A Note for Readers

A few months ago, I set up an account with Patreon, a platform that allows supporters to make monthly pledges to writers, artists, etc. I did so as part of my ongoing effort to figure out a way of making my way as what one might call an independent scholar. I wasn’t exactly making a killing with Patreon, but a few of you generous souls have seen fit over the last few months to pay the writer. I’ve been and remain deeply appreciative.

It turns out that recent changes to Patreon’s fee structure have made giving small amounts rather onerous for donors, creating quite the backlash from users. Given Patreon’s changes, and emails from readers about a few related frustrations with the service, I’ve decided to set up an alternative. Alongside the Patreon link, you’ll now find a link to a Paypal.me page. Unfortunately, this does not provide a way to set up recurring donations, but it is pretty easy to use and they take less from both of us, as far as I can make out. It also makes it easy to make a one time donation if, for example, you found a particular post especially helpful or brilliant or life-changing, etc.

For now, I’ll be leaving the Patreon account open. If you’re one of the happy few who have donated through Patreon, please do feel free to suspend your donations if you find it a poor use of your resources.

Also, I’m always grateful for feedback. I sometimes envision my work here as an attempt to occupy a space somewhere between academic and popular writing on technology: a little more accessible than the former and offering a bit more depth than the latter. Let me know how I’m doing. I’m curious, too, about which sorts of posts readers find useful or what you may want to see more of (or less of). You can find my email address on the About page.

Cheers!

E.B. White, Prophetic Media Critic

My wife is a fan of E.B. White’s, and with good reason. Each time she has read me a passage of his prose, mostly from his essays, I have found his voice to be unfailingly wise and humane. Below is a passage my wife shared with me this morning, knowing that I would find it especially interesting. It is from a 1938 essay titled “Removals” included in the collection One Man’s Meat. It is an astute analysis of television when television was in its infancy.

The news of television, however, is what I particularly go for when I get a chance at the paper, for I believe television is going to be the test of the modern world, and that in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of our vision we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace or a saving radiance in the sky. We shall stand or fall by television—of that I am quite sure [….]

Clearly the race today is between loud speaking and soft, between the things that are and the things that seem to be, between the chemist of RCA and the angel of God. Radio has already given sound a wide currency, and sound “effects” are taking the place once enjoyed by sound itself. Television will enormously enlarge the eye’s range, and, like radio, will advertise the Elsewhere. Together with the tabs, the mags, and the movies it will insist that we forget the primary and the near in favor of the secondary and the remote. More hours in every twenty-four will be spent digesting ideas, sounds, image—distant and concocted. In sufficient accumulation, radio sounds and television sights may become more familiar to us than their originals. A door closing, heard over the air; a face contorted, seen in a panel of light—these will emerge as the real and the true; and when we bang the door of our own cell or look into another’s face the impression will be of mere artifice [….]

When I was a child people simply looked about them and were moderately happy; today they peer beyond the seven seas, bury themselves waist deep in tidings, and by and large what they see and hear makes them unutterably sad.

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I suspect most people will respond to this sort of thing in one of two ways. Some will see it as evidence that what we worry about today people worried about in years past, and from this they will draw the conclusion that, the race having survived to worry again, it may be best not to worry about such things at all. Others will see evidence of a historical trajectory, an antecedent to our present condition, the first steps down an unfortunate path, or, at least, evidence of perennial struggles, which each generation must face on their own terms.

It will, in short, seem like either reactionary nostalgia for an age that never existed—when in want of an argument charge opponent with Nostalgia—or part of any viable explanation for how we end up with a reality TV host for a president and somehow itching for another celebrity television personality to take his place.

I would encourage us simply to ask, “What if he’s right?” Or, to approach our reflections from a slightly different angle, “If he was wrong, how would we know?”

Relatedly, there was one other line that caught my attention. This one, however, is taken from Roger Angell’s 1997 preface to the collection of essays. Angell was White’s stepson and a consummate prose stylist in his own right. In recalling his stepfather’s virtues, he noted that White somewhere wrote that “the hardest thing about the war was to maintain a decent sense of indignation about its deadly details.”

White was speaking about World War 2, and, of course, he was speaking as a civilian on the home front. We are not in the midst of anything like the Second World War, but, nonetheless, I found the idea of struggling “to maintain a decent sense of indignation” somehow resonant and timely.

The Furies Within

Nearly four years ago, I posted the following paragraphs from Edward Mendelson’s essay, “The Secret Auden.” I come back to these lines frequently. They, in my view, articulate an urgent truth we need to hear and embrace.

“By refusing to claim moral or personal authority, Auden placed himself firmly on one side of an argument that pervades the modern intellectual climate but is seldom explicitly stated, an argument about the nature of evil and those who commit it.

On one side are those who, like Auden, sense the furies hidden in themselves, evils they hope never to unleash, but which, they sometimes perceive, add force to their ordinary angers and resentments, especially those angers they prefer to think are righteous. On the other side are those who can say of themselves without irony, ‘I am a good person,’ who perceive great evils only in other, evil people whose motives and actions are entirely different from their own. This view has dangerous consequences when a party or nation, having assured itself of its inherent goodness, assumes its actions are therefore justified, even when, in the eyes of everyone else, they seem murderous and oppressive.”

Simone Weil: “Everything is in disequilibrium”

Perusing my long ago moth-balled Tumblr, I was reminded of the following passage from Simone Weil’s Oppression and Liberty (1955).

Never has the individual been so completely delivered up to a blind collectivity, and never have men been less capable, not only of subordinating their actions to their thoughts, but even of thinking. Such terms as oppressors and oppressed, the idea of classes–all that sort of thing is near to losing all meaning, so obvious are the impotence and distress of all men in face of the social machine, which has become a machine for breaking hearts and crushing spirits, a machine for manufacturing irresponsibility, stupidity, corruption, slackness and, above all, dizziness. The reason for this painful state of affairs is perfectly clear. We are living in a world in which nothing is made to man’s measure; there exists a monstrous discrepancy between man’s body, man’s mind and the things which at present time constitute the elements of human existence; everything is in disequilibrium.

I initially stumbled upon this passage in Henry Finch’s Simone Weil and the Intellect of Grace (1999). Finch adds, “We are crushed by paradoxes: never was our power so great and never were we so powerless; never was there so much control and never were we so vulnerable to accidents; never so much interdependence and so much fragmentation.”

It would be hard, I think, for us to overestimate the problem of scale.

Jacques Ellul on Technique As An Obstacle To Ethics

The following excerpts are taken from “The Search for Ethics In a Technicist Society” (1983) by Jacques Ellul. In this essay, Ellul considers the challenges posed to traditional morality in a society dominated by technique.

James Fowler on what Ellul meant by technique: “Ellul’s issue was not with technological machines but with a society necessarily caught up in efficient methodological techniques. Technology, then, is but an expression and by-product of the underlying reliance on technique, on the proceduralization whereby everything is organized and managed to function most efficiently, and directed toward the most expedient end of the highest productivity.

In Ellul’s view, “The ethical problem, that is human behavior, can only be considered in relation to this system, not in relation to some particular technical object or other.” “If technique is a milieu and a system, ” he adds, “the ethical problem can only be posed in terms of this global operation. Behavior and particular choices no longer have much significance. What is required is thus a global change in our habits or values, the rediscovery of either an existential ethics or a new ontology.”

Emphasis in boldface below is mine.

On the call to subordinate means to ends:

“It is quite right to say that technique is only made of means, it is an ensemble of means (We shall return to this later), but only with the qualification that these means obey their own laws and are no longer subordinated to ends. Besides, one must distinguish ideal ends (values, for example), goals (national, for example), and the objectives (immediate objectives: a researcher who tries to solve some particular problem). Science and technique develop according to objectives, rarely and accidentally in relation to more general goals, and never for ethical or spiritual ideals. There is no relation between the proclamation of values (justice, freedom, etc.) and the orientation of technical development. Those who are concerned with values (theologians, philosophers, etc.) have no influence on the specialists of technique and cannot require, for example, that some aspect of current research or other means should be abandoned for the sake of some value.

On the difficulty of determining who exactly must act to subordinate technique to moral ends:

To adopt one of these first two ethical orientations is to argue that it is human beings who must create a good use for technique or impose ends on it, but always neglecting to specify which human beings. Is the “who” not important? Is technique able to be mastered by just any passer-by, every worker, some ordinary person? Is this person the politician? The public at large? The intellectual and technician? Some collectivity? Humanity as a whole? For the most part politicians cannot grasp technique, and each specialist can understand an infinitesimal portion of the technical universe, just as each citizen only makes use of an infinitesimal piece of the technical apparatus. How could such a person possibly modify the whole? As for the collectivity or some class (if they exist as specific entities) they are wholly ignorant of the problem of technique as a system. Finally, what might be called “Councils of the Wise” […] have often been set up only to demonstrate their own importance, just as have international commissions and international treaties [….] Who is supposed to impose ends or get hold of the technical apparatus? No one knows.

On the compromised position from which we try think ethically about technique:

At the same time, one should not forget the fact that human beings are themselves already modified by the technical phenomenon. When infants are born, the environment in which they find themselves is technique, which is a “given.” Their whole education is oriented toward adaptation to the conditions of technique (learning how to cross streets at traffic lights) and their instruction is destined to prepare them for entrance into some technical employment. Human beings are psychologically modified by consumption, by technical work, by news, by television, by leisure activities (currently, the proliferation of computer games), etc., all of which are techniques. In other words, it must not be forgotten that it is this very humanity which has been pre-adapted to and modified by technique that is supposed to master and reorient technique. It is obvious that this will not be able to be done with any independence.

On the pressure to adapt to technique:

Finally, one other ethical orientation in regard to technique is that of adaptation. And this can be added to the entire ideology of facts: technique is the ultimate Fact. Humanity must adapt to facts. What prevents technique from operating better is the whole stock of ideologies, feelings, principles, beliefs, etc. that people continue to carry around and which are derived from traditional situations. It is necessary (and this is the ethical choice!) to liquidate all such holdovers, and to lead humanity to a perfect operational adaptation that will bring about the greatest possible benefit from the technique. Adaptation becomes a moral criterion.

 

Superfluous People, the Ideology of Silicon Valley, and The Origins of Totalitarianism

There’s a passage from Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism that has been cited frequently in recent months, and with good reason. It speaks to the idea that we are experiencing an epistemic crisis with disastrous cultural and political consequences:

The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.

Jay Rosen recently tweeted that this was, for him, the quote of the year for 2017, and one can see why.

I would, however, suggest that there is another passage from the closing chapters of The Origins of Totalitarianism, or rather cluster of passages, that we might also consider. These passages speak to a different danger: the creation of superfluous people.

“There is only one thing,” Arendt concludes, “that seems discernible: we may say that radical evil has emerged in connection with a system in which all men have become equally superfluous.”

“Totalitarianism strives not toward despotic rule over men,” Arendt furthermore claims, “but toward a system in which men are superfluous.” She immediately adds, “Total power can be achieved and safeguarded only in a world of conditioned reflexes, of marionettes without the slightest trace of spontaneity.”

Superfluity, as Arendt uses the term, suggests some combination of thoughtless automatism, interchangeability, and expendability. A person is superfluous when they operate within a system in a completely predictable way and can, as a consequence, be easily replaced. Individuality is worse than meaningless in this context; it is a threat to the system and must be eradicated.

So just as the “ideal subject” of a totalitarian state is someone who has been overwhelmed by epistemic nihilism, Arendt describes the “model ‘citizen'” as the human person bereft of spontaneity: “Pavlov’s dog, the human specimen reduced to the most elementary reactions, the bundle of reactions that can always be liquidated and replaced by other bundles of reactions that behave in exactly the same way, is the model ‘citizen’ of a totalitarian state.”

Arendt adds that “such a citizen can be produced only imperfectly outside of the camps.” In the camps, the “world of the dying” as Arendt calls them, “men are taught they are superfluous through a way of life in which punishment is meted out without connection to crime, in which exploitation is practiced without profit, and where work is performed without product, is a place where senselessness is daily produced anew.”

It may be obvious how Arendt’s claim regarding the inability to distinguish between truth and falsehood, fact and fiction speaks to our present moment, but what does her discussion of superfluous people and concentration camps have to do with us?

First, I should make clear that I do not expect to see death camps anytime soon. That said, it seems that there are a number of developments which together tend toward rendering people superfluous. For example: the operant conditioning to which we submit on social media, the pursuit of ever more sophisticated forms of automation, and the drive to outsource more and more aspects of our humanity to digital tools.

“If we take totalitarian aspirations seriously and refuse to be misled by the common-sense assertion that they are utopian and unrealizable,” Arendt insisted, “it develops that the society of the dying established in the camps is the only form of society in which it is possible to dominate man entirely.”

I would suggest that having discovered another form of society in which it is possible to dominate people entirely may be the dark genius of our age, a Huxleyan spin on an earlier Orwellian threat. I would also suggest that this achievement has traded on the expression of individuality rather than its suppression.

For example, social media appears to encourage the expression of individuality. In reality, it is a Skinner box, we are being programmed, and our so-called individuality is irrelevant ephemera so far as the network is concerned. In other words, people, insofar as they are considered as individuals, are, in fact, superfluous.

Regarding automation, it is, from my vantage point and given my lack of expertise, impossible to tell what will be the scale of its impact on employment. But it seems clear that there is cause for concern (unless you happen to live in Sweden). I have no reason to doubt that what jobs can be automated will be automated at the expense of workers, workers who will be rendered superfluous. What new jobs are expected to arise will be of the micro-gig economy or tend-the-machine sort. Work, that is to say, in which people qua individuals are superfluous.

As for the outsourcing of our cognitive, emotional, and ethical labor and our obsessive self-tracking and self-monitoring, it amounts to being sealed in a tomb of our revealed preferences (to borrow Rob Horning’s memorable line). Once more, spontaneous desire, serendipity, much of what Arendt classified as natality, the capacity to make a beginning at the heart of our individuality—all of it is surrendered to the urge for an equilibrium of programmed predictability.

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“Over and above the senselessness of totalitarian society,” Arendt went on to observe, “is enthroned the ridiculous supersense of its ideological superstition.” As she goes on to analyze the ideologies that supported the senselessness of totalitarian societies, discomforting similarities to strands of the Silicon Valley ideology emerge. Most notably, it seems to me, they share a blind adherence to a supposed Law driving human affairs. A Law adherence to which frees a person from ordinary moral responsibility, raises the person above the unenlightened masses, indeed, generates a barely veiled misanthropy.

Consider the following analysis:

Totalitarian lawfulness, defying legality and pretending to establish the direct reign of justice on earth executes the law of History [as understood by Communism] or of Nature [as understood by Nazism] without translating it into standards of right and wrong for individual behavior. It applies the law directly to mankind without bothering with the behavior of men. The law of Nature or the law of History, if properly executed, is expected to produce mankind as its end product; and this expectation lies behind the claim to global rule of all totalitarian governments.

Now substitute the “law of Technology” for the law of History and the law of Nature. Tell me if it does not work just as well. This law can be variously framed, but it amounts to some kind of self-serving, poorly conceived technological determinism built upon some ostensible fact like Moore’s Law, and it dictates that humanity as it exists must be left behind in order to accommodate this deep law ordering the flow of time.

“What totalitarian ideologies therefore aim at is not the transformation of the outside world or the revolutionizing of society, but the transformation of human nature itself,” Arendt recognized. And so it is with the transhumanist strains of the ideology of Silicon Valley.

As I write these words, an excerpt from Emily Chang’s forthcoming Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys Club of Silicon Valley published in Vanity Fair is being shared widely on social media. It examines the “exclusive, drug-fueled, sex-laced parties” that some of the most powerful men in Silicon Valley regularly attend. The scandal is not in the sexual license. Indeed, that they believe their behavior to be somehow bravely unconventional and pioneering would be laughable were it not for its human toll. What is actually disturbing is how this behavior is an outworking of ideology and how this ideology generates so much more than drug-addled parties.

“[T]hey speak proudly about how they’re overturning traditions and paradigms in their private lives, just as they do in the technology world they rule,” Chang writes. “Their behavior at these high-end parties is an extension of the progressiveness and open-mindedness—the audacity, if you will—that make founders think they can change the world. And they believe that their entitlement to disrupt doesn’t stop at technology; it extends to society as well.”

“If this were just confined to personal lives it would be one thing,” Chang acknowledges. “But what happens at these sex parties—and in open relationships—unfortunately, doesn’t stay there. The freewheeling sex lives pursued by men in tech—from the elite down to the rank and file—have consequences for how business gets done in Silicon Valley.”

“When they look in the mirror,” Chang concludes, “they see individuals setting a new paradigm of behavior by pushing the boundaries of social mores and values.”

If you’re on the vanguard of the new humanity, social mores and values are for losers.

Arendt also gives us a useful way of framing  the obsession with disruption.

“In the interpretation of totalitarianism, all laws have become laws of movement,” Arendt claims. That is to say that stability is the enemy of the execution of the law of History or of Nature or, I would add, of Technology: “Neither nature nor history is any longer the stabilizing source of authority for the actions of mortal men; they are movements themselves.”

Upsetting social norms, disrupting institutions, destabilizing legal conventions, all of it is a way of freeing up the inevitable unfolding of the law of Technology. Never mind that what is actually being freed up, of course, is the movement of wealth. The point is that the ideology gives cover for whatever depredations are executed in its name. It engenders, as Arendt argues elsewhere, a pernicious species of thoughtlessness that abets all manner of moral outrages.

“Terror,” she explained, “is the realization of the law of movement; its chief aim is to make it possible for the force of nature or of history to race freely through mankind, unhindered by any spontaneous human action. As such, terror seeks to ‘stabilize’ men in order to liberate the forces of nature or history.”

Here again I would argue that we are witnessing a Huxleyan variant of this earlier Orwellian dynamic. Consider once more the cumulative effect of the many manifestations of the networks of surveillance, monitoring, operant conditioning, automation, routinization, and programmed predictability in which we are enmeshed. Their effect is not enhanced freedom, individuality, spontaneity, thoughtfulness, or joy. Their effect is, in fact, to stabilize us into routine and predictable patterns of behavior and consumption. Humanity is stabilized so that the law of Technology can run its course.

Under these circumstances, Arendt goes on to add, “Guilt or innocence become senseless notions; ‘guilty’ is he who stands in the way of the natural or historical process which has passed judgment over ‘inferior races,’ over ‘individuals ‘unfit to live,’ over ‘dying classes and decadent peoples.'” All the recent calls for the tech industry, then, may very well fall not necessarily on deaf ears but on on uncomprehending or indifferent ears tuned only to greater ideological “truths.”

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“Totalitarian solutions may well survive the fall of totalitarian regimes in the form of strong temptations which will come up whenever it seems impossible to alleviate political, social, or economic misery in a manner worthy of man.”

Perhaps that, too, is an apt passage for our times.

In two other observations Arendt makes in the closing pages of Origins, we may gather enough light to hold off the darkness. She writes of loneliness as the “common ground for terror, the essence of totalitarian government, and for ideology and logicality, the preparation of its executioners and victims.” This loneliness is “closely connected with uprootedness and superfluousness which have been the curse of the modern masses since the beginning of the industrial revolution [….]

“Ideologies are never interested in the miracle of being,” she also observes.

Perhaps, then, we might think of the cultivation of wonder and friendship as inoculating measures, a way of sustaining the light.