Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, June 8, 2015

the technological history of modernity

I’m going to try to piece a few things together here, so hang on for the ride —

I have been reading and enjoying Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head, and I’ll have more to say about it here later. I strongly recommend it to you. But today I’m going to talk about something in it I disagree with. On the book’s first page Crawford writes of “profound cultural changes” that have

a certain coherence to them, an arc — one that begins in the Enlightenment, accelerates in the twentieth century, and is perhaps culminating now. Though digital technologies certainly contribute to it, our current crisis of attention is the coming to fruition of a picture of the human being that was offered some centuries ago.

With this idea in mind, Crawford later in the book gives us a chapter called “A Brief History of Freedom” that spells out the philosophical ideas that, he believes, paved the way for the emergence of a culture in which lengthy and patient attentiveness is all but impossible.

Since attention is something I think about a lot — and have written about here and elsewhere — I’m deeply sympathetic to Crawford’s general critique. But I am not persuaded by his history. In fact, I have come to believe — as I have also written here — that the way Crawford tells the history has things backwards, in much the same way that the neo-Thomist interpretation of history gets things backwards. I don't think we have our current attention economy because of Kant, any more than we have Moralistic Therapeutic Deism because of Ockham and Duns Scotus.

To make the kind of argument that Crawford and the neo-Thomists make is to take philosophy too much at its own self-valuation. Philosophy likes to see itself as operating largely independently of culture and society and setting the terms on which people will later think. But I believe that philosophy is far more a product of existing social and economic structures than it is an independent entity. We don't have the modern attention economy because of Kant; rather, we got Kant because of certain features of technological modernity — especially those involving printing, publishing, and international postal delivery — that also have produced our current attention economy, which, I believe, would work just as it does if Kant had never lived. What I call the Oppenheimer Principle — “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you've had your technical success” — has worked far more powerfully to shape our world than any of our master thinkers. Indeed, those thinkers are, in ways we scarcely understand, themselves the product of the Oppenheimer Principle.

So while it is true that, as I said in one of those earlier posts, “those of us who are seriously seeking alternatives to the typical modes of living in late modernity need a much, much better philosophy and theology of technology,” we also need better history — what I think I want to call a technological history of modernity.

To be sure, that already exists in bits and pieces — indeed, in fairly large chunks. Some existing works that might help us re-orient our thinking towards a better account of how we got to Us:

Those of us who — out of theological conviction or out of some other conviction — have some serious doubts about the turn that modernity has taken have been far too neglectful of this material, economic, and technological history. We need to remedy that deficiency. And someone needs to write a really comprehensive and ambitious technological history of modernity. I don't think I’m up to that challenge, but if no one steps up to the plate....

My current book project has convinced me of the importance of these issues. All of the figures I am writing about there understood that they could not think of World War II simply as a conflict between the Allies and the Axis. There were, rather, serious questions to be asked about the emerging character of the Western democratic societies. On some level each of these figures intuited or explicitly argued that if the Allies won the war simply because of their technological superiority — and then, precisely because of that success, allowed their societies to become purely technocratic, ruled by the military-industrial complex — their victory would become largely a hollow one. Each of them sees the creative renewal of some form of Christian humanism as a necessary counterbalance to technocracy.

I agree with them, and think that at the present moment our world needs — desperately — the kind of sympathetic and humane yet strong critique of technocracy they tried to offer. But such a critique can only be valuable if it grows from a deep understanding — an attentive understanding — of both the present moment, in all its complexities, and the present moment’s antecedents, in all their complexities. In the coming months, as I continue to work on my book, I’ll be thinking about how that technological history of modernity might be told, and will share some thoughts here. That will probably mean posting less often but more substantively; we’ll see. The idea is to lay the foundation for future work. Please stay tuned.


  • It seems to me like Crawford would probably agree with you on this. In his recent national review article he talks about the great mistake it is to divorce philosophy from it's wider cultural context, specifically descartes and the enlightenment with the cultural project against authority (http://www.nationalreview.com/article/416469/world-beyond-your-head-nr-interview.) He might still overstate philosophy as a cause rather than effect at times, but from that interview it sounds like he sees the two as inseparable. This doesn't change the veracity or value of anything you've written obviously - just that you might not be in much disagreement. Your thoughts?

  • Have you read Technics and Civilization by Lewis Mumford? I'm near the end of it and I find myself wanting another edition, updated with the past 80 years of missing history. I was a little surprised at how many critiques he has of technocratic society (circa 1934) that still ring true today. Probably because not enough people have picked up the torch to try and challenge technocratic notions of progress and goodness in the interim. I greatly look forward to any further writing you have on the matter.

  • I’ve heard about Crawford’s new book a couple places already and will eventually pick it up to read. So I can’t yet speak directly to what is in his book. I note that a couple Amazon reviews value the book at the same time they criticize Crawford for playing a little loose with history. Acquaintance with a real academic historian has provided me the insight (by admission) that every telling of history is an interpretation of events. Those that go further into cultural criticism by necessity interpret even more freely.

    Your remarks about the chicken-and-eggness of philosophy and culture seem to me well founded, but a proper understanding probably would not assert direct causation or generative order in either direction because philosophy is both reflective of and embedded in the culture. There can be no standing apart and directing the flow of ideas from above on the part of philosophy. Rather, culture (and history) drifts and cannot be steered in any significant way, since it tends to coalesce over time around ideas that slowly (or suddenly) gain traction in the marketplace of ideas.

    A (further) history of technology strikes me as unnecessary and already pretty well covered. Technology is (sadly, from a humanistic perspective) a primary aspect of modern history, perhaps even the primary aspect considering its power to transform human experience all the way down to brain rewiring. However, for all its ubiquity, technology has not altered the human condition or the hierarchy of needs significantly. On the other hand, a philosophy of technology is badly needed, and a couple early attempts spring to mind: Neil Postman’s Technopoly (1992) and Albert Borgmann’s Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry (1984). Both were written before computing and networking (including social networks) fully took hold, but they both deal significantly with how our attention is casually diverted toward those networks (unwholesomely, I might add). In particular, Borgmann’s concept of focal practices is an antidote to hair-width attention spans under which many of us now suffer, most without knowing because it’s so normal.

  • "Philosophy likes to see itself as operating largely independently of culture and society and setting the terms on which people will later think. "

    Not Kant's philosophy!

  • "Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one's own understanding without another's guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one's own mind without another's guidance. Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) 'Have the courage to use your own understanding,' is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.... And this free thought gradually reacts back on the modes of thought of the people, and men become more and more capable of acting in freedom. At last free thought acts even on the fundamentals of government...."

    — Kant, "What Is Enlightenment?"

  • I don't think he's talking about philosophy there. (The word never appears in that essay, interestingly.) The freedom of thought he's interested in is that of the "military officer," the tax-paying "citizen", and above all the "pastor." And even these elites can't be depended upon to promote general enlightenment, without the countervailing constraints of the monarch. This "paradoxical" mechanism isn't a philosopher's 'cultural project', but the cunning of "Nature" itself.

    Maybe the one role philosophy can play in this "inevitable" enlightening is to interpret nature's plan, as Kant does here, in a way not unfavorable to further enlightenment.

    That's how it reads to me, at least: ironic nudge, not manifesto.

    (Sorry if I'm double-posting- I can't tell if this is going through.)

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