|Tower of Babel - Pieter Bruegel the Elder|
It could be argued that the characteristic of man that most distinguishes him from the rest of the animal kingdom is his capacity for technique, to build up a corpus of know-how and to put it to work. Where there exists the earliest evidence of human society there is likewise to be found artefacts of tools and of things made by tools, of technique. That techniques of agriculture, husbandry, textiles, pottery, medicine, and architecture have served to mitigate the vicissitudes of Nature, to carve out a more stable existence in which families and communities could prosper is undeniable.
In this context human progress can be thought of as the development of technique, the means to extend one’s power, to create more stability, more security for oneself. Yet, after several millennia of technical progress can we say that humanity is more stable or secure? At what point does the effort to create stability overreach, paradoxically degenerating into an accelerating loss of control? When does the servant that is technique transform itself into the master that is technology, the progressive liberator mutate into the coercive oppressor, the hope of man’s salvation descend into the imminent threat of our very extinction?
Civilisation as Tipping Point
Though man can expand his power by wielding technique, he also can easily have his agency stripped when technique is applied to him. This is the origin and essential function of civilization: the pacification and instrumental use of the individual by means of technique. Whereas in a primitive society Nature is a means for the ends of man, in a civilised society man is transformed into a means for the ends of the city. This is by and large an involuntary process. The city is established through militant conquest and economic coercion, based on recognition of and submission to authority. Furthermore, the city is maintained through the rule of law, a code of conduct whose purpose is to control human behaviour.
What civilization offers in exchange for the surrender of psychological independence and material autonomy is the promise of security. To be a citizen is to be passive and dependent on a system that assures basic physical needs will be accessible with minimal effort. Personally, the individual citizen is helpless to secure those needs for himself. Only by identifying with and supporting the collective goals of the city can the citizen exercise power, if only vicariously. So primitive man who lives authentically, literally “doing for himself”, is objectified by automation, a “self-thinking” system of imposed order as codified in law and statute.
To form a truly mass society requires an expansion of technique from mere physical coercion to complete psychological domination. Curbing the individual’s will to exercise his power is critical and can be described as the three “keys” of redirection, suppression, and elimination. Redirection is a way of reorienting pursuits and goals from that of the individual, family, or tribe towards that of the collective where one can identify with its striving and accomplishments.
A secondary form of redirection is providing access to proxy activities, non-vital interests that allow the pursuit of and achievement of artificial goals with some degree of independence. In both cases the principal resource for redirecting the masses is socialisation through public education. Thirteen to twenty or more years of public education is likewise an effective tool of instilling mass altruism, to pressure the individual to place the goals and interests of society, the “greater good”, above their own or that of their family.
These mechanisms largely succeed in compelling most individuals to heavily regulate their own desires and resulting behaviours but not without deleterious consequences. Just because material deprivation produces misery, it does not follow that abundance engenders happiness. Human contentment is primarily psychological. Therefore, when the individual will to exercise his power is obstructed, a plethora of mental pathologies begin to manifest including anxiety, depression, self-loathing, resentment, fetishes, etc. Those so afflicted, children included, are viewed as victims of a disease category to which a corresponding pharmaceutical remedy, with or without psychological therapy, is typically provided to suppress the will. When our tolerance for such coercion is exceeded, the cohesion of mass society is imperiled. Technology plays a vital role in expanding the individual’s tolerance for coercion thereby inviting technology’s continual augmentation.
Even so, there are those for which redirection and suppression are insufficient tools for curbing their will. They simply will not or cannot fully socialise. There are many techniques for eliminating such nonconformity from a mass society. Almost every function of individual human life is now subject to automation: food, clothes, shelter, medicine, education, governance, transportation to name a few whereas bureaucratic and legal codification make behaviours disruptive to these systems illegal. Mass societies have established very sophisticated institutions of judgement and incarceration to remove nonconformity from daily civilised life. Advanced techniques in genetic modification hold the promise of eliminating such tendencies in utero.
Our Plutonian World
It is not just man’s psychological state that is severely destabilised by mass society. Technology has likewise proven to be an unfolding ecological disaster, the greatest existential threat to life on earth. Our technology has far outpaced our common sense. Modern man has employed vastly improved means to a increasingly dead end. Such applied science is immensely powerful. However, humans have proven themselves just as incapable of wielding it as they are capable of generating such power. So, although science is not an inherent evil, in a technological society it inevitably becomes an inescapable, manifest evil. Humanity’s former threats were natural. Although technology partially or temporarily mitigates these, in exchange it inundates us with pollution, radiation, and environmental devastation that are both imposed and inescapable.
So it is
that the sum total of man’s collective energies is now directed towards
extracting all the wealth of the earth, buried deep underground, with great
suffering raising it to the surface so as to reform his existence as a Hell on
Earth. In the frenzy, individuality is thereby destroyed, supplanted by two
antagonistic groups: those who seek to hoard and conserve against those
determined to consume with reckless abandon. This is nothing other than the
fourth circle of Hell as described by Dante.
|The hoarders and wasters - Gustave Doré|
Revolution, Reformation, Reification
Our bureaucratic, industrial, technological society is irreformable. I would go a step further by claiming that it is now impossible for us to revolt against it. Our servile relation to the State, the multinational corporation, to artificial intelligence is sublime, one of reverential awe before unspeakable power. Under the encroaching shadow of total technological domination, man is awestruck, hoping for mercy whilst prostrating himself before technological progress in an act of fealty and faith.
Furthermore, revolutions are founded upon the burning passions of hope and hatred whereas reformations are cobbled together with their pathetic shadows of resignation and apathy. A reform movement will update certain codes or replace certain men in power whilst a revolutionary one seeks to overthrow the system of power itself. Reform dominates as almost all men desire to maintain power. There has never been a successful revolution against civilisation, only a series of reformations that have augmented it into the global technological society that now exists.
So, a defensive posture is assumed with regards to our technological society, for what remedy can there possibly be for the blunders of technology but further investments in technology? It engenders an unfounded optimism where humanity willingly chooses to maintain hope, faith, and belief in the very systems one should mistrust, challenge, and resist.
Humanity thus appears trapped, shackled to the Technology Society and its enduring Presence, presence being an experience of time that is neither wholly present nor future, rather the idea that the present reality will extend in time, things will not really change but instead reify, become even more of the same, intractable, unchangeable, eternal. A claustrophobia in time rather than space.
The Technological Society and Its Absence
|Lethe - the river of forgetfulness|
Only by obscuring the past can you possibly imagine that you are heading into a bright future. We exist in this society that aches and strives to forget; such periods are always later looked upon as Dark Ages. What we loosely call Western culture, what is now in fact a global technological society, is no culture at all. It is a monstrous, mechanical thing, tied to no place, antithetical to life.
For primitive man, reason and rationality are just tools in service to a higher purpose. For the enlightened man, the industrial man, the technological man reason is his Alpha and rationality his Omega. They constitute the limits of his world. Yet, it is impossible to fully construct ourselves in the image that our reason posits we should be. Totalitarianism fails internally let alone from the outside. The self rebels as we are primarily willful creatures so that any attempt to construct a wholly rational society inevitably disintegrates into chaos. Cities, nations, corporations, they are all an affront to the natural order; we’re incapable of making them sustainable.
Mankind has become demented, in the literal sense that in his fixation on reason and technology he’s forgetting everything of real importance. The alternative is by no means an eutopia; nevertheless, it may be just possible for mankind to heal, to fill the gaping void that will be left by the technological society’s inevitable absence. An opportunity to quiet the intellect and listen attentively to the soul, to the will…to remember.
Contributed by Patrick Webb