Technological Enchantments and the End of Modernity

Dissatisfied with existing theories of secularization, Charles Taylor proposed his own account in his much-discussed 2007 book, A Secular Age. Taylor argued that traditional secularization stories were at best inadequate. They were in adequate because they were what Taylor called “subtraction stories.” According to such stories, secularization is what you get when belief in God goes away or when the Church loses its cultural power or when religious language is excised from the public square, etc. Taylor did not believe that secular society is simply what you have left when you slough off religious belief and institutions. Rather, he argued for the rise of something novel, exclusive humanism, which could fill the role that religious experience once served to provide “fullness” to people’s lives. Additionally, he argued that secularism as he understood it was not something that characterized only the unbelievers in a society. It was also the context for and conditions of belief and thus no one escaped its consequences.

I find Taylor’s work compelling and instructive, however, I bring it up only to make use of a small part of his multi-faceted and nuanced argument: his understanding of disenchantment.

The enchanted world was one of the features of pre-modern society which had to be overcome in order for a secular world, in Taylor’s sense, to emerge. The enchanted world as he describes it yields a particular experience of the self, what Taylor calls the “porous self” which later gives way to the modern “buffered self.”

Before moving on to explain what Taylor means by the porous self, I think it is useful to emphasize that Taylor is not after a theory of the self that pre-modern people may or not have held. Rather, he is after something more subjective, the background of lived experience or what was naively taken for granted. Taylor describes what he trying to get at as “the construal we just live in, without ever being aware of it as a construal, or–for the most of us–without ever even formulating it.”

This is a useful way of approaching these matters because rarely do we carry around with us a fully developed theory we could articulate to explain our beliefs and actions. Much of what we say and do arises from a tacit understanding of the world and our place in it, an understanding we might be hard pressed to put into words.

This is helpful because when I talk about technological re-enchantment, I don’t mean to suggest that anyone today would claim that there are spirits in the iPhone like a medieval peasant might have believed there were dryads in the forest. Nonetheless, we may experience our technology in a way that is functionally similar or analogous to the premodern experience of enchantment. And we may do so naively, that is without reflection and in a taken for granted manner.

Taylor’s discussion of enchantment unfolds as a theory of the self, and his understanding enchantment begins with the question of meaning. In a our modern disenchanted world, meaning arises only from mind, and the human mind is the only kind of mind there is. Nothing external to the human mind bears any meaning in itself. Moreover, there are no non-human agents in the world, either of matter or spirit.

By contrast, things (and spirits) in the enchanted world have the “power of exogenously inducing or imposing meaning,” a meaning that is independent of the perceiver. A meaning that someone may be forced to reckon with whether they would like to or not. Additionally, in the enchanted world objects can have a causal power. The “charged” objects, Taylor explains, “have what we usually call ‘magic’ powers.” Crucially, this power may be either benevolent or malevolent. The objects in question may bring blessing or trouble, cure or disease, rescue or danger.

“Thus in the enchanted world,” Taylor concludes, “charged things can impose meanings, and bring about physical outcomes proportionate to their meanings.” He calls these “influence” and ” causal power,” respectively.

The corresponding experience of the self that arises from this state of affairs is key for my purposes. Boundaries in the enchanted world are decidedly fuzzy. Taylor writes that the enchanted world “shows a perplexing absence of certain boundaries which seem to us essential.” In particular, “the boundary between mind and world is porous.” The porous self that corresponds to an enchanted world is “vulnerable, to spirits, demons, cosmic forces. And along with this go certain fears which can grip it in certain circumstances.”

The buffered self characteristic of the disenchanted world is, by contrast, “invulnerable” and “master of the meanings of things for it.” It is also immune to the fears that may grip the porous self. It is sealed off from the world, its boundaries are not at all fuzzy, meaning resides neatly within its own mind, it occupies a world of inert matter. It is autonomous and self-possessed. It is in other words, a thoroughly modern individual.

It would be fair to ask at this point, what any of this has to do with technology. My working hypothesis is something along these lines: contemporary technologies have taken on attributes that render their presence in our lived understanding of the world analogous to that of the “charged” objects of the enchanted world Taylor describes.

Two clarifications. First, I don’t mean to suggest that contemporary technology is in any literal sense magical. I am no more committed to that conclusion than a contemporary historian is committed to attributing real power to medieval relics when she describes them as enchanted.

Secondly, I don’t have in mind every kind of contemporary technology. Chiefly, I have in view technologies and objects that appear to be animated (as I’ve described elsewhere), and also processes, real or rhetorical, such as AI, automation, algorithms, and Big Data, which constitute something like an immaterial field of often inscrutable forces within which we conduct our lives.

In this technologically enchanted world we inhabit, then, we encounter objects and forces that, to borrow Taylor’s terminology, both influence us and exert causal power over our affairs. Some of these objects and forces appear also to have an agency independent of any human actor. I want to reiterate again that I am not talking about what some, including myself, would want to argue is actually the case: that technology is never wholly independent of human agency. Rather, like Taylor, I’m after what our unreflective experience of the world feels like.

Our technologically enchanted objects confront us with meaning that imposes itself on us and with which we must reckon. We turn to our technologies for help and invest our hope in their power. We also fear our technologies and see them as the cause of our troubles. The technological forces we encounter are sometimes benevolent but just as often malevolent forces undermining our efforts and derailing our projects.

It is not only that technological objects have the potential to empower us and sometimes even fill us with wonder. It is also that we experience these objects and forces as important determiners of our weal and woe and that they act upon us independently of our control and without our understanding. We are, in other words, vulnerable, and our autonomy is compromised by the lines of technologically distributed agency that intersect our will and desires.

This means, then, that the experience of the self that emerges out of this technologically enchanted milieu more resembles the porous self of the previously enchanted world than the buffered self that corresponded to disenchanted modernity. This is the key point at the end of this line of thought: a technologically enchanted world is inhospitable to the characteristically modern self. Postmodernity, then, at least the postmodern experience of the self, may be understood as an effect of our technological milieu.

“We are as gods,” Stewart Brand famously declared, “and might as well get good at it.” I suspect, though, that while the technologically enchanted world may tempt us with that possibility, most will experience it in a decidedly more creaturely and thus precarious mode. And not unlike the previous age of enchantment, our age will yield its own forms of serfdom, its own clerical class whose esoteric knowledge we turn to navigate the promise and perils of enchantment, and its own eschatological hope.

The Work Ahead

Earlier this month, I was notified by WordPress that my blog was celebrating its seventh anniversary. When I began the blog then, I did not realize that the sort of blogging I was going to attempt was already passé. That I persist in doing so to this day, quietly typing away for a small audience as time allows must seem quaint, and, to be honest, sometimes strikes even me as stubborn or possibly foolish. Nonetheless, here we are.

If you follow the blog, you’ve noticed that posting has picked up over the last month or so. I hope to keep that up. I’ve laid out three areas of interest that I hope to pursue over the next several weeks. At the somewhat more scholarly end of things, I’ll be reading and writing about disenchantment, modernity, and technology. I’ve thought for sometime that there are valuable insights available down this line of inquiry. I first wrote about the topic here, and more recently began a series of posts that amount to notes on the topic here.

In a less scholarly and slightly more personal vein, I opened up a second strand of posts on what it means to be a parent in the digital age. I realize that “X in the digital age” is kind of a hackneyed phrase, but I can’t think of any better alternatives. It’s useful shorthand, in any case. The first of these posts is here.

Finally, this morning, I got back to a re-consideration of Walter Ong and what his work on orality and literacy can teach us about digital communication and the world it shapes. That post is here, and there will be at least two more on the way.

Of course, posts that are not related to these three areas of interest will also be forthcoming. I also have about three-quarters of a mind to start a modest newsletter. Like my first attempts at blogging, I suspect this will also come just as the newsletter fad is passing away. Don’t worry, I promise there will be no podcast or Youtube channel.

In any case, I’ll now lay my cards on the table. I am ramping up my work here because I am hoping that some of you will find it helpful enough to consider supporting my efforts. The work I do here, I do as an independent scholar. This, of course, is just another way of saying that nobody is paying me to do it.

In truth, I would be perfectly content continuing to write as a labor of love as I have through most of the past seven years, however, it would be hard for me to justify the expenditure of time under my circumstances. But not long ago, I stumbled onto a platform called Patreon that was designed to allow artists, writers, etc. to solicit steady support, and I created a page you can find here.

I understand what it means these days to give financial support to work that you value, it’s not an easy thing to do. I understand as well that there are countless other more worthy causes. So, I’m grateful for your consideration. As always, thanks for reading

The Psychodynamics of Digital Media

A few months ago I noted a handful of recent articles that cited Walter Ong’s work on orality and literacy in an effort to make sense of the present political climate. I thought then and still think now that this was a good move. In fact, I think we do well to revisit Ong’s work not only to get a better understanding of the political dynamics of our time, but also to understand our time more generally.

In a more recent post, I collected eight theses about social media. The fifth of these is a good place for us to start:

5. While text and image flourish online, the psycho-dynamics of digital culture are most akin to those of oral cultures (per Walter Ong).

ong_libraryIn Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, Ong set out to explore the momentous consequences that attended the invention of writing, especially alphabetic writing. As part of this effort, Ong examined what he called the psychodynamics of orality. By psychodynamics, Ong meant something like the way orality shapes the experience of thinking, feeling, and communicating.

Primary oral cultures, cultures that had no knowledge or concept of writing at all, manifested one set of psychodynamics and literate cultures manifested another. Of course, and this is sometimes lost in these discussions, Ong recognized that oral habits of thought and expression persisted, often for a very long time, after the advent of writing. At one point he called this residual orality.

More recently, electronic media fostered yet another set of psychodynamics. In Orality and Literacy, Ong included a brief discussion of what he called secondary orality, which was a product of the electronic communication technologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (telegraph, telephone, radio, television, etc.). While Ong (d. 2003) lived long to see the advent of digital culture, it is left to us to extend his analysis to our digital tools.

This will, admittedly, be a difficult thing for us to do. In fact, I’d suggest that our attempt to identify the psychodynamics of digital media should be taken chiefly as a heuristic activity, and that is the spirit in which I proceed here. The reason for this, as I see it, is that we cannot speak of digital culture in the same way that we might speak about oral cultures and literate cultures.

The transition from orality to literacy was marked by the advent of one technology, writing (and its later intensification through printing). The transition from literacy to secondary orality is marked by the advent of a small set of discreet technologies: radio and television, primarily. The transition to digital culture, on the other hand, is more complicated. Indeed the phrase “digital technology” is too capacious; “digital culture” even more so. Digital technology absorbs a whole array of existing communication technologies: photography, sound recording technologies, telephone, film, television, radio, print, etc.

Moreover, oral societies knew nothing of writing. We, on the other hand, to take one example, knew photography before digital cameras appeared. We might say then, that digital culture is marked by its multi-modality and the digitization of existing technologies. This makes it nearly impossible to make a neat set of contrasts in quite the same way as Ong did in the case of orality and literacy. Nonetheless, with Ong as our model, we can make a few measured observations that might prove useful and illuminating.

Underlying Ong’s analysis we find a focus on memory, presence, and the phenomenology of sound and sight. Most of what Ong says about the psychodynamics of orality and literacy involve one or more of these. So let’s move along these lines beginning with memory. In subsequent posts, we’ll consider the other two.

Memory

Sound is, as Ong puts it, evanescent. It is going as it is arriving, and we can hardly remember all that we hear. The expressive patterns of oral societies, thus, can be partially accounted for by the limitations of human memory. Furthermore, before writing, there were very few effective and efficient ways of storing knowledge independently of living human beings. Consequently, speech patterns tended to account for the evanescence of sound through rhythm, repetition, redundancy, ritual, and formula. Likewise, societies were organized around the task of collective remembering and were thus fundamentally conservative or traditionalist (see Paul Connerton’s How Societies Remember).

Writing, on the other hand, allows for what Ong calls “sparse linearity.” While we cannot, to be anachronistic about it, rewind spoken conversations, you can scroll back up this post to recall something you read a minute ago. The redundancy that is a feature of oral speech patterns is perceived as a bug in written communication, in which students, for example, are urged to avoid repetition.

Moreover, writing allows for the durable storage of knowledge independently of human beings. Not only can written knowledge outlive a particular individual, it can outlive a whole culture. By outsourcing the task of remembrance to written texts, literate societies are relieved of the conservative and traditionalist pressures of orality. And as literacy is democratized, individuals also partake of its power as a tool of remembrance and then self-expression. Writing consequently lends materiality and objectivity to the self. It is in this way that, Ong puts it, writing “heightens consciousness” and becomes “the seedbed of irony.”

Pursuing this line of inquiry into digital culture, a few of its paradoxes come into focus. We have never been able to document our lives so thoroughly as we now can with the help of digital tools, yet we seem to remember less than ever before. We appear to be both obsessive documenters of our experience, yet largely indifferent to the archives we create. We have ever more access to the past, but we are unable to bring it meaningfully to bear on the present.

This is not altogether unsurprising. Plato identified similar dynamics when he offered his critique of writing in the Phaedrus. It is true that writing would allow far more knowledge to be preserved and accessed, but it would relieve individuals themselves of the subjective burden of remembering. Moreover, the archives we generate are often incidental to our motives for using the tools that generate them. A person’s Twitter archive, for instance, might be a remarkably revealing record of their experiences and thoughts, yet few treat their Twitter account primarily as a tool of remembrance. Of course, nothing about the Twitter account encourages users to treat it as a tool of remembrance.

Like writing and print, our use of digital media ordinarily generates an archive (as well as a trail of data, often invisible to users but of great value to others). In other words, it appears to sustain memory. However, in practice, it is more like oral communication in its evanescence. Our digital media feeds resemble the flow of oral communication. Our tweets and status updates recede, not as quickly and decisively as the spoken word, but with an effect that is not dissimilar.

The work of remembrance is also connected to the subjective experience of time. Oral societies devoted to the collective task of corporate remembrance were oriented toward the past. The modern world is/was characterized by its orientation toward the future. Whereas pre-modern societies tended to look back to a distant and glorious past, modern societies are/were utopian in their expectations, assuming the best is still to come. We might attribute this departure to emergence of print, which solidified and expanded writing’s capacity to preserve a culture’s knowledge and history and more fully liberated the imagination. (Clearly, other factors are relevant to this kind of momentous shift in cultural sensibilities.)

Yet, it is the case that contemporary culture is oriented chiefly toward the present. The architecture of digital platforms encourages a preoccupation with instantaneity, and they simultaneously sanction forgetting under the guise of pervasive documentation. This is not unlike the homeostatis that Ong identified as one of the psychodynamics of oral societies: “oral societies live very much in a present which keeps itself in equilibrium or homeostatis by sloughing off memories which no longer have present relevance.” It is only that our present is ever more condensed by the patterns of digital media. It is not this year or this month, but rather this day or even this hour. This is one reason why we have a difficult time relating to the past as an organic reality whose presence makes itself felt in the present. Time has no integrity, and the past is accessible only under the aspect of nostalgia.

Certain platforms and apps do periodically foreground portions of our archive (Facebook and Timehop, for example), but because they do so within the conditions of generalized forgetting and by a logic that is often artificial. Consequently, there is no structure to our remembering. Distant and recent past blur; last year was another world. The narrative thread, as it were, is lost.

Additionally, the expressive function of our documenting technologies has eclipsed the archival function. We document in order to communicate rather than remember. The project of self-remembering elides into the project of self-making. This is, in part, a function of the ease with which we are able to document. It is also a function of the audience that is an integral, ever-present part of our documentation (about which more will be said later).

Furthermore, the heightened consciousness and irony that Ong identified as consequences of writing are augmented by our digital tools and platforms. We are ever more aware of ourselves when we communicate digitally, and this is, again, because digital media combines aspects of the conditions of both oral and written communication.

In an oral culture, with its always visible audience and emphasis on rhetoric, I’m likely to experience communication as a performance. In literate/print cultures, with their emphasis on interiority and privacy and its invisible audience, I experience communication as an expression of the inner self; indeed, rhetoric now appears artificial and inauthentic. In digital culture, which mashes these together, I experience communication as a performance of the self. But this is an unstable compound. That it is experienced as a performance suggest that the self is inauthentic given the expectation of a stable and abiding interior life fostered by print. Irony, or snark, is the response.

In subsequent posts, I’ll discuss Ong’s focus on presence and the phenomenology of sound and sight as a way of exploring the psychodynamics of digital media.

 

Postman On Media, Politics, and Childhood

In The Disappearance of Childhood, first published in 1982, Neil Postman writes the following:

Without a clear concept of what it means to be an adult, there can be no clear concept of what it means to be a child. Thus, the idea … that our electric information environment is ‘disappearing’ childhood … can also be expressed by saying that our electric information environment is disappearing adulthood.

How so, you ask?

[A]dulthood is largely a product of the printing press. Almost all of the characteristics we associate with adulthood are those that are (and were) either generated or amplified by the requirements of a fully literate culture: the capacity for self-restraint, a tolerance for delayed gratification, a sophisticated ability to think conceptually and sequentially, a preoccupation with both historical continuity and the future, a high valuation of reason and hierarchical order. As electric media move literacy to the periphery of culture and take its place at the center, different attitudes and character traits come to be valued and a new diminished definition of adulthood begins to emerge.

To be clear, Postman is obviously not talking about the number of years one has been alive. Rather he is talking about a social reality — the idea of adulthood, a particular model of what constitutes adulthood — not a biologically given reality.

Postman chooses to begin elaborating this claim with a discussion of “political consciousness and judgment in a society in which television carries the major burden of communicating political information,” about which he has the following to say:

In the television age, political judgment is transformed from an intellectual assessment of propositions to an intuitive and emotional response to the totality of an image. In the television, people do not so much agree or disagree with politicians as like or dislike them. Television redefines what is meant by ‘sound political judgment’ by making it into an aesthetic rather than a logical matter.

How might we update this discussion of television to account for digital media, especially social media? There’s a hint in the way we refer to the people who engage with each. We tend to talk about television’s audience or its viewers and of social media users. Social media users, in other words, are not merely passive consumers of media. By drawing us in as active participants, social media weaponizes the superficiality engendered by television. We might also say that “sound political judgment” becomes a matter not only of the candidate’s aesthetic but of our own aesthetic as well.

Finally, here’s a passage from Rudolph Arnheim quoted by Postman:

We must not forget in the past the inability to transport immediate experience and to convey it to others made the use of language necessary and thus compelled the human mind to develop concepts. For in order to describe things one must draw the general from the specific; one must select, compare, think. When communication can be achieved by pointing with the finger, however, the mouth grows silent, the writing hand stops, and the mind shrinks.

That’s a strong claim right there at the end. It was made in 1935. Maybe we should hesitate to put the matter quite so starkly. Perhaps we can simply say not that the mind shrinks, but that certain habits of thought atrophy or are left underdeveloped. In any case, I was struck by this paragraph because it seemed a useful way of characterizing online arguments conducted with memes. Replace “pointing a finger” with “posting a meme.” Of course, the point is that calling these arguments is all wrong. Posting a meme to make a point is like shouting QED without ever having presented your proofs. The argument, such as it is, is implicit and it is taken in at a glance, it is grasped intuitively. There’s very little room for persuasion in this sort of exchange.

Being A Parent In The Digital Age

My first child is approaching two years of age, my second two months. I just turned forty. I have no idea what it would have been like to be a father when I was in my twenties or early thirties. More energy, less wisdom perhaps? Of the former, I’m fairly certain; about the latter, less so. The one discernible consequence, as far as I can tell, is that I frequently find myself in a reflective mood. Not surprisingly, those reflections frequently drift toward technology’s role in mediating my experience of fatherhood.

Obviously, there are lots of people writing about parenting and technology, but, it seems to me, having made just a cursory survey of the multitude of books and articles, that most of this writing has focused on the safety, good health, and privacy of the child. How much screen time should I allow my toddler? Should I post pictures of my children on social media? Etc. Of course, these are important considerations, but there’s more to be said, isn’t there?

Mostly I’m interested in something closer to the visceral, existential experience of being a father in our digital context. For example, knowing that one of the most important features of technology is its power to mediate our perception, I wonder how monitoring and documenting technologies cause a child to appear before us and the world to appear before them. I wonder also about the effect of technologies that cast the whole task of being a parent in a technocratic light, rendering parenting a problem to be solved by the application of the right techniques. Additionally, I wonder how the blessing of an overabundance of online information about pregnancy and child-rearing has also become a burden, one that has displaced communal wisdom in the face of uncertainty with the ideal of total knowledge. These are just a few of the questions I’ve been thinking about.

Children and parents there have always been, of course, but what it has meant to be a parent or a child and how it has felt, this has not been constant throughout history and across cultures. And often it has been the material/technological culture surrounding and supporting the parent/child relationship that has contributed to these shifts in meaning and experience.

Neil Postman argues along these lines in The Disappearance of Childhood. He goes so far to suggest that the idea of childhood is a consequence of the culture of print and that it was disappearing in the culture of electronic media. Writing in the early 1980s, he had television primarily in mind. This is a pretty strong version of the claim that technology shapes the meaning of being a parent or a child. I am inclined to agree with Postman most of the time, yet I’ve approached this particular book rather skeptically. But even if we don’t agree with all of what Postman has to say, there’s a lot from which we might learn and an approach to the question of technology and childhood that leads us beyond merely pragmatic questions. I’ll have more to say about Postman’s argument in the future. The point right now is simply that technology is not neutral with respect to the experience of having a child and being a child.

Recalling Mel Kranzberg’s First Law, to say that technology is not neutral does not mean that it is either “good” or “bad.” As I’ve thought about these matters, and as I will explore them in forthcoming posts, my point will not be to conclude this or that technology is bad or good with respect to the experience of being a parent. Of course, that conclusion may sometimes be warranted. Nonetheless, I want to think primarily about questions of meaning and experience.

Behind all of this, I should add, is the question of wonder. I keep coming back to this. How can I help preserve my child’s wonder at the world and my own wonder at my child?

I’ll write about this in short bursts, meditations almost, rather than in long posts. I welcome your feedback along the way, of course. For future reference, I’ll group these posts together with the tag “Parents in the Digital Age.”

 


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