Episode Six – Technology
This conversation ranged far and wide but was amazingly polite and productive. Or was it?
Technology means …
I apologize in advance that rather than being a short rant that fuels a discussion, this editorial is more like notes on a future essay. I couldn’t help myself because the topic is so rich and I wanted to answer some questions about it for myself.
Central to a discussion about technology is what are we talking about. Is it bigger than a breadbox? Does it start with division of labor or with the first simple tool? (Simple tools are the lever, wheel and axle, pulley, inclined plane, wedge, and screw). Is it a system or an individual choice? If it is a individualchoice then our role as rebels is to be against it, but what are we against exactly? Are we against anything new, which seems about right–since everything new is horrible and if there is a natural instinct against the latest app or widget or product it seems like a pretty good one. But radicals and rebels who take a reactionary response to everything (and I very much include nihilists in this category) are no longer critical thinkers. While “no” is a great way to get into a topic, we don’t stay there, because we like to think things through and a topic like technology needs a lot of thinking through.
Here is what we know: technology started long before civilization and relates to how humans interact with the world. Wikipedia defines technology as “the collection of techniques, skills, methods and processes used in the production of goods and services or accomplishment of objectives.” While a liberal would declare technology to be, by definition, part of human nature, I’d like to entertain a different starting point. Technology is a proxy term to categorize where humans made decisions about reach and about grasp (this is a metaphor so get ready). Some bands of humans set their horizons on the stars and were not going to be satisfied until we reached them and damn the consequences. Other bands argued that the faces of their people were the main object of concern.
This conceptual difference, between spacecraft and the accompanying yearning for the stars on the one hand, and the human connection to other individuals on the other hand, is where the technology debate lives. Between human nature and the end of human life on Earth. And the solutions are equally impossible without strict party control, ranging from abolishing the machines, living small, or becoming cyber-machines ourselves. The trap of solution-oriented thinking (where one tightly couples a position–pro or con–to an answer, like smash things or accept assimilation) is one of the reasons that anarchism is the laughing stock political position of the left and beyond. I’d like to avoid that trap.
Here I’d like an approach to technology that is informed more by the story of Pandora than Leviathan. The story of Pandora relates to the biblical story of Eve, with themes of temptation, knowledge, and blame for the problems of our time (which is on women btw) but has some differences of emphasis. After Pandora’s jar is opened wild knowledge is unleashed on the world, resulting in all the ills of Civilization but also in an expression of individual agency (Pandora is a cult name of the goddess Gaia and the personification of Earth itself https://www.thoughtco.com/what-was-pandoras-box-118577), of the Earth made manifest. I’d offer that we are not babes in the woods. While we did not have agency to unleash wild knowledge, we instead are the next generation. Our task is not to wring our hands at what has occurred but to live in the consequence of what has occurred, informed by the critique rather than by the exuberances of utopian fans or detractors who are in some sort of dialectical relationship to each other (hence the debates between @prim–or is that prim@–and transhumanists). I’ll use the term post-pandora, to describe our situation, post the release of all the Ills of the world.
Because I was born in the 70s and not before, modernism is how I learned about the world. I understand modernism to be the worldview of big pictures, big goals, the USSR vs the US, the challenger disaster, tear down this wall. Big truths and the belief that each of us in negotiation and conflict on behalf or against one big story or another. So then technology is a big story that explains it all. It is Leviathan against the zeks. It is a shoe that may not destroy all of the machines but wishes it did. It is the symbol. Modernism is about the symbols that stand for all the things and we spend our time fighting about symbols and it is not about extracting all the things from each other, which is what is needed.
More recently are the shots from the dark of the neo-luddites. It makes sense to make the symbolic gestures of the Luddites more contemporary but the direction that neo-luddites went in (at the Second Luddite congress in 1996) speaks to a different problem. To quote: “Neo-Luddism is “a leaderless movement of passive resistance to consumerism and the increasingly bizarre and frightening technologies of the Computer Age.” While I am personally fond of Peter Lamborn Wilson and think that his personal rejection of digital stuff is more interesting than my own ambivalence to it, I am still concerned that neo-luddism is a type of blame-the-victim attitude I can’t abide. Post-pandora is a declaration that we are injured by what has come before; it does not live in the blaming of prior generations but perhaps in the salvage of pirate cultures, bricolage, and rats.
This week we will talk about technology, the system, the decisions we make ever day, and whether there is any affirmative action worth making about how we manipulate the world, whether this is a topic that is about right and wrong, and what a post-pandora worldview might look like. Extra credit discussions include the Luddites as a failed modernist experiment, neo-Luddites as taking personal responsibility for systematic problems, and, like usual, how Christian “lack”-thinking ruins everything.