December 17, 2011

The Inconvenient Truth of Technological Autonomy

Most of us recall Captain Renault's famous pretext for closing Rick's Café in "Casablanca." "I'm shocked!" he gasped. "Shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!"

That pretty much sums up my reaction to Naomi Klein's recent article in The Nation magazine, in which she reveals the dirty little secret of global warming: The only chance we have of avoiding its devastating consequences is to radically curtail the rampant consumerism on which our economy currently depends. That, in turn, will require the imposition of a broad range of government regulations that will effectively put an end to the so-called "free market" so cherished by the Republican right.

The above is not intended to denigrate Klein's article in any way. It's a fine piece of journalism and I'm pleased it's attracted the attention it has. (Note in that regard the interview with Klein on the New York Times environment blog, Dot Earth.) Having said that, it's also true that Klein's "inconvenient truth" is hardly a revelation. Anyone who's been paying attention recognized long ago that consumerism and the technologies on which consumerism thrives are the forces responsible for driving the planet over the edge of ecological sustainability. It's also been obvious that reversing that fatal progression will require massive social, political and economic change, change impossible to accomplish without equally massive government intervention.

That's true in part because the interests aligned against necessary change are so formidable and in part because individual citizens have repeatedly proved unwilling or unable to initiate necessary change on their own. 

I realize that's an anti-democratic statement, but it's hard to have faith in democracy when we read, for example, that a majority of Americans are gullible enough to accept the propagandists' claims that climate change is a fiction, and complacent enough to act, or fail to act, accordingly. Klein quotes poll results showing that the number of Americans who believe that burning fossil fuels causes climate change has fallen from 71 per cent in 2007 to 44 per cent in 2011.

(I should pause here to state that I generally favor skepticism toward the claims of experts. In this case, however, the scientific consensus is overwhelming, and I don't find it hard to believe that human activity has an impact on the environment. This is especially true when I can see evidence of that impact – smog, for example – with my own eyes. It seems obvious, too, that if anyone has an ulterior motive in this debate, it's more likely to be the forces fighting the scientific consensus. Even if we concede that there's uncertainty in the data, the stakes here seem awfully high. Thus the question I always want to ask the climate change deniers is, "Okay, but what if you're wrong?")

The same week that Klein's piece appeared, a report was issued by the Global Carbon Project (a group of scientists, of course) stating that global emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning jumped by the largest amount on record last year. The report said this was almost certainly the largest absolute jump in any year since the Industrial Revolution, and the largest percentage increase since 2003. The fact that this news received what can only be described as ho-hum play in the major media (the Penn State child rape scandal attracted far more attention) is further indication that American democracy isn't quite up to the challenges we face.

More tangible evidence of that inadequacy confronts me on the New Jersey Turnpike each week as I drive from Philadelphia to New Jersey to visit my daughter. Billions of tax dollars are currently being spent on a series of highway expansion projects that make the building of the Egyptian pyramids look like a student crafts fair. The scale of labor and resources involved is astounding, as is the insanity of making such a commitment to the automobile in the face of overwhelming evidence that we ought to be moving as fast as possible in the opposite direction. (And yes, I recognize my own participation in the insanity by making that weekly drive.)

All this brings me to the subject of technological autonomy, a central issue in the philosophy of technology, and the focus of a pivotal chapter in my book.

Technological autonomy is a shorthand way of expressing the idea that our technologies and technological systems have become so ubiquitous, so intertwined, and so powerful that they are no longer in our control. This autonomy is due to the accumulated force and momentum of the technologies themselves and also to our utter dependence on them.

The philosopher of technology Langdon Winner has referred to this dependence as the "technological imperative." Advanced technologies require vast networks of supportive technologies in order to properly function. Our cars wouldn't go far without roads, gasoline, traffic control systems, and the like. Electricity needs power lines, generators, distributors, light bulbs, and lamps, together with production, distribution, and administrative systems to put all those elements (profitably) into place. A "chain of reciprocal dependency" is established, Winner says, that requires "not only the means but also the entire set of means to the means." Winner also points out that we've typically become committed to these networks of technological systems gradually, unaware of how irreversible those commitments will become, or the consequences they will ultimately entail. He calls this "technological drift."[1]

To many people, the idea that we've lost control of the machines in our lives is absurd, a fantasy out of science fiction. Setting aside the fact that, from Mary Shelly on, science fiction writers have understood the implications embedded in technology better than almost anyone else, allow me to quote on this subject two individuals who can't easily be dismissed as crackpots.

One is the late historian and head of the Library of Congress, Daniel J. Boorstin. In 1977 Boorstin wrote that technology had emerged as the dominant force in American culture and that its proliferation was beyond our control. "We live, and will live," he said, "in a world of increasingly involuntary commitments."[2]

One reason this was so, Boorstin said, was that no technology can be uninvented. "While any device can be made obsolete, no device can be forgotten or erased from the arsenal of technology. While the currents of politics and of culture can be stopped, deflected, or even reversed, technology is irreversible."

Another conspicuously rational person who expressed similar thoughts was the physicist Werner Heisenberg. In his book Physics and Philosophy (1958) Heisenberg called technological expansion a "biological process" that was overtaking even those nations who would have preferred not to pursue it. "Undoubtedly the process has fundamentally changed the conditions of life on earth," Heisenberg said; "and whether one approves of it or not, whether one calls it progress or danger, one must realize that it has gone far beyond any control through human forces."[3]

In my book I argue that the processes Boorstin and Heisenberg identified have enmeshed us ever more deeply in a state of "de facto technological autonomy." By that I mean that although we can theoretically detach ourselves from the technological systems on which we've come to depend, practically such a detachment is impossible because it would create unsupportable levels of disruption. Naomi Klein didn't use the words "technological autonomy" in her article in The Nation, but that's what she was talking about.

It's hard not to be a pessimist when one faces squarely the scope of social, political, and economic change that will be required to avert catastrophe, especially when we consider that global warming is only one of the dilemmas with which technological autonomy presents us. Nuclear power is another example. The New Yorker magazine has reported that the post-tsunami meltdowns in Japan initially prompted a wave of plant closures there, but that most of them have since re-opened. To undertake permanent reduction of the nation's reliance on nuclear energy would be, in the words of its economics minister, "idealistic but very unrealistic."[4]

Clearly, to extricate ourselves from the grip of technological autonomy will require reversals that are almost literally unimaginable. For that reason one can see that the resistance of the climate change deniers may be logical as well as suicidal. If Klein is right, what they're really saying is that the patient wouldn't survive the surgery.

That, of course, is where the idea of geoengineering comes in. Our commitment to technology has now become so irrevocable that technology itself may well be our only savior. What sort of world that will leave us with is a question no one can answer. The evidence on display as I make my weekly drive up the turnpike isn't encouraging.

1. Winner, Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought (MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1987, original printing 1977), p. 88-90, 100-101.

2. Boorstin, "Bicentennial Essay: Tomorrow: The Republic of Technology," Time magazine, Jan. 17, 1977. (Online access requires subscription or payment.) Boorstin later expanded this essay into a  book, also entitled The Republic of Technology.

3. Heisenberg quoted by Winner, Autonomous Technology, p. 13. Also see Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (University of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 153.

4. Evan Osnos, "The Fallout," The New Yorker,  Oct. 17, 2011, p.46f. (Online access requires subscription or payment.)

Photo Credit: Benny Chan

©Doug Hill, 2012

December 7, 2011

Occupy Wall Street and Acceptable Resistance (continued)

Just a note to say that Cyborgology posted my essay today on how the Occupy Wall Street evictions demonstrate the prescience of Jacques Ellul. This piece incorporates material from my earlier post on acceptable resistance, but is (again, I admit!) more concise. Thanks to PJ Rey of Cyborgology for inviting me in.

December 1, 2011

OWS and the Usefulness of Acceptable Resistance

Much of what I've been reading about the crackdowns on the Occupy Wall Street movement in various cities has reminded me of what might be called "acceptable resistance."

As Americans, we know that freedom of speech is our birthright, and that along with freedom of speech goes freedom of assembly. That's what the Constitution of the United States tells us.

The Constitution of the Kingdom of Technique, if there was one, would include a significant addition to those guaranteed freedoms. It would read something like this:

"All citizens absolutely have the right to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly – as long as in the process of exercising those rights nobody interferes with the continued operation of the Machine."

That addendum has been a subtext in the statements offered by mayors and other authority figures to explain why they could no longer tolerate the continued presence of OWS protesters in their midst. All fit a consistent pattern: Yes, we honor the protesters' right to freedom of speech and assembly, but public safety must be protected.    

With few exceptions, I've seen very little evidence that any genuine threat to public safety exists. What does exist is a threat to business as usual.

The true nature of the problem comes through clearly in these lines from the New York Times' report on Mayor Michael Bloomberg's rationale for clearing Zuccotti Park:

Facing mounting criticism from the city’s tabloids and from some business interests for his tolerance of an encampment they found increasingly noxious, [the Mayor] spoke increasingly of the need to balance free speech with public safety.

The mayor and his advisers had grown fed up with their inability to police the park, with complaints about noise, disruptions to businesses and odors, and with a leaderless movement that they just could not figure out how to deal with.

Sensitive to charges that he was violating the protesters' right of free speech, Bloomberg allowed them to return to Zuccotti Park as long as they didn't sleep there. These paragraphs from the Times' story on the park's re-opening are equally telling:

The police opened the gates to Zuccotti Park just after darkness fell and let in a single-file line of people as a crowd surrounded the park. Some chanted “Let us in. Let us in.”

“You have to walk through a gantlet of officers,” said Andy Nicholson, 54, of Manhattan, who entered the park, stopped and was told by the police to move along. “It’s all about control,” he said.

Andy Nicholson had it exactly right. It is all about control.

There was a perceptive blog post on all this last Sunday from Langdon Winner, a professor of political science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the author of two seminal books on the philosophy of technology, Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought and The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. Winner wrote that, beyond a few colds, he'd seen no threats to public health at the OWS sites he'd visited, and he asked an incisive question:

If public health and safety have somehow become America's most urgent problem right now, why are budgets for Medicaid, public health services and local law enforcement being slashed in our towns and cities?

Winner pointed out the remarkable hypocrisy of Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa of Los Angeles, who proclaimed his support for the goals of the protestors occupying City Hall Park even as he was in the process of evicting them. The movement is "at a crossroads," the Mayor said, and needs to find ways of constructively spreading its message other than occupying "a particular patch of earth."

Villaraigosa's lecture ignored the fact that throughout history revolts have coalesced – materialized, literally – around particular patches of earth. As Winner noted in a newspaper interview, the protests of Arab Spring as well as Occupy Wall Street have demonstrated that the tools of cyberspace – Facebook, Twitter, etc. – became truly powerful only when used in combination with massive numbers of human beings assembled together in the flesh. Embodiment matters.

Jacques Ellul had a lot to say on the subject of acceptable resistance. I'm a bit sheepish about introducing Ellul into yet another post here, having already mentioned him in several previous essays. I don't want to give the impression that Ellul is the focus of this blog, or of the book this blog is intended to promote, Dear Ted. He isn't. Nonetheless Ellul is the philosopher of technology who's influenced my thinking more than any other, and it's hard to resist noting the degree to which his insights are consistently borne out by current events.

Ellul argued that a certain amount of rebellion is not only tolerable in the technological society but necessary, simply because the strain of living up to the demands of the machine creates pressures that must find some form of release. Outbreaks of acceptable resistance serve that purpose. Movements come and go; technique remains.

An especially popular form of acceptable resistance is our collective obeisance to the iconography of the Rebel. The Rebel is the daring anti-hero who appears and reappears in a variety of guises in every instantiation of popular culture, the guy or gal who has the guts to go against the tide and win, or at least to go down in a blaze of glory. In our daily lives we encounter plenty of Rebel wannabes who seem to pride themselves on refusing to abide by the rules of The Man. This is a stance that, as Ellul noted, hardly threatens the status quo, given that it's less genuine rebellion than an image of rebellion, a fashion statement easily acquired through the purchase of whatever products the Rebel brand happens to have certified at any given moment. “I am somehow unable to believe in the revolutionary value of an act that makes the cash register jingle so merrily," Ellul said.

The nervousness of the authorities in regard to OWS is understandable in that the movement seems to be something closer to meaningful rebellion. This is true especially because it's a rebellion aimed at those jingling cash registers, or, more accurately, at the corporate behemoths behind those jingling cash registers.

OWS has it exactly right, I think, in pointing its collective finger at the institutions of Wall Street for their sins of commission and at the institutions of government for their sins of omission – that is, for their complicity and acquiescence. Ellul noted long ago (the quotes here are all from The Technological Society, written in 1954) that the state was in the process of being co-opted to serve the needs of technique. Once that co-optation is achieved, values the institutions of government ostensibly exist to defend – public safety, for example – become "a mere matter of show," a "rationalizing mechanism" through which actions taken to preserve the operation of the machine can be explained and excused.

"The conclusion seems unavoidable," Ellul said, "that this is the road upon which our democracies have already entered.”

©Doug Hill, 2012

November 22, 2011

Say It Ain't So, Joe: A Football Machine Jumps the Rails

One of my favorite observers of current affairs is James Howard Kunstler, the author of The Geography of Nowhere and other books. Last week he posted on his blog a commentary on the Penn State football scandal that typically combined astute social and political analysis with moral jeremiad. Its opening sentence captures the flavor of his style: 

"The Penn State football sex scandal, and the depraved response of the university community at all levels, tells whatever you need to know about the spiritual condition of this floundering, rudderless, republic and its ignoble culture."

Kunstler's essay made me think more about the Penn State scandal and its relevance to the question concerning technology. I'll list here a few connections that came to mind, using as a lens the thought of Jacques Ellul.

First, I'd quibble with Kunstler's comment that American culture is "rudderless." In truth I think we have a rudder that steers us methodically in the direction of technology, or, more accurately, in the direction of what Ellul called "technique."

Technique is the word Ellul used to acknowledge that technology is more than just machines. It is a systemic phenomenon that encompasses, in addition to machines, the systems in which machines exist, the people who are enmeshed in those systems, and the modes of thought that promote the effective functioning of those systems. 

Ellul defined technique as "the translation into action of man’s concern to master things by means of reason, to account for what is subconscious, make quantitative what is qualitative, make clear and precise the outlines of nature, take hold of chaos and put order into it.” 

The relentless drive to bring all aspects of the technological society into conformity with the demands of technique is what I mean when I say that such a society is not, technically speaking, "rudderless" at all. We tend to overlook the steadiness with which we proceed on our technological course, given that it creates an infinite variety of disruptions in its wake.

Backpedaling now, Kunstler's use of the word "rudderless" was entirely accurate in the sense he intended. That is, we are rudderless because we are not in truth guided by the moral, ethical, or legal standards we profess to be guided by, or even by what might be considered common sense. 

The disjunction between our professed values and the values of technique leads to all sorts of hypocrisies. As Kunstler pointed out, college football programs are supposed to be about building character. In truth, as everyone knows, their primary purpose is to produce profit and institutional growth through various mechanisms, including TV contracts, sales of tickets and merchandise, alumni donations, student enrollments, and brand loyalty (also known as "school spirit"). 

As the owner and operator of one of the nation's most profitable sports machines, it's hardly surprising that for Penn State, keeping the machine running was more important than stopping child rape.

There's an apparent contradiction between technique's emphasis on rationality and the antithesis of rational behavior displayed by Penn State's student body in the wake of Joe Paterno's firing. In fact, as Ellul pointed out, riots and technique go hand in hand.

Mob psychology is one of the chief goals of technique in a consumerist society. Individuals are molded, with the help of journalism, entertainment media, and advertising, into a manipulable mass. The "chief requirement" of propaganda, Ellul said, is "to produce individuals especially open to suggestion who can be easily set into motion….The critical faculty has been suppressed by the creation of collective passions.”

Ellul also noted that propaganda has the power to create a "new sphere of the sacred," a sphere that is beyond criticism. Obviously, as far as Penn State was concerned, Joe Paterno had entered such a realm. 

Like many people, I was appalled by the rioting of the Penn State students, but their behavior was hardly inexplicable. They are, after all, children of the technological society, and thus products of that society. In the minds of many people extreme displays of emotion, often verging on violence, are part of the point of being a fan at sports events. College students today are also coming of age at a time when the excesses of technique have created a series of conditions that make the transition to adulthood especially challenging.

Ellul argued repeatedly that the technological society requires that human beings adapt to the conditions of technique, and that doing so creates a host of psychological insecurities. In order to allay those fears, technique provides various mechanisms of release and distraction. Sports hysteria fits that bill nicely. It makes little sense to expect rational behavior in the context of that hysteria.

One of the key reasons sports qualifies as technique is its emphasis on performance. "Technique is the instrument of performance," Ellul said. "What is important is to go higher and faster; the object of the performance means little.”

As the affirmation of performance, winning outstrips such niceties as character building, honor, or sacrifice for community. No coincidence that the emphasis on performance in sports parallels the emphasis on performance in business. Since the Industrial Revolution we've witnessed the introduction of an unbroken string of performance-enhancing techniques, from the assembly line to the human resources department. Emphasis on superior performance has been with us since ancient times, of course. The difference today is that the standard against which we measure ourselves is the machine. 

The use of performance enhancing drugs in sports is entirely consistent with those priorities. Here, too, it makes little sense to be surprised by behavior that exactly fits the context in which it appears. 

Today technology allows us to indulge our preoccupation with performance as never before. Doctors recommend a host of screening procedures that may or may not lengthen lives, while participants in the "quantified self" movement track every biological function, apparently in hopes that the constant monitoring of personal statistics will somehow provide a meaningful route to self knowledge.

Surely this was not what Socrates had in mind when he said the unexamined life is not worth living.

©Doug Hill, 2012

November 20, 2011

Cyborgology and Me

Just a note to say that yesterday the tech blog Cyborgology published a commentary of mine regarding the new ebook, Race Against the Machine. I make some of the same points there, and use some of the same material, that I used in my earlier commentary here, "Losing the Race Against the Machine," but this new version is (I admit!) more concise.

November 15, 2011

O'Reilly and Me

Just a note to say that yesterday O'Reilly Radar published my essay on Steve Jobs and Ted Kaczynski as representatives of the extreme poles of America's love/hate relationship with technology.

November 14, 2011

Technocracy, Then and Now

A number of prominent news organizations reported recently that "technocrats" have taken over the governments of Greece and Italy. Oddly, those reports failed to define what a technocrat might be. Slate magazine's Forrest Wickman stepped in with an "Explainer" column last Friday that nicely cleared up the issue.  A technocrat, he said, is:
 An expert, not a politician. Technocrats make decisions based on specialized information rather than public opinion. For this reason, they are sometimes called upon when there’s no popular or easy solution to a problem (like, for example, the European debt crisis). The word technocrat derives from the Greek tekhne, meaning skill or craft, and an expert in a field like economics can be as much a technocrat as one in a field more commonly thought to be technological (like robotics).
Technocracy is something I spend some time on in my book, and I'd like to make a few comments about it here. It's a way of thinking that inevitably gains influence as we increase our commitment to technology, especially in turbulent times. And given that an increasing commitment to technology and turbulent times tend to go together, it's a way of thinking that we'll surely be hearing more about in years to come.

To elaborate on Forrest Wickman's definition, technocracy can be described as the conviction that we will all be better off if we operate according to the rational standards of the machine. A given problem can be solved by the systematic application of a set of principles and procedures. Usually those are principles and procedures only experts can fully understand. It's a philosophy of methodology.

Lucas Papademos of Greece and Mario Monti of Italy both have advanced degrees in economics. Papademos has advanced degrees from MIT in physics and electrical engineering as well. As Wickman says, these qualifications implicitly suggest that they can be counted on to apply the necessary remedial measures without being swayed by anything so irrational as politics or popular opinion.  

In the United States we tend to associate technocracy with the Technocracy movement, which enjoyed a brief moment of national prominence in the early 1930s. In that case the connection to technology was slightly (only slightly) more direct. Americans feared that businessmen and politicians had shown themselves incapable of managing the explosive forces of industrial production, forces that were rapidly and radically reshaping the life and economy of the nation. The general feeling, says historian Henry Elsner, Jr., was that "somehow man had unleashed a monster in his midst – The Machine – which had gotten out of control and was threatening to wreck his civilization."[1]

One avenue of reform proposed was populism, which aimed to restore more control to the people. Another was technocracy, which aimed to focus control in the hands of the experts. This is an instance where we find history repeating itself today, with technocrats being asked to take charge by the established power structure in Europe even as the populists of the Occupy Wall Street movement agitate from street level for greater democratic control.

The Technocracy movement of the 1930s proposed that engineers take over as a sort of priesthood of the new industrial state. It wasn't the machine that was destroying society, they said, it was mismanagement of the machine by amateurs. Properly handled by qualified experts, technology would introduce an era of unprecedented plenty and leisure.

Here's how the Technocrats themselves described their qualifications for the job, in one of their pamphlets:
Technocracy's scientific approach to the social problem is unique, and its method is completely new…It speaks the language of science, and recognizes no authority but the facts. In Technocracy we see science banishing waste, unemployment, hunger, and insecurity of income forever…we see science replacing an economy of scarcity with an era of abundance….[And] we see functional competence displacing grotesque and wasteful incompetence, facts displacing guesswork, order displacing disorder, industrial planning displacing industrial chaos."[2]
The Technocracy movement faded quickly for lots of reasons, among them internal dissension, doubts about the credibility of its leaders, and absorption of its reforms by the New Deal. Technocracy was also hindered by a fundamental contradiction: It hoped to gain popular support for an ideology that was inherently elitist. 

Nonetheless, the temptation to rely on the expertise of the technocrat has remained, especially, as mentioned, in turbulent times. One of the more tragic examples to date was Robert S. McNamara's prosecution of the war in Vietnam.   

McNamara was a technocratic visionary whose evangelism on behalf of rationalism and efficiency took him from leadership positions in the Army Air Force's Statistical Control Office and the Ford Motor Company to the U.S. Department of Defense, which he headed under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson. A passage from McNamara's 1968 book, The Essence of Security, described his philosophy:
Some critics today worry that our democratic, free societies are being overmanaged. I would argue that the opposite is true. As paradoxical as it may sound, the real threat to democracy comes, not from overmanagement, but from undermanagement. To undermanage reality is not to keep free. It is simply to let some force other than reason shape reality. That force may be unbridled emotion; it may be greed; it may be aggressiveness; it may be hatred; it may be inertia; it may be anything other than reason. But whatever it is, if it is not reason that rules man, then man falls short of his potential.[3]
Vietnam showed that, contrary to that philosophy, management by reason does not automatically eliminate the influence of emotion, greed, aggressiveness, hatred, or inertia. McNamara himself learned that lesson well. As he acknowledges in Errol Morris's documentary, The Fog of War, "Rationality will not save us."

Among the foremost advocates of technocratic principles today – in the business of technology, not in politics or in war, as far as I know – are Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the co-founders of Google. The company's vice president of global communications and public affairs has called them "ideological technologists."

(Given that Google provides the blog space on which these words are written, my comments here may be seen as lacking the graciousness due one's host.)

Here's how Page, now Google's chief operating officer, explained his management philosophy to the journalist Ken Auletta:
There is a pattern in companies, even in technological companies, that the people who do the work – the engineers, the programmers, the foot soldiers, if you will – typically get rolled over by the management. Typically, the management isn't very technical. I think that's a very bad thing. If you're a programmer or an engineer or a computer scientist, you have someone tell you what to do who is really not very good at what you do, they tell you the wrong things. And you sort of end up building the wrong things; you end up kind of demoralized. You want a culture where the people who are doing the work, the scientists and engineers, are empowered. And that they are managed by people who deeply understand what they are doing. That's not typically the case.[4]
This, of course, reflects the classic technocratic conviction that the only person who can properly run the machine is the person who built it, or who knows how to build it. In today's technological society, that leaves a lot of us out.



[1] Henry Elsner Jr., The Technocrats: Prophets of Automation (Syracuse University Press, 1967), p. 8-9.
[2] Quoted by Howard P. Segal, Technological Utopianism in American Culture (U. of Chicago Press, 1985), p. 122.
[3] McNamara's book quoted by Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counter Culture (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1995, originally published 1968) p. 11-12.
[4] Auletta, Googled: The End of the World as We Know It (Penguin, New York, 2010), p. 227. 

Photo credit: Artist unknown, illustration from Common Ground-Common Sense

©Doug Hill, 2012

November 9, 2011

The Battle Between Art and Science (Continued)

The New York Times ran a fascinating article a few days ago reporting that something like 40 percent of students who start college as engineering and science majors change course at some point and switch to other subjects, or drop out altogether. That's twice the rate of attrition seen in other majors, the Times said.

The article generated a far greater-than-usual number of comments from Times readers: more than a thousand at last count, virtually all of them considerably more thoughtful than the typical Huffington Post one-liner.

Reasons cited for students' departures, in comments and in the article itself, included boring introductory courses; boring teachers (including many foreign-born teachers with hard-to-understand accents); easier grading in humanities courses; lack of career opportunities in science-related fields (cutbacks in research grants were often mentioned); and the coldly abstract nature of the course work, which leaves little room for meaningful interaction with other students.

By far the most frequently-cited reason for the dropouts, however, was intellectual laziness. Both the article itself and reader comments argued that American students today lack the discipline required to endure the challenge of science and engineering courses, especially when it comes to math. Students from less privileged countries were said to excel in those courses because they're less coddled, and more dedicated. The Times headline too-cutely summarized the basic conclusion: "Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard)."

Since virtually every point possible to make on this subject has already been made by the Times' readers, I'll limit myself to three basic observations, all relevant to our relationships with technology (and all relevant to points addressed in my book):

1. The tension between technology and the humanities was a topic of discussion and debate among the philosophers of ancient Greece and has been a topic of discussion and debate ever since, especially since the dawn of the scientific revolution. (My earlier essay, "The Boffins and the Luvvies, reviewed some of the highpoints in the history of that debate.) 

2. The statistic in the Times article that initially seems so shocking – that 40 percent of science and engineering students drop out before graduating – is less so when you consider the flip side: 60 percent don't drop out. 

The central issue, it seems to me, isn't why so many students drop out of science and engineering programs, but why so many students drop into those programs in the first place. Jacques Ellul argued repeatedly that a culture that has been captured by technology is fundamentally interested in two things: technological efficiency and technological expansion. That such a culture would place an inordinate emphasis on educational pursuits that further those goals is hardly surprising.

Many of the comments from readers in the Times demonstrated how thoroughly those values have been assimilated in contemporary America (and elsewhere). It was taken for granted that science and engineering are the only courses of study that will produce results that matter. Many of those same readers argued that the current state of the economy made it more important than ever that students pursue economically promising ("practical") careers. Far fewer noted that the current state of our economy suggests that those economically promising careers haven't as yet earned us the security and stability we've been assured they would.

Robert Maynard Hutchins was one of the leading antagonists in what may have been twentieth century America's loudest and most sustained outbreak of the science-versus-humanities debate (often in opposition to John Dewey). In a 1953 speech he quoted the Platonic maxim, "What is honored in a country will be cultivated there." An educational system devoted to the cultivation of wisdom, Hutchins said, would look quite different than one devoted to the cultivation of power and success.

My point here is decidedly not that engineering and science can't be dedicated toward humanitarian goals that will result in the improvement of material conditions for all people on the planet. (C.P. Snow considered the need to promote such improvement the central message of his famous "Two Cultures" lecture. To his dismay, the animosity he described between the arts and sciences has been the only thing anyone ever remembered about it.) Nor am I suggesting that students disregard the need to make a living, or that those who are legitimately inspired by science and engineering shouldn't be given every opportunity to follow their dreams.

Rather my point is to note the lack of grounding and purpose that is overwhelmingly evident in American culture today. We don't have the slightest idea what to do with all the material advantages our sciences and engineering have provided. Just as troubling, in far too many ways our advances in science and technology are being used not to promote cultural stability and security, but to undermine it (For an example, see my earlier post, "Losing the Race Against the Machine.").

The Times article and many of those who responded to it suggested, explicitly or implicitly, that students who withdraw from science and engineering majors have failed in some way. Baloney. There's no shame in realizing you've made a mistake and correcting it. The problem is that too many students are starting out on science and engineering paths who don't belong there, either because they've been promised rewards that aren't, for them, forthcoming, or because they haven't been offered meaningful, viable alternatives.

3. There's considerable irony in the basic complaint voiced in the Times that American students today lack the discipline required to thrive in science and engineering programs. Perhaps the most prominent product of science and engineering in recent decades has been the revolution in digital technologies, a revolution that has produced, among countless other things, such phenomena as Facebook, texting, YouTube, computer generated special effects, and video games. If American students today lack the mental focus required to succeed as engineers and scientists, it's likely that their slovenly habits were developed at least in part by habitual exposure to mechanisms of mental distraction designed and delivered by graduates of science and engineering programs. 

©Doug Hill, 2012

November 6, 2011

Losing the Race Against the Machine

There's a new ebook out that's attracting attention, in part because its conclusions are so startling, in part because its conclusions come from an unexpected quarter. The title is Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy. Its authors, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, are two professors from one of the academic epicenters of tech, MIT.

I haven't read the book, but I have read the three excerpts on The Atlantic magazine's web site (links below). I would definitely recommend them, both because they're clearly written and because they document in a dispassionate way some of most important effects of our ever-increasing social and economic commitments to technology.

(If you do read the excerpts, you might want to do so backwards, starting with the third and ending with the first, because for reasons unknown that's the order in which The Atlantic seems to have edited them. Key points alluded to in the first two excerpts don't get made until the third. The Atlantic also gets the book's title wrong.)

I'll list here a few of the points from Race Against the Machine that jumped out at me, all consistent with arguments I make in my book regarding the nature of technology.

•  The headline of The Atlantic's third excerpt, "Why Workers Are Losing the War Against Machines," is remarkable in that it appears to acknowledge that there is a war between workers and machines. This is not the story we usually get in the current era of technological enthusiasm. Nonetheless that's the essence of Brynjolfsson and McAfee's argument.

  The authors say that economists have argued almost since the days of the original Luddites that workers need not fear technology because in the long run fewer jobs will be lost to machines than will be created by them. This assumption ignores what Brynjolfsson and McAfee call "a dirty little secret": Those new jobs don't necessarily provide a sustainable income. Nor, I would add, do many of them provide decent working conditions.

"There is no economic law," Brynjolfsson and McAfee write, "that says that everyone, or even most people, automatically benefit from technological progress." This is a realization, they add, that regular people seem to understand even when economists do not. Perhaps that's because it's regular people whose jobs are eliminated or degraded thanks to various forms of mechanization.

According to Brynjolfsson and McAfee, losers in the war between workers and machines could ultimately constitute a majority – perhaps more than 90 percent – of the population.

  Lest anyone discount their findings as the ravings of neo-Luddites, it should be noted that Brynjolfsson and McAfee initially set out to write a book affirming traditional economics wisdom by documenting how "the cornucopia of innovation" of the digital era would produce legions of new jobs and fresh waves of economic prosperity. (The title of their book retains traces of that initial thrust.)

According to an interview with the authors in the New York Times, they were surprised when their research led them to the opposite conclusion. "The tone of alarm in their book is a departure for the pair," the Times reports, "whose previous research has focused mainly on the benefits of advancing technology."

  In The Atlantic's second excerpt the authors say that the positive aspects of technological growth include its encouragement of "efforts toward superstardom" and "capital accumulation." When you get to excerpt #3 you see their more fundamental point: that these same two factors contribute to a radical skewing of the social balance between rich and poor.

Exploitation of modern technological systems enables the expansion of "winner-take-all markets," Brynjolfsson and McAfee write, in which economies of scale squeeze out all but the most dominant players. "Aided by digital technologies, entrepreneurs, CEOs, entertainment stars, and financial executives have been able to leverage their talents across global markets and capture reward that would have been unimaginable in earlier times."

•  Brynjolfsson and McAfee also note that exploitation of modern technological systems enables a radical shift in the balance of power between labor and capital. This is hardly news to the millions of corporate workers who for years have been doing steadily more work for stagnant pay, a ratio typically applauded by investment analysts as "increased productivity."

The authors cite studies suggesting that the wages of unskilled workers in the United States have trended downward for over 30 years. Another study they cite suggests that recent spending on equipment and software has soared by 26% while payrolls have remained essentially flat.

A few concluding remarks:

Would-be tech superstars aspiring Mark Zuckerbergs –  are fond of saying that they've come up with the next truly "disruptive" technology, one that will profitably overthrow some segment of the social or economic status quo. Race Against the Machine provides a somewhat broader understanding of what technological "disruption" means for those who don't manage to achieve superstar status.

I mentioned above that conclusions in Race Against the Machine are consistent with arguments made in my book regarding the nature of technology. I was thinking there of one point in particular: that it is in the nature of technology to expand its sphere of influence. As the philosopher of technology Langdon Winner has put it, “If there is a distinctive path that modern technological change has followed it is that technology goes where it has never been. Technological development proceeds steadily from what it has already transformed and used up toward that which is still untouched.”

Brynjolfsson and McAfee address some of the reasons this is so, but there are others. For example: their focus is on the direct replacement of human workers by machines. What they don't discuss, at least in The Atlantic excerpts, is the dehumanization of workers so that they conform more readily to the requirements of the machine. Thus transformation of the human being is an aspect of technology's inexorable drive toward (to use Jacques Ellul's word) "completion."

Given the palsied state of labor power in the United States today, it's difficult to foresee any significant resistance emerging to stop management's moves toward automation, despite warnings such as those issued by Brynjolfsson and McAfee. And of course they are far from the first to warn that workers might not emerge victorious in their "war" with technology.

Among those who preceded them was an earlier professor at MIT, Norbert Wiener (1894-1964). For those who don't recognize the name, Wiener was the inventor of cybernetics and thus a founding father of the automation technologies discussed in Race Against the Machine. He was unusual in that he spent almost as much energy worrying about the technologies he helped unleash as he did unleashing them.

Wiener talked often of the potential impact of smart machines on employment. Automation, he wrote in 1950, represents "the precise economic equivalent of slave labor." Thus workers who compete with machines will have to accept the economic conditions of slave labor. As unpleasant as this might be for the slaves, it admirably serves the needs of the slave owners. "Those who suffer from a power complex," Wiener wrote, "find the mechanization of man a simple way to realize their ambitions."

Wiener warned that our traditional attitudes toward business would have to change if catastrophe is to be avoided. Two attitudes he mentioned specifically were our worship of progress and our belief in what he called the "fifth freedom" – the freedom to exploit. Absent those changes, he said, we can expect levels of unemployment that will make the Great Depression "seem a pleasant joke."

The Wiener quotes here are from his book, The Human Use of Human Beings. The Langdon Winner quote is from The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Era of High Technology. For close-to-the-ground documentation of the sorts of economic disruptions discussed in Race Against the Machine, see Barbara Ehrenreich's, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, and Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the American Meal. Note, too, Kurt Vonnegut's first novel, Player Piano, a dystopian fantasy about the end of meaningful employment as the result of automation. It mentions Wiener by name.

Race Against the Machine, excerpts:


©Doug Hill, 2012

October 29, 2011

Authenticity, continued: Holding existential uncanniness at bay

Warhol's "Flowers"

Synchronicity strikes!

I was so busy writing my earlier post about the lure of ersatz authenticity (see "Authenticity and the 'pumpkins' next door") that I failed to notice the New York Times had run an interesting article on exactly that subject in its Home & Design section the day before. 

The ostensible thrust of the Times piece was that people are getting tired of the "authentic" or "vintage" look. Apparently it's no fun being authentic if everybody's doing it. The article devoted at least as much attention, however, to the efforts of home design conglomerates to cash in on authenticity.

Pottery Barn, a division of Williams and Sonoma, has a division called "Found," for example, while CB2, a division of Crate and Barrel, has a sub-brand it calls "One of a Finds" and another called "Hand-Touched." The suggestion that a line of products could be considered authentic because they've actually been touched by human hands is an indication of how far we've come.

The Times article generated quite a few interesting comments from readers, but only one or two mentioned what to me is the most salient point about the authenticity craze, and that's how alienated so many people feel – consciously and subconsciously – by the technological society.

It's not surprising that when almost everything we touch or encounter is mass-produced, a deep longing exists to find something real – something "organic" – to hold onto. At the same time many of us have become so distanced from the real and so conditioned by the artificial that we're willing to accept ersatz authenticity as a substitute for authentic authenticity.

One laughable comment in the Times article came from an interior designer who said our hunger for authenticity was triggered by the trauma of 9/11 and exacerbated by the recession that followed. In truth our longing for authenticity goes back a lot further than 9/11. Nostalgia for earlier, more settled times has always been with us, I suspect, but it emerged as a significant social phenomenon during the Industrial Revolution, when the upending of the familiar became an increasingly disruptive and increasingly consistent fact of life. 

A Victorian retreat from the Industrial Revolution

No accident that during the Gilded Age those who could afford it indulged in what Lewis Mumford called "a cult of antiquarianism," celebrating medieval chivalry and piety while lounging in Victorian drawing rooms that excluded, as Mumford put it, “every hint of the machine.” The Arts and Crafts movement spearheaded by William Morris and John Ruskin reflected a conviction that there was value in authenticity and that it was being crushed by mechanization. “Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things," Morris said, "the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilization.”

Our efforts to counteract the loss of authenticity with made-to-order authenticity constitute one of the great ironies of the technological era. Henry Ford spent millions of dollars and years of his life creating Greenfield Village, a life-sized facsimile of the small town he remembered from his youth, the kind of place his automobiles had done so much to destroy. The biographer Robert Lacey quotes Ford's personal public relations man as explaining that his boss's goal with Greenfield Village was to recall "the real world of folks…that honest time when America was in the making." The implication being that "the real world of folks" had already passed us by, and would now exist only as a tourist attraction.

Greenfield Village

Several readers who commented on the Times article noted that they take pains to surround themselves with objects that don't just look authentic but actually are authentic. It's clear that what accounts for the distinction is accrued meaning – personal meaning – through investment of experience and association over time. "I have been collecting Christmas tree ornaments since my childhood," wrote Pamela from Los Gatos, California. "My family's Christmas tree is unique because I only buy the items that tell a story – represent my travels, life events or speaks to me."

This resonates with a point I spend some time on in my book: To a greater degree than we're usually aware of, we are in relation to the objects around us, and for that reason they effect us, profoundly. Their influence is so pervasive that we tend to take it for granted, and so overlook it, as we make our way in the world – a world that is now overwhelmingly technological. 

Family heirlooms

In their book, The Meaning of Things, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rocheberg-Halton explore the sorts of relationships people develop with objects in their homes. An exchange of "psychic energy" occurs, they say, between individuals and the things they possess. That exchange can either be uplifting, if the feedback we get is affirming in some way, or enervating, if the feedback is unpleasant. I think it's fair to say that objects we describe as "authentic" are objects that reassure us. They help us feel anchored in a tumultuous world.

The point I make in my book, and that comes across loud and clear in the Times article, is that we feel the need to build a wall of authenticity or pseudo-authenticity around us at home to fend off the inauthenticity that assaults us outside the home.

Hopper's "Nighthawks"
The theologian Paul Tillich wrote powerfully on this theme. Technology, he said, is a means by which we can hold off the "uncanniness" of the human condition by constructing a world that is safe and predictable, a world we think we can control. Like so many palliatives, however, the technological barrier against existential uncanniness turns out to be false, because technology produces its own sense of uncanniness – one that cannot be relieved by more technology. 

“The stronger and more complicated the technical structures are,” Tillich said,
the more they take on a life of their own, independent of human beings, the more difficult it becomes to control them, the more threatening they become…As the technical structures develop an independent existence, a new element of uncanniness emerges in the midst of what is most well known. And this uncanny shadow of technology will grow to the same extent that the whole earth becomes the “technical city” and the technical house. Who can still control it?
The answer to that, of course, is that we can control it, simply by choosing appropriately authentic home accessories, available from scores of friendly retailers, online or at the mall!       


©Doug Hill, 2012