“I intend [‘conviviality’] to mean autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment; and this in contrast with the conditioned response of persons to the demands made upon them by others, and by a man-made environment. I consider conviviality to be individual freedom realized in personal interdependence and, as such, an intrinsic ethical value. I believe that, in any society, as conviviality is reduced below a certain level, no amount of industrial productivity can effectively satisfy the needs it creates among society’s members.”
— Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality
I think it was after the Sandy Hook school shooting that I first had the experience of logging onto Twitter thinking I had something worth saying only to learn that tragedy had struck. I then immediately realized that I had, in fact, nothing of consequence to say and, moreover, concluded that saying anything would be a deeply indecent thing to do. In the more recent past, this became an all too common experience. Today, it feels like this is simply the permanent state of things.
What is there to say right now, one may be justified in wondering, unless it is about the deadly virus coiling itself around the globe? And who has any business saying anything about it except the most highly trained and experienced medical and public health professionals among us?
I’ve been reminded recently of C. S. Lewis’s 1939 lecture to Oxford students, “Learning in War-time.” In it, Lewis takes up a very similar question: with a war for civilization raging across the channel, with your friends and family members fighting and dying, what business do you have devoting your time to such relative frivolities as the study of ancient Greek or medieval literature?
Lewis’s answer was, in part, that human civilization simply went on, so you’d better make the best of it. The crisis, whatever it may be, never extinguishes all human cultural activity. If you do not aim at higher forms of cultural life it is not as if you will end up with no cultural life at all, you will just end up with an impoverished cultural life.
In a couple of recent tweets, Robin Sloan expressed a similar sentiment:
“The war creates no absolutely new situation,” Lewis went on to explain,
“it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with ‘normal life’. Life has never been normal.”
The crisis we now face will be severe and each of us needs to figure out how best to do our part for the sake of our loved ones and our neighbors. For many of us the burden will be comparatively light; others, such as frontline medical staff, will pay a far greater price.
But however severe the crisis, we will still find ourselves needing to think about the shape of civil society, the consequences of economic policies, or the fate of privacy in the age of digital media. We will still seek the consolations and satisfactions of art and music. We will continue to be curious about that the nature of the world we inhabit. We will learn, we will sing, we will worship, we will laugh, we will cry. We will need each other. We cannot go on staring at our screens for the latest updates. It will do us no good, and it would be a forfeiture of life in its own, very different way.
Two weeks ago or so, I tried to compose a tweet expressing a feeling I could not shake. I tinkered with the wording a bit, but never quite managed to capture what it was that I was trying to say and the thought that I should do so came to seem self-important. It was the feeling of looking out into a world that was on the brink of some great unraveling. Whatever we thought of as normal, even as chaotic as normal had come to feel, would soon be gone. Here we are I suppose, at least for the time being. It is impossible to know how long our present crisis will last or what will be its lasting consequences.
Curiously, it was exactly 100 years ago, after the upheavals occasioned by America’s involvement in the Great War, that American presidential candidate Warren G. Harding ran and won on the promise of a “return to normalcy.” That seems to sum up the hopes of many today, presidential candidates among them, who would like nothing more than a return to what used to pass for normal even just four years ago. Given the upheavals and sorrows that lie before us, the promise of a return to normalcy will resonate all the more.
I have no idea what things will look like on the other side, but I am reasonably sure that we will not merely return to normal. Long before the coronavirus appeared on the horizon, it seemed to me that “normal,” or what people meant by “normal” was already on the way out. And, I’m not sure that we should regret it altogether.
Here’s one thought I did manage to condense into a tweet a couple of days ago: A world lost in a hyperreal fog may be about break on an intractable reality. Perhaps we can think of it not as a market correction, but an epistemic correction. Much depends on how we navigate the crisis, which will be grave, but this may be a matter of hope for the long run.
A month ago, a time that already seems like a different age, I wrote about the Iowa Caucus fiasco suggesting that it was a glitch that revealed the ordinarily disordered state of mediated hyperreality we take for granted day in and day out. It had seemed to me that it was nearly impossible to escape the gravitational pull of hyperreality. It was, as Thomas de Zengotita argued in Mediated, a blob-like phenomenon. Hyperreality swallowed everything in its path. There were times, de Zengotita wrote, when it seemed that some sufficiently grave “eruption of fate or evil” might challenge the supremacy of the blob, but it wouldn’t last long:
“Watch as the media antibodies swarm to the scene of those nascent interruptions. These are the junctures that require the most coverage—and the latent meaning, the ironic dialectic implicit in that word, emerges. What must be covered is any event or person or deed that might challenge the Blob with something like a limit, something the Blob cannot absorb …. The blob may have to devote some extra time and energy to these challenges, but in the end it prevails. And how is the moment of its victory marked? By your indifference. That's the signal to move on, the signal for the Next Thing to appear. That's when the original of the real thing has been fully mediated.”
It may be that in the present crisis—owing to its scale, gravity, and duration—the blob has finally encountered a reality it cannot ultimately absorb. Early on it was possible to clearly discern the operations de Zengotita described as media antibodies swarming to absorb this new interruption threatening the supremacy of the blob. Even now they persist, but something now seems somehow different. Maybe that’s just me. Maybe this is just temporary. Maybe the blob will ultimately win out and we will find ourselves back in the fog of hyperreality. At just this moment, though, it seems possible to seriously imagine the possibility that we might, despite ourselves, discover in this crisis the resources to imagine and embark on other, better paths.
In saying this, no one should conclude that I am somehow cheering for the virus to be as devastating a reality as possible just to own the hyperreal. Far from it. I’ve been anxious since at least mid-January, and I am fearful for the health and well-being of those I know and love, as well as countless others who are at grave risk. I’ve been advocating for what all along the way seemed like radical caution and I’ve continued to do so.
But the crisis is now upon us, and though we are, as I see it, still not near the worst of it, we can, insofar as we are able, begin to spare a thought or two for how we will emerge from all of this and what might be different.
I suspect that we will learn a great deal from our experience in the coming days and weeks and months. I can no longer find the source, but someone compared the outbreak to a tracer flowing through our social body highlighting all of the cracks and fissures. Might we now be able to muster the will to repair and heal and build? To imagine that certain social arrangements we’ve too blithely accepted can, in fact, be otherwise?
With respect to our technological milieu, perhaps we now have an opportunity to reset our relationship to digital technology. I’ve been heartened by numerous examples of communities and neighborhoods deploying modest digital tools not to cast a net of mutual surveillance and suspicion over themselves and their neighbors, but to meet each other’s needs and render aid to the vulnerable. Consider, for example, this simple website designed to help communities cooperatively coordinate childcare. I’ve seen other example of simple online groups being created to help coordinate assistance to the elderly or to facilitate cooperative schooling.
What strikes me about most of these examples I’ve encountered is the simplicity and scale of these efforts. They are, it seems to me, precisely what Illich described as convivial tools. They serve the interest of those who deploy them, not some other detached party indifferent to the well-being of the people and communities who use their products. They are the sorts of tools we use rather than those which ultimately tend to use us for purposes that have nothing to do with what we would have them do for us. These convivial tools, too, have served to strengthen rather than weaken social ties. They have amplified rather than diminished a newly found reserve of social trust. They have met the genuine needs of people rather than generating artificial needs to be satisfied at our expense and someone else’s profit.
It also seems that in the measures all of us must now take, we are receiving an education in social interdependence and the value of providing for the common good. We are learning, or so I have reason to hope, that our wellbeing is not independent of our neighbor’s health. That my economic prosperity is not the highest good toward which a society can be ordered. That, as Wendell Berry has put it, “the community—in the fullest sense: a place and all its creatures—is the smallest unit of health and that to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms.”
And not only an education in the common good, but also in the good. What is good? What is good for us as human beings? Might we rediscover better and wiser answers to these questions than those which we’ve accepted for far too long under the terms of the “magnificent bribe” described by Lewis Mumford:
“Under the democratic-authoritarian social contract, each member of the community may claim every material advantage, every intellectual and emotional stimulus he may desire, in quantities hardly available hitherto even for a restricted minority: food, housing, swift transportation, instantaneous communication, medical care, entertainment, education. But on one condition: that one must not merely ask for nothing that the system does not provide, but likewise agree to take everything offered, duly processed and fabricated, homogenized and equalized, in the precise quantities that the system, rather than the person, requires.”
Might we learn, too, the limits within which our tools might properly be used to enhance and empower rather than displace and degrade human labor, action, judgement, and responsibility? Forced now to rely on them almost exclusively in some cases, perhaps we’ll discover what exactly digital media can and cannot do for us so that we might put them in their proper place rather than submitting all of our experience to their logic and structure.
In my latest piece for The New Atlantis, I concluded an otherwise characteristically cranky assessment of the state of digital society with a gesture toward an alternative state of affairs:
Another path also seems possible. Freed from certain unsustainable illusions about the nature of the self and the world, we may now be called back to reckon with reality in a new, more chastened and more responsible manner. It is possible that the Promethean aspirations that characterized the modern self and modern society may now yield to a more sober assessment of the limits within which genuine human flourishing might occur.
I confess that it was a half-hearted gesture. I’m not sure I really believed such a path was open to us or that we had the will to choose it. It remains a dim possibility, I grant, but just now I think I can bring myself to at least believe the possibility is real.
That will have to be enough for now. I realize much of what I’ve just written may come off as rather abstract and insufficiently grounded in concrete cases. But I hope to think more along these lines in the coming weeks and would be happy to hear your thoughts and perspectives.
News and Resources
Abeba Birhane on the late Joseph Weizenbaum’s prescient criticisms of a misguided faith AI and computers more generally.
Adam Elkus, “It Only Wants Targets”: “Managing public health and disease was one of the core tasks that helped build the legitimacy of industrial era government in the 19th and 20th centuries. When civil servants are too burdened by bureaucratic red tape and the need to perform political face-work to properly pursue this endeavor, it is a sign that Western society has traded the substance of political competence for its appearance. And more generally, a society that cares more about declining trust in institutions than what institutions have substantively done to deserve trust – and which devotes far more effort towards managing the behavioral psychology of risk than actually reducing risk – is engaged in narrative-making as a singular pursuit above all else.”
“What’s a Quibi? A Way to Amuse Yourself Until You’re Dead”: “Quibi knows that where willpower has failed, self-deprecation steps in to give our bad habits a patina of sardonic resignation. The subtext of the ads is that, unlike the man sinking in quicksand, the cowboy tied to the tracks or the doomed occupants of the Oval Office, we get that we’re ridiculous. And that ironic distance is just enough to make us feel like we’re not really in this situation.”
In a span of a couple of days I heard some variation of the claim that a well-placed connection had disclosed some drastic impending action on the part of the federal government. It came from three unrelated sources, and it struck me as odd. Apparently, this sort of thing is circulating widely via text and private groups as the major social media platforms have been more vigilant in combatting misinformation about COVID-19. Ben Collins has the story.
3-D printed valves fill an urgent need in Italian hospital.
From 1983, “Moral Mazes: Bureaucracy and Managerial Work”: “For managers, blame—like failure—has nothing to do with the merits of a case; it is a matter of social definition. As a general rule, it is those who are or who become politically vulnerable or expendable who get “set up” and become blamable. The most feared situation of all is to end up inadvertently in the wrong place at the wrong time and get blamed. Yet this is exactly what often happens in a structure that systematically diffuses responsibility. It is because managers fear blame time that they diffuse responsibility; however, such diffusion inevitably means that someone, somewhere is going to become a scapegoat when things go wrong.”
Examining a popular child-tracking app: “Even if it's totally legal for a parent to track their children, some experts have urged parents to consider how they go about it and the impact it could have on their teen's trust or their ability to practice independence.”
Kate Crawford and Alexander Campolo on “Enchanted Determinism:Power without Responsibility in Artificial Intelligence”: “The combination of predictive accuracy and mysterious or unexplainable properties results in myth-making about deep learning’s transcendent, superhuman capacities, especially when it is applied in social settings … Enchantment shields the creators of these systems from accountability while its deterministic, calculative power intensifies classification and control.”
— Hannah Arendt in the Origins of Totalitarianism:
“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.”
— Another little snippet from Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard Commencement Address, “A World Split Apart.”
“There is … a self-deluding interpretation of the contemporary world situation. It works as a sort of petrified armor around people's minds ... It will only be broken by the pitiless crowbar of events.”
— More from Lewis’s “Learning in War-time”:
“Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never comes. Periclean Athens leaves us not only the Parthenon but, significantly, the Funeral Oration. The insects have ‘chosen’ a different line: they have sought first the material welfare and security of the hive, and presumable they have their reward. Men are different. They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache; it is our nature.”
So this modest newsletter will go on, as you’ve gathered, in its usual way. I won’t be ignoring developments related to COVID-19, but questions related to technology and society will be the focus as they always have been. And I will trust you to read or not to read as the demands on your time and resources dictate. I still think one of the nice things about newsletters is that I know that it hits your inbox and you know that you can click delete (or unsubscribe) whenever you feel like it.
I have made one small change to the publishing schedule. I am now aiming at the second and fourth Monday of the month, rather than the second and fourth Friday. I suspect you might not even have noticed the change, but there it is.
Please do take the social distancing business seriously. Take care of yourselves, and look out for your neighbors.
I’d love to hear about examples you’ve encountered of technology put to good use. Feel free to reply via email or leave a comment if you’re a paid subscriber. And, as always, if you’ve found this work valuable, do consider subscribing and/or sharing it.