29 July 2011

Civilisation and Technology

I'VE ARGUED IN THE PAST that the problem of suffering, especially as conceived of by Buddhists and experienced in the present, may well arise out of civilisation itself. For instance the food surpluses initiated by agriculture led our relationship with hunger, and the pleasurable sensations of eating to change in a way that directly relates to the obesity 'epidemic'[1]. Then again we are constantly surrounded by strangers, and as a social primate this is stressful. As cities become larger and larger, and populations ever more mobile, communities become fragmented. Present day cities can only be alienating for a social ape such as ourselves. [2]

Against this proposition the obvious argument is that the benefits of civilisation outweigh the costs. By combining together we have transformed the lives of individuals - and arguable we have never been better off materially than we are now - alienation, pollution, environmental degradation, increasing commodification of social goods, and other negative manifestations of civilisation not withstanding.

In this essay I will again pursue the role of advocatus diaboli - the devil's advocate - with respect to civilisation. I'm writing this on a computer connected to the internet, surrounded by the products of technology, all of them mass produced. Is it not a little ungrateful to attack technology? Is it not more than a little retrograde? We'll see. My contention is this: that the products of technology are increasingly focused on mitigating the negative effects of technology itself.

The telephone (patented 1876) is one of the key inventions in history. Marshall McLuhan made the point that technology extends the human senses, and the telephone clearly does this. It allows us to talk (Greek: phone) at a distance (Greek: telos). This is clearly a case of "the medium is the message". The fact that we build elaborate globe spanning infrastructures to enable conversations tells us more about the human being than the content of those conversations, the vast majority of which are trivial and banal. It tells us the simple truth that humans, as social primates, want to feel connected to others and experience this partly through talking (we talk the way other primates physically groom each other). It should comes as no surprise that the cellphone has become commoditized and ubiquitous, nor that the Internet which is a more sophisticated telephone network is becoming commoditized and ubiquitous.

But why do we need the telephone? We need to speak to people far away, I would say, because our communities have been divided and scattered. The industrial revolution was the beginning of the end of the sense of belonging and community that people in the 'West' experienced. With the advent of machine work we no longer grew up, lived, and loved amongst people known to us - we moved away to where there was work, to the cities. There is no doubt that we are adaptable, and that we can make new friends. But technology itself changed the structure of our culture in ways that separated us from our loved ones and kin, from our roots. And this process has been accelerating. We stand up for the rights of the individual, which is admirable, but the individual is not the smallest viable unit of humanity. As the old saying goes, "united we stand, divided we fall."

The Amish - a sect of strict fundamentalist Christians living mainly in the North-East of the USA - have an interesting attitude to the telephone. They were early adopters back in the day. However they do not allow telephones inside their houses where they would interrupt family life. Instead they often have little telephone sheds, sometimes shared by several households. And they only use the telephone to arrange face to face meetings with friends and relations. No technology which would disrupt their family or community, or put a man out of work, is suffered amongst them. Which is not to say that they completely eschew technology. They do not. But technology serves their values, it doesn't determine them.[3]

The media is a source of constant fascination - a word which in the 16th century meant 'falling under a spell'. The media's main job is to entertain, though a little bit of useful information slips through occasionally. The internet as the collision of communication technology and the entertainment industries is something of a monster.[4] What is the message in this medium? I believe it is story-telling. We use narratives internally to make sense of our lives, joining the dots into a coherent self image. And we do the same thing on the scale of the community, and on higher scales - religious affiliation, national identity, ethnic group, potentially at least with humanity and all life, though the larger the scale the more difficult becomes the identification. The mass media is a vast story-telling enterprise, and because we live through and by stories, we are enthralled by the media. And the result is that, as we allow technology to tell our stories for us, we spend a lot less time telling stories ourselves. This is partly because of the barriers to participation. In my early life family gatherings consisted of sitting around telling stories about people and places - it's how I got my world view! A generation earlier with no TV and not a great deal of radio (where I grew up) and family gatherings were even more important. Go back far enough and there was a time when we gathered in the evenings just to tell stories, to collectively remember our history, to reinforce our sense of belonging through shared narratives. Now we passively consume stories, and our sense of belonging so often rests on having watched the same TV shows or the same movies. A recent TV documentary quoted Carmen Hermosillo (aka humdog) as saying that the internet "commoditizes emotions and sells them as entertainment." [5] Stories have always been a universal form of entertainment and selling them is pretty old as well. It goes back at least to the invention of the printing press, but probably before. But the internet is like a battery farm which has intensified the process, and magnified the scale by orders of magnitude. Still, it comes back to the fact that the need to communicate over distances is caused by isolation; and that isolation is a direct result of successive technological revolutions.

Medicine seems to be a public good without question, and a place where technology is unequivocally beneficial. But where does most of the funding for medicine, and the efforts of research go? A big chunk goes on dealing with the diseases of old age. It's nice to live longer, to not die from curable diseases, but we only live longer because we harness ourselves to technology. Technology enables us to live longer, but it creates problems that only more technology can solve. Another chunk of funding goes towards curing diseases caused by over-eating, and drinking: heart disease, liver disease, diabetes, etc. Yet another huge chunk goes towards dealing with the effects of stress (and what is stress but the inability to adapt to circumstances?). I'm only identifying problems here, by the way, I am not suggesting solutions. I see the dilemma, but I can't solve it. In wiping out diseases and plagues, we have opened the door to a different kind of plague. We have clearly long since multiplied beyond the levels at which we could live off the land without technology - without artificial fertilizers and pesticides, without machines. We are now completely dependent on technology to survive at our present population levels. If we were to turn back the technological clock, billions might die of starvation and disease. [6]

This may change in the developed world in the next few generations because the baby-boomer generation will reach old age and die out leaving a less fertile and less productive ancestors. China has to some extent addressed this problem through it's draconian one child policy - a more stringent and far reaching decision on environmental impact then any enacted in the west, and possible only in a totalitarian state that values the collective over the individual. And filled with ethical dilemmas. India, and Indonesian - the 2nd and 3rd most populous nations - however will continue to expand, with no population controls and no baby-boomer bubble to burst. One interesting impact of the ubiquitous use of internet pornography is impotence and loss of interest in sexual partners.[7] So in this sense technology might be self limiting.

Throughout the world one of the resources most affected by over-population is water. We continue to pollute our waterways with human and industrial effluent, though this is turning around in places like the UK and NZ. Producing enough fresh water consumes enormous resources. Drought affects many places in the world on a regular basis now, with the effects most likely worsened by human induced climate change.

One can only cite a few examples in a short essay, but I hope you can see the pattern. I would like to pose this as a hypothesis for further investigation: "that each new advance in technology in the present is designed to mitigate problems caused by previous generations of technology." This can be disproved by showing that some technologies have come about recently that are not designed to mitigate problems caused by technology. I think this was true in the past: the wheel and the lever were not problematic in the same way. What I contend is that it is true now.

I suspect the cross-over point was after the industrial revolution, and before the 20th century, but I imagine it would be difficult to pin down to a year or even a decade. But I would suggest that the Amish don't have this problem, and that they may provide clues to maintaining a healthy relationship with technology precisely because they subsume the use of technology to a strong, unified, and well articulated set of values which have families, and communities at their heart. We may not wish to adopt their particular values, but the fact that they have more or less avoided the industrial revolution and the ills it brings, whilst still enjoying some of the fruits of modernity, make them a fascinating case study.



  1. Epidemic is in scare-quotes because you can't catch obesity, so it's not an epidemic in the usual sense of the word. What is meant is that a huge and increasing number of people are obese. Except in a very few cases being fat is a result of over-eating.
  2. I argued this point in Why Do We Suffer? An Alternate Take. 28 Aug 2008.
  3. On the Amish and Phones see The Amish Get Wired. The Amish? Wired Magazine: 1.06 (1993); and Look who's talking. Wired, 7.01. (1999) [back in the days when Wired was still an interesting read]. See also my blog: Cellphones, communications and communities. See also Amish Telephones; and How the Amish View Technology. There are many references to Amish technology use on the Web these days.
  4. Frank Zappa once quipped that "government is the entertainment wing of the military-industrial complex". I tend to agree.
  5. The documentary was All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, Episode 1. It's available on YouTube. The essay referred was Pandora's Vox: Community in Cyberspace (1994) and is worth reading by anyone who is interested in so-called 'virtual community'. I've also trashed the idea of virtual community (19 Sept 2008).
  6. On the subject of medical budgets see also: Our Unaffordable War Against Death. via BigThink. This is a review of a NYT article locked behind a paywall.
  7. See various posts on the blog: Biology has Plans for Your Lovelife.

see also
"The root of inequality? It's down to whether you ploughed or hoed: A group of US economists claims the role of women in many modern societies is shaped by their agricultural past." Guardian 31.7.11.
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