The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
14.4 (Fall 2014)
A Suggested Focus for Exercises in Advanced Composition: Analyzing Our High-Tech World
John R. Harris
One of my personal complaints about composition classes has always been that they focus on technique to the exclusion of content. The idea seems thoroughly sophistical: i.e., that nothing’s either good or bad, and that the clever advocate can paint any subject whatever in heavenly or hellacious colors by making a stylistic adjustment here and there. Naturally, my alternative would not be to indoctrinate college freshmen into some particular ethical system (which usually happens, in fact, concurrently and quite subtly with the emphasis upon “rhetorical strategy”: within the heavy doses of relativism bubbles arbitrary ideology). What I aspire to do, rather, is to engage students in a discussion worth having—an issue or range of issues significant to the human condition. I have never assigned a paper on whether the campus needs more parking, whether athletes receive too much official recognition, or whether employers should refuse jobs to applicants with tattoos. An important part of how we learn to write, I believe, resides in the profundity of the subject about which we are asked to write. Nobody will draw upon logic or moral values or meaningful analogies in describing the advantages of the latest iPhone. I therefore avoid such topics entirely—like the proverbial plague.
This semester I am confronting my freshmen with a range of issue that may stir frowns in certain official quarters. I hope not: I hope we are not yet quite so beholden to Bill Gates that we dare not even question the complete surrender of our lives to “gizmocracy”. The following issues related to advanced technology indeed strike me as so important that I would second the late Neil Postman in arguing that we should have entire courses devoted them, and at a core level. My own course remains a composition class, nonetheless. I do not know if home-educators or other professionals may find my suggestions at all useful in any context, but I offer them free of charge and with the best of intentions. I have appended to each of the four specific issues (the opening discussion is merely an orientation) a few links to essays and other works, a few of them recognized classics, from which I drew in building my personal PDF for the freshmen. Access to these publications is also free of charge, in every instance. If we really must use the Internet… then long live free downloads!
Technology and Humanity: A Complex Collaboration
Technology is not inherently bad. The domestic use of fire to cook and to warm was early technology; so was the cutting utensil made of bone or wood, and so was the wheel. We would not be recognizable as human beings rather than as rather weak higher primates if we had no technology. Combating, mitigating, or supplementing raw nature with artifice appears to be an essential part of human nature.
That having been said, many developments within the last century or two have placed our species in a very delicate, almost adversarial position with respect to its technology. Nature was once our enemy: the floods, the droughts, the predators, the earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Although those threats still exist, we are far more concerned today about deadly weapons, urban congestion, acquiring job skills, being phased out, having our identity stolen, and so forth. Our policeman seems to have become the biggest thug on the block. Why did this happen, and when did it happen?
The growth of our artificial amenities and improvements became exponential as the Industrial Revolution reached its top gear. For thousands and thousands of years—ever since they had ceased being hunter-gatherers—most men and women had lived on farms, where they grew their own food, made their own clothes, and built their own houses. Then rather suddenly (as such movements go), a massive population shift to urban centers decimated farming communities. Technology in some parts of the world had arrived at ways to put huge tracts of land under cultivation with very little manpower; in other parts, as with the Highland Clearances, wealthy landowners believed that grazing beef and selling off timber for the cities’ needs would fill their pockets. Even where tenants were allowed to remain, their first obligation was to raise the cash crop whose export value made it desirable to urban commercial interests. The Irish Potato Famine, during which over a million people starved or otherwise perished, did not result from the land’s going suddenly infertile. Rather, so much land had been given over to the production of exported crops that the failure of the potato harvest—the one product of the farmer’s labors which he was allowed to keep—left nothing in the food cellar.
In the new urban environment, our ancestors’ total immersion in artifice quickly ensued. They could no longer draw water from a spring or well: it had to be piped in. As enormous volumes of human waste and also toxic industrial by-products built up, they discovered further that their water had to be carefully decontaminated. They now lived at very close quarters with each other, of course. High-rise apartment complexes were not always well constructed, and the combination of abundant rubbish and the use of coal for heating seemed to breed devastating fires. Children ran wild in the asphalt jungle, meanwhile, and learned criminal habits in some cases or fell victim (perhaps fatally) to street violence in others. Horse-drawn lorries also crushed many a toddler who got loose from his mother’s skirt (or had no mother to cling to); and, while trains brought welcome relief from the fly-infested dung that horses deposited up and down major thoroughfares, a steam engine or trolley couldn’t be reined in like a horse, and pedestrian travel became yet more risky.
Yet travel you must, in the city—every day. Every man, woman, and child was after a few extra pennies in this steel and brick anthill, naturally; for food no longer grew just out the window, but had to be bought from a grocer with regular wages or money secured by some other means. Where legal, wage-paying work could be found, it not only consumed half of every day’s twenty-four hours in a grinding routine of tending to machines: it was competitively sought by perhaps thousands of recent arrivals to the city, permitting employers to offer a mere pittance in salary.
Of course, such abuses were resolved for the most part as the twentieth-century city stabilized, at least in the United States. Technology became more sophisticated, as well, requiring a more skilled variety of worker who could command a higher wage. (Ae the same time, fewer of these more educated workers were needed to tend the “smarter” machines—and not every worker could afford an education, either.) The newly skilled worker, disgusted with the “inner city,” began to settle his family in more suburban settings, where the air was cleaner, the population less dense, and crime rate lower. The resulting “urban sprawl” (as it would eventually be called) required that this “man in a gray flannel suit” own a car, and that cities be remodeled to accommodate enormous volumes of car traffic streaming from home to work to home again at fixed times of day: the “rush hours”. Yet the boom in automobile and oil production was itself said to be “good for jobs,” providing employment for some of those laborers whose skills had not grown more specialized with the times. The heartless math of the machine’s usurping the work of a hundred workers and creating new employment for those few trained to operate it was, for the moment, canceled out. Anyone who wanted work could find it.
Life for this mid-century blue-collar or entry-level white-collar American laborer was actually pretty good as long as no other country in the world produced so much technology or produced ordinary items so technologically (i.e., in mass and at reduced cost). A kind of golden age lasted for perhaps a generation in the United States (somewhat overshadowed by the Cold War). As workers demanded more and more for their skills, however, and as technology continued to evolve so as to require fewer and fewer workers, industrial employers found that they could not only reduce their labor force, but also that their more sophisticated machines could be serviced by cheaper and less sophisticated labor. For, ironically, the machines had finally grown so smart that their operators needed little training: impoverished people in Third World nations could be hired for a fraction of the American worker’s wage and trained to hit the “on” button of nearly self-running hardware. The Age of Outsourcing had begun.
For the past several years—perhaps two decades—most Americans have neither grown any of their food nor produced much of the machinery that grows food, conveys travelers, cools houses, or runs cyberspace. In the private sector, at least, where market forces rule supreme, we have become a nation of entertainers, marketers, and servers (waiters, repairmen, grocers, etc.). Such work keeps us at about three or four removes from life’s bare essentials. We neither raise sheep nor produce woolen garments: we model the latest fashions or sell the devices on which images of advertising models appear. How we would fare in this state if a global crisis caused all unnecessary spending to vanish is a troubling question. Many of us, indeed, prefer not to ponder the possibility of trouble. We escape into TV, movies, video games, YouTube, various social media—and the general dependency on such amusements and distractions is becoming so widespread, in fact, that it fuels most of our surviving growth industries. The argument could be made that advanced communications-and-entertainment technology continues to take care of us very well. Even though we can’t eat it or shelter from the rain beneath it, our need of it, being all but universal, renders most of us willing to spend vital resources on it. Jobs are not going away just because they are no longer directly connected to the consumer’s survival. Technology, rather, is constantly “defining upward” the common view of the “necessity.” Some people are fully conceived, it appears, that they will die if deprived of their cell phone.
Yet if such dependency is a positive sign for our economy, it may be less so for our psyche—our common humanity. Is it good that we can no longer make images in our own minds, as we used to do when reading; is it good that technology now supplies all the forms and colors? Is it good that we now walk (whenever we do walk, which is seldom) with music in our ear rather than having to create a quiet time and a private space for it? Is having our circle of friends and acquaintances available 24/7 to view a three-word quip or a “selfie” good? Is the growing tendency to judge public figures through such flickers of words and images good?
Most of us can still shift to a deeper mode if we really need to think something out. The e-world remains merely convenient for us—not the true measure of reality. But will our children be able to say the same thing? How long before human beings know no form of writing other than some kind of telegraphic “textese”? How long before their primary means of face-to-face communication will be to “search” a photo of Lolita’s Restaurant, add a clock whose hands point to noon, and then display the pictures on a screen mounted over their forehead? (The result would mean, “Let’s do lunch at Lolita’s.”)
Well, maybe that particular extreme of dumbing down isn’t imminent. The last hundred years, however, should suffice to show us that machines have a way of making us do things their way after being created to do things our way. The assembly line was supposed to speed up work, and it did; but it transformed the human laborer from an artisan into a mechanical cog. The automobile was supposed to go farther and faster than a horse while requiring a smaller stable and eating just a little petrol. It delivered on all these promises—but it also overhauled our cities to become concrete eyesores and pedestrian deathtraps. Every time a communications technology makes it easier for us to express ourselves in a certain medium, it de-conditions us to another medium; and since ease and speed of expression are now more important than precision, we become de-conditioned to eloquent word choice and objective reasoning. We spout off what’s on the tip of our tongue. If we need more depth, then we hit the Internet for a synonym.
The issue of how we may control technology so that it assists us in the lives we want to lead instead of condemning us to the life that best suits its parameters is the critical issue of contemporary (sometimes called “postmodern”) times. If we do not reach a truce with our machines, then the real quality and human value of our lives will irresistibly diminish. We invented the things, so we ought to be able to modify them! If the day comes when they are doing most of our thinking for us, though, our minds will never be able to regain control from theirs, and we will end up doing only what they “want” or “allow” us to do.
This small book is intended to challenge you to consider several of the critical issues related to technology in the twenty-first century. None of the following essays is “pro” or “anti” technology in a simplistic way: after all, this is a PDF, a kind of “e-book”! The intent, rather, is to have you question the application of technology in our world so that we may all work on enhancing its positive effects. We cannot live fully without it, and few of us would want to give back any of its modern blessings. Yet we must recognize, at the same time, its potential for cultural degradation if ungoverned.
Topic One: Can Technology Advance Without Causing Economic Instability?
This must seem a very odd question to many. In classic cases, technology is developed because a vital need exists. If a community faces starvation because its summers are too dry and the crops are dying in the fields, then the community discovers irrigation. If its members can reach each other only after crossing vast distances—by which time any urgent message has turned irrelevant—then someone invents smoke signals, or perhaps the telegraph. Once the necessity is satisfied, things get better and society “moves on” until, as a result of further development, it meets a new crisis. No human society remains perfectly stable economically (i.e., in regard to how it harvests and distributes material to meet needs) except, perhaps, a group of hunter-gatherers; and such groups have all but vanished from our world precisely because, in their failure to innovate, they left themselves very vulnerable to incidental catastrophes. One flood or one really dry year wipes them out.
All of this is true, as far as it goes; but let us try to peer still farther up the road. Say that irrigation from a reliable water source succeeds in compensating for the weather’s vagaries, and all the fields produce steadily, year after year. A modest surplus of grain builds up. It can be held in reserve for the proverbial rainy day (which in actuality is probably two terribly dry years in a row)… but that, in itself, presents problems. Some of the grain will rot or be eaten by pests as it lies in storage. Working so hard for such a generous yield just to watch it go to ruin is hard, especially when another tribe at the distant end of the canyon needs grain and will trade flints and hides for it. So a market system develops on a very humble scale—one that runs on bartering rather than currency. Everybody seems to profit. The hungry have food, and the unclothed have hides.
Markets, however, inevitably introduce elements of instability into the socio-economic equation. What happens if the two really bad years come when the surplus has been depleted in trade? Nobody can eat flints or hides! Or what happens if, on the contrary, several very good growing seasons succeed each other and the storage rooms are overflowing? The tribe across the valley has traded for all the food it needs: only a few rabbit pelts are being offered now for a whole barrel of corn. The market value of the product has gone down, so village farmers cease to work as hard next season; and so the yield is less, and so the community is once again exposed to one very dry year’s calamities.
Technology doesn’t create these problems. We have already observed that the simplest possible human community—the hunter-gather group—is prone to decimation or extinction if Mother Nature has a few grumpy days. Yet if the primary reason for developing technology is that it liberates us humans from such uncertainty… well, that seems open to question. The example just offered was drawn largely from what we can deduce about the prehistoric Anasazi of northwestern New Mexico, who built very sizable towns in Chaco Canyon about a thousand years ago thanks to irrigation and trade. Then they vanished, as far as archeologists can tell: an entire people, gone. The cause of the swift decline was probably internal, since there is no evidence of burning or destruction among the extensive relics of their pueblos. Did they quarrel over the distribution of water or of the payment received for their grain? Did the more industrious bind the lazier in contracts and obligations that amounted to servitude? Did a plague arise from the abundance of mice and rats in their vast grain warehouses? Or, as many scholars believe, did a string of really hot, dry years—about seven or eight of them—disrupt the best-laid schemes of mice and men?
In their heyday, the Anasazi appear to have developed a series of watch-towers. If fires were lit atop these on a clear night, simple messages might have been communicated over hundreds of miles in just a few minutes. Imagining any economic disadvantage to this system is difficult. It would have been pretty low-tech… so maybe the degree of technological advance is related to the degree of possible disruption. Even in this case, however, a keen imagination might picture the following scenario. Runners used to spread communication between villages before the towers were raised. Roads were built for the runners, and road-builders were paid from the communal coffers (in grain and hides, no doubt). Now few roads are needed, and the builders must find some other employ. Again, in so rudimentary a society, such a displacement would likely not threaten anyone with starvation; but in a less tribal setting where those who don’t work don’t eat, and where labor can become quite specialized (rendering someone unemployable whose craft is “phased out”), the consequences of an “adjustment” like the one just portrayed could prove lethal.
The brief selection below from Montesquieu’s masterpiece, The Spirit of the Laws, exposes how economic success spelled ruin for the Spanish during the age of the conquistadors. So much gold was brought back to Europe that this most precious of metals became relatively commonplace… and suddenly the Spanish empire in the New World crumbled at its foundations. Gold itself, of course, is no technical innovation; but the ships in which the Spanish sailed, the instruments by which they steered, and the weapons they wielded were very much the latest thing. Granted, developing the point in this direction drags the proverbial red herring across our trail, because the Montesquieu section has truly been inserted to illustrate the fundamentals of market behavior. A more useful and honest approach to the selection, then, might be to picture an artificial commodity produced by technology—or perhaps a new “must have” technology itself—playing the role of the New World’s gold. In the long run, does it bring more prosperity or more misery?
Ortega y Gasset, the author of our next reading, has a much more modern view of the economic “cost of success.” We have come so far technologically, he argues, that the average person (hombre masa) now expects all sorts of gadgets and gizmos to lie at his feet, just as the air he breathes comes pouring in when he inhales—free of charge. This person is thus not a very intelligent consumer. His demands for complicated, costly products at ridiculously low prices create a situation that unprincipled politicians will readily exploit. Furthermore, “mass man” considers himself the brightest representative of his species ever to walk the planet, just because he uses advanced gadgetry; yet with his narrowly specialized education, he really has no idea how most of his modern miracles work. The day must come when he cannot maintain his complex systems, let alone build upon them. Once again, we may well ask if, over the long haul, technology has lifted society to a higher plateau or embarked it upon a roller-coaster ride.
These insights about the spoiled contemporary Westerner were written almost a century ago. The final selection of this unit, in contrast, was composed shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Wendell Berry has written for years about the importance of maintaining ties with the production of such essentials as food. Many of his essays argue for the psychological as well as material benefits of growing a small garden. We high-tech humans too easily forget what it means to “want”—in the sense of “need”—and quickly go chasing after expensive frivolities that may actually harm us. This particular essay, though, is much more focused on the sheer logistics of technologically conditioning a society to accept ever deeper, more intricate economic dependencies. Instead of having potatoes and carrots in the back yard, we receive a weekly or monthly check for making ads that promote the webmaster who builds sites that sell athletic gear, and with that check we buy food imported from one foreign country and packaged in plastic produced by another. We have little control over events that might affect any link of this intricate chain—and probably no knowledge whatever that such events could happen or are happening. Isn’t that a rather unstable way to live?
If the title question now appears rhetorical—if you sense that you are being invited to say, “No, technology cannot make major advances without bringing instability”—then the fault lies in the question’s not being framed better. Life is always unstable, in that all of us are bound to weaken in old age and, at last, to die. There’s probably no high-tech answer to mortality! Economic life need not be quite so traumatic, however: at least, the need that it be so is not obvious. Must we have major disruption if a brilliant technical innovation helps us to produce and distribute our material necessities and luxuries? After all, a certain degree of stability is itself a vital human need: that’s why Professor Berry wants us not to plow under our gardens and depend upon Sam’s Club for everything. Is it so naive, then, to suppose that one of our criteria for new technology might be that it should only minimally disrupt our work habits.
Full text of Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws: https://archive.org/details/MontesquieustheSpiritOfTheLaws
Full text of Ortega y Gasset’s Revolt of the Masses: http://www.globalchristians.org/politics/DOCS/Ortega%20y%20Gasset%20-%20The%20Revolt%20Of%20The%20Masses.pdf
Berry’s “Thoughts in the Presence of Fear”: http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/214/
Topic Two: Can Advanced Technology Be Harnessed as a Mere Tool That Creates No Major Cultural Upheaval?
We may have begun the semester with the most difficult topic, for an economy is a nebulous reality and many different economic systems exist. Most of us are more familiar with the technological friction that occurs in cultural clashes. Television was long charged with creating a passive, obese, desensitized generation: now video games more often assume the villain’s role. Proliferating freeways stacked in concrete overpasses are said to divide our communities and deface our great cities. Fast food bears responsibility (in some minds) not just for ruining our health, but for corrupting the American palate so that we no longer know what good food tastes like. Rap music and other popular genres of expression that took off with new hardware of the iPod variety are supposed to be an assault on polite speech.
Culture not only consists of distinctive food, distinctive arts, and a distinctive language. Often religion surfaces when cultural influences are discussed. What has technology “done to” expressions of religious devotion? Some may say that church attendance is more casual now that services appear on TV. Others, probing deeper, might add that religious obligations of self-restraint are now virtually ignored. (The Pill, for instance, and the ensuing wave of medical birth control have been accused of creating the sexual revolution.)
More subtle, too, are some of the charges leveled at the arts and at traditional learning. Children no longer know how to perform basic math functions (it is said) because the pocket calculator does all the heavy lifting for them. They don’t know how to read because films of all the literary works usually read before college are abundantly available to show in class; and if they do acquire any significant literacy, it’s not from having read the great books themselves, but from having found synopses of them online. The Internet has also become a favorite destination for college students with term papers due. Certain sites will produce an A paper for a nominal fee. (The cultural value of honesty suffers here, it might be added, as well as writing competency.)
The wide array of social behaviors that used to be governed by a certain mannerly protocol has also, for the most part, eroded under the influence of the latest technology (so the indictment runs). Dating or courtship, for instance, has degenerating into casual texting back and forth. Ordinary friendships are sustained through Facebook more than through personal contact. People may be heard every day on the sidewalk or in restaurants pursuing very private conversations loudly on the cell phone, as if the rest of us who actually, materially exist within five feet of them were mere puffs of smoke. We are less a coherent society, many have claimed, than several million parallel universes in close proximity.
Are all of these accusations fair? Are most of them—is any of them? Why would it be inevitable that technology should undermine long-honored habits and customs? Even if certain habits change because of the technological influence, hasn’t culture always evolved in any historical setting? Doesn’t every generation look for some way to distinguish itself from its predecessors? Technology, furthermore, doesn’t fall from space: it responds to human desires. Hence remarkable changes in general conduct may well be occurring today… but is technology the reason, or is basic human nature?
All of the three readings below suggest that our lifestyle habits are indeed altering under the influence of the latest gadgetry, and that the net impact of the shift has major consequences for culture. The authors of Suburban Nation tell a rather tragic tale of how the automobile, originally the most benign of tools, has transformed our cities into angry, dangerous hives and our suburbs into lonely, dismal wastelands. Isaac Asimov’s futuristic short story about a robot who almost gets his human operators killed on the planet Mercury represents artificial intelligence as a highly useful tool, to be sure; but you will note that the two engineers solve their critical problem only by radically altering their thought processes to match a computer’s. Though the story doesn’t offer the situation as a cultural assault (one must wonder how much culture the two humans possess, outside of their work), it does indirectly make us reflect that our expressions may be forced to change as we speak more and more often with machines.
The late Neil Postman discussion’s (actually the text of a speech), while quite general in scope, is riveted upon this issue and by no means speculative. It warns of five specific qualities inherent in technological innovation that we tend to overlook. All five of these properties have some degree of impact upon culture, though the effect is sometimes indirect. Postman does not recommend that we eliminate technology or avoid new technology, but only that we consider where it is likely to lead us before we give it free rein.
For that matter, no particular position is expected of you on these issues. Defending technology from the charge of corrupting culture is clearly possible. One might argue that new technology only precipitates shifts that people have already decided to make. (For instance, one could say that a relaxation in sexual morals created a market for the Pill: birth-control pills didn’t cause sexual morals to collapse.) Another obvious argument would be that technology itself is a cultural manifestation, and that new devices are therefore not causing cultural upheaval around the world but carrying cultures in innovative directions. (Perhaps various Internet communities could be said to bring together people who genuinely share important interests rather than who just happen to live near each other.) Yet another argument would run that, although advanced technology does indeed erode traditional culture, the erosion benefits society, for many cultures are quite oppressive. The Saudis, for example, will not allow their women to drive cars. Does this traditional confining of the woman to the home enrich her and other lives, or is it severely limiting her horizons? (Maybe technology, then, is substituting “higher culture” for “lower culture.”)
In any case, the relationship of advanced technology to culture requires a much more careful analysis than the technology/culture relationships or previous eras. Things change so quickly nowadays that the new grows old in mere months. The real challenge presented to culture, then, may well be less one of technological content than of the rate of change.
Excerpt from Suburban Nation: http://architecture.about.com/od/communitydesign/a/suburban.htm
Complete text of Asimov’s I, Robot: http://cdn.preterhuman.net/texts/literature/books_by_author/A/Asimov,%20Isaac%20-%20I,%20Robot.pdf
Postman’s “Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change“: http://www.cs.ucdavis.edu/~rogaway/classes/188/materials/postman.pdf
Topic Three: Can Technological Conditioning Redefine Human Nature?
The subliminal fear of being made over into a machine-like being seems to run very deep in the modern human psyche. “Zombie” movies may perhaps reflect this anxiety. We know that we have created computer and robots, yet we also realize that they are becoming increasingly smarter than we are in certain ways. Could they ever take us—their creators—over and mold our nature to suit theirs?
Such angst may seem rather silly if we stop to consider how much conditioning we are submitted to routinely by our various cultures. We are bred (or brainwashed, as some might say) to find certain food tasty and certain food repellent. Our culture rears us to love some kinds of music and shudder at other kinds, to view one style of dress as decent and another as shameful, to regard laughing and crying at specified times as either required or forbidden, and so on. Since our cultural traditions already program us to such an extent, why all the worry about advanced technology—which is at least designed around rational principles—taking over these lessons in manners?
It must be said, on the other hand, that we apply the notion of cultural conditioning very unevenly, and even contradictorily. We might say of a hardened murderer who killed his first unarmed victims when he was a tender nine years old, “Well, look at the surroundings he grew up in. He was never taught any better.” We do not mean by this that the murderer’s bloody deeds are morally neutral because he was raised in a different kind of culture. On the contrary, we are trying to explain to ourselves how one man can do so much evil—for we do not hesitate (hopefully) to agree that murder is wicked. We accept, that is, the existence in all sane human beings of a basic moral knowledge. Legally, we say that a sane person knows the difference between right and wrong. The legal definition makes no allowances for what culture a malefactor comes from, though the judge may weigh such extenuating circumstances before passing sentence. In other words, we implicitly expect culture to uphold the knowledge of right and wrong that inheres in human nature, and we see cultures that do not teach good lessons—or even, perversely, teach very bad lessons—as working against something essential in our species. Cultures indeed condition: but another, more fundamental programming precedes their teachings. If a person is a product of his or her culture to some extent, all cultures are supposed to be a product of human nature to a great extent.
Now, whatever conditioning is visited upon us by our technology can hardly be thought to grow from centuries of literature, philosophy, and legislation. Advanced technology is by definition a very recent arrival on the scene, and its gears are not designed nor its circuitry wired with a view to observing accepted moral principles. Technological creations are machines that do specific jobs quickly, safely, efficiently, and inexpensively. Ethicists are not consulted when an autopilot system or a no-skid tire or an infrared telescope is constructed.
What if, then, our ever more dense and invasive envelope of machines is forcing us to act and think in ways that nobody has foreseen? What if our conditioning is a wholly unintended by-product of living well fed, well connected, well medicated, well guarded, well defended, well conveyed, and well amused? Sometimes it seems as though no action at all is demanded of us by our “ancillasphere”—our vast ring of artificially intelligent maidservants. We command, and they work. Could not that arrangement, all by itself, conceal an insidious kind of servitude where the machine is eventually our master? If we grow so lazy that we do virtually nothing for ourselves—that we cannot even think exactly about what we want, so that our machines begin giving commands to themselves on our behalf—then do we remain in power, or have we become powerless?
The first two contributors to this section have such concerns about communications technology, especially. Nicholas Carr somewhat facetiously asks if Google is making us stupid. He would not likely contend that surfing the Web reduces our IQ (though that might be the basis of an interesting research project); what he suspects, rather, is that we acquire the habits of people less bright than we really are by being lured into instantaneous see-want-click reactions. One imagines a chimp in a lab experiment having to figure out the right button to punch for a banana. Where are the pauses for reflection—not just reflection upon how the process in front of us works, but also upon why we want what we do and whether it’s entirely a good thing? When we read books, we had those moments frequently when we would lay the book down and look off into space. Now we are so absorbed in our screens that we must remind ourselves to blink lest we suffer eye strain.
Sven Birkerts has been pondering such issues since the advent of the Internet. His misgivings do not differ from Carr’s, but are somewhat more subtle and far-reaching. Both commentators place the technology of communication—and particularly reading and writing—in the forefront of their cultural analysis because these functions are most closely related to how we think. Thoughts need not have words to go with them: a painter or a musician could tell us that much. If they are pursued far enough to produce exact ideas capable of being objectively passed along to others, though, they must most certainly clothe themselves in verbal expressions. As the very technology we use to express ourselves makes us more enamored of speed and ease than of precision, we will eventually start to think faster and “easier” (i.e., more shoddily). Then we will start accepting whatever boilerplate set of clichés the word-processer offers us, and the ideas we traffic in will grow accordingly stale and routine. Our computers are already half-writing emails for us, as when an iPad “corrects” our spelling—sometimes outlandishly—with words that it deems to be nearest to our misspellings (or to our rare words that it fails to recognize). Will we soon simply press on an icon, and the computer will write the whole message for us, beginning to end?
Ray Kurzweil seems to have no worries about computers taking over. If they are smarter than we are, how can they produce duller ideas? Kurzweil embraces with enthusiasm the near-certain prospect (as he sees it) of humans fusing with robots. They/we will live far longer, be free of diseases, have wondrous physical abilities, solve complex problems in an instant, and so forth: heaven on earth. Because Kurzweil’s essays are not widely available on the Internet, and because those that are tend to make for very dense reading, the selection offered here is a rather skeptical assessment authored by Mark Dice. Notice that neither Kurzweil nor Dice questions the ability of technology to transform human behavior. On the contrary, that ability is the source of the former’s optimism and the latter’s pessimism.
Let us make one final point very clearly, however, that remains largely assumed or implied in most writing on this subject. Transforming human behavior does not necessarily amount to transforming human nature. Our machines may condition us to do things without overt resistance, but something deep inside us may continue to grumble, or simply to brood and evade “mechanistic happiness.” Our machines may make us act like machines… but will they ever make us think and feel like machines (which may be the same thing as asking if they will make us stop feeling)? If they do, then they will indeed have altered human nature.
Nicholas Carr, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/306868/
Sven Birkerts, “Resisting the Kindle”: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/03/resisting-the-kindle/307345/
Excerpt from Mark Dice on Kurzweil: http://www.markdice.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=132:an-analysis-of-ray-kurzweils-predictions&catid=66:articles-by-mark-dice&Itemid=89
Topic Four: Can We Deliberately Build a Future through Technology, or Will Technology Unpredictably Build Our Future?
Most of us are not Amish and do not have the option of living an eighteenth-century lifestyle. Even if we wanted to, we probably couldn’t turn the clock back to a significant degree. We could have the TV cable disconnected and throw away our cell phone. The city wouldn’t let us dig a well or build an outhouse, however, and our job would likely be a bit too far away to reach by walking. The Japanese, who produced the world’s most sophisticated firearms at about the time of Queen Elizabeth, decided to collect and melt all of this state-of-the-art weaponry down in the following century: the emperor and the aristocracy were distressed that death by remotely fired projectile was undermining the samurai code of honor. In very few other cases, though, has a society willfully determined to annihilate its advanced technology due to a sense of having strayed down the wrong path. It’s almost impossible to do. In most instances, personal and (especially) national, the high-tech genie doesn’t go back into the bottle once you let him out.
This condition has inspired one of the most dazzlingly self-contradictory arguments at the basis of modern progress. Whenever the latest technology comes down the pike and encounters a modest resistance, the holdouts and skeptics are treated infallibly to two kinds of claim. The first, predictably, is that the new product will work wonders—it will change lives only for the better, and in ways that we can scarcely imagine from our present dark pit. This is almost a religious appeal to faith: we must believe that we may see. Then comes the contradiction. We might as well accept the change, even if we can’t shed our reservations, because “it’s coming whether we like it or not!” Those who do not fall in with the parade and march happily will be trampled down.
Of course, this isn’t really a choice (or it is Hobson’s Choice, to coin an English proverb). Progress, for a human being, surely implies greater freedom. We pity our ancestors who lived in virtual or literal servitude, and we thank our god or our lucky stars that we are free to go where we want, say what we want, and work as we want. We proudly, and rightly, call that progress. Yet if the progressive machines sired by our innovative genius have such a deterministic power over our future that we can only hang on or be crushed as they pull us along, what are we but high-tech slaves? Therein lies the “progress” argument’s essential contradiction. Slavery cannot be progress. Have we really lost, then—and so soon—the ability to say “no” to the latest invention and to insist that our technology follow another route?
If this is so, then we cannot be said to plan our own future. It is our technology, rather, which will work out our future in some fashion as yet unforeseeable to us as it evolves with an almost mystical will power. Ray Kurzweil and Bill Joy were conceding the nullity of human free will in their famous exchange about the inevitability of robotic takeover. Certainly robots haven’t taken over much of anything at this writing. They don’t even chauffeur our cars yet (though they mostly build them and store their spare parts in warehouses). So why, at this seemingly early hour, must we already declare that the robot has won game, set, and match?
Because (say the technicians) the genie can’t be returned to his bottle. The time-bomb is ticking, and its case is impenetrable. The virus is incubating, and no antidote exists.
The readings below are only two, but they will be complemented by several videos, hopefully. The first selection is an excerpt from Orwell’s classic about a future “dystopia,” Nineteen Eighty-Four. The technological presence in this grim look into the crystal ball (1984 was still half a century away when the novel was first published) is far more understated than it is, for instance, in Huxley’s equally brilliant Brave New World. In fact, the excerpt is in many ways better suited for the previous unit on technology’s ability to alter human nature—for that it exactly what the diabolical O’Brien seeks to do with Winston, forcing him (through drugs and electro-shock) even to accept that two plus two equal five. When we couple Orwell’s book with the television serial The Prisoner, however (as is the plan), we can see that these very similar worlds are fueled by surveillance technology. The ability to monitor people closely—even to pry into their thoughts and dreams—may well feed the desire to control those thoughts and dreams. In other words, perhaps the project of altering human nature was implied all along in the growing technical capacity to make humans dance like puppets on strings.
For the one message that seems to be bound up in all the grand high-tech visions of the future that I have heard is “micromanagement.” Computers, especially, will be able to keep track of immense amounts of minute detail; and, naturally, they will “talk” to each other in a connected system so that their inconceivable volume of data may be put to some use. We see this happening right now with surveillance technology that has run so far out of control that no human seems to know exactly whom it is monitoring and for what reason. Yet the phrase “out of control” applies only to the human perspective; from the machine’s, such operations are hyper-centralized and extremely—even incredibly—well ordered. That, in a nutshell, is the threat.
As I try to explain in my own final piece about space travel, every demonstrable fact about technology suggests that it is indeed drawing us into a more monitored, robotic, hive-like existence as we peer into the possible colonization of planets. Hollywood likes to feed us with images that revive something of the Wild West and “rugged individualism” in our impending galactic adventures… but the determinism implicit in our machines has other ideas. We should be keenly aware of this before we embrace Buzz Lightyear’s “lift-off to adventure” as anything more than the watchword of a battery-operated toy.
For I believe in the existence of free will—I believe that we yet have the power to direct our technology. First, however, we must fall somewhat out of love with it and renew our awareness of who we really are and what we really need.
Text of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: http://msxnet.org/orwell/print/1984.pdf
Text of Huxley’s Brave New World: http://www.huxley.net/bnw/
The Prisoner: complete episodes on YouTube