Steve Talbott on alienation from the world
“We marvel at the incomprehensibly remote galaxies brought near to us by the modern telescope, and know that our existence on earth would be sadly impoverished without their austere majesty. And yet, by expanding the universe without limit, isolating our vision from our other senses, and encouraging us to view ourselves as chance objects among billions and billions of objects, far from the center of things, this same telescope has whispered to many: ‘You are an accident, lost in a vast, wind-blown desert where the grains of sand are stars.’
“Things, apparently, can be brought closer while at the same time becoming more remote, more disconnected from us. ‘We had to travel to the moon in 1969,’ surmises psychologist Robert Romanyshyn in Technology As Symptom and Dream, not because it had come so near to us, but ‘because it had gone so far away.’ . . .
“If the telescope not only brings things nearer, but also transforms and objectifies space in a way that can easily make us feel like chance intruders, it is not at all clear . . . that the rockets within which we fling our bodies through this alien space are vehicles of reconciliation and homecoming.
“Home, of course, is where every child belongs. But a world that feels like home is increasingly what we deny our children — this despite the televisions and Internet connections that bring the world into the intimacy of their bedrooms. Such devices, I would argue, only accentuate the central educational challenge: how do we help the child find his own connections to the world?
“I don’t think modern technology necessarily alienates us from the world it mediates. But a lot depends on our recognizing how it can do so. And the first thing to say here is that the problem is not and never was one of scale. It is badly mistaken to think: ‘The telescope reveals the earth as a mere fly speck in the cosmic infinitudes, so of course we can no longer consider ourselves significant in the old religious sense.’ That’s as confused a bit of thinking as any nonsense for which we ridicule the ancients. As C. S. Lewis reminded us, ‘Ptolemy knew just as well as Eddington that the earth was infinitesimal in comparison with the whole content of space.’ Nor, Lewis adds, do we really believe that a six-foot man is more important than a five-foot man, or that a tree is more important than a human, or a leg more important than a brain.
“Spatial dimension has never been a measure of significance. When we argue today that big is significant and small is insignificant, we merely testify to our loss of any sense for what is significant.
“So if telescopes and other instruments of modern science express our alienation from the world, it is not because of the dimensional scales they introduce, but because we have tended, with their encouragement, to substitute dimension for the things that count. Employing such tools, we are invited to ignore our own significant connections to the world, which are never merely quantitative. . . .
"There are many other symptoms of our estrangement from the world. I once spoke to an extremely intelligent high school graduate who was not sure in which direction the sun rose. Bill McKibben tells of a camping trip during which he learned that adolescents who had lived their whole lives in the Adirondacks did not know there was such a thing as the Milky Way. I’ve heard an astronomy teacher lamented that, after Star Wars, students lost interest in the ‘boring’ view through a telescope, and a naturalist complain about the television generation’s disinterest in the not-sufficiently-exotic local flora and fauna.
“None of this reflects a shortage of information. The problem is that today something is substituting for the child’s intimacy with the world. And if you want to know the nature of the substitution, consider the lenses, video screens, instrument panels, windows, phones, loudspeakers, books, faxes, billboards, newspapers, magazines, and various protected environments through which we gauge our relations to the world. How can the child possibly feel that the natural world counts for much of anything at all?”
— from Steve Talbott, Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines (O'Reilly Media, 2007)
Stratford Caldecott on teaching in light of cosmic harmony
“It is fairly clear that if the Seven Liberal Arts model is to become an adequate basis for education today, whether in colleges or in less formal settings, it needs to be broadened and adapted. Even by the thirteenth century the Liberal Arts were bursting at the seams trying to incorporate new knowledge.
“In The Crisis of Western Education and other works, Christopher Dawson argued that, while the universities should concentrate more on the Liberal Arts and less on the Servile Arts, a simple revival of the quadrivium would not be sufficient to bring about a return to right reason. Young people need to be made aware of the spiritual unity out of which the separate activities of our civilization have arisen, and his proposal was to do that by teaching culture historically, using the literature of medieval Europe rather than the classical sources the medievals themselves would have used. Teaching the story of Christian culture may be the best way to 'maintain the tradition of liberal education against the growing pressure of scientific specialization and utilitarian vocationalism,’ he thought. (Thinking like this lay behind the development of the ‘great books’ program in many American universities and colleges.)
“Symptoms of our educational crisis, such as the fragmentation of the disciplines, the separation of faith and reason, the reduction of quality to quantity, and the loss of a sense of ultimate purpose, are directly related to a lack of historical awareness on the part of students. An integrated curriculum must teach subjects, and it must teach the right subjects, but it should do so by incorporating each subject, even mathematics and the hard sciences, within the history of ideas, which is the history of our culture. Every subject has a history, a drama, and by imaginatively engaging with these stories we become part of the tradition.
“We also need to confront the secular mind-set that makes the cosmological assumptions of the quadrivium almost unintelligible today. . . . The sheer amount of information available in every discipline is far too great to be mastered by one person even in an entire lifetime. The purpose of an education is not merely to communicate information, let alone current scientific opinion, nor to train future workers and managers. It is to teach the ability to think, discriminate, speak, and write, and, along with this, the ability to perceive the inner, connecting principles, the intrinsic relations, the logoi, of creation, which the ancient Christian Pythagorean tradition (right through the medieval period) understood in terms of number and cosmic harmony.”
— from Stratford Caldecott, Beauty for Truth’s Sake: On the Re-Enchantment of Education (Brazos Press, 2009)
Richard Stivers on how statistical norms replaced moral norms
“The normal has supplanted the moral (in the traditional sense) in itself becoming the moral. We are speaking here of statistical normality, a statistical average. The two major forms this statistical morality assumes are public opinion and peer group norms. In the former instance, the norms are abstract and impersonal; in the latter, they are concrete and personal. Yet public opinion increasingly informs the attitudes and behavior of the peer group. What the majority of people do and say tends to become normative.
“There are three principal reasons, all related, for the triumph of normality. First, the growing prestige of science from the eighteenth to the nineteenth centuries elevated the status of the fact. The mission of mechanistic science was to break objects down to their ever smaller constituent parts. This atomistic approach produced a plethora of facts. From those positivistic scientists and layman there was a one-to-one relationship between the fact and its referent in the real world: perception was possible without the contaminating influence of preconception. With the gradual dissolution of the belief in the objectivity of religious and moral values, objectivity took up temporary residence in science. Objectivity lay in the laws of science that were a mirror of the laws of an autonomous nature. That part of natural law that spoke to the normative dimension of human existence eventually was seen as subjective. Facts were now objective, values subjective.
“Scientific theory has come to be seen to have a merely formal relationship to reality, arbitrary in its conceptual substance, but realistic in terms of the mathematical relationship between concepts and of conceptual parsimony. This further elevates the status of the fact, this time at the expense of theory. Atomistic science has produced in effect a universe of random facts. These facts both in and out of science can be disseminated to the public as fascinating information. Witness the incredible interest in books and games of facts, such as the Guinness Book of Records and Trivial Pursuit. We are fascinated with the most intimate details of a person’s life (the television talk shows) and in the exotic details of nature. The reason is clear: facts and reality are one, and our approach to reality is purely aesthetical. We are detached consumers of interesting facts. Reality is the sum of all facts but is known one fact at a time. Therefore reality is experienced as both fragmentary and interesting.
“The view that nature is ordered according to lawful relations amenable to scientific explanation is eventually applied to society as well. A growing immanentism (a belief that the world is a self-contained material reality), which cannot be attributed to science as such, rather to the use of science as a worldview, encouraged the elimination of the dualism of nature and society. There had been a long-standing idea in western civilization that the laws of both nature and society were normative, but that those of society could be violated by humans. Freedom implied the possibility of transgressing God’s laws. By the nineteenth century, however, immanentism was well in place, as understood by Nietzsche in his ‘Death of God’ proclamation. If science could be used to discern the laws of nature, there was no reason why they could not be used with respect to society. The rise of the social sciences in the nineteenth century attests to this belief. As Comte understood it, the laws of sociology, statistical norms, would replace outmoded moral norms. The normal supplants the moral.
“Traditional morality, moreover, is reduced to the status of ideology. The distinction between what ought to be and what is gives way to that between ideology and reality. Morality becomes a screen behind which the self-interests of the group and the individual are played out. Marx’s theory of ideology is, in this sense, only a reflection of the decline of a belief in the objectivity of moral norms in Western civilization. Marx’s materialism is but one form that radical immanentism has assumed.”
— from Richard Stivers, The Culture of Cynicism: American Morality in Decline (Blackwell, 1994)
Richard Stivers on how the rhetoric of democracy invites tyranny
Sociologist Richard Stivers has been a guest on the Journal on four occasions, the most recent being on Volume 151 discussing his book The Media Creates Us in Its Image and Other Essays on Technology and Culture. On Volume 96, he talked with me about his book The Illusion of Freedom and Equality (State University of New York Press, 2008). The penultimate chapter in that book is titled “The Reality of Freedom and Equality,” in which the following paragraphs appear.
“Freedom and equality are now meaningless terms. When the reality of the quality a term signifies contradicts it, then the term loses common meaning and becomes a tool of power. Richard Weaver uses the phrase ‘charismatic terms’ to denote terms that do not refer to anything in the real world. They have lost their ‘referential connections’; instead their use depends upon ‘common consent’ or the ‘popular will,’ which confers upon them charismatic authority. They become purely rhetorical terms. He suggests that politicians with the assistance of the media impose these terms on the public who more or less willingly accept them without reflecting on the appropriateness of their use. They have become the common coin of propaganda. If one were to expand his discussion to include advertising and public relations, the full range of propaganda would be included. The sad fact is that all organizations, private and public, employ propaganda to influence and control us. They are unwitting agents of the technological system.
“Writing [in The Ethics of Rhetoric] over 50 years ago, Weaver identifies freedom and democracy (equality) as today's charismatic terms. If these terms have been severed from the referential contexts and yet ordinary people still invoke them as often as politicians and administrators, they must mean something. Indeed they have become irrational symbols.
“We can best understand the functioning and meaning of charismatic terms by comparing them to ‘plastic words.’ This is Uwe Poerksen’s term for a category of words that aspire to be scientific or technical but end up amorphous in meaning. Plastic words go from being words in the vernacular to being scientific terms; but subsequently return to the vernacular. Science and technology, economics, administration, and the entire range of applied human sciences are the source of plastic words. He has identified 43 words as plastic words without pretending to having a definitive list [see Plastic Words, Penn State Press, 1995]. These words include: communication, development, education, function, future, growth, information, model, modernization, planning, progress, relationship, trend, and value.
“Plastic words are all abstract nouns and imply an aura of scientific factuality. As abstract nouns, they destroy precise discourse, leaving behind the most general and hollow meaning. Like other abstractions, plastic words are elliptic sentences that imply a predicate. The plastic word ‘planning’ implies a sentence like, ‘One plans for the future.’ Abstractions sometimes turn predicates into substantives (nouns). The result is a world peopled with nouns, a material world closed to human intervention and human qualities. Plastic words as well contain ‘frozen judgments,’ concealed under the aura of science. ‘Progress’ and ‘development’ seem factual and thus neutral, and appear to be a consequence of technological innovation. The frozen judgment here is that technology is our sole hope for the future. Plastic words are tacit symbols that stand for continued technological growth.
“Plastic words are used for propagandistic purposes. They manipulate us to embrace the torturing of the natural environment and to accept the fragmentation and stress technology imposes upon culture and personality. Plastic words ‘provide security and perform exorcisms.’ Experts who talk plastic discourse ‘cast a spell’ of calm in a world buffeted by permanent anxiety.
“If plastic words leave us under the aegis of experts, charismatic terms appear to leave us on our own. They are not owned by experts and flatter us that they are under our control. Charismatic terms are the necessary complement to plastic words. We want to have it both ways — a world in which expert advice rules and a world of democratic participation.
“So what do freedom and equality symbolize if only in an irrational or unconscious way? Charles Weingartner brilliantly concludes that both words symbolize ‘more.’ ‘“Freedom” means more — more latitude in avoiding responsibility for one’s actions and their consequences; “rights” means more — more, better, easier access to largely material comforts if not luxuries, and equality means more access, easier access, to the rights and freedoms that heretofore were privileges.’ His argument [presented in a 1981 article titled ‘Three Little Words,’] is slightly oversimplified, but he is on target with his declaration of the basic American belief: ‘More is better.’ In an interview Philip Rieff, when asked what Americans believe in, responded, ‘More.’”
— from Richard Stivers, The Illusion of Freedom and Equality (State University of New York Press, 2008)
Langdon Winner summarizes a key theme in Jacques Ellul
Langdon Winner’s Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought was published by M.I.T. Press in 1977, and it remains a seminal resource to grasp the cultural and political dynamics active in technological societies. One of the themes that gets some attention is a phenomenon noted by Jacques Ellul, Robert K. Merton, and others whereby technology (in Merton’s words) “transforms ends into means. What was once prized in its own right now becomes worthwhile only if it helps achieve something else. And, conversely, techniques turns means into ends. 'Know-how' takes on an ultimate value.
Winner uses the term “reverse adaptation” to name the process whereby human ends are adjusted to match the character of the available technical means, and “in which people come to accept the norms and standards of technical processes as central to their lives as a whole. A subtle but comprehensive alteration takes place in the form and substance of their thinking and motivation. Efficiency, speed, precise measurement, rationality, productivity, and technical improvement become ends in themselves applied obsessively to areas of life in which they would previously have been rejected as inappropriate. . . .
“There is another important way in which the dominance of instrumental values is insured. . . . [B]eyond the fact that people experience a psychological obsession with instrumentality, the technological society tends to arrange all situations of choice, judgment, or decision in such a way that only instrumental concerns have any true impact. In these situations questions of ‘how’ tend to overpower and retailor questions of ‘why’ so that the two matters become, for all practical purposes, indistinguishable. . . .
Winner goes on to reflect on Ellul’s ideas about the receding of ends and the triumph of means in technological societies. “What causes are responsible for this state of affairs? Ellul argues that the withdrawal of the ends of action into an inert, moribund condition comes at exactly the time when the means of action have become supremely effective. The tendency of all people is to hold the ends constant or to assume that they are well ‘known’ and then to seek the best available techniques to achieve them. There is, then, a twofold movement affecting all social practices and institutions: (1) the process of articulating and criticizing the matter of ends slips into oblivion, and (2) the business of discovering effective means and the ways of judging these means in their performance assumes a paramount importance. Thus, new kinds of apparatus, organization, and technique become the real focus for many important social choices. Instrumental standards appropriate to the evaluation of technological operations — norms of efficiency above all others — determine the form and content of such choices. Locked into an attachment to instruments and instrumentalities, social institutions gradually lose the ability to consider their fundamental commitments.”