Pandemics, Power, and Freedom

The Convivial Society: Vol. 1, No. 9

“I do think that if I had to choose one word to which hope can be tied it is hospitality. A practice of hospitality— recovering threshold, table, patience, listening, and from there generating seedbeds for virtue and friendship on the one hand — on the other hand radiating out for possible community, for rebirth of community.”

— Ivan Illich, interview (1996)

Let’s begin today by noting a Freudian typo in the sign below, which came to my attention via Twitter:

This sign illustrates an alarming current flashpoint in American culture, an instance of what I’ve begun to think of as “manufactured discontent.” It is, of course, a manifestation of mounting frustration with the restrictions that have been imposed to combat the coronavirus pandemic and an artifact of the American culture wars. Don’t worry, I’m not gearing up to enter the fray. I’ll only note that there is plenty of cause for frustration with the catastrophic failure of leadership at the highest levels of government. As Adam Elkus recently put it, “There is no plan in the way we ordinarily think of it. The plan is to simply rationalize people into accepting mass death and the failure of basic governmental functions.”

Back to the sign, which expresses one seemingly narrow but vocal strain of sentiment. I want to draw your attention to the curious use of quotations marks around the word free. It’s probably safe to assume that the author meant simply to emphasize the word, just as they emphasized the word brave by underlining it. But placing a word in quotation marks generally signals something very different. It tends to suggest a measure of irony. The writer and reader know something about how the word which is concealed by ordinary usage. In this instance, the inadvertent scare quotes would seem to suggest that the freedom so stridently asserted here is to some degree illusory.

In this sense, I see it as a revealing slip. It suggests that, unbeknownst to the author, the version of freedom that they are championing is no freedom at all. Without speaking for the author of the sign, whose precise views and circumstances I cannot know, I will simply say that the view of freedom that appears to undergird the sentiment is one which equates freedom with the right to do whatever one pleases with scant regard for the consequences. It is freedom reduced to autonomy in its literal sense, being a law unto oneself.

Albert Borgmann, whose concept of focal practices I discussed last time, also gave us the apt phrase “regardless power” to describe the kind of power granted by techno-scientific knowledge and deployed with little or no regard for consequences. Such regardless power takes no account of the integrity of an ecosystem or the intangible goods inherent in existing social structures. It does not stop to consider what it might be good to do; it knows no reason why one ought not to do what one can do. So, likewise, we might speak of regardless freedom, freedom exercised with little or no regard for those with whom we share the world.

Regardless power and regardless freedom are not unrelated. Their pedigree may be traced to the early modern period, and their relationship may be described as symbiotic or dialectical. The growing capacity for regardless power makes the idea of regardless freedom plausible. The ideal of regardless freedom fuels the demand for regardless power. If I believe that I have the right to do whatever I please, I will take up the technology that allows me to do so (or at least appears to). If I habitually relate to the world through technologies that place me in a seemingly Promethean position, then I will be tempted to assume that I can and ought to do whatever I please.

Interestingly, both Lewis Mumford and C. S. Lewis help us see the historical relation between regardless power and regardless freedom by drawing our attention to the practice of magic.

“Between fantasy and exact knowledge, between drama and technology,” Mumford wrote in Technics and Civilization, “there is an intermediate station: that of magic. It was in magic that the general conquest of the external environment was decisively instituted.” He added: “As children’s play anticipates crudely adult life, so did magic anticipate modern science and technology.”

“Magic,” he concluded, “was the bridge that united fantasy with technology: the dream of power with the engines of fulfillment.”

For his part, Lewis worried that “the fact that the scientist has succeeded where the magician failed has put such a wide contrast between them in popular thought that the real story of the birth of Science is misunderstood.”

Reminding readers that the “high noon of magic” was not the middle ages but the early modern period, Lewis observes, “The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse.”

That impulse was akin to what I am here calling the pursuit of regardless freedom through the deployment of regardless power. Lewis put it this way:

“There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique.”

And along those same lines we see a hint of the alternative conception of freedom, a variety of which held sway in most cultures of the pre-modern world. Its expression strikes modern ears as paradoxical or simply as a contradiction: freedom lay in conformity to some external standard or model. Given some account of the telos of human nature, freedom was merely a penultimate good necessary for the achievement of that telos. It was not an end in itself. Modernity, for a host of reasons, dispenses with any notion of such a telos or end. We do not tend to believe that there is some good toward which our natures are directed or that we are most free when we are striving to realize that good. Liberty of choice, from this perspective, was not itself the highest form of freedom. Certain “free choices” could, in fact, lead us into various forms of subjugation and self-destruction. One was only truly free when one chose rightly and in accord with a principle to which the will must submit.

Alasdair MacIntyre traced a similar development in the history of ethical theory. In his view, “Within [the traditional] teleological scheme there is a fundamental contrast between man-as-he-happens-to-be and man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-essential-nature. Ethics is the science which is to enable men to understand how they make the transition from the former state to the latter.” Having dispensed with any coherent or broadly shared conception of an “essential nature,” modern ethical theory loses its way. Or, at least, it becomes unconvincing and moral argument implausible. MacIntyre tells a long and complex story to explain why public moral arguments tend to devolve into irresolvable shouting matches (he was writing in 1980, mind you). In short, without a common vision of what people are for ethics tends to appear as little more than personal preferences emotionally expressed. Under these conditions one can see how the temptations of regardless power and regardless freedom take shape.

It may seem that we’ve come a long way from where we started, so let us work our way back. If Americans have come to most acutely exemplify the temptations of both regardless power and regardless freedom, the cultural sources of the temptation are, nonetheless, older and broader. It is true, of course, that such attitudes do not equally characterize all Americans, much less all the cultures that fall within the parameters of western modernity. But there is something important to note here once we’ve synthesized the insights Borgmann, Lewis, Mumford, and MacIntrye have offered to us.

From one perspective, the American failure to address the coronavirus crisis may be understood as a failure of moral and political deliberation. Before I elaborate that point, let me clear some ground and hopefully address some questions that you might already have. Of course … of course the situation in the United States is what it is because of a uniquely incompetent and indefensible federal response. Of course, even the most minimal improvements on that score might have mitigated the worst of what we have experienced. It is also the case that our political culture is now uniquely dysfunctional.

All of that said, however, it seems to me that we would still have problems related to the implementation of an appropriate response. This seems evident to me from the fact that around the globe a variety of measures have been tried, with varying degree of success, to combat the pandemic, and because the unprecedented nature of the crisis has seemed to place even reputable authorities at odds to some degree. Moreover, t is an open question whether the methods deployed in some of the countries which have been most successful could realistically be applied in the US. In short, the implementation of an appropriate response could never have been simply a matter of adhering to scientific consensus. First, because again that consensus is evolving, as, to its credit, it must. Second, because the response was necessarily also political and economic.

In other words, there was always going to be some debate about how to proceed. To think otherwise is to fall into the trap of believing that one can resolve essentially human problems by technical means. A great deal of the enthusiasm currently emanating from tech circles seems to reflect the persistence of misguided belief. Coronavirus pandemic got you down? There’s an app for that! Which is not to say that I am not grateful for the genuine if limited benefits technology now affords us.

The poles of our response, then, can be characterized as tending toward regardless freedom on the one end and regardless power on the other. Regardless power here connoting a willingness to submit all human considerations to techno-scientific expertise without consideration for the intractable and recalcitrant realities of human society. Or, to put it otherwise, the tendency to assume that there must be a technically correct method (or technique) by which to resolve the crisis, one which must be implemented at all costs without any regard for the full swath of human consequences.

Regardless freedom, of course, is exemplified by (what I must hope is) the rare belief that being required to wear a face covering in public spaces is a grievous assault on one’s liberty. It assumes that my liberty of action must not be constrained by any consideration beyond the realization of my own desires and my own self-interest narrowly conceived.

This opposition is made all the worse because the necessary moral-political debate cannot in fact happen, not under our present condition. Our present condition defined both by the consequences of the digital information sphere and the lack of a broadly shared moral framework within which meaningful debate can unfold.

I am not sanguine about the immediate future. I am not sanguine because I do not believe the worst of the epidemic is in any meaningful sense behind us and because I do not think that the state in which it has found us will spontaneously improve. I earnestly desire to be proved wrong on both counts. I admit that I saw an opening for qualified hopefulness several weeks ago. That window seems to be closing. I will note, though, that it seems that a majority of Americans, as far as I can judge some things, have resisted the extremes of regardless power and regardless freedom, and that’s no small thing.

In the end, the lesson that I am taking is an old one: societies, however rich or technically sophisticated, cannot be counted healthy and resilient without adequate reserves of intangible human resources, such as trust, solidarity, and virtue, and the institutions and communities that sustain them.

News and Resources

  • In “The Machine Pauses,” Stuart Whatley considers the work of E. M Forster, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Heidegger, and Ellul: “Will our means continue to dictate our ends? Will we continue to define progress as present gains accrued rather than as future costs averted? Past critics raised these questions during periods of relative peace and prosperity, in the calms between historical storms. Now that the machine has paused, we could do worse than to reprise that tradition of thought.”

    The title alludes to Forster’s “The Machine Stops,” of course, which Whatley discusses at the start of his essay. In case you missed it, back in April I wrote a Quarantine Reading Guide to Forster’s short story.

  • Tollef Graff Hugo discusses Ivan Illich’s In the Vineyard of the Text and its focus on 12th century changes in the technology of reading and their consequences for reading and subjectivity: “The text is thus uprooted from the soil of the book, abstracted from the page, and instead begins to be increasingly experienced as something connected to the human subject. The text on the page can apparently look the same, but it is not the book, but rather the human subject that is slowly being regarded as the primary dwelling place for the text — and thereby of thoughts and meaning as such.”

    In the Vineyard of the Text is a humane and erudite little book of cultural and technical history. I hope this short essay prompts you to read it. (h/t @aaronzlewis for the link to the essay)

  • Woodrow Hartzog on coronavirus tracing apps and the future of surveillance: “Surveillance inertia is remarkably difficult to resist. Norms get set and practices and tools become entrenched. And who can say when this will wind down? We’re still dealing with the supposedly temporary surveillance authorized almost 20 years ago in the wake of after 9/11.”

  • Two pieces on digital media, misinformation, and COVID-19: “Battling the ‘pandemic of misinformation’” and “Virus Experts Aren’t Getting the Message Out.” Both outline the challenges of providing and disseminating accurate and helpful information in a digital media environment. Directly and indirectly the problem they address can be summed up as the failure of analog methods in a digital age, when the speed and scale of communication outpaces even the the spread of the virus. The story is complicated and the problems we face are not merely a matter of bad actors purposefully generating disinformation, although there’s plenty of that, too. Institutional failure and the demand for instantaneous information in the midst of deep uncertainty also play their role.

    Relatedly, Zeynep Tufekci explains how a united, resourceful, and determined population managed to effectively control an epidemic without lockdowns and in the face of government failure and ineptitude. Good on the people of Hong Kong.

  • Every notice the plague doctors and the city in quarantine in the famous frontispiece to Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan? Neither had I. Thomas Poole discusses the role of the plague in Hobbes’s political thought.

  • The story of teenage girl, who in the 1890’s discovered that her picture was being used to advertise Franklin Mills Flour. She and her mother sued the company and the case subsequently became a touchstone for privacy law. Interesting throughout, and includes this: “Cameras had existed in studios for over half a century, but until they became portable, only professional photographers knew how to operate them. Thanks to Kodak, by the turn of the 20th century, a third of American households had portable cameras. That caused alarm: The term ‘Kodak fiend’ was coined for unscrupulous peeping Toms who would lie in wait in trees or behind walls to snap pictures of unsuspecting passers-by.”


— From Peter Pomerantsev’s thoughtful reflections on the pandemic, time, history, and nostalgia:

“The Russian-American philologist Svetlana Boym contrasted two types of nostalgia. One she called ‘restorative’ nostalgia. This strives to rebuild lost homelands with ‘paranoiac determination,’ thinks of itself as ‘truth and tradition,’ obsesses over grand symbols, and ‘relinquish[es] critical thinking for emotional bonding. . . . Unreflective nostalgia can breed monsters.’ The other she called ‘reflective’ nostalgia: It looks at individual, often ironic stories from the past, and tries to tease out the difference between the past and present to formulate the future. The options of nostalgia are not merely to choose what one is nostalgic for, but how one is nostalgic. Can one go back to the past and then find a new direction out of it?”

— From Ross Andersen’s “The vanishing groves” (2012):

“It is hard to resist cliché when conveying the antiquity of the bristlecone pine. The oldest of the living bristlecones were just saplings when the pyramids were raised. The most ancient, called Methuselah, is estimated to be more than 4,800 years old; with luck, it will soon enter its sixth millennium as a living, reproducing organism. Because we conceive of time in terms of experience, a life spanning millennia can seem alien or even eternal to the human mind. It is hard to grasp what it would be like to see hundreds of generations flow out from under you in the stream of time, hard to imagine how rich and varied the mind might become if seasoned by five thousand years of experience and culture.”

— I was reminded this week of an essay, also from 2012 as it turns out, on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi and their resistance to Nazism, which ultimately cost them their lives. It was the last paragraph below that caught my attention then and of which I was recently reminded:

“One truth we can affirm: Hitler had no greater, more courageous, and more admirable enemies than Hans von Dohnanyi and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Both men and those closest to them deserve to be remembered and honored. Dohnanyi summed up their work and spirit with apt simplicity when he said that they were ‘on the path that a decent person inevitably takes.’ So few traveled that path—anywhere.”

The path that “a decent person inevitably takes.” Alas.

The Conversation

I’m happy to pass along a link to the first thing I’ve had in print in awhile, “The Analog City and the Digital City: How online life breaks the old political order.”

If you’ve been following the newsletter for awhile, you’ll remember that I gave a talk in D.C. back in November. This is the re-worked text of that talk in the latest issue of The New Atlantis. This was an effort on my part to think about the consequences of digital communication on political culture along some media-ecological lines. It was, of course, conceived, written, and revised pre-COVID. In the next week or two, I think I might revisit what I argued in light of the present state of affairs to see what I might put differently. In any case, click through, give it a read, and share your thoughts/criticisms as you see fit. As always I am grateful to Ari Schulman and his team at The New Atlantis for their encouragement and gracious editing.

Lastly, I thought I’d mention to more recent subscribers that last December I shuttered my old site, The Frailest Thing, where I wrote about technology and society for ten years. I gathered the best of that writing, as far as I could judge it, into an e-book that is available here: The Frailest Thing: Ten Years of Thinking About the Meaning of Technology. You can click through and read some generous words of endorsement from folks I very much admire. You’ll note too, that not unlike the newsletter, you are able to download the work at no cost, and please feel free to do so, but you are also able to pay for it should you be so inclined. At the very least, I would be grateful if you found it worth sharing with others.

Also, I will note (with a measure of satisfaction because I’m not above such things) that we are just shy of 2,500 readers. So, naturally, feel free and encouraged to share this newsletter. You’ll not be surprised to learn there’s a button for that:

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I trust, as we now say, that this finds you and your family in good health.