This is the last of a three-part deep dive on the theoretical issues framing technoskepticism by our resident philosopher and historian David Reynolds. Click the links to check out parts one and two. —ML
One of the great tricks of the technological age is to dress its central compulsive reflex—the perpetual preference for the new—as a supremely rational choice. Any resistance to the immediate for the sake of the lasting is likewise, with little conscious deliberation, daily dismissed as the fading shadow of a fusty resistance to reality. But what if quite the opposite were the case? What if the elements of modern civilization in which we most boast were the very marks of our fanciful folly? Would we ever see it?
Consider the ways of thinking and living that find no place to breathe where the technological life holds sway. What makes one a savage in a technological age? The Savage in the heinous dystopia of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) is marked not only by his natural birth, but also by his quaint insistence on metaphysical meaning, authenticity, family relationships, deep emotions, and cultural significance. There is no room in that epoch of casual copulation, virtual reality entertainment, and ubiquitous drug use for Shakespeare. “But why is it prohibited?” the puzzled Savage asks the Resident World Controller for Western Europe. “Because it’s old,” he replies, “that’s the chief reason. We haven’t any use for old things here.”
Snobbery and Parochialism
There is enough sense yet left in the world for us, at the very least, to recognize the error of a conditioned preference for immediacy and newness. It can help to see this tendency lurking in the clothes of characteristics we more easily disdain. The great writer, scholar, and popular theologian, C.S. Lewis, referred to his former youthful contempt for all that did not arrive on the tides of his own time, as chronological snobbery, which he defined as “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”
Lewis’s repudiation of this manner of thinking is as plain as it is modest. Since we too are part of a particular place and time, he argues, and therefore as vulnerable to our own subjectivity as anyone else, we ought to summon the moral and epistemological humility to refrain from imagining ourselves uniquely omniscient and free from limitations. Furthermore, modernity’s “own characteristic illusions” are “so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.” Insidiously at work, our own faults often evade our conscious filters. “We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the 20th century,” posits Lewis, “lies where we have never suspected it.”
While Lewis smelled snobbery where the old was despised, T.S. Eliot, at around the same time, spoke of “a new kind of provincialism.” Sure that his readers would peer down their urbane noses at provincialism of place, Eliot urged them to similarly recoil from an increasingly popular provincialism of time. “The menace of this kind of provincialism,” he explains, “is that we can all, all the peoples on the globe, be provincials together; and those who are not content to be provincials, can only become hermits.” In the provincialism of time, “the world is the property solely of the living, a property in which the dead hold no shares.”
In Lewis’s epistolary novel, The Screwtape Letters, a senior devil cunningly advises his demonic charge that “it is most important thus to cut every generation off from all others; for where learning makes a free commerce between the ages there is always the danger that the characteristic errors of one may be corrected by the characteristic truths of another.” The image of a society in which both predecessors and the unborn have been unnaturally ushered away from our deliberations and consciousness hints at the necessity of a more radical reckoning with our age’s presentism. This society certainly needs to be weaned from a reflexive rejection of all that is not new. But it would be an insufficient corrective to conclude that we merely needed to more even-handedly adjudicate between the immediate and the long-lasting. There is more danger than this remedy can grasp because the failure to prioritize the long-lasting over the immediate threatens to isolate and trap us within an ever-fragile fragment of human knowledge and wisdom.
The Imperative of a Preference for the Lasting
The preference for what is now and new locks us into an elevation of the ephemeral and temporary over the lasting and the permanent. Thus, we need not a cool disinterest, but a reversal in which we are guided by an informed preference for permanence. Both Lewis and Eliot’s allusions to the banishment of the dead from the counsels of the living link their thoughts to Edmund Burke’s prescient criticisms of the French Revolution, in which he agreed with his interlocutors that society was a contract, before countering that it is “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”
Burke is insisting, in accordance with the pattern of all we see in nature, that the men and women alive at any given moment are but “temporary possessors and life-renters” of their society and culture (and indeed land), who ought not to be “unmindful of what they have received from their ancestors or of what is due to their posterity.” An inheritance is protected more closely than a mere possession. And when faced with both options, that which is capable of longevity is of greater value than what is designed to fade.
“A thoroughly technological society, one whose conception of being, nature, and reason are themselves technological,” explains Michael Hanby of the Catholic University of America, “will establish revolution as a permanent principle.” As Burke observed, “duration is no object to those who think little or nothing has been done before their time, and who place all their hopes in discovery. They conceive, very systematically, that all things which give perpetuity are mischievous, and therefore they are at inexpiable war with all establishments.” And if the spirit of revolution is fundamentally opposed to preservation and perpetuity, how much more will our era of constant technological revolution push against the preference for permanence and replace it, ironically, with a permanently engineered flux.
In such an age, it should not be a surprise that defenders of permanence will be tripped up even by the available vocabulary. The one-eyed accusation of “old-fashioned” must be carefully countered because a sentiment in favor of the fashion of an older moment to the fashion of this moment is, though often defensible, very much beside the point. Fashion itself, when made a central value and virtue, is part of the problem. But more than any other semantic recovery, a defense of the lasting must reclaim tradition from its caricature and change from its bastardization.
The Meaning and Purpose of Tradition
A refusal to bend the knee to every paroxysm of technological fashion is a symptom, or so we are told, of a resistance to change. But the reverence for permanence and perpetuity, in opposition to the worship of now, is not a denial of change, but the most fundamental and practical way of facing it. In critiquing the politics of aloof and theoretical rationalism in the post-war period, the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott commented that a proponent of it “does not recognize change unless it is a self-consciously induced change, and consequently he falls easily into the error of identifying the customary and the traditional with the changeless.” It is indeed a habit of the technological life’s acolytes to understand and present change exclusively as whatever they are currently pushing and promoting, thereby cornering all cultural dissidents into the defense of atrophy. Change is indeed inevitable, but the change that is inevitable is beyond the schemes and capabilities of those who feign to be its champions and conjurers. And it is the careful acknowledgement of change, in all its reality, that grounds a true sense of tradition.
Far from being a retreat from either reality or change (neither of which was invented by our prophets of technology), respect for tradition is a sturdy response to the perfectly obvious fact that change is constant. We first grow and then age, while observing all that is around us doing likewise. What we require of tradition is a means of stability and continuity—conserving that which is suited for longevity and lasting value—amidst and within perennial change, as well as a means of conveying both the ways of preservation and the good that it preserves to those who will live when we are dead. It is the inevitability of change, not the avoidance of it, which makes tradition necessary.
This is increasingly hard to perceive in a technological world crammed with the frippery of glossy impermanence, but not yet impossible. As long as we face our mortality alongside the permanence of what can be received and bequeathed, we can, in the perception of this combination, reclaim tradition for its purpose. In reference to the specific political inheritance of his country, Burke defended “the mode of existence decreed to a permanent body composed of transitory parts,” (italics added) which “in a condition of unchangeable constancy, moves on through the varied tenor of perpetual decay, fall, renovation, and progression.”
Without a sturdy epistemological, as well as legal and moral, bridge reaching to the past and the future, the present is doomed to an ignorant, arrogant, and restless disorientation. This disorientation is not mitigated by an excess of technical sophistication, but deepened by it. Yet in the state of submissiveness before ever recurring revolution to which the technological mind becomes conditioned, the disarray of an unmoored present becomes not an unfortunate side-effect, but a celebrated virtue. The incessant production of a meaningless disequilibrium has become our Western society’s central “achievement” and purpose.
The tradition that must be re-valued in opposition to this technological way of life is neither a rubber stamp for every prior practice nor an alternative ideology. “Tradition is not part of a plan of action,” contemporary English philosopher Roger Scruton explains, “but arises from the enterprise of social cooperation over time. And it arises from the application of moral constraints,” which lead to the “the re-establishment of social equilibrium.” It “condenses into itself the fruits of a long history of human experience,” he continues, “it provides knowledge that can be neither contained in a formula nor confined to a single human head, but which is dispersed across time.” In other words, permanence is not a label that is assigned, but a reality that is proven, by trial, error, application, adaptation, and the consistent provision of moral and social value to communities, families, and individuals. As Roger Kimball, elegantly puts it in his book, The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia, “culture survives and develops under the aegis of permanence.”
Whether you are situated on the so-called political left or right, and wherever you live, you can find examples of what occurs when the insistent now—fortified by modern humanity’s delusional sense of imperious rational omniscience—tramples the accumulated wisdom of tradition in its destructive and impious impatience. Václav Havel, in “Politics and Conscience,” observes a particularly pertinent instance in the fate of Czech agriculture at the hands of the Czechoslovak communist regime’s putative rationalists and modernizers. He firstly takes meaningful note of the family farm’s former Czech name, grunt, which was “taken from the German Grund”—denoting both earth and foundation—and, “in Czech, acquired a peculiar semantic coloring. As the colloquial synonym for ‘foundation,’ it points out the ‘groundedness’ of the ground, its indubitable, traditional and pre-speculatively given authenticity and credibility.”
Havel was not under the impression that the history of the Czech family farm, at the center of Bohemian and Moravian history, was without conflict and trouble. “Still, we cannot deny it one thing: it was rooted in the nature of its place, appropriate, harmonious, personally tested by generations of farmers and certified by the results of their husbandry.” This is as exact a description of tradition’s characteristic virtues as one could muster—rooted in specific place, appropriate, tested by generations, and certified by results. “It also displayed a kind of optimal mutual proportionality in extent and kind of all that belonged to it; fields, meadows, boundaries, woods, cattle, domestic animals, water, roads, and so on.” Without being the subject or the product of formal study, “it constituted a generally satisfactory economic and ecological system, within which everything was bound together by a thousand threads of mutual and meaningful connection, guaranteeing its stability as well as the stability of the product of the farmer’s husbandry.”
This does not mean that the operations of agriculture should not have been permitted to change and incorporate new methods and tools. But, based on the above observations, adaptation and change ought to be “guided by a certain humility and respect for the mysterious order of nature and for the appropriateness which derives from it and which is intrinsic to the natural world of personal experience and responsibility.” Sadly, such humility and respect had no place in the furious “modernization” that took place in the name of efficiency, rationalization, and collectivization (the latter being the process through which Communist regimes expropriated family farms and combined them into large, state-owned collective farms). The fruit of this was not what the experts and professional prognosticators had assured the people it would be.
“Thirty years after the tornado [of modernization and collectivization] swept the traditional family farm off the face of the earth,” Havel recounted, “scientists are amazed to discover what even a semi-literate farmer previously knew—that human beings must pay a heavy price for every attempt to abolish, radically, once for all and without trace, that humbly respected boundary of the natural world, with its tradition of scrupulous personal acknowledgment” (italics added). This is a recurring experience in the modern world; the self-styled rationalist elite “discovering” what had already been known through the accumulated wisdom of customs and traditions but had been banished from practice because those same guardians of the modern world assumed that only their techno-scientific objectivity could discern the truth. “With hedges plowed under and woods cut down, wild birds have died out and, with them, a natural, unpaid protector of the crops against harmful insects,” mourned Havel, enumerating the consequences. “Huge unified fields have led to the inevitable annual loss of millions of cubic yards of topsoil that have taken centuries to accumulate; chemical fertilizers and pesticides have catastrophically poisoned all vegetable products, the earth, and the waters.”
The rapid erosion and neutering of the earth that had been long nourished under tradition’s reverent auspices is not only an apt example, but a fitting metaphor. “Heavy machinery systematically presses down the soil, making it impenetrable to air and thus infertile,” Havel continued, “cows in gigantic dairy farms suffer neuroses and lose their milk while agriculture siphons off ever more energy from industry—manufacture of machines, artificial fertilizers, rising transportation costs in an age of growing local specialization, and so on. In short, the prognoses are terrifying and no one knows what surprises coming years and decades may bring.” And the non-communist world cannot reflect smugly on this litany of wanton despoliation, with its own sad post-war record of agricultural conglomeration burying family farms and local rural cultures beneath industrial agribusiness. The gap between predictions and reality in this and other technological projects of haughty modernization should, furthermore, give us a jolt of well-placed fear as the arena of techno-scientific utopianism moves inexorably from the earth to ourselves. Having poisoned and retarded the earth for the sake of a fleeting and ill-conceived productivity, the technological way of thinking and living has human biology itself in its sights.
There is a necessary urgency, therefore, in any earnest technoskepticism—so much has been lost, and yet so much more remains to lose. And a clear-eyed appraisal of the technological age leads us to the conclusion that the need for an informed preference for permanence has never been greater. The same characteristics of the technological mind and life which enthrone the new also make the products of modernity uniquely unsuited to their dominance over culture and society.
When confronted with critiques of the new, it is customary for apologists to respond that everything was new once and everything new was once treated with skepticism, thereby relativizing all criticism. But does the fact that everything on Earth had a beginning mean that everything is consequently of the same quality and nature? It would be absurd to think so, but this is what the above banality invites us to assume. There is a world of difference between the newness of something that has been built to last with an eye for perpetuity and stability, and the newness of a product that is created as a direct consequence of an enforced impermanence, which takes its place in the latest cycle of perpetual disequilibrium.
The Meaninglessness of Enforced Impermanence
As outlined in part one of this series, the technological way of thinking about nature and reality imposes a quality of functionality and replaceability on everything our age views and consequently touches. We can easily see, as philosophy scholar Andrew Mitchell describes, that “what functionality tends to is instant and complete replacement, without remainder, of whatever ‘breaks.’” But this replaceability is built into the assumptions behind each product’s function and creation, which can then be observed in the product’s substance and operation. We tend to complain about planned obsolescence in computers, for example, as if it is a quirk of particular companies who seek to wring us dry, but it goes far deeper than that. “One piece of standing reserve is replaceable by another,” Heidegger posited. And, therefore, “it is essential for every being [unit] of consumption that it be already consumed and thus call for its becoming replaced.” To put it another way, that which is both ordered and produced for consumption is produced, as a part of its design function, to be replaced – the replacement of the item is not a peripheral consequence of general time and impermanence but a defining purpose behind the item’s conceptualization and existence. Planned obsolescence is a central tenet of a technological society, making what is new at any given moment not merely threatened by impermanence but the result of an enforced impermanence.
How many of the material things which surround you in your home are either as old as or older than you? More pertinently, what would it take for you to ensure that what you bought would not need replacing in your lifetime? Your efforts would eventually need to focus on the ethos and purpose that defined both the idea and the making of the items you incorporated into your home. When something lasts it is because it has been first conceptualized and then built with the implicit assumption that permanence is preferable. Once you have considered this, you can perceive that there is a contrasting and widespread ethos of impermanence behind the foundational idea and resulting reality of the products of our age. Whether the specific consequence is flimsy furniture or a state-of-the-artifice phones which become functionally obsolete, the cause is the same.
In a society that has abandoned tradition and continuity with the past, leaving itself reliant on the discoveries of now and the imperatives of the immediate, it is necessary that everything be new. But in order for all to be new, everything must also be temporary and initiated for impermanence, so that what has just been produced yesterday can easily make way for what has been produced today. Permanence in this context is not merely an anachronism, but a barrier that obstructs the demands of replaceability. With no sense of inheritance, we must constantly knock down the house and rebuild it in order to imbue it with our frail and empty sense of value.
Temporary, therefore, is not a sufficient description of the products of modernity. Not all that is temporary is without lasting value, as the consequential recollection of long concluded lives exemplifies. But when complete replaceability is at the heart of something’s purpose and nature, there is not only a lack of permanence but a lack of value that accompanies the ephemeral. The utter meaninglessness of the fruit of enforced impermanence is surely part of what gives modern society its oppressive aura of vapidity and vacuity. The consumer society is a symptom of this situation, not a cause of it, existing in modern “capitalist” and communist societies alike, but there must be to some extent a feedback loop in which the extension of the technological life, and consumerism’s attendant expansion, make us ever more addicted to what François Hartog (in Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time) calls “this increasingly distended and bloated ‘now.’”
The disappearance of meaning in an age of enforced impermanence is also an implicit, and progressively more explicit, rejection of the inherent value which tradition seeks to locate. “The attack on permanence is an attack on the idea that anything possesses inherent value,” claims Kimball. “Absolute fungibility—the substitution of anything for anything—is the ideal.” Enforced impermanence is, in other words, what Hanby calls “the reduction of being to process.” This is what turns the technological life, as has been discussed in parts one and two, into an ontological threat. Within it, we are encouraged to prize things around us not according to what they are, but on the basis of what we are doing with them and the process they are passing through. With sad inevitably, we turn that same lens on each other and ourselves. We know that such inhumanity has become thoroughly entrenched when it is skewed into a perverse point of pride, as the fleeting felt needs of each individual amount to a greater moral demand than all communal origins, heritage, family, and culture combined. “Respecting your forefathers,” Burke wrote, “you would have been taught to respect yourselves.”
In this light, we can see how the perpetual disequilibrium that the technological life produces—and in which its presentism is most cruelly displayed—has been both ingrained in our way of doing things and celebrated, rather than despised, when recognized. The doyennes of economic liberalism may regard it as creative destruction, and the social liberals may celebrate it as liberation from the past, but neither owns it; and in its path lies the wreckage of what both right and left claim to treasure.
As noted in part two, Hans Jonas observed that “the effect of [technology’s] innovations is disequilibrating rather than equilibrating with respect to the balance of wants and supply, always breeding its own new wants.” Unpacking that thought, Jonas explained that “every new step in whatever direction of whatever technological field tends not to approach an equilibrium or saturation point in the process of fitting means to ends (nor is it meant to), but, on the contrary, to give rise, if successful, to further steps in all kinds of direction and with a fluidity of the ends themselves.” Disequilibrium reproduces itself in a technological society, with its circular, rather than linear, connection between demand and supply.
Every time the substance of tradition has been swept away for the sake of the new, the resulting social, physical, intellectual, and moral disorientation throws men and women into reliance on the perpetual change that constantly promises to fill the void but only succeeds in reproducing the causes of the crisis. To the extent that we continue bowing to the technological life’s preference for obsolescence and flux, we will continue to wrench humans from all stable and meaningful connections to their land, family, and society, robbing them of permanence and groundedness and giving them insecurity and transience in its stead.
This brings us back to the beginning of these essays, with Patočka’s location of the place where the core of technology impinges on the core of humanity—the capacity and ability to perceive and understand truth. If there is a simultaneously earthy and metaphysical core to each person, this is it. And if our technologically conditioned chronological snobbery, provincialism of time, reflexive preference for the novel, and addiction to the disequilibrium of perpetually meaningless impermanence has cut us off from the love of receiving and bequeathing cumulative good and permanent meaning through the generations, then we truly have, in Patočka’s words, established “a decadent life, a life addicted to what is inhuman by its very nature.”