Thursday, March 5, 2015

Peak Meaninglessness

By John Michael Greer. Original post here.

That form came in for discussion in the same post two weeks ago that brought the issue of externalities into this blog’s ongoing conversation. Quite a few readers commented about the many ways in which things labeled “more advanced,” “more progressive,” and the like were actually less satisfactory and less effective at meeting human needs than the allegedly more primitive technologies they replaced. Some of those comments focused, and quite sensibly, on the concrete examples, but others pondered the ways that today’s technology fails systematically at meeting certain human needs, and reflected on the underlying causes for that failure. One of my readers—tip of the archdruidical hat here to Ruben—gave an elegant frame for that discussion by suggesting that the peak of technological complexity in our time may also be described as peak meaninglessness.
Last week’s discussion of externalities—costs of doing business that get dumped onto the economy, the community, or the environment, so that those doing the dumping can make a bigger profit—is, I’m glad to say, not the first time this issue has been raised recently. The long silence that closed around such things three decades ago is finally cracking; they’re being mentioned again, and not just by archdruids. One of my readers—tip of the archdruidical hat to Jay McInerney—noted an article in Grist a while back that pointed out the awkward fact that none of the twenty biggest industries in today’s world could break even, much less make a profit, if they had to pay for the damage they do to the environment.

Now of course the conventional wisdom these days interprets that statement to mean that it’s unfair to make those industries pay for the costs they impose on the rest of us—after all, they have a God-given right to profit at everyone else’s expense, right? That’s certainly the attitude of fracking firms in North Dakota, who recently proposed that they ought to be exempted from the state’s rules on dumping radioactive waste, because following the rules would cost them too much money. That the costs externalized by the fracking industry will sooner or later be paid by others, as radionuclides in fracking waste work their way up the food chain and start producing cancer clusters, is of course not something anyone in the industry or the media is interested in discussing.

Watch this sort of thing, and you can see the chasm opening up under the foundations of industrial society. Externalized costs don’t just go away; one way or another, they’re going to be paid, and costs that don’t appear on a company’s balance sheet still affect the economy. That’s the argument of The Limits to Growth, still the most accurate (and thus inevitably the most reviled) of the studies that tried unavailingly to turn industrial society away from its suicidal path: on a finite planet, once an inflection point is passed, the costs of economic growth rise faster than growth does, and sooner or later force the global economy to its knees.

The tricks of accounting that let corporations pretend that their externalized costs vanish into thin air don’t change that bleak prognosis. Quite the contrary, the pretense that externalities don’t matter just makes it harder for a society in crisis to recognize the actual source of its troubles. I’ve come to think that that’s the unmentioned context behind a dispute currently roiling those unhallowed regions where economists lurk in the shrubbery: the debate over secular stagnation.

Secular stagnation? That’s the concept, unmentionable until recently, that the global economy could stumble into a rut of slow, no, or negative growth, and stay there for years. There are still plenty of economists who insist that this can’t happen, which is rather funny, really, when you consider that this has basically been the state of the global economy since 2009. (My back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest, in fact, that if you subtract the hallucinatory paper wealth manufactured by derivatives and similar forms of financial gamesmanship from the world’s GDP, the production of nonfinancial goods and services worldwide has actually been declining since before the 2008 housing crash.)

Even among those who admit that what’s happening can indeed happen, there’s no consensus as to how or why such a thing could occur. On the off chance that any mainstream economists are lurking in the shrubbery in the even more unhallowed regions where archdruids utter unspeakable heresies, and green wizards clink mugs of homebrewed beer together and bay at the moon, I have a suggestion to offer: the most important cause of secular stagnation is the increasing impact of externalities on the economy. The dishonest macroeconomic bookkeeping that leads economists to think that externalized costs go away because they’re not entered into anyone’s ledger books doesn’t actually make them disappear; instead, they become an unrecognized burden on the economy as a whole, an unfelt headwind blowing with hurricane force in the face of economic growth.

Thus there’s a profound irony in the insistence by North Dakota fracking firms that they ought to be allowed to externalize even more of their costs in order to maintain their profit margin. If I’m right, the buildup of externalized costs is what’s causing the ongoing slowdown in economic activity worldwide that’s driving down commodity prices, forcing interest rates in many countries to zero or below, and resurrecting the specter of deflationary depression. The fracking firms in question thus want to respond to the collapse in oil prices—a result of secular stagnation—by doing even more of what’s causing secular stagnation. To say that this isn’t likely to end well is to understate the case considerably.

In the real world, of course, mainstream economists don’t listen to suggestions from archdruids, and fracking firms, like every other business concern these days, can be expected to put their short-term cash flow ahead of the survival of their industry, or for that matter of industrial civilization as a whole. Thus I propose to step aside from the subject of economic externalities for a moment—though I’ll be returning to it at intervals as we proceed with this sequence of posts—in order to discuss a subtler and less crassly financial form of the same phenomenon.

That form came in for discussion in the same post two weeks ago that brought the issue of externalities into this blog’s ongoing conversation. Quite a few readers commented about the many ways in which things labeled “more advanced,” “more progressive,” and the like were actually less satisfactory and less effective at meeting human needs than the allegedly more primitive technologies they replaced. Some of those comments focused, and quite sensibly, on the concrete examples, but others pondered the ways that today’s technology fails systematically at meeting certain human needs, and reflected on the underlying causes for that failure. One of my readers—tip of the archdruidical hat here to Ruben—gave an elegant frame for that discussion by suggesting that the peak of technological complexity in our time may also be described as peak meaninglessness.

I’d like to take the time to unpack that phrase. In the most general sense, technologies can be divided into two broad classes, which we can respectively call tools and prosthetics. The difference is a matter of function. A tool expands human potential, giving people the ability to do things they couldn’t otherwise do. A prosthetic, on the other hand, replaces human potential, doing something that under normal circumstances, people can do just as well for themselves. Most discussions of technology these days focus on tools, but the vast majority of technologies that shape the lives of people in a modern industrial society are not tools but prosthetics.

Prosthetics have a definite value, to be sure. Consider an artificial limb, the sort of thing on which the concept of technology-as-prosthetic is modeled. If you’ve lost a leg in an accident, say, an artificial leg is well worth having; it replaces a part of ordinary human potential that you don’t happen to have any more, and enables you to do things that other people can do with their own leg. Imagine, though, that some clever marketer were to convince people to have their legs cut off so that they could be fitted for artificial legs. Imagine, furthermore, that the advertising for artificial legs became so pervasive, and so successful, that nearly everybody became convinced that human legs were hopelessly old-fashioned and ugly, and rushed out to get their legs amputated so they could walk around on artificial legs.

Then, of course, the manufacturers of artificial arms got into the same sort of marketing, followed by the makers of sex toys. Before long you’d have a society in which most people were gelded quadruple amputees fitted with artificial limbs and rubber genitals, who spent all their time talking about the wonderful things they could do with their prostheses. Only in the darkest hours of the night, when the TV was turned off, might some of them wonder why it was that a certain hard-to-define numbness had crept into all their interactions with other people and the rest of the world.

In a very real sense, that’s the way modern industrial society has reshaped and deformed human life for its more privileged inmates. Take any human activity, however humble or profound, and some clever marketer has found a way to insert a piece of technology in between the person and the activity. You can’t simply bake bread—a simple, homely, pleasant activity that people have done themselves for thousands of years using their hands and a few simple handmade tools; no, you have to have a bread machine, into which you dump a prepackaged mix and some liquid, push a button, and stand there being bored while it does the work for you, if you don’t farm out the task entirely to a bakery and get the half-stale industrially extruded product that passes for bread these days.

Now of course the bread machine manufacturers and the bakeries pitch their products to the clueless masses by insisting that nobody has time to bake their own bread any more. Ivan Illich pointed out inEnergy and Equity a long time ago the logical fallacy here, which is that using a bread machine or buying from a bakery is only faster if you don’t count the time you have to spend earning the money needed to pay for it, power it, provide it with overpriced prepackaged mixes, repair it, clean it, etc., etc., etc. Illich’s discussion focused on automobiles; he pointed out that if you take the distance traveled by the average American auto in a year, and divide that by the total amount of time spent earning the money to pay for the auto, fuel, maintenance, insurance, etc., plus all the other time eaten up by tending to the auto in various ways, the average American car goes about 3.5 miles an hour: about the same pace, that is, that an ordinary human being can walk.

If this seems somehow reminiscent of last week’s discussion of externalities, dear reader, it should. The claim that technology saves time and labor only seems to make sense if you ignore a whole series of externalities—in this case, the time you have to put into earning the money to pay for the technology and into coping with whatever requirements, maintenance needs, and side effects the technology has. Have you ever noticed that the more “time-saving technologies” you bring into your life, the less free time you have? This is why—and it’s also why the average medieval peasant worked shorter hours, had more days off, and kept a larger fraction of the value of his labor than you do.

Something else is being externalized by prosthetic technology, though, and it’s that additional factor that gives Ruben’s phrase “peak meaninglessness” its punch. What are you doing, really, when you use a bread machine? You’re not baking bread; the machine is doing that. You’re dumping a prepackaged mix and some water into a machine, closing the lid, pushing a button, and going away to do something else. Fair enough—but what is this “something else” that you’re doing? In today’s industrial societies, odds are you’re going to go use another piece of prosthetic technology, which means that once again, you’re not actually doing anything. A machine is doing something for you. You can push that button and walk away, but again, what are you going to do with your time? Use another machine?

The machines that industrial society uses to give this infinite regress somewhere to stop—televisions, video games, and computers hooked up to the internet—simply take the same process to its ultimate extreme. Whatever you think you’re doing when you’re sitting in front of one of these things, what you’re actually doing is staring at little colored pictures on a glass screen and pushing some buttons. All things considered, this is a profoundly boring activity, which is why the little colored pictures jump around all the time; that’s to keep your nervous system so far off balance that you don’t notice just how tedious it is to spend hours at a time staring at little colored pictures on a screen.

I can’t help but laugh when people insist that the internet is an information-rich environment. It’s quite the opposite, actually: all you get from it is the very narrow trickle of verbal, visual, and auditory information that can squeeze through the digital bottleneck and turn into little colored pictures on a glass screen. The best way to experience this is to engage in a media fast—a period in which you deliberately cut yourself off from all electronic media for a week or more, preferably in a quiet natural environment. If you do that, you’ll find that it can take two or three days, or even more, before your numbed and dazzled nervous system recovers far enough that you can begin to tap in to the ocean of sensory information and sensual delight that surrounds you at every moment. It’s only then, furthermore, that you can start to think your own thoughts and dream your own dreams, instead of just rehashing whatever the little colored pictures tell you.

A movement of radical French philosophers back in the 1960s, the Situationists, argued that modern industrial society is basically a scheme to convince people to hand over their own human capabilities to the industrial machine, so that imitations of those capabilities can be sold back to them at premium prices. It was a useful analysis then, and it’s even more useful now, when the gap between realities and representations has become even more drastic than it was back then. These days, as often as not, what gets sold to people isn’t even an imitation of some human capability, but an abstract representation of it, an arbitrary marker with only the most symbolic connection to what it represents.

This is one of the reasons why I think it’s deeply mistaken to claim that Americans are materialistic. Americans are arguably the least materialistic people in the world; no actual materialist—no one who had the least appreciation for actual physical matter and its sensory and sensuous qualities—could stand the vile plastic tackiness of America’s built environment and consumer economy for a fraction of a second. Americans don’t care in the least about matter; they’re happy to buy even the most ugly, uncomfortable, shoddily made and absurdly overpriced consumer products you care to imagine, so long as they’ve been convinced that having those products symbolizes some abstract quality they want, such as happiness, freedom, sexual pleasure, or what have you.

Then they wonder, in the darkest hours of the night, why all the things that are supposed to make them happy and satisfied somehow never manage to do anything of the kind. Of course there’s a reason for that, too, which is that happy and satisfied people don’t keep on frantically buying products in a quest for happiness and satisfaction. Still, the little colored pictures keep showing them images of people who are happy and satisfied because they guzzle the right brand of tasteless fizzy sugar water, and pay for the right brand of shoddily made half-disposable clothing, and keep watching the little colored pictures: that last above all else. “Tune in tomorrow” is the most important product that every media outlet sells, and they push it every minute of every day on every stop and key.

That is to say, between my fantasy of voluntary amputees eagerly handing over the cash for the latest models of prosthetic limbs, and the reality of life in a modern industrial society, the difference is simply in the less permanent nature of the alterations imposed on people here and now. It’s easier to talk people into amputating their imaginations than it is to convince them to amputate their limbs, but it’s also a good deal easier to reverse the surgery.

What gives this even more importance than it would otherwise have, in turn, is that all this is happening in a society that’s hopelessly out of touch with the realities that support its existence, and that relies on bookkeeping tricks of the sort discussed toward the beginning of this essay to maintain the fantasy that it’s headed somewhere other than history’s well-used compost bin. The externalization of the mind and the imagination plays just as important a role in maintaining that fantasy as the externalization of costs—and the cold mechanical heart of the externalization of the mind and imagination is mediation, the insertion of technological prosthetics into the space between the individual and the world. We’ll talk more about that in next week’s post.

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