I. Einstein on technology:
It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.
Technological progress is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal.
Technology is so much fun but we can drown in our technology. The fog of information can drive out knowledge.
More and more Americans feel threatened by runaway technology, by large-scale organization, by overcrowding. More and more Americans are appalled by the ravages of industrial progress, by the defacement of nature, by man-made ugliness. If our society continues at its present rate to become less livable as it becomes more affluent, we promise all to end up in sumptuous misery.
The rational mind is a faithful servant and the intuitive mind is a sacred gift. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.
If we continue to develop our technology without wisdom or prudence, our servant may prove to be our executioner.
The most exciting breakthroughs of the 21st century will not occur because of technology but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human.
The most important and urgent problems of the technology of today are no longer the satisfactions of primary needs or of archetypal wishes, but the reparation of the evils and damages by technology of yesterday.
The future masters of technology will have to be light-hearted and intelligent. The machine easily masters the grim and the dumb.
We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.
II. Nazis, The McDonalds Smile, And Five Cent Empathy
- It brings with it the myth that only the part of the world that can be used by technology is real.
- What do you mean by myth?
- A late nineteenth century philosopher called myth a story relating the visible to the invisible. Actually it is a relation between a visible world described technically, with defined parts observed to be in regular relation to each other, to other aspects of human experience not describable in those terms.
- You're saying a myth already involves technology?
- Yes. Mumford in our own times said the first technology was in the organization of people into specialized roles 5000 years ago in the ancient empires of the Middle East. The non-technical part of the story was that making things was good in itself because it was for the god, gods, or pharaoh.
- I don't get it. Why should we care about the pharaoh or the gods?
- And why should we believe it is always good to do things better, larger, faster? To whose benefit is it? Merely having the idea itself of the infinite seemingly has value for us. Embody the idea of infinite technical progress in a human form, and you have your explanation of the role played by gods and pharaohs. They are place-holders for the infinite.
- Why do we need the idea of the infinite?
- At the end of World War I the French poet Paul Valery wrote an essay (Crisis Of The Mind) in which he defined our society as a combination of unbounded, "infinite" mysticism and logical, skeptical investigation. He said we were reaching a crisis because our technology had spread to the entire world. Even the practice of arts did not stop Germany from becoming the foremost example of the negative effects of technology, a paradox that would become even more apparent the second time around in World War II. The spread of technology was doing something to the Western techniques of mysticism and skeptical investigation that was skewing the results towards destruction rather than creation. Do you know the cause?
- No. Do you? What did Valery say?
- That we'd made the mistake of letting our unique creative force become proportional to the mass practice of technology, with the result we were being overwhelmed. We we the victim of our "intellectual physics". In one concluding sentence he said our saving would be in studying how the individual, not the group, could resist this progress.
- So what can an individual do?
- We have to study the relation of ideas to technology, come to understand clearly what is going on. Learn the intellectual physics.
- And you I suppose are into intellectual physics. What have you learned?
- The reason the Nazis loved art is that art had been made the means to the end of technical advancement.
- In a technical organization each person has to stay in role and respond as specified to other role players, everyone must follow the script. No one is allowed to respond for their own reasons, in accord with their particular personal experience for the sake of their own personal goals. But imagine each in his professional role is allowed, or rather ordered, to smile.
- Like at McDonalds.
- For example. Everyone involved might feel better as a result, despite the artificial nature of the situation, the mere suggestion that we be good spirited which the imitation smile produces might do some good. But not much, because acting on what the smile suggests is blocked by the rules of employment.
- The McDonalds smile is like the Nazis "sensitivity" to art.
- Yes. An article published today in the Harvard Business Review says it succinctly: previously it was fashionable to appear unfeeling, now it is fashionable to appear kind; if you want to sell more of your products you therefore have to associate your product with the appearance of kindness.
- The expression of emotion is used as part of the machine. But how?
- As the new "god", the unseen part of the world, our inner selves, that myth puts in relation to the seen, the part manipulated by our technology.
- So you are describing a technology of myth?
- As good a definition of propaganda as I have ever heard.
- Still, it's weird. Why do we need myth at all?
- Because technology only expresses one side to our nature.
- But why should it exclude the other sides?
- Because as it did in its beginning it still tends to make human beings into parts of a machine.
- But why?
- Because once people take on different vocations, they decide not simply to exchange what they make for what others make, but to adapt themselves to others so they can exchange better. Better means more regularly.
- They study a technology of exchange.
- Yes. And the more someone acts for the sake of pleasing others, the less he acts for the sake of getting what he has learned is good for himself. This movement from acting entirely for reasons drawn from one's own experience, to doing what others ask because it will make acting with others more regular, is what accounts for the myth, for what the myth tells a story about: a known world of describable transaction, and an unknown, unseen world.
- Why don't other people say this, if this is true?
- Other people do say it. Rousseau in the 18th century, Plato in the 5th century BC.
- What did Plato say exactly?
- Knowing a myth of technology was inevitable the way things were going, and had to go, he wrote that myth himself, with the greatest possible technical skill he could draw upon.
- What did he hope to achieve?
- What else than to show as clearly as possible the parts of human nature left out.
- But you said, talking about the Nazis and the Mcdonalds smile, they weren't left out.
- They are left out of possibility for individual application. The server at McDonalds can't easily make friends with the customer, the Nazi soldier celebrating transcending human limitations listening to the music of Beethoven uses transcendence not to become an artist himself but to overcome his private resistance to carrying out the murders he is ordered to perform.
- If Plato showed as clearly as possible the parts of human nature left out of a technological society how come no one except you and Rousseau sees this clear demonstration?
- Others have seen it.
- In recent times, Leo Strauss, his student Alan Bloom. Plato's medieval interpreters, both Christian and Arab understood. Renaissance artists understood. The Romans didn't understand, just as we in our times don't understand.
- Why is that?
- Because specialization of roles had progressed too far for mysticism to be the product of the technology of an individual's life, his own experience and judgement, for technology to be means to the end of having the mystical experience of beauty, a private story that cannot be made general in myth.
- My generation is trying to change, we don't want to believe in myths. We value community.
- How do you value community? On the way here I saw a fellow at a folding table he'd set up on a street corner with a sign that said "Empathy, 5 cents". I went over, and do you know what? I didn't feel any sympathy with this guy, not with the hard way he was looking me.
- You didn't give him a chance.
- I did. Asked him why he was doing this. He said he was giving something back to the community, was showing not everything was for money.
- But that's good.
- No it's not! It's just another myth. More McDonalds Smiles, Nazi art.
- That's ridiculous!
- Ridiculous? How is the supposed empathy he is giving going to be the product of either his or his customer's self reflection, self correction, and study of individual experience? I could see in his eyes he didn't like me, that was his experience as an individual, though in words he was expressing unanimity and good will to all.
- He didn't like you because you were challenging him.
- Yes. Challenging his community that was based on nothing but intention, that was, as I've been saying, as isolated as the McDonald's smile and as meaningless as the Harvard Business Reviews' advice there's money to be made being nice.
- Then what is to be done?
- We need to know the intellectual physics, how technology creates the myth of technology.
- And the myth of technology leads us to want more technology.
- Yes. We need to know how that machine works.
- The machine of how what we do makes what we think?
- And then what?
- When we know how it works we can change how it works.
- We'll have a technology. Don't we have it, at least a little?
- We haven't as far as I know made any progress since Plato laid out the problem clearly in The Republic.
- So you think that at this late moment in history we can finally make that beginning?
- Would you prefer we don't try?
III. From Paul Valéry's Crisis of the Mind:
And so the scales that used to tip in our favor, although we appeared the lighter, are beginning to lift us gently, as though we had stupidly shifted to the other side the mysterious excess that was ours. We have foolishly made force proportional to mass!
This coming phenomenon, moreover, may be connected with another to be found in every nation: I mean the diffusion of culture, and its acquisition by ever larger categories of individuals.
An attempt to predict the consequences of such diffusion, or to find whether it will or not inevitably bring on decadence, would be a delightfully complicated problem in intellectual physics.
IV. You Have To Have A Story
- What changed in the past few years?
- Not me, not the way I lived. The world changed. Everyone tells me I have to meet the world half way, I have to expect good and it will come.
- You don't think they're right?
- I tell them I expected good would come, and it came. For a long time I had good luck. And then I expected good and it didn't come. How do they explain that?
- What do they say?
- They laugh.
- Sorry, I'm laughing too.
- Go right ahead. A story began the moment the rule stopped working, and I love stories.
- What's the story?
- My story? I made an attempt to figure out what had happened and what to do about it.
- And? What did you figure out?
- I told a story of how developing technological society had expanded into all the unoccupied corners I had worked my life into, and I got squeezed out. And I'd had such a low opinion of that organization I was taken by surprise. I thought that if I wanted I could, once I got tired of being out, slip back in unnoticed. That turned out not to be true: I was spotted from a distance and blocked before I took more than a step. Do you know what I think? How I was identified so easily?
- No. How?
- By my stories.
- Is there something special about your stories?
- No. But having a story at all has become special and undesirable.
- Why? And I don't agree. People still have stories and still like telling them.
- What is opposite to having a story?
- No, far from it. The opposite to having a story is excitement and ecstasy. Pornographic and mystical excitement and ecstasy.
- Are you saying there is nothing remarkable or moving in ecstasy and sex?
- I'm saying that there should be a personal, non quantifiable story leading up to the remarkable and moving experience.
- Should be for what?
- For you not be be caught up in the technological myth.
- Tell me again: what is the technological myth?
- To be always doing. Doing more, better, faster, more often. All that happens when we are still - perception of beauty, truth, good - is left out.
- But pornography and mysticism are not actions, are they?
- No. They are a special kind of perception.
- What kind?
- The kind that is quantifiable, measurable. That we can learn to do better, more often, and quicker.
- I don't follow.
- I mean something straightforward: pornographic objects are meant to arouse quickly, and accomplish this by extremes of quantity in measurements of immediately visible, repeatedly seen shapes. Access to mystical experience can be practiced so it can be more lasting, reached quicker and more often.
- There is a technology to having these experiences, pornographic and mystical.
- People looking for pornographic and mystical experiences have a kind of story that ties them to the technological world. So?
- So pornography and mystical exercise increase the influence and pervasiveness of technology in society. When people are tied closer into the technological emphasis on doing they more easily forget what they are not doing, forget the possibility of good feeling in the world not tied to quantity and speed and efficiency. Forget the experience of beauty.
- That's why you called the worship of speed and quantity and efficiency in the technological myth a "place holder" for the infinite? Because it was without beauty?
- Yes. Someone caught up in an organized world gets out of practice learning how to see individuals, reflect on one's own private experience. It is easier to step from the lack of individual practice in technological society to the lack of individual practice of pornography and mystical exercises. That ease or efficiency is part of the technological myth authorizes such a move.
- Having a real story is not easy.
- In both respects: not easy to have a story at all, and any story worth having is not going to be easy.