What Is To Be Done? — Fragments
The Convivial Society: Vol. 3, No. 14
Welcome to the Convivial Society, especially to those of you who have signed up since the last installment (including the bevy of new readers from Germany, willkommen). Speaking of which, that’s been an unusually long stretch. I’d like to blame it on post-Covid brain fog or something of the sort. In fact, it’s just been a challenging three weeks or so in perfectly ordinary ways. But trying to get back to it now.
In any case, this is a newsletter about technology and culture, broadly speaking. As I sometimes put it, the most important questions about technology are ultimately questions about what it means to be human. So, we tend to cover a lot ground here and come at things from multiple perspectives, often leaning on the unjustly neglected work of older writer and thinkers. This installment is a case in point. If you are new to the newsletter, this orientation I wrote last year is still a pretty good primer. In truth, this post itself will serve the purpose, too.
Cheers, and thanks for reading.
Given the rather eclectic nature of my work, I’m always curious to see how I get labeled by others when they are commenting on writing. I’m sometimes referred to as a philosopher of technology, which, I confess, seems somewhat unmerited, unless taken broadly in the sense that we should all be lovers of wisdom. “Technology theorist” is another common designation. I rather like that one because it recalls Hannah Arendt’s own desire to be identified not as a philosopher but as a political theorist.1 I’d say, though, that more often than not I’m called a technology critic, which is fine. I don’t mind the label so long as the word critic is not understood too narrowly so as to suggest someone who has only negative things to say.
Early in my blogging days, I reflected a bit on the nature of technology criticism. In my view, the technology critic was not necessarily motivated by a love of their object in the same way that a food critic or film critic might be. “The critic of technology is a critic of artifacts and systems that are always for the sake of something else,” I observed. To put it another way, we run into problems precisely when we start treating technology as an end rather than a means to an end. This is not to say that we can’t be legitimately impressed with technical achievements on their own terms, of course, or admire the skill that makes them possible. But we do well to also judge technologies according to the greater ends they help us realize and critique them to the degree that they undermine the achievement of such ends. And because we cannot assume that everyone shares the same set of goals or aspirations—because these ends are often contested within society—then technology criticism will inevitably raise political questions.
But criticism, as I understand it, also implies thinking about the meaning of technology, without rushing to make definitive or universal judgments about whether a technology is good or bad. The late historian of technology Melvin Kranzberg once summed up what he had learned over the course of his career in six “laws” of technology. In the first and most famous of these, Kranzberg explained that “technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” While I do think it is possible, and sometimes necessary, to make situated normative claims about certain technologies, such claims are best grounded in a careful and multi-faceted consideration of the technology in view. Tech criticism, then, involves patient analysis, careful thinking, and sound judgment.
Now, if you do suggest that elements of our technological milieu are working against us, people will justifiably want to know what is to be done. I get some variation of that question a lot, and I confess that I don’t ever feel as if I give an adequate answer. In part, this because the distinction between technology, on the one hand, and, on the other, culture, economics, or politics is merely heuristic (or at least I think one could make a good argument that effect), so the answer can never be as simple as “fix this technical problem” and all will be well. I would add, too, that because many of the problems we face are functions of the human condition, we cannot solve them, exactly—we can just find better ways of abiding them. Indeed, it may be that some of the problems we face stem precisely from the temptation to relate to the human condition as one would to a technical problem in need of an engineered solution.
In any case, this question has come up in various ways over the past few weeks, and I thought I’d think through it again here. But I’ll do so by reverting to a form I turn to from time to time: a loosely structured list of associated thoughts and reflections. I’m glad this approach has resonated in the past, and I hope it does so again. I’m drawn to it, I think, because it reflects the provisional and associative nature of thinking. It also reflects the way fragments of thought, often surfaced from another time, can gather around a problem to illuminate its contours, disclose its depths, and perhaps even reveal lines of actions. Such fragments, in any case, may be all we have to work with. I also appreciate the fact that the form invites rather than forecloses further thought. At least I hope it does so for you.
1. The question “What is to be done?” implies another one that is rarely discussed explicitly so much as it is implicitly argued about. That question is this: “Who is going to do it?” The way I usually come to this question is through the recurring debate about the relative merits of individual actions. So for instance, as the textbook example goes, does it really matter that I, personally, conscientiously recycle? Given the overall scale of the environmental crisis, the seemingly obvious answer is “no.” But what if we frame it as a problem of collective action? My individual action may not matter as such, but it matters as part of a collective response. The rejoinder might be that it still doesn’t matter because this plays into an industry-sponsored effort to deflect responsibility from corporations to private citizens while locking us in a consumer frame of action or subjectivity. In this way, the political will to regulate or break-up corporations is undermined. Similar lines of argument play out in multiple arenas. For example, it has been argued that social media companies likewise shift responsibility to individual users for the harms they cause to political culture, and it matters not at all how I personally decide to moderate my social media use. Put bluntly, in the face of large scale and systemic problems, calling for individual action is less than useless, it is effectively counter-productive. Or so the argument goes.
I’m willing to grant the essence of this line of thought, but here’s what I can’t get around. I still have to get up tomorrow morning and figure out what to do, and so do you. You and I do have choices to make. The choices are constrained, but real. I can make better or worse decisions. And, as I see it, I have an obligation—to myself, my family, my community—to make the best possible choices with whatever degree of clarity and agency I’m granted. Those choices should not be foolishly naive, although, of course, what counts as foolishly naive is itself a matter of debate. I should not blindly assent to corporate or political ploys or propaganda. I should be wise and clear-sighted about the problems I am confronting. But there are choices to make, and people should not be discouraged from making them as intelligently as they can manage. Far less should they be scorned for attempting to do so or, worse yet, given only the counsel of despair.
2. Jacques Ellul, who is sometimes accused of painting a hopeless picture of a society enthralled by technique:
There will be a temptation to use the word fatalism in connection with the phenomena described in this book. The reader may be inclined to say that, if everything happens as stated in the book, man is entirely helpless—helpless either to preserve his personal freedom or to change the course of events. Once again, I think the question is badly put. I would reverse the terms and say: if man—if each one of us—abdicates his responsibilities with regard to values; if each of us limits himself to leading a trivial existence in a technological civilization, with greater adaptation and increasing success as his sole objectives; if we do not even consider the possibility of making a stand against these determinants, then everything will happen as I have described it, and the determinants will be transformed into inevitabilities.
We must not think of the problem in terms of a choice between being determined and being free. We must look at it dialectically, and say that man is indeed determined, but that it is open to him to overcome necessity, and that this act is freedom. Freedom is not static but dynamic; not a vested interest, but a prize continually to be won. The moment man stops and resigns himself, he becomes subject to determinism. He is most enslaved when he thinks he is comfortably settled in freedom.
3. We should ask not only “What is to be done?” but “Who is going to do it?” This at least acknowledges the fact that we may all have choices to make and some measure of agency to exercise, but we do not all of have the same resources, skills, or standing. In other words, what a policy wonk in a senator’s office can and should do is different from what a programmer working at a startup can and should do. Their scope for action will, in turn, differ wildly from that of a single parent struggling pay rent and feed her kids. It’s not just that she has far less power, it’s that her responsibilities and obligations are also different. That she cannot do what the legislative assistant or the programmer can do does not imply that she ought to do nothing.
4. Digital information environments tempt us with delusions of limitlessness. Contrary to their implicit promise, we cannot know everything. Much less can we care about everything, certainly not to the same degree. And we certainly cannot meaningfully act on it all. Tacitly embracing the notion that we can know and care indiscriminately and at the whim of the timeline diminishes our capacity to act and thus feeds despair and apathy.
5. I find it helpful to think about my choices with regards to technology as falling into three general possibilities: embrace, negotiation, refusal. More often than not we ought to be negotiating. There are occasions to either embrace or refuse technologies, depending, of course, on our situation and our aspirations, but in neither case should we do so thoughtlessly.
6. From a recent essay by Clare Coffey:
If you think seriously about the good life and pursue it, you will probably fail in ways large and small. But an imperfect struggle to live well and love a world badly in need of repair is better than staying still because things are terrible, because you might look like a loser in the meritocratic game, because it’s easier.
This is your life. You do not have time to wait for the revolution to begin living it. You will always be able to find someone to give you permission not to live it. But no one is coming along to live it for you.
Coffey offers a useful corrective to a certain tendency in contemporary discussions of our admittedly broken world. As I think Coffey makes clear, it may indeed be the case that contemporary society is calibrated so as to undermine the possibility of human flourishing. I’ve made a similar argument myself. But we should be careful not to evade responsibility for what it is in our power to do. I confess that I’m sympathetic to this line of thought because I am naturally suspicious of any program for action that asks nothing of me.
7. According to Heidegger, the essence of technology is nothing technological. This is a useful observation whatever else you might think about Heidegger. To reckon with modern technology we cannot merely consider this artifact or that system. The essence of technology is a way of being in the world, a distinct mode of inhabiting the human condition. We can think of it as a deep force animating the modern technological project, which is then perpetuated by the material fruit of that same project. The task before us, as I see it, is to cultivate an alternative way of being in the world.
8. Drawing on Simone Weil, philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch developed an interesting theory of will, attention, and action. “Do we really have to choose between an image of total freedom and an image of total determinism?” she asked. “Can we not give a more balanced and illuminating account of the matter?” Her answer, of course, is that such an illuminating view was possible if we “simply introduce into the picture the idea of attention, or looking.” Here are some of her elaborations of this suggestion:
I can only choose within the world I can see, in the moral sense of ‘see’ which implies that clear vision is a result of moral imagination and moral effort … One is often compelled almost automatically by what one can see. If we ignore the prior work of attention and notice only the emptiness of the moment of choice we are likely to identify freedom with the outward movement since there is nothing else to identify it with. But if we consider what the work of attention is like, how continuously it goes on, and how imperceptibly it builds up structures of value round about us, we shall not be surprised that at crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over.
“Will and reason then are not entirely separate faculties in the moral agent. Will continually influences belief; for better or worse, and is ideally able to influence it through a sustained attention to reality. This is what Simone Weil means when she says that ‘will is obedience not resolution.’ As moral agents we have to try to see justly, to overcome prejudice, to avoid temptation, to control and curb imagination, to direct reflection. Man is not a combination of an impersonal rational thinker and a personal will. he is a unified being who sees, and who desires in accordance with what he sees, and who has some continual slight control over the direction and focus of his vision … In particular situations ‘reality’ as that which is revealed to the patient eye of love is an idea entirely compressible to the ordinary person.”
And finally …
“It is in the capacity to love, that is to see, that the liberation of the soul from fantasy consists. The freedom which is a proper human goal is the freedom from fantasy, that is the realism of compassion. What I have called fantasy, the proliferation of blinding self-centered aims and images, is itself a powerful system of energy, and most of what is often called ‘will’ or ‘willing’ belongs to this system. What counteracts the system is attention to reality inspired by, consisting of, love … Freedom is not strictly the exercise of the will, but rather the experience of accurate vision which, when this becomes appropriate, occasions action … By the time the moment of choice has arrived the quality of attention has probably determined the nature of the act.”
As I revisited these paragraphs recently, I was struck by Murdoch’s notions of fantasy and freedom and the role she assigns “attention to reality.” Honestly, I’m occasionally tempted by the idea that this is the most important task we could set ourselves: the cultivation of attention in this sense that Murdoch identifies, and that all else could, in the very long run, flow from this. I realize this is an example a perfectly foolish proposition, judged by all of the usual metrics. But this is the problem, isn’t it? The metrics we currently deploy to judge what is useful, efficient, effective, and realistic have trapped us; they make it impossible to see in precisely the way Murdoch describes here. It is part and parcel of the fantasy that has enchanted us.
9. Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism: “Ideologies are never interested in the miracle of being.”
10. “The Joyful Uselessness of Ivan Illich” by Simon Ravenscroft:
Scialabba’s essay raises the question of the usefulness of Illich’s radical criticism, and indeed a common complaint is that his work is not useful or constructive enough. In later writings, Illich openly refused to offer political ‘answers’, preferring simply to leave the future open, and promote the practice of friendship. Is this an unfortunate quietism? I would argue not. Rather, Illich’s refusal to be “useful” in this way was itself a kind of politics, his way of resisting the dominant utilitarian ethic (for ‘what is the use of use?’, as Lessing and Arendt both asked) in order to create space for that all-important spark of gratuity. Interestingly, this coheres with some of his earliest published remarks from the 1960s, in which he called us to “the joyful acceptance of our uselessness”, and defended “the autonomy of the ludicrous in the face of the useful, of the gratuitous as opposed to the purposeful, of the spontaneous as opposed to the rationalized and planned”.
11. Illich, “The Cultivation of Conspiracy”:
“I do think that if I had to choose one word to which hope can be tied it is hospitality. A practice of hospitality— recovering threshold, table, patience, listening, and from there generating seedbeds for virtue and friendship on the one hand — on the other hand radiating out for possible community, for rebirth of community.”
Note for paid subscribers: In conjunction with this installment, I’m going to send out discussion thread for paid subscribers only in which I’ll invite some discussion about the themes here. [Here it is.]