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.
— 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.
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.