Tolkien and Twitter

In December 2016, I observed, alluding to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, that Twitter was akin to Trump’s ring of power. Just as the One Ring in Tolkien’s fictional world had been devised to control all other rings of power, so Trump deployed Twitter to manipulate other media. With one tweet, Trump could own the news cycle.

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Here’s a brief elaboration of the analogy without reference to Trump.

In Tolkien’s world, the One Ring makes the wearer invisible to those around them but with a catch: it makes the wearer visible to the Sauron, the true master of the Ring, and corrupts the soul of the wearer. The power Twitter confers, on the other hand, is precisely the power to become visible, potentially to a great many people. The catch is that such visibility is ephemeral and distorting. It is gone in a flash and what it makes visible is often a reduction of the person distorted to fit the demands of the medium.

First point, then, starkly put: Use of Twitter, like wearing the ring, can disfigure and corrupt the soul of the user as it disfigured and corrupted Gollum.

As with the Ring of Power, it is often the case that the wisest among us, like Gandalf, refuse to bear it at all.

With Twitter as with the Ring, those like Boromir who are most naively intent on using its power for good are also those who are most likely to be corrupted by its power.

Yet it is also the case with the ring of power that some were called upon to bear it for a time, Bilbo and Frodo most notably.

It is true that Frodo took up the burden of bearing the ring only so that it might be destroyed. While destroying Twitter in the fires of Mount Doom is not in the cards, it is not impossible to imagine using Twitter in a way that countermands its dominant tendencies. At the council of Elrond, it was made clear that, if the Hobbits succeed, it will be because they are working against the logic of the ring and its maker, refusing its power rather than seeking maximize it.

But … Bilbo and Frodo are not left unchanged by the ring. Humbly noble as they may have been, they were not beyond its corrupting influence. So it is with Twitter: there will be very few who are so virtuous, indeed so holy, as to take it up and be left unchanged. About this we should be clear-eyed.


An expanded version of these observations will appear on the Front Porch Republic sometime next week as part of an ongoing discussion about Twitter, social media, Wendell Berry, and localism. The initial post in that discussion is here.

Technology, Speed, and Power

Alvin Toffler’s 1970 book, Future Shock, popularized the title phrase and the concept which it named, that technology was responsible for the disorienting and dizzying quality of the pace of life in late twentieth century industrialized society. Toffler, however, was not the first to observe that technology appeared to accelerate the pace of modern life; he only put a name to an experience people had been reporting since at least the late nineteenth century.

More recently, Tom Vanderbilt framed his essay, “The Pleasure and Pain of Speed,” this way:

“The German sociologist Hartmut Rosa catalogues the increases in speed in his recent book, Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity. In absolute terms, the speed of human movement from the pre-modern period to now has increased by a factor of 100. The speed of communications (a revolution, Rosa points out, that came on the heels of transport) rose by a factor of 10 million in the 20th century. Data transmission has soared by a factor of around 10 billion.

As life has sped up, we humans have not, at least in our core functioning: Your reaction to stimuli is no faster than your great-grandfather’s. What is changing is the amount of things the world can bring to us, in our perpetual now. But is our ever-quickening life an uncontrolled juggernaut, driven by a self-reinforcing cycle of commerce and innovation, and forcing us to cope with a new social and psychological condition? Or is it, instead, a reflection of our intrinsic desire for speed, a transformation of the external world into the rapid-fire stream of events that is closest to the way our consciousness perceives reality to begin with?”

Vanderbilt explores both of these possibilities without arriving at a definitive conclusion. He closes his essay on this ambiguous note: “That we enjoy accelerated time, and pay a price for it, is clear. The ledger of benefits and costs may be impossible to balance, or even to compute.”

He goes on to say that the most important characteristic of accelerated time may be neither pleasure nor pain, but utility. It’s not entirely clear, though, how useful acceleration really is. Earlier, Vanderbilt had noted the following:

“Rosa says the ‘technical’ acceleration of being able to send and receive more emails, at any time, to anyone in the world, is matched by a ‘social’ acceleration in which people are expected to be able to send and receive emails at any time, in any place. The desire to keep up with this acceleration in the pace of life thus begets a call for faster technologies to stem the tide. And faced with a scarcity of time (either real or perceived), we react with a ‘compression of episodes of action’—doing more things, faster, or multitasking. This increasingly dense collection of smaller, decontextualized events bump up against each other, but lack overall connection or meaning.”

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At the turn of the twentieth century, not everyone was complaining about the accelerating pace of life. In 1909, F.T. Marinetti published “The Futurist Manifesto,” a bracing call to embrace the accelerated pace of modernity. The Italian Futurists glorified speed and technologies of acceleration. They also glorified war, violence, danger, and chauvinism, of both the male and nationalistic variety. At the Smart Set, Morgan Meis recently reviewed the Guggenheim’s exhibition, “Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe.” Early in his review, Meis cited the fourth of Marinetti’s Futurist principles:

“We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.”

“Speeding Train (Treno in corsa),” Ivo Pannaggi (1922)
“Speeding Train (Treno in corsa),” Ivo Pannaggi (1922)

The Manifesto also included the following cheery principles of action:

8. We want to glorify war — the only cure for the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.

9. We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.

Seis rightly insists that Futurism and Fascism were inextricably bound together despite the efforts of some critics to disentangle the two: “There is no point in denying it. Most of the Italian Futurists, Marinetti most of all, were enthusiastic fascists.” From there, Seis goes on to argue that the Futurist/Fascist embrace of speed, violence, and technology was a form of coping with the horrors of the First World War:

“Sensible persons confronted by the calamity and destruction of WWI felt chastened and depressed in the aftermath of the war. There were civilization-wide feelings of shame and regret. “Let us never,” it was said by most, “do that again. Let the Great War be the war that ends all wars.” The Futurists did not accept this line of thinking. They were among an odd and select group that said, “Let us have more of this. Let us have bigger and more spectacular wars.” […] “How does it make us feel,” they wondered, “to say yes to the bombs and the machines and the explosions?”

In saying “yes,” in asking for more, they discovered a secret source of power. It was a way forward. By choosing to embrace the most terrible aspects of the war and the industrial civilization that had made it possible, the Futurists gave themselves a kind of immunity from the paralysis that European civilization experienced after the war.”

In other words, there was power in embracing the forces that were disordering society and disorienting individuals. There is nothing terribly profound in the realization that embracing new technologies often puts one at an advantage over those who are slower to do so or refuse to altogether. It is only the explicit embrace of violence in the wake of World War I that lends the Futurists the patina of radical action.

In our own day, we hear something like the Futurist bravado in the rhetoric of the posthumanist movement. The future belongs to the brave and the strong, to those who are untroubled by the nebulous ethical qualms of the weak and sentimental. As Gary Marcus recently wrote about the future of bio-technological enhancements, “The augmented among us—those who are willing to avail themselves of the benefits of brain prosthetics and to live with the attendant risks—will outperform others in the everyday contest for jobs and mates, in science, on the athletic field and in armed conflict. These differences will challenge society in new ways—and open up possibilities that we can scarcely imagine.”

If we must speak of inevitability with regards to technology, then we must speak of the inevitability of the human quest for power.

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The French philosopher and critic, Paul Virilio, was ten years old when the Nazi war machine overran his home. He went on to devote his academic life to the problems of speed, technology, and modernity. Anyone who voices concerns with the character of technological modernity will eventually be asked if they are against Progress, and, indeed, such was the case for Virilio in a 2010 interview. He responded this way:

“No. I’ve never thought we should go back to the past. But why did the positive aspect of progress get replaced by its propaganda? Propaganda was a tool used by Nazis but also by the Futurists. Look at the Italian Futurists. They were allies with the Fascists. Even Marinetti. I fight against the propaganda of progress, and this propaganda bears the name of never-ending acceleration.”

A little later in the interview, Virilio was asked if he was annoyed by those who insisted that technological progress was an unalloyed good. He responded,

“Yes, it’s very irritating. These people are victims of propaganda. Progress has replaced God. Nietzsche talked about the death of God—I think God was replaced by progress. I believe that you must appreciate technology just like art. You wouldn’t tell an art connoisseur that he can’t prefer abstractionism to expressionism. To love is to choose. And today, we’re losing this. Love has become an obligation. Progress has all the defects of totalitarianism.”

Virilio has long argued that the “accident” is an intrinsic element of technology. Virilio’s use of the word “accident” is meant to encompass more than the unplanned happenstance, he alludes as well to the old philosophical distinction between substance and accidents, but it does take the conventional accident as a point of departure. Virilio does not, however, see the accident as an unfortunate deviation from the norm, but as a necessary component. In a variety of places, he has expressed some variation of the following:

“When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck; when you invent the plane you also invent the plane crash; and when you invent electricity, you invent electrocution… Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress.”

Elsewhere, Virilio borrowed a theological concept to further elaborate his theory of the accident:

“Now, this idea of original sin, which materialist philosophy rejects so forcefully, comes back to us through technology: the accident is the original sin of the technical object. Every technical object contains its own negativity. It is impossible to invent a pure, innocent object, just as there is no innocent human being. It is only through acknowledged guilt that progress is possible. Just as it is through the recognized risk of the accident that it is possible to improve the technical object.”

In yet another context, Virilio explained, “Accidents have always fascinated me. It is the intellectual scapegoat of the technological; accident is diagnostic of technology.” This is a provocative idea. It suggests not only that the accident is inseparable from new technology, but also that technological progress needs the accident. Without the accident there may be no progress at all. But we do not acknowledge this because then the happy illusion of clean and inevitable technological progress would take on the bloody aspect of a sacrificial cult.

In the face of the quasi-religious status of the cult of technology, Virilio insists, “It is necessary to be an atheist of technology!”

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In Future Shock, Alvin Toffler commended the reading of science-fiction. Against those who held science-fiction in low literary regard, Toffler believed “science fiction has immense value as a mind-stretching force for the creation of the habit of anticipation.” “Our children,” he urged,

“should be studying Arthur C. Clarke, William Tenn, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Robert Sheckley, not because these writers can tell them about rocket ships and time machines but, more important, because they can lead young minds through an imaginative exploration of the jungle of political, social, psychological, and ethical issues that will confront these children as adults.”

Bradbury, for one, marked an obsession with speed as one of the characteristic disorders of the dystopian world of Fahrenheit 451. In that world, traveling at immense and reckless speed was the norm; slowness was criminal. In the story, speed is just one more of the thought-stifling conditions of life for most characters. The great danger is not only the risk of physical accidents, but also the risk of thoughtlessness, indifference, and irresponsibility. Mandated speed and the burning of books both worked toward the same end.

Interestingly, these imaginative aspects of Bradbury’s story were already present in the Futurists’ vision. Not only did they glorify speed, violence, and technology, they also called for an incendiary assault on the educational establishment: “It is in Italy that we are issuing this manifesto of ruinous and incendiary violence, by which we today are founding Futurism, because we want to deliver Italy from its gangrene of professors, archaeologists, tourist guides and antiquaries.”

In Fahrenheit 451, a character named Faber is among the few to remember a time before the present regime of thoughtlessness. When the protagonist, Guy Montag, meets with him, Faber lays out three necessary conditions for the repair of society: quality of information, the time to digest it, and “the right to carry out actions based on what we learn from the interaction of the first two.”

If we credit Bradbury with knowing something about what wisdom and freedom require, then we might conclude that three disastrous substitutions tempt us. We are tempted to mistake quantity of information for quality, speed for time, and consumer choice for the freedom of meaningful action. It seems, too, that a morbid, totemic fascination with the technical accident distracts us from the more general social accident that unfolds around us.

It would be disingenuous to suggest “solutions” to this state of affairs. Bradbury himself steered clear of a happy ending. In the world of Fahrenheit 451, the general, cataclysmic accident is not circumvented. We may hope and work for better. At least, we should not despair.

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Another writer of imaginative fiction, J.R.R. Tolkien has his character Gandalf declare, “Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.”

Tolkien too lived through the mechanized horrors of the First World War. He would likely sympathize with Virilio’s claim, “War was my university.” But unlike the Futurists and their Fascist heirs, he did not believe that an embrace of power and violence was the only way forward. Interestingly, the counsel against despair cited above is taken from a point in The Fellowship of the Ring when a course of action with regards to the ring of power is being debated. Some of those present urged that the ring of power be used for good. The wiser among them, however, recognized that this was foolishness. The ring was designed for dominance, and the power it yielded it would always bend toward its design and corrupt those who wielded it.

It is worth mentioning that Tolkien once explained to a friend that “all this stuff is mainly concerned with Fall, Mortality, and the Machine.” He elaborated on the idea of the “Machine” in this way: “By the last I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of development of the inherent inner powers or talents — or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills.”

So rather than submit to the logic of power and dominance, Gandalf urges a counterintuitive course of action:

“Let folly be our cloak, a veil before the eyes of the Enemy! For he is very wise, and weighs all things to a nicety in the scales of his malice. But the only measure that he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts. Into his heart the thought will not enter that any will refuse it, that having the Ring we may seek to destroy it. If we seek this, we shall put him out of reckoning.”

The point, I suggest, is not that we should seek to destroy our technology. It is rather that we should refuse the logic that has animated so much of its history and development: the logic of power, dominance, and thoughtless irresponsibility. That would be a start.


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The Wisdom of Gandalf for the Information Age

Tolkien is in the air again. In December of this year, the eagerly awaited first part of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit will be released. The trailers for the film have kindled a great deal of excitement and the film promises to be a delight for fans of one of the most beloved stories ever written. By some estimates it is the fourth best selling book ever. Ahead of it are A Tale of Two Cities in the top spot, The Little Prince, and Tolkien’s own The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

I happily count myself among the Tokien devotees and I’ve declared this my very own Year of Tolkien. Basically this means that when I’m not reading some thing I must read, I’ll be reading through Tolkien’s works and a book or two about Tolkien.

Reading The Fellowship of the Ring several days ago, I was captivated once again by an exchange between the wizard Gandalf and the hobbit Frodo. If you’re familiar with the story, then the following needs no introduction. If you are not, you really ought to be, but here’s what you need to know to make sense of this passage. In The Hobbit, the main character, Bilbo, passes on an opportunity to kill a pitiable but sinister creature known as Gollum. The creature had been corrupted by the Ring of Power, which had been forged by an evil being known as Sauron. It would take too long to explain more, but in the following exchange Gandalf is retelling those events to Bilbo’s nephew Frodo.

Frodo has just proclaimed, “What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!”

Here is the ensuing exchange:

‘Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need …

‘I am sorry,’ said Frodo. ‘But I am frightened; and I do not feel any pity for Gollum.’

“You have not seen him,’ Gandalf broke in.

‘No, and I don’t want to,’ said Frodo. ‘I can’t understand you. Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds? Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death.’

‘Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many — yours not least …’

This is, in my estimation, among the most evocative portions of a body of writing replete with wise and often haunting passages. Among the many things that could be said about this exchange and the many applications one could draw, I will note just one.

Gandalf is renowned for his wisdom, he is after all a great wizard. But in what does his wisdom lie? In this particular instance, it lies not in what he knows, rather it lies in his awareness of the limits of his knowledge. His wisdom issues from an awareness of his ignorance. “Even the very wise cannot see all ends,” he confesses. He does not have much hope for Gollum, but he simply does not know and he will not act, nor commend an action, that would foreclose the possibility of Gollum’s redemption. Moreover, he does not know what part Gollum may play in the unfolding story. For these reasons, which amount to an acknowledgement of his ignorance, Gandalf’s actions and judgments are tempered and measured.

These days we are enthralled by the information at our command. We are awestruck by what we know. The data available to us constitutes an embarrassment of riches. And yet one thing we lack: an awareness of how much we nevertheless do not know. We have forgotten our ignorance and we are judging and acting without the compassion or wisdom of Gandalf because we lack his acute awareness of the limitations of his knowledge.

We do not have to search very far at all to find those who will rush to judgment and act out of a profound arrogance. I will let you supply the examples. They are too many to list in any case. More than likely we need not look further than ourselves.

I have more than once cited T. S. Eliot’s lament from “Choruses from ‘The Rock'”:

“Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

Our problem is that we tend to think of the passage from information to knowledge and on to wisdom as a series of aggregations. We accumulate enough information and we pass to knowledge and we accumulate enough knowledge and we pass to wisdom. The truth is that we pass to wisdom not by the aggregation of information or knowledge, both of which are available as never before; we pass to wisdom by remembering what we do not know. And this, in an age of information, seems to be the one thing we cannot keep in mind.