Living In Expectation of the Unexpected Gift
The Convivial Society: Vol. 2, No. 22
This is the last installment of 2021. It’s a relatively brief reflection that seemed apropos for the start of a new year. Thank you again for reading, sharing, and supporting the Convivial Society. It’s been deeply gratifying to write for you all. Happy New Year to each of you.
Oh, and last call for the discounted subscription for those of you who’ve been considering becoming paid subscribers. (Thanks again to all of you who have.) The link should be good through January 1st.
If asked what it is that I write about, I tend to say something like “technology and culture.” In truth, putting it this way is a heuristic convention. The two realities ostensibly named by the words technology and culture, are deeply intertwined. Technologies are cultural artifacts, and culture is technologically mediated.1 There are many other ways to describe the interrelationship, but the point is simply that the phrase “technology and culture” implies a much neater distinction than what is in fact the case.
Having acknowledged as much, it can still be helpful to consider how the technological elements of culture shape the larger whole or how other dimensions of culture shape the character of our tools and influence how we take them up.2 So, for example, the 41 questions I posted in an installment earlier this year are drafted with a view to exploring the former dynamics. But there are other questions we might ask to explore what cultural forces might be driving the development, deployment, adoption, and use of certain technologies. To put this another way, we can, for example, talk about what certain technologies encourage by their design, on the one hand, and, on the other, what uses we are inclined to make of a technology given our own culturally situated inclinations and predispositions.
Consider the following example. In a recent essay about a class of apps, Notion most popular among them, “that promises to collect all the digital material we generate into one single, seamless interface,” Sophie Haigney commented on the rise of Notion influencers who create instructional videos for the app on YouTube:
On her YouTube channel, lifestyle influencer Michelle Barnes, who works with Notion, shows how she has organized her Notion into an enormous “Life Dash” that includes her master to-do list. That to-do list is further broken down into categories, including a list of things she wants to purchase accompanied by a “ Life Impact” column, in which she assigns a number to how much the item will improve her life.
If Jacques Ellul’s concept of technique is still a bit fuzzy for you, that’s it right there.3 It’s not technology per se, it’s a spirit that is brought to bear on all facets of our experience. I felt myself growing tired just reading this and suggested as much on Twitter. Robin Berjon, who works on data governance and privacy at the Times, chimed in to note the following: “What terrifies me here is that I don't think that Notion particularly encourages this. It doesn't feel like this comes from the app as any manner of coercive structure.”
I’ve not used the app myself, so I’m trusting Berjon’s judgment here. What this suggests, then, as the reference to Ellul anticipated, is that users take up the app in the spirit of technique, which has emerged in tandem with modern technology but cannot be reduced to any specific technology. One could argue that the app itself is already, to some degree, designed in that spirit, but it also seems to find in certain users a decided inclination to exploit the app’s affordances in this particular spirit bent on optimization itself as the form of the good life. We might speak not only of the spirit of optimization but also of a desire to rationalize, manage, control, or otherwise achieve a measure of mastery over our experience.
The start of a new year seems to stoke these desires and inclinations, and understandably so. Frustrated by the disappointments, failures, or regrets of the past year, I may be tempted to search for better methods, systems, or strategies in order to realize my aspirations: the right planner, the right app, the right schedule, the right book, the right plan, etc. And I don’t mean to suggest that tools of this sort or good counsel might not, in fact, prove helpful. But much hinges on the spirit in which these tools are taken up, and that is chiefly what I’ve been driving at thus far.
Allow me to pair this line of thought with an observation Chris Gilliard made a couple of months ago regarding an app that promises to “take care of your meals each week with increasing relevancy and minimal input from the user.” “Really weird,” Gilliard noted, “how tech companies are all promising to offload your decision making so you can have time for ‘what matters.’ If you aren’t making any of these decisions, what’s left that matters?”
This point resonated with me because I’ve been making some version of it since at least 2013 when, in response to a piece about the future “programmable world,” I wrote,
For some people at least, the idea seems to be that when we are freed from these mundane and tedious activities, we will be free to finally tap the real potential of our humanity. It’s as if there were some abstract plane of human existence that no one had yet achieved because we were fettered by our need to be directly engaged with the material world. I suppose that makes this a kind of gnostic fantasy. When we no longer have to tend to the world, we can focus on … what exactly?
It seems rarely to occur to us, or rather we are encouraged to forget that much of the joy and satisfaction we might find in this world may stem from our purposeful involvement in the sorts of tasks we are told to see as mundane, trivial, and inconvenient.
I’ve been noting of late that much of the “smart” infrastructure that is increasingly colonizing the home under the guise of convenience and automation tends to aim at something altogether banal: automated, which is to say thoughtless, rote consumption. This is evident, for example, in the app that inspired Gilliard’s comments.
From one perspective we might say that modern society in its consumerist mode offered the proliferation of choices and options as its summum bonum, its ultimate good. That is until the proliferation of choices and options became counterproductive, overwhelming would-be consumers with choices, inducing decision paralysis, and yielding diminishing returns. Now freedom as choice gives way to freedom from choice, but with no clearer sense of what freedom is for.
I know it is passé or worse in certain circles to cite the late David Foster Wallace, perhaps especially his Kenyon College address, but indulge me in recalling these lines:
And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.
Make what you will of Wallace and his art, this seems to me right and wise.
In the Prologue to The Human Condition, with the promise that automation would empty the factories, Hannah Arendt worried that “it is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor, and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaninfgul activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won.” “What we are confronted with,” she added, “is the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them. Surely, nothing could be worse.”
I’m tempted to say of the promise of a future world of automated consumption that we are confronted with the prospect of a society of consumers without consumption. Surely, nothing could be worse.
While Arendt’s mid-twentieth century fears about automation have not yet played out as she, and many others at the time, feared, her claim that modern society no longer knows of the higher activities for the sake of which freedom deserved to be won is still worth pondering.
If we grant that Arendt is on to something, I’d suggest that it is precisely in the absence of such activities or goods that technique takes on its compulsive, colonizing nature. Optimization becomes an end in itself. I may not know where I am going or why, but I can take some comfort in knowing that I can travel faster and more efficiently. Frenetic activity or compulsive distraction substitute for a clear sense of purpose and commitment. Substantive goals may elude me, but I can take refuge in tracking and optimizing an increasing range of activities and bodily functions.
I’m writing this installment with the themes of the last—exhaustion, burnout, tiredness, rest—still in mind. There are so many reasons why any of us might feel exhausted and depleted, but just now I find myself wondering how much of it is the result of aimless labors that serve only the operations of a techno-economic system designed to offer us everything but satisfaction, schooling us only in various forms of envy, addiction, and dependence.
I recently revisited Lewis Mumford’s 1951 lectures collected in Art and Technics, and I happened upon the following paragraph:
My basic assumption is that our life has increasingly split up into unrelated compartments, whose only form of order and interrelationship comes through fitting into the automatic organizations and mechanisms that in fact govern our daily existence. We have lost the essential capacity of self-governing persons—the freedom to make decisions, to say Yes or No in terms of our own purposes—so that, though we have vastly augmented our powers, through the high development of technics, we have not developed the capacity to control those powers in any proportionate degree. As a result, our very remedies are only further symptoms of the disease itself.
The freedom to say Yes or No in terms of our own purposes—it would seem that the first step in the direction is to clarify for ourselves what exactly our own purpose are or should be. To do this, it seems to me that we need to play the role of Socrates to ourselves, questioning our motives and desires, asking ourselves why we do what we do, seeking to radically, that is to the roots, weed out the various ways we’ve accepted uncritically the default settings of our techno-economic order.
I’m not inclined to give advice, particularly since so much of it takes the shape of technique, glibly packaged. I’ve been reading Tolkien again, and recently read that “elves seldom give unguarded advice, for advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise, and all courses may run ill.” This seems right. But if I may venture the risk, let me at least allow you to overhear some of what I am saying to myself.
Do not mistake planning for purpose, or activity for action.
Attend to the ordinary and the mundane with care and with gratitude.
Consider that rest is not a time set aside, but a spirit brought to every time.
Refuse the ever-present temptation to control and manage the thing we call life for their is no surer way to miss it.
Finally, it will surprise no one if I bring this installment, and thus the year of writing, to a close by recalling Ivan Illich, or at least a striking summary of Illich’s thought written by his friend and biographer David Cayley. In Cayley’s words, Illich believed that one of the great temptations we must resist was the temptation “to bring what must begin and end as surprise under administration.”
So, I will do my best to enter the new year in a spirit of expectation, refusing the burden of administering and controlling what, if it is to be experienced at all, can only be experienced in its fullness as a surprise, an unexpected gift.
May the new year find you all healthy and well.
As Winston Churchill famously put it, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” A number a variations of this line have since appeared, sometimes attributed to Marshall McLuhan. For example: “We shape our tools and thereafter they shape us.” While the line certainly accords with McLuhan’s thinking on the matter, it’s not clear that he ever put it exactly that way, at least not in writing. That line, however, is used by McLuhan’s friend, John M. Culkin in an introduction to McLuhan’s work that he published in The Saturday Review in 1967.
At the risk of being rather pedantic, I should stress again that these two dynamics are intertwined and often mutually reinforcing.
Newsletters encourage the author, or at least this author, to think of his audience as having a certain continuity over time and thus a growing stock of shared terms and concepts. But I won’t presume that every reader has been along for the ride the past few months, so let me clarify by saying that, for Ellul, technique was something like a drive to relentless optimize all of experience for the sake of efficiency.