Confronting the Technological Society

“But as more and more activities and areas of life get absorbed in technique — in recent years perhaps most visibly through digital technologies shaping friendships, learning, buying and selling, travel, music, leisure, and much else — the possibilities of pushing back against it diminish. The lesson here is not that the particular technologies are necessarily harmful and ought to be shunned. Rather, while they aim to make countless activities easier and more efficient — and us happier — they tend to obscure from our vision the real, kaleidoscopic, sometimes maddening but appropriate complexities of these activities. Education, political engagement, friendship, artistic and scholarly excellence, moral and intellectual virtue — these are and remain vexingly difficult, and there are no shortcuts to becoming good at them, even if various tools are helpful along the way. What we need is to learn to appreciate the tensions and difficulties of pursuing these deeply meaningful ends. As Ellul writes in The Political Illusion, “Only tension and conflict form personality, not only on the loftiest, most personal plane, but also on the collective plane.”

An ethics of nonpower — choosing not to exercise mastery at the expense of proper human ends — will involve tensions and conflicts, the maintenance of which is a prerequisite for the pursuit of the best things. The craftsmen of governments demanding separation of powers and a system of checks and balances recognized this principle, ensuring restraint and organized tensions to prevent despotism. Freedom requires tension, and Ellul in his insistence on dialectical thinking is ultimately concerned with preserving human freedom. Whereas technologies grant us greater freedom to master our environment, technique as a whole restrains it and itself becomes the new environment resisting our mastery. An important point Ellul seems to have missed is that for the technician, the craftsman, and the mechanic, mastery over technology requires not confrontation from without but proper care for the thing and submission to its physical demands. Freedom from the tool goes hand in hand with freedom and skill to manipulate it, which often makes older tools that reveal their workings superior to the new ones that conceal them. The master technician may thus be freer than the mere user who has not been disciplined by the making of the tool…

…We ought instead to take Ellul’s book, placed in the context of his larger work, as an appeal to walk a middle path between unrestrained technophilia and reactionary technophobia, a path we see only if we refocus on human ends, which are familial, communal, political, and ecclesial. This requires that we are willing to admit that among our vast array of technical means many fail to serve us well, that progress on this path has often little to do with innovation, and that control over our means is not simply given but something we must struggle for by confronting them with these higher than technical ends.

-Samuel Matlack, “Confronting the Technological Society.” The New Atlantis. Summer/Fall 2014.

Another reminder, along with L.M. Sacasas’ The Convivial Society, to read Ellul’s work.

Mimesis, Unconscious Imitation

“What happened that night is something I now recognize as disruptive empathy. The cycle of conflict that stems from unchecked mimesis (unconscious imitation)—like that of a debt collector and a debtor, each responding mimetically to the aggression of the other—was derailed. There was an unexpected breaking in of empathy, something that transcended the moment. 

Fear, anxiety, and anger are easily amplified by mimesis. A colleague sends me an email that seems curt or disrespectful, I respond in kind; and passive aggression spreads like wildfire, beyond two people and through an entire organizational culture. 

René Girard uses the example of a handshake gone wrong to illustrate how deep-rooted mimesis is—and how it explains things we usually ascribe to simply being “reactionary.” There’s nothing trivial about a handshake. Say that you extend your hand to me, and I leave you hanging. I don’t imitate your ritual gesture. What happens? You become inhibited and withdraw—probably equally as much, and probably more, than you sensed I did to you. “We suppose that there is nothing more normal, more natural than this reaction, and yet a moment’s reflection will reveal its paradoxical character,” writes Girard. “If I decline to shake your hand, if, in short, I refuse to imitate you, then you are now the one who imitates me, by reproducing my refusal, by copying me instead. Imitation, which usually expresses agreement in this case, now serves to confirm and strengthen disagreement. Once again, in other words, imitation triumphs. Here we see how rigorously, how implacably mutual imitation structures even the simplest human relations.” 

This is how negative mimetic cycles start. We are not condemned to them, though. 

When we make the effort of getting to know people at their core, we reduce the possibility of cheap mimetic interactions. Knowing someone at their core requires sharing and listening to a particular kind of experience: stories of deeply fulfilling action. Knowing and relating to these stories produces empathy and a greater understanding of human behavior. 

A negative mimetic cycle is disrupted when two people, through empathy, stop seeing each other as rivals.”

-Luke Burgis, “Empathy Lessons … from a Hitman.” Arc Digital. June 15, 2021

Principles of Democratic Structuring

“Once the movement [grows to the point of needing structure and/or] no longer clings tenaciously to the ideology of “structurelessness,” it is free to develop those forms of organization best suited to its healthy functioning. This does not mean that we should go to the other extreme and blindly imitate the traditional forms of organization. But neither should we blindly reject them all. Some of the traditional techniques will prove useful, albeit not perfect; some will give us insights into what we should and should not do to obtain certain ends with minimal costs to the individuals in the movement. Mostly, we will have to experiment with different kinds of structuring and develop a variety of techniques to use for different situations. The Lot System is one such idea which has emerged from the movement. It is not applicable to all situations, but is useful in some. Other ideas for structuring are needed. But before we can proceed to experiment intelligently, we must accept the idea that there is nothing inherently bad about structure itself — only its excess use.

While engaging in this trial-and-error process, there are some principles we can keep in mind that are essential to democratic structuring and are also politically effective:

1) Delegation of specific authority to specific individuals for specific tasks by democratic procedures. Letting people assume jobs or tasks only by default means they are not dependably done. If people are selected to do a task, preferably after expressing an interest or willingness to do it, they have made a commitment which cannot so easily be ignored.

2) Requiring all those to whom authority has been delegated to be responsible to those who selected them. This is how the group has control over people in positions of authority. Individuals may exercise power, but it is the group that has ultimate say over how the power is exercised.

3) Distribution of authority among as many people as is reasonably possible. This prevents monopoly of power and requires those in positions of authority to consult with many others in the process of exercising it. It also gives many people the opportunity to have responsibility for specific tasks and thereby to learn different skills.

4) Rotation of tasks among individuals. Responsibilities which are held too long by one person, formally or informally, come to be seen as that person’s “property” and are not easily relinquished or controlled by the group. Conversely, if tasks are rotated too frequently the individual does not have time to learn her job well and acquire the sense of satisfaction of doing a good job.

5) Allocation of tasks along rational criteria. Selecting someone for a position because they are liked by the group or giving them hard work because they are disliked serves neither the group nor the person in the long run. Ability, interest, and responsibility have got to be the major concerns in such selection. People should be given an opportunity to learn skills they do not have, but this is best done through some sort of “apprenticeship” program rather than the “sink or swim” method. Having a responsibility one can’t handle well is demoralizing. Conversely, being blacklisted from doing what one can do well does not encourage one to develop one’s skills. Women have been punished for being competent throughout most of human history; the movement does not need to repeat this process.

6) Diffusion of information to everyone as frequently as possible. Information is power. Access to information enhances one’s power. When an informal network spreads new ideas and information among themselves outside the group, they are already engaged in the process of forming an opinion — without the group participating. The more one knows about how things work and what is happening, the more politically effective one can be.

7) Equal access to resources needed by the group. This is not always perfectly possible, but should be striven for. A member who maintains a monopoly over a needed resource (like a printing press owned by a husband, or a darkroom) can unduly influence the use of that resource. Skills and information are also resources. Members’ skills can be equitably available only when members are willing to teach what they know to others.

When these principles are applied, they insure that whatever structures are developed by different movement groups will be controlled by and responsible to the group. The group of people in positions of authority will be diffuse, flexible, open, and temporary. They will not be in such an easy position to institutionalize their power because ultimate decisions will be made by the group at large. The group will have the power to determine who shall exercise authority within it.

-Jo Freeman (aka Joreen), “The Tyranny of Structurenessless.” jofreeman.com. May 1970.

The Challenge of the 20%

“One fifth of people are against everything all the time.”

-Robert Kennedy

I was reading somewhere that communities evolve away from reason to affirmation. In the initial stages of community formation, there are many elements that serve as a kernel that the community can form around. Sometimes it is an idea. Sometimes it is a person. Sometimes it is an activity or process. In the beginning, there is a choice. You want to be part of the community for some reason.

But, at some point, the community itself becomes the draw. If you think of the lifecycle of churches, for instance, it may initially serve as a gathering place of a town, drawn together by the ideas of the religion. But, at some point, the ideas of the religion becomes less important than the community that has formed around those ideas. Then, this serves as the focal point for joining the group. It’s no longer a means of serving some other reason beyond the group itself. The community becomes the reason, and when that transition happens, what is important is affirmation. You pledge allegiance to the community in exchange for the benefits of the community. There may still be a kernel. Key people that run or support the church and enable its continuation. But, they are no longer central to why people join.

Communities can continue long after they are viable. Or, they can transform further, into something that bears little resemblance to their original shape. Eventually, it will reach a point that it needs to be revitalized, to either return to its roots or find new development pathways. You see this in major movements like the Reformation in response to the decadence of the Catholic Church during feudal times, and it’s inability to adapt to the changes of the world around it.

Some don’t have meaningful pathways for renewal. Their purpose has been served and members of the community fade away, to drift off to join other communities and lend their vitality to them.

When I think about this process, I think about the value that the 20% play, the people that are against everything, particularly the community itself. In A Rebel Without a Cause, it’s interesting to think about this dynamic. On one level, a motorcycle club or gang is another type of community, one that undermines existing social structures. But, in another way of looking at it, they are calls for revitalization, the first signs that a community has entered on the pathway toward stagnation.

I think it is this dissatisfied 20% that plays an important role as first mover, that highlights the problems in the communities they are absorbing members from and create reactions that lead to revitalization. Or, they can affirm the health of the existing system, who can marginalize and maintain community cohesion in the face of the chaotic forces this group can bring to bear.

But, in some ways, the 20%, even when they have their own communities, will always be outside them. They are against everything, even on some level the communities they are part of. They play a valuable function for the other 80%. However, it’s a more difficult way of being in the world.

The Star Chamber, Cancel Culture and Living for the Bench

“By all accounts intense and single-minded, Dr. Kariko lives for “the bench” — the spot in the lab where she works. She cares little for fame. “The bench is there, the science is good,” she shrugged in a recent interview. “Who cares?” …

…Dr. Kariko’s struggles to stay afloat in academia have a familiar ring to scientists. She needed grants to pursue ideas that seemed wild and fanciful. She did not get them, even as more mundane research was rewarded.

“When your idea is against the conventional wisdom that makes sense to the star chamber, it is very hard to break out,” said Dr. David Langer, a neurosurgeon who has worked with Dr. Kariko.

-Gina Kolata, “Kati Kariko Helped Shield the World From the Coronavirus.” The New York Times. April 8, 2021.

The Star Chamber was an English court that was “originally established to ensure the fair enforcement of laws against socially and politically prominent people so powerful that ordinary courts might hesitate to convict them of their crimes. However, it became synonymous with social and political oppression through the arbitrary use and abuse of the power it wielded,” according to Wikipedia. It strikes me as an apt phrase to indicate received opinion and how power is used to enforce conformity, where there is often an inverse relationship between how much deviation and the power applied to deviants.

When I read about The Star Chamber, the analogy to Twitter was obvious. Of course, there are relevant differences too. For example, while both serve as a kind of extra-legal enforcement mechanism, the Star Chamber was a sanctioned institution populated by legal professionals, whereas Twitter is closer to a mob.

There’s a tension. On one hand, society needs some kind of mechanism to hold the powerful into account. On the other, this mechanism tends to get out of control and used arbitrarily.

A think one way of thinking about how it should be used is the same rule that makes for comedy. You need to punch up, at the rich, the powerful, or the famous. But, if your comedy is targeting the weak or defenseless, then it isn’t really comedy.

Same goes for the checks on the powerful. If it’s moving in to act on the weak, then it’s not really doing its job, and the critiques of “cancel culture” are on point.

But, I think the real nuance comes in with people that are different. People can be different, and not necessarily weak. Perhaps they have a different focus, like Dr. Kariko living for “the bench”. A think a real sign of a strength of a culture is how well variance is tolerated within niche communities of the larger culture. Among scientists doing bench top research, is there an effort to be inclusive of interests that lie outside of the mainstream?

All of which is academic. The people who are rich and powerful will make these decisions. What the general population thinks they “should” be doing is largely irrelevant to them. So, the question for each of us is what should we be doing? I think Dr. Kariko is one good answer. Focus on the things you care about and get by. Don’t get involved in the larger culture wars that sap your time and energy away from what you’d rather be doing.

On a slightly more broader level, I think it is a call for each of us to try to see where we can support people of divergent views, backgrounds, etc. because it is by fostering an environment where different perspectives can be expressed and supported that we create conditions better for human flourishing, which in turn helps for more flourishing communities – a virtuous circle.

Criticism as Other People’s Stories

Stories are explanations of the world we tell ourselves. They are filled with unnecessary detail, and by extension, falsehoods. Getting involved with stories is how we give meaning to our lives, reenforce our ego, and project that ego – our brand if you will – out in the wider world.

If the above is true, then it also means that when someone makes a criticism of you – if they say: you are X, then they are trying to hire you as an extra in their movie. In some cases, you may even be cast in a main role – as the villain, the victim, the obstacle to be overcome, colleague, etc.

But, we are not extras or actors in someone else’s movie. We are not even stars of our own production. The stories we tell ourselves are narrative fiction, a reduction of our experience to an easily understandable illusion. It’s a filter, designed to create a certain look that doesn’t reflect reality. It’s our ego taking control.

If we want to get to lived experience, we have to break free of the plots created in our head. The easiest first place to do that is to break free from the plots in other people’s heads.

When someone says something to you, the most likely thing they are doing is projecting their own story. They are telling you how you fit in to their story. You may be a personification of some trait they don’t like about themselves, or the opposite. You may be an important piece in making their fiction work, or a bit player. But, no matter what role you are assigned by someone else, you always have the choice about whether to play the part.

Some parts have useful lessons to teach us, and we are obligated to play them by our circumstances. But, even then, you have the choice in whether to believe in the part. It’s one thing to know you are an actor in a fiction. It’s something else to think the role we play is our life.

Most of us think the stories we tell ourselves or the parts we play in other people’s stories are our lives. We need to pause these productions, see them for what they are, and if necessary, play our roles. But, play it knowing it’s a role. It makes all the difference.

Predatory Precarity

“Reforming government contracting, controlling medical costs, breaking up big-tech, opening the professions to international competition, these sound technocratic, even “pro-market”. But under present levels of stratification, the consequences of these things would be a revolution, whole swathes of society accustomed to status and political enfranchisement would find themselves banished towards a “normal” they used to only read about, opiate crises and deaths of despair, towards loss of the “privilege” it has become some of their custom to magnanimously and ostentatiously “check”. Did I say they? I mean we, of course.

But of course, not doing these things means continuing to tolerate an increasingly predatory, dysfunctional, stagnant society. It means continuing deaths of despair, even as we hustle desperately to try to ensure that they are not our deaths, or our children’s. Even for its current beneficiaries, the present system is a game of musical chairs. As time goes on, with each round, yet more chairs are yanked from the game.

The only way out of this, the only escape, is to reduce the degree of stratification, the degree to which outcomes depend on our capacity to buy price-rationed positional goods. Only when the stakes are lower will be find ourselves able to tolerate, to risk, an economy that delivers increasing quantity and quality of goods and services at decreasing prices, rather than one that sustains markups upon which we, or some of us, with white knuckles must depend.

Lower the stakes.”

-Steve Randy Waldman, “Predatory precarity.” Interfluidity.com. August 20, 2019.

Interesting throughout. Central point is that the more disparate a society, the more corruption is built in. I particularly like the line: “It is extraordinarily expensive to be both comfortable and some facsimile of virtuous,” which struck me as being in the same ballpark as this post on Admiring Yourself and the connections between the Holocaust and other X-isms.

Nothing to Learn, Here

“As one of my friends from a not-rich part of East Asia says: “Students from my country come to the U.S. these days. They see dirty cities, lousy infrastructure, and the political clown show on TV, and an insular people clinging to their guns and their gods who boast about how they are the greatest people in the world without knowing anything about what is going on outside. They come back and tell me: ‘We have nothing to learn from those people! Why did you send me there?'”

—J. Bradford DeLong, “Is America in Decline?” Pairagraph. September 10, 2020.

To Make Friends

Be able to talk and shut up. Listen well, particularly for the voice that is hard to hear in yourself and in others. Remember: there is little difference between being shut out and being shut in.

Everything is Everywhere

Everything is everywhere, but the [local] environment selects.

-Lourens Baas Becking

The environment can be an anything, e.g., an individual, an activity, or a society. But selection happens everywhere which is why everything isn’t there.