We live in a fabricated reality where the visible world became nearly meaningless once the screen world became people’s “window on the world.” An electronic nothingness replaced reality as people gleefully embraced digital wraparound apparitions. These days people still move about in the physical world but live in the electronic one. The result is mass hallucination.
This is the fundamental seismic shift of our era. There is a lot of bitching and joking about it, but when all is said and done, it is accepted as inevitable. Digital devices are embraced as phantom lovers. Technological “advances” are accepted as human destiny. We now inhabit a technological nightmare (that seems like a paradise to so many) in which technology and technique – the standardized means for realizing a predetermined end most efficiently – dominate the world. In such a world, not only does the end justify the means, but to consider such a moral issue is beside the point. We are speeding ahead to nowhere in the most “efficient” way possible. No questioning allowed! Unless you wish to ask your phone.
These days there is much political talk and commentary about fascism, tyranny, a police state, etc., while the totalitarianism of technocracy and technology continues apace. It is not just the ecological (in the human/natural sense) impact of digital technology where one change generates many others in an endless spiral, but the fact that technical efficiency dominates all aspects of life and, as Jacques Ellul wrote long ago, “transforms everything it touches into a machine,” including humans. For every problem caused by technology, there is always a technological “solution” that creates further technological problems ad infinitum. The goal is always to find the most efficient (power) technique to apply as rapidly as possible to all human problems.
Writing nearly fifty years ago in Medical Nemesis, Ivan Illich, explained how in medical care the human touch was being replaced by this technical mindset. He said,
In all countries, doctors work increasingly with two groups of addicts: those for whom they prescribe drugs, and those who suffer from their consequences. The richer the community, the larger the percentage of patients who belong to both…In such a society, people come to believe that in health care, as in all fields of endeavor, technology can be used to change the human condition according to almost any design.
We are of course living with the ongoing results of such medical technical efficiency. The U.S.A. is a country where the majority of people are drugged in one way or another, legally or illegally, since the human problems of living are considered to have only technological solutions, whether those remedies are effective or anodyne. The “accidents” and risks built into the technological fixes are never considered since the ideological grip of the religion of technology is all-encompassing and infallible. We are caught in its web.
Marshall McLuhan, the media guru of the 1960s – whether he was applauding or bemoaning the fact – was right when he claimed that the medium is the message.
Cell phones, being the current omnipresent form of the electronification of life, are today’s message, a sign that one is always in touch with the void. To be without this small machine is to be rendered an idiot in the ancient Greek sense of the word – a private person. Translation: one who is out of it, detached, at least temporarily, from the screens that separate us from reality, from the incessant noise and pinging messages that destroy reflection and create reflex reactions.
But to be out of it is the only way to understand it. And to understand it is terrifying, for it means one knows that the religion of technology has replaced nature as the source of what for eons has been considered sacred. It means one grasps how reality is now defined by technology. It means realizing that people are merging with the machines they are attached to by invisible manacles as they replace the human body with abstractions and interact with machines. It means recognizing that the internet, despite its positive aspects and usage by dissenters intent on human liberation, is controlled by private corporation and government forces intent on using it as a weapon to control people. It means seeing the truth that most people have never considered the price to be paid for the speed and efficiency of a high-tech world.
But the price is very, very high.
One price, perhaps the most important, is the fragmentation of consciousness, which prevents people from grasping the present from within – which, as Frederic Jameson has noted, is so crucial and yet one of the mind’s most problematic tasks – because so many suffer from digital dementia as their attention hops from input to output in a never-ending flow of mediated, disembodied data. As a result, a vicious circle has been created that prevents people from the crucial epistemological task of grasping the double-bind that is the ultimate propaganda. Data is Dada by another name, and we are in Dada land, pissing, not into Marcel Duchamp’s ridiculous work of Dada “art,” a urinal, but into the wind. And data piled on data equals a heap of data without knowledge or understanding. There is no time or space for grasping context or to connect the dots. It is a pointillist painting in the form of inert facts that few can understand or even realize that they don’t.
I am typing these words on a Hermes 3000 manual typewriter, a beautiful piece of technology whose sound and movement creates a rhythmic sanctuary where my hands, head, and heart work in unison. It allows me to think slowly, to make mistakes that will necessitate retyping, to do second and third rereadings and revisions, to roll the paper out of the machine and sit quietly as I review it. My eyes rest on the paper, not a blue-lit screen.
Technology as such is not the problem, for my typewriter is a very useful and endurable machine, a useful technology that has enhanced life. It does not break or need to be replaced every few years, as computers do. It does not contain coltan, tantalum, or other minerals mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and other places by poor people working under oppressive conditions created by international consumer greed that is devouring the world. It does not allow anyone to spy on me as I type. I am alone and unplugged, disconnected, off-line and out of line, a sine qua non for thinking, and thinking about deep matters. The typewriter is mine, and mine alone, unlike the connected digital devices that have destroyed aloneness, for to be alone is to contemplate one’s fate and that of all humanity. It is to confront essential things and not feel the loneliness induced and exacerbated by the illusion of always being in touch.
But while this typing machine allows me to write in peace, I am in no way suggesting that I have escaped the technological condition that we all find ourselves in. There are little ways to step outside the closing circle, but even then, one is still in it. I will eventually have to take my paper and type it into a computer document if I wish to publish it in the form you will be reading it. There is no other way. The technocrats have decreed it so. We are all, as George Orwell once wrote in a different context and meaning, “inside the whale,” the whale in this case being a high-tech digital world controlled by technocrats, and we have only small ways to shield ourselves from it. Sitting in a quiet room, working on a typewriter, taking a walk in the woods without a cell phone, or not owning a cell phone, are but small individual acts that have no effect on the structural realty of what Neil Postman calls technopoly in his masterful book, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. And even in the woods one may look up to admire a tree only to find that it is a cell phone tower.
Humans have always created and used technology, but for a very long time that technology was subject to cultural and religious rules that circumscribed limits to its use. Today there are no limits, no rules to constrain it. The prohibition to prohibit is our motto. In our acceptance of technical efficiency, we have handed over our freedom and lost control of the means to ends we can’t fathom but unconsciously fear. Where are we heading? many probably wonder, as they check the latest news ping, no doubt about something to fear, as a thousand pieces of “news” flash through their devices without pause, like wisps of fleeting dreams one vaguely remembers but cannot pin down or understand. Incoherence is the result. Speed is king.
Of course, this kaleidoscopic flood of data confuses people who desire some coherence and explanation. This is provided by what Jacques Ellul, in Presence in the Modern World, calls “the explanatory myth.” He writes,
This brings us to the other pole of our bizarre intellectual situation today: the explanatory myth. In addition to its political and its mystical and spiritual function, the explanatory myth is the veritable spinal column of our whole intellectual system…Given that appearances produce confusion and coherence is needed, a new appearance unifies them all in the viewer’s mind and enables everything to be explained. This appearance has a spiritual root and is accepted only by completely blind credulity. It becomes the intellectual key for opening all secrets, interpreting every fact, and recognizing oneself in the whirl of phenomena…this myth [is] their one stable point of thought and consciousness…enables everyone to avoid the trouble of thinking for themselves, the worry of doubt, the questioning, the uncertainty of understanding, and the torture of a bad conscience. What prodigious savings of time and means, which can be put usefully to work manufacturing some more missiles…[they] have a good conscience because they have an answer for everything; and whatever happens and whatever they do, they can rely on the explanation that myth provides. This process places them within the most complete unreality possible. They live in a permanent dream, but a realistic dream, constructed from the countless facts and theories that they believe in with all the power of ‘mass persons’ who cannot detach themselves from the mass without dying.
Today that myth is the religion of technology.
So if you have any questions you want answered, you can ask your phone.
Ask your phone why we are living with endless wars on the edge of using our most astounding technological invention: nuclear weapons.
Ask your computer why “nice” Americans will sit behind computer screens and send missiles to kill people half-way around the world whom they are told they are at war with.
Ask your smart device why so many have become little Eichmanns, carrying out their dutiful little tasks at Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and all the other war manufacturers, or not caring what stocks they own.
Ask your phone what really happened to the Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 in Iran. See if your phone will say anything about cyber warfare, electronic jamming, or why the plane’s transponder was turned off preventing a signal to be sent indicating it was a civilian aircraft.
Ask who is behind the push to deploy 5 G wireless technology.
Ask that smart phone who is providing the non-answers.
Ask and it won’t be given to you; seek and you will not find. The true answers to your questions will remain hidden. This is the technological society, set up and controlled by the rulers. It is a scam.
God may respond.
15 thoughts on “Hovering in Cyberspace”
“I read and keep silent. I am one of the silent watchers. I know that every sentence, every word, every picayune punctuation that appears in the public press is perused and revised and deleted in the interests of advertisers and bondholders. The fountain of national life is poisoned at the source.”
― John Dos Passos, Manhattan Transfer: A Novel pub 1925
Abuse of words has been the great instrument of sophistry and chicanery, of party, faction, and division of society.
I was interested to find your Doll House writing at the Global website, a nice coherent piece.
But what to do about it, if there were something we could. I lived just about this whole era of national security. It seems we are still beset with the base rottenness of mankind while wanting to celebrate our better hopes it’s not so.
For those of us who see this, it is not pleasant. But it is also not new, other than we get to confront it as much as we wish. To the extent we know we can turn it off at any time, there is some respite. To the extent we can encounter the world without people, there is some chance for perspective.
Doubt should be considered one of our senses, since in so many ways it is a fundamental aspect of the limitation of each. If it were, we might not care so much about which we do not or can not know, and feel such a loss for that we never had.
Thanks, Larry. Yes, the same rottenness. I don’t think people change, but our circumstances have, and together with the technology the doll’s house has become more powerful. Most people can’t turn it off, I’m afraid, since they are “addicted” (need a better word) to their phones, etc. I just try to write about it all as truthfully as I can and hope people learn something. That, and live as much as I can in this beautiful world away from the technology, a difficult task when you are writer. Pax, Ed Adams surely knew where we were headed. See: https://off-guardian.org/2018/08/30/the-cell-phone-and-the-virgin-2018-a-montreal-odyssey/
Good evening…the ending statement of this commentary states “God may respond”…?
In our local newspaper today, there is a headline; ‘Kansas considers requiring ‘In God we Trust’ in classroom.’
My fear level has increased!
Excellent, thank you. I am especially pleased by your comments on the Hermes 3000.
This insane digital way of life will only end with a major highly destructive shock. What is needed (and will happen) is another Carrington Event, a giant coronal mass ejection to engulf the earth – this time people would go crazy when all their electronic gadgets are rendered useless. When it first was recorded in 1859, the ionosphere was so charged that the aurora borealis seen as far south as Cuba, and telegraphic operators received electromagnetically induced shocks. But at that time there were few electronic devices, so little real damage.
Just think what would happen today. There would be massive damage to the electrical grid and a breakdown in electronic communication, banking, navigation systems, etc.. People would go berserk without their cell phones, and all their Twitter and Facebook messages would be reduced to static.
This is a known “Black Swan” event waiting to happen again, as it happened in historical memory (1859), and there have been near misses, one of similar magnitude noted in 2012. Of course, communications satellites are shielding from solar radiation, but all the electronic communication in transit would be scrambled.
Daniel, I sure agree. Yes, a “black swan” event. The arrogance of those in power is so great and so stupid. Thanks. Pax, Ed
Good article, Ed. I’m researching about origins of paper for a book am writing about the origins of The Book (and other topics) and e.g. circa 1500s as printing-press kicked into gear, it reads like earlier phase of Internet/social-media, “Paper offers the promise of enormous audiences, but this inevitably encourages sensationalism, iconoclasm, and even crudeness….It also offers the promise of celebrity as a marker of value, as well as encouraging at least some degree of individualism…”(The Paper Trail by Alexander Monro). So, the info-outlet technology changes but does the consciousness? Or as you highlight, “For every problem caused by technology, there is always a technological “solution” that creates further technological problems ad infinitum.”
I just started reading for the first time “Dialectic of Enlightenment” from 1944, by Horkheimer and Adorno. As I slog through the dense translation and writing I continue to be amazed at the penetrating critique of modern technological thought and society that seems as pertinent today as the day it was written.
The authors note that the post Enlightenment focus on rationality, logic, scientific method and a belief only in what is “measurable” has destroyed all the old myth systems. However, that in this effort of destruction of the old myths in the name of “Enlightenment” what has resulted is in essence simply a new myth system – one that mythically believes the world can be scientifically “understood” by being taken apart, each living entity “disenchanted” and thus turned into a “thing,” to be measured, catalogued, tested and tortured, and that all this leads somehow to some holy form of “objective knowledge” stripped of sentiment and myth. This is exactly the madness I have spent a lifetime in resistance to, alienated from, incredulous in the face of.
Thanks for another great post Ed. I loved the Ellul quote.
Yes, Gary, those guys nailed it long ago. Brilliant analyses. Let’s keep up our resistance, for we are right. Thanks,as usual
I sense and share the despair Ed, and I think that at our age it is not ourselves that we fear for or hope to save. Becoming an “Idiot” in the eyes of our descendants doesn’t help.
On the somewhat brighter side, I have long since compared our society to battery chickens. Are they better off or worse off than wild birds? What is their, or our, destiny? And is that destiny satisfactorily fulfilled?
It is very hard, and possibly pointless, to convince a caged chook that it would be happier struggling for food and threatened by foxes etc.
Thanks, Tom. Battery chickens is perfect. The problem runs far deeper than cell phones and computers. It’s a deep-seated philosophy of destruction. Don’t despair; I don’t, even if it sounds that way. There are many of us fighting this fight, though it may not be apparent. Pax.
Caged animals don’t want to be caged. Chickens will go feral if given half the chance. And pigs and cows, etc. Don’t believe the bs about they’re “better off” being commodities, it’s sold to you by big ag. Lots of cognitive ethologists (if you want expert opinions rather than my own, because I’m kind of an “idiot”, have weighed in on the rich inner and outer lives of wild and domestic animals (see Johnathan Balcombe, Francis De Waal, etc.) I’ve worked with wildlife rehabbers as well as domestic and feral animals (chickens included) and can tell you something–they don’t care as much about food & shelter as you think. Autonomy is higher on the list for most. Unless they’re so hurt they can’t move.
As to us, as John Berger said, the cave painting humans lived in their “uncivilized” society for 30,000 plus years. We were prey and predators both. Uncontacted tribes don’t want to be contacted, period. They don’t want factory jobs and a few beers every freaking saturday. Domestication sucks, for human and non.
I hope Ed will permit me to tell a short story-
My wife had 10 hens and 6 roosters in a pen. The roosters were fighting cruelly, the “losers”unable to escape the pen, so she asked me to throw 5 of them outside. Next morning 2 of them had broken back INTO the pen from which none had been able to escape. In despair, my wife asked me to open the pen completely. All roosters immediately returned to the pen, and not one fowl left it (ever) until she stopped feeding them.
Living in America is the Orient Express — we are on that train ride, and Hercule Poirot is also on this train wreck.
Without Hercule Poirot there is no perspective, to see the horizon and beyond — which is lacking, perspective, even knowing there may be a horizon to observe, in America The Beautiful as it were.
Or perhaps a warped and broken conception of “horizon” at best.
Imagine any nation — especially this one –- replace function of humility, a means to develop using trial and error, with: we already know it all and are god’s gift to whatever, also called American Exceptionalism.
Must any thinking person be a hermit, monastic, live a cloistered life not out of choice but of necessity? otherwise, he or she . . . float away into the whirl pool of American meanginglessness and nothingness, and join those expressing “faith based pre enlightenment ‘thought’”?
“They pull me down like gravity
And I see them on every street corner
They are holding up one righteous hand
while the other leads the marching band. . . .” Shawn Colvin sings
Instead of drowning and being pulled under, must we sit on a rock somewhere in a vast ocean that is not underwater, yet the tide come in daily and we’re under water too and it recedes, thus allowing some small measure of time to reflect and examine — “to understand the logic of this majestic and terrible failure of the life of man in the Western world”?
When KAP wrote that in 1940, there were islands not submerged in these parts, and the waves and tide did not drown them daily, and there was a community of others she could cavort and associate with on the other tiny islands — however remote and barren that already must have seemed, at that time.
80 years later this majesty of American “exceptionalism” — all that is left is a few jagged rocks that aren’t under water all the time.
“In the face of such shape and weight of present misfortune, the voice of the individual artist may seem perhaps of no more consequence than the whirring of a cricket in the grass; but the arts do live continuously, and they live literally by faith; their names and their shapes and their uses and their basic meanings survive unchanged in all that matters through times of interruption, diminishment, neglect; they outlive governments and creeds and the societies, even the very civilizations that produced them.
“They cannot be destroyed altogether because they represent the substance of faith and the only reality. They are what we find again when the ruins are cleared away. And even the smallest and most incomplete offering at this time can be a proud act in defense of that faith.”
KATHERINE ANNE PORTER
June 21, 1940
Thanks, Jim. Katherine Porter said we were on a ship of fools, didn’t she. WE sure are. But you are not fooled, and there are others too.
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