Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Saturday, May 2, 2015

American TechGnosis

Erik Davis has written a new afterword to his 1989 book TechGnosis, and it’s very much worth a read. It’s a reminder of that wing of contemporary tech culture that grows quite directly out of Sixties counterculture, with Steward Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog as one of the chief midwives of the transition.

I think TechGnosis continues to speak despite its sometime anachronism because it taps the enigmatic currents of fantasy, hope, and fear that continue to charge our tools, and that speak even more deeply to the profound and peculiar ways those tools shape us in return. These mythic currents are as real as desire, as real as dream; nor do they simply dissipate when we recognize their sway. Nonetheless, technoscience continues to propagate the Enlightenment myth of a rational and calculated life without myths, and to promote values like efficiency, productivity, entrepreneurial self-interest, and the absolute adherence to reductionist explanations for all phenomena. All these day-lit values undergird the global secularism that forms the unspoken framework for public and professional discourse, for the “worldview” of our faltering West. At the same time, however, media and technology unleash a phantasmagoric nightscape of identity crises, alternate realities, memetic infection, dread, lust, and the specter of invisible (if not diabolical) agents of surveillance and control. That these two worlds of day and night are actually one matrix remains our central mystery: a rational world of paradoxically deep weirdness where, as in some dying earth genre scenario, technology and mystery lie side-by-side, not so much as explanations of the world but as experiences of the world.

The hidden relations between these two worlds — Sixties counterculture and today’s Silicon Valley business world — is, I believe, one of the major themes of Thomas Pynchon’s fiction and the chief theme of his late diptych, Inherent Vice and Bleeding Edge. If you want to understand the moral world we’re living in, you could do a lot worse than to read and reflect on those two novels.

I recently read George Marden’s brief but deeply insightful Twilight of the American Enlightenment, and the most fascinating element of that book is the way Marsden traces the lines of thought and influence that start with America’s great victory in World War II, lead to a sense of spiritual crisis in the 1950s — Is America morally worthy of its leading place in the world? And have we achieved it at the cost of creating a lonely crowd made up of organization men? —, and go on from there by a kind of inevitable logic to the social and sexual revolutions of the 1960s.

Those developments were made inevitable, it seems to me, by a single conflict in the American mind. Marsden:

At all these levels of mainstream American life, from the highest intellectual forums to the most practical everyday advice columns, two ... authorities were almost universally celebrated: the authority of the scientific method and the authority of the autonomous individual. If you were in a public setting in the 1950s, two of the things that you might say on which you would likely get the widest possible assent were, one, that one ought to be scientific, and two, that one ought to be true to oneself.

Not much has changed — except that today’s leading technology companies claim to have united these two authorities. They give us, they say, the very science that we need in order to be true to ourselves. Erik Davis’s TechGnosis is one way of believing in that promise, but by no means the only way.


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