The Paradox of Control

The Convivial Society: Vol. 2, No. 4


Back in 2019, Colin Horgan published an essay discussing the role of convenience in shaping our techno-social order. “It’s convenience, and the way convenience is currently created by tech companies and accepted by most of us,” Horgan argued, “that is key to why we’ve ended up living in a world we all chose, but that nobody seems to want.” While I’m inclined to qualify the “we all chose” element of this claim, particularly under pandemic conditions, the line nonetheless aptly captures what I suspect may be a familiar feeling, the feeling, that is, that we are somehow working at cross-purposes against ourselves. It’s the feeling that our efforts, however well-intentioned or feverish, are not only inadequate but somehow self-defeating. Or, alternatively, it’s the lack of satisfaction lampooned in the popular comedic bit from a few years ago about how “everything is amazing but nobody is happy.”

Of course, part of the problem is that everything is not, in fact, amazing. Being able to access the internet on a transatlantic flight, a key element of the routine, hardly amounts to a just society conducive to human flourishing. And, naturally, many among us might feel as if they are always spinning their wheels and getting nowhere because existing social structures are stacked against them, often deliberately so. Having acknowledged as much, though, it’s worth exploring another dimension of the problem, what we might call the paradox of control, which is the subject of German sociologist Hartmut Rosa’s recent book, The Uncontrollability of the World. It’s a short book, coming in at just over 100 pages, but it develops what is, in my view, an essential insight into one of the key assumptions structuring modern society.

“The driving cultural force of that form of life we call ‘modern,’” Rosa writes, “is the idea, the hope and the desire, that we can make the modern world controllable.” “Yet,” he quickly adds, “it is only in encountering the uncontrollable that we really experience the world. Only then do we feel touched, moved, alive. A world that is fully known, in which everything has been planned and mastered, would be a dead world.”

In other words, the more we seek to control the world, the more it will fail to speak to us, and, consequently the more alienated and dissatisfied we will feel. I might even put it this way: Rosa aims to show that how we set about to find meaning, purpose, or happiness more or less guarantees that we will never find any of them. The rest of the book is an elaboration of this basic dynamic.

Philosophically, Rosa develops his thesis from the observation that human experience is grounded in the perception that “something is present,” and that this awareness even “precedes the distinction between subject and world.” Gradually, we learn to distinguish between the self and the world, but these are “two poles … of the relationship that constitutes them.” The question for Rosa is “how is this something that is present constituted.” In other words, how does our mode of relating to the world shape our perception of it?

Rosa’s “guiding thesis” on this score is that “for late modern human beings, the world has simply become a point of aggression,” an apt phrase that seemed, sadly, immediately useful as a way of characterizing what it feels like to be alive right now. The world becomes a series of points of aggression when, as Rosa puts it, “everything that appears to us must be known, mastered, conquered, made useful.” If our response to this is a measure of befuddlement—how else would we go about living if not by seeking to know, to master, to conquer, to make useful?—then it would seem that Rosa is probably right to say that this is a bedrock assumption shaping our thinking rather than being a product of it.

And, as he goes on to say, because we encounter the world in this way, then “the experience of feeling alive and of truly encountering the world—that which makes resonance possible—always seems to elude us.” We’ll return momentarily to the idea of resonance, a critical concept to which Rosa devoted an earlier book, but for now we should simply note that, in Rosa’s view, a failure to experience resonance “leads to anxiety, frustration, anger, and even despair, which then manifest themselves, among other things, in acts of impotent political aggression.”

Rosa acknowledges that relating to the world primarily by seeking to control or manage it is hardly a new development. This “creeping reorganization of our relationship to the world,” Rosa writes, “stretches far back historically, culturally, economically, and institutionally.” Indeed, the modern project, dating back at least to the 17th century, particularly in its techno-scientific dimensions, can be interpreted as a grand effort to tame nature and bring it under human control. And, of course, as C. S. Lewis observed in The Abolition of Man, the drive to control nature was eventually turned on humanity itself.

But in Rosa’s view, this “creeping reorganization” has, in the 21st century, “become newly radicalized, not least as a result of the technological possibilities unleashed by digitization and by the demands for optimization and growth produced by financial market capitalism and unbridled competition.” For example, Rosa cites the various tools we deploy to measure and optimize our bodies: “We climb onto the scale: we should lose weight. We look into the mirror: we have to get rid of that pimple, those wrinkles. We take our blood pressure: it should be lower. We track our steps: we should walk more.” “We invariably encounter such things,” Rosa notes, “as a challenge to do better.” A bit further on, Rosa adds, “More and more, for the average late modern subject of the ‘developed’ western world, everyday life revolves around and amounts to nothing more than tackling an ever-growing to-do list. The entries on this list constitute the points of aggression that we encounter as the world … all matters to be settled, attended to, mastered, completed, resolved, gotten out of the way.”

Why are we like this? Rosa provides a two-fold answer: “the normalization and naturalization of our aggressive relationship to the world is the result of a social formation, three centuries in the making, that is based on the structural principle of dynamic stabilization and on the cultural principle of relentlessly expanding humanity’s reach.”

By “the structural principle of dynamic stabilization,” Rosa means that “the basic institutional structure of modern society can be maintained only through constant escalation.” Modern society according to Rosa “is one that can stabilize itself only dynamically, in other words one that requires constant economic growth, technological acceleration, and cultural innovation in order to maintain its institutional status quo.”

I trust that, if you’ve been reading this newsletter for a while, this claim about dynamic stabilization will have struck you as vaguely familiar. It is more or less what Ivan Illich was arguing nearly fifty years ago. In fact, I think it would be fair to describe Rosa’s book in its entirety as being Illich in another key. Just a few pages in, I turned to the index to see if Illich was cited because it was already evident that there would be a deep affinity between what Rosa was arguing and Illich’s work, something I continued to think right down to the last page. Alas, he was not, and I will resist the temptation to note the various points at which Illich anticipated Rosa’s argument. (Dear reader: there were many.)

Dynamic stabilization, then, means that should our institutions cease growing and expanding, society would become unstable. It’s worth noting that this is not simply the way societies work. Indeed, modern society, for better and for worse, may be unique in this regard. I think that it was in the aftermath of September 11th that this point was driven vividly home to me by the immediate and evidently panicked insistence that, above all else, Americans should not cease buying stuff. Sure, hug your loved ones, but not too long because you’ve got 0% financing to take advantage of. The panic, of course, was not altogether misplaced. I’m not an economist and thus happy to be corrected on this score, but it seemed to me then, as it does now, that should any sizable portion of the population suddenly decide that their well-being was not served by buying more things, the modern economy would collapse.

This is why Rosa astutely observes that “this escalatory perspective has gradually turned from a promise into a threat.” “What generates this will to escalation,” he explains, “is not the promise of improvement in our quality of life, but the unbridled threat that we will lose what we have already attained.” “The game of escalation,” Rosa argues, “is perpetuated not by a lust for more, but by the fear of having less and less. Whenever and wherever we stop to take a break, we lose ground against a highly dynamic environment, with which we are always in competition.” Rosa invites us to consider how a growing number of parents in the “developed” world claim that they are motivated not by the hope that their children will have it better than they do but by the fear that they might have it worse.

This matters for Rosa’s overall argument because it means that societies that can only stabilize themselves dynamically “are structurally and institutionally compelled to bring more and more of the world under control and within reach, technologically, economically, and politically: to develop resources, open markets, activate social and psychological potentials, enhance technological capabilities, deepen knowledge bases, improve possibilities of control, and so on.”

This structural imperative is coupled with the cultural assumption that “our life will be better if we manage to bring more world within our reach: this is the mantra of modern life, unspoken but relentlessly reiterated and reified in our actions and behavior.” According to Rosa the “categorical imperative of late modernity” is “Always act in such a way that your share of the world is increased.” Rosa goes so far as to suggest that the history of technology is driven by the “promise of increasing the radius of what is visible, accessible, and attainable to us.” This amounts, in Rosa’s view, to a desire to render more and more of the world controllable.

From here, Rosa lays out what he identifies as the four dimensions of controllability:

  1. making the world visible, knowable, expanding our knowledge of it

  2. making the world physically reachable or accessible

  3. making the world manageable

  4. making the world useful

Modern science, technology, economic development, and the political-administrative apparatus all contribute to making the world controllable along these four dimensions. In the political-administrative sphere, Rosa adds that “the struggle for power can be understood in all respects as a struggle for control.” “Power,” he continues, “always manifests itself in the expansion of one’s own share of the world, often at the expense of others.”

Next, Rosa turns to what he calls the paradoxical flipside of the modern quest for control. The “institutionally enforced program” and “cultural promise of making the world more controllable, not only does not work but in fact becomes distorted into its exact opposite.” Or, to put this into Illichian terms, they become counterproductive, first frustrating the attainment of the goal they seek to achieve and then becoming socially destructive.

“The scientifically, technologically, economically, and politically controllable world,” Rosa argues, “mysteriously seems to elude us or to close itself off from us. It withdraws from us, becoming mute and unreadable. Even more, it proves to be threatened and threatening in equal measure.” The relation to the world that emerges from a desire to control is characterized by alienation or worldlessness, it is, Rosa writes, “a relation of relationlessness in which subject and world find themselves inwardly unconnected from, indifferent toward, and even hostile to each other.”

Early on, Rosa had put the matter rather starkly: “A world that is fully known, in which everything has been planned and mastered would be a dead world.” This particular formulation recalls Simone Weil’s observation in her profound analysis of the Iliad that “force” is “that x that turns anyone who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him.” I’m suggesting, of course, that we think of what Weil calls “force” as being not altogether dissimilar from, indeed, an essential element of the drive to bring the world under control. But, of course, we don’t really want a world that is, practically speaking, dead to us.

Perhaps the most valuable part of the book, in my view, commences at this point in the argument when Rosa describes the alternative of relating to the world as a point of aggression to be mastered, managed, and controlled. This alternative mode of relation Rosa calls resonance. The prior book by that title clocks in at 450 pages. Here Rosa gives us what amounts to a 30-page primer.

What Rosa calls resonance is a way of relating to the world such that we are open to being affected by it, can respond to its “call,” and then both transform and be transformed by it—adaptive transformation as opposed to mere appropriation. “The basic mode of vibrant human existence,” Rosa explains, “consists not in exerting control over things but in resonating with them, making them respond to us—thus experiencing self-efficacy—and responding to them in turn.”

Consider, by way of example, something as prosaic as an encounter with another person. Such an encounter will be resonant only when we offer ourselves to the encounter in such a way that we can be affected or moved by the other person and when we, in turn, can respond in kind to this call. As Illich might say, it is a willingness to be surprised by the encounter and to receive ourselves back as a gift of the other. Indeed, Rosa even draws our attention, as Illich does so often, to the gaze. “Our eyes,” Rosa writes, “are windows of resonance. To look into someone’s eyes and to feel them looking back is to resonate with them.”

As a result, such encounters transform both of the people involved. One key to such encounters, however, is a measure of uncontrollability. As some of us may know from experience, any effort to manufacture a “resonant” encounter with another person is almost certainly destined to fail. Similarly, if an object or a person were altogether subject to our control or manipulation, the experience of resonance would also fail to materialize. They would not call to us or be able to creatively respond to us. Indeed, Rosa argues, as we’ve seen, that whatever is wholly within our control we experience as inert and mute. As a result, the farther we extend the imperative to control the world, the more the world will fail to resonate, the more it falls silent, leaving us alienated from it, and to the degree that we come to know ourselves through our relation to a responsive other, then also from ourselves.

Interestingly, Rosa, who otherwise develops his argument in strictly sociological language, nonetheless notes an analogy to religious insights. “Religious concepts such as grace or the gift of God,” Rosa writes, “suggest that accommodation cannot be earned, demanded, or compelled, but rather is rooted in an attitude of approachability to which the subject-as-recipient can contribute insofar as he or she must be receptive to God’s gift or grace.” “In sociological terms,” he adds, “this means that resonance always has the character of a gift.” 

Along these lines, one recalls, too, Arendt’s warning in the prologue to The Human Condition: “The future man, whom the scientists tell us they will produce in no more than a hundred years, seems possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something made by himself.” Something, we might add, that he can control and manage precisely because he has made it. On the other hand, the uncontrollability of resonance, Rosa insists, means that “there is no method, no seven- or nine-step guide that can guarantee that we will be able to resonate with people or things.”

Rosa goes on to elaborate on the nature of resonance and further specify how exactly it is undermined by the impulse to control and manage our experience. But the crux of the matter is relatively straightforward: “An attitude aimed at taking hold of a segment of the world, mastering it, and making it controllable is incompatible with an orientation toward resonance. Such an attitude destroys any experience of resonance by paralyzing its intrinsic dynamism.”

From here, Rosa walks us through a series of scenarios arranged around the progression of a life from birth to death in order to illustrate how the paradox of control plays out along the way. As the father of two young children, I was, naturally, especially interested in his discussion of child-rearing and education. “As in the case of childbirth or home security, here too,” Rosa writes, “the measurability and manageability of multiple processes seems not to diminish anxiety but to heighten it.”

Channeling Illich once again, unwittingly I suppose, Rosa goes on to describe what might be a familiar dynamic:

“This [heightening of anxiety] can be seen in modern parents’ concern that their child’s every discomfort, every scratch, every abnormality in his or her growth, speech, motor skills, or communicative faculties requires medical attention. This dependence on experts and on medical devices undermines parents’ expectations of self-efficacy and, consequently, their ability to experience it. It is no longer parents themselves who listen to their children’s needs and then (in resonance with them) seek out an appropriate response, but rather doctors and experts acting on the basis of reliable data, thus making developmental processes as controllable as possible.”

It is in this section, too, that Rosa supplies us with the useful term parameterized, by which Rosa means “made quantitively measurable one way or another.” So, speaking of the parameterization of the various aspects of child development, Rosa observes, “for each one there are countless experts, guidebooks, and support programs.” It is as if the mode of relating entailed by parameterization disabled our capacity to make reasonable and relatively confident judgments about what one ought to do and instead throws us on the mercy of countless competing and inconclusive authorities.

Not surprisingly, Rosa rightly notes that “technologies and processes associated with digitalization have fundamentally transformed our lives by making nearly the entire world, as it is represented in our consciousness, accessible and controllable in historically unprecedented ways.” Digital technology has especially abetted the parameterization of human experience with every new sensor and data-gathering device, rendering ever more aspects of our own experience as points of aggression. “It is all but impossible,” Rosa observes, “to keep track of the number of steps one takes in a day without being tempted to increase or optimize that number.” And so it is with whatever we can measure and quantify. In this way, “our relationship to our own bodily processes and psychological states has thus been transformed … from one of flexible, self-efficacious listening and responding to one of technological and medical calculation and control.”

It’s worth noting, I think, that Rosa’s examples tend to focus on how you and I might deploy digital technologies to bring more of the world ostensibly under our control. What he might also have explored at greater depth is the degree to which we are not the master’s of these systems of control, indeed, that very often they open up pathways for others to control us. I don’t mean this in some weird conspiratorial sort of way. I mean simply that the same technologies we deploy to parameterize our experience can be used to finely calibrate the worker at the workplace as if she were just another part of the machinery or, alternatively, to exclude someone from health insurance coverage based on the their health parameters.

Rosa draws the book to a close with a discussion of “the monstrous return of the uncontrollable.” “Despite the unpredictability and uncontrollability of our circumstances,” he warns, “we are still held responsible for results that we are supposed to have been able to foresee, which gives rise to anxiety.” “Controllability,” he adds, “in theory thus transforms uncontrollability in practice into a menacing ‘monster.’”

A little further on, he makes the following observation: “the impression of a world become increasingly politically uncontrollable is further reinforced by the similarly uncontrollable dynamism of media and social networks, which have rapidly become capable of provoking previously unimagined, massively consequential waves of outrage or excitement that are unpredictable and uncontrollable in terms of how they arise, how they pass away, and how they interact with one another.”

In one of his Sabbath poems, Wendell Berry reminded us that “we live the given life, not the planned.” I can’t think of a more pithy way of putting the matter. By the “given life,” of course, Berry does not mean what is implied by the phrase “that’s a given,” something, that is, which is taken for granted. Rather, Berry means the gifted life, the life that is given to us. We are presented with a choice, then: we can receive the world as a gift, which does not preclude our acting upon it and creatively transforming it, or we can think of it merely as raw material subject to our managing, planning, predicting, and controlling. Rosa helps us to see, quite precisely, why the latter path will be marked by frustration, anxiety, and alienation. So I will give him the last, more hopeful word:

“If we no longer saw the world as a point of aggression, but as a point of resonance that we approach, not with an aim of appropriating, dominating, and controlling it but with an attitude of listening and responding, an attitude oriented toward self-efficacious adaptive transformation, toward mutually responsive reachability, modernity’s escalatory game would become meaningless and, more importantly, would be deprived of the psychological energy that drives it. A different world would become possible.”


I’m foregoing links this time around out of a desire to just get this installment out and into your inboxes. I will note, though, that I recently had the pleasure of talking with Andrew McLuhan, Marshall’s grandson and the director of the McLuhan Institute, as well as David Sax, the author of Revenge of the Analog, on Quarantime, a podcast hosted by Peter Hirshberg and Mickey McManus. You can listen to it here. I also recently enjoyed a conversation with Elise Lonich Ryan of the Beatrice Institute, which you can find here. I readily confess to being somewhat ill at ease with the podcast format, in part, because I can’t control what transpires! But I’ve been glad for these conversations and honored by the invitations.