The Convivial Society, No. 2
"People can change, but only within bounds. In contrast, the present industrial system is dynamically unstable. It is organized for indefinite expansion and the concurrent unlimited creation of new needs, which in an industrial environment soon become basic necessities .... Such growth makes the incongruous demand that man seek his satisfaction by submitting to the logic of his tools."
— Ivan Illich, Tools For Conviviality (1973)
We are the kind of creatures who by nature generate artificiality. Or, to put it another way, it is natural for us to create what is not natural, what would not, at any rate, naturally occur were it not for us, who are most certainly a part of nature. Our natural habitat is a human-built world that amounts to a second nature. In other words, the line between the natural and the artificial might not be as clearly defined as we sometimes imagine. And, of course, a great deal would also need to be said about how the very idea of nature evolves in conversation, as it were, with the idea of the technological.
I open with these observations, neither original nor particularly profound and certainly preliminary and incomplete, as a way of approaching the question of desire and limitations. Our desires, whatever else we may say about them, are entangled with our natural artificiality. In order to satisfy at least some of our desires, we make tools. This is obvious enough. It is the partial truth contained in the commonplace "necessity is the mother of invention." I call it a partial truth, however, because it is no less true that invention is the mother of necessity. This is, in fact, the second of historian Melvin Kranzberg's Six Laws of Technology. “Every technical innovation," Kranzberg elaborated, "seems to require additional technical advances in order to make it fully effective.”
Kranzberg is right, of course, but I think we can go just a bit further. He is chiefly interested in making a practical point about the technical dimension of our tools. I would add, though, that invention is also the mother of necessity because it generates a new array of needs, which is to say a new array of desires. It is also the case that technologies augment, re-frame, or diminish existing desires.
My desires, therefore, are not merely natural; they emerge in relationship with the artificial. There exist some very basic needs, which some might argue are absolutely natural: for food and water, for example, or sex and shelter. I'd grant this, but only to a point. It is also the case that the particular shape and direction these desires take, the way they are expressed and how we seek to satisfy them evolves in relationship with the distinctive character of the human-built environment that is our second nature.
To think about technology, then, is to question our desires. Why do we want what we want? Do we embrace a particular technology because it addresses a desire? Or do we desire as we do because we have embraced technology as an unalloyed source of empowerment? Is it not the case that our technological milieu excels at nothing so much as sustaining itself by conditioning us to desire its perpetuation and expansion regardless of consequences and at the expense of all other possible configurations of the good life?
I began to think along these lines after reading a brief comment from Frank Pasquale on Twitter. Regarding the advisability of improving algorithms that could be deployed to inequitably surveil the black community, Pasquale observed, "Not all knowledge is worth having or pursuing." This is a striking claim, or at least it will, I suspect, seem that way to many. It runs sharply against the grain of our prevailing but unspoken assumption, grounded in mythical accounts of modernity's origins in a great struggle against the forces of ignorance and darkness, that there can be no limits whatsoever to the pursuit of knowledge.
It is important to note in this connection that the unbridled pursuit of knowledge envisioned by early modern theorists was decidedly oriented toward power, control, and mastery over nature, and as C.S. Lewis among others has pointed out, the pursuit of power over nature eventually culminates in the pursuit of power over people. While Francis Bacon never quite wrote scientia potentia est (knowledge is power), the slogan nevertheless captures an important aspect of his thought and the subsequent character of the techno-scientific project.
Consider the following: In 1954, Robert Oppenheimer, best known for his role with the Manhattan Project, testified before the Atomic Energy Commission in a hearing regarding his security clearance. “When you see something that is technically sweet," Oppenheimer noted during the course of the hearing, "you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you've had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”
In the Prologue to The Human Condition, published four years after Oppenheimer gave his testimony, Hannah Arendt also noted the danger inherent in the instrumentalization of knowledge: "If it should turn out to be true that knowledge (in the modern sense of know-how) and thought have parted company for good, then we would indeed become the helpless slaves, not so much of our machines as of our know-how, thoughtless creatures at the mercy of every gadget which is technically possible, no matter how murderous it is.”
Pasquale's comment suggests that there exist limits to what ought to be known. But what are these limits? How do we recognize them? Who, exactly, is to abide by them? If the limits are inherently moral or ethical, what moral tradition sustains them and what community makes them plausible?
Even if one is inclined to agree, on principle, that such limits must exist, it will quickly become apparent that the work of discerning and abiding by such limits can be a complicated affair. Yet, it is also apparent, to me anyway, that such work is essential. Our disordered relationship to technology arises from our unwillingness to imagine that there might be such limits or our inability to abide by them.
Here, at least, is one way of thinking about such limits, at least for ourselves. "In our culture, we have all accepted the notion that the right to know is absolute and unlimited," W.H. Auden observed. He went on to add,
"We are quite prepared to admit that, while food and sex are good in themselves, an uncontrolled pursuit of either is not, but it is difficult for us to believe that intellectual curiosity is a desire like any other, and to recognize that correct knowledge and truth are not identical. To apply a categorical imperative to knowing, so that, instead of asking, 'What can I know?' we ask, 'What, at this moment, am I meant to know?' — to entertain the possibility that the only knowledge which can be true for us is the knowledge that we can live up to — that seems to all of us crazy and almost immoral."
"The only knowledge which can be true for us is the knowledge that we can live up to." If we take technology, in its contemporary manifestations, as the materialization of the principle that knowledge is power, then we may apply Auden's implicit counsel to our thinking about technology.
News and Resources
In the Fall 2002 issue of the Hedgehog Review, Langdon Winner asked, "Are Humans Obsolete?"
In the same issue, Albert Borgmann wrote on "The Blessings of Calamity and the Burdens of Good Fortune."
From a 1995 collection of essays, here is William Cronon exploring the emergence of our idea of wilderness: "The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature."
In a 2008 essay for The New Atlantis, Thomas Merrill examines the influence of Rene Descartes on the technological project at modernity's heart. "While it was Francis Bacon who originated the idea of conquering nature for the sake of relieving man’s estate," Merrill writes, "it was Descartes who told us we might truly become 'like masters and possessors of nature.'"
Roger Shattuck took up the question of whether there are somethings we ought not to know in his 1996 work, Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography. The first part of Shattuck's work focuses on an assortment of literary works that take up the question of forbidden knowledge, including Faust and Frankenstein.
More recently, Tim Wu considered the tyranny of convenience. This is not the first time Wu has written a critical piece on the value of convenience. In 2014, I elaborated on a series of posts by Wu on this theme by bringing the work of Albert Borgmann to bear on Wu's observations. For more on the value of convenience take a look at The Value of Convenience: A Genealogy of Technical Culture by Thomas Tierney.
The Malicious Use of Artificial Intelligence: Forecasting, Prevention, and Mitigation. "This report surveys the landscape of potential security threats from malicious uses of artificial intelligence technologies, and proposes ways to better forecast, prevent, and mitigate these threats. We analyze, but do not conclusively resolve, the question of what the long-term equilibrium between attackers and defenders will be. We focus instead on what sorts of attacks we are likely to see soon if adequate defenses are not developed."
Cutting edge digital Taylorism: "From Whole Foods to Amazon, Invasive Technology Controlling Workers Is More Dystopian Than You Think."
At Radio Open Source, an episode on "The Algorithmic Age," featuring, among others, Nick Seaver and Rob Horning.
More from Ivan Illich's Tools for Conviviality:
"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. We must come to admit that only within limits can machines take the place of slaves; beyond these limits they lead to a new kind of serfdom. Only within limits can education fit people into a man-made environment: beyond these limits lies the universal schoolhouse, hospital ward, or prison. Only within limits ought politics to be concerned with the distribution of maximum industrial outputs, rather than with equal inputs of either energy or information. Once these limits are recognized, it becomes possible to articulate the triadic relationship between persons, tools, and a new collectivity. Such a society, in which modern technologies serve politically interrelated individuals rather than managers, I will call 'convivial.'”
In 2008, Wendell Berry wrote an article in Harper's titled "Faustian Economics: Hell Hath No Limits." In it he wrote:
"... our human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning. Perhaps our most serious cultural loss in recent centuries is the knowledge that some things, though limited, are inexhaustible. For example, an ecosystem, even that of a working forest or farm, so long as it remains ecologically intact, is inexhaustible. A small place, as I know from my own experience, can provide opportunities of work and learning, and a fund of beauty, solace, and pleasure — in addition to its difficulties — that cannot be exhausted in a lifetime or in generations."
In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis makes the following observation about the relationship between science and magic.
"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. You will even find people who write about the sixteenth century as if Magic were a medieval survival and Science the new thing that came in to sweep it away. Those who have studied the period know better. There was very little magic in the Middle Ages: the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are the high noon of magic. 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.
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."
This second installment of The Convivial Society comes to you about a week later than I originally intended. I'm afraid that may be the case more often than not, but my tardiness at least has the advantage of syncing the release with the first weekend of the month. So I'll aim for first and third weekends moving forward.
To the batch of new subscribers since the inaugural installment: Welcome.
To those wondering about the hiatus on the blog: stay tuned, posting should resume soon with a look at the recent interest in ethics of technology and calls for humanistic technology.