The Convivial Society, No. 14

"A changeless society would be as intolerable for people as the present society of constant change. Convivial reconstruction requires limits on the rate of compulsory change. An unlimited rate of change makes lawful community meaningless. Law is based on the retrospective judgment of peers about circumstances that occur ordinarily and are likely to occur again. If the rate of change which affects all circumstances accelerates beyond some point, such judgments cease to be valid. Lawful society breaks down. Social control does not accommodate community participation and becomes the function of experts. Educators define how people are to be trained and retrained throughout their lives—shaped and reshaped until they fit the demands of industry and are attracted by its profits. Ideologues define what is right or wrong. The tooling of man for the milieu becomes the major industry when this milieu changes beyond a certain rate; then man’s need for language and law, for memories and myths, imposes limits to the change of tools." 

— Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality

The image you see to the right is of a Popp clock incorporated into a lamppost. It was part of Paris's pneumatic clock network, which was in operation from 1880 to 1927. The network of clocks was synchronized by a burst of air emitted by a central transmitting station and carried by tubes that ran through the Paris sewer system and the tunnels of the Metro. The burst of air moved a 60-tooth wheel that advanced the clock by one minute. The clocks were designed by the Austrian engineer, Viktor Antoine Popp, who initially demonstrated the technology at the Austro-Hungarian pavilion of the 1879 Universal Exposition. At its most extensive, the pneumatic clock network included roughly 7,800 clocks. You can read more about the clocks, and much else, at the Museum of Retro Technology

I thought about the pneumatic clock network recently while reading On Waiting by Harold Schweizer in the Thinking In Action Series. "[T]he economic and technical advantages of synchronized time exact their own price," Schweizer writes. He goes on to cite turn-of-the-last-century sociologist Georg Simmel, who wrote, "The mathematical character of money imbues the relationship of the elements of life with a precision, a reliability in the determination of parity and disparity ... in the same way as the general use of pocket watches has brought about a similar effect in daily life." Schweizer continues: "Rather than becoming masters of their own time, the bearers of pocket watches were mastered by it. But thereby, Simmel explains, they were ideally adapted to modern metropolitan life, which required 'detailed and definite arrangements and measurements.'" All of this recalls Lewis Mumford's famous dictum, "the clock, not the steam-engine, is the key machine of the modern industrial age."

If I have something like a default analytical grid by which I tend to think of technology, it's probably some variety of a generally post-phenomenological approach. You can read about post-phenomenology if you like, I'll include a link below, but we don't need to bother with the details. The approach tends to focus on the role of technology in mediatingour experience of the world. To my mind, it helps to imagine a circuit that consists of mind, body, tool, and world. Each of those components—I list them as such understanding that the boundaries are a bit fuzzy—is essential to the circuit, and their interactions yield what we might think of as our experience of the world and even what we call society, especially if we allow for the most capacious understanding of what constitutes technology.

So, for example, we don't experience time in some direct, unmediated fashion; we experience time as a product of technological mediation. In modern societies, this ordinarily means the experience of what we might call clock time. Of course, because clock time has been the dominant mode of experiencing time for us, it probably appears to most people as the natural way of experiencing time. Clock time simply is time. But, of course, one only needs to be spatially or chronologically displaced from modern clock time societies in order to realize that clock time does not simply equal time. We may imagine, for example, how time might be kept and thereby experienced before the invention of the clock, or we might visit places, fewer and farther between, where clock time has not yet colonized the experience of time. 

The question all of this raises in my mind is whether there are better or worse mediations of time. It is a complicated question, and I won't pretend to resolve it here. But I do want to think about the question a bit further because doing so will, I think, draw out some of what lurks below most questions about the moral standing of technology. What would it take, for example, to move toward an answer to the normative question about our mediated experience of time? How would we even begin to think about whether there were, in fact, mediations of time that were better or worse for us? It would involve, of course, some attempt to establish criteria for judgment. But to whom would these criteria apply and what would be their source? Could there be some set of criteria that apply to human beings as such, so that we might be able to speak of de-humanizing ways of ordering time or, alternatively, of humane ways of ordering time? 

I'm inclined to think so, but I realize that this inclination is itself "problematic," as the kids say these days. It's problematic because it invokes the specter of domination or the threat of what Mumford called authoritarian technics. Who's to determine which experiences of time are more humane, or, worse yet, by what means would they be imposed? Fair questions, of course, and I'm as wary as the next person. We should not fail to recognize, however, that their has been an imposition of sorts already. I suspect that neither you nor I can simply opt out of clock time. 

I am, however, equally troubled by another specter, another threat. I'm not sure what to call it, perhaps the threat of emancipatory technics, the emancipation here being something like the total emancipation from our embodied-in-the-world human condition. Together they constitute what I think of as the Charybdis and Scylla of the modern techo-social order. What I have in mind here is the development and deployment of technology without any regard for the givenness of our condition (any, I should note, does a lot of work in this sentence). We might also refer to the temptation of what Albert Borgmann has termed "regardless power" or, as Katherine Hayles once put it, to view our bodies as "fashion accessories rather than the ground of being." It seems to me that such power is, yes, problematic whether it is authoritarian or democratic. I am, in other words, indiscriminately suspicious of post-humanist fantasies whatever their ideological sources. 

I suppose one way of thinking about all of this is to ask whether it might not be best to respect the integrity of each component in the circuit I described above: mind, body, technology, world. That presupposes, of course, that we might be able to arrive at some meaningful understanding of what such integrity might entail. (Needless to say, I think we are just beginning a hard lesson in what happens when we do not respect the integrity of the world, a lesson which will not be halted by our inability to get a theoretical handle on nature's integrity.) Or, to put it another way, should we yield to the temptation of allowing our minds and our technology to act in tandem without any regard to the limits implicit in our being bodies in the world?

In all of this, I am simply thinking out loud, trying, first of all, to make clear the questions raised by technology. I suppose this is one way of recognizing the challenge of technology as Heidegger might put it. Technology reveals, and it seems to me that at present it reveals the impasses to which modernity has brought us. Our imagination is trapped by the impulse to transcend, transgress, and transform—to make, that is to say, fabricate our way out of the human condition. It seems to me that we would do well to reconsider the whole trajectory that has brought us to this place. 


Postscript: In the last newsletter I asked if someone might help me remember the source of a line about how the tragedy of the modern world is that it is impossible for us to know all that we need to know. My thanks to Alan Jacobs, who confirmed that it was indeed Rebecca West:  "Here is the calamity of our modern life, we cannot know all the things which it is necessary for our survival that we should know.” Alan cites the line in this older post about West's best known work, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

News and Resources

  • Here is Don Ihde, whose work is at the heart of the approach, explaining postphenomenology.

  • "The New Nature" by Jedediah Purdy: "To reflect on the Anthropocene today is to confront the absence of political institutions, movements, or even widely shared sentiments of solidarity and shared challenges that operate on the scale of the problems concerning resource use and distribution we now face." Regarding the absences, ditto for reflection on technology today. 

  • South Korea accepts geothermal plant probably caused destructive quake

  • Notes from the age of the disciplinary spectacle

    1. China Airport uses face recognition systems (short video on Twitter) to help you check your flight status and find the way to your gate.
    2. Relatedly, merchants are increasingly turning to facial recognition for security and there a few existing regulations governing the practice: "Facial recognition providers balked at the proposed regulations, arguing that the technology's benefits outweigh privacy concerns."
    3. Also, "Two arrested for hiding cameras in motel rooms and charging for access to livestreams."
    4. Finally, "The MyMe is a thumb-sized black plastic rod with a wide-angle camera embedded into it. Clip it to your chest and pair it with a phone, and it takes a picture once every second. If there’s a face in the picture, it cross-references that face with your social media contacts or previous MyMe photos. Once it knows who you’re meeting with, their name will pop up on your phone. And after enough use, it’s supposed to quantify your relationships — with friends, co-workers, and humans in general."

  • "Kidfluencers' Rampant YouTube Marketing Creates Minefield for Google": "Since it was founded in 2005, YouTube has operated beyond the reach of rules that govern advertising on traditional television. But the site has grown so large and influential that the days of light-touch regulation may soon be over. Kids’ programming is where the crackdown is most likely." The Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood is cited in the article. Check them out. 

  • "Why I Am Not a Maker": "An identity built around making things—of being 'a maker'—pervades technology culture. There’s a widespread idea that 'People who make things are simply different [read: better] than those who don’t.'” To clarify, the bracketed phrase is the author's, not mine. 

  • "My Grandfather’s John Deere would support our Right to Repair": "My grandfather had 158 patents — 31 of which are on the manure spreader. Those patents helped build John Deere’s success. But these days, John Deere requires its customers jump through hoops to repair their equipment causing needless delays and extra expense."

  • The New York Public Library Digital Collections includes an album of Ottoman costume paintings dating from the reign of Mahmud II (1808-1826). It captures a dazzling and elaborate array of fashions from across the empire. 

  • "The history and mystery of Polynesian navigation": "So distance was a piece of it. Then, although people make a great deal about the fact that they didn't have metal tools, I think the thing that was most interesting was they didn't have writing. They had to not only develop that navigational capacity, they had to pass it on. If you think about how they did that in an oral culture, that also seems amazing to me."

  • "The Day the Dinosaurs Died": "As he dug, the momentousness of what he had come across slowly dawned on him. If the site was what he hoped, he had made the most important paleontological discovery of the new century."


Here is a screenshot from a bleak yet remarkable 1972 documentary, Pictures of the Old World, by Dušan Hanák detailing rural life in Czechoslovakia. It was banned until 1988, undoubtedly for the unsparing eye it cast on the lot of the rural poor. It resists summary and, to some degree, even judgment. A version with English subtitles over French ones is available here. You can order a DVD from the folks who restored the film here. I learned of it through Warren Ellis's newsletter, Orbital Operations

Here is another: 

And a final shot: 
To be clear, I don't leave off with that last shot to suggest that there was ultimately something noble and happy in the condition these men and women endured. Although, neither do I want to deny such nobility or cast doubt on this man's word. We are complicated and, all told, rather remarkable creatures. 


The poet Mairead Small Staid revisits Sven Birkert's Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age on its 25th anniversary

"'Ten, fifteen years from now the world will be nothing like what we remember, nothing much like what we experience now,' Birkerts wrote. 'We will be swimming in impulses and data—the microchip will make us offers that will be very hard to refuse.' Indeed, few of us have refused them. As each new technology, from smartphones to voice-activated home assistants, becomes normalized faster and faster, our ability to refuse it lessens. The choice presented in The Gutenberg Elegies, between embrace and skepticism, hardly seems like a choice anymore: the new generation is born swaddled in the digital world’s many arms."

Recently Published

Once again, nothing new to report on this front since the last newsletter, so here are a couple of selections from the archive: 

Year after year, one of my most read posts is a 2011 overview of Mel Kranzberg's Laws of Technology: Kranzberg's Six Laws, a Metaphor, and a Story. It is probably the only content for which I am the top Google search result. Actually, wait one second ... No, check that, I'm also the top search result for "Borg Complex." Of course, I coined the term. I feel now that the term is less clever than I imagined five or six years ago, but the point it seeks to make is still important: Borg Complex: A Primer

So this is my target for weekly publication: Monday morning or possibly late Sunday evening. Nothing more this week except one last link.




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