Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
There is something quietly terrible about spending time with people who have reached similar conclusions as you.
The previous sentence raises the question about what manner of “conclusions” are being referenced. After all, it is not really a terrible thing to associate with those who share similar conclusions about the merits of particular artists or the overall quality of felines. Yet, when one’s analysis of certain issues has led to a less than optimistic outlook it can be rather disarming and disheartening to spend time with those of a similarly woebegone stance. Particularly where an analysis of the facts has largely given rise to a certain inured acceptance – a sense that the topics can be thought about and discussed but that the chances of changing anything are not even worthy of discussion.
In what may have been an uncharacteristically upbeat moment the philosopher Max Horkheimer remarked to Theodor Adorno that:
“The only thing that goes against my pessimism is the fact that we still carry on thinking today. All hope lies in thought. But it is easy to believe that it could all come to an end.” (39)
While the above lines reflect the continuing value of contrarian, independent and rebellious thought they do not prove much of a bulwark against today’s pessimism. One need only spend a half hour (if that) scanning the headlines to feel overwhelmed by a certain sense of distraught powerlessness: people the world over are living in turmoil, violence spreads, economic inequality widens, governments become increasingly inept at the same time that they grow more powerful, and the planet upon which all of these scenarios play out becomes increasingly precarious. In such situations the hopeful promise of “thought” is rather thin; perhaps this is why it can be so appealing to think that we will “invent” (or “innovate”) our way our of our present predicament.
Technology has taken on a certain religious overtone of late. With its loudest advocates clad in the shiny robes of their faith they take on the roles of high priests, evangels, and missionaries going out amongst the masses to disruptively convert the unbelievers with the “good news” of technological “goods.” The promise is given of a technological heaven on Earth. Technology, we are assured and reassured, will be our savior. Though – as Adorno put it in the conversation with Horkheimer:
“There is nothing sacred about technology.” (53)
That technology can take on a certain religious note is not altogether surprising – for the historic and philosophical promise of technology is shot through with grand hopes and aspirations. It is the promise that humanity’s ability to create powerful machines will unhook people from the yoke of drudgery and usher in an era where mechanization is able to ensure not only the creation of plenty for all but the distribution of this plentitude; the promise that wily humanity has outsmarted nature.
Though this essential promise still lurks in the aura of new devices and platforms – it is a promise that has been increasingly (and historically) revealed as something of a hoax. Automation has not freed laborers to pursue lives of creative leisure – it has thrown them back upon the mercy of the market, forcing them to scramble for a shrinking pool of positions, often at lower pay (while much of the labor has simply moved to more repressive areas where workers are paid substantially less). While mechanized processes have certainly allowed for an explosion of available products, the fact that there is enough food hardly means that everybody gets fed – indeed, what is constantly made available in greater quantities are not products to meet essential needs but devices (wracked with planned obsolescence) that represent the manufacturing of new, artificial needs. As for the planet – it has proven a far wilier thing than any wily technology, and the planet is now beginning to react in (frankly) frightening ways, which are themselves largely a result of humanity’s unthinking and rapacious pursuit of technology (the burning of fossil fuels, the mining of rare Earth [and non-rare Earth] minerals, e-waste).
So long as human beings invent devices, the technological promise will linger, but a promise that is never fulfilled is not worthy of much faith.
And yet, we have a hard time turning a critical gaze towards technology. Something that may be a result of how inextricably bound up with our devices we have come to feel. Though many are, increasingly, willing to question many facets of modernity the essential machinery of modern times often gets something of a pass. It has once more become acceptable in the mainstream to question capitalism; we have moved from “There Is No Alternative” to “There Had Better Be An Alternative” – but we often come up short in seeing the way that contemporary technology is not independent from, but is in fact a reflection of, current economic conditions.
In a neo-liberal capitalist world the vast majority of the technologies that one encounters will be those which advance the ideological and structural aims of neo-liberal capital. This is why venture capitalists are eager to cash in on new start-ups, why the race is to create newer and newer devices instead of ones that last for twenty years, why the targets for tech disruption (education, labor, transport) are the same sectors being torn to shreds by privatization. And yet, the promise of technology is a hope that is tied to the inventive impulse, not to the will for profit – but, our modern technological regimes reveal that the promise of money has in almost every case won out over the technological promise of the harnessing of mechanical tools for the creation of a more equitable world. It is not that smart phones, tablet computers, fitness trackers, Glass, streaming services, social networks, and so forth are unimpressive technological achievements, it is that they reduce the human in technological society into little more than a consumer whose main role is to tap buttons, generate data, replace products, and participate through purchasing. It is not that people necessarily believe that the new operating system will save the day, it is that the operating system has steadily enclosed the operating system previously known as humanity.
Thought, as Horkheimer remarked, can be a useful corrective. Critical engagement is essential, and yet it can leave one feeling only more hopeless. This is the sentiment evoked in the opening lines of this essay: spending several days discussing technological society can easily lead to a feeling that “we are in a lot of trouble…but there is nothing we can do.” Scholars, activists and journalists can point to a growing mountain of research illustrating the deleterious effects our technology is having upon ourselves and our planet…but Google Glass will solve that, right? The problem was not the smart phone, it was that we did not have the Amazon.com smart phone, right?
Perhaps the clearest proof that faith in technology has taken on religious overtones is that technology has become its own ideology and belief system, one that paints critics as hell-bound heretics. For all of the seeming rationality that surrounds technology – the wholesale acceptance of its promise is a break of rationality, it is fanatical leap of faith. A leap made all the greater as it tries to ignore the chasm of evidence and unfulfilled promises it has had to jump over.
Rejecting the promise of salvation can be an unpleasant prospect – but the question that must be raised is as to the promise being offered. For the promise of technological salvation is not the same as the “promise of technology,” one requires blind faith in the market whilst the other recognizes an untapped potentiality. A potential that is present in the human capability to create, but which is continually scuttled by the propensity of some humans to pursue profit above all other values. It is not that “technology is good” or that “technology is bad” – it is that our current societal predicaments are largely the result of an unthinking acceptance of technology and the results have clearly not been very good. Detecting little space for hope, Horkheimer remarked:
“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” (45)
The above quotation is the perfect illustration of the “quietly terrible” feeling mentioned in the opening sentence, and it is an emotion that seems to be afflicting many of late. Yet, despair is never an option, for despair paralyzes thought. This is the challenge for us as we look upon our ever more technologically textured and precarious world – to recognize that things might be otherwise, to think of how things might be otherwise.
And then to work together to do something about it.
Towards a New Manifesto – Theodor Adorno & Max Horkheimer (Verso, 2011)