The Myth of the Machine

The strategy discussed in last week’s post—that of walking away from energy-intensive lifestyles before the waning of the age of abundant energy brings them grinding to a halt—is a viable response to the crisis of our age, but it’s also a great way to poke a stick at some of the most deeply entrenched of the modern world’s dysfunctional habits of thinking. Suggest it in public, for example, and you’ll very quickly learn why all that talk about saving the planet has turned out to be empty air: everyone’s quite willing to watch someone else make sacrifices for the good of the biosphere, but ask them to make sacrifices themselves and you’ll see just how far their love of the planet extends.

In honor of the ongoing failure of global climate talks, let’s call the resulting dance the Copenhagen cha-cha—one step forward, three steps back, run in a circle making squawking noises, and then point the finger of blame at somebody else on the dance floor. Over the years to come, you can expect to see that number done on a scale that would make the ghost of Busby Berkeley turn green with envy. Yet there’s more going on here than simple hypocrisy. To make sense of the reasons why so many people who know perfectly well that their own lifestyles are dragging the world to ruin still can’t bear the thought of living any other way, it’s going to be necessary to explore some of the murkiest crawlspaces of the modern mind. We can start, once again, with the automobile.

I suggested last week that the private auto is simply one way to get people and light cargoes from one place to another. Strictly speaking, that’s true, but it’s true in much the same sense that sex is simply one way to distribute the adult population among the supply of available bedrooms. Especially but not only in America, the car has been loaded down with so much in the way of powerful cultural fantasies and emotional drives that it’s almost impossible to talk about it in purely practical terms. I dislike cars, and not just on principle—chalk it up, maybe, to a family habit of long pointless Sunday drives with the smoke from my father’s cheap cigarettes pooling like a miasma in the back seat—and I’ve never owned one, or had a driver’s license. I’ve still felt, while catching a ride with friends to some Druid gathering or the like, the lure of the open highway that plays so huge a role in America’s collective psyche.

That’s a major theme in our national character that I suspect many people elsewhere in the world simply don’t get. The vast majority of white Americans are descended from people who turned their backs on the static ways of the Old World to chase the dream of a better life on the other side of the ocean, and that pattern of seeking a new life elsewhere has repeated far more often than not with each generation. One of the many factors that make white Americans so clueless about nonwhite Americans, in turn, is that that experience isn’t shared with the other peoples of this nation. For us, that first journey beyond limitations has always defined the American experience, but for African-Americans, their encounter with this continent was a bitter exile into bondage; for the Hispanic population this side of the Rio Grande, the defining experience was dispossession—white Americans like to forget that the southwestern quarter of our country used to be the northern half of Mexico, before we stole it from them at gunpoint—and for the first inhabitants of this continent, it was not merely dispossession but very nearly annihilation. A road leading into the far distance means something very different to the descendants of pioneers on the Oregon Trail than it does to the descendants of those who survived the Trail of Tears.

Still, even among white Americans, the dream of freedom somewhere on the far side of the horizon could at least theoretically have expressed itself in many different ways. It so happens that nowadays, at least, it almost always expresses itself through the automobile. This is why Americans cling to their cars with such frantic intensity, and why Republican politicians—always a better barometer of the American mass psyche than their Democrat rivals—so reflexively treat any alternative to the private car as a threat to America’s freedom. On any rational level, of course, that’s the most vacuous sort of hogwash, but on a nonrational level—on the level of collective passions and mass fantasies where most human motivation takes shape—it’s a potent reality. If freedom consists of being able to turn the key, put the pedal to the metal, and go zooming off to a new life somewhere else, a future of buses and trains lumbering along fixed routes with somebody else driving is a future where freedom no longer exists, and a future in which nothing speeds along on wheels—in which life plods along at a walking pace—doesn’t bear thinking about at all.

The cultural processes that condensed the experience of a people into the dream of a perpetual quest to catch the receding horizon, and then bound that dream into a talisman perched on four rubber tires, are hard to discuss in any meaningful way without using words like "spell" and "enchantment." Part of the magic involved, to be sure, was the work of the sorcerers of Madison Avenue, who flogged the dream into a bloody pulp in order to sell yet another round of otherwise uninteresting products, but there’s more than that to the misplaced concreteness that confuses freedom with a machine.

Glance over at a different technology and the same misplaced concreteness appears in even sharper relief. The technology I have in mind here is television. I don’t own one of those, either; I grew up watching TV, of course, like everyone else in my generation, but got heartily bored with it in my teen years and haven’t had one in the house in my adult life. Mention this to most Americans, though, and the reaction you’ll get is considerably more violent than the one you get if you admit that you don’t use a car. There’s a defensive quality to it, the sort of brittle edge you only get when the mere fact that you don’t share somebody’s habit flicks them on the raw.

If you’ve ever walked past a suburban neighborhood at night when some much-ballyhooed show was on, and seen the blue light flickering in perfect sync in the windows of house after house, you might have caught some sense of the reason why. If the automobile is America’s talisman of freedom, the television is its talisman of community, of participation in a world of shared activities and shared meanings. Notice how often casual talk in a social setting veers at once in the direction of something that was on the television, or how hard it is to find a tavern these days that doesn’t have half a dozen big television screens blaring inanities from all sides. We stare at the screens, because that makes it easier not to notice the world around us, or each other.

For most Americans, television has come to represent the experience of collective participation, and yet the flickering lights in the suburban windows serve as a reminder that few activities are more solitary or more isolating. In precisely the same way, the freedom represented by the car moving down the open road is a pathetic illusion; from the immense government programs that build and maintain those open roads, through the gargantuan corporate systems that produce the cars, to the sprawling global network of oilfields, pipelines, refineries, and the rest of the colossal system that transforms fossil hydrocarbons into the gas that keeps the car going, there are few human activities on Earth that depend more completely on the vast and faceless bureaucracies that most Americans think they despise. Isolation packaged as participation, dependence packaged as freedom: there’s much to be learned here about the power of thaumaturgy to twist the meanings of things—but I want to go one step further here.

Americans by and large accept an extraordinary degree of dependence on a machine—the automobile—in order to invest that machine with the feelings and dreams that cluster around the concept of freedom. We accept an extraordinary degree of dependence on another machine—the television—in order to give that machine the emotional charge that other societies give to participation in collective meanings and activities. Sort through any of the narratives that play a central role in contemporary American culture, and you’ll find a machine at the center of each one. Thus it’s absolutely predictable that when Americans try to think about finding some way out from between the narrowing walls closing in on our future, nearly everything they come up has some kind of machine at its heart. A solar panel, a wind turbine, an electric car, a thorium reactor, a supercomputer, a flying saucer or a nuclear bomb, take your pick, but it’s got to be based on a machine.

A good many years ago, Lewis Mumford wrote two hefty volumes under the joint title The Myth of the Machine. It’s vintage Mumford and thus by definition well worth reading, but it’s also very much a work of its time, a well-aimed blast against the superlative technological efficiency and utter ethical failure of America’s pursuit of the Vietnam war. Since I first read it, I’ve wished that Mumford could have found time to pursue the promise of the title in a good deal more depth. There is indeed a myth of the machine in the strict sense of that much-abused word "myth," and I’ve come to see the extraordinary fixation on that myth as one of the major barriers in the way of a viable response to the crisis of our time.

Let’s start with the basics. What is a machine? There are plenty of ways to answer that deceptively simple question, but I’m going to propose a provocative one. It requires a bit of background, though, and so I’m going to have to approach it in a slightly roundabout way.

As human beings our experiences fall into two broad categories. One of these comprises what we might as well call the outer world—the world we experience in the form of sensations perceived by the five senses. The other comprises what we might correspondingly call the inner world—the world we experience in the form of thoughts and feelings perceived directly by the mind. Those two worlds overlap in the body, which we can explore as a sensory object but which we can also perceive directly as a locus of thoughts and feelings. Outside that overlap, for each of us, those two worlds are distinct; we can’t perceive our own personality, for example, as a sensory object, or experience directly what’s going on in the inner lives of the other beings we encounter.

Developmental psychologists noticed a long time ago that the process of growing up involves a curious double movement in the way each of us experiences these two worlds. It takes the infant a great deal of time and exploration to figure out the difference between the inner and outer worlds and sort out what belongs on which side of the boundary. It then takes the child quite a bit more time and experience to realize that both worlds exist on both sides of the boundary—that he or she is an object in the outer world of others as well as the subject of the inner life of his or her own, and that others have their own inner lives. Arriving at this realization is one of the core things that’s meant by the word "maturity," and entire worlds of human experience are closed to those who refuse it.

Everything we do as mature human beings thus falls along a continuum between what philosopher Martin Buber called "I-It" and "I-Thou" relationships—less obscurely, between those interactions in which the individual can simply deal with other things as objects, and those in which he or she must deal with other beings as subjects with their own inner lives and their own capacities for interpretation and choice. Getting stuck in the sort of useless binary that treats the spectrum as a total opposition and labels its ends "evil" and "good" respectively is as useless a move as it is inevitably popular, since the universe of human experience embraces the whole spectrum, and it’s entirely possible to fall into absurdity in either direction—on the one hand, for example, by treating other human beings as objects, and getting blindsided by their responses to that sort of treatment; on the other, by convincing yourself that you can ignore the laws of nature by applying to the cosmos the sort of means that induce changes in the behavior of a human subject. (The cosmos may well be a subject—there’s a long and by no means unsophisticated philosophical tradition of seeing it in such terms—but the chance that it will respond favorably to your wheedling are no better than your chances of responding to the desires of any one of the dust mites living on your skin at this moment.)

A machine, though, can never be a subject. Machines imitate the actions of persons, but they have no subjectivity, no inner world; they’re always and only objects, and so the only relationship you can have with them is an I-It relationship. That wouldn’t be a problem, except for the torrent of cheap abundant energy that transformed the world of human experience over the last three centuries. The breakthroughs that set that torrent in motion were precisely methods of using fossil carbon of various kinds to power machines. Before then, power consisted almost entirely in the ability to express the will of the individual through I-Thou relationships—the human relationship of monarch to subject, general to soldier, lord to vassal, and the like were quite simply what power meant.

With the coming of the industrial age, that equation changed. Power exerted through a machine is defined purely by I-It relationships, and that’s become the modern definition of power. I suspect that, as much as greatly improved technologies of killing, had a great deal to do with the extraordinary scale of mass murder in the 19th and 20th centuries. Tamerlane may have had his soldiers exterminate the whole population of a city now and then, but the methodical annihilation of entire peoples by national governments as an ordinary element of peacetime policy was, if not new, then at least unusual in the scale and the casualness with which it has been applied.

That’s a very specific effect; there are many broader ones. One of those is the democratization, at least in the industrial world, of the experience of domination. A modern American climbing into the driver’s seat of a large SUV has more sheer physical energy under his direct control than your average Southern plantation owner had before the Civil War. Talk of "energy slaves" isn’t simply a metaphor; the one difference between power exerted by dominating machines and power exerted by dominating human slaves is again that the machines don’t have an inner life; they won’t slack off when the overseer isn’t looking, head north on the Underground Railroad, or join Nat Turner’s rebellion and cut your throat some fine Virginia night.

So the role played by machines in the modern industrial world, in large part, is as the primary focus for the very common human craving for power. The fact that the appearance of power is purchased at the cost of total dependence simply makes the irony that much richer; people nowadays cling to their autos and their televisions all the harder because they know perfectly well that the sensation of power as the engine roars is an illusion, and that a community that goes away when you change the channel doesn’t actually meet their needs for participation. Take a hard look at any other technology that has a central role in contemporary culture, and you’ll find the same nexus between an illusion of power, a reality of dependence—and a large and increasing cost. How that nexus might be unraveled in the twilight of the industrial age will be the subject of next week’s post.

End of the World of the Week #6

The mere fact that a belief system’s proponents claim that it’s a perfectly rational scientific theory doesn’t prevent that belief system from being yet another example of our old friend, the apocalypse meme. There are plenty of examples that show this in action, but the most colorful of the last century and a half has to be Marxism.

Back before it imploded under the strains of its own internal contradictions, Marxism was among the ideologies that most loudly proclaimed the superiority of science and reason to superstition. Behind the rhetoric, though, the historical structure of Marxist theory is point for point identical to that of evangelical Protestant Christianity There’s a real point, in fact, in suggesting that Marxism was simply the furthest extension of one end of the spectrum of Christian heresy.

Follow out the historical trajectory and the parallels are easy enough to track. Primitive communism is the Garden of Eden; the invention of private property is the Fall; the period between the rise of property and the coming proletarian revolution, divided into various stages, is the period between the Fall and the Second Coming, divided into various dispensations; the peasant revolutionary movements of the feudal and early capitalist periods play the role of the Israelites; the life of Marx fills the same role as the life of Jesus, with the doings of the First International as the Acts of the Apostles; the horrors of late capitalism followed by proletarian revolution are dead ringers for the horrors of the Tribulation followed by the Second Coming; the era of socialism, finally, is the Millennium, the thousand years before the final descent of the New Jerusalem of communism.

Of course this colorful trajectory has something else in common with such offshoots of evangelical prophecy as the career of Harold Camping; its predictions turned out to be completely wrong. Marx insisted that the great proletarian revolution would break out first in the most advanced industrial nations; instead, Marxist revolutions only succeeded in nations just beginning to industrialize, where Marxism played the same role of convenience that Puritanism played in the English Civil War and Enlightenment rationalism in the French Revolution. Furthermore, and far more significantly, the first Marxist revolution wasn’t followed by the gradual overthrow of capitalism around the world; instead, Marxism reached its high-water point in the 1950s and then receded, as the golden promises of Das Kapital gave way to gray bureaucratic inefficiency and, in time, total systemic failure.

—story from Apocalypse Not