Saturday, February 17, 2018
Thursday, February 15, 2018
I just finished Jacques Ellul's most famous book, The Technological Society (1964), a jeremiad pronounced against the increasing influence of mechanical, computer, and psychological techniques on modern life.
He sometimes pressed his arguments a bit far; but, on the whole, he showed himself a sensitive observer of early trends. Many of Ellul's premonitions have come to pass in the half century since he wrote his warnings.
Here are two short excerpts from The Technological Society:
We see first of all that leisure, instead of being a vacuum representing a break with society, is literally stuffed with technical mechanisms of compensation and integration. It is not a vacuous interval. It is not a human kind of emptiness in which decisions might be matured. Leisure time is a mechanized time and is exploited by techniques which, although different from those of man's ordinary work, are as invasive, exacting, and leave man no more free than labor itself. As to the second condition, it is simply not the case that the individual, left on his own, will devote himself to the education of his personality or to a spiritual and cultural life. We are perpetually falling into this idealism. In fact, modern man himself seeks to give a technical form to his leisure time and rebels against entering the sphere of human creativity. Since his youth, and in his vocational activity, he has been unrelentingly "adapted." If the individual must be regimented into intelligent use of his free time, if he is obliged to spend this time learning how to be "human," of what value are vacations and leisure? Where in this new framework of propaganda is there room for the transcendingly important elements of personality formation, choice, personal experience, and spontaneous participation in creative activity? Who or what is to be his guide in the collective, educative employment of leisure? The employer? the administration? the labor unions? To put the question at all is to recognize its fatuity. What if man's leisure allowed him to judge his own work? What if, in becoming "cultivated" or, even better, "a real person," he should rebel against his stupid, mechanized job?
Consider the average man as he comes home from his job. Very likely he has spent the day in a completely hygienic environment, and everything has been done to balance his environment and lessen his fatigue. However, he has had to work without stopping and under constant pressure; nervous fatigue has replaced muscular fatigue. When he leaves his job, his joy in finishing his stint is mixed with dissatisfaction with a work as fruitless as it is incomprehensible and far from really productive work . At home he "finds himself" again. But what does he find? He finds a phantom. If he ever thinks, his reflections terrify him. Personal destiny is fulfilled only by death; but reflection tells him that for him there has not been anything between his adolescent adventures and his death, no point at which he himself ever made a decision or initiated a change. Changes are the exclusive prerogative of organized technical society, which one day may have decked him out in khaki to defend it, and on another in stripes because he had sabotaged or betrayed it There was no difference from one day to the next. Yet he was never serene, for newspapers and news reports beset him at the end of the day and forced on him the image of an insecure world. If it was not hot or cold war, there were all sorts of accidents to drive home to him the precariousness of his life. Torn between precariousness and the absolute, unalterable determinateness of work, he has no place, belongs nowhere. Whether something happens to him, or nothing happens, he is in neither case the author of his destiny.
The man of the technical society does not want to encounter his phantom. He resents being tom between the extremes of accident and technical absolutism. He dreads the knowledge that everything ends "six feet under." He could accept the six-feet-under of his life if, and only if, life had some meaning and he could choose, say, to die. But when nothing makes sense, when nothing is the result of free choice, the final six-feet-under is an abominable injustice. Technical civilization has made a great error in not suppressing death, the only human reality still intact.
Man is still capable of lucid moments about the future. Propaganda techniques have not been able wholly to convince him that life has any meaning left. But amusement techniques have jumped into the breach and taught him at least how to flee the presence of death. He no longer needs faith or some difficult asceticism to deaden himself to his condition. The movies and television lead him straight into an artificial paradise. Rather than face his own phantom, he seeks film phantoms into which he can project himself and which permit him to live as he might have willed. For an hour or two he can cease to be himself, as his personality dissolves and fades into the anonymous mass of spectators. The film makes him laugh, cry, wonder, and love. He goes to bed with the leading lady, kills the villain, and masters life's absurdities. In short, he comes a hero. Life suddenly has meaning.
Saturday, January 27, 2018
The Cherry Creek Reservoir appeared to be in mid-winter hibernation this afternoon. Only one little boat was docked in the marina.
I stood on the pier and looked at the water control tower. It is a purely functional structure, reminiscent of a Soviet-era apartment building. The Corps of Engineers scored no points for style on this one.
Here is the outlet side of the flow system (picture stolen from the internet).
On my walk back home I saw a squirrel disappear into its nest. It's a fairly threadbare nest. All of the insulating leaves appear to have blown away.
Elting Morison (1909 - 1995) was an American historian of technology, military biographer, and essayist of clarity and style. The following excerpts are taken from his classic book of essays Men, Machines, and Modern Times (1966).
I once collected evidence on the lives of about thirty of these men [inventors] who flourished in the nineteenth century. A surprising number turned out to be people with little formal education, who drank a good deal, who were careless with money, and who had trouble with wives or other women. This is also, I suppose, what is now called a good stereotype of the painter or poet. And it is quite probable that the inventor who is also something of an engineer is, like all great engineers, and artist and therefore share in what is assumed to be the artistic or creative temperament. But there may be a little more to it than that. It is possible, if one sets aside the long-run social benefits, to look upon invention as a hostile act -- a dislocation of existing schemes, a way of disturbing the comfortable bourgeois routines and calculations, a means of discharging the restlessness with arrangements and standards that arbitrarily limit. An Englishman who some years ago made a canvass of the lives of a good many inventors was surprised to find how many of them had worked as telegraphers. He concluded that the nature this calling -- itinerant, odd hours, episodic work loads, essentially lonely, in touch with mechanisms -- supplied a kind of rive gauche [lit., Left Bank, an area of intellectual culture] or revolutionary underground for men not at home with standard operating procedures.
Applying Morison's description, I find that I possess all the characteristics of an artist or an inventor -- except, I suppose, talent.
I found an observation from Morison that I wish he had amplified into an entire essay:
[A] machine, any machine, if left to itself, tends to establish its own conditions, to create its own environment and draw men into it. Since a machine, any machine, is designed to do only a part of what a whole man can do, it tends to wear down those parts of a man that are not included in the design.
This insight seems to me worth pondering.
I believe that the insight can be extended from the machine to the entire technology-based modern society.
Sunday, January 21, 2018
I just finished reading The Technological System (1977) by Jacques Ellul (1912-1994), a French professor who was an insightful analyst of modern life in the West. In this book Ellul propounded his thesis that the technological system has become the dominant environment encompassing all of modern life in the developed world. The following snippets from the book, shown in brackets, summarize some of his prescient arguments. The reader is encouraged to read the book in its entirety.
Note that this book was written forty years ago, long before social media rose to shape modern communication.
Man now lives in a technological environment.
Having become a universum of means and media, technology is in fact the environment of man. These mediations are so generalized, extended, multiplied, that they have come to make up a new universe; we have witnessed the emergence of the "technological environment." This means that man has stopped existing primarily in his "natural" environment (made up by what is vulgarly called "nature": countryside, forests, mountains, ocean, etc.) He now is situated in a new, artificial environment. He no longer lives in touch with the realities of the earth and water, but with the realities of the instruments and objects forming the totality of his environment. He is now in an environment made of asphalt, iron, cement, glass, plastic, and so on.
Man suffers alienation from being squeezed into a technological environment.
Here and there, man recognizes and greets a fragment of his former universe, integrated in a functional but alien and anonymous whole, in which he nevertheless must live. There is no other. Against that feeling of splintering, modern man feels a keen desire for all-inclusiveness, for synthesis. But, alas, any synthesis produced by anything but technology fails and comes to naught.
The technological environment continually molds society.
Since the eighteenth century, not only has the idea of equality become general, but, even more, it is taken as an established fact, and its realization seems possible.
And all this is a direct result of technological growth. Technology cannot put up with irrational discriminations or social structures based on beliefs. All inequality, all discrimination (e.g., racial), all particularism, are condemned by technology, for it reduces everything to commensurable and rational factors. A complete statistical equality for any adequate dimension and any identifiable group—such is the goal of a society having technology as its chief factor.
Man is persuaded to adapt to the technological environment.
The more he conforms, the less constraint has to be used. Now the technological system produces more and more efficient mechanisms to bring about conformity. It can offer a huge measure independence so long as human action does not challenge the system.
The system tends to be more and more abstract and to establish itself at a second or third degree. Hence, the primary and superficial conformisms may disappear—man seems to acquire far greater freedom. He can listen to the music he likes, dress as he likes, take on completely aberrant religious beliefs or moral attitudes; none of these things challenge the technological system. The technologies even produce the means of these diversifications for man. But these diversifications exist only to the extent that the technologies function, and the latter function only to the extent that technological system keeps improving.
Conformity to the technological system crowds out conformity to previous systems.
Conformity to technology is not the true social conformity. The technological system omits from its scope things that used to the object of great concern by society (e.g., the identity of moral conducts). That is why we have to avoid posing the present-day problems in classical moral terms.
The process of adapting to the technological environment is eased by technology.
Whenever technology creates, say, desperate social situations because of the complexity, the demands (which make countless young, old, and semi-capable people powerless and marginal, etc.), the free motion of technologies—it instantly establishes a social service, technologies of prevention, adaptation, readjustment, etc. These are actually technologies and hence represent the system, being meant to facilitate life in this inhuman universe. Thus, an ensemble of reparation technologies is formed.
Because of these technologies, man can succeed in having a pleasant and livable life. But this is nothing more than substituting an artificial system and a technological fatefulness for the old natural system and the fatefulness of the gods. There is no retort, no original invention by man: In reality, the facilitation is always produced by technology itself. It is technology that furnishes gadgets, television, travel, to make up for a colorless, adventure-less, routine existence.
Man comes to embrace the technological environment because of the attractions that technology provides.
One should not view the technological system as manufacturing human robots. On the contrary, it develops those things on which we make our humanity most strongly dependent: diversity, altruism, nonconformity. But they are perfectly integrated into the system itself. That is to say, they function for the benefit of the system, supplying it with new nourishment and making one another materialize thanks to what the system furnishes.
Thus, the need for play, which is discovered to be so fundamental to a human being, is put to use by the technological system. Man has a wonderful time playing with all the machines at his disposal—and this playing will be so much more exciting, because of technicity. Thus, similarly, the technological system has allowed man to rediscover the refined techniques of sexual play—which, however, are nothing but technologies.
I realize I may be asked: "But if man can develop all his potentials through technology, what more do you want?" A tough question to answer. How can we point out that highly technicized sex is not love? That playing with complex or fascinating apparatuses is not equivalent to a child's playing with bits of wood? That the nature reconstituted by technology is not nature? That functionalized nonconformity is not existential? In other words, that all those things make us live in a universe of facticity, illusion, and make-believe.
Those that serve technology become like it.
The technician does not see any bearing that the study of ethics or philosophy can have on his work. Naturally, he admits that the specialists on moral problems, the philosophers, et al., can pass opinions on this work, pronounce judgements. But that is no concern of his.
Technology exerts a pervasive and homogenizing influence across the world.
We very easily note the identity of traits in the technological phenomenon wherever it emerges. Whether technological growth occurs in England or Japan, in the the United States or the Soviet Union, it has the same causes and the same effects, it gives man the same framework of living, imposes a form of labor upon him, brings the same modifications to the social and political organisms, demands the same conditions for its growth and development. And it does this regardless of the historical origins, the geographic locations or possibilities, the social or political regimes. Of course, there are nuances, distinctions, but they are very largely secondary.
Religious activities are not exempt from the influence of the technological environment.
Technology is not longer, as in the past, one factor among others in a society which produces a civilization and is the milieu in which a technology could be situated. It has, on the contrary, become not only the determining fact but also the "enveloping element," inside which our society develops.
We should really be aware of the relation that likewise exists between what seems to be technological to us and what seems to be something else. Even the most independent, the most non-technological activities are located—whether we like it or not—in the the technological system. Just as in the Middle Ages, for example, everything was located in the christian system (even when having no direct or visible relationship). On the one side, everything is interpreted, understood, and received in terms of technology. On the other side, everything is ultimately modified by the sheer presence of the technologies: if we take the "crisis of the Churches," aggiornamento, the spiritual and liturgical changes, etc. This occurs not because of a direct influence by some technology or other, but because religious and ecclesiastical life is now situated within a technological world.
Technological influences include chemical means.
We have to add the use of chemical factors, which modify, notably, activities or behaviors whenever we like. Recall the pill, which transforms the love relationship, or tranquilizers, which ensure the relay between the individual and his environment (relieving him of the burden of ensuring and mastering circumstances himself, of integrating experience—for it is precisely the lack of this ability that makes the tranquilizers necessary). Recall the many drugs for conjuring up mystical experiences or for directing a religious life. To be sure, man has always looked for stimulants (coca) and artificial paradises. But here as elsewhere, the difference is that these devices are transformed into technological procedures in the modern sense and that they are integrated into the overall technological system.
The technological environment shapes love.
Love can become technological so long as it is stripped of all feeling, all commitment, of everything that involves giving, impulse, passion—all the merriment of love—and so long as it is brought down to an act. Reduced in this way and separated from the all-inclusiveness of being, it can truly be technicized. The sexual act detached from life (the life of the protagonists and of those who could be born form it) is a mechanism. But the very act of proposing and spreading technologies (form the pill to the Kama Sutra) obligatorily turns sex into a technology—and turning it into a technology necessarily causes this reduction and separation. They are ever and always the result of applying a technology.
The second comment is that the fervent advocates of this technicization are the left-wingers, the revolutionaries, the progressives, the freedom enthusiasts. These demagogues of liberty struggle valiantly against the moral obscurantism of the past in order to impose the freedom of love. But caught, as usual, in their own trap, they are simply making progress (and what progress) for the technological universe. They are the mythomaniacs of liberty and yet they serve technicization—thereby transforming love into its reverse and sterilizing both love-life and the merriment that should be part of it.
As technology transforms society, dislocations result.
What is actually desired (albeit not clearly expressed) is a perfectly malleable social organization, because in order to progress, technology demands a great social mobility; it requires huge population shifts, changes in the practice of professions, allotments of resources, and alterations in group structures and in the relations among these groups or among individuals within the groups. It seems altogether simple and obvious that nowadays, in the course of his career, a man must foresee the possibility of changing his profession (i.e., his technology) three times in thirty years. He must therefore be polyspecialized, rather than specialized in one branch; he has to be retrained en route and mobilized in mid-career. But since a man of forty is less flexible, less open, with a poorer memory and a lower aptitude for learning than a man of thirty, it is taken for granted that he should be paid less because he is less adapted to the new technology.
A man must adapt to technology or risk not having a livelihood.
Today, a man can have space to live in only if he is a technician. A collectivity can resist the pressures of the surrounding milieu only if it uses technologies. Having technological ways of coping is now a matter of life and death for all of us. Because there is no equivalent power anywhere in the world.
The same is true for the individual. He is obliged to choose the most advanced technology. Plainly, an engineer who continues applying century-old technologies is not going to find a job. And just as plainly, artisanry is eliminated because it competes with technological procedures.
As technology drains man of true inner strength and vitality and meaning, it provides artificial substitutes as compensation.
When modern man, because of his life in this society, loses a profound force, a wellspring of vitality, a motivation, and no longer knows how to act by virtue of that basic reason, a reason for action and meaning, when he is so lackluster that he has no more purchase on the outside world, then, automatically, a technology is born to allow indispensable action despite everything, This action, becoming more efficient, is therefore easier and requires no such great motivation, no such total judgment, no such full effort. Thanks to technology, man can not only do harder things more easily, he can also act meaninglessly and remain perfectly outside his action. We know this from the difference between killing an enemy face to face with a knife and bombing an area from four miles up. We can posit as a consistent and permanent feature that when man loses a deep reason for acting, a technology appears that allows him to act in the same area, but without any reason. The means has entirely replaced the meaning. There is a technological aping of man's most profound expression. This is apparent in all the psychological technologies when people can no longer engage in a human relationship, when friendship no longer inhabits the human heart, when there is no longer authenticity in a group. These things are supplanted by the technologies of human relations and group dynamics, perfectly mimicking from the outside the things that should only be spontaneously invented in the inmost heart of man.
Saturday, January 20, 2018
My younger son had the excellent idea today. "Let's go hiking before winter weather arrives," he said.
We escaped the hazy, malaise-y metropolis.
And drove west into the sunshine and pure pine-scented air of Meyer Ranch Park, one of the many wonderful parks of the Jefferson County park system.
How refreshing to take a January walk in the forest!