Stages, Structures, and the Work of Being Yourself

I have a half-baked theory, and I’m going to write about here to see where it goes.

My half-baked theory starts with the intuition of an analogy. I’ve been working on a piece for Real Life about the heightened self-consciousness our use of social media tends to generate (it was published today, you can read it here). I leaned a bit on some of Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical theory of the self to make my case.

In The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, Goffman suggested that we understand our social interaction by analogy to the theater. When we interact directly with others in their presence, it is as if we are actors on stage. On the stage, we are engaged in the work of impression management—trying to manage how we are perceived by controlling the impressions we give—the particular shape of which depends on the audience. But, in keeping with the analogy, we also have a back stage. This is where we are no longer immediately before a public audience. In our back stage area others may be present, but, if they are, they constitute a more intimate, familiar audience before which we are more at ease, some might say more ourselves. In our back stage area, we are able to let down our guard to some significant degree.

Goffman’s examples are all rather concrete and grounded in face-to-face experience. For example, for restaurant workers the kitchen is the back stage to the dining area’s front stage. Part of what I argue in the Real Life piece is that we can usefully extend Goffman’s analysis to the experience of the self on social media, especially when sustained by ubiquitous mobile devices. The idea is that we are now always potentially on the front stage, relentlessly managing impressions. When the stage is virtual, in other words, it is potentially everywhere. There is no backstage, or, to put it more moderately, the front stage begins to colonize what used to be backstage time and space. What I might’ve done a better job of explaining in the essay is that front stage work amounts to a practice of the self, a practice that becomes habitual and formative. It’s not so much that we internalize any one performance but that we internalize the performative mode. 

But it wasn’t Goffman’s analogy to the theater that I spoke of intuiting at the outset of this post, rather it was the analogy between Goffman’s dramaturgy and medieval carnival. Briefly stated, certain medieval festivals and carnivals had the function of relieving, if only temporarily, the burden and pressure of living a holy life. During these festivals or carnivals traditional roles were reversed, conventional pieties were overturned, even the sacred was profaned. All of it, mind you, ultimately in the service of the established order, more or less.

Charles Taylor, who discusses medieval carnivals at some length in his history western secularism, cites a medieval French cleric who explains the inversions and apparent profanations of carnival this way:

“We do these things in jest and not in earnest, as the ancient custom is, so that once a year the foolishness innate in us can come out and evaporate. Don’t wine skins and barrels burst open very often if the air-hole is not opened from time to time? We too are old barrels ….”

As Taylor notes, the French cleric did not think in terms of blowing off steam, a metaphor more at home in the industrial age, but that’s essentially his point as we might put it today.

In his discussion, Taylor draws on Victor Turner’s discussion of carnival in his work on the ritual process. In Turner’s view, medieval carnival is just one manifestation of a wide-spread phenomenon:  the relationship between structure and anti-structure.

Taylor summarizes what Turner means by structure this way: “the code of behavior of a society, in which are defined the different roles and statuses, and their rights, duties, powers, vulnerabilities.” Consequently, Taylor writes, “Turner’s point is that in many societies where this code is taken perfectly seriously, and enforced, even harshly most of the time, there are nevertheless moments or situations in which it is suspended, neutralized, or even transgressed.” But why?

Taylor notes again the “blowing off steam” hypothesis. If you don’t find a way to relieve the pressure within the relative safety of semi-sanctioned ritual, then you will get more serious, uncontrolled, and violent eruptions. But Taylor also notes an alternative or possibly complementary hypothesis present in Turner’s work: “that the code relentlessly applied would drain us of all energy; that the code needs to recapture some of the untamed force of the contrary principle.”

Coming back, then, to my intuited analogy, it goes something like this:  carnival is to the ordinary demands of piety in medieval society as, in contemporary society, the back stage is to the front stage relative to identity work.

It’s not a perfect analogy. Indeed, I confess that I may be stretching a bit to make it work. It really only focuses on one aspect of the backstage experience as Goffman theorized it:  the backstage as a space to let one’s guard down, to relieve the pressures of a constantly calibrated performance before an ill-defined virtual audience, to blow off some steam.

Nonetheless, I think there’s something useful in the approach. The main idea that emerged for me was this:  in our contemporary, digitally augmented society the mounting pressure we experience is not the pressure of conforming to the rigid demands of piety and moral probity, rather it is the pressure of unremitting impression management, identity work, and self-consciousness. Moreover, there is no carnival. Or, better, what presents itself as a carnival experience is, in reality, just another version of the disciplinary experience.

Consider the following.

First, the early internet, Web 1.0, was a rather different place. In fact, a case could be made for the early internet being itself the carnivalesque experience, the backstage where, under the cloak of anonymity, you got to play a variety of roles, try on different identities, and otherwise step out of the front stage persona (“on the internet nobody knows you are a dog,” Sherry Turkle’s Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, etc.). As our internet experience, especially post-Facebook, became more explicitly tied to our “IRL” identity, then the dynamic flipped. Now we could no longer experience “life on screen” as anti-structure, as backstage, as a place of release. Online identity and offline identity became too hopelessly entangled. Confusion about this entanglement during the period of transition accounts for all manner of embarrassing and damaging gaffs and missteps. The end result is that the mainstream experience of the internet became an expansive, always on front stage. A corollary of this development is the impulse to carve out some new online backstage experience, as with fake Instagram accounts or through the use of ephemeral-by-design communication of the sort that Snapchat pioneered.

Indeed, this may be a way of framing the history of the internet:  as a progression, or regression, from the promise of a liberating experience of anti-structure to the imposition of a unprecedentedly expansive and invasive instrument of structure. Many of our debates about the internet seem to be usefully illuminated by the resulting tension. Perhaps we might put it this way, the internet becomes an instrument of structure on a massive scale precisely by operating in the guise of an anti-structure. We are lured, as it were, by the promise of liberation and empowerment only to discover that we have been ensnared in a programmable web of discipline and control.

Second, maybe the analogy that occurred to me is more straightforward than I first imagined. My initial focus, given the essay I was working on, involved the experience of hypertrophied self-consciousness. So the analogy in this light operated at a sort of meta level. No real moral code was involved, only the psychic burden of constant identity management. But maybe there is a moral code involved. Of course, there’s a moral code involved! Our experience of social media can be an infamously surveilled and policed experience. Undoubtedly, there is pressure to conform to ever-evolving standards regulating speech and expression, for example. This pressure manifests itself through blunt instruments of enforcement (blocking, harassment, doxxing, etc.) or more tacit mechanisms of reward. Either way, it is not a stretch to say that we negotiate the demands of an emerging, perhaps ever-emerging moral code whenever we use online platforms. We might even say that the disciplinary character of the social media activity takes on an oddly ritualistic quality, as if it were the manifestation of some ancient and deep-seated drive to cleanse the social body of all forms of threatening impurities. 

But it’s one thing to conform to a standard to which you more or less assent and arising from a community you inhabit. It’s quite another to conform to a standard you don’t even buy into or maybe even resent. This is basically the case on many of our most popular digital forums and platforms. They gather together individuals with disparate, diverging, and conflicting moral, political, religious stances, and they thrust these individuals into meta-communities of performative and competitive display. Not surprisingly, interested parties will take recourse to whatever tools of control and discipline are available to them within the structures of the platforms and forums that sustain the meta-community. The result, again, a disciplinary experience in a space that was assumed to be liberating and empowering.

[Taylor is helpful on this score as well. He tells a long and complex story, so I won’t do justice to it here, but one key concept he deploys is what he calls the nova effect. The nova effect, in Taylor’s analysis, is the explosion of possible and plausible options regarding the good life that emerge in the modern world. The result is, of course, experienced as freedom and liberation, but also as fragmentation and fragilization of the self. Social media, it seems to me, dramatically intensifies the nova effect. It brings us into a space where we become aware of and interact with an exponentially greater variety of perspectives, stances, and forms of life within structures that foreground the performative experience of the self, which only accents its sense of fragility.]

Think, then, of the dark perfection of a structure that has convinced it is really an anti-structure, a front stage that invites us to think of it as a back stage. We end up unwittingly turning to the very source of our exhaustion, anxiety, burnout, and listlessness for release and relief from the same. The result is recreation without rest, familiarity without intimacy, play without joy, laughter without mirth, carnival without release—in short, the feeling that society is on the brink of exploding and the self is on the brink of imploding.

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When the Service Is Free, Your Life Is the Work of Art

Thoughts that arose as a surplus of sorts from a piece I’ve been working on over the last couple of weeks:

  1. There seems to be a trajectory implicit in documenting technology that we might gloss in this way: First to remember, then to express. The thought occurred to me, when thinking about how we have come to use photography over the last fifteen years or so. I was recently going through a box of old photographs taken during the 1980s and early 90s. The point of these photographs, almost without exception, was simply to record or document a moment. It’s true that we still snap images to document our lives, but this function of image-taking seems to be eclipsed by the degree to which our images are also means of self-expression, self-marketing, or simply acts of mundane communication. Instagram, it seems to me, is not chiefly a platform we use merely to document our lives for memory’s sake. The threshold is crossed, it seems, when the apparatus of documentation becomes cheap, accessible, and, consequently, ubiquitous. Compare the costs and limitations of 35-mm photography with digital photography.
  2. My old photographs had a vanishingly small audience. It is hard to overstate the consequences of having an audience in our pockets all the time. It’s hard to turn anything toward the work of self-expression if there will be no audience to receive it.
  3. Benjamin famously theorized how the work of art lost its aura in the age of its mechanical reproducibility. But the photograph, one of those means of mechanical reproducibility still retained an aura of sorts. Think of Barthes’s refusal to display a particularly personal photograph of his mother. The digital image retains no aura of that sort. Breaking free of the aura appears to be a prerequisite for becoming a means of self-expression.
  4. Of course, there is fine if not porous line between documenting and expressing, perhaps it’s simply a matter of emphasis. There have always been artists who have turned the tools of documentation toward imaginative creation and expression. When the media of documentation and expression become ubiquitous, one’s life becomes the work of art.

Variations On A Utilitarian Theme

Read along, if you will, as I tell a little story of sorts through a series of excerpts. It is essentially a story about the links among prevalent trends involving surveillance, data, security, self-documentation, and happiness.

Jeremy Bentham in Deontology, or The Science of Morality:

It were to be wished that every man’s name were written upon his forehead as well as engraved upon his door. It were to be wished that no such thing as secrecy existed that every man’s house were made of glass …

The more men live in public, the more amenable they are to the moral sanction. The greater dependence men are in to the public, that is, the more equality there is among them, the clearer the evidence comes out, the more it has of certainty in its results. The liberty of the press throws all men into the public presence. The liberty of the press is the greatest co-adjutor of the moral sanction. Under such influence, it were strange if men grew not every day more virtuous than on the former day. I am satisfied they do ….

A whole kingdom, the great globe itself, will become a gymnasium, in which every man exercises himself before the eyes of every other man. Every gesture, every turn of limb or feature, in those whose motions have a visible influence on the general happiness, will be noticed and marked down.

Lewis Mumford in The Myth of the Machine:

“In the end, no action, no conversation, and possibly in time no dream or thought would escape the wakeful and relentless eye of this deity: every manifestation of life would be processed into the computer and brought under its all-pervading system of control. This would mean, not just the invasion of privacy, but the total destruction of autonomy: indeed the dissolution of the human soul.”

Stephen Wolfram, Seeking the Productive Life:

I have systems that keep all sorts of data, including every keystroke I type, every step I take and what my computer screen looks like every minute (sadly, the movie of this is very dull). I also have a whole variety of medical and environmental sensors, as well as data from devices and systems that I interact with.

It’s interesting every so often to pick up those Wolfram Data Drop databins and use them to do some data science on my life. And, yes, in broad terms I find that I am extremely consistent and habitual—yet every day there are different things that happen, that make my “productivity” (as measured in a variety of ways) bounce around, often seemingly randomly …

Perhaps all that data I’ve collected on myself will one day let one basically just built a “bot of me”. Having seen so many of my emails—and being able to look at all my files and personal analytics—maybe it’s actually possible to predict how I’d respond to any particular question.

Hugo Huijer, Engineering a Happiness Prediction Model:

Over the last 5 years, I’ve tracked my happiness every single day. I’ve now used this data to build a happiness prediction model. That’s right. I’ve built a model that can accurately predict how happy I will be on a scale from 1 to 10, based on what I plan to do that day.

This model features over 80 happiness factors. Below is a sneak peek of these happiness factors. This shows how much certain factors – like running, my job and my relationship with my girlfriend – influence my happiness.


I first came across Ursula Le Guin’s well-known short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” in an anthology of readings in ethical theory. It was included in the section on utilitarianism or consequentialism. The story, as many of you will know, is about a city called Omelas that is a citadel of peace, prosperity, and happiness without artificiality. But, we soon learn, all of this is somehow connected to the suffering of a lone individual, who is kept isolated in a dark, putrid cell, his human faculties barely developed. At a certain age, everyone who lives in Omelas must witness the condition of this individual and so come to terms with the cost of their happiness. The title of the story, of course, tells us about the choice at least some of the citizens of Omelas make. You should read the story, this summary obviously does not do it justice.

I bring the story to mind, however, as a way of framing this last piece: “The Trauma Floor: The secret lives of Facebook moderators in America.”  It is an account of a the kind of work that poorly compensated Facebook moderators do in an effort to keep Facebook’s newsfeed relatively pleasant and devoid of the very worst of what human beings are capable of doing to themselves and to one another.

Here are the opening paragraphs:

She spent the past three and a half weeks in training, trying to harden herself against the daily onslaught of disturbing posts: the hate speech, the violent attacks, the graphic pornography. In a few more days, she will become a full-time Facebook content moderator, or what the company she works for, a professional services vendor named Cognizant, opaquely calls a “process executive.”

For this portion of her education, Chloe will have to moderate a Facebook post in front of her fellow trainees. When it’s her turn, she walks to the front of the room, where a monitor displays a video that has been posted to the world’s largest social network. None of the trainees have seen it before, Chloe included. She presses play.

The video depicts a man being murdered. Someone is stabbing him, dozens of times, while he screams and begs for his life. Chloe’s job is to tell the room whether this post should be removed. She knows that section 13 of the Facebook community standards prohibits videos that depict the murder of one or more people. When Chloe explains this to the class, she hears her voice shaking.

Returning to her seat, Chloe feels an overpowering urge to sob. Another trainee has gone up to review the next post, but Chloe cannot concentrate. She leaves the room, and begins to cry so hard that she has trouble breathing.

No one tries to comfort her. This is the job she was hired to do. And for the 1,000 people like Chloe moderating content for Facebook at the Phoenix site, and for 15,000 content reviewers around the world, today is just another day at the office.

If you are not keen on reading at even greater depth and detail about the work these “process executives” do out of sight for the sake of Facebook’s user experience, there is a sidebar near the top of the piece with bullet-pointed summary of key points. At least glance at those.

H/t to Neil Turkewitz for the Mumford quote.

Digital Asceticism and Pascalian Angst

Writing in the Times, Kevin Roose describes how he recently arrived at a better working relationship with his smartphone. It is not unlike similar narratives that you might have read at some point in the last few years. Roose realizes that he is spending way too much time checking his smartphone, and he recognizes that it’s taking a toll on him. A series of unambitious measures—using grayscale, installing app-blockers, etc.—can’t quite get the job done, so he turns to Catherine Price, the author of “How to Break Up With Your Phone,” a 30-day guide to getting a better grip on your phone use.

You can read the piece to find out how things go for him. I’m just going to make two or three observations.

First, it’s always interesting to me to note the preemptive framings such pieces feel they must deploy. They reveal a lot about their rhetorical context. For example, “I confess that entering phone rehab feels clichéd, like getting really into healing crystals or Peloton.” Or, more pointedly, this:  “Sadly, there is no way to talk about the benefits of digital disconnection without sounding like a Goop subscriber or a neo-Luddite. Performative wellness is obnoxious, as is reflexive technophobia.”

The implicit fear that commending tech temperance might earn one the label of neo-Luddite is especially telling. Of course, the fear itself already cedes too much ground to the Luddite bashers and to the Borgs, who use the term as an a-historical slur.

Preemptive framings notwithstanding, there’s still some fodder for another, socio-economic strand of criticism:  taking recourse and gaining access to a life-coach of sorts, pottery classes, an unplugged weekend in the Catskills framed as a Waldenesque experience.

Who has the time and resources for such measures? And, of course, this is the point of the socio-economic critique of testimonials of this sort:  it’s a luxury experience available to very few. Mind you, Roose himself notes the even more luxurious variants:  multi-thousand dollar getaways at luxury detox destinations, etc.

This line of criticism is understandable. The point-scoring, out-of-hand, performative dismissals are less so, of course. The unfortunate result of all of this is that in certain quarters it is difficult to speak about the problems associated with digital devices without getting some serious blowback. We must all, to some degree, necessarily speak out of our own experience, and this requires a measure of humility not only in the speaking but also in the hearing. Neither is particularly encouraged by the structures of social media.

Secondly, I was reminded about a post I wrote back in 2011 about the possible virtues of what I then called digital asceticism. I used Google to find the post with “digital asceticism” as my search term. I expected to have to wade through a few pages to find my post, but I was surprised to discover that it was, at least for me, the third result. The first result was a blog titled “Digital Ascetics,” which appears to have been launch and abandoned in 2009 (practicing what it preached, I suppose). I was surprised by this because I was sure that in the eight or so years since I wrote the post, especially in light of the rolling tech backlash over the last couple of years, there would be plenty of references to digital asceticism. Apparently not.

It seems like an obvious framing for the wide variety of efforts that we deploy to get at least a semblance of control over our use of digital devices. It’s even suggested by some of the language we use to talk about such measures: fasts and Sabbaths, for example. Frankly, I find that it may be a better option than the more popular alternative: the clinical language of addiction.

Part of what the language of asceticism captures is the aspect of self-denial that is necessarily involved, at least for many who would practice it. We won’t really be able to grapple with the personal consequences of digital devices unless we recognize that doing without them now entails what is experienced as real deprivation. Indeed, the connection between the word privation and privacy is suggestive on this score. Privacy in the world of digital media is privation; the measures we might take to achieve privacy require privations we find barely tolerable. The self-denial entailed by digital asceticism also takes on a slightly different hue:  it is not simply a matter of denying certain experiences to the self, it is denying the self the very experiences by which it is constituted in the present psycho-social technical milieu.

It is also useful to consider that asceticism is never properly for its own sake. It is for the sake of some greater good than that which we deny ourselves. But this valuation is itself dependent on the psycho-social milieu. What higher goods do we find plausible or compelling? The answer to this question is already informed by the structures within which the self takes shape. Such goods are always a product of what Charles Taylor has called a social imaginary, and we might think of media as the material scaffolding of the social imaginary. We might expect, then, that the pursuit of alternative goods to those sustained by the dominant media structures will always appear renegade, deviant, or, at best, quixotic. Yet another reason why we might feel pressured to preemptively hedge our decision to pursue them.

Lastly, I can’t quite keep from echoing Pascalian notes whenever I encounter them. “Mostly,” Roose observed, “I became aware of how profoundly uncomfortable I am with stillness.” “It’s an unnerving sensation,” he added, “being alone with your thoughts in the year 2019. Catherine had warned me that I might feel existential malaise when I wasn’t distracting myself with my phone.”

“All of man’s misfortune comes from one thing,” Pascal noted in the 17th century, “which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room.” “Nothing,” he wrote, “could be more wretched than to be intolerably depressed as soon as one is reduced to introspection with no means of diversion.” Or, more to the point still,

“Being unable to cure death, wretchedness, and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things …. What people want is not the easy peaceful life that allows us to think of our unhappy condition, nor the dangers of war, nor the burdens of office, but the agitation that takes our mind off it and diverts us.”

Has there ever been a more perfect instrument of what Pascal called diversion than the smartphone? I’m hard pressed to think of a counter example.

It occurs to me that these three observations are not unrelated. The difficulty in speaking earnestly about digital asceticism involves the erosion of a social imaginary that would render the goods for the sake of which such asceticism might be undertaken plausible or desirable. Instead we are left with the less satisfying and less compelling language of wellness with which to speak about such things. But this itself reminds us that whatever the dominant social imaginary may tell us about the virtues and wonders of the preternaturally connected life, there is a world against which such visions rub up and in this world the recalcitrance of our bodies signals to us the inadequacy of the vision. Then, it may be that, heeding the challenge of the body, we undertake the practices of digital asceticism and as a consequence stumble upon these signs of an alternative, possibly disconcerting understanding of our situation, as Pascal suggested. And we might even find that we really are better for it and that wellness, as we imagined it, had, finally, very little to do with it.

Occasional reminder that tips are welcome.

Token Ethicists and Non-existent Moral Communities

“As it ponders important social choices that involves the application of new technology,” Langdon Winner wrote in 1992, “contemporary moral philosophy works within a vacuum.”

“The vacuum,” he goes on to say, “is a social as well as an intellectual one. Often there are no persons or organizations with clear authority to make the decisions that matter. In fact, there may be no clearly defined social channels in which important moral issues can be addressed at all.”

Instead we get “jerrybuilt policies” that emerge out of a jumble of competing private and public interests. “But given the number of points at which technologies generate significant social stress and conflict,” Winner concluded, “this familiar pattern is increasingly unsatisfactory.” (Again, remember Winner was writing in 1992.)

Cue the philosophers who specialize in ethical matters and are eager to deploy their expertise. Unfortunately, in Winner’s view, they “may find themselves involved in an exercise that is essentially technocratic.” At a certain point in the design process, they are called in as “values experts” to “provide ‘solutions’ to the kind of ‘problems’ whose features are ethical rather than solely technical … ‘Everything else looks good. What are the results from the ethics lab?'”

Winner understands that “philosophers sometimes find it tempting to play along with these expectations, gratifying to find that anyone cares about what they think, exhilarating to notice that their ideas might actually have some effect.”

But, he wonders, “Is it wise to don the mantle of the values expert?”

After they have preformed all of their intellectual labor and applied their expertise, “there remains the embarrassing question: Who in the world are we talking to? Where is the community in which our wisdom will be welcome?”

Citing two passages from then-recent articles advancing ethical claims about emerging technologies, Winner notes the frequent deployment of the rhetorical we. Acknowledging that he, too, has been guilty of using the first person plural pronoun whose antecedents are always vague and ill-defined, Winner correctly notes, “What matters here is that this lovely ‘we’ suggests the presence of a moral community that may not, in fact, exist at all, at least not in any coherent, self-conscious form.”

The important “first task” for ethics of technology, Winner suggested, would be to ask “what is the identity and character of the moral communities that will make the crucial, world-altering judgments and take appropriate action as a result?”

Winner believed this was a question about “politics and political philosophy rather than a question for ethics considered solely as a matter of right and wrong in individual conduct.” (I appreciated the qualifier solely in Winner’s claim. More on that momentarily.) As “technological things” increasingly become “central features in widely shared arrangements and conditions of life,” Winner argued, it is urgent that they be considered in a “political light.” Rather than continue in the technocratic and mostly ineffective “values expert” pattern, Winner believes “todays thinkers would do better to reexamine the role of the public in matters of this kind.” The question they should be asking is this: “How can and should democratic citizenry participate in decision making about technology?”

It seems to me that not much has changed in the 28 or so years since Winner published these reflections; we have learned very little and the challenges have become more complex, consequential, and urgent. Indeed, what strikes me about this article is that it could be re-published today without substantive changes and it would appear to be speaking directly to our situation.

In his article, Winner went on to survey ancient and modern attitudes toward the relationship between techne and politics. According to Winner, “the Western tradition of moral and political philosophy has … almost nothing to say about the ways in which persons in their role as citizens might be involved in making choices about the development, deployment, and use of new technology.” Indeed, the chief feature of both classical and modern political reflection regarding technology has been the tendency to compartmentalize the political and the technological, although for different reasons.

Wrapping up his overview of both traditions, Winner concludes:

“If one compares liberal ideology about politics and technology with its classical precursors, an interesting irony emerges. In modern thought the ancient pessimism about techne is eventually replaced by all-out enthusiasm for technological advance. At the same time basic conceptions of politics and political membership are reformulated in ways that help create new contexts for the exercise of power and authority. Despite the radical thrust of these intellectual developments, however, the classical separation between the political and the technical spheres is strongly preserved, but for entirely new reasons. Technology is still isolated from public life in both principle and practice. Citizens are strongly encouraged to become involved in improving modern material culture, but only in the market or other highly privatized settings. There is no moral community or public space in which technological issues are topics for deliberation, debate, and shared action.”

Just so.

Again, nearly three decades later, it seems the problems, on all counts, are both more acute and more vexing.

I was, in fact, reminded of a striking observation Winner made in an even earlier work, Autonomous Technology published in 1977:

Different ideas of social and political life entail different technologies for their realization. One can create systems of production, energy, transportation, information handling, and so forth that are compatible with the growth of autonomous, self-determining individuals in a democratic polity. Or one can build, perhaps unwittingly, technical forms that are incompatible with this end and then wonder how things went strangely wrong. The possibilities for matching political ideas with technological configurations appropriate to them are, it would seem, almost endless. If, for example, some perverse spirit set out deliberately to design a collection of systems to increase the general feeling of powerlessness, enhance the prospects for the dominance of technical elites, create the belief that politics is nothing more than a remote spectacle to be experienced vicariously, and thereby diminish the chance that anyone would take democratic citizenship seriously, what better plan to suggest than that we simply keep the systems we already have?

“There is, of course, hope that we may decide to do better than that,” Winner added. A necessary hope that is nonetheless difficult to sustain. Critically, though, Winner concluded this line of thought by reminding readers (in 1977!) that “the notion that technical forms are merely neutral … is a myth that no longer merits the least respect.”

And yet the idea that technical forms are merely neutral has proven hard to shake. For a very long time, it has been a cornerstone principle of our thinking about technology and society. Or, more to the point, we have taken it for granted and have consequently done very little thinking about technology with regards to society.

I’ll note in passing that the liberal democratic structures of modern political culture and the development of technology are deeply intertwined, and they have both depended upon the presumption of their ostensible neutrality. I tempted to think that our present crisis is a function of a growing realization that neither our political structures nor our technologies are, in fact, merely neutral instruments.

Making our way back to Winner’s claim about the absence of moral-political communities within which technological ethics can be enacted, our political structures (or better our political-economic structures) and our technologies have, as one function of their non-neutrality, made such communities very difficult to sustain. It has rendered them implausible.

We are, at present, stuck in an unhelpful tendency to imagine that our only options with regard to how we govern technology are, on the one hand, individual choices and, on the other, regulation by the state. What’s worse, we’ve also tended to oppose these to one another. But this way of conceptualizing our situation is both a symptom of the deepest consequences of modern technology and part of the reason why it is so difficult to make any progress.

Technology operates at different scales and effective mechanisms of governance need to correspond to the challenges that arise at each scale. Mechanism of governance that makes sense at one end of the spectrum will be ineffective at the other end and vice versa.

Our problem is basically this: technologies that operate at the macro-level cannot be effectively governed by micro-level mechanisms, which basically amount to individual choices. At the macro-level, however, governance is limited by the degree to which we can arrive at public consensus, and the available tools of governance at the macro-level cannot address all of the ways technologies impact individuals. What is required is a cocktail of strategies that address the consequences of technology as they manifest themselves across the spectrum of scale.

The problem, of course, as Winner diagnosed long ago, is that the further up the scale we move, the more unlikely we are to find a relevant moral community with either the prerequisite coherence or authority to effectively grapple with the problems we face. We lack those communities, in part, because of the moral and political consequences of existing technology, so it would seem that we are stuck in a vicious cycle of sorts.

I have no solution for this, of course. I think it would be helpful, though, if whatever moral communities we have left that occupy the broad space between the individual on the one hand and the state on the other would take up the challenge of thinking critically about the morally formative consequences of technology and see their way to leveraging their existing structures of deliberation and practice with a view to helping their members better navigate the challenges posed by emerging technologies. If we need some model of what this might look like, we could do worse than consider the Amish.

Periodic reminder that tips are welcome and your steady support even more so.