Small is Beautiful, pt. 5

An attempt to get back to writing regularly here, perhaps futile.

My last post on Schumacher was in January, so I’ve lost the thread a bit, please bear with me.

Previous posts can be found here.

One of the things I most appreciate about Schumacher is that he takes the challenge of technology seriously. The lack of serious engagement with technology is one of the great blindspots of anti-modern thought, which tends to ignore the catastrophic effects of technological advancement on the traditional world-view and the role of technology in sustaining the (otherwise unsustainable) edifice of modernity.1

If we wish to advocate for reform, we must therefore confront the challenge of technology head-on. Schumacher:

The modern world has been shaped by its metaphysics, which has shaped its education, which in turn has brought forth its science and technology.  So, without going back to metaphysics and education, we can say that the modern world has been shaped by technology.  It tumbles from crisis to crisis; on all sides there are prophecies of disaster and, indeed, visible signs of breakdown.

If that which has been shaped by technology, and continues to be so shaped, looks sick, it might be wise to have a look at technology itself.  If technology is felt to be becoming more and more inhuman, we might do well to consider whether it is possible to have something better–a technology with a human face.

Small is Beautiful, 155

Against the charge of technology being, as Schumacher describes it, inhuman and sickening, there are typically two knee-jerk responses. The first is a vague gesture towards the benefits of technology; medicine, transportation, smart phones.2 The second is an assertion of technology’s neutrality. In this defense, it is not the technology itself that is the problem, but the way we use it.

Note that these responses are inextricably linked. Both operate one step removed from the actual the problem. The (false) assumption here is that the development and operation of technology is an essentially uncontrolled process, an undirected power. Our response to technology is cast as a simple apprehension of and reaction to reality and not the product of a specific weltbild.3 Of course, this is rather obviously false as an even cursory examination (historical, philosophical, phenomenological, etc.) makes clear.

Recognizing that the technological mindset is not given, but rests upon a host of metaphysical claims, which are upon examination rather suspect, enables the possibility of questioning, discarding, and supplanting a view of the world, technological progress, and our relation to nature that, as Schumacher notes, is making us sick, spiritually and physically.

Of course, the defender of the technological mindset will challenge Schumacher’s assertion that said mind set is sickening or, if they are a bit more realistic, suggest that the spiritual and physical sicknesses technology does generate are necessary evils, “worth it” in comparison to the great benefits of technology.4

The response to this defense is simple, though difficult to accept. It is that the so-called advantages of technology in increasing productivity, health, happiness, etc. largely do not exist. While there are certainly technological achievements that have benefited man, antibiotics say, the vast majority add to our burdens, at best leading to the continual cluttering of our lives at worst actively enslaving and killing us.

I don’t have the space to demonstrate this in detail, perhaps I will write about it later.5 But, please, consider your own life : How many technologies truly make you more free, a better person, more productive? How many technologies add more responsibilities, require you to make more money to buy and maintain them, suck away all the small, still moments6 in your day, to how many are you addicted? Most importantly, how many make you a better person?

At the heart of our technological world lies a damning paradox:

The amount of real leisure a society enjoys tends to be in inverse proportion to the amount of labour-saving machinery it employs.

Small is Beautiful, 157

Moreover, the bounds of technology wrap ever tighter around us, tying us down to an endless proliferation of stuff and forcing us into an endless series of bullshit jobs to pay for that stuff (isn’t technology supposed to allow us to live lives of leisure? why in this time of supposed abundance do we work so much?).

The number of people who I’ve met who seem to do nothing at all, accomplish nothing, produce nothing. Is this what the pinnacle of industrial society looks like? Pushing paper? Why are we so miserable? This, among other things, leads to a profound sense of alienation and dislocation.

We say, therefore, that modern technology has deprived man of the kind of work that he enjoys most, creative, useful work with hands hands and brains, and given him plenty of work of a fragmented kind, most of which he does not enjoy at all.  It has multiplied the number of people who are exceedingly busy doing kinds of work which, if it is productive at all, is so only in an indirect or “rough-about” way, and much of which would not be necessary at all if technology were rather less modern. 

Small is Beautiful, 160

Schumacher’s solution: de-scaling and, most especially, technology with a human face. That is, technology that is fundamentally oriented towards humanity, that is human-scaled and human-directed–in what is perhaps the best distillation of the central thesis of the book, Schumacher writes:

Man is small, and, therefore, small is beautiful.

Small is Beautiful, 169

Technology and our relation to it ought to be designed towards helping us achieve actual happiness, eudaimonia. Of course, this requires recognizing that we have ends, that those ends are knowable and shared, that technology can inhibit or advance those ends, that there is no neutral. And this is intolerable to the modern mind.

1. The category into which I’ve assigned this and similar posts speaks to this latter point. Think of the vast amounts of energy exerted everyday to blot out the light of the stars, such a thing is only possible thanks to the tremendous technological achievements of the past two hundred years. Without the ability to exert this energy so freely, we’d be forced to consider the stars and to confront the consequences of that consideration. Technology thus acts as the instrument of our (pseudo)willful blindness to the reality of things. And where does causation ultimately lie? Do we control technology or does it control us? Do we blot out the stars because it is our wish or because we’ve given ourselves no other choice? To whom have we delegated the power of deciding?

2. they rarely gesture toward incinerated corpses in Nagasaki

3. This yet another iteration of the great modern lie, of the possibility of valueless, metaphysically neutral judgment about anything whatsoever. It is rooted in a failure to recognize that metaphysical judgments are prior to all others and cannot be bracketed.

The truth of this principle is demonstrated by the desperate hand-waving of those attempting to ignore metaphysics when confronted with the impossibility of their position. It all boils down to, “well, what if we just pretend that we can suspend judgment on, say, whether God exists?” But all we’re doing is pretending (at best, at worst, we’re deliberately obfuscating perhaps from ourselves. If, for example, the world is a creation, rather than a semi-random accumulation of matter spewed out by some purposeless cosmic explosion, isn’t that the single most important fact about the world? If God became man and died on the Cross, is not all history, all reality colored (indeed, re-created) by that moment? How can we bracket these questions, then? We must proceed under the assumption that these propositions are either true or false, they touch every aspect of our thought, our lives. We cannot do otherwise.

4. If they’re feeling polemical, as those who are long accustomed to seeing their mindset as neutral and default often are (wittingly and unwittingly), there’s often a veiled or explicit accusation of luditism embedded in their defense. “So you want us all to become Amish?” “Oh, so we should just all go back to living in mud huts and dying of the plague?” These are, of course, not actually arguments, mere emotional outbursts, and don’t truly deserve a rational response, though we received rather eloquent one long ago: “For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?” 

5. If you’re interested, see for example Ivan Illich’s writings on the true cost of cars (His work on medicine is well worth reading as well) or see Kunstler on how widespread automobile usage (something possible only through the mass practice of usury by the way) and designing our living space around cars has resulted in the destruction of American communities. Or look at the correspondence of smartphones with the increasing social dissolution among younger generations. Think about what mass media has done to society, what it does to your brain, about environmental devastation, and so on and so on.

6. See 1 Kings 19:11-12

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