If you’re new to PEL and don’t know what “New Work” refers to, go listen to our episode interviewing Frithjof Bergmann, or my short precog on the topic, or check out the videos on the New Work channel I manage, or read one of the many articles I’ve written here about it (like this one).
There’s a “Worldwide Conference” coming up on New Work in Detroit on Oct. 18-20 that I’ll be attending, so check it out if you have a serious interest. Hopefully a lot of the speakers will be taped, and I’ll try to interview some folks and maybe write up an article for publication somewhere fancier than this blog. If you go, find me and introduce yourself! Details on the conference are at reimaginingwork.org.
I described in our Walden episode how Thoreau powerfully gives the intuitive grounding for New Work, i.e. that jobs, in the way they come to most of us, are positively unhealthy, and certainly fail the meaning-of-life test, meaning that whatever it is that we’re supposed to be doing (if that “supposed to” phrase means anything in this context), or whatever it is that we would really find meaningful, chances are, your job isn’t even close, nor are most other people’s jobs.
But what do we do about this? Thoreau says, in essence, that we have to give up our appetite for luxuries and live simply, minimizing economic/social entanglements. So insofar as you can live off the land, do that. It’s easy, he says, to make some money working at your own pace at something you don’t mind, and some is all you need to get whatever you need to live.
But as I pointed out in that discussion, there are two problems with this argument. First, economic calculations change with the times. Today’s highly regulated and market-saturated society requires we pony up a lot more cash just to live, much less live somewhere without heaps of crime. On the flip side, lots of technology, and the results of that technology, have become much cheaper, so that, for example, a very minimalist lifestyle today most likely would include wi-fi of some sort.
Second, his argument simply doesn’t work when you involve a family. Maybe in his time, a husband could simply make his wife and children live according to whatever crazy-ass “principled” lifestyle he fancied, but it’s more likely (based on his own lack of romantic entanglements) that other people are part of the bother that he thinks we should minimize involvement with. It’s hard to tell from his personal life given how young he died (age 43)… Despite never being married, he did propose to someone, and in any case the experiment of Walden is not presented as a fundamental, ultimate lifestyle, and we (or at least I) don’t know how literally he thought one could apply the lesson of simplicity to his post-Walden, more socially engaged life.
(As a side note, some scholars have ventured that Thoreau was a closeted, non-practicing homosexual. I have no idea if that’s true, but it would be very ironic if this guy who championed being true to yourself instead used chastity and turning away from people altogether as a way of sublimating his socially forbidden desires.)
If a simplicity-driven lifestyle can’t be supported within the context of having a partner and maybe kids, then it simply can’t be a feasible goal for general adoption; Thoreau may have found a vacation from the discontents of civilization, but not a recipe for curing them.
I found when presenting New Work ideas to the PEL community last year that some of the folks most likely to embrace its (and Thoreau’s) complaints about jobs were highly resistant to Bergmann’s proposed solutions, which involve what he used to call “high-tech self-providing” but more recently has re-termed “community production.” This involves using technology to make production much more efficient, so you actually can do it with very little money, and not have to sacrifice comfort in favor of austere, back-to-nature asceticism. In fact, community production is principally (though not solely) designed to work in concentrated, urban areas, where there’s an actual community, and, not coincidentally, where there’s the most poverty and crime and decay now.
I’m more than aware that a complete picture of community production and the economic calculation that would prove “yes, you can live this way viably and comfortably” is still wanting, and I can’t provide that here. But I think we know enough about the possibilities now to be able to argue about an approach to the problem: I claim that Thoreau’s anti-technological bias is a major hindrance in thinking about realistic ways to solve the work-life problem. Likewise, his insistence upon do-it-yourself individualism closes off essential avenues, and by extension the anti-government sentiment that for libertarians today trumps all other concerns makes solving this fundamental problem much more difficult.
This is the source of my concern voiced during the podcast that Thoreau was basically talking out of his ass. Wes said that as an essayist, Thoreau is asking you to reflect on your moral intuitions, and that the alternative to his approach would be constructing some kind of system and basing your social/moral claims on that.
I don’t think this is the problem with the anti-technology argument. Heidegger actually had a system (most recently talked about on our blog here) for justifying his anti-technology claims, and I still think they amount to unsubstantiated, sentimentalist bullshit.
Yes, as Wes pointed out, there are clear ways in which our lives can be dominated by technology, as with any other obsession. Just as you have to put in time taking care of your house, you have to put in time unfragging your hard drives and fighting viruses and deleting spam and all that crap. You can use more technology to make those tasks easier, one could make the argument that it’s a never-ending cycle: it’s always something.
And that kind of sentiment, “it’s always something,” much like “and that’s how they screw you!” is the essence of crank-dom. Thoreau’s claim is that whenever you invoke technology to answer a problem, you create more problems with the technology than make the benefit worth the effort. Many similarly argue that whenever government tries to solve a problem, the very fact that it’s government doing it creates more of a problem. Or you could argue that whatever benefit a corporation provides, they extract even more in cost. (That’s the point of economic transaction!)
What kinds of claims are these? They’re not straightforward universal claims, because then you’d only have to come up with one instance where, e.g., a government action produced more benefit than harm, and the universal would be refuted. Now, I expect some people are such cranks that they’ll insist on the exceptionless truth of these claims, but we can more reasonably take them as generalizations, as truisms.
One could then have an argument using historical examples of why technology or government or business is more often than not more of a pain than a boon, but I think that this rather misses the point, because the claims are not just generalizations about history, but somehow statements about the essence of the phenomena/institutions in question, such that no matter how many holes we plug, these things will never work.
It is a goal of computer manufacturers to make them as user-friendly as possible, and I’d argue that it’s much much easier now for a technologically-deficient older adult to use a computer than it was in 1982. A computing device like the iPhone or X-box geared to a narrower set of purposes than a full computer is even easier. These advances prove that the ideal of technological transparency, where your device actually works, and so functions as a tool ready-to-hand (to use Heidegger’s terms) instead of an obstacle present-to-hand, is reasonable. So no, it’s not “always something” in terms of more crap for end-users to take care of, and the fact that more challenges come up results from further advances, as when the computers in an office became networked together, and then connected wirelessly, and then available through Citrix and the like to at-home use of work computers. The advances enabled not only efficiency, but (especially the last) increased freedom.
Tele-commuting is to me one of the most literally liberating advances of recent years, but the anti-technogist can still make this argument: Yes, you can work from home, but that’s given employers the opportunity to make you work from home in addition to working at the office. Your job has become 24/7, and your freedom has actually shrunk. But clearly, this isn’t a technological problem: it’s a political one.
Foucault described the pernicious technological advances exemplified by “the panopticon,” i.e. more technology means more ways for powers-that-be to exert their control over us. But the answer isn’t to get rid of technology (in fact, David Brin argues that technology also gives us the ability to watch the watchers), but to fix the underlying political dysfunction. Per our Oppenheimer episode, technology gives us more power and so brings conflicts that were already in existence to a head so they need to be dealt with.
If blacks and whites hate each other (or Americans and Chinese, or star-bellied vs. plain-bellied Sneeches), but live largely in different geographic areas, then overt conflict is minimalized. If you use technology to bring them together, then there are more avenues for communicating messages of hate, yes, but also an acceleration of a dialogue toward shared understanding. To give a dramatic analogy, if members of the hating groups had a button they could push and kill members of the other group, then, after a lot of initial death, that conflict would certainly come to head and have to be dealt with.
In this light, technology is not always good in its immediate consequences, but forces us to deal with social problems more rapidly than we otherwise might have to. But what about the more Heideggerian (and Waldenesque) claim that merely living technologically puts us out of sync with nature? That we’re no longer living fully human lives?
This sentiment is broad and vague enough that it’s hard to counter. If taken to an extreme, it means that we shouldn’t use electric lights, heat, or even a roof over our head (caves are better!). By working with tractors instead of hoeing land by hand, are we no longer Man Farming as Emerson was concerned with, and so living an authentic life? By communicating with someone over the Internet, we’re not hearing a real voice, looking at a real person, and this certainly deprives us of some elements human contact that we need to get elsewhere, but is using such technology essentially dehumanizing? Is the fact that I wear boots mean I’m no longer in touch with the soil? At an extreme, imagine an astronaut on the moon, who can’t walk outside without protection, whose air has to be purposefully generated and conserved: would that be a life missing something essential to true humanity, and even if so, are the real effects of our present and anticipated technological advances harmful in this way?
On what grounds do we allow in some technology but not others? I think that we have to evaluate each piece of technology (and society!) individually to see if it helps make life more satisfying or not. (Note that there’s the separate, ecological question of how living certain ways harms the environment. That’s important, certainly, but is irrelevant to Heidegger’s formulation at least: we’re concerned in this discussion with what makes life, for us, worth living. Of course, any technology that turns our air to ash, kills off animals and other features of nature that make life more satisfying, etc., will matter impact this discussion.)
These discussions should be very familiar: For instance, television can clearly be harmful, as anyone know lived through the days where you actually had to watch commercials, and where every show had to aim at the least common denominator of idiocy. So parents nowadays often have pretty well thought out approaches to what their kids can watch and how much. As with alcohol, masturbation, video games, and even books, intemperance is a constant temptation for adults, with no real mechanism available beyond individual self-control to keep us from indulging until we screw up our lives. Technology now allows us to watch TV via phones on a near-constant basis if we want to do that. So this is another pre-existent form of conflict, a problem, that technology forces us to actually confront. If you have an addictive personality, and you now have more access to substances that might screw you up, then you have to deal with your personal problems.
Ultimately, there’s simply a great deal of room for individuals’ tastes to determine their attitudes toward technology. Some clinical findings might tell us that certain video games or media are harmful when taken in certain doses, or that staring at a screen for too much of your day can screw up your eyes, or that cell phones give you brain cancer. Other things we can discover by ourselves, such that binge watching or all-night video-game sessions leave you groggy and probably boring. (Likewise, reading too many formulaic romance or mystery novels, or being obsessed with going to live sporting events, or any number of other low-tech behaviors can have negative consequences.) None of this adds up to a blanket denunciation of technology that any reasonable person should need to pay attention to.
And back to the central point, none of this should make people interested in solving the problem of work rule out, in advance, potential technological solutions. I think in the case of Thoreau, he used some technology (his hammer, his knowledge of building, board other people had already cut from trees, nails made in factories, etc.) while eschewing other technology in a somewhat arbitrary way, so he could feel he was being pure and principled while still really taking advantage of the very thing he was railing against. So maybe instead of aiming for purity and naturalness, we should just try to clearly and without prejudice examine all the available options for solving our problems. If you’re not a crank, it shouldn’t be hard to admit that some technologies are on balance helpful, and some aren’t; government actions if actually successful are fine, even if historically there have been a lot of mis-administered fuck-ups; corporate actions aren’t necessarily evil just by being corporate. And yes, there’s “always something,” always some new challenge to deal with in the light of some advance (like, say, the challenges that come up in a new relationship), but that doesn’t mean that advancing wasn’t worth the effort and we should just stop.