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.

Mumford: “Men had become mechanical before they perfected complicated machines”

From the opening section of Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization (1934):

While people often call our period the “Machine Age,” very few have any perspective on modern technics or any clear notion as to its origins. Popular historians usually date the great transformation in modern industry from Watt’s supposed invention of the steam engine; and in the conventional economics textbook the application of automatic machinery to spinning and weaving is often treated as an equally critical turning point. But the fact is that in Western Europe the machine had been developing steadily for at least seven centuries before the dramatic changes that accompanied the “industrial revolution” took place. Men had become mechanical before they perfected complicated machines to express their new bent and interest; and the will-to-order had appeared once more in the monastery and the army and the counting-house before it finally manifested itself in the factory. Behind all the great material inventions of the last century and a half was not merely a long internal development of technics: there was also a change of mind. Before the industrial precesses could take hold on a great scale, a reorientation of wishes, habits, ideas, goals was necessary.

For reasons that I may outline in a later post, I plan to regularly post excerpts from notable works of older and often forgotten works of tech criticism. I’ll usually refrain from adding any commentary to these excerpts. My hope is that they will sharpen our thinking and yield useful insights. We’ll call these posts readings in the tech critical canon.

Choice and the Machine

“Choice manifests itself in society in small increments and moment-to-moment decisions as well as in loud dramatic struggles; and he who does not see choice in the development of the machine merely betrays his incapacity to observe cumulative effects until they are bunched together so closely that they seem completely external and impersonal. No matter how completely technics relies upon the objective procedures of the sciences, it does no form an independent system, like the universe: it exists as an element in human culture and it promises well or ill as the social groups that exploit it promise well or ill. The machine itself makes no demands and holds out no promises: it is the human spirit that makes demands and keeps promises. In order to reconquer the machine and subdue it to human purposes, one must first understand it and assimilate it. So far, we have embraced the machine without fully understanding it, or, like the weaker romantics, we have rejected the machine without first seeing how much of it we could intelligently assimilate.

The machine itself, however, is a product of human ingenuity and effort: hence to understand the machine is not merely a first step toward re-orienting our civilization: it is also a means toward understanding society and toward knowing ourselves.”

Lewis Mumford in the introduction to Technics and Civilization (1934).

The Simple Life in the Digital Age

America has always been a land of contradictions. At the very least we could say the nation’s history has featured the sometimes creative, sometimes destructive interplay of certain tensions. At least one of these tensions can be traced right back to the earliest European settlers. In New England, Puritans established a “city on a hill,” a community ordered around the realization of a spiritual ideal.  Further south came adventurers, hustlers, and entrepreneurs looking to make their fortune. God and gold, to borrow the title of Walter R. Mead’s account of the Anglo-American contribution to the formation of the modern world, sums it up nicely.  Of course, this is also a rather ancient opposition. But perhaps we could say that never before had these two strands come together in quite the same way to form the double helix of a nation’s DNA.

This tension between spirituality and materialism also overlaps with at least two other tensions that have characterized American culture from its earliest days: The first of these, the tension between communitarianism and individualism, is easy to name. The other, though readily discernible, is a little harder to capture. For now I’m going to label this pair hustle and contemplation and hope that it conveys the dynamic well enough. Think Babbitt and Thoreau.

These pairs simplify a great deal of complexity, and of course they are merely abstractions. In reality, the oppositions are interwoven and mutually dependent. But thus qualified, they nonetheless point to recurring and influential types within American culture. These types, however, have not been balanced and equal. There has always seemed to be a dominant partner in each pairing: materialism, individualism, and hustle. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the influence of spirituality, communitarianism, and contemplation. Perhaps it is best to view them as the counterpoint to the main theme of American culture, together creating the harmony of the whole.

One way of nicely summing up all that is entailed by the counterpoints is to call it the pursuit of the simple life. The phrase sounds quaint, but it worked remarkably well in the hands of historian David E. Shi. In 1985, right in the middle of the decade that was to become synonymous with crass materialism – the same year Madonna released “Material Girl” – Shi published The Simple Life: Plain Living And High Thinking In American Culture. The audacity!

Shi weaves a variegated tapestry of individuals and groups that have advocated the simple life in one form or another throughout American history. Even though he purposely leaves out the Amish, Mennonites, and similar communities, he still is left with a long and diverse list of practitioners. Altogether they represent a wide array of motives animating the quest for the simple life. These include: “a hostility toward luxury and a suspicion of riches, a reverence for nature and a preference for rural over urban ways of life and work, a desire for personal self-reliance through frugality and diligence, a nostalgia for the past and a scepticism toward the claims of modernity, conscientious rather than conspicuous consumption, and an aesthetic taste for the plain and functional.”

This net gathers together Puritans and Quakers, Jeffersonians and Transcendentalists, Agrarians and Hippies, and many more. Perhaps if Shi were to update his work he might include hipsters in the mix. In any case, he would have no shortage of contemporary trends and movements to choose from. None of them dominant, of course, but recognizable and significant counterpoints still.

If I were tasked with updating Shi’s book, for example, I would certainly include a chapter on the critics of the digital age. Not all such critics would fit neatly into the simple life tradition, but I do think a good many would – particularly those who are concerned that the pace and rhythm of digitally augmented life crowds out solitude, silence, and reflection. Think, for example, of the many “slow” movements and advocates (myself included) of digital sabbaths. They would comfortably take their place alongside a many of the individuals and movements in Shi’s account who have taken the personal and social consequences of technological advance as their foil. Thoreau is only the most famous example.

Setting present day critics of digital life in the tradition identified by Shi has a few advantages. For one thing, it reminds us that the challenges posed by digital technologies, while having their particularities, are not entirely novel in character. Long before the dawn of the digital age, individuals struggled to find the right balance between their ideals for the good life and the possibilities and demands created by the emergence of new technologies.

Moreover, we may readily and fruitfully apply some of Shi’s conclusions about the simple life tradition to the contemporary criticisms of life in the digital age.

First, the simple life has always been a minority ethic. “Many Americans have not wanted to lead simple lives,” Shi observes, “and not wanting to is the best reason for not doing so.” But, in his view, this does not diminish the salutary leavening effect of the few on the culture at large.

Yet , Shi concedes, “Proponents of the simple life have frequently been overly nostalgic about the quality of life in olden times, narrowly anti-urban in outlook , and too disdainful of the benefits of prosperity and technology.” Better to embrace the wisdom of Lewis Mumford, “one of the sanest of all the simplifiers” in Shi’s estimation. According to Mumford,

“It is not enough to say, as Rousseau once did, that one has only to reverse all current practice to be right … If our new philosophy is well-grounded we shall not merely react against the ‘air-conditioned nightmare’ of our present culture; we shall also carry into the future many elements of quality that this culture actually embraces.”

Sound advice indeed.

If we are tempted to dismiss the critics for their inconsistencies, however, Shi would have us think again: “When sceptics have had their say, the fact remains that there have been many who have demonstrated that enlightened self-restraint can provide a sensible approach to living that can be fruitfully applied in any era.”

But it is important to remember that the simple life at its best, now as ever, requires a person “willing it for themselves.” Impositions of the simple life will not do. In fact, they are often counterproductive and even destructive. That said, I would add, though Shi does not make this point in his conclusion, that the simple life is perhaps best sustained within a community of practice.

Wisely, Shi also observes, “Simplicity is more aesthetic than ascetic in its approach to good living.” Consequently, it is difficult to lay down precise guidelines for the simple life, digital or otherwise. Moderation takes many forms. And so individuals must deliberately order their priorities “so as to distinguish between the necessary and superfluous, useful and wasteful, beautiful and vulgar,” but no one such ordering will be universally applicable.

Finally, Shi’s hopeful reading of the possibilities offered by the pursuit of the simple life remains resonant:

“And for those with the will to believe in the possibility of the simple life and act accordingly, the rewards can be great. Practitioners can gradually wrest control of their own lives from the manipulative demands of the marketplace and the workplace … Properly interpreted, such a modern simple life informed by its historical tradition can be both socially constructive and personally gratifying.”

Nathan Jurgenson has recently noted that criticisms of digital technologies are often built upon false dichotomies and a lack of historical perspective. In this respect they are no different than criticisms advanced by advocates of the simple life who were also tempted by similar errors. Ultimately, this will not do. Our thinking needs to be well-informed and clear-sighted, and the historical context Shi provides certainly moves us toward that end. At the very least, it reminds us that the quest for simplicity in the digital age had its analog precursors from which we stand to learn a few things.

Technology and Magic

As counterintuitive as it may now seem, there are links between the ethos and the history of technology and magic. A few weeks ago, I posted some observations by Lewis Mumford and C. S. Lewis to that effect (although Lewis speaks more generally of science rather than technology). In The Technological Society, Jacques Ellul makes a series of similar observations regarding magic and technique. Technique, for Ellul, encompasses not only material technology, but also the extension of machine logic into social and personal spheres. “Technique,” Ellul explains, “integrates the machine into society.” It amounts to the conditioning of man for a world of machines. More generally, it is a mentality that privileges efficiency and rationalization.

According to Ellul, “technique has evolved along two distinct paths.” The “concrete technique of homo faber [man the maker]” and “the technique, of a more or less spiritual order, which we call magic.”

Citing the work of sociologist Marcel Mauss, Ellul describes the affinities between magic and technique:

“Magic developed along with other techniques as an expression of man’s will to obtain certain results of a spiritual order. To attain them, man made use of an aggregate of rites, formulas, and procedures which, once established, do not vary. Strict adherence to form is one of he characteristics of magic: forms and rituals, masks whichever vary, the same kind of prayer wheels, the same ingredients for mystical drugs, for formulae for divination, and so on.”

And a little later on he writes,

“Every magical means, in the eyes of the person who uses it, is the most efficient one. In the spiritual realm, magic displays all the characteristics of a technique. It is a mediator between man and ‘the higher powers,’ just as other techniques mediate between man and matter. It leads to efficacy because it subordinates the power of the gods to men, and it secures a predetermined result. It affirms human power in that it seeks to subordinate the gods to men, just as technique serves to cause nature to obey.”

This latter observation also recalls Walter Benjamin’s observation that “technology is not the mastery of nature but of the relations between nature and man.”

Regarding magic’s relationship to technology, Mumford explained that “magic was the bridge that united fantasy with technology: the dream of power with the engines of fulfillment.”

What technology and magic, then, have in common is the effort to manipulate relationships through techniques that are an extension and empowerment of the human will. Manipulate tends to have rather pejorative connotations, but I use it nonetheless because of its suggestive etymology which is linked to a method for mining iron ore, a pharmacist’s measure, and, of course, the hand. This etymology felicitously evokes both technology and the body.  The pejorative connotations, however, are not entirely misplaced.

Historians of science have linked the rise of modern science in the West with theological and philosophical developments in the late medieval period. During this time, Aristotelianism was displaced by a voluntarist account of God’s action. The voluntarists so emphasized God’s power and freedom, they concluded there was nothing at all necessary, and thus subject to rational deduction, about the world as it exists. It could have been otherwise in every detail. It would not do, then, to merely reason about the way the world must necessarily be assuming certain rational propositions, rather the world must be investigated in order to arrive at an accurate understanding of its nature.

Magic, science, and technology all initially flourished in this cultural climate oriented toward the will, and this orientation became a part of their DNA as it were. The freedom of the divine will imagined by the voluntarists appears eventually to have become the freedom of the human will. Unfettered from the constraints of either Aristotelian form or telos, and later from notions of a normative moral and natural order, the human will is liberated to manipulate reality as it sees fit.

Technology, in Western contexts, was anchored in this emphasis on the unfettered will and the activist vision of Francis Bacon, who did more than any other individual to shape Western attitudes toward technology in the early modern period. It is little wonder then that we are generally unwilling to abide non-technological constraints on technology. We are generally unwilling to abide such constraints on our own will and we have long since understood technology, as we once did magic, as an accouterment of the will.