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

October 28, 2011

Steve Jobs, the Unabomber and America's Love-Hate Relationship With Technology

As the extraordinary tide of tributes to the life and work of Steve Jobs poured in these past few weeks, I couldn't help wondering how Ted Kaczynski was taking the news.
Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber, is serving a life sentence in a Colorado prison for conducting a murderous terror campaign he'd hoped would overthrow the kingdom of technology. There can be no more dramatic testimony to the failure of that campaign than the orgy of eulogies accorded Jobs.

Still, beneath their obvious differences, there's a connection between Kaczynski and Jobs, not between them personally but between the archetypes they've come to represent.

The emotional reactions to Jobs' passing made it abundantly clear that for many of us he'd come to symbolize the hopeful, life-affirming potential of the technical arts, in the process buttressing our faith in technology as a vehicle of human progress.

Kaczynski, by contrast, seemed a creature who'd emerged from the depths of our subconscious, a malignant manifestation of our fears that technology is not our friend but our enemy, and that our enemy is gaining the upper hand. Several commentators argued that Kaczynski disturbed us in part because we share a measure of his fear, and of his anger. Robert Wright wrote in Time magazine that "there's a little bit of the Unabomber in all of us." Daniel J. Kevles made essentially the same point in the The New Yorker; his essay appeared under the headline, "E Pluribus Unabomber." Alton Chase, in his biography of Kaczynski, suggested that the Unabomber Manifesto articulated in hyperbolic terms the same sort of earth-friendly sentiments that embrace organic food, camping, and the Prius. Minus the violence, Chase said, the Manifesto represented "nothing less than the American creed.” 

That's a vast overstatement, I think, but it does speak to the incongruity I'm driving at here. Jobs and Kaczynski represent the extreme polls of a deep-seated ambivalence in our attitudes toward technology. That ambivalence has been part of American history, and part of the American psyche, from the beginning.

Thomas Jefferson set the pattern. Jefferson argued passionately for a national economy based on the wholesome integrity of the family farm – dependence on manufactures, he wrote, "begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition" – but he also installed a host of inventions at Monticello and marveled at the wonders of industrial power in England. He loved nature but found it impossible to resist the fruits of abundance and power technology offered. Jefferson's oscillations on technology, said the historian Leo Marx, represent “decisive contradictions in our culture and in ourselves.”

The same contradictions flavored the nation's pursuit of Manifest Destiny. The dominant theme was that technology was the spearhead of civilization, the essential tool for taming the savage frontier. At the same time a less confident undercurrent whispered that the possibilities of human freedom were vanishing even as the glories of nature were being despoiled. Contemporary accounts quoted by Henry Nash Smith demonstrate how both perspectives were projected onto the personality of Daniel Boone, who was alternately portrayed as “the angelic Spirit of Enterprise,” paving the way for decency and prosperity, or as a paragon of lonely rectitude, moving ever westward ahead of the madding crowd. “I had not been two years at the licks [in Missouri],” Boone was said to have complained, “before a d—d Yankee came, and settled down within a hundred miles of me!!”

This discordant medley of enthusiasm and regret would subsequently be echoed in the frontier novels of James Fenimore Cooper and the Westerns of John Ford. In both a self-reliant frontiersman typically served as a bridge between wild nature and community, often demonstrating that for all the gains civilization brought, something noble and pure was being lost. Still later the same sorts of tensions would appear in the public images of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, who were revered not only for their achievements in technology but also for having managed to turn the trick of becoming rich and famous while retaining the homespun virtues of small town boys.

Steve Jobs and Ted Kaczynski – I'm talking about the individuals now, not the archetypes – were both products of the 1960s counterculture, and the spectacular divergence of their subsequent careers testifies to the depth of the counterculture's bifurcated views on technology. Yes, the 60s were a time of getting real and getting back to the land, but they were also an era of changing consciousness with the help of high-powered sound systems and LSD. Whether Kaczynski ever dropped acid I don't know, but he certainly dropped out. And although his Manifesto showed that he was filled with hatred for much of what the 60s stood for, it's also true that his views on technology were shaped by some of the counterculture's favorite intellectuals, Jacques Ellul and Hebert Marcuse among them.

Jobs regularly cited as seminal influences in his youth LSD and the Whole Earth Catalog. Certainly Stewart Brand's counterculture bible captured the era's eclecticism in regard to machines: readers regularly found woodstoves and potter's wheels featured alongside books on cybernetics and space stations. In that context it makes perfect sense that, as Walter Isaacson's biography reveals, Jobs tried for nine months to treat his pancreatic cancer with fruit juices and herbal remedies before seeking out the most technologically advanced medical treatments he could find.

If Steve Jobs and Thomas Jefferson can be ambivalent about technology, I guess any of us can. That's where Ted Kaczynski took a more radical path, a path of madness. You can't separate good technologies from bad technologies, he said. Buying into the Internet and artificial intelligence means also buying into nuclear meltdowns, eugenics, and global warming. Technology aims inexorably in one direction only: totalitarianism, the eradication of nature and the subjugation of human beings.

Kaczynski's madness came not so much in the logic of that philosophy – similar views have been endorsed by plenty of respectable people, including Ellul and Marcuse – as it did in his insistence on trying to force everyone else to adhere to it. His contempt for compromise was deep. When it comes to technology, he scornfully said, people want to have their cake and eat it, too. To which generations of Americans have replied, "Who wouldn't?"

By that I mean that we lust for the gifts technology bestows while overlooking, as best we can, its degradations. We love the mobility our cars provide, but keeping them filled with gas has gotten us into all sorts of trouble, and suburban sprawl is a nightmare. I wouldn't want to give up my iPad, my Android, my X-Box, or my plasma TV, but the people who make them in China seem to be getting a pretty bad deal, and don't ask me where they end up when I throw them away.        

Our Jobsian side smiles confidently and says, relax! Technology will provide us with solutions to all those problems – give it time. To which our Kaczynski side scowls and snarls that technology doesn't solve problems, it creates them. Trying to extricate ourselves with more machinery only serves to dig the hole we're in that much deeper.

Technological schizophrenia: An American tradition. 

Note: This essay is based on Chapter Two of my book, Not So Fast: Thinking Twice About Technology. That chapter cites other historical figures who embody the tradition of American ambivalence toward technology, among them Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Charles Lindbergh. The chapter can be read on Amazon's site for the book, here

©Doug Hill, October 28, 2011, revised November 6, 2011.

October 27, 2011

Authenticity and the "pumpkins" next door

Our next door neighbor has pulled out her annual fall/Halloween yard decorations, which include several fake pumpkins that she scatters about in the ivy. We gave up on pumpkins a couple of years ago because the squirrels made a mess of them; our neighbor will not have that problem.
What's interesting about these fake pumpkins is that they are meant to convey an atmosphere of organic authenticity, that is, to evoke a homier, simpler time when we all lived in the country and were surrounded by a variety of living things that came and went with the seasons, with or without our attention. Our neighbor has other authenticity-affirming artifacts on display as well, among them a weathered old Ryder wagon that she fills with mums, and a folksy "Welcome" sign. (She is not, in my experience at least, a welcoming person at all.)

In her wonderful book "How We Became Posthuman," N. Katherine Hayles mentions the idea of a "skeuomorph," which she describes as "a design feature that is no longer functional in itself but that refers back to a feature that was functional at an earlier time." She gives the example of the vinyl dashboard of her Toyota Camry, which is molded to look as if it is actually stitched fabric. In "The Technological Society" Jacques Ellul notes earlier examples of the same phenomenon, among them the cast-iron flowers decorating the stands of nineteenth-century sewing machines. 

Ellul predicted that such flourishes would soon disappear for the sake of efficiency, but he underestimated the power of nostalgia. In an era when the authentic has all but disappeared, ersatz authenticity generates sales, and that's the sort of efficiency that matters most. To my neighbor and lots of other people, the ability to evoke the memory of authenticity without having to bother with the mess that authenticity so often entails is an effect worth paying for. As U2 put it, it's the real thing, baby -- even better than the real thing! 

Ellul, however, was certainly correct in identifying the more fundamental dynamic: technique's inherent, implacable opposition to nature. "The world that is being created by the accumulation of technical means is an artificial world and hence radically different from the natural world," he wrote. "It destroys, eliminates, or subordinates the natural world, and does not allow this world to restore itself or even to enter into a symbiotic relation with it.”

By the way, for a lovely meditation on our longing for the real thing, or a serviceable facsimile thereof, I highly recommend Richard Todd's "The Thing Itself: On the Search for Authenticity." 

©Doug Hill, October 27, 2011

Photo credit: Set of 3 Orange and White Decorative Foam Pumpkins, QVC

Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs, and the Aspen Institute

Unless I missed something, there's an interesting sidelight that's been overlooked amidst the avalanche of publicity accorded Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs. 
Many people, including Isaacson, have attributed Jobs' "genius" to his ability to combine technological achievement with an artistic sensibility. Science and technology are often said to be natural enemies of the arts and humanities. Jobs was one of those very rare individuals capable of bridging the gap between them. (For more on this, see my previously published commentary "The Boffins and the Luvvies.")

I haven't seen Isaacson's book, but I wonder if it mentions that the Aspen Institute, of which he is President and CEO, was born directly out of the war between science and the humanities. Two of the key figures in the founding of the Institute were Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler of the University of Chicago, who insisted that science and technology, in their narrow-minded focus on results, were ignoring and eclipsing the foundational wisdom of Western culture, wisdom accrued over the centuries from its classic works of literature and philosophy. This was the rationale behind their creation of the famous "Great Books" program, and it was the guiding philosophy of the Aspen Institute at its formation.

The founding of the Institute is the subject of a fascinating chapter in James Sloan Allen's "The Romance of Commerce and Culture." In it he quotes Mortimer Adler's declaration of principles as stated in the Institute's first press release. Human beings in the twentieth century live, Adler wrote, "in a world which almost worships science and technology," so much so that they have lost sight of the "moral and spiritual truths" that would enable them to control the machinery they've unleashed.

"Science does not and cannot appoint the goals men should seek," Adler argued; "science does not and cannot direct us in the good life or to a good society; science does not and cannot determine which among competing values are true and false." It is the humanities, he concluded, that must direct us toward "the fundamental truths which can give human life direction and which can create a society to be served by science rather than ruled by it."

I think Steve Jobs would definitely have agreed with those sentiments. Whether his achievements in technology will ultimately work for or against a readjustment of the imbalance Adler deplored is another question. 

©Doug Hill, October, 2011

(Photo credit: Nathan Bilow, USA Today)

October 26, 2011

The boffins and the luvvies

O'Reilly Radar, the "insight and analysis" blog of O'Reilly Media, picked up The Boffins and the Luvvies, my commentary on Eric Schmidt's plea for a more equitable balance between science and the humanities in education. Schmidt believes the sciences aren't getting the attention they deserve, but his off-the-cuff remarks on Steve Jobs left a somewhat different impression. 

©Doug Hill, October 26, 2011