The Convivial Society, No. 5
"A convivial society should be designed to allow all its members the most autonomous action by means of tools least controlled by others. People feel joy, as opposed to mere pleasure, to the extent that their activities are creative; while the growth of tools beyond a certain point increases regimentation, dependence,
exploitation, and impotence."
— Ivan Illich, Tools For Conviviality (1973)
What do we do? What should we do? What can we do? Can what we do matter? What actions are available to us?
I find myself frequently thinking about these questions, sometimes fruitlessly. I suspect I'm not the only one. The question of what we ought to do is, of course, a multi-faceted question. About what? is the obvious follow up. On the one hand, I have in mind what we ought to do about our various technologies and the systems they constitute, how we ought to live with them or not. So much is obviously wrong, yet it often feels as if so little can be done. Individual choices are deemed inadequate, collective actions seem never quite to materialize (although, of course, there are exceptions). Some radical change of course seems necessary, but we cannot even imagine what that might entail nor do we have the will to pursue it should it manifest itself to us. It seems to me that the problem is not merely a matter of confusion or ignorance or lack of will power. It is also that the underlying conditions for meaningful action have been undermined. It is as if we were in a play and had lost the script and the stage was magically contrived to confound us.
I'm thinking, in part, of small things. Consider, for instance, the growing awareness that our devices can become addictive (or, at least, that our relationship to them can take on a compulsive cast) and how lukewarm, half-hearted, or non-existent our action in response tends to be. I'm currently reading Siva Vaidhyanathan's Anti-Social Media. Vaidhyanathan is a scathing critic of Facebook. Yet early in the book he confesses (his word), "I have lived my life through Facebook" and that "Facebook is the operating system of my life."
I'm thinking of large things, too: the overall direction of our lives, our sense of purpose, our moral judgment. All of it seems compromised at some level by our technological milieu. I believe we vaguely intuit as much (or maybe that's just me), but we (me, again) seem unable to articulate a more focused understanding of our situation that might guide us forward. And perhaps there is nothing for that. We cannot recover what has been undone. We cannot undo what has been done. We can only stumble forward through whatever darkness may lie before us, navigating by whatever light we find.
In any case, we occupy a perplexing place, it seems to me, given the nature of the world constituted by digital media. By "world" I mean something like the interpretation of reality that we inhabit. It is within these worlds that our action derives motive force and intelligibility. Human beings have always shared the same earth, but we have lived in very different worlds.
The shape of our world in this sense is molded by a number of factors, some of which are felt by others and some which may be unique to us. Invariably, however, our technology and media come into play. They sustain the symbolic and conceptual infrastructure of our worlds. They nourish and constrain the imagination. They generate habits and patterns of thought. They not only supply the contents of thought, they condition what is thinkable. And our actions are meaningful within these worlds and the implicit narrative frames they provide for our lives.
It seems to me that one consequence of digital media is the proliferation of such worlds and the emergence of a public sphere in which these worlds become unavoidably entangled, for better and, very often, for worse. Under these conditions, our worlds fray and shear. Motivation is sapped, purpose depleted. Regrettably, one result of this is reactionary violence. But another result is nihilism. Another still is apathy or paralysis. Ironic detachment is yet another. This is just one way the conditions for meaningful action are undermined.
Action also requires a context in order to be intelligible and meaningful. It requires a time and a place. But we are alienated from both time and place, so we are often at loss as to what we are to do. This dynamic was already identified by Kierkegaard in the mid-nineteenth century as the telegraph contributed to the emergence of "the news" as we have come to know it: daily dispatches of happenings from around the globe.
Kierkegaard, in Hubert Dreyfus's summary, believed "the new massive distribution of desituated information was making every sort of information immediately available to anyone, thereby producing a desituated, detached spectator. Thus, the new power of the press to disseminate information to everyone in a nation led its readers to transcend their local, personal involvement . . . . Kierkegaard saw that the public sphere was destined to become a detached world in which everyone had an opinion about and commented on all public matters without needing any first-hand experience and without having or wanting any responsibility." Perhaps that very last line holds an important clue. Perhaps action demands responsibility and that is precisely what we are unwilling to take.
Hannah Arendt, too, had a great deal to say about action, which for her was a deeply political phenomenon in the sense that it was made possible by the plurality of the human condition. "Action, the only activity that goes on directly between men without the intermediary of things or matter," she wrote, "corresponds to the human condition of plurality … this plurality is specifically the condition — not only the conditio sine qua non, but the conditio per quam — of all political life." Action, as she noted, happened "without the intermediary of things or matter." She imagines, thus, the face-to-face encounter where action is speech and speech is action. It was through action that we disclosed ourselves before others and received in return the integrity of the self.
She distinguished between the private and the public realm, an ancient distinction, of course. The private realm was the realm of the family, the household. The public realm was the realm where individuals appeared before one another and where their words and their deeds counted for something. She also introduced a third category, the social realm. A more recent development, it was the realm of mass society. A realm of a diminished plurality that also entailed anonymity. Individuals are aggregated in the social realm, but they do not appear before one another and thus action, in her sense, was undermined.
Much of her analysis, it seems to me, can be applied to what has become the realm of our appearance: social media. It is where most of us turn to be seen and to make our mark, as it were. But we find that the technological intermediary that constitutes this space of our appearing works against us. The scale is all wrong. Rather than returning to us the gift of integrity, it amplifies our self-consciousness. It disassociates word and deed. It discourages responsibility. It tempts us to mistake performative gestures for action.
Arendt, however, was also the theorist of new beginnings, of natality, and with this I will bring these comments to a close: “But there remains also the truth that every end in history also contains a new beginning; this beginning is the promise, the only ‘message’ which the end can ever produce. Beginning, before it becomes a historical event, is the supreme capacity of man; politically, it is identical with man’s freedom. Initium ut esset homo creatus est– 'that a beginning be made man was created' said Augustine. This beginning is guaranteed by each new birth; it is indeed every man.”
News and Resources
"To survive our high-speed society, cultivate 'temporal bandwidth'" by Alan Jacobs, including this excellent question from Hans Jonas: “What force shall represent the future in the present?” Alan Jacobs borrowed his application of "temporal bandwidth" from a 2016 review essay by Edward Mendelson, "In the Depths of the Digital Age."
The Guardian reports on the childcare robot, iPal. I include this not because I necessarily believe this sort of thing will gain traction (although it is apparently already in use in China) but in order to register a point: the fault is not in the robot but in the society that makes such a robot thinkable.
In "Amazon Needs to Stop Providing Facial Recognition Tech for the Government," Evan Selinger and Woodrow Hartzog argue that there is no safe way to deploy Amazon's Rekognition AI-powered surveillance system.
Caroline O'Donovan on those tabletop tablets at restaurants and the unintended consequences, especially for servers in this case, of blindly pursuing quantification and efficiency.
The argument "that social-media politics is all talk and no action or something, or that it’s empty — is compatible with, but a little bit different from, what I was saying. I’m saying that it empowers its opposite more than the original good intention." That's Jaron Lanier in an interview with New York Magazine. He also wants you to know that "social media hates your soul."
Google's predictive health software garnered attention for the claim that it can predict when a patient will die with 95% accuracy. The article in Nature on which these stories were reporting was much broader. You can read it here. At some point, it seems, we should reckon with emergence of predictive technologies. What Arendt wrote in 1958 seems relevant here: "The trouble with modern theories of behaviorism is not that they are wrong, but that they could become true"
Carolina Miranda in The Atlantic on how "the current wave of automation is affecting spaces that were once specifically designed around human interaction."
"It wasn't the first time my key card failed, I assumed it was time to replace it." The man who was fired by a machine.
"Around the world, the creaking deaths of ancient trees are testifying to the period of extraordinary environmental change that we are living through." Ed Yong on climate change and the death of ancient trees. I once wrote about the death of a 3,500 year-old tree not far from where I live.
"More than screen-obsessed young children, we should be concerned about tuned-out parents." Erika Christakis in The Atlantic. (I say be concerned about both.) As a parent, I realize parent shaming is awful. I don't think Christakis does this at all.
Louis Menand on privacy: "The danger is that that information can so easily fall into the hands of parties whose motives are much less benign." It seems to me that the danger may be even deeper, at the level of consciousness. Also, as I write this, the Supreme Court has ruled in Carpenter that the government needs a warrant to obtain cell phone location data.
"For Hamlet, then — as for Shakespeare when the play was written — it may not be possible to adjudicate between the competing accounts of the cosmos on the basis of observation." Natalie Elliot on Shakespeare's world of science in The New Atlantis.
"... the technology could become more problematic by the next U.S. presidential election in 2020. And a common refrain is that it’s a question of when, not if, Deepfake videos become more widespread and potentially problematic." On the impact of deepfake videos. One further consideration, whether or not deepfake videos succeed in duping a sizable number of voters, the very fact of their existence pushes further into the abyss of public epistemic nihilism.
Alasdair MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry:
"Those most prone to accuse others of utopianism are generally those men and women of affairs who pride themselves upon their pragmatic realism, who look for immediate results, who want the relationship between present input and future output to be predictable and measurable, and that is to say, a matter of the shorter, indeed the shortest run. They are the enemies of the incalculable, the skeptics about all expectations which outrun what they take to be hard evidence, the deliberately shortsighted who congratulate themselves upon the limits of their vision.
They include the fourth-century magistrates of the types of disordered city which Plato described in Book VIII of the Republic, the officials who tried to sustain the pagan Roman Empire in the age of Augustine, the sixteenth-century protobureaucrats who continued to do the unprincipled bidding of Henry VIII while Thomas More set out on a course that led to his martyrdom. What these examples suggest is that the gap between Utopia and current social reality may on occasion furnish a measure, not of the lack of justification of Utopia, but rather the degree to which those who not only inhabit current social reality but insist on upon seeing only what it allows them to see and upon learning only what it allows them to learn, cannot even identify, let alone confront the problems which will be inscribed in their epitaphs. It may be therefore that the charge of utopianism is sometimes best understood more as a symptom of the condition of those that level it than an indictment of the projects against which it is directed."
From Paul Kingsnorth’s Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist (h/t: Alan Jacobs):
"After years of living in cities with barely any contact with the ground, fuelled by anger and righteousness, driving myself into the ground, I decided to exchange activism for action. I decided to dig in, to use my limited powers to improve at least one small square of Earth, and to write, sometimes, about what I discovered by doing so.
Not everyone has been impressed with this approach. Some environmental activists in particular have reacted with anger. All this talk of grief and acceptance has sounded to them like a dangerous abdication of responsibility. It’s all very well for you to run away from the ‘fight’, I have been told, but this is the fate of the Earth we’re talking about. Forests are falling; the climate is changing. Millions of people are going to die, and you are advocating doing nothing. Are you depressed? Are you burned out? Whatever is wrong with you, you need to stop talking, because you are getting in the way of the necessary work.
My first reaction to responses like these was to defend myself, but when I got past that, I found I could easily understand their perspective. But I still thought there was something missing. Only two ways of reacting to the current crisis of nature were offered. On the one hand, there was ‘fighting’. This fighting was to be aimed at the ‘elite’ that was destroying the planet – oil companies, politicians, corporate leaders, the rich. On the other hand, there was ‘giving up’. Giving up meant not fighting. It meant running away from a necessary battle. It meant being selfish. It meant ‘doing nothing’, and letting the planet go to hell.
All of this hinged on a narrow definition of what doing something involved, and what action meant. It seemed to suggest that action must be something grand and global and gestural. Small actions were not actions at all: if you couldn’t ‘change the world’ there seemed little point in changing anything."
C.S. Lewis, The World's Last Night:
"In King Lear (III:vii) there is a man who is such a minor character that Shakespeare has not given him even a name: he is merely 'First Servant.' All the characters around him—Regan, Cornwall, and Edmund-have fine long-term plans. They think they know how the story is going to end, and they are quite wrong. The servant has no such delusions. He has no notion how the play is going to go. But he understands the present scene. He sees an abomination (the blinding of old Gloucester) taking place. He will not stand it. His sword is out and pointed at his master’s breast in a moment: then Regan stabs him dead from behind. That is his whole part: eight lines all told. But if it were real life and not a play, that is the part it would be best to have acted."
Gabriel Marcel, Man Against Mass Society:
"What we have to do with is rather an inner attitude; but this inner attitude cannot remain at the stage of a mere attitude, it must find expression in deeds, and that according to the situation in which each of us finds himself: I mean by that, that this is not a matter, as is unfortunately so often the habit of intellectuals, of our thrusting ourselves into fields in which we are wholly without authority, by signing appeals, manifestos, and so on. I am not giving a distorted emphasis to my own point of view when I say that this sort of thing is too often at the moral level of the petty confidence trick. But on the other hand it is within the scope of each of us, within his own proper field, in his profession, to pursue and unrelaxing struggle for man, for the dignity of man, against everything that today threatens to annihilate man and his dignity."
I've got my first essay in The New Atlantis coming out in the summer issue: "The Tech Backlash We Really Need." It's paywalled, unless you have a subscription (you should), but will be available relatively soon. Hope to have more work coming out with TNA later in the year.
Of note on the blog:
We're Reading Fahrenheit 451 Wrong
On Romano Guardini's 1959 Talk to Technologists-in-Training
Cyborg Discourse Is Useless
Are We Really Disenchanted
Social Media and Loneliness
My thanks for reading ... if you've made it this far. Once again, this was rather lengthy. And once again it's been longer than I'd hoped since the last newsletter (a recurring theme, I'm afraid). Other work, including the TNA article have taken precedence. A cup of coffee that I may have spilled over my laptop also had something to do with it. In any case, it won't be that long before The Convivial Society graces your Inbox again, at least I hope not.
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