Blog

I comment here on the editorial with the selfsame title that appeared in The New York Times today. But it is shot through with that modern, twenty-first century iteration of myopia; this editorial was written as it were from the inside. The editorial board of The New York Times is too close to the problem. As such, statements contained in this editorial such as “Big Tech is slowly making its products safer for society” can be conveyed as if there was some overarching truth to them. Forgive me if I think such efforts are akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Look at the bigger picture. This bigger picture is alluded to in the editorial in such statements as “But the viral spread of the Christchurch shooting video shows the limits of the content moderation machine in the face of technologies that have been designed to be attention traps.” I don’t see redesign of the attention traps on the horizon, do you? “It must be a priority to redesign technology to respect the common good, instead of ignoring it.” This is a mere platitude. And then there is the perplexing downside to increased regulation: “More moderation comes with heavy risks, of course. Decisions about the limits of free speech would shift to companies whose priorities are driven by shareholders.” The technological imperative cuts off all avenues of escape. Either way, the repressive structures inherent in the technology and in the ideology which authorizes this technology will carry the day.

The true nature of the technological imperative is here underscored: It follows its own logic and it is a logic of nihilism. All movement within the great internet machine is dead movement. We are confronted here with the inherent nihilistc bias of the Scientific Spirit–which lacks the ability to determine value on the human scale. For the pure knowledge drive, the underlying force propelling the scientific spirit is intrinsically unselective. It does not distinguish between the great and the small and is as a result incapable of providing any unifying mastery. The only criterion it recognizes is that of certainty, to which all other considerations–value for human life included–are irrelevant.

One is reminded at this juncture of Nietzsche’s famous opening to the Genealogy of Morals. “We knowers are unknown to ourselves, and for a good reason: how can we ever hope to find what we have never looked for? There is a sound adage that runs: ‘Where a man’s treasure lies, there lies his heart.’ Our treasure lies in the beehives of our knowledge. We are perpetually on our way thither, being by nature winged insects and honey gatherers of the mind. The only thing that lies close to our heart is the desire to bring something home to the hive. As for the rest of life–so-called ‘experience’– who among us is serious enough for that? Or has time enough? When it comes to such matters, our heart is simply not in it–we don’t even lend our ear. Rather, as a man divinely abstracted and self-absorbed into whose ears the bell has just drummed the twelve strokes of noon will suddenly awake with a start and ask himself what hour has actually struck, we sometimes rub our ears after the event and ask ourselves, astonished and at a loss, ‘What have we really experienced?’–or rather, ‘Who are we, really?’ And we recount the twelve tremulous strokes of our experience, our life, our being, but unfortunately count wrong. The sad truth is that we remain necessarily strangers to ourselves, we don’t understand our own substance, we must mistake ourselves; the axiom, ‘Each man is farthest from himself’, will hold for us to all eternity. Of ourselves we are not ‘knowers’…”

It’s easy to get confused about what’s happening all around us as technology advances so rapidly. If one tries to read Heidegger’s Question Concerning Technology , for example, one may not understand everything that is contained there, with its many conceptual twists and turns and heavy peppering of neologisms. But this is not the case with this presentation, “Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change”.

Idea One is technology as Faustian bargain. This is easy to grasp, but as Postman avers, it’s really quite surprising how many people treat the advanced technologies as unmixed blessings. “What will a new technology do?” becomes counterposed to “What will a new technology un do?” Postman brings our attention to the cost-benefit analysis .

Then he moves to idea number two, which is that benefits brought about by the new technolgies are unequally distributed. Who benefits? In the case of the computer, the obvious recipients of benefits are the large corporations. The PC revolution of the 1970s made it seem for a time that the private individual could share in this boon which up till that time seemed to be the sole province of large-scale industry. The World at One’s Fingertips for Everyman and Everywoman. But even in 1998, when Postman delivered this lecture, he realized the downsides: “But to what extent has computer technology been an advantage to the masses of people? To steel workers, vegetable store owners, automobile mechanics, musicians…[t]hese people have had their private matters made more accessible to powerful institutions. The are more easily tracked and controlled; they are subjected to more examinations, and are increasingly mystified by the decisions made about them. They are more than ever reduced to numerical objects…[t]hese people are losers in the great computer revolution, the winners, which include among others computer companies, multinational corporations and the nation-state, will, of course, encourage the losers to be enthusiastic about computer technology. That is the way of winners, and so in the beginning they told the losers that with personal computers the average person can balance a checkbook more neatly, keep better track of recipes, and make more logical shopping lists. Then they told them that computers will make it possible to vote at home, shop at home, get all the entertainment they wish at home, and thus make community life unnecessary.”

The third idea is perhaps Postman’s most interesting contribution. Embedded in every technology there is a powerful idea. To a man with a computer, everything looks like information. One is reminded of the old adage that information drives knowledge out of circulation. And anyway, it’s all up in the cloud, why do I have to keep any of this stuff, trivial or profound, in my own brain? “Every technology has a philosophy which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards.” In short, it encourages, nay, legislates, the kind of Weltanschauung which is appropriate to an authoritarian technocracy . And this Weltanschauung is Positivism. That which cannot be measured and observed and replicated experimentally does not count as knowledge, or even as valuable. And what then of the inner person?

The fourth idea is that technological change is not additive, it is what Postman calls ecological . It changes the basic fabric of the culture. “In the year 1500, after the printing press was invented, you did not have the old Europe plus the printing press. You had a different Europe.” Technological innovation pays no heed to its potential impact on the culture it is introduced into. This idea is also found in technological skeptics such as Jacques Ellul. Politics does not drive technology, culture does not drive technology, but the other way around. It is a tsunami which orders whatever it can encompass to its specifications. This includes the human heart, if it be docile enough to fail to find the will to preserve itself. “Who, we may ask, has had the greatest impact on American education in this century? If you are thinking of John Dewey or any other education philosopher, I must say you are quite wrong. The greatest impact has been made by quiet men in grey suits in a suburb of New York City called Princeton, New Jersey. There, they developed and promoted the technology known as the standardized test, such as IQ tests, the SATs and the GREs. Their tests redefined what we mean by learning, and have resulted in our reorganizing the curriculum to accommodate the tests.”

We come to the fifth idea, that at a certain point in their penetration into the collective psyche, successful technologics become mythic . As a myth, it becomes enmeshed into the basic order of things, from the point of view of the user. Postman cites an example from his pedagogical experience. He asked his students if they knew when the alphabet was invented. The question “astonished them. It was as if I asked them when clouds and trees were invented.” Postman died before the advent of the so-called smartphone. But he anticipated the attitude people have about this technology. Not so much that people can’t believe it was never there, but that it’s been there for some period of time which makes it seem like it has an enduring presence, as if it were around for a hundred years. People seem to forget that it has only been 12 short years since the introduction of the smartphone into Western society. “What I am saying is that our enthusiasm can turn into a form of idolatry and our belief in its benificence can be a false absolute.” Witness the widespread disbelief in these last years at the revelations of Edward Snowden and the sudden dawning on the psyche of the somnambulist that “Silicon Valley is Not Your Friend”, as even many principal players in the technological revolution, Tristan Harris and his confreres, began to warn of the excesses inherent in the smartphone and the internet. But this state of affairs was apparent 80 years ago with the introduction of television, if not before. I have written in this blog of Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, which was published in 1872, in which he warned of the rise of the potentially conscious machine. One hundred and forty-seven years ago.

Then Postman sums up his short talk with a clarity that is apparent throughout his presentation. First idea: “The greater the technology, the greater the price.” Second idea: “There are always winners and losers.” Third idea: “There is embedded in every great technology an epistemological, political or social prejudice.” Fourth, “Technology is ecological, which means, it changes everything.” And fifth, “Technology tends to become mythic, and therefore tends to control more of our lives than is good for us.” He closes with that same idea that Herbert Marcuse expresses in his seminal essay “Some Social Implications of Modern Technology”, written 57 years before Postman’s talk: “We have been willing to shape our lives to fit the requirements of technology, not the requirements of culture. This is a form of stupidity.”

I consider today an article that appeared in the New York Times on Jan 25. One whole day ago. It is by Cal Newport, “a computer scientist and author”. He claims that “Steve Jobs would not approve” of the way we use the iPhone in 2019, contrasting the typical user of this moment in time with that of the user of 12 years ago. This, after all, was the purple dawn of the smartphone in the West. (I guess they had them in Korea and Japan a few years before that.) This is not a coincidence, as it’s apparent to anyone who looks at the laws of social dynamics that such a device is a perfect fit for the thoroughly collectivist cultures in the Far East.

Newport claims that Jobs never saw what was coming. Newport relates that in a speech Jobs gave introducing the iPhone, he characterized it as “the best iPod we’ve ever made.” Then Newport goes on to say that “he doesn’t dedicate any significant time to discussing the phone’s internet connectivity features until more than 30 minutes into the address.” Oh, that proves it. because he delayed speaking of the internet connectivity aspect of the iPhone until the metaphorical page 12 of Section One of the New York Times daily (“buried in the back pages”), that must mean that he had no idea that internet connectivity would be a significant aspect of the iPhone’s operation. Could it not be instead that he wished to downplay this aspect of its performance?

But this is all from a man who could safely be said to occupy a place on the “ Natürwissenschaft-Geisteswissenschaft spectrum” (my term) that favors the former and disfavors the latter. For those unfamiliar with this concept, it refers to the age-old quarrel between the traditional spirit of science and that of poetry. Wilhelm Dilthey recharacterized it in the 19th century as the quarrel between science and the humanities in general. Geisteswissenschaft , humanities, Natürwissenschaft , hard science. In undertaking a course of higher education, one typically chooses one path or the other. It’s possible for one individual to take hard science courses and English literature courses, and many do. But the predominant trajectory will involve one category or the other. How many humanities courses did Mark Zuckerberg take? Of course it all comes down to money. Where is the money in majoring in English literature? And then ask the question, how much money has B. J. Fogg made in the last 12 years? (See the link to the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab on this site for more information on B. J. Fogg and his Behavioral Model).

So Newport comes at the question from the perspective of Natürwissenschaft , certainly. I argue that this creates a blind spot concerning the whole question of technology, masking off the wider implications of understanding the trajectory of the phenomenon in question. Of course this also works in the other direction. Critique must be unsparing as regards the whole Natürwissenschft-Geisteswissenschaft question. But we are here concerned with the spectre of rampant technology. Even Newport concedes that the average person is no longer the master of this technology but that the reverse has occurred. It seems to me that the only effective antidiote would be to attempt to redress the balance which is so far in favor of Natürwissenschaft that the opposite tendency is all but ignored.

My overall reaction to this article by Mr. Newport is one of incredulity: How could he not understand that the smartphone would develop in any other way than the way it did? “Mr. Jobs seemed to understand the iPhone as something that would help us with a small number of activities–listening to music, placing calls, generating directions. He didn’t seek to radically change the rhythm of users’ daily lives…[p]ractically speaking, to be a minimalist smartphone user means that you deploy this device for a small number of features that do things you value (and that the phone does particularly well), and then outside of these activities, put it away.” The ludicrously unrealistic tenor of these remarks beggars belief. Basic concepts in psychology illustrate that this is pie-in-the sky thinking about the basic tendencies of a psychic organism that is contantly being molded into less and less autonomous configurations. We are speaking here ultimately about compliant efficiency as a religious phenomenon. The dictates of the operation of the apparatus determines our morality. We”should” repond to the push notification immedately because the device makes it possible by redefining reality. The red dot on the incoming email means urgency. One can ignore it. One can turn it to greyscale. But the dictates of the apparatus insist that it is otherwise.

Newport goes on the make pathetically weak recommendations to combat the smartphone’s march to ubiquity in the psyche of the captured user. “[I]f your work doesn’t absolutely demand that that you be accessible by email when away from your desk, delete the Gmail app or disconnect the built-in email client from your office servers. It’s occasionally convenient to check in when out and about, but this occasional convenience almost always comes at the cost of developing a compulsive urge to monitor your messages constantly (emphasis mine–dw)”. Now, suddenly, Newport understands what psychic forces are in play here. This phenomenon, call it FOMO or operant conditioning or whatever, which is far stronger than most people realized before 2007 in the minds of those who are most susceptible to it (which is 90% of the population it seems), necessitates one solution and one solution only, if the desired outcome is some moderate measure of autonomy in this increasingly mechanized social environment–ditching the smartphone entirely.