(Roughly) Daily

“If we are to prevent megatechnics from further controlling and deforming every aspect of human culture, we shall be able to do so only with the aid of a radically different model derived directly, not from machines, but from living organisms and organic complexes (ecosystems)”*…

In a riff on Lewis Mumford, the redoubtable L. M. Sacasas addresses the unraveling of modernity…

The myth of the machine underlies a set of three related and interlocking presumptions which characterized modernity: objectivity, impartiality, and neutrality. More specifically, the presumptions that we could have objectively secured knowledge, impartial political and legal institutions, and technologies that were essentially neutral tools but which were ordinarily beneficent. The last of these appears to stand somewhat apart from the first two in that it refers to material culture rather than to what might be taken as more abstract intellectual or moral stances. In truth, however, they are closely related. The more abstract intellectual and institutional pursuits were always sustained by a material infrastructure, and, more importantly, the machine supplied a master template for the organization of human affairs.

Just as the modern story began with the quest for objectively secured knowledge, this ideal may have been the first to lose its implicit plausibility. Since the late 19th century onward, philosophers, physicists, sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and historians have, among others, proposed a more complex picture that emphasized the subjective, limited, contingent, situated, and even irrational dimensions of how humans come to know the world. The ideal of objectively secured knowledge became increasingly questionable throughout the 20th century. Some of these trends get folded under the label “postmodernism,” but I found the term unhelpful at best a decade ago—now find it altogether useless.

We can similarly trace a growing disillusionment with the ostensible impartiality of modern institutions. This takes at least two forms. On the one hand, we might consider the frustrating and demoralizing character of modern bureaucracies, which we can describe as rule-based machines designed to outsource judgement and enhance efficiency. On the other, we can note the heightened awareness of the actual failures of modern institutions to live up to the ideals of impartiality, which has been, in part, a function of the digital information ecosystem.

But while faith in the possibility of objectively secured knowledge and impartial institutions faltered, the myth of the machine persisted in the presumption that technology itself was fundamentally neutral. Until very recently, that is. Or so it seems. And my thesis (always for disputation) is that the collapse of this last manifestation of the myth brings the whole house down. This in part because of how much work the presumption of technological neutrality was doing all along to hold American society together. (International readers: as always read with a view to your own setting. I suspect there are some areas of broad overlap and other instances when my analysis won’t travel well). Already by the late 19th century, progress had become synonymous with technological advancements, as Leo Marx argued. If social, political, or moral progress stalled, then at least the advance of technology could be counted on…

But over the last several years, the plausibility of this last and also archetypal manifestation of the myth of the machine has also waned. Not altogether, to be sure, but in important and influential segments of society and throughout a wide cross-section of society, too. One can perhaps see the shift most clearly in the public discourse about social media and smart phones, but this may be a symptom of a larger disillusionment with technology. And not only technological artifacts and systems, but also with the technocratic ethos and the public role of expertise.

If the myth of the machine in these three manifestations, was, in fact, a critical element of the culture of modernity, underpinning its aspirations, then when each in turn becomes increasingly implausible the modern world order comes apart. I’d say that this is more or less where we’re at. You could usefully analyze any number of cultural fault lines through this lens. The center, which may not in fact hold, is where you find those who still operate as if the presumptions of objectivity, impartiality, and neutrality still compelled broad cultural assent, and they are now assailed from both the left and the right by those who have grown suspicious or altogether scornful of such presumptions. Indeed, the left/right distinction may be less helpful than the distinction between those who uphold some combination of the values of objectivity, impartiality, and neutrality and those who no longer find them compelling or desirable.

What happens when the systems and strategies deployed to channel often violent clashes within a population deeply, possibly intractably divided about substantive moral goods and now even about what Arendt characterized as the publicly accessible facts upon which competing opinions could be grounded—what happens when these systems and strategies fail?

It is possible to argue that they failed long ago, but the failure was veiled by an unevenly distributed wave of material abundance. Citizens became consumers and, by and large, made peace with the exchange. After all, if the machinery of government could run of its own accord, what was their left to do but enjoy the fruits of prosperity. But what if abundance was an unsustainable solution, either because it taxed the earth at too high a rate or because it was purchased at the cost of other values such as rootedness, meaningful work and involvement in civic life, abiding friendships, personal autonomy, and participation in rich communities of mutual care and support? Perhaps in the framing of that question, I’ve tipped my hand about what might be the path forward.

At the heart of technological modernity there was the desire—sometimes veiled, often explicit—to overcome the human condition. The myth of the machine concealed an anti-human logic: if the problem is the failure of the human to conform to the pattern of the machine, then bend the human to the shape of the machine or eliminate the human altogether. The slogan of the one of the high-modernist world’s fairs of the 1930s comes to mind: “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms.” What is now being discovered in some quarters, however, is that the human is never quite eliminated, only diminished…

Eminently worth reading in full: “The Myth of the Machine, ” from @LMSacasas.

For a deep dive into similar waters, see John Ralston Saul‘s (@JohnRalstonSaul) Voltaire’s Bastards.

[Image above: source]

* Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine


As we rethink rudiments, we might recall that it was on this date in 1919 that Arthur Eddington confirmed Einstein’s light-bending prediction– a part of The Theory of General Relativity– using photos of a solar eclipse. Eddington’s paper the following year was the “debut” of Einstein’s theoretical work in most of the English-speaking world (and occasioned an urban legend: when a reporter supposedly suggested that “only three people understand relativity,” Eddington was supposed to have jokingly replied “Oh, who’s the third?”)

One of Eddington’s photographs of the total solar eclipse of 29 May 1919, presented in his 1920 paper announcing its success, confirming Einstein’s theory that light “bends”
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