Technology and Its Discontents

A little reinterpretation of Nietzsche for the long weekend:

"The means employed by the ascetic priest that we have discovered up to now--the general muting of the feeling of life, mechanical activity, the petty pleasure, above all "love of one' neighbor," herd organization, the awakening of the communal feeling of power through which the individual's discontent with himself is drowned in his pleasure in the prosperity of the community--these are, by modern standards, his innocent means in the struggle with displeasure; let us now turn to the more interesting means, the "guilty" ones. They all involve one thing: some kind of orgy of feeling--employed as the most effective means of deadening dull, paralyzing, protracted pain; hence priestly inventiveness in thinking through this single question--"how can one produce an orgy of feeling?"--has been virtually inexhaustible."

"Fundamentally, every great affect has this power, provided it explodes suddenly: anger, fear, voluptuousness, revenge, hope, triumph, despair, cruelty; and the ascetic priest has indeed pressed into his service indiscriminately the whole pack of savage hounds in man and let loose now this one and now that, always with the same end in view: to awaken in men from their slow melancholy, to hunt away, if only for a time, their dull pain and lingering misery, and always under cover of a religious interpretation and "justification". Every such orgy of feel has to be paid for afterward, that goes without saying--it must make the sick sicker; and that is why this kind of cure for pain is, by modern standards, "guilty." Yet, to be fair, one must insist all the more that it was employed with a good conscience, that the ascetic priest prescribed it in the profoundest faith in its utility, indeed indispensability--and even that he was often almost shattered by the misery he had caused..."

"The ascetic ideal has a goal--this goal is so universal that all the other interests of human existence seem, when compared with it, petty and narrow; it interprets epochs, nations, and men inexorably with a view to this one goal; it permits no other interpretation, no other goal; it rejects, denies, affirms, and sanctions solely from the point of view of its interpretation (and has their ever been a system of interpretation more thoroughly thought through?) [...] Where is the match of this closed system of will, goal and interpretation? Why has it not found its match?--Where is the other "one goal"?
But they tell me it is not lacking, it has not merely waged a long and successful fight against this ideal, it has already conquered this ideal in all important respects: all of modern is supposed to bear witness to that--modern science which, as a genuine philosophy of reality, clearly believes in itself alone, clearly possesses the courage for itself and the will to itself, and has up to now serviced well enough without God, the beyond, and the virtues of denial. Such noisy agitators' chatter, however, does not impress me: these trumpeters of reality are bad musicians, their voices obviously do not come from the depths, the abyss of the scientific conscience does not speak through them--for today the scientific conscience is an abyss--the word "science" in the mouths of such trumpeters is simply an indecency, an abuse, and a piece of impudence. The truth is precisely the opposite of what is asserted here: science today has absolutely no belief in itself, let alone an ideal above it--and where it still inspries passion, love, ardor, and suffering at all, it is not the opposite of the ascetic ideal but rather the latest and noblest form of it. Does that sound strange to you?
Today there are plenty of modest and worthy laborers among scholars, too, who are happy in their little nooks; and because they are happy there, they sometimes demand rather immodestly that one ought to be content with things today, generally--especially in the domain of science, where so much that is useful femains to be done. I am not denying that; the last thing I want is to destroy the pleasure these honest workers take in their craft: for I approve of their work. But that one works rigorously in the sciences and that there are contented workers certainly does not prove that science as a whole possesses a goal, a will, an ideal, or the passion of a great faith. The opposite is the case, to repeat: where it is not the latest expression of the ascetic ideal--and the exceptions are too rare, noble, and atypical to refute the general proposition--science today is a hiding place for every kind of discontent, disbelief, gnawing worm, despectio sui. bad conscience--it is the unrest of the lack of ideals, the suffering from the lack of any great love, the discontent in the face of involuntary contentment.
Oh, what does science not conceal today! How much, at any rate, is it meant to conceal! The proficiency of our finest scholars, their headless industry, their heads smoking day and night, their very craftsmanship--how often the real meaning of all this lies in the desire to keep something hidden from oneself! Science as a means of self-narcosis: do you have experience of that?

--On the Genealogy of Morals, third essay
Like Nietzsche or hate him, the great thing about him is that his words are written in such a polemic style as to be timeless. I'm no Jungian, but there definitely seem to be repeating aspects of culture, especially with such concepts left over from previous centuries we haven't fully dealt with.

So when the man rants against the "ascetic ideal", a morality of guilt and debt encompassing the span of human emotions and violences in society, I of course read him as speaking about Christianity (still a problem), but also of Capitalism, Christianity's second coming. If "orgy of feeling" doesn't find its expression in our culture of rampant consumerism, then I must be looking at a different mall that you. And as for its expression as an overarching ideal, wiping other interpretations clean off the map, one need look no further than its continual reign in the shadow of its recent overarching failure of exuberance. I can accept the facts of history, but clearly the "free market" is a hopeless excuse for a lack of thinking.

But the "scholars of science" really spoke to me in the last section I quoted. Not in terms of scientists, who were the erstwhile champions of reason in half-hearted handholding with Christian morals during the 19th century. These folks have, amazingly, really come around. I think it has something to do with the last eight years. The onslaught of abuse by the ruling powers in this country against science and learning as a whole let scientists finally shrug off their "culture war"detractors, not so much refute post-modernism as eagerly conscript it, and turn around to fight against its true enemies, and promote actual, useful learning. We're facing some pretty harsh trials on the natural science front, and for a good eight years, the scholars had to learn to stand up for themselves. The scientist is no longer the patsy of the science-industrial complex, and now the hero of mankind against the ignorant tyrants. I think they've done admirably, all things considered. They held their ground, and now seem to be preparing to be humanity's only hope. Whether they succeed is another question--but I do believe they are finding a good motivation within themselves. As the idiot anti-choicers and the creationists dash their own brains out upon the infinite progress of history, science steps over their fallen corpses with grace.

But there is a set rising to take the place of science--to triumph the ascetic ideals within their own head music, tooting their own horns in obliviousness to the motions of traffic around them.

Who are these noisy, agitating chatterers? The newest and noblest form of the ascetic ideal? The technologists.

I give the same caveat as the philosopher: far be it from me to disparage the happy craftsperson, hard at work. I do approve of their products--in certain ways. But yet, while science has perhaps found its true calling, to keep us from asphixiating ourselves off the planet, the technologists are tinkering, talking, and more often than not thinking very highly of themselves.

We see some benefits, and to argue against the existence of positive technology is just to be ignorant. It is lovely that our gardens are starting to tend themselves, that we can twitter composting recipes across the planet, and that our human-powered transportation processes waste oil into biofuel while we ride. But what is the goal here? The majority of the Instructables, the Maker projects, and other DIY, open-source, crowd-sourced, personal-tech, haker-savvy projects are somehow linkable to greeness, sustainability, and some flavor of democracy. But to what goal? They are mostly parlor tricks, or bragging rights, or homages to the very technologies they claim to be advancing a "cause" against.

I'm already feeling guilty for opening a line of complaint against these folks, who are doing their best to refute capitalism with the tools they have. Surely there can't be anything wrong with simple creativity. It's a technological arm of artistic expression, right? If not purely harmless, it has to be a good thing.

And it is. Like I said, I could never tell a worker that s/he is wrong for working on what s/he chooses. And yet, the ascetic ideal rears its ugly head.

Again, I slap myself as I open my mouth, but a create example of the ascetic ideal is the TED conferences. Here is a yearly gathering of very smart people, getting together to share ideas and promote feelings of generally making the world a better place. I am currently listening to all of the TED talks, via their audio podcast, and I love them. I've learned about some great stuff, and some of it is really inspiring.

But you know what is also a feed for learning about new, inspiring work? Gizmodo. Can you believe they made a TV that big, that light, that crystal clear? How about the new handheld device that will change the world? Did you hear about the new wireless service that will revolutionize how you get information?

Technology is interesting, it's ex'citing, and its moving very rapidly, spurred on by some really creative and talented people. And, it is, first and foremost, a business. Technology is capitalism. This is an unavoidable fact.

Let's just skip the arguments about consumer culture, and greenwashing, and carbon footprints. We know how technology affects these. Let's talk about the culture and its proponents, the technologists.

Every person who takes the stage at TED is there to promote something. What they are promoting maybe be as overtly capitalist as a Hollywood movie, or a VC startup. Or, it could be as benign as an art exhibit about climate change, or as positively helpful as a new mapping software to help aid organizations. But yet it is a something, a particular technological object promoted for its abilities, and a fetish as a datapoint of personal ingenuity. "Hi, I'm ___, and I'm here to tell you about my amazing invention." Or take the Maker culture. "Hi, I'm ____, and I'm here to show you how I warped this technology into something new." This is how new technologies come about, but it also how the ascetic ideal is renewed, and perpetuated.

The words I am looking at are "new", "invention", "hack", "creative solution", and "technology". All of these things are objects, no different in their literal objectivity from a piece of rock, or a rotting plant. Except, these things are meant to grab our attention, because of their specific, amazing quality of being on the cutting edge. "Hey! This is different! Look over here! Be an early adopter of this! Tweet this url to your friends! Buy one today! Make your own! Add your comments!" Technologists' tools may be the soldering bench, the drawing board, and the creative faculties of the mind, but their real domain is the orgy of feelings. They seek to excite you, draw you in, distract you, and in the end, sell you something (even if it is for free).

Technology is changing our world for the better. But you don't need a single bit of it. The only technology you need are molecules. Oxygen. Water. Proteins. Maybe some sunlight. This is not the domain of the technologist--this is the domain of the scientist. Twitter might revolutionize mass protest, but you know who is still computing your dietary needs? No, not an iPhone app. A scientist, working somewhere, not holding press conferences, and not networking for VC at a light and sound show in California.

Who traffics in "anger, fear, voluptuousness, revenge, hope, triumph, despair, cruelty"? Psychologists might study these things. But technologists market them. (I like to think that although writers traffic in these as well, they could do so with the psychoanalytic skill of a scientist... but perhaps this is too much wishful thinking). A handheld device triumphs you over your world, and others. An open-source hack is your revenge on the proprietary marketers. Your biodiesel car is your bandaid against the fear of climate change, and your live-tweet of the election is your libidinal investment in hope. The real material which technology interfaces with is not the world in which we live, but our emotions. Technology is not a mere tool or a thing, but it is a fetish, an idol, a signifier standing in for thousands of emotions we are channeling, thanks to the efforts of technology's proponents. A portable phone is now a tool, but a smart phone is TECHNOLOGY! Wikipedia is now simply a reference, but CitizenTube is a Democratizing Technology! A light bulb goes on and off, but a power-saving LED bulb built from repurposed film canisters is a Technological, Open-Source Hack!

Don't get me started on black hoodies with circuit boards sewn to them.

Look--technology is good. Experimentation is good. Open-source is great (when compared to proprietary copyrights, anyway). As the man said, these technological priests act with good conscience, and don't intend the harm in which they take part. The greatest lesson that Nietzsche teaches, which is the true timeless lesson, is that our biggest enemies are those closest to us, and those that lie within ourselves. It would be easy enough to rail against Christians, or Capitalists, or some other easily indentifiable enemy. But Nietzsche is not asking us to fight the Christians. He's showing us how to win our ongoing fight against that tyrannical priest within ourselves.

But the fact remains--we live in a world which is locked within an ascetic ideal. We live in a world which privileges pain, individual achievement, and glosses over the facts of reality with a debasing appeal to our lower instincts. We are distracted from our power to think clearly, and to look at the human species as a magnificent engine, by the ideals telling us our individual dramas are a sign of our own worth. We are encouraging ourselves to take our material things as the objects of our desire, to channel all of our efforts into mere products, and to attain the highest state of fetishistic engagement with these things, which is promoted not as the religion that it is, but as real love, and real desire.

When a social network develops that encourages its members to throw down their gadgets in the same wild abandon with which they will throw off their clothes and make love in the streets, when the Internet actually starts connecting peoples' body parts, rather than selling them porn for behind closed doors, and promoting opportunities for individualized, closeted alcoholic repression, and when we start hacking our bodies so that we can better express our desires, rather than to better sublimate them, then I will believe technology has become free from the fetters of the ascetic ideal, and found its true internal purpose as part of the pursuit of humanity. Until then, it's just a bigger and more HD TV.

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