The Prosthetic Imagination

Two news stories and an op-ed piece in the media in recent days provide a useful introduction to the theme of this week’s post here on The Archdruid Report. The first news story followed the official announcement that the official unemployment rate here in the United States dropped to 5.5% last month. This was immediately hailed by pundits and politicians as proof that the recession we weren’t in is over at last, and the happy days that never went away are finally here again.

This jubilation makes perfect sense so long as you don’t happen to know that the official unemployment rate in the United States doesn’t actually depend on the number of people who are out of work. What it indicates is the percentage of US residents who happen to be receiving unemployment benefits—which, as I think most people know at this point, run out after a certain period. Right now there are a huge number of Americans who exhausted their unemployment benefits a long time ago, can’t find work, and would count as unemployed by any measure except the one used by the US government these days.  As far as officialdom is concerned, they are nonpersons in very nearly an Orwellian sense, their existence erased to preserve a politically expedient fiction of prosperity.

How many of these economic nonpersons are there in the United States today? That figure’s not easy to find amid the billowing statistical smokescreens. Still, it’s worth noting that 92,898,000 Americans of working age are not currently in the work force—that is, more than 37 per cent of the working age population. If you spend time around people who don’t belong to this nation’s privileged classes, you already know that a lot of those people would gladly take jobs if there were jobs to be had, but again, that’s not something that makes it through the murk.

We could spend quite a bit of time talking about the galaxy of ways in which economic statistics are finessed and/or fabricated these days, but the points already raised are enough for the present purpose. Let’s move on. The op-ed piece comes from erstwhile environmentalist Stewart Brand, whose long journey from editing CoEvolution Quarterly to channeling Bjorn Lomborg is as perfect a microcosm of the moral collapse of 20th century American environmentalism as you could hope to find. Brand’s latest piece claims that despite all evidence to the contrary—and of course there’s quite a bit of that these days—the environment is doing just fine: the economy has decoupled from resource use in recent decades, at least here in America, and so we can continue to wallow in high-tech consumer goodies without worrying about what we’re doing to the planet.

There’s a savage irony in the fact that in 1975, when his magazine was the go-to place to read about the latest ideas in systems theory and environmental science, Brand could have pointed out the gaping flaw in that argument in a Sausalito minute. Increasing prosperity in the United States has “decoupled” from resource use for two reasons: first, only a narrowing circle of privileged Americans get to see any of the paper prosperity we’re discussing—the standard of living for most people in this country has been contracting steadily for four decades—and second, the majority of consumer goods used in the United States are produced overseas, and so the resource use and environmental devastation involved in manufacturing the goodies we consume so freely takes place somewhere else.

That is to say, what Brand likes to call decoupling is our old friend, the mass production of ecological externalities. Brand can boast about prosperity without environmental cost because the great majority of the costs are being carried by somebody else, somewhere else, and so don’t find their way into his calculations.  The poor American neighborhoods where people struggle to get by without jobs are as absent from his vision of the world as they are from the official statistics; the smokestacks, outflow pipes, toxic-waste dumps, sweatshopped factories, and open-pit mines worked by slave labor that prop up his high-tech lifestyle are overseas, so they don’t show up on US statistics either. As far as Brand is concerned, that means they don’t count.

We could talk more about the process by which a man who first became famous for pressuring NASA into releasing a photo of the whole earth is now insisting that the only view that matters is the one from his living room window, but let’s go on. The other news item is the simplest and, in a bleak sort of way, the funniest of the lot.  According to recent reports, state government officials in Florida are being forbidden from using the phrase “climate change” when discussing the effects of, whisper it, climate change.

This is all the more mordantly funny because Florida is on the front lines of climate change right now.  Even the very modest increases in sea level we’ve seen so far, driven by thermal expansion and the first rounds of Greenland and Antarctic meltwater, are sending seawater rushing out of the storm sewers into the streets of low-lying parts of coastal Florida towns whenever the tide is high and an onshore wind blows hard enough. As climate change accelerates—and despite denialist handwaving, it does seem to be doing that just now—a lot of expensive waterfront property in Florida is going to end up underwater in more than a financial sense.  The state government’s response to this clear and present danger? Prevent state officials from talking about it.

We could look at a range of other examples of this same kind, but these three will do for now. What I want to discuss now is what’s going on here, and what it implies.

Let’s begin with the obvious. In all three of the cases I’ve cited, an uncomfortable reality is being dismissed by manipulating abstractions. An abstraction called “the unemployment rate” has been defined so that the politicians and bureaucrats who cite it don’t have to deal with just how many Americans these days can’t get paid employment; an abstraction called “decoupling” and a range of equally abstract (and cherrypicked) measures of environmental health are being deployed so that Brand and his readers don’t have to confront the soaring ecological costs of computer technology in particular and industrial society in general; an abstraction called “climate change,” finally, is being banned from use by state officials because it does too good a job of connecting certain dots that, for political reasons, Florida politicians don’t want people to connect.

To a very real extent, this sort of thing is pervasive in human interaction, and has been since the hoots and grunts of hominin vocalization first linked up with a few crude generalizations in the dazzled mind of an eccentric australopithecine. Human beings everywhere use abstract categories and the words that denote them as handles by which to grab hold of unruly bundles of experience. We do it far more often, and far more automatically, than most of us ever notice.  It’s only under special circumstances—waking up at night in an unfamiliar room, for example, and finding that the vague somethings around us take a noticeable amount of time to coalesce into ordinary furniture—that the mind’s role in assembling the fragmentary data of sensation into the objects of our experience comes to light.

When you look at a tree, for example, it’s common sense to think that the tree is sitting out there, and your eyes and mind are just passively receiving a picture of it—but then it’s common sense to think that the sun revolves around the earth. In fact, as philosophers and researchers into the psychophysics of sensation both showed a long time ago, what happens is that you get a flurry of fragmentary sense data—green, brown, line, shape, high contrast, low contrast—and your mind constructs a tree out of it, using its own tree-concept (as well as a flurry of related concepts such as “leaf,” “branch,” “bark,” and so on) as a template. You do that with everything you see, and the reason you don’t notice it is that it was the very first thing you learned how to do, as a newborn infant, and you’ve practiced it so often you don’t have to think about it any more.

You do the same thing with every representation of a sensory object. Let’s take visual art for an example.  Back in the 1880s, when the Impressionists first started displaying their paintings, it took many people a real effort to learn how to look at them, and a great many never managed the trick at all. Among those who did, though, it was quite common to hear comments about how this or that painting had taught them to see a landscape, or what have you, in a completely different way. That wasn’t just hyperbole:  the Impressionists had learned how to look at things in a way that brought out features of their subjects that other people in late 19th century Europe and America had never gotten around to noticing, and highlighted those things in their paintings so forcefully that the viewer had to notice them.

The relation between words and the things they denote is thus much more complex, and much more subjective, than most people ever quite get around to realizing. That’s challenging enough when we’re talking about objects of immediate experience, where the concept in the observer’s mind has the job of fitting fragmentary sense data into a pattern that can be verified by other forms of sense data—in the example of the tree, by walking up to it and confirming by touch that the trunk is in fact where the sense of sight said it was. It gets far more difficult when the raw material that’s being assembled by the mind consists of concepts rather than sensory data: when, let’s say, you move away from your neighbor Joe, who can’t find a job and is about to lose his house, start thinking about all the people in town who are in a similar predicament, and end up dealing with abstract concepts such as unemployment, poverty, the distribution of wealth, and so on.

Difficult or not, we all do this, all the time. There’s a common notion that dealing in abstractions is the hallmark of the intellectual, but that puts things almost exactly backwards; it’s the ordinary unreflective person who thinks in abstractions most of the time, while the thinker’s task is to work back from the abstract category to the raw sensory data on which it’s based. That’s what the Impressionists did:  staring at a snowbank as Monet did, until he could see the rainbow play of colors behind the surface impression of featureless white, and then painting the colors into the representation of the snowbank so that the viewer was shaken out of the trance of abstraction (“snow” = “white”) and saw the colors too—first in the painting, and then when looking at actual snow.

Human thinking, and human culture, thus dance constantly between the concrete and the abstract, or to use a slightly different terminology, between immediate experience and a galaxy of forms that reflect experience back in mediated form. It’s a delicate balance: too far into the immediate and experience disintegrates into fragmentary sensation; too far from the immediate and experience vanishes into an echo chamber of abstractions mediating one another. The most successful and enduring creations of human culture have tended to be those that maintain the balance. Representational painting is one of those; another is literature. Read the following passage closely:

“Eastward the Barrow-downs rose, ridge behind ridge into the morning, and vanished out of eyesight into a guess: it was no more than a guess of blue and a remote white glimmer blending with the hem of the sky, but it spoke to them, out of memory and old tales, of the high and distant mountains.”

By the time you finished reading it, you likely had a very clear sense of what Frodo Baggins and his friends were seeing as they looked off to the east from the hilltop behind Tom Bombadil’s house. So did I, as I copied the sentence, and so do most people who read that passage—but no two people see the same image, because the image each of us sees is compounded out of bits of our own remembered experiences. For me, the image that comes to mind has always drawn heavily on the view eastwards from the suburban Seattle neighborhoods where I grew up, across the rumpled landscape to the stark white-topped rampart of the Cascade Mountains. I know for a fact that that wasn’t the view that Tolkien himself had in mind when he penned that sentence; I suspect he was thinking of the view across the West Midlands toward the Welsh mountains, which I’ve never seen; and I wonder what it must be like for someone to read that passage whose concept of ridges and mountains draws on childhood memories of the Urals, the Andes, or Australia’s Great Dividing Range instead.

That’s one of the ways that literature takes the reader through the mediation of words back around to immediate experience. If I ever do have the chance to stand on a hill in the West Midlands and look off toward the Welsh mountains, Tolkien’s words are going to be there with me, pointing me toward certain aspects of the view I might not otherwise have noticed, just as they did in my childhood. It’s the same trick the Impressionists managed with a different medium: stretching the possibilities of experience by representing (literally re-presenting) the immediate in a mediated form.

Now think about what happens when that same process is hijacked, using modern technology, for the purpose of behavioral control.

That’s what advertising does, and more generally what the mass media do. Think about the fast food company that markets its product under the slogan “I’m loving it,” complete with all those images of people sighing with post-orgasmic bliss as they ingest some artificially flavored and colored gobbet of processed pseudofood. Are they loving it? Of course not; they’re hack actors being paid to go through the motions of loving it, so that the imagery can be drummed into your brain and drown out your own recollection of the experience of not loving it. The goal of the operation is to keep you away from immediate experience, so that a deliberately distorted mediation can be put in its place.

You can do that with literature and painting, by the way. You can do it with any form of mediation, but it’s a great deal more effective with modern visual media, because those latter short-circuit the journey back to immediate experience. You see the person leaning back with the sigh of bliss after he takes a bite of pasty bland bun and tasteless gray mystery-meat patty, and you see it over and over and over again. If you’re like most Americans, and spend four or five hours a day staring blankly at little colored images on a glass screen, a very large fraction of your total experience of the world consists of this sort of thing: distorted imitations of immediate experience, intended to get you to think about the world in ways that immediate experience won’t justify.

The externalization of the human mind and imagination via the modern mass media has no shortage of problematic features, but the one I want totalk about here is the way that it feeds into the behavior discussed at the beginning of this post: the habit, pervasive in modern industrial societies just now, of responding to serious crises by manipulating abstractions to make them invisible. That kind of thing is commonplace in civilizations on their way out history’s exit door, for reasons I’ve discussed in an earlier sequence of posts here, but modern visual media make it an even greater problem in the present instance. These latter function as a prosthetic for the imagination, a device for replacing the normal image-making functions of the human mind with electromechanical equivalents. What’s more, you don’t control the prosthetic imagination; governments and corporations control it, and use it to shape your thoughts and behavior in ways that aren’t necessarily in your best interests.

The impact on the prosthetic imagination on the crisis of our time is almost impossible to overstate. I wonder, for example, how many of my readers have noticed just how pervasive references to science fiction movies and TV shows have become in discussions of the future of technology. My favorite example just now is the replicator, a convenient gimmick from the Star Trek universe: you walk up to it and order something, and the replicator pops it into being out of nothing.

It’s hard to think of a better metaphor for the way that people in the privileged classes of today’s industrial societies like to think of the consumer economy. It’s also hard to think of anything that’s further removed from the realities of the consumer economy. The replicator is the ultimate wet dream of externalization: it has no supply chains, no factories, no smokestacks, no toxic wastes, just whatever product you want any time you happen to want it. That’s exactly the kind of thinking that lies behind Stewart Brand’s fantasy of “decoupling”—and it’s probably no accident that more often than not, when I’ve had conversations with people who think that 3-D printers are the solution to everything, they bring Star Trek replicators into the discussion.

3-D printers are not replicators. Their supply chains and manufacturing costs include the smokestacks, outflow pipes, toxic-waste dumps, sweatshopped factories, and open-pit mines worked by slave labor mentioned earlier, and the social impacts of their widespread adoption would include another wave of mass technological unemployment—remember, it’s only in the highly mediated world of current economic propaganda that people who lose their jobs due to automation automatically get new jobs in some other field; in the immediate world, that’s become increasingly uncommon. As long as people look at 3-D printers through minds full of little pictures of Star Trek replicators, though, those externalized ecological and social costs are going to be invisible to them.

That, in turn, defines the problem with the externalization of the human mind and imagination: no matter how frantically you manipulate abstractions, the immediate world is still what it is, and it can still clobber you. Externalizing a cost doesn’t make it go away; it just guarantees that you won’t see it in time to do anything but suffer the head-on impact.