February 27, 2014

Carl Mitcham endorses "Not So Fast"

Carl Mitcham

I was thrilled to receive yesterday an endorsement of Not So Fast from another one of my intellectual heroes, Carl Mitcham, for decades a leading figure in the philosophy of technology.

Here's what he said: 

Not So Fast is a really fine piece of work. Wish I’d written it. Anyone who might want to reflect on the implications of more than three generations of scholarly criticism of technology should read the book. The same goes for any scholars who have been thinking about technology and who desire to see how their work may have been more publicly appropriated – or , indeed, who may wish to deepen their own understanding of what they have been doing. Doug Hill is a solid independent scholar in the best sense: A Lewis Mumford for our time.”

Carl is a professor at the Colorado School of Mines and author, co-author, or editor of any number of seminal books, among them Thinking through Technology: The Path Between Engineering and Philosophy; Bibliography of the Philosophy of Technology; The Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics; and Research in Philosophy and Technology.

Earlier endorsements of Not So Fast can be found here and here.  

February 25, 2014

In Praise of the Counterpunchers

"Please, Sir. I want some more."

The humanities are in retreat. For years science and technology have been running roughshod over the arts in the nation's colleges and universities, a thrashing turning now into rout.

This is hardly news. For years a consistent string of news articles and commentaries have documented the humanities' decline. An especially robust burst of coverage greeted the release last summer of "The Heart of the Matter," an earnest series of recommendations and equally earnest short film produced under the auspices of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Backed by a prestige-dripping commission of actors, journalists, musicians, directors, academics, jurists, executives and politicians, "The Heart of the Matter" sounded what the New York Times called a "rallying cry against the entrenched idea that the humanities and social sciences are luxuries that employment-minded students can ill afford." In our race for results, the commission urged, the quest for meaning must never be abandoned.

Alas, the sad truth is that earnestness at this point doesn't begin to cut it. Celebrity endorsements won't reverse the trend, either. We may as well come clean and accept  that the humanities have been losing this fight for centuries, and a reversal of their fortunes isn’t likely anytime soon.

The reason, I think, is fairly simple. Relative to the tangible solidities produced by science, technology and capital, the gifts of the humanities are ephemeral, and thus easily dismissed. "The basis of all authority," said Alfred North Whitehead, "is the supremacy of fact over thought."

This is not to say the humanities won’t retain a place at the table. They will, insofar as they can make themselves useful. But like Oliver Twist, the paucity of their portion will always leave them begging for more.  All the more reason, then, to celebrate those who have managed to land a blow or two against the empire.

Francis Bacon
One of the early aggressors against whom the seekers of Higher Truth had to defend themselves was Francis Bacon. His introduction of the scientific method was accompanied by an unending string of attacks on the philosophers of ancient Greece for their worthless navel-gazing. Like children, he said, "they are prone to talking, and incapable of generation, their wisdom being loquacious and unproductive of effects." The "real and legitimate goal of the sciences," Bacon added, "is the endowment of human life with new inventions and riches."

Legions of scientific wannabes followed Bacon's lead to become dedicated experimental tinkerers in whatever the Enlightenment's version of garages might have been. Meanwhile Jonathan Swift stood to one side and argued, with droll, often scatological amusement, that the emperor had no clothes. 

Jonathan Swift
Those who read Gulliver's Travels in the days before literature classes were eliminated may recall Gulliver's visits to the Academies of Balnibarbi (parodies of Salomon's House, the utopian research center envisioned in Bacon's New Atlantis), where scientists labored to produce sunshine from cucumbers and to reverse the process of digestion by turning human excrement into food. Embraced in greeting by the filth-encrusted investigator conducting the latter experiment, Gulliver remarked parenthetically that this had been "a Compliment I could well have excused."

A more recent battle in what might be called the Arena of Empiricism unfolded in 1959, when C.P. Snow presented his famous lecture, "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution." 

C.P. Snow
The cultures to which the title referred were those of literary intellectuals on the one hand and of scientists on the other. While it's true Snow criticized the scientists for knowing little more of literature than Dickens, by far the bulk of his disdain was reserved for the intellectuals. Sounding a lot like Bacon, Snow said the scientists had "the future in their bones," while the ranks of literature were filled with "natural Luddites" who "wished the future did not exist."

Again, a partisan of the humanities launched a spirited counterattack, this one fueled not by satire but by undiluted rage. 

F.R. Leavis
Manning the barricades was F. R. Leavis, a longtime professor of literature at Downing College, Cambridge. Leavis was well known in English intellectual circles as a staunch defender of the unsurpassed sublimity of the great authors, whom he saw as holding up an increasingly vital standard of excellence in the face of an onrushing tide of modern mediocrity. Snow's lecture represented to Leavis the perfect embodiment of that mediocrity, and thus a clarion call to repel the barbarians at the gate. 

From his opening paragraph Leavis's attack was relentless. Snow's lecture demonstrated "an utter lack of intellectual distinction and an embarrassing vulgarity of style," its logic proceeding "with so extreme a naïveté of unconsciousness and irresponsibility that to call it a movement of thought is to flatter it."

Snow, Leavis said, made the classic mistake of those who saw salvation in industrial progress: he equated wealth with well being. The results of such a belief were on display for all to see in modern America: "the energy, the triumphant technology, the productivity, the high standard of living and the life impoverishment—the human emptiness; emptiness and boredom craving alcohol—of one kind or another."

The uncompromising spleen of Leavis's tirade certainly outdid the conciliatory platitudes of the "The Heart of the Matter," but to no greater effect. Neither fire and brimstone nor earnest entreaty will rescue the humanities from their fate. Meaning will remain the underdog in a world that increasingly demands the goods to which it has increasingly grown accustomed.

Defeatist? To the contrary, all the more reason to carry on the fight, boldly and without apology. I keep a quote from Jonathan Swift taped over my desk:

“When you think of the world give it one lash the more at my request. The chief end I propose in all my labors is to vex the world rather than divert it.”

(More thoughts on this subject can be found in my earlier essay, “The Battle Between Art and Science (Continued).”)

©Doug Hill, 2014 

San Francisco as Metaphor

Like most people who follow developments  in American technology, I’ve watched with interest the recent controversies regarding the Great Techie Invasion of San Francisco.

You know the story: Each morning rich young programmers are ferried in fancy buses from the city neighborhoods they’ve gentrified down to Silicon Valley, returning each evening to spend their mega-salaries in expensive restaurants and exclusive clubs, pushing aside the regular folks and regular businesses that used to flourish there.

I was especially struck by an account of this phenomenon that appeared in the Guardian this past weekend, headlined “Is San Francisco Losing Its Soul?” Reporter Zöe Corbyn had the smarts to track down the poet, painter, and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, godfather of the Beats, who is as apt a symbol of San Francisco’s cherished Outlaw Ethic as you could ask for.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Corbyn writes that Ferlinghetti, who moved to the city in 1951, doesn’t feel much at home there anymore. The art gallery where he’s shown his paintings for twenty years is closing to make room for a cloud computer startup that’s willing to pay triple the rent, while shiny new Mercedes  crowd the streets of his beloved North Beach. Ferlinghetti finds himself surrounded by “a souless group of people,” a “new breed” preoccupied with their smartphones, their money, and themselves. "It is totally shocking to see Silicon Valley take over the city," he says. "San Francisco is radically changing and we don't know where it is going to end up."

Although I’m generally sympathetic with the sorts of values Ferlinghetti represents and defends, there’s a subtext to what he’s saying—to what a lot of people are saying—that misses a larger and important part of the story. That’s the assumption that there’s something unique about San Francisco, and that its uniqueness is what’s under attack.

As someone who graduated from a Peninsula high school in 1968 and who misspent much of his youth pretending he belonged in the Haight, I’m familiar enough with Bay Area culture to understand the truth of those sentiments. I think it’s also true, though, that what’s happening in San Francisco isn’t unique at all, but rather a completely characteristic and familiar demonstration of the fundamental nature of technology. In that respect what we’re witnessing today is San Francisco as microcosm, or San Francisco as metaphor.

When I speak of the “nature” of technology, I should explain that my definition of technology is a broad one. I follow the lead of those who think of technology not as a machine but as a system, one that includes the people who use technologies and the methods they employ to exploit technology’s powers. Jacques Ellul used the word “technique” to convey this more holistic view of technology’s nature. Technique from Ellul’s perspective was not just a methodology, but an ideology, almost a state of being. The machine is “deeply symptomatic” of technique, he said. “It represents the ideal toward which technique strives.” 

By this standard we can consider the techie hordes of Silicon Valley as agents or carriers of technique, which begins to explain why their invasion of San Francisco is a manifestation of the nature of technology. Ellul and others argue that one of technique’s most fundamental characteristics is a relentless drive toward expansion, and the techie takeover certainly fits that description. In all the hullabaloo about the demise of the city, we tend to forget that the techies have already conquered and occupied an entire region to the south of San Francisco, with much the same impact on real estate and culture that we’re now noticing in the city. There’s a reason they call it Silicon Valley, after all. 

Even there, though, we’re talking microcosm. The fact is that the exigencies of technique are well on their way to overtaking the entire world. China is one of the latest nations to fall in line.

That brings me to the second quality of technology’s fundamental character: Aggression. This is a corollary of the drive to expansion: Whatever stands in the way of technique’s drive toward completion will be pushed aside, using (to borrow a phrase from a radically different context) whatever means necessary.

Again, it’s pretty obvious how the techie invasion of San Francisco fits this definition. The news reports have made it clear that what’s pissing non-techie residents of the city off as much as anything is the techie’s attitude.  “Arrogant” and “entitled” are words that come up repeatedly. No accident that libertarianism and Ayn Rand are mainstays of the techie philosophy. Submit or get out of the way, loser. And again, this is only a microcosm of what’s happening as technique proceeds on its drive toward global domination. 

San Francisco protesters block a Silicon Valley commuter bus
The last quality of technique’s fundamental nature I’ll mention is an almost obsessive need to control. This, too, is a corollary of the drive to expansion. As technological systems become larger, more powerful and more complex, the consequences of a systemic breakdown become more severe. Analysts speak of “tightly-coupled systems” that can implode when even a tiny element malfunctions—the paradigmatic example is the blown fuse that causes tens of millions of people to lose their electrical power. In order to avoid such events, the masters of technique seek to control as many potentially wayward elements as possible.

From what I can gather of news reports in San Francisco (I no longer live on the West coast) the techies are recasting the neighborhoods they’re invading in their own image. People who look, think and act differently —wayward elements—are excluded. What was once diverse is becoming standardized. This is exactly the process we see occurring in the giganticism that’s so characteristic of large corporations, including those that rule Silicon Valley. The best way to eliminate the threat of competition is to absorb it.

Again, all of this constitutes a phenomenon that’s not just local, but global. Everywhere you look, traditional ways of life are under assault. There’s nothing unique about it. San Francisco, you’re being disrupted. Join the club.

Ferlinghetti photo: Sarah Lee, the Guardian, 2006

©Doug Hill, 2014