The Convivial Society: Vol. 1, No. 1

“A convivial society should be designed to allow all its members the most autonomous action by means of tools least controlled by others. People feel joy, as opposed to mere pleasure, to the extent that their activities are creative; while the growth of tools beyond a certain point increases regimentation, dependence, exploitation, and impotence.”
— Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality (1973)

In the last post on the now defunct blog, I proposed nine theses regarding the culture of digital media, an absurd and preposterous gesture and the sort of thing one can more or less get away with in a blog. Of course, like so much else that went on there, I offered them up as provocations to further thought or as theses for disputation. In one of these, I suggested that just as oral culture privileges honor, digital culture privileges shamelessness.

That was a relatively strong claim, and I hesitated before publishing the post, but, ultimately, decided to let it stand. What I had in mind was actually something I went on to feel rather acutely of late. It was, simply put, the feeling that, to thrive or even exist in the culture of digital media, one has to rather unrelentingly offer up more and more of oneself in ways that make one, initially at least, more than a little uneasy.

In part, I’d been feeling this way because, as most of you know, I’ve been hawking my wares recently. First, a collection of my writing over ten years on the blog (yes, of course, I’m going to share a link again) and then the paid subscription option on this here newsletter. I’m not sure I can convey to you how uneasy I am with all of that, but I convinced myself to do it and to try to do it as graciously as I could manage. To my mind, I succeeded to the degree that I could act shamelessly.

But it’s not just a matter of selling goods. I remember the dis-ease with which I composed and then published my first blog post, the trepidation with which I uploaded a picture to Facebook circa 2006, the meticulous care with which I composed my first few tweets. My experience has been one of growing gradually more comfortable with publicizing myself, by which I simply mean making public aspects of myself that I would have ordinarily considered private or of little to no interest to others. Not all of this amounted to overcoming shame, precisely, although, of course, that depends to how exactly we define shame. It is not exactly that I thought I was doing something wrong about which I should feel ashamed, but rather that there was something rather untoward about the whole thing.

(Of course, some of this is a matter of age, too, and personality also. Having come of age in an analog age, my mores and manners were shaped in an age when the divide between public and private was decidedly sharper. Born into the present milieu, one might not experience any of my initial reservations at all.)

Thus, it seemed to me that if we asked what it took to thrive in the current configuration of digital culture, the answer would inevitably involve a measure of shamelessness. And, if that word still seems unnecessarily pejorative, thinking about it in as detached a manner possible, I'd put it this way: we're now accustomed to sharing things/moments/images about ourselves that others used to be ashamed of sharing. So, we've learned to have less shame about such things. One can decided if that's bad or not.

In fact, that is exactly how I put it in a twitter exchange that ensued after I shared a link to recent post by Nicholas Carr that just happened to open with the following claim:

“If Instagram showed us what a world without art looks like, TikTok shows us what a world without shame looks like. The old virtues of restraint — prudence, discretion, tact — are gone. There is only one virtue: to be seen. In TikTok’s world, which more and more is our world, shamelessness has lost its negative connotations and become an asset.”

“The rise of TikTok heralds something bigger, though,” Carr went on to argue, “a reconfiguration of media. As mass media defined the twentieth century, so the twenty-first will be defined by infinite media.”

“Infinite media,” Carr then observed,

“requires endlessness on two fronts: supply and demand. Shamelessness, in this context, is best understood as a supply-side resource, a means of production. To manufacture the unlimited supply of content that an app like TikTok needs, the total productive capacity of the masses needs to be mobilized. That requires not just the ready availability of media-production tools (the smartphone’s camera and microphone and its editing software) and the existence of a universal broadcast network (the internet), but also a culture that encourages and celebrates self-exposure and self-promotion. Vanity must go unchecked by modesty.

Needless, to say, I felt (shamelessly) validated upon reading Carr’s post. It seems unquestionably the case that the content machine is like a blob that eats up more and more of reality. As with so much of the culture of digital media, it demands the erasure of certain boundaries and markers. In the culture of digital media, the boundaries between home and work blur so that we might be ever more available as a source of labor. In the culture of digital media, the boundaries between the home and the commercial sphere blur so that we might be ever more available as a source of consumption. In the culture of digital media, the boundaries between public and private blur so that we might be ever more available as a source of data and content.

I would add to Carr’s analysis that endlessness requires shamelessness on the demand side of the ledger as well. It’s not just that the suppliers of infinite media must be shameless in mining more and more of their experience, offering up more and more of themselves to the content machine. It is also the case that we must be shameless in our consumption as well. We must not turn away; we must be comfortable voyeurs, shameless connoisseurs of the lives of others.

As I explained in my twitter exchange on this subject, what most troubles me is not necessarily the alacrity with which we might erode the public/private distinction for ourselves, it is, rather, the degree to which we are willing to blur that line for others.

Martin Heidegger famously claimed that the manner in which technology discloses the world to us is as standing-reserve, that is as raw materials for our projects of technological mastery. Ordinarily, we tend to think that Heidegger had nature in view. The essence of technology is such that we do not see the forest or the river as it is for-itself, but rather we see each only as potential resources for construction materials or energy production.

Increasingly, it seems to me that we are coming to see not only the natural world but the social world as standing-reserve. We do not, in other words, see other human beings as persons to be respected, even their folly and frailty, perhaps especially in their folly and frailty. We see them resources for the content mill. I am thinking here, of course, of the countless ways we seem prepared to surreptitiously capture the lives of others and share them for laughs, for likes, for retweets, shares, and reactions. And again, as I see it, it is not just that someone out there is prepared to publish the humiliation of others, it is that too many of us are ready to watch.

Byung-Chul Han opens his book In the Swarm with the following observations:

Given the erosion of the distinction between private and public life, neither now retains its integrity and we are in danger of losing the goods and consolations that we might have been available to us in either.

But why bother with a discussion of this sort? Increasingly, it is the kind of the discussion that is bound to strike many as inadequate to our time, unduly concerned as it is with the action of individuals and actions that, frankly, given the scale and scope of our problems, are seemingly trivial. I feel the force of such objections.

At the same time, however, it also seems to me that especially given the scale and scope of our problems, it may be that we need to draw attention again to very basic and fundamental realities. That we must learn again what it means to take responsibility for the good of our neighbor. That we must rediscover our responsibility to tend the social commons that it may be reconstructed in such a way that human beings may flourish in it once again. For as human beings, we depend not only on nature, but on our second nature, the realm of culture; both require our care and our maintenance, both must be cultivated if they are to yield the fruit.

News and Resources

  • This is a short, insightful piece from Robinson Meyer about what the death of iTunes may tell us about our digital habits: “In 1940, the German critic Walter Benjamin wrote about an angel in a Paul Klee painting. The angel looked ‘as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. … The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.’ It is now clear, 80 years later, that the angel is looking at his phone.”

    The piece includes this parenthetical comment, which I’ll take a moment to draw to your attention should you, like me, be among the “old readers”: “(A note for older readers: More time separates us today from the debut of the first iPod than separated the first iPod from the debut of the first Macintosh computer.)”

  • “From Ethics Washing to Ethics Bashing A View on Tech Ethics from Within Moral Philosophy” (PDF): “Moral philosophy indeed can shed new light on human practices by adding needed perspective, explaining the relationship between technology and other worthy goals, situating technology within the human, the social, the political. It has become urgent to start considering technology ethics also from within and not only from outside of ethics.”

  • “Fairness in Machine Learning: Lessons from Political Philosophy” (PDF): “Philosophical accounts of discrimination and fairness prompt reflection on these more fundamental questions, and suggest avenues for further consideration of what might be relevant and why.”

  • “Don’t force a smile with your lips. Smile with your eyes.” Advice from one of a rising class of consultants in South Korea offering teaching clients how to navigate AI powered facial-recognition hiring tools. Never mind that there is scant evidence that such tools perform as promised (and ample evidence that they unjustly discriminate), it is enough that some people believe they do. "The trouble with modern theories of behaviorism,” Hannah Arendt famously observed, “is not that they are wrong but that they could become true, that they actually are the best possible conceptualization of certain obvious trends in modern society."

  • “anonymity as culture: treatise” by David Auerbach: “… before so much of our social and professional lives came to be conducted on the Web, social spaces of a different kind existed online. They were populated by people who, for whatever reason, found a sense of belonging in communities built around semi-anonymous, real-time, written discourse.” Insightful report on the culture of anonymous forums, focusing on four key aspects—velocity, irony, self-documentation, and elitism.

  • “For tech-weary Midwest farmers, 40-year-old tractors now a hot commodity”: “The other big draw of the older tractors is their lack of complex technology.”

  • Chris Gilliard on how surveillance technology creates different experiences of space for those surveilling and the surveilled: “Companies make a similar promise with surveillance and security technologies. The claim is that these technologies, integrated into our living spaces, will reduce the “frictions” of anxiety and fear, and increase a sense of safety. Yet rather than ease or eliminate friction, these technologies often increase feelings of unease, anxiety, and fear on the part of both the watcher and the watched. Inasmuch as those tensions (whether acknowledged or not) come from a fear of the other, more cameras, devices, tracking, alerts, and notifications will not deliver on their promises.”

    The dynamic Gilliard identifies in those closing sentences is worth more than a moment’s reflection. It recurs frequently in our experience of various kinds of technology, not only digital technology.

  • Chad Wellmon, who has played an integral role in reshaping humanities education at the University of Virginia over the last few years, offers a deeply informed historical perspective on the question of the humanities and the university: “Finance, football, and fraternities—not philosophy or physics—are the pillars of the modern American university. It’s been that way for more than a century …”


This is the opening page of The Unnamable Present by the Italian publisher and cultural critic Roberto Calasso. I’ve not gotten very far beyond it at this point, but this has stayed with me.

Jedediah Purdy on becoming a parent in an age of crisis.

“What does it mean to teach a child to live in a time of perennial crisis, always in the shadow of loss? I think about trying to teach him love and wonder first, before he inevitably learns fear. I would like him to be fascinated by a Manhattan red oak, a red-tailed hawk perched in its limbs, or a morel mushroom at its roots, before he thinks, This forest is going to die, with everything in it. When the thought of climate doom arrives, I hope it will arrive in a mind already prepared by curiosity and pleasure to know why this world is worth fighting to preserve.”

— Early last year, Jonathan Malesic visited a monastery in the New Mexico desert that in the 1990s operated a web design business. He came to see what he might learn from the monks about how to better order his relationship to work.

“Over several days of working and praying and eating with the monks, I realized that the ceaseless, obsessive American work ethic was one of those demons, certainly the one that haunted me, and most of the people I knew. We are a society almost totally under its power. We assess people’s value by their jobs and demean anyone who can’t work. We forego vacation time, anxious to prove that we’re indispensable. We drive ourselves to burnout. And we do all this even while artificial intelligence promises to take our jobs. The demon is chasing us over a cliff.”

The Conversation

I’ve re-thought and re-named the last section of the newsletter. Previously, the newsletter concluded with a section titled “Recently Published,” which told a bit about what was up to on that front, followed by a few more casual comments and a sign off. I’m combining those sections and calling it simply “The Conversation.”

This is were I do want to address you all a bit more casually, sometimes telling you what I’m up to as far as writing and speaking. But I also want this last section to be an invitation to enter into or expand some meaningful approximation of a conversation.

You are always free to reach out via email. I’ve been a bit better of late to get back to reader emails in a timely fashion, and I intend to continue to do so.

For those of you who are now generous supporters of this newsletter, you will note the ability to comment on this installment. And I do hope you’ll avail yourself of that feature. I’d be genuinely interested in your thoughts about any of what I’ve shared above. Along with me, you’ll be addressing a relatively small and thoughtful group. I’m eager to see this become a space for some valuable exchanges about technology, society, and the good life.

If you’ve not done so already, please know you have a standing invitation to join in.

And please do feel free to let others know about the newsletter as you see fit. No one has to pay a penny to sign up to receive the main offering.

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The Convivial Society in 2020

Happy new year, to all of you. Two days in, I trust all is going well so far.

So, what better time than the start of a new decade to re-think what you’re doing and venture out in some new, hopefully better direction?

I began writing about technology ten years ago, in 2009, and I did so mostly on a blog I called The Frailest Thing. In 2018, I began writing this newsletter somewhat sporadically, and then, in this last year, a bit more regularly. As the year waned, I thought about my writing—what I enjoyed about it, how it served my larger aims, what might be useful to others in it, what forms might best fit my situation.

Here’s what I concluded.

First, it was time to let the blog go.

Second, I wanted to invest myself in this newsletter and its audience, particularly by figuring out how to make this more of a “society” in practice.

Third, I wanted this newsletter to be part of my work, both in the sense that I worked at it and also in the sense that it became part of how supported my family.

That last part gave me pause, and I sweated how best to do that. I was helped in part by reading Tim Carmody’s piece from late 2017 about “unlocking the commons.”

“Unlocking the commons,” according to Carmody, means that “Fans support the person and the work. But it’s not a transaction, a fee for service. It’s a contribution that benefits everyone.” And, he adds,

“As a consumer, your first thought is to your own benefit. As a patron, it’s to the good of your beneficiary. Likewise, as an artisan supported by patronage, you tend to think more about what’s best for your patrons and audience than you do yourself.”

I was helped, too, by Robin Sloan’s counsel to have some idea of how long you want a project like a newsletter to last when you launch it. Think of it as a season on TV, Sloan wrote. They can be long or short, they can end and be followed by another or not.

So putting all of this together, here’s the plan.

I’m thinking of this coming year as a season of The Convivial Society (although, because I’m bookish, I’m calling it a volume). During 2020, I am committing to writing the newsletter twice-monthly, I’ll publish on the second and fourth Friday of the month. (Except for this month, in which I’ll publish on the third and fifth Friday.) This will be the heart of the project and it will remain freely available to all who have signed up and anyone who does in the future. I did not want to put this work behind a paywall. In this regard, nothing much will change. When the year is up, I’ll re-evaluate.

You have an option, though, to become a paying subscriber. Substack sets $5/month as a minimum. But I’ve set a year-long subscription at $45, which comes out to $3 and change a month. While I will be publishing some occasional posts to this group, the chief benefit will be the ability to join a society of readers thinking together about the challenge of contemporary technology. Subscribers are able to join discussions in connection with each installment and participate in stand-alone discussion threads.

You may be (understandably) wary of participating in online discussions, but what you, dear readers, may not know about yourselves is that you are a wonderfully eclectic and genuinely thoughtful group. I don’t know all of you, of course. But I do know that, probably owing to my own eccentric approach to things, you all have made your way here from a variety of settings and backgrounds. You include academics, journalists, policy wonks and public servants, artists, writers, engineers, computer scientists, programmers, and more. And, given the self-selecting nature of the audience of a newsletter that’s been around for a couple of years, you all tend to have one thing in common: you care about how technology is shaping contemporary life and you’re determined to think more deeply and responsibly about the challenges we are facing.

I can’t think of a better group to convene in order to take up the challenge of contemporary technology.

So, bottom line: Welcome to The Convivial Society, Volume 1. It will run through 2020, a year that is already off to a great start:

Do nothing more and you’ll get two installments a month throughout the year. They are what you’ve come to expect: an essay from me and an assortment of resources to help us both better understand our existing technological milieu and imagine a better way forward. Please feel free to continue reading along in this way.

Subscribe and you’ll be supporting work I trust you find valuable, work you think should exist, and you’ll be joining a group of readers who will spend the year thinking together about how to better order our relationship to technology.

I’m genuinely enthusiastic about the possibilities.



The Convivial Society, No. 27

“This world-wide crisis of world-wide institutions can lead to a new consciousness about the nature of tools and to majority action for their control. If tools are not controlled politically, they will be managed in a belated technocratic response to disaster. Freedom and dignity will continue to dissolve into an unprecedented enslavement of man to his tools."
— Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality (1973)

Welcome to a new iteration of The Convivial Society. This is the first installment published with Substack rather than Tiny Letter. So far so good on my end, I trust the same will be true on yours. The look is a bit different, but the content and format will remain the same.

One other bit of news before we dive in to our regular programming: earlier this month, after a ten year run, I announced the end of my blog, The Frailest Thing. I’m not sure I can fully articulate my reasons for doing so except to say that it was time. Thanks to those of you who read and commented and shared links over the years.

I’ve also put together an e-book that collects 100 posts from those ten years. The Frailest Thing: Ten Years of Thinking About the Meaning of Technology is now available at Gumroad for those interested. You’ll not be surprised to learn that I think it is a solid compilation of ten years work and that what’s in there holds up pretty well. I’ve offered it in three formats at no cost with an option for readers to pay what they will for it. I worry that may come off as weirdly passive-aggressive, but, honestly, you make the call. Don’t hesitate to download it even if you can’t pay a dime. If you can afford to pay a dime or more and you choose to do so, you have my thanks. Either way, if you pick up a copy, consider leaving a rating and also letting others know about it as you see fit. You are, as it were, my only PR team.

Ivan Illich, whose work has played an important role in shaping my own thinking about technology, was not one for measured critiques or timid incrementalism. He targeted not only the usual culprits in his critique of industrial society, he even went after institutions most of us assume to be the best of what the modern world has to offer: schools and the medical profession. Illich also challenged one of the key myths animating the development and adoption of modern technology: the myth of limitlessness. I call it a myth to suggest not simply that there is something untrue about it, but also to signal its cultural power. Our myths, whatever their status as truth claims, order our experience and sustain our values.

According to the terms of this myth, limits are generally understood to be constraints and impediments. Happiness, progress, and satisfaction always lie in disregarding or overcoming limits, be they physical, natural, cultural, or ethical. Conversely, any talk of abiding by or honoring our limits becomes taboo. This is especially the case when growth enters into the equation, alongside efficiency and speed, as the key coordinates on the grid of modern values.

Illich did not buy it. In Tools for Conviviality, for example, he wrote, “To formulate a theory about a future society both very modern and not dominated by industry, it will be necessary to recognize natural scales and limits.”

From where I stand, I can see that making the case for limits is both necessary and fraught with dangers. Who gets to decide what limits are appropriate and on what authority? How might they be enforced or otherwise achieve a measure of legitimacy? How might they be experienced, in Wendell Berry’s words, not as “confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning”? How do we keep from hampering the development of genuine goods or the unfolding of legitimate progress? These are, of course, largely political questions. As Illich put it, “we need procedures to ensure that controls over the tools of society are established and governed by political process rather than by decisions by experts.” And it is needless to say that our present political culture, taken as a whole, seems hardly up to the challenge.

It is also important, though, to understand how modern technology relates to the myth of limitlessness. In one respect, the myth grows out of our use of technology. At the same time, however, the myth has abetted the advance of technology. There is, in other words, a symbiotic, mutually reinforcing relationship between the two. I come to believe in the possibility of throwing off all limits because modern technology lends the proposition a measure of plausibility. Because I adhere to the myth, I have no qualms about adopting technologies that promise to erase the limits that bound me.

We will often discover, for example, that there are ideas, values, or assumptions embedded in our technologically mediated practices. In other words, smuggled within our practices are implicit ways of seeing or understanding the world. They are the sorts of assumptions that we might get at by asking the following question of ourselves: What would I need to believe in order to engage in this activity or practice?

We may find that in the long run we come to assent to ideas or values in large measure because they have already been implicit in what we have been doing. Our thinking is led along by our doing.

In this way, modern technology conveys an ideology of limitlessness by offering itself as a way of overcoming all manner of limits, chiefly those that arise out of our being situated in the world as embodied creatures. But cultural and moral boundaries also yield to modern technology. At every turn, we tend to choose the tools, devices, and techniques that allow us to act beyond or irrespective of the limitations of place and time that have historically conditioned the texture of human existence. At the far end of this tendency we encounter the transhumanist disdain for the human body, otherwise and unaffectionately designated our meat sacks.

For most of us, though, the temptations are more subtle and more banal, and their sources are economic as well as technological. We are offered seemingly mundane conveniences, which promise to liberate us from the constraints of time and place. They may allow us to communicate instantaneously at any time or place, to exercise our agency remotely, to set a timer by speaking a command, to shop at 2AM and have our purchases delivered before the sun sets again, but something is lost along the way. We begin to recognize that these limits, limits we may not even have thought to challenge or resent until a tool promised to overcome them for us might also have functioned as boundaries protecting and shielding us.

In the Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt wrote about how totalitarian regimes unmoored, destabilized, and atomized individuals, lifting them up out of the particularities and limits of their communities and traditions so that an ideological law might run through them. We might see something similar happening through the auspices of digital technology. We adopt tools and devices under the guise of convenience and liberation from temporal rhythms and spatial specificity, ostensibly for our benefit, but in reality for the sake of techno-economic forces that require our ubiquitous labor and consumption.

Freedom for freedom’s sake, freedom as limitlessness turns out to be the gateway to potential bondage. Insidiously, it is a form of bondage that we are in danger of choosing for ourselves unless we learn to reimagine freedom not as an end, but as the precondition for the pursuit of the good life, one which will likely involve the willful and possibly even joyful acceptance of certain limits and boundaries.

News and Resources

  • Gary Marcus on “the epidemic of AI misinformation”: “For the most part, both media and significant fraction of researchers are satisfied with a status quo in which there is a steady stream of results that are first over-hyped, then quietly forgotten.”

  • On DARPA’s research into human enhancement. The mission: “to ‘free the mind from the limitations of even healthy bodies.’ What the agency learns from healing makes way for enhancement. The mission is to make human beings something other than what we are, with powers beyond the ones we’re born with and beyond the ones we can organically attain.” “How can I liberate mankind from the limitations of the body?” one researcher asked. Frankly, a disturbing piece, even if the most extravagant initiatives never materialized.

  • Rob Horning applying the work of Mark Andrejevic on the logic of automation: “Automated production and consumption, in theory, form ‘a self-stimulating spiral,’ Andrejevic writes, powered in part by algorithmic recommendation systems that do our discovery and, essentially, our desiring for us, feeding us putatively novel content that mimics our taste profile while allowing us to experience ‘curiosity’ without the time or effort involved with being curious.”

  • This new title looks like an interesting read: The Connected Condition
    Romanticism and the Dream of Communication
    . Unfortunately, it is not cheap. Walter Ong also wrote about romanticism and media technology. I noticed that Ong is quoted on the first page of the book.

  • On a Latin dictionary in progress for 125 years and counting: “the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae (T.L.L.) has seen the fall of an empire, two world wars and the division and reunification of Germany. In the meantime, they are up to the letter R.”

  • On medieval bestiaries.

  • Take a trip to the ocean floor, just scroll down. Nicely done.

  • Dating to more than 44,000 years ago, this mythical scene may be the oldest known instance of human visual storytelling. A reminder, too, that art, myth, religion, and techne were once a unified field of human experience.

    Sulawesi hunting scene.


— Being in the World: A 2010 film based on Heidegger’s philosophy and “inspired by Hubert Dreyfus.” Charles Taylor features prominently in the film, and Albert Borgmann also appears. Something watch next time Elon Musk tweets “We are literally a brain in a vat. The vat is your skull. Everything you think is real is an electrical signal.”

— From a 1998 talk by Neil Postman titled, “Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change.” It’s a nice distillation key themes in Postman’s work and, as such, a nice intro to Postman for those who are not otherwise familiar with it.

In the past, we experienced technological change in the manner of sleep-walkers. Our unspoken slogan has been “technology über alles,” and 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, especially in an age of vast technological change. We need to proceed with our eyes wide open so that we many use technology rather than be used by it.

Recently Published

I’ve already mentioned the pertinent news for this section, the end of the blog and the collection gathering the best of my work there. I do hope you’ll give it a look. I’ll entice you to do so by leaving you with generous endorsements from Evan Selinger and Nick Carr:

"If there ever was anything like the golden age of blogging, that time has passed. As a sign of the times, Michael Sacasas is no longer writing “The Frailest Thing,” a blog that ran for a decade and played a fundamental role in shaping how I, and so many others, made sense of the changing technological landscape and the place of humanity within it. While so much online commentary oozes outrage and snark, Sacasas chose to follow a different path. Motivated by curiosity, tempered by reverence for the value of history, and committed to patiently unpacking nuanced issues concerning aesthetic, moral, political, and religious values, Sacasas established himself as the public philosopher of technology. This collection of 100 posts is a testament to Sacasas’s rare ability to have thought aloud online without presenting quick-takes that have short shelf-lives. It’s truly a gem that means as much today as when each of the posts was authored. I can’t recommend it highly enough." 

– Evan Selinger, Prof. Philosophy, Rochester Institute of Technology  

"For more than ten years, Michael Sacasas has been one of the most penetrating and stimulating critics of digital technology, probing its social, personal, and moral consequences. This book, which brings together his best work, is essential for anyone seeking to understand the human condition today.” 

— Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows and The Glass Cage

The work both Evan and Nick have done on these matters has been extremely valuable to me, so I’m delighted and honored by their generous remarks.

This is a hectic and stressful time of year, more so than usual it seems, but I do hope that you will find some solace in it and even a measure of joy.



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The Convivial Society, No. 26

The Social Unconscious

“Existence in a society that has become a system finds the senses useless precisely because of the very instruments designed for their extension. One is prevented from touching and embracing reality. Further, one is programmed for interactive communication, one’s whole being is sucked into the system. It is this radical subversion of sensation that humiliates and then replaces perception.  We submit ourselves to fantastic degradations of image and sound consumption in order to anesthetize the pain resulting from having lost reality.” — Ivan Illich, "To Honor Jacques Ellul" (1993)

[Quick programming note to say that the next installment of this newsletter will arrive to your inbox via Substack. If all goes well, you should have to do not a thing to continue receiving The Convivial Society and subsequently doing what you will with it. My plan is for the next installment to go out in two weeks or so. If several weeks pass and you find yourself wondering whatever happened to The Convivial Society, you may want to check your spam folder or else shoot me an email.]

I've thought recently that everything you need to know about the cultural consequences of digital media can be extrapolated from Walter Benjamin's 1936 essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," if only you substitute "the self" for "the work of art" and "digital reproduction" for "mechanical." This is obviously not true, not entirely anyway, but bear with me. 

At one point in the essay, Benjamin noted, “commentators had earlier expended much fruitless ingenuity on the question of whether photography was an art – without asking the more fundamental question of whether the invention of photography had not transformed the entire character of art …” Likewise, we might say, commentators have expended much fruitless ingenuity on the question of whether the digitally mediated self was a "real" self without asking the more fundamental question of whether digital media had not transformed the entire character of the self. 

The best known element of Benjamin's essay is probably his discussion of a work of art's aura, which amounts to something like its materially specific, historically situated uniqueness as well as the inability to collapse a certain distance between the object and the subject. Benjamin calls the aura of a work of art “a strange tissue of space and time: the unique apparition of a distance, however near it may be.” The aura, moreover, is a function of what Benjamin calls the "here and now." It involves the authenticity of the work of art—there can be only original—and something like its authority. At least that's how I read it. 

“What withers in the age of the technological reproducibility of the work of art," Benjamin explains, "is the latter’s aura.” Mechanical reproduction displaces the work of art from its native context and sunders that strange tissue of space and time that renders the unique apparition of a distance which cannot be overcome. So it is with the experience of the self in the age of its digital reproducibility. For example, when I encounter digital reproductions of the self, my own or that of others, they are neither here nor now. Moreover, the digitally reproduced self is subject to modes of perception that collapse the distance that amounts to the strange tissue of space and time, what we might think of as the total effect of its wholeness, its more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts quality. 

There are at least two consequences. First, because the online reproductions of the self are devoid of its aura, they do not elicit the moral recognition that attends the embodied self in the here and now. I can tear a reproduction of a Rembrandt without repercussion and without hesitation; I cannot do so with an original. So I might feel myself at liberty to tear into a digital reproduction of the self in a way that I would not with a person in the here and now. 

Secondly, my own experience of the self is disenchanted. My own Romantically inflected sense of uniqueness, the presumption of some ineffable essence that is me ... all of that is challenged in the wake of our digital reproducibility. The self rendered computable, legible to the tools of computation, the self we must inhabit in digitally mediated contexts is a deflated self, one whose aura has dissipated. In the face of digital media, the modern subject beats a hasty and chaotic retreat. 

But this is not the aspect of Benjamin's essay on which I wanted to focus, rather it is on the idea of the optical unconscious. Benjamin was rather taken by the capacity of film to reveal what the unaided eye could not perceive: 

"With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended. And just as enlargement not merely clarifies what we see indistinctly 'in any case,' but brings to light entirely new structures of matter, slow motion not only reveals familiar aspects of movements, but discloses quite unknown aspects within them ... Clearly, it is another nature which speaks to the camera as compared to the eye. 'Other' above all in the sense that a space informed by human consciousness gives way to a space informed by the unconscious ... It is through the camera that we first discover the optical unconscious."

What I propose is that just as photography revealed aspects of reality that would not have been otherwise apprehended by the naked eye but which were nonetheless always there, so, too, does digital media reveal aspects of our social experience, which, in some respects, were always present but not always perceived:  the social unconscious, if you like. There is one important caveat, though. What is captured and rendered legible by digital media is never simply what is there otherwise. The social is mediated by digital technology often in such a way that it is transformed in character and quality. 

I have in mind here a variety of different effects, but they all amount to a heightened awareness of the mechanics and machinations of social life. Take, for instance, something as simple as the identity of those with whom I might associate. When I moved to a new city to take my first job right after college, there was no practical way for someone I might meet for the first time to peruse the names and interests of my high school and college friends. My analog social network, something which I myself might not have been able to competently map, was simply not immediately accessible to new acquaintances. Unless I was taking deliberate steps to prevent it, my social networks are now accessible and searchable. 

Consider, too, the presentation of the self. To some degree, we have always managed our impressions, as Erving Goffman put it, in keeping with the nature of our social settings. An attentive observer who followed me around from one such setting to another might be able to identify these often subtle modulations of my self presentation, modulations to which I myself might have become oblivious. But now that social life has been digitized, I become keenly aware of myself engaging in the work of impression management and I know, or at least I suspect, that everyone else is involved in the same work. Given the assumptions many of us bring to this situation, the consequence is that we experience the self as an artificial construct or worse an extended and self-interested manipulation of social relations. 

The digitization of social life has also made it possible to trace the movement of ideas and influences making it impossible to think of ourselves as spontaneous, much less original actors in our own dramas. Again, keen social critics might have been able to trace such lines, giving critics their characteristic if possibly feigned air of detachment, but now we are all overtly conscious of the flows of social capital and we have receipts.  

In each case dynamics which had been shrouded in forgiving shadows of obscurity have now become newly transparent. Transparency is recently regarded as a virtue, of course. What do we have to hide anyway? But this is misguided. Transparency of this sort can be unforgiving and unrelenting. It can exhaust and demoralize. It threatens intimacy and risks transposing our relationships into a social Darwinist key.  

In an essay on education, Hannah Arendt made the following observation: "Everything that lives, not vegetative life alone, emerges from darkness and, however strong its natural tendency to thrust itself into the light, it nevertheless needs the security of darkness to grow at all." In a similar vein, Romano Guardini wrote, "Life needs the protection of nonawareness." Similarly, the psychologist Harry Sullivan quipped, “If you tell people how they can sublimate, they can’t sublimate.” 

There must be, it seems, a mean between a light that withers and a darkness that deprives of life. We seem to have inadvertently created systems that tend toward the former. My intuition is that something about this surfacing of the social unconscious lies behind a great deal of our disorders, at least the disorders of the public sphere. In any case, it seems to account for why the old lines seem so apt: 

    "The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
     Are full of passionate intensity."


The title of Benjamin's essay has also been translated as "the work of art in the age of its mechanical reproducibility." You can read a translation by Harry Zohn here

News and Resources

  • In "The Work of Art ...," Benjamin quotes another rather interesting, very short essay, Paul Valéry's "The Conquest of Ubiquity" (1928), in which Valéry anticipates the internet: "Just as water, gas, and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to a minimal effort, so we shall be supplied with visual- or auditory images, which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign. Just as we are accustomed, if not enslaved, to the various forms of energy that pour into our homes, we shall find it perfectly natural to receive the ultrarapid variations or oscillations that our sense organs gather in and integrate to form all we know. I do not know whether a philosopher has ever dreamed of a company engaged in the home delivery of Sensory Reality."

    Valéry writes eloquently about the blessings of ubiquity but seems unable to imagine its burdens. 

  • Princeton's Arvind Narayanan on how to recognize AI snakeoil. On a company that claims to assess job suitability based on body language and speech patterns: "Common sense tells you this isn’t possible, and AI experts would agree. This product is essentially an elaborate random number generator."

    I wonder about the "common sense" aspect, though. Whose common sense? Given what experiences? How common is it? See, for example, the Harvard Business Review: "A lot of companies use focus groups and surveys to understand how people feel. Now, emotional AI technology can help businesses capture the emotional reactions in real time — by decoding facial expressions, analyzing voice patterns, monitoring eye movements, and measuring neurological immersion levels, for example. The ultimate outcome is a much better understanding of their customers — and even their employees."

  • I may not have put some things exactly as this author does, but I appreciated the concept of "joint attention": "Any possibility of joint attention evaporates since everyone is looking at different things — he’s looking at his image, she’s looking at her image, he’s adding to his Instagram stories, she’s presenting her own video livestream of the show for her Facebook friends. And the lack of joint attention means there’s no possibility of the heightened sense of reality establishing itself, either. You find yourself wondering why you bothered coming out at all.​"

    I found this valuable because, returning to the notion of "common sense," there is a sense in which our experience of reality, as Arendt noted, was constituted intersubjectively. It is not that common sense is common in the sense of widely distributed, it is common in the sense that it is commonly held. Reality is always shared reality. Digital media appears to excel at the fabrication of very narrowly held realities. 

  • Double Trouble: "Chasing one’s data double is a lifelong project. Regardless of how effective it is, it gives me a sense of control in a digital space that’s simultaneously wholly personalized and wholly alienating."

  • "Facial recognition technology in schools: critical questions and concerns."

  • Jon Askonas reviews Arthur Holland Michel's Eyes in the Sky: The Secret Rise of Gorgon Stare and How It Will Watch Us All: "Michel’s story thus displays the ethical problem of technological development in high relief. A small group of engineers came together to build a powerful weapon to meet the needs of war. In so doing, they have shifted, for everyone, the balance of power between citizen and state, between individual and corporation, and have eroded to the point of extinction what little remained of the natural rights of privacy, all around the world." Had the pleasure of meeting both reviewer and author recently, I commend both to you. 

  • Evgeny Morozov considers the challenges of dealing with "fake news": "It’s one thing, in a typical postmodernist move, to celebrate 'situated knowledges' and 'multiple epistemes', refuting any appeals to the one and only truth; a visit to a grad school seminar in humanities will confirm that this kind of language is still very much alive in academia. It’s quite another to do it while also building a system to algorithmically enforce the truth through the zealous application of bureaucratic rules and regulations that would make Otto von Bismarck look like a carefree bricoleur."

  • On 1,000-year-old windmills that are still working in Iran. 


At one point several months ago, I had intended to devote an installment of the newsletter to John Ruskin and the attention he has been getting, especially by those, like Alan Jacobs, who've been interested in Ruskin as a resource for navigating our technological culture.

In a recent reflection on Ruskin, Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote, "What matters is his sight, his sense of particularity, his love of detail." This is reflected, of course, in his sketches—of the Cathedral of St. Lô in Normandy, for example. I'm inclined to think that renewing our capacity to attend to the world has become something like a moral imperative.

In 1993, Illich observed, "Therefore, it appears to me that we cannot neglect the disciplined recovery, an asceticism, of a sensual praxis in a society of technogenic mirages. This reclaiming of the senses, this promptitude to obey experience, the chaste look that the Rule of St. Benedict opposes to the cupiditas oculorum (lust of the eyes), seems to me to be the fundamental condition for renouncing that technique which sets up a definitive obstacle to friendship."

If I may run some of the above observations together, I'd say that renewing our capacity to perceive well, virtuously even, and to do so jointly so as to re-establish a shared reality may be a way of recovering something like what Aristotle called political friendship, a friendship grounded in a world held in common. 

Recently Published

I finally posted again to the blog, Nine Theses Regarding the Culture of Digital Media. I do think, however, that it may be the last post. The Frailest Thing has been around for ten years, and it feels like time to let it go ... we'll see. 

Very much enjoyed my time in D.C. a couple of week ago, especially the opportunity to meet a few of you in person. The talk I gave will appear in the next issue of The New Atlantis. My thanks again to Ari Schulman and Jon Askonas for the invitation. 

Also in the works is a piece for Real Life, which should be out in December. 

Happy Thanksgiving to those of you reading in the US, and to the rest of you, holiday or no holiday, may there, in fact, be much in your lives for which to be grateful. 



The Convivial Society, No. 25

"There's No Telephone In Heaven"

In this installment of The Convivial Society, I'm glad to be rolling out a new occasional feature for the newsletter:  excerpts from recent books on technology and society. In this case, you will find a selection from Luke Fernandez and Susan J. Matt's Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid: Changing Feelings about Technology, from the Telegraph to Twitter(Harvard University Press, 2019). 

Fernandez and Matt are both professors at Weber State University. Their book explores the relationship between digital media and our emotional lives by placing our present experience within a broader history of how technology has mediated emotion. The following excerpt is taken from their chapter titled "Awe," and it reflects on some fascinating aspects of the reception of the telephone.

You can read more from Fernandez and Matt in a recent op-ed featured in the Washington Post, and you can follow them both on Twitter (@luke_fernandez / @ALongingForHome). 

Regular programming will resume with the next newsletter. As always, welcome to new readers!



“There’s No Telephone in Heaven”

If the invention of the telegraph and its extension around the globe brought with it both awe-filled hopes for transcendence and salvation as well as eventual disappointments, other new media inventions of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries excited many of the same dreams and then dashed them as well. The telephone, phonograph, and radio all seemed to hold within them unknown potential that might offer humans new powers. Americans, however, soon discovered their limits. Yet even when their fascination with one device waned, they quickly vested their hopes in the new ones that emerged. Historian David Nye writes of this tendency, noting, “Despite its power, the technological sublime always implies its own rapid obsolescence, making room for the wonders of the next generation. The railway of 1835 hardly amazed in 1870, and most Americans eventually lost interest in trains (though that particular ‘romance’ lasted longer than most). . . . During each generation the radically new disappeared into ordinary experience.” 

However it was not merely that Americans transferred their excitement from one technology to another, it was that the emotions they felt about these inventions changed dramatically over time. Twentieth century awe differed markedly from nineteenth- or eighteenth-century awe. Technologies had changed; so too had emotional culture. Gradually, Americans became convinced that awe—with its connotations of superstition, fear, and submissiveness before a powerful God—was an outdated feeling, one that earlier, more primitive people had felt. Even as early as 1869, signs of such attitudes were emerging. A poet celebrating the telegraph described it as the work of Morse, “our modern Prometheus,” and declared it had ushered in a new age: “No more the hours of awe and gloom, Which filled our childish hearts with dread. . . . Now science grabs the lightning’s fire.” Unlike the mythological Prometheus, the American Prometheus of the nineteenth century no longer need stand in fearful awe of the gods.

Poets were joined by moral philosophers who questioned the value of awe and wonder. The influential English philosopher, educator, and psychologist Alexander Bain, whose work was read on both sides of the Atlantic, wrote of wonder and the sublime, noting, “In matters of truth and falsehood, wonder is one of the corrupting emotions. The narrations of matter of fact are constantly perverted by it.” Wonder, he believed, was on the decline: “The discovery of uniform laws makes wonder to cease in one way by showing that nothing in nature is singular or exceptional. . . . [S]cience and extended study naturally bring a man more or less to the position of ‘nil admirari,’ depriving him of the stimulating emotion bred of inexperience. Even the unexplained phenomena can be looked at with composure by the philosophic mind.” 

Reflecting this new appraisal of awe, Dr.  David Inglis, in 1898, reported on what he termed a “Remarkable Exaggeration of the Sense of Awe” in the New York Medical Journal. There he told of a patient who experienced too much awe. He described a well-educated woman who felt “intense awe” whenever she saw a rainbow, red sunsets, or the aurora borealis. Inglis believed her case illustrated “the type of mind of the early ancestors of our race.” He continued, “My patient seems to me to represent the probable mental state of early man before the intellect had reasoned out the causes and relations of natural phenomena. The average man reasons these things out, and, coming of generation after generation which has reasoned them out, he is born with a mind in which the fear of the great and strange forces of Nature is relatively small.” As Inglis concluded, because of her sense of awe and mystery, “this patient is a reversion to an early type. She is an aboriginal.”

Many psychologists concurred that some religious feelings were useless vestiges of the past. James Leuba, a psychologist of religion, described the fear with which many regarded God as representing “the lowest form of religion” and a “survival of a by-gone age.” Awe, he believed, was more evolved and noble than fear, though it too contained an element of “arrested fear.” He suggested that “the stage of culture at which awe can be the dominant religious emotion is also passed”; it was becoming “obsolete.” Those who still felt fear and awe when they contemplated nature and God, he wrote, were not to be celebrated, for the emotions were “in no way praiseworthy.” He concluded, “The powerful support which traditional Christianity—and of course, other forms of religion also—receives from the emotional reaction in question is due to the fact that both are survivals of an earlier age. . . . [T]he lapse of intelligence induced by emotion brings man down to the level of antiquated religious beliefs.” In 1917, social psychologist William McDougall likewise described “the long persistence of fear and awe in religion,” suggesting that it was fading away among the “more highly civilized peoples at present time.” Across the Atlantic, a year later, Max Weber famously observed “that there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation. This means that the world is disenchanted. One need no longer have recourse to magical means in order to master or implore the spirits, as did the savage, for whom such mysterious powers existed. Technical means and calculations perform the service.” Awe and wonder were becoming outdated emotions, ill-suited to the modern, rational world.

If awe was no longer welcomed in modern society, neither was the tendency to regard machines as providentially designed. Many Americans continued to hope these inventions would offer new possibilities for communion with the dead and connection to the greater forces of the universe, but they eventually came to regard the machines themselves as the product of human effort rather than divine inspiration. This change did not happen overnight. Some still continued to invoke God or mysterious powers when talking about new technologies. Ministers still sometimes claimed them as God’s creation. Yet the frequency of such pronouncements gradually declined, just as excited celebrations of human ingenuity began to emerge. 

Many observers of turn-of-the-century inventions focused more on their human creators than on their relationship to divinity. Americans still regarded these new devices as holding the potential to tap into strange and mystical forces of the universe, but it was humans, not gods, who were doing this. For instance, to many the phone seemed magical but not quite divine. As a newspaper reported in 1877,

Neither in the picturesque phrases of half-civilized man nor in the boldest flights of fancy or tradition is there anything quite so weird as the speaking telegraph. In all the Eastern legends of magic, people who are placed wide apart never communicate directly with each other by speech. After the magician has drawn his circles in the sand, and lighted the mystic fire, and spoken the cabalistic words, he may perhaps summon the distant one by occult influence or through the agency of a genie. It is a thousand times more astounding as a mere conception that the voice, the tones, the very utterance of a friend who is miles on miles away, may be distinctly heard by the listener who holds to his ear the trumpet of the telephone.

Yet by 1901, some had become so accustomed to the telephone that the New York Times declared, “This is an annihilation of time and space which would belong in the realm of magic if it was not a commonplace of daily experience.”

Even if phones were becoming commonplace, marketers nevertheless continued to focus on their magical qualities. “The Magic Flight of Thought” was what the telephone offered, according to a 1914 AT&T advertisement. It declared that while humans had long hoped to move across time and space instantaneously, now it was possible, thanks to the technical expertise of the phone company: “The flight of thought is no longer a magic power of mythical beings, for the Bell Telephone has made it a common daily experience. . . . [T]houghts of people are carried with lightning speed in all directions.” The phone was magical and awe-inspiring, but the Bell Company, not God, had created it. And in doing so, the company had given what once were considered divine powers to mere mortals.

The long-standing hopes that these new inventions would help men and women transcend their mortal limits did not completely disappear either; however, many of them came to rest on the technical skills of the human creators rather than on divine intervention. Shortly after inventing the phonograph, Thomas Edison explained that it offered the possibility of immortality. He declared that one of its key uses would be to create a “Family Record” which would preserve “the sayings, the voices, and the last words of the dying member of the family.” Elsewhere, he elaborated on this use, noting, “Centuries after you have crumbled to dust, [the phonograph] will repeat again and again to a generation that will never know you, every idle thought, every fond fancy, every vain word that you choose to whisper against this thin iron diaphragm.” These were not merely the wild promotions of the phonograph’s inventor—instead, they revealed a widely shared desire for communion with the dead, for a guarantor of immortality. The Farmer’s Cabinet, a New Hampshire newspaper, spoke with a similar reverence about the phonograph and its powers to reshape the boundaries between mortals and immortals:

Nothing could be more incredible than the likelihood of once more hearing the voice of the dead, yet the invention of the new instrument is said to render this possible hereafter. It is true that the voices are stilled, but whoever has spoken or whoever may speak into the mouth-piece of the Phonograph, and whose words are recorded by it, has the assurance that his speech may be reproduced audibly in his own tones long after he himself has turned to dust. A strip of indented papers travels through a little machine, the sounds of the latter are magnified, and possibly centuries hence hear us as plainly as if we are present. Speech has become, as it were, immortal. 

In sum, as Evan Eisenberg points out, the phonograph offered a form of séance. Yet it was a séance created by Edison, not God, and one at which the dead said nothing new or unexpected. Their voices were frozen in the past rather than communicating new thoughts in the present.

When radio, or wireless telegraphy as it was often called, was first invented, it too excited hopes of connections to the otherworldly. And some observers still discussed their feelings in terms of the religious awe they felt. Historian Susan Douglas maintains that the radio’s rise and spread during the 1920s was a sign “that people were hungering for otherworldly contact, for communion with disembodied spirits, for imaginative escapades that affirmed there was still wonder in the world.”

A case in point was the popular belief that the radio would allow listeners to tune in to the ether and happen upon voices talking long after the speakers had died. The New York Times carried word that “the voices of famous men who have spoken over the radio are still wandering in the ether and if wireless development continues at the present rate they may be picked up a hundred years hence, according to engineering experts of the Marconi Company.” Engineers told the reporter that radio messages “were never lost” and might “go on forever.” They claimed that they had “actually trapped messages after they have passed a third time around the earth. It is not impossible, they say, that fifty years hence the voices of men long dead may be still wandering about and be picked up by sensitive instruments.” Anne O’Hare McCormick wrote that it was both “interesting . . . and appalling, to realize that only the turn of a knob stood between you and all the voices, human and instrumental, vibrating at that moment throughout the world.” She claimed that “every ripple of the surrounding ether was soaked with transmissible sound—always had been, from that matter, so that in the air that beat upon the ears of the aborigines camped on the banks of the Potomac (if they had but known how to tune in) were hidden the words of Socrates discoursing in the Agora of Athens, of Cataline declaiming before the Roman senate, of the Sermon on the Mount."

Yet such speculations revealed the limits of the machine and the limits of faith. Listeners were not going to pick up any new sermons from Jesus; nor were they going to actively communicate with him, or Socrates, or Cataline. They might hear echoes of their words, spoken long ago, but the telephone, phonograph, or radio could not rouse the dead. Hearing these voices from the past might be thrilling, but it was not the true or complete connection for which earlier generations had longed.

And there was a rising tide of skepticism about the devices as well. For instance, many Americans scoffed at the idea that one could telephone to heaven, though their grandparents had believed they might send a telegram there. In August 1890, the New York Times reprinted news of what a London paper termed called “Telephone Insanity.” “In the infirmary connected with the Central Police Station the doctors have received to-day a curious case of what they call ‘telephonic madness.’” A young lady had stopped in the middle of the streets and “shouted at the top of her voice, ‘Hallo! Hallo!’ the preliminary words used here when a person wishes to converse with another through a telephone. A crowd at once gathered around the young lady, who put her hands to her mouth and ears in telephonic fashion. ‘Is that you, Saint Peter?’ continued she, as if speaking into a tube. ‘Right, give me my keys? What? You cannot be bothered! Then send your commissionaire. I must get home!’” After watching the woman do this for some time, the crowd gradually concluded “that she was wrong in her mind. A constable took her to the police station, where she went on in the same way, declaring that she heard distinctly through the telephone the celestial music of Paradise; that she could hear Saint Cecilia playing the piano, and that the chorus was composed of cherubim.” She was sent to an infirmary by the police.

Such delusions apparently were quite common at the turn of the century. For instance, a Lexington, Kentucky, newspaper, the Blue-Grass Blade, reported in 1905 that “a doctor of this city named Lillokrone developed religious mania and rigged up his boarding house a telephone with which he imagined he could communicate with heaven. He landed in Bellevue Hospital, psychopathic ward.” “Was Telephoning to Heaven, but Policeman Got Him before Central Makes Connection” was the headline in a Spanish Fork, Utah, paper in the same year. Whereas few had mocked those who imagined they might telegraph to heaven and communicate with the dearly departed, a new skepticism was visible by the late nineteenth century. Such beliefs were coming to be regarded as signs of madness or “religious mania,” not religious awe and reverence.

That skepticism was visible even in popular songs of the era. “Hello Central, Give Me Heaven” told of a “tearful little child” who tried to call her mother on the phone, proclaiming “call her; won’t you please; For I want to surely tell her, We’re so lonely here.” The child’s request was poignant precisely because listeners knew such a feat was impossible. Those who heard the song might have held out hopes for communicating with the dead, but they no longer seemed to believe telegrams or phone calls would be the means of conversing with them. A number of newspapers carried similar accounts of small children longing to call heaven to talk with dead loved ones. The Valentine Democrat, for instance, carried a “Child’s Query” in 1911:

“He is five years old, and his brother, two years older, had just died at the family home on G. Street. He was talking it over with his grandfather.
‘Say, grandpa,’ asked the little fellow, ‘where has Roger gone?’
‘To heaven,’ answered his grandfather
. . . . .
‘Have they got a telephone in heaven?’
But there was no reply.”

By the early twentieth century, the desire to phone heaven was portrayed as a sign of youthful innocence and naïveté, described as a longing that would eventually be outgrown. Whereas in the nineteenth century, adults had hoped to telegraph to heaven, in the twentieth century such dreams had become a mark of an immature intellect.

In fact, some pundits openly mocked the hopes for connection with God, heaven, and the dead. A 1923 comic in the syndicated series Somebody’s Stenog, depicted a woman tuning in to her newly purchased radio. A man, watching her tune her set, asked what she was able to hear. She replied, “I’m liable to get Mars or Juniper [sic] the way this little box is working—Hush I hears Harps playing and sounds like wings flapping and people singing hymns. . . . Oh Ted—I bet I got Heaven—” Her friend replied, “Babe, you’re a nut—it’s that revival meeting in the church next door!”The dream of using technology to connect with heaven, once at the mainstream of American thought in the nineteenth century, was increasingly marginalized in the twentieth. There were newly imposed limits to the religious awe one should feel and express in the face of new technologies.

Finally, while nineteenth-century observers believed the inventions of the age reflected God’s glory and were part of his plan, many twentieth-century Americans saw the new devices as reflective of the genius of individuals. A century before, God had been in the machine; now men and women had created machines that were Godlike. A poem from the 1930s, entitled “Radio,” illustrated this new viewpoint. It began,

There is no land so barren, bleak
That I will not abide therein;
There is no storm that wrecks and maims
But I survive its direful din.
. . . .

The poet then suggested the radio was enormously powerful:

For, under God, no power lives
But hides in fear before my presence.

Yet lest anyone be confused, the poet quickly cleared up the nature of
radio’s power, as well as its origins:

“Radio,” they name me now—
Product of research and science.

This trend of celebrating technology’s power but desacralizing its origins became even more pronounced over the course of the twentieth century. Often Americans regarded their televisions, computers, and phones with astonishment, thought of them even as magical, but did not express the same religious awe of a century before. These were the products of “research and science,” artifacts of human ingenuity rather than divine inspiration. To think otherwise—and to express religious or spiritual awe—was to be seen as backward, primitive, and to risk mockery.

Excerpted from BORED, LONELY, ANGRY, STUPID: CHANGING FEELINGS ABOUT TECHNOLOGY, FROM THE TELEGRAPH TO TWITTER by Luke Fernandez and Susan J. Matt, published by Harvard University Press.

Copyright © 2019 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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