"More than machinery, we need humanity."
“There is nothing more frightful than to be right. And if some, paralyzed by the gloomy likelihood of the catastrophe, have already lost courage, they still have a chance to prove their love of man by heeding the cynical maxim: ‘Let’s go on working as though we had the right to hope. Our despair is none of our business.'” – Günther Anders
While receiving the National Book Award, for his 1961 book The City in History, Lewis Mumford took the opportunity to make clear what his objectives had been in writing that book. To those assembled, Mumford explained that he modeled himself after the biblical prophet Jonah: “that terrible fellow who keeps on uttering the very words you don’t want to hear, reporting the bad news and warning you that it will get even worse unless you yourself change your mind and alter your behavior.” One might expect, considering that he was making this pronouncement while being given a significant award, that Mumford’s comments were just so much playful crowing. But they were anything of the sort. Rather they were the tragic testament of a figure who felt that for all of the effort he devoted to trying to save the ship – by alerting those aboard of the perils towards which they sailed – that the ship was still heading directly towards a jagged reef.
In a self-consciously joking tone, Mumford told those honoring him, “I would die happy if I knew that on my tombstone could be written these words, ‘This man was an absolute fool. None of the disastrous things that he reluctantly predicted ever came to pass!’ Yes: then I could die happy.” The records that remain from Mumford’s comments do not make it clear whether or not these comments earned a laugh from the audience. But Mumford seemed to suspect, to his great unease, that he would have the last laugh.
Everyone becomes an amateur historian in December. Looking back at the year that was, people are not just tempted to reflect on how various events fit into the grand scheme of history – they are actively encouraged. Thus, every occurrence becomes weighted with even more meaning than it had carried when it had originally taken place. Gone are the days of “how will this impact the world in the moment,” December brings on the days of “how will posterity look back on those moments?”
Granted, every year is certainly weighted down with moments that will have genuine historic import. Disasters, elections, protests, wars, legislation, legal rulings, births, deaths, cultural events – all of those things (and that list does not contain everything) are truly of lasting significance. And amongst historians there are enough sub-specialties as to demonstrate that even the things that many people gloss over, still fit somewhere into a larger tale. And yet, December invites a sort of historic hyperbole as the conversation shifts from an analysis of all of the important things that happened, to a quest to identify the most significant events.
Few groups are more actively engaged in imputing importance than those at Time Magazine who, since 1927, have named a “Person of the Year.” It is a process that has changed over time. After all, it was originally called “Man of the Year,” and in recent years the ranks of “Person” have included groups such as “The Protestor” (2011), “The Silence Breakers” (2017) – and enthralled by the promise of the Internet, Time went so far as to name “You” the person of the year in 2006 (so, belated congratulations to you). The person, or persons, selected are part of a list of other groups and individuals who were also closely considered for that honor – and despite Time’s tendency in recent years to pick groups that have challenged those in power, the list of finalists is usually filled with politicians and titans of industry. In 2018, under the name “The Guardians,” Time has named journalists who have risked prison and/or death, as the people of the year. One can certainly understand the decision, given the degree to which attacks on the press (metaphorical and literal) seem to be on the rise, and the way in which the murder of Jamal Khashoggi has emerged as a major event in 2018.
Nevertheless, looking back at the events of 2018, it seems that there is an important (if scattered) group of individuals who should have at least been considered finalists. Though, in fairness, many of them are no longer alive to appreciate the honor, namely: the scions of Cassandra – those figures who tried to warn us, were largely ignored, but who turned out to be right.
When thinking in terms of posterity, perhaps the great irony of 2018 is that one of the most significant occurrences this year paints a big question mark over the way we normally think about history. To put it differently, the idea that history will look back on this year in a particular way is to imagine that in the future there will still be historians (and other people) engaging in the kind of scholarly retrospection that we currently practice. But in 2018, the question of whether there will be such people in the future was called grimly into question. Let us be blunt: five years ago if you expressed the opinion that humanity was running out of time to confront climate change and that there would be hell to pay (and hell on Earth) for this inaction, you were roundly mocked. Such a claim was met with mockery from figures on the right who deny the reality of climate change, was met with frustration by figures in the center who remained certain that world leaders would figure out some sensible solution, and disdain from figures on the left who worried that such framing would frighten people into apathy. And yet in 2018 it was not that there were a handful of voices warning that we have twenty years left – it was that the IPCC put out a report saying that we only have twelve years left. And to be clear, it is not that we have twelve years until we have to do something, it’s that if we continue along our present course in twelve years we will be out of time.
Furthermore, 2018 was filled with stories that only seemed to underscore the IPCC’s point: from fires engulfing California, to deadly hurricanes, to droughts fueling displacement. The attempt by the Trump administration to bury the US’s most recent climate assessment, by releasing it on Black Friday, only seemed to direct more attention to its hair-raising contents. Alas, even as talk about a Green New Deal has captured imaginations on the left, reports have revealed that emissions are once again rising, and the recent climate talks in Poland have featured little that would fill anyone (except for maybe an oil or coal executive) with hope. Remember, it was only last July, that a writer at New York Magazine was roundly condemned for his attention-grabbing article on climate change worst-case scenarios. But as 2018 comes to a close, it does not really seem as though it’s those who are mocked as “prophets of doom” who were in the wrong. Granted, there are some times where it’s much better to be wrong.
Of course the counter will be offered that it is wrong to read the IPCC report as a funeral dirge. For it does note that there is time to act, even as it recognizes that the sort of action required will necessitate a massive mobilization that will challenge the economic system that has exacerbated the present crisis. We can change everything, or climate change will change everything for us. The waves of activists targeting Congress with their calls for climate action, and the waves of activism worldwide, are certainly encouraging. Similarly, the idea of the Green New Deal genuinely does seem to have taken hold in the popular imagination, and it is being championed by savvy politicians who seem to fundamentally understand the enormity of the danger.
And yet, one of the best reasons not to be overly optimistic, comes from a recognition that the point we’ve reached is one that we were warned about. Repeatedly. For years. It’s not that there was a lack of voices saying we were running out of time, it’s that those voices have usually been ignored or treated as unhelpfully dire. True, the IPCC’s figure of “twelve years” seems to create a definitive countdown clock, ticking swiftly towards zero – but the success rate of those who’ve been trying to draw attention to that ticking sound for years, should give the optimistic pause. In their rosily titled The Collapse of Western Civilization, published in 2014, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, emphasized that 2009’s meeting in Copenhagen was the world’s “last best chance.” In that slim book, Oreskes and Conway assumed the position of a historian writing from 2393, who looks back on our era and concludes that “denial and self-deception, rooted in an ideological fixation on ‘free’ markets, disabled the world’s most powerful nations in the face of tragedy.” When the book came out it was easy to criticize Oreskes and Conway for hyperbole, or blast them for fear-mongering. But, credit where it’s due, in 2018 no less a body than the IPCC has announced that their pessimistic premonitions were on track – while the worldwide reactions to the aforementioned IPCC report seem to give further credence to the dark forecast Oreskes and Conway put forward.
Hope is important. There can be no doubt about that. Though we must be careful not to conflate optimism with hope. One needs to be able to hold fast to a vision of a better future (hope), without subscribing to a Panglossian faith that such a future is guaranteed (optimism). As Mumford wrote in an unsuccessful attempt to rouse his fellow citizens to the threat of fascism in 1939, “hoping for the best, we must still prepare for the worst. To face the future in any other spirit is to invite destruction.”
Were it not for the climate news, and all of the political news, it is quite possible that the dominant story of 2018 would have been the troubles the tech giants have encountered. Granted, these troubles are hard to extricate from the political news, and given the degree to which they have to do with the dissemination of questionable information they are also involved in the spreading of climate denial. 2018 may have been the year that saw Amazon and Apple reach valuations of over a trillion dollars, but it was also the year that saw tech execs looking miserable as they were grilled by Congress, saw people react with disdain as the details of the deals used to lure Amazon’s new headquarters became public, saw Elon Musk experience a very public personal meltdown, it was a year in which every week seemed to bring a new story that made Facebook look terrible, and it was a year in which the tech companies found themselves being protested by their own employees. Though it was not dubbed “word of the year” by any dictionaries, the neologism “techlash” graced many a headline.
Yet, the astonishing thing about all of these stories about the malfeasance of the tech giants, is the way in which these stories forced tech writers, tech evangelists, and technophilic scholars to contort themselves. Indeed, one of the strangest dances of 2018 was watching those who had previously mocked even tepid criticism of the tech companies trying to rebrand themselves as if they had always been critics themselves. The legions who had helped advance the idea that Facebook really was transforming the world for the better, that Google really meant it when they said “don’t be evil,” and that the tech companies were going to take us to utopia as opposed to turning the world into a bad episode of Black Mirror – suddenly found themselves adrift. Luckily many of these figures were able to channel their hopes away from the tech company boardrooms and towards the protesting employees, thereby allowing them to retain hope in the tech companies (and technology) by way of a quick switch. Or they reinvested their hopes in the groups promising to reform Silicon Valley from within (such as Ethical OS and the Center for Humane Technology). Nevertheless, the bad stories about the tech company were not a steady drip in 2018, they were a deluge – and even if the tech executives promised that they are committed to doing better, 2018 proved conclusively that these companies do not deserve any trust.
There is reason to be skeptical of the claims of the “techlash,” given how few people have proved genuinely willing (or able) to abandon these platforms, and the lack of aggressive action (at least in the US) to regulate these companies. However, it does seem that 2018 was the year when it became moderately socially acceptable to be critical of technology. Or, to put it more honestly, one can at least be moderately critical of the tech companies themselves. Long ago, in the distant past of 2017, those who had negative things to say about Facebook, Amazon, Google, and the like found their views dismissed as technophobia, they were accused of being Luddites, and their critiques of particular technologies in particular contexts saw them accused of wanting everyone to live in caves. But in 2018 if you say “Facebook is bad,” you’ll likely encounter a response that consists of some level of agreement, even if it is couched in a defeatist attitude of “but what can we really do about it?”
And here too, credit is due to the critics and scholars who spent years warning about the high-tech mess in which we now find ourselves embroiled. Critics of media and technology were warning about Facebook before Mark Zuckerberg was even born, and more recent critics had tried to sound the alarm before these companies reached their dominant positions. And today they have their woebegone revenge by being right.
When a person dies, one of the strange honors that can be given to the life they lived is that “they tried to warn us.” And in 2018 one figure who deserves such memorial words is the French philosopher, Paul Virilio. Born in 1932, Virilio’s childhood experience was shaped by living through the Second World War, while his adulthood was impacted by the nuclear threat of the Cold War and the rebellious days of Paris in 1968. Virilio was too complex a thinker to sum up in a few lines, though more substantial obituaries abound, but his passing marks the continuing disappearance of a generation of theorists and thinkers who tried – largely in vain – to sound the alarm.
Virilio was interested in architecture (particularly bunkers), in cinema, in speed, in technology, and also in accidents. Indeed, his architecture partner Claude Parent referred to him as “Mr. Catastrophe.” Throughout his writings, a reader can find numerous instances where Virilio is quite specific in terms of the object of his critique, but perhaps more useful is the way in which he presents ways of thinking. As he put it in his book Open Sky:
“Unless we are deliberately forgetting the invention of the shipwreck in the invention of the ship or the rail accident in the advent of the train, we need to examine the hidden face of new technologies, before that face reveals itself in spite of us.”
There is an entire philosophy of technology and an entire philosophy of disaster bound up in that sentence. It is a demand to think through the consequences before they arrive. A sort of modified “precautionary principle” it is a reminder that accidents are going to happen and that we had better consider what kinds of accidents we are setting ourselves up for when we invent new things. The current debacle we find ourselves in with the tech monopolies is the “accident” that came into being at the same time as these companies. And climate change is the slow motion accident brought into being by humanity’s reshaping the planet around the smokestack. The inability, or unwillingness, to foresee the accident is part of what makes it so catastrophic when it arrives. After all, if you understand the risks you can create seat belts, guard rails, air bags, and bumpers, you can insist on regulation – such measures will not prevent the accident, but they can cushion the blow, and the very act of buckling in can serve as a reminder to the conscious driver (or passenger) that their choices are not without risks. Yet if you ignore the possible accidents, if you refuse to take preparatory steps, if you deny that there is the possibility of an accident, if you mock those warning of a potential accident as alarmists – in that case you will not be prepared when the accident arrives. And 2018 was not just a year when the accidents became clear, but it was also a year in which “the hidden face” has revealed “itself in spite of us.”
A challenging and important thinker, there are many things that can be said about Virilio, but if you want to sum up his oeuvre you could do worse than saying: he tried to warn us.
To discuss climate change and the latest bungling by the tech giants in the same piece is to risk being rather crass. After all, climate change represents a dramatic and existential threat to the future of humanity, it is a danger that has already caused deaths and seems bound to cause more displacement and destruction in the years to come. Compared to that it seems easy to dismiss of the tech companies as a “first world problem” (though the problems created by these companies, and their ecological impacts are certainly not limited to the “first world”). And yet a link exists insofar as both of these represent instances where the warnings were ignored, and now the things that were unhappily predicted are coming to pass. Another significant link is that in both cases there is a temptation to turn to individual solutions – delete Facebook, recycle more, stop using Google, switch to a vegetarian diet, refuse to use social media on the weekend, bicycle to work – instead of collective ones. This is not to mock any of those actions – but the scale of these problems requires largescale action. In 2018 we learned that Facebook is even tracking those who do not have Facebook accounts, and we have known for a longtime that the entities most responsible for climate change are industries and militaries. Personal action is certainly meaningful, and is ethically responsible, but 2018 has made clear that the scale of the risks we are facing requires a more robust response.
So, why does it matter that we were warned?
Given that the catastrophe has arrived, isn’t it now too late to heed these warnings? Alas, it may be, but that is not the point. We have not yet reached the final doleful punctuation mark of our period. There has been a general failure to listen to the warnings in the past, so it therefore behooves us to pay greater attention to the warnings being sounded today. That the tech companies have been allowed to grow to their current dangerous size is a reason to listen to the voices who are today warning that these companies must be reined in before they can cause further damage. Similarly, the amount of time we’ve wasted in addressing climate change, means that we must take seriously those warning us that the time remaining is limited. Certainly there will be those who encourage us to remain optimistic, there will be those who caution against giving in to despair, and there will be those who say that we must avoid pessimism – but we arguably would not be in the mess we’re in if we had taken some previous pessimists more seriously. But, as Simone Weil once put it: “We hate the people who make us form the connections we do not want to form.”
2018 is over. It was a bad year.
We can say many things about all of the ways in which it was bad, but we can’t say we weren’t warned.