and belonging”—they are casually listed off as if the author has only heard rumors of people that care about such things and can’t quite fathom such attachments.

“The smartphone is today’s emblem of whether one believes in progress or decline,” Karabell writes in his last paragraph.

Maybe that’s just too much of a burden to put on a technology, any technology. Maybe progress and decline shouldn’t be measured exclusively by technological innovation. Maybe it is not the critic who needs to be admonished to consider new technologies with an open mind.


 

¹A note about the term “addiction.” It’s not altogether clear that this is a useful way of characterizing how anyone relates to specific technologies. That there is a measure of compulsion seems clear enough, though. For my part, I prefer much older language of order and disorder. We can, I think, speak of disordered relationships without recourse to clinical terminology. The language of order and disorder is broader and implies a moral framework that extends beyond the healthy/unhealthy paradigm.

²This may come off as pedantic, but I’d rather not read any more passing mentions of Plato/Socrates on writing and memory unless they are accompanied by some evidence that the author has actually read and grappled with the Phaedrus.

Does Technology Evolve More Quickly Than Ethical and Legal Norms?

It is frequently observed that developments in technology run ahead of law and ethics, which never quite catch up. This may be true, but not in the way it is usually imagined. What follows is a series of loosely related considerations that might help us see the matter more clearly.

When people claim that technology outstrips law and ethics, they are usually thinking more about the rapid advance of technology than they are about the structures of law and ethics. If we were to unpack the claim, it would run something like this: new technologies which empower us in novel ways and introduce unprecedented capacities and risks emerge so quickly that existing laws and ethical principles, both of which are relatively static, cannot adapt fast enough to keep up.

Thought of in this way, the real pressure point is missed. It is not merely the case that new technologies emerge for which we have no existing moral principles or laws to guide and constrain their use; this is only part of the picture. Rather, it is also the case that modern* technologies, arising in tandem with modern political and economic structures, have undermined the plausibility of ethical claims and legal constraints, weakened the communities that sustained and implemented such claims and constraints, and challenged the understanding of human nature upon which they depended.

To put the matter somewhat more succinctly, contemporary technologies emerge in a social context that is ideal for their unchecked and unconstrained development and deployment. In other words, technology appears to outstrip ethics and law only because of a prior hollowing out of our relevant moral infrastructure.

Social and technological forces have untethered and deracinated the human person, construing her primarily and perhaps even exclusively as an individual. However, valuable this construal may be, it leaves us ill equipped to cope with technologies that  necessarily involve us in social realities.

From the ethics side of the ledger, it is also the case that modern ethics (think Kant, for example) also construed ethics chiefly as a matter of the individual will. A project undertaken by autonomous and rational actors without regard for moral and political communities. Political philosophy (Locke, et al) and economic theory (Smith, etc.) follow similar trajectories.

So, in theory (political, philosophical, and economic) the individual emerges as the basic unit of thought and action. At the center of this modern theoretical picture is a novel view of freedom as individual autonomy. The individual no longer bends their will to the shape of a moral and communal order; they now bend the world to the shape of their will.

In practice, material conditions, including new technologies, sustain and reinforce this theoretical picture. Indeed, the material/technological conditions likely preceded the theory. Moreover, technology evolves as a tool of empowerment that makes the new understanding of freedom plausible and seemingly attainable. Technology is thus not apprehended as an object of moral critique; it is perceived, in fact, as the very thing that will make possible the realization of the new vision of the good life, one in which the world is the field of our own self-realization.

While certain social and material realities were isolating and untethering the individual, by the mid-19th century technologies arose that were, paradoxically, embedding her in ever more complex technical systems and social configurations.

Paradoxically, then, the more we took for granted our own agency and assumed that technology was a neutral tool of the individual autonomous will, the more our will and agency was being compromised and distributed by new technologies.

Shortest version of the preceding: Material conditions untether the individual. Modern theoretical accounts frame this as a benign and desirable development. Under these circumstances, technology is unbridled and evolves to a scale that renders individual ethical action relatively inconsequential.

Moreover, the scale of these new technologies eclipsed the scale of local communities and traditional institutions. The new institutions that arose to deal with the new scale of operation were bureaucracies, that is to say that they themselves embodied the principles and values implicit in the emerging technological milieu.

It may be better, then, to say that it is the scale of new technologies that transcends the institutions and communities which are the proper sites for ethical reflection about technology. The governing instinct is to scale up our institutions and communities to meet the challenge, but this inevitably involves a reliance on the same technologies that generate the problems. It never occurs to us that the answer may lie in a refusal to operate at a scale that is inhospitable to the human person.

Something other than individual choices and laws are necessary. Something more akin to a renewal of cultural givens about what it means to be a human being and how the human relates to the non-human, givens which inform ethical choices and laws but cannot be reduced to either, and the emergence of institutions that embody and sustain individual lives ordered by these givens. It is hard, however, to see how these emerge under present circumstances.


*Throughout the post I use “modern” to refer to Western modernity emerging c. 1600 or so (which date is certainly subject to a great deal of debate).

E.B. White, Prophetic Media Critic

My wife is a fan of E.B. White’s, and with good reason. Each time she has read me a passage of his prose, mostly from his essays, I have found his voice to be unfailingly wise and humane. Below is a passage my wife shared with me this morning, knowing that I would find it especially interesting. It is from a 1938 essay titled “Removals” included in the collection One Man’s Meat. It is an astute analysis of television when television was in its infancy.

The news of television, however, is what I particularly go for when I get a chance at the paper, for I believe television is going to be the test of the modern world, and that in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of our vision we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace or a saving radiance in the sky. We shall stand or fall by television—of that I am quite sure [….]

Clearly the race today is between loud speaking and soft, between the things that are and the things that seem to be, between the chemist of RCA and the angel of God. Radio has already given sound a wide currency, and sound “effects” are taking the place once enjoyed by sound itself. Television will enormously enlarge the eye’s range, and, like radio, will advertise the Elsewhere. Together with the tabs, the mags, and the movies it will insist that we forget the primary and the near in favor of the secondary and the remote. More hours in every twenty-four will be spent digesting ideas, sounds, image—distant and concocted. In sufficient accumulation, radio sounds and television sights may become more familiar to us than their originals. A door closing, heard over the air; a face contorted, seen in a panel of light—these will emerge as the real and the true; and when we bang the door of our own cell or look into another’s face the impression will be of mere artifice [….]

When I was a child people simply looked about them and were moderately happy; today they peer beyond the seven seas, bury themselves waist deep in tidings, and by and large what they see and hear makes them unutterably sad.

a8bfb560fae2c9a9aca8172b45001f37--writing-motivation-work-spaces

I suspect most people will respond to this sort of thing in one of two ways. Some will see it as evidence that what we worry about today people worried about in years past, and from this they will draw the conclusion that, the race having survived to worry again, it may be best not to worry about such things at all. Others will see evidence of a historical trajectory, an antecedent to our present condition, the first steps down an unfortunate path, or, at least, evidence of perennial struggles, which each generation must face on their own terms.

It will, in short, seem like either reactionary nostalgia for an age that never existed—when in want of an argument charge opponent with Nostalgia—or part of any viable explanation for how we end up with a reality TV host for a president and somehow itching for another celebrity television personality to take his place.

I would encourage us simply to ask, “What if he’s right?” Or, to approach our reflections from a slightly different angle, “If he was wrong, how would we know?”

Relatedly, there was one other line that caught my attention. This one, however, is taken from Roger Angell’s 1997 preface to the collection of essays. Angell was White’s stepson and a consummate prose stylist in his own right. In recalling his stepfather’s virtues, he noted that White somewhere wrote that “the hardest thing about the war was to maintain a decent sense of indignation about its deadly details.”

White was speaking about World War 2, and, of course, he was speaking as a civilian on the home front. We are not in the midst of anything like the Second World War, but, nonetheless, I found the idea of struggling “to maintain a decent sense of indignation” somehow resonant and timely.