Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Saturday, June 23, 2012

More Aesthete Than Ascetic: A Preliminary Biographical Sketch of a Slightly More Critical Cyborgism

This post consists of the latest episode in a marvelous exchange with a reader (left unnamed, unless he lets me know he would prefer it otherwise) that I thought might be edifying for some other readers of mine, too:
I am going to try a little fisking in the hope you might enjoy it -- if not -- I don't expect a response. Back in November 2007 you wrote:
"Eric and I possess no car, no laptop, no cellphone, no clothes dryer, no marriage license... and we disapprove of them and also of you, at least a little bit, in a friendly sort of way, for thinking you can't live without them yourself despite the fact that they are destroying the planet, diminishing your liberty, giving you cancer, and confusing you into mistaking possession for love. We are cantankerous and judgmental and are enjoying ourselves immensely."
I will reflect on these items and your disapproval of each one in turn because I think you may be onto something -- but I am not sure what that thing exactly is right now -- I will also read more of your Blog. In any case, I am entirely comfortable with disapproval -- I think I can even make an email out of it -- let's see... So, at the moment I can't help but see the moral conflict -- hmmm, no, more like ambivalence perhaps -- when you generously email me to say: "I am far from having no technology." Specifically, I can't make any sense of what could impel you to explicitly make what I think is a trivial distinction between a desktop computer and a laptop almost into a minor point of principle. My own interpretation is that you are trying in the quoted section to persuade me, your reader to turn my gaze towards a more primitivistic horizon than the majority -- which might be cool -- but the implication that I might follow your example... and ditch my laptop in favor of a desktop seems... bonkers. Your aside about what technology means in the broader sense I cannot disagree with, neither would I want to -- I regularly go barefoot for example. I also concur with your view of the misuse of the word, "Luddites" but on this, other point of detail about technology (where I mean as shorthand for I.T.) I think the very best we can achieve here is to agree that the potential for misunderstanding is something we at least both share in roughly equal measure. btw: this without prejudice to my ongoing and escalating commitment to distrusting pedagogues.
Hi, _____. First of all, I'll cheerfully concede the distinction of a desktop from a laptop isn't exactly an earthshattering one. Now that I think about that line more carefully, I realize that in writing it that way I was generating a sentence that recapitulated my biography from a certain angle of view, "no car, no laptop, no cellphone, no clothes dryer" were a series of choices I made, first alone and then eventually with my partner as to gadgets I could have purchased and woven into my everydayness but chose instead either to eschew or to remove instead.

I removed myself from car culture quite young -- and have stuck to that even when living in regions of the country in which public transportation was a more quixotic venture than it is here in the comparatively more civilized Bay Area -- because I decided that the costs and risks and expenses and planetary pollution and the kinds of experiences of anxiety and gridlock that cars tend to get people into aren't worth the benefits, because on reflection I decided that what is peddled as an emancipatory instrument of American individualism really is (like so much that gets peddled as American individualism, which I find as a rule rather sadly conformist and consumer-fetishistic and anti-intellectual as ways of being in the world go) instead a way of embedding Americans in a kind of self-destructive world-destroying collaboration in their own suicidal serfdom -- if I can put the point a tad more dramatically than it probably deserves.

Since the late eighties I have bought three desktop computers -- which is rather more consumer churn than I usually permit myself where other sorts of appliances are concerned, especially ones so expensive. And yet it does seem to me I keep computers much longer than most people do -- who inevitably express shock and dismay at my apparently primitive tool-set even when it seems to me perfectly adequate to my purposes. I remember when I chose my second computer I contemplated a laptop and deliberately chose to keep to a desktop, because it seemed to me that laptops were treated more dispensably, they were more accident and mischief prone, and I also wasn't sure I wanted my computer to leave the precinct of my desk at home, surrounded by my books and their silence. There was something about people bringing their laptops onto the bus or into the cafe that made me uneasy in the same way cellphones would come to do not long after I made the decision not to re-write my being in the world in a laptop-lifeway. I decided I would rather stare out the window of the bus while musing about a passage I had read in a book, I would rather people-watch than huddle over a screen and circumscribe my attentions to premeditated searches and distracted surfing online, at the beck and call of co-workers via obsessively checked e-mail and so on. Cellphones and handhelds seem to me a terrible impertinence, buzzing at us at all hours, surveilling us and harassing us to distraction with imbecilic ads, and those who fixate on these postage stamp screens appear to me to be sleepwalkers in a world crying out for shepherding attentions.

Similarly, when the dryer that came with our rented bungalow gave out we were told we could buy our own, and thinking about it after a lifetime of clothes driers for both of us, my partner and I decided a couple of drying racks could do the job quite as well without the expense of a new machine or the energy waste of its use. It required a minute initial adjustment, but I see no difference in results or efforts nowadays, and hence think we were right to judge the machine a wasteful superfluity.

I guess in writing that line of text that perplexed you something like that string of life decisions was packed inside it, a series of decisions that seemed to me to bespeak an underlying thread of critical engagement with our gadgets. Although you are right to say the difference between a laptop and a desktop is not really so dramatic as all that, I think the distinction looms larger for me in the context of a trajectory of decisions of which I experience it as a part, ongoing decisions that have lead me into quite a few choices that seem strange to many of my fellows but not the least bit strange to me.

Now, when you go on to say that you experience that line as one that recommends a kind of primitivity to my readers, I do want to insist that I mean nothing of the sort. I don't think my way of life is more primitive in the least than that of folks who rely on their cars, laptops, handhelds, and clothes dryers. There are sophisticated technologies to which I have chosen to make regular recourse precisely because I think they make my life better accord with my values -- like subway trains, like vegan shoes made of super-strong synthetic materials, like my desktop and my online connection at home, like medicine and books and streaming media.

I just think people should be considerably more mindful about the artifacts they take up, they should be aware of the costs that freight their benefits, their impacts on the world, the alternatives that are available to choose from. Which is far from saying that I think people might not mindfully find their way to very different decisions from the ones I've made myself. Now, I think it would be profoundly mistaken to imagine my life as substantially or even aspirationally one of "voluntary simplicity" or "luddism" or "primitivity": I am far more aesthete than ascetic, even if I have decided for what seem to me good reasons to do without some gadgets that have become more or less ubiquitous among my peers.

I personally regard all culture as prosthetic and all prostheses as culture, and so I regard a bleeding-edge techno-fashionista of the silicon valley as no more cyborgic than a language-using paleolithic hunter-gatherer in the absolute sense. This doesn't mean that I regard them as indistinguishable but that I try to be very conscious and critical about the differences that make the differences between them.

We tend to naturalize the terms of the material and ritual artifice that besets us with its familiarity, so that it is only "new" techs barking at us on screens for us to purchase or to fear that seem to us actually technological at all -- and these are often merely repackaged as "new" by promotional discourse in a restless attentional economy. And it seems to me we tend to react more emotionally than not to their unfamiliarity rather than critically to their substance, investing them with vast inchoate anxieties, terror, greed, lust in the midst of our dislocated sociocultural distress. My fellow Americans, especially, it seems to me often purchase things in the bubble of our terrible privilege, using them as much to advertize subcultural affiliations and aspirations as to use them, forever acting out dramas written by scriptwriters we never know for audiences we cannot clearly explain. We Americans, believe me, are perfectly capable of eating the world without ever feeling the least bit satisfied with the meal, dimly aware that we are surrounded by starvation all the while, unsure what better alternatives are available that accord with values we ourselves fervently attest to but rarely act on in our confusion.

Although we live in an historical era and in a social milieu that thinks itself technology-obsessed and technology savvy it seems to me that it is with a complete fantasy of "technology" as some monolithically capacitating or incapacitating stormcloud, some weirdly worldly and yet transcendental burning bush, that we are really mostly obsessed, and to the cost of decency and sense. I fear that we attend very little if at all to the ways in which techniques and artifacts materialize historically in complex stakeholder struggles with situationally specific and ineradicably diverse costs risks and benefits. So much of our technoscientific "knowing" is an energetic insistence on ignorance in fact of the role of technologies in our lives, in our psyches, in our communities, in our economic relations, in our ecosystems. A teacher by profession, a sometime writer, even an occasional activist, I am devoted to provoking people into an alienated relation to their commonsense the better to shape it, I hope, more critically in the direction of more sustainable, equitable, consensual, convivial, creative values.

I don't want to seem to put too much weight on a pragmatic decision made years ago to keep my desktop rather than take on a laptop, but all the threads have their place in the pattern, I guess. Thank you for provoking me into thinking more clearly about this by pressuring that sentence that perplexed you in my writing. Far from being annoyed by or defensive about your interrogation, I consider it a gift and a sigil of that best respect among conversational partners out of which all the magic happens.

Hope all is well in your world, d


Anonymous said...

Best thing I've read all week.

Dale Carrico said...

Gosh, thanks!