The Consolations of a Technologically Re-enchanted World

Navneet Alang writes about digital culture with a rare combination of insight and eloquence. In a characteristically humane meditation on the perennial longings expressed by our use of social media and digital devices, Alang recounts a brief exchange he found himself having with Alexa, the AI assistant that accompanies Amazon Echo.

Alang had asked Alexa about the weather while he was traveling in an unfamiliar city. Alexa alerted him of the forecasted rain, and, without knowing why exactly, Alang thanked the device. “No problem,” Alexa replied.

It was Alang’s subsequent reflection on that exchange that I found especially interesting:

In retrospect, I had what was a very strange reaction: a little jolt of pleasure. Perhaps it was because I had mostly spent those two weeks alone, but Alexa’s response was close enough to the outline of human communication to elicit a feeling of relief in me. For a moment, I felt a little less lonely.

From there, Alang considers apps which allow users to anonymously publish their secrets to the world or to the void–who can tell–and little-used social media sites on which users compose surprisingly revealing messages seemingly directed at no one in particular. A reminder that, as Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig has noted, “Confession, once rooted in religious practice, has assumed a secular importance that can be difficult to describe.”

Part of what makes the effort to understand technology so fascinating and challenging is that we are not, finally, trying to understand discreet artifacts or even expansive systems; what we are really trying to understand is the human condition, alternatively and sometimes simultaneously expressed, constituted, and frustrated by our use of all that we call technology.

As Alang notes near the end of his essay, “what digital technologies do best, to our benefit and detriment, is to act as a canvas for our desires.” And, in his discussion, social media and confessional apps express “a wish to be seen, to be heard, to be apprehended as nothing less than who we imagine ourselves to be.” In the most striking paragraph of the piece, Alang expands on this point:

“Perhaps, then, that Instagram shot or confessional tweet isn’t always meant to evoke some mythical, pretend version of ourselves, but instead seeks to invoke the imagined perfect audience—the non-existent people who will see us exactly as we want to be seen. We are not curating an ideal self, but rather, an ideal Other, a fantasy in which our struggle to become ourselves is met with the utmost empathy.”

This strikes me as being rather near the mark. We might also consider the possibility that we seek this ideal Other precisely so that we might receive back from it a more coherent version of ourselves. The empathetic Other who comes to know me may then tell me what I need to know about myself. A trajectory begins to come into focus taking up both the confessional booth and the therapist’s office. Perhaps this presses the point too far, I don’t know. It is, in any case, a promise implicit in the rhetoric of Big Data, that it is the Other that knows us better than we know ourselves. If, to borrow St. Augustine’s formulation, we have become a question to ourselves, then the purveyors of Big Data proffer to us the answer.

It also strikes me that the yearning Alang describes, in another era, would have been understood chiefly as a deeply religious longing. We may see it as fantasy, or, as C.S. Lewis once put it, we may see it as “the truest index of our real situation.”

Interestingly, the paragraph from which that line is taken may bring us back to where we started: with Alang deriving a “little jolt of pleasure” from his exchange with Alexa. `Here is the rest of it:

“Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation.”

For some time now, I’ve entertained the idea that the combination of technologies that promises to animate our mute and unresponsive material environment–think Internet of Things, autonomous machines, augmented reality, AI–entice us with a re-enchanted world: the human-built world, technologically enchanted. Which is to say a material world that flatters us by appearing to be responsive to our wishes and desires, even speaking to us when spoken to–in short, noting us and thereby marginally assuaging the loneliness for which our social media posts are just another sort of therapy.

Wizard or God, Which Would You Rather Be?

Dumbledore_and_Elder_WandOccasionally, I ask myself whether or not I’m really on to anything when I publish the “thinking out loud” that constitutes most of the posts on this blog. And occasionally the world answers back, politely, “Yes, yes you are.”

A few months ago, in a post on automation and smart homes, I ventured an off-the-cuff observation: the smart home populated animated by the Internet of Things amounted to a re-enchantment of the world by technological means. I further elaborated that hypothesis in a subsequent post:

“So then, we have three discernible stages–mechanization, automation, animation–in the technological enchantment of the human-built world. The technological enchantment of the human-built world is the unforeseen consequence of the disenchantment of the natural world described by sociologists of modernity, Max Weber being the most notable. These sociologists claimed that modernity entailed the rationalization of the world and the purging of mystery, but they were only partly right. It might be better to say that the world was not so much disenchanted as it was differently enchanted. This displacement and redistribution of enchantment may be just as important a factor in shaping modernity as the putative disenchantment of nature.

In an offhand, stream-of-consciousness aside, I ventured that the allure of the smart-home, and similar technologies, arose from a latent desire to re-enchant the world. I’m doubling-down on that hypothesis. Here’s the working thesis: the ongoing technological enchantment of the human-built world is a corollary of the disenchantment of the natural world. The first movement yields the second, and the two are interwoven. To call this process of technological animation an enchantment of the human-built world is not merely a figurative post-hoc gloss on what has actually happened. Rather, the work of enchantment has been woven into the process all along.”

Granted, those were fairly strong claims that as of yet need to be more thoroughly substantiated, but here’s a small bit of evidence that suggests that my little thesis had some merit. It is a short video clip the NY Time’s Technology channel about the Internet of Things in which “David Rose, the author of ‘Enchanted Objects,’ sees a future where we can all live like wizards.” Emphasis mine, of course.

I had some difficulty embedding the video, so you’ll have to click over to watch it here: The Internet of Things. Really, you should. It’ll take less than three minutes of your time.

So, there was that. Because, apparently, the Internet today felt like reinforcing my quirky thoughts about technology, there was also this on the same site: Playing God Games.

That video segment clocks in at just under two minutes. If you click through to watch, you’ll note that it is a brief story about apps that allow you to play a deity in your own virtual world, with your very own virtual “followers.”

You can read that in light of my more recent musings about the appeal of games in which our “action,” and by extension we ourselves, seem to matter.

Perhaps, then, this is the more modest shape the religion of technology takes in the age of simulation and diminished expectations: you may play the wizard in your re-enchanted smart home or you may play a god in a virtual world on your smartphone. I suspect this is not what Stewart Brand had in mind when he wrote, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”

Mechanization, Automation, Animation: Enchanting the Human-Built World

If you’re paying any attention at all to news coming out of the tech sector, it’s hard to go a day without coming across a story about a new robot, app, or tool that promises (or threatens) to do what we previously did for ourselves. Some of these tasks involve physical labor, but increasingly they involve cognitive, emotional, and even ethical labor. Thinking carefully about the implications of this trend is, in my view, one of the most important tasks before us.

Taking a comment from Adam Thierer on a recent post about “smart-homes” as my point of departure, I propose that we think about the trend described above as a three-step process aimed at the enchantment of the human-built world.

In Adam’s view, as I read his comment, the “smartness” of the “smart home” is simply an extension of the many ways that we have already automated household tasks over the course of the last 100 years or so. Moreover, to my claim that a “smart home” is “an active technological system that requires maintenance and regulation,” Adam commented, “Even in the days of mud huts and log cabins that was somewhat true.”¹

In my initial response to Adam, I suggested that while it is true that more primitive homes, huts and cabins if you will, involved technology and might even be considered technological systems if we press the semantic range of that phrase a bit, there were important discontinuities as well. To clarify that claim, I began by making some distinctions using home heating as an example.

For most of human history, if I wanted warmth in my home I would need to build and sustain a fire of some sort. I could, for example, build a fire in a fireplace or I could light one in a coal burning stove. This would require a good deal of effort and caution. In short, it required a significant amount of engagement on my part, physical and mental.

Then along came the furnace and central heating. I no longer needed to build and sustain a fire. I could simply flip a switch and a machine would generate the heat and disperse it throughout my home. But I would hesitate to call this an instance of automation. Instead, let’s call it mechanization. Central heating, machine heating if you will, mechanizes the work of providing heat. And, of course, with that mechanization comes far less engagement on my part. In fact, this initial step is probably the most obvious and striking point of discontinuity in the evolution of home heating.

Add a thermostat and I no longer need to actively monitor the temperature in order to keep my home comfortably warm. I can set the thermostat at a toasty 73 degrees and trust the system to do the work for me. Ease of use continues to advance as my degree of engagement diminishes. Now, I think, we can talk about automation. Of course, thermostats of varying degrees of sophistication are available. The simplest models allow you to set just one temperature and require you to manually change that setting if you want the temperature to adjust over the course of the day. More elaborate, digital thermostats allow you to program a series of temperature changes throughout the course of the day and for different days of the week. All of these, however, allow me to automate the functioning of the machine. But, we should note, altering these settings still required direct action on my part.

It seems that the next step in this progression is something like Nest, a thermostat that “learns” your preferences and takes over management of the temperature for you. Nest is illustrative of the “smart” trend that promises something more than simple automation. Tools like Nest take automation further along the path toward autonomous functionality by “learning” to regulate themselves. Nest can also be controlled with a smart phone. In other words, it can be networked; it can “talk” to other devices. It is, then, a potential component of the assemblage of technologies that together constitute the so-called Internet of Things, one manifestation of which is the “smart home.” At this point, I am thoroughly disengaged from the process of providing heat for my home. I don’t need to cut wood or start a fire. I don’t need to flip a switch. I don’t need to adjust controls. Without labor, attention, or decisions on my part, my home is comfortably heated.

I remain uncertain about what to call this last step. Mechanization, automation, and … what?

In my previous post, I couldn’t quite resist an allusion to the famous scene in Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein where Dr. Frankenstein shouts, “It’s alive. It’s alive!” The allusion suggested “animation” a name for the third step after mechanization and automation. That strikes me as a provocative and vivid word choice, but it also threatens to mystify more than it clarifies. I mean the term in a figurative sense, but it may be too easy to suppose that something more literal is intended. Nonetheless, throwing caution to the wind, I’m going to go with animation, at least for the time being. Blogging is nothing, if not provisional, right?

So then, we have three discernible stages–mechanization, automation, animation–in the technological enchantment of the human-built world. The technological enchantment of the human-built world is the unforeseen consequence of the disenchantment of the natural world described by sociologists of modernity, Max Weber being the most notable. These sociologists claimed that modernity entailed the rationalization of the world and the purging of mystery, but they were only partly right. It might be better to say that the world was not so much disenchanted as it was differently enchanted. This displacement and redistribution of enchantment may be just as important a factor in shaping modernity as the putative disenchantment of nature.

In an offhand, stream-of-consciousness aside, I ventured that the allure of the smart-home, and similar technologies, arose from a latent desire to re-enchant the world. I’m doubling-down on that hypothesis. Here’s the working thesis: the ongoing technological enchantment of the human-built world is a corollary of the disenchantment of the natural world. The first movement yields the second, and the two are interwoven. To call this process of technological animation an enchantment of the human-built world is not merely a figurative post-hoc gloss on what has actually happened. Rather, the work of enchantment has been woven into the process all along.

In support of this claim we might consider, first, the entanglement of technology and magic just as the process of disenchantment is taking off in the early-modern period as well as the pervasive and, secondly, the persistent presence of the religion of technology within the western technological project.

I’m going to leave it at that for now. In a subsequent post, I’ll bring Hannah Arendt’s discussion of labor, work, and action into the discussion to help us think about the trade-offs involved in this enchantment of the human-built world.

[Discussion continued here: More On Mechanization, Automation, Animation.]

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¹ There is a methodological question lying beneath the surface of this exchange: how do we wisely weigh the relevant degrees of continuity and discontinuity with older technology as we think about new technology? This can be tricky. There can be a tendency to exaggerate either the continuity or the discontinuity. In both cases, there would be nothing at all to learn because either nothing has changed and thus nothing needs to be learned, or else everything has changed and nothing of use can be learned. In the most unhelpful cases, both exaggerations are simultaneously affirmed. To generate hype, proponents of a new technology breathlessly proclaim its revolutionary character while at the same disingenuously allaying criticism by insisting the new revolutionary technology is really just like any number of other technologies that preceded it.