The Magnificent Bribe

Lewis Mumford in “Authoritarian and Democratic Technics”:

Why has our age surrendered so easily to the controllers, the manipulators, the conditioners of an authoritarian technics? The answer to this question is both paradoxical and ironic. Present day technics differs from that of the overtly brutal, half-baked authoritarian systems of the past in one highly favorable particular: it has accepted the basic principle of democracy, that every member of society should have a share in its goods. By progressively fulfilling this part of the democratic promise, our system has achieved a hold over the whole community that threatens to wipe out every other vestige of democracy.

The bargain we are being asked to ratify takes the form of a magnificent bribe. Under the democratic-authoritarian social contract, each member of the community may claim every material advantage, every intellectual and emotional stimulus he may desire, in quantities hardly available hitherto even for a restricted minority: food, housing, swift transportation, instantaneous communication, medical care, entertainment, education. But on one condition: that one must not merely ask for nothing that the system does not provide, but likewise agree to take everything offered, duly processed and fabricated, homogenized and equalized, in the precise quantities that the system, rather than the person, requires. Once one opts for the system no further choice remains. In a word, if one surrenders one’s life at source, authoritarian technics will give back as much of it as can be mechanically graded, quantitatively multiplied, collectively manipulated and magnified.

Are We Really Disenchanted?

I turn into my neighborhood off a street that is a bit run down. The strip mall, freestanding buildings, auto shops, and gas stations are old and they show it. During the recession, many of the shops closed down, the strip mall was vacated, and a couple of the gas stations were mothballed. In the midst of all of this, though, one proprietor prospered. So much so, in fact, that they renovated their stand-alone building, nearly doubling its footprint and greatly enhancing its appearance.

I won’t keep you in suspense: it was a palm reader. To be precise, the “psychic guide” offers to read palms, cards, crystals, and stars in order to provide the spiritual counseling and direction you need to overcome anxiety, depression, sexual problems, etc. Chief among the promised outcomes are a cluster of services that revolve around preserving romantic relationships from infidelity.

Perhaps we do not live in a disenchanted world after all. That is the claim advanced by Jason Josephson-Storm in The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences. I have not been entirely convinced.

I’m coming back to Josephson-Storm’s book at this point because Alan Jacobs has recently commented on The Myth of Disenchantment. I’ve been keen to hear Jacobs’ take on the book since last August when Jacobs posted the readings for a class on the history of disenchantment. That class now concluded, Jacobs has posted some brief reflections on Josephson-Storm’s thesis. He, too, has reservations, with which, for what its worth,  I concur.  Addressing the kind of phenomena which Josephson-Storm takes as evidence that “we have never been disenchanted” Jacobs contents that “this kind of thing does not mean that ‘we have never been disenchanted,’ but that we have, and sometimes we hate it.” That strikes me as basically right. My own two cents follow.

It’s been some time since last I posted about disenchantment, technology, and modernity. Over the past few years, I’ve occasionally advanced the thesis that modern societies are not so much disenchanted as they are alternatively enchanted, by which I mean that, in many of its functional aspects, the locus of enchantment has merely migrated from the magical and spiritual to the technological.

Given this admittedly idiosyncratic interest in disenchantment theory, I’ve been intrigued by Josephson-Storm’s work. My interest has also been related to fact that Josephson-Storm presents his work as a challenge to Charles Taylor’s account of disenchantment in A Secular Age.  I was intrigued because Taylor’s work has been an important component of own thinking, particularly in my attempt to (re)work the disenchantment hypothesis into my understanding of technology’s place in modern society.

Josephson-Storm opens with an impressive assemblage of evidence suggesting that belief in the mystical, the spiritual, and the magical has persisted throughout the modern era. Indeed, it has persisted in the least likely of places, among the very scientists, philosophers, and sociologist that one might have expected to be paragons of disenchantment. The vignette with which I opened fits nicely within the counter-narrative that Josephson-Storm advances.

I’m not, however, convinced that this amounts to a rebuttal of the disenchantment thesis, especially in the manner that Charles Taylor has elaborated. In characterizing what he means by a secular age, Taylor grants that belief might very well persist but it will be of a different sort. If it does persist, belief will be experienced differently, it will be felt differently, its functions will shift. Likewise, belief in the magical/mystical may persist, but its role in shaping our tacit understanding of the world will be altered or diminished. It will, for one thing, become newly conscious of itself, and, to the degree that it is, it will tend to undermine its own experiential integrity.

Here’s something else to consider. One way of thinking about disenchantment is to focus on the eclipse of magical or mystical phenomenon. If that were it, then the mere presence of magical or mystical practices might appear to defeat the thesis. But we might also think of enchantment as involving an order of meaning or intelligibility inscribed into the cosmos. The enchanted world is not only a world populated by fairies and angels and magical objects, it is also an eloquent world, it is charged with meaning. It is, moreover, a world within whose meaningful order an individual could locate her place. It is not altogether clear to me that the modern search for enchantment supplies the same experience of ordered meaningfulness. Indeed, it would appear that the search for enchantment is itself a symptom of the loss of meaning that Taylor’s more traditional account of disenchantment describes.

Consider, as well, this broadly painted contrast. Modern individuals, considered as a type, assumes that what meaning is to be had, they must supply. They seek out and engage in the practices of enchantment as a part of this meaning-making work. The pre-modern individual encounters a meaningful order to which they simply submit; they do not experience a quest for meaning nor do they imagine that they must fabricate their own meaning. Meaning, in the latter case, is given not made. As hungry for meaning as the modern individual may be, they will be unlikely to cede their autonomy to the idea of an order that exists independently of their own will and desires.

One last pass at the matter by way of a simile: enchantment, as I understand the traditional account, is like a fabric woven through the social world. Modernity tore the fabric apart, but threads remain. When the denizens of modernity flirt, even seriously so, with the supernatural and the mystical, they are merely picking up the threads. The fabric is lost to them.

Social Media and Loneliness

In September of last year, psychologist Jean Twenge published a widely-discussed essay in The Atlantic titled “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” In it she wrote, “Social-networking sites like Facebook promise to connect us to friends. But the portrait of iGen teens emerging from the data is one of a lonely, dislocated generation.”

In 2012, The Atlantic also ran Stephen Marche’s essay “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?”  (I should note in passing that The Atlantic, in my view, has a penchant for misleading titles.) It, too, was widely discussed, including by me here. Marche noted that “Facebook arrived in the middle of a dramatic increase in the quantity and intensity of human loneliness, a rise that initially made the site’s promise of greater connection seem deeply attractive.”

In 2000, sociologist Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, which has now become something of a classic. At least we may say that the title has entered the popular lexicon. In the opening chapter, Putnam writes, “For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century a powerful tide bore Americans into ever deeper engagement in the life of their communities, but a few decades ago — silently, without warning — that tide reversed and we were overtaken by a treacherous rip current. Without at first noticing, we have been pulled apart from one another and from our communities over the last third of the century.”

In 1958, Hannah Arendt published The Human Condition in which she discussed the rise of the “social,” a realm she distinguished from the private and the public spheres. It was marked by anonymity. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, published in 1951, she argued that loneliness and isolation were the seedbeds of totalitarianism.

In 1950, David Riesman, Nathan Glazer, and Reuel Denney published their landmark study of the emerging character type of the American middle class, The Lonely Crowd. It is worth noting that Riesman did not just describe the inner direct person and the outer directed person. Both were preceded, in his account, by the tradition directed person.

In 1913, Willa Cather had one of her characters in O Pioneers! describe his life in the cities this way:

Freedom so often means that one isn’t needed anywhere. Here you are an individual, you have a background of your own, you would be missed. But off there in the cities there are thousands of rolling stones like me. We are all alike; we have no ties, we know nobody, we own nothing. When one of us dies, they scarcely know where to bury him. Our landlady and the delicatessen man are our mourners, and we leave nothing behind us but a frock-coat and a fiddle, or an easel, or a typewriter, or whatever tool we got our living by. All we have ever managed to do is to pay our rent, the exorbitant rent that one has to pay for a few square feet of space near the heart of things. We have no house, no place, no people of our own. We live in the streets, in the parks, in the theaters. We sit in restaurants and concert halls and look about at the hundreds of our own kind and shudder.

I could go on, but you get the point.

One response to all of this might be to say that we have always been fretting about loneliness, so there must actually be nothing to it. It is merely another instance of the discourse of moral panic.

Putnman himself cites Barry Wellman to this effect in the opening chapter of Bowling Alone:

It is likely that pundits have worried about the impact of social change on communities ever since human beings ventured beyond their caves…. In the [past] two centuries many leading social commentators have been gainfully employed suggesting various ways in which large-scale social changes associated with the Industrial Revolution may have affected the structure and operation of communities…. This ambivalence about the consequences of large-scale changes continued well into the twentieth century. Analysts have kept asking if things have, in fact, fallen apart.

I have a hard time with the implicitly dismissive tone of this kind of commentary. Yes, for the past two centuries social commentators have been reflecting on the effects of large-scale social change on communities; those two centuries witnessed the often rapid dissolution of the communities and social structures that provided the background against which an integrated experience of self and place emerged. It seems perfectly normal for people to be critically reflective and ambivalent when they sense that the only world of they’ve known is coming apart.

A better approach might be to grant that there is something about the structure of modern society that engenders isolation and loneliness. The concern recurs because it is never really resolved. Each generation merely confronts a new iteration of the same underlying dynamic.

Most recently, a survey conducted by Cigna has once more drawn attention to the seemingly perennial problem of loneliness. NPR reported on the findings:

Using one of the best-known tools for measuring loneliness — the UCLA Loneliness Scale — Cigna surveyed 20,000 adults online across the country. The University of California, Los Angeles tool uses a series of statements and a formula to calculate a loneliness score based on responses. Scores on the UCLA scale range from 20 to 80. People scoring 43 and above were considered lonely in the Cigna survey, with a higher score suggesting a greater level of loneliness and social isolation.

More than half of survey respondents — 54 percent — said they always or sometimes feel that no one knows them well. Fifty-six percent reported they sometimes or always felt like the people around them “are not necessarily with them.” And 2 in 5 felt like “they lack companionship,” that their “relationships aren’t meaningful” and that they “are isolated from others.”

Readers of this blog may be especially interested in the relationship of technology to the condition of chronic loneliness. In the first essay linked above, Jean Twenge argued that there is, in fact, a connection among smart phones, social media, and heightened levels of anxiety, depression, and loneliness. The Cigna survey, on the other hand, did not find a significant correlation between social media use and loneliness although it did confirm a rise in loneliness among the youngest cohort.

As in most cases of this sort, it is impossible to set down, as a rule, how a given technology or set of technologies will impact any given person. There are simply too many variables. The best we can do is identify general trends and tendencies. And even that may not be very useful when it comes down to it. I’ve never understood why we should be relieved when we read about a study which concludes that a majority of people do not experience some negative consequence of technology. What about the often sizable minority that does? Do they not matter?

It seems clear enough that the problem of isolation and loneliness predates the advent of the Internet, social media, and smart phones. It seems clear as well, contrary to the claims of the prophets and ideologues of connection, that they mediate relationships in a manner that does not assuage the root causes of isolation and loneliness. What’s more, it may often be the case that they aggravate the condition.

Consider for a moment the much and rightly maligned business model at work on social media platforms like Facebook. It requires engagement, it needs you to keep coming back and spending time on the platform. In order to do this, the platforms have been designed for addiction (compulsive interaction if you’d rather not employ the language of addiction). Deep and abiding emotional satisfaction is not conducive to the patterns of engagement social media companies want to see from me and you. Loneliness and anxiety work in their favor. They exploit the human desire for companionship and belonging.

I’m going to close by venturing a rather fraught and, as they say, problematic analogy. In relationship to the problem of loneliness, maybe we should think of social media as a painkiller. It’s fairly effective, at least initially, at treating the symptoms. But the underlying condition is never touched. It persists. You find over time that you’re getting diminishing returns, so you turn to it more frequently. Eventually, you might even find that you’re taking the painkiller compulsively and, on the whole, it’s left you feeling worse. Not only has the root condition remained, now you have two problems rather than one.

Technological fixes rarely alleviate and often exasperate social disorders, especially those that involve the most deeply engrained desires of the human heart. We’re better off refusing to treat social media as a remedy for loneliness or even as a form of community. Chastened expectations may be the best way to use a tool without being used by the tool in turn.

(I’m writing all of this as something of a postscript to my most recent installment of The Convivial Society, which focused on the theme of community. You can read it here. You can subscribe here.)

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The Interrupted Self

In Letters From Lake Como: Explorations in Technology and the Human Race, written in the 1920’s, Romano Guardini, related the following experience: “I recall going down a staircase, and suddenly, when my foot was leaving one step and preparing to set itself down on another, I became aware of what I was doing. I then noted what self-evident certainty is displayed in the play of muscles. I felt that a question was thus raised concerning motion.”

“This was a triviality,” Guardini acknowledges, “and yet it tells us what the issue is here.” He goes on to explain the “issue” as follows:

Life needs the protection of nonawareness. We are told this already by the universal psychological law that we cannot perform an intellectual act and at the same time be aware of it. We can only look back on it when it is completed. If we try to achieve awareness of it when we are doing it, we can do so only be always interrupting it and thus hovering between the action and knowledge of it. Obviously the action will suffer greatly as a result. It seems to me that this typifies the life of the mind and spirit as a whole. Our action is constantly interrupted by reflection on it. Thus all our life bears the distinctive character of what is interrupted, broken. It does not have the great line that is sure of itself, the confident movement deriving from the self.

It seems to me that the tendency Guardini identifies here has only intensified during the nearly 100 years since he wrote down his observations.

As an aside, I find works like Guardini’s useful for at least two reasons. The first, perhaps more obvious, reason is that they offer genuine insights that remain applicable in a more or less straightforward way. The second, perhaps less obvious, reason is that they offer a small window into the personal and cultural experience of technological change. When we think about the difference technologies make in our life and for society more broadly, we often have only our experience by which to judge. But, of course, we don’t know what we don’t know, or we can’t remember what we have never known. And this is especially the case when we consider what me might call the existential or even affective aspects of technological change.

Returning to Guardini, has he notes in the letter on “Consciousness” from which that paragraph was taken, literature was only one sphere of culture where this heightened consciousness was making itself evident.

I can’t know what literary works Guardini had in mind, but there is one scene in Tolstoy’s short novel, The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886), that immediately sprung to mind. Early on in the story, which begins with Ilyich’s death, a co-worker, Peter Ivanovich, has come to Ilyich’s home to pay his respects. Upon entering the room where Ilyich’s body lay, Peter Ivanovich is uncertain as to how to proceed:

Peter Ivanovich, like everyone else on such occasions, entered feeling uncertain what he would have to do. All he knew was that at such times it is always safe to cross oneself. But he was not quite sure whether one should make obeisances while doing so. He therefore adopted a middle course. On entering the room he began crossing himself and made a slight movement resembling a bow.

I’ve come to read this scene as a microcosm of an extended, possibly recurring, cultural moment in the history of modernity, one that illustrates the emergence of self-consciousness.

Here is Peter Ivanovich, entering into a socially and psychologically fraught encounter with the presence of death. It is the sort of moment for which a robust cultural tradition might prepare us by supplying scripts that would relieve us of the burden of knowing just what to do while also conveying to us a meaning that renders the event intelligible. But Peter Ivanovich faces this encounter at a moment when the old traditions are only half-recalled and no new forms have arisen to take there place. He lives, that is, in a moment when, as Gramsci evocatively put it, the old is dying and the new cannot be born. In such a moment, he is thrown back upon himself: he must make choices, he must improvise, he must become aware of himself as one who must do such things.

His action, as Guardini puts it, “bears the distinctive character of what is interrupted.”

“Peter Ivanovich,” we go on to read, “continued to make the sign of the cross slightly inclining his head in an intermediate direction between the coffin, the Reader, and the icons on the table in a corner of the room. Afterwards, when it seemed to him that this movement of his arm in crossing himself had gone on too long, he stopped and began to look at the corpse.”

He is not inhabiting a ritual act, he is performing it and badly, as all such performances must be. “He felt a certain discomfort,” the narrator tells us, “and so he hurriedly crossed himself once more and turned and went out of the door — too hurriedly and too regardless of propriety, as he himself was aware.”

I’m not suggesting that Tolstoy intended this scene as a commentary on the heightened consciousness generated by liquid modernity, only that I have found in Peter Ivanovich’s awkwardness a memorable dramatic illustration of such.

Technology had a role to play in the generation of this state of affairs, particularly technologies of self-expression or technologies that represent the self to itself. It was one of Walter Ong’s key contentions, for example, that “writing heightened consciousness.” This was, in his view, a generally good thing. Of course, writing had been around long before Tolstoy was active in the late 19th century. He lived during an age when new technologies worked more indirectly to heighten self-consciousness by eroding the social structures that anchored the experience of the self.

In the early 20th century, Guardini pointed to, among other things, the rise of statistics and the bureaucracies that they empowered and to newspapers as the sources of a hypertrophied consciousness. We might substitute so-called Big Data and social media for statistics and newspapers. Rather, with regards to consciousness, we should understand the interlocking regimes of the quantified self* and social media as just a further development along the same trajectory. Fitbits and Facebook amplify our consciousness by what they claim to measure and by how they position the self vis-a-vis the self.

It seems to me that this heightened sense of self-consciousness is both a blessing and a curse and that it is the condition out of which much of our digital culture emerges. For those who experience it as a curse it can be, for example, a paralyzing and disintegrating reality. It may, under such circumstances further yield resentment, bitterness, and self-loathing (consider Raskolnikov or the Underground Man). Those who are thus afflicted may seek for renewed integrity through dramatic and/or violent acts, acts that they believe will galvanize their identity. Others may cope by adopting the role of happy nihilist or liberal ironist. Still others may double-down and launch out on the self-defeating quest for authenticity.

“Plants can grow only when their roots are in the dark,” Guardini wrote as he closed his letter on consciousness. “They emerge from the dark into the light. That is the direction of life. The plant and its direction die when the root is exposed. All life must be grounded in what is not conscious and from that root emerge into the brightness of consciousness. Yet I see consciousness becoming more and more deeply the root of our life.”

All of this leads him to ask in conclusion, “Can life sustain this? Can it become consciousness and at the same time remain alive?”


* For example: “Now the telescope is turned inward, on the human body in the urban environment. This terrestrial cosmos of data will merge investigations that have been siloed: neuroscience, psychology, sociology, biology, biochemistry, nutrition, epidemiology, economics, data science, urban science.”




Tip the Writer


Hot Off the Digital Presses: A New Collection

Ethics of technology is suddenly a rather hot topic, and, as most of you reading this know, I’m a bit ambivalent about the development. Consider, for example, the attention garnered by Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress last week. The whole affair was widely anticipated, watched, and commented upon. Yet, it is likely that all of this attention will not ultimately amount to much of consequence. It was a blip on most people’s radar, and, even for those who cared, the moment has passed and the urgency of the immediate will direct our attention fleetingly elsewhere.

This is not to say that we ought to be fatalistic or despairing. It only means that thinking about technology’s moral and political implications, not to mention taking meaningful action based on that thinking, is not exactly an easy or straightforward affair. The roots of the problems we face often run much deeper than most of us, myself included, realize. And, if I may be permitted to stretch the metaphor a bit, when we do start to get at those roots, we discover a vast network of roots that extend farther and wider and feed more of our culture than we imagined.

Over the past few years, I’ve been attempting to do a little work in the direction of helping us see more clearly how the technological touches on, shapes, and otherwise relates to the moral and the political. Most of this work, persisting in my metaphor, I tend to think of as a modest bit of ground clearing that exposes the roots and at least helps us to see our situation a little more clearly.

Given the current interest in such matter, I’ve decided to collect into an eBook some of what I’ve written over the years, going back to 2011, that touches on the intersections of technology, ethics, and politics. It is a rather slim volume of about 70 pages or so were it printed. You can pick it up at Amazon should you so desire: Do Artifacts Have Ethics?: Technology, Politics, and the Moral LifeI think it can be a useful collection of pieces that will at least spur some important questions.

If you were to pass along the link or take a moment to write a review, I would be grateful.


[Update: Some of you inquired about alternatives to buying through Amazon. Below is one option via PayPal. For those who would like to understandably avoid both Amazon and PayPal, you may purchase a copy via Gumroad.]




Do Artifacts Have Ethics?: Technology, Politics, and the Moral Life