Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
Spending an afternoon at a Renaissance Festival presents an individual with the opportunity to indulge in a mythologized version of the past without having to worry about contracting any diseases or having to dwell upon the violence and systemic injustices that were common features of that era. Of course, beholding the stream of knights, fairies, pirates, and nobles gallivanting through the fairgrounds while one eats a turkey leg and drinks overpriced beer is comparable to the actual Renaissance in the same way that barbecue sauce is comparable to a fine red wine. While they may be entertaining ways to pass an afternoon, Renaissance Festivals do not provide attendees with much of an idea of what it was actually like to live in a different period– nor do these diversions do terribly much to challenge visitors to rethink their modern lifestyle. After all, one can stroll about a Renaissance Festival posting pictures of ye olde buildings on social media, and though some of those working at the festival may gawk and balk at the fair goers’ smart phones it is quite obvious that it is all part of the act.
And it is a comforting act. One that is rich in anachronistic silliness. Indeed, some people genuinely love getting dressed up and heading to the Renaissance Festival. And yet a fair goer would certainly cock an eyebrow in exasperated mockery if they overheard somebody claiming that they loved the Renaissance era, and so they had decided to live in it – modeling every aspect of their daily affairs after what life had been like in those bygone years from clothing to self-care to technology. The mere premise seems laughable, and the absurdity of the concept does not come across much better if the period one seeks to emulate is the Victoria rather than the Renaissance.
Thus, it comes as little surprise that the tale of a couple in Washington choosing to conduct their lives as though they were living in the Victorian era has been met mostly with derision. That story of two people showing a commitment to history through fastidiously recreating it with period appropriate clothing, appliances and modes of transportation seems to have struck many readers as being too precious. Granted, preciousness aside, the glaring issue in the article seems to be the way in which the couple seems to adore the accouterments of the Victorian era while not seeming particularly concerned with the colonialism, repression, and social stratification that were characteristic of those years. Nevertheless, if one is willing to stop rolling one’s eyes long enough to read the article, than what one encounters is an interesting, and quite stark (if extremely problematic), example of two people making a concerted effort to reject many of the technological features that have come to define the modern world (at least in affluent nations). And yet it would be wrong to portray the couple as ethics driven ascetics or proud neo-Luddites, instead their very rejection of modern technology seems to actually be an affirmation of contemporary attitudes towards technology. Perhaps the reason the article angered so many was that the readers saw more of themselves in the couple than they liked.
The tale of the Victorian couple reveals the troubles bundled up in the way the term “technology” is used. Today it is easy to hear the word “technology” and instantly think of smart phones, streaming devices, things connected to the Internet, and the other offal bestowed upon the populace by Silicon Valley. But “technology” is a term that encompasses a great deal – from motorcycles to the penny-farthing cycles of the Victorian era, from the tablet computer stylus to the fountain pen that must be refilled with an eye dropper, from the smart home connected thermostat to the 19th century gas heater, and the list goes on. Life in the Victorian period was not somehow “free from technology,” instead it simply consisted of being surrounded by different types of technology than those that surround many of us today. And yet, one of the technological legacies of the 19th century – which is still with us today – may well have been the belief that was incubated in that period that new technologies were the engines of progress. Adoration of the machine, of the mechanical, of the invention, was a feature of the 19th century during which tools and technics ceased to be seen merely as means to ends and began to be treated as ends in and of themselves. This treatment of technology as an “end” in and of itself is a problem that has lingered with us since that past period in which it was invented – and still manifests itself in the cultural imperative to buy the latest device or sign up for the latest app regardless of whether or not it is truly necessary.
It may well be that people today have a sort of unconscious love for the technologies that surround them – from their smart phone to the Internet platforms that they use daily – and the Victorian couple is simply another example of modern individuals who have fallen in love with their technology. And these Victorian era aficionados are deeply and seriously in love with their technology in a way that is much more open than the affection that most people show for their smart phones. But, still, the space between always having your smart phone on your person, and walking around wearing a chatelaine may be smaller than most people would like to think. Indeed, one can read that article by one-half of the Victorian couple as being an ode to technology – which is precisely why the article works so well. For, we have become quite accustomed to reading odes to technology. It genuinely seems that couple loves the Victorian era, but it also seems that what they are really doing is fetishizing the technologies of that period even as they reject the fetishism for the technologies of today. And yet – as Theodor Adorno put it in an essay primarily about music:
“their revolts against fetishism only entangle them more deeply in it.” (Adorno, 52)
In pushing against the prevalent love for all things Internet connected, the Victorian couple is not making an ethical argument for going offline, they are instead simply becoming caricatures (and they seem to know it). They have traded the problematic fetishism of the modern, for an even more problematic fetishism of the past. It has little to do with balance, and everything to do with retreat into a fantasy – albeit one that is at once less comical and more reactionary than a trip to the Renaissance Festival.
The devotion that the couple shows to the technology of the 19th century itself acts as a warped mirror for many of those reading of the couple’s travails – for the couples adoration of the 19th century technologies is in many ways comparable to the adoration many feel for 21st century technologies. From lionizing encryption, to obsessively posting on social media, to eagerly purchasing the newest device, to scouring blogs for the next big things (clothing, after all, is technology too), to replacing perfectly functional items with the newest “smart” equivalent – obsessing over contemporary technology and obsessing over Victorian era technology are both, at base, simply examples of obsessing over technology. And while the Victorian couple praises how using these devices has improved their lives, this is not altogether different from hearing your acquaintance prattle on about how his/her smart watch has improved their life.
It is certainly true that the Victorian period was rife with inequities and the lush life of some was enabled by the misery of others – and yet it requires an impressive level of willful disregard to believe that this has been wholly corrected. Today’s consumption (from consumer technology to fast fashion) is still defined by the exploitation of workers and the despoiling of the environment so that a privileged slice can enjoy the benefits. Indeed, there is a case to be made that choosing to cycle rather than drive, to make one’s own clothes, to avoid the high-tech high-consumption lifestyle – is actually to make an ethical choice for life in contemporary times. But, what the Victorian couple demonstrates so fantastically is that all of these choices vanish in an aura of narcissistic playacting. After all, there is a world of difference between a call to consume less while reconsidering technological usage (such as was seen in the encyclical Laudato Si’ by Pope Francis) and one couple’s mission to live in a fantasy world of their own selective reconstructing. One seeks to critique and improve the world – while the other merely seeks to withdraw.
We cannot return to the Victorian era, nor should we want to, and the worship of that period does little to point a way out of our present impasse – for the Victorian couple is not trying to make a morally grounded claim that “cycling is better for the environment” instead the claim is simply “look at us on our period bicycles.” In so doing the article simply highlights the couple’s love of Victorian technology while giving readers a curmudgeonly reason to fire off a few nasty comments on social media whilst basking in their certainty that people who proudly declare that they do not have cell phones must be insufferable hipsters who frolic about in hand-sewn Victorian garb.
It is a comforting mistake to read the article about these Victorian cosplayers and conclude that they are just anti-technology, but to do so misses the point: this couple is actually at the pinnacle of being pro-technology. It’s just that the devices they pay fealty to do not require software updates every six months. Their life is not a living example of a critique of technology, but is instead a wholesale devotion to living life in accordance with the strictures of a particular set of technologies. Though, importantly, this is by no means to suggest that being anti-technology is what should be aimed at or that attempting such is wise – as Neil Postman once put it:
“I regard it as stupid to be anti-technology. That would be something like being anti-food. We need technology to live, as we need food to live. But, of course, if we eat too much food, or eat food that has no nutritional value, or eat food that is infected with disease, we turn a means of survival into its opposite. The same may be said of our technology.” (Postman, 44)
The Victorian couple is simply gorging themselves on very old food (to use Postman’s analogy). But the question that needs to be considered is whether they are eating “too much” of it, whether it has any “nutritional value,” whether it is “infected with disease” – what the couple reveals is that one can also make ethically minded choices about the type of “food” but then prepare it in such a way as to make it wretchedly unpalatable. At best the couple’s actions should prompt us to ask the same questions of ourselves – that their affection for Victorian era technology is absurd does not mean that the present adoration for smart phones is not so. Ultimately this story presents a fresh occasion to reflect on the continuing validity of Lewis Mumford’s comment:
“If you fall in love with a machine there is something wrong with your love-life. If you worship a machine there is something wrong with your religion.” (Mumford, 81)
And this holds true whether one loves a penny-farthing or a self-driving car.
The issue is not the type of technology adored, but the belief that technology (as such) is worthy of adoration.
Adorno, Theodor. “On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening” in The Culture Industry. Routledge, 1991.
Mumford, Lewis. Art and Technics. Columbia University Press, 2000
Postman, Neil. Building a Bridge to the 18th Century. Vintage Books, 1999.