Divining the Machine, part one
If nothing else, the robot lawnmowers can help us to remember that "all flesh is as grass" ... a statement that really makes sense in its context in Isaiah 40, where God withers the empires, exposes the futility of technologically driven religions, gives power to the faint, and tends his flock like a shepherd. Thanks for another great essay.
Breath-taking, poetic, crystal clarity. Thank you.
Have you ever read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? Immensely relevant. Here is a flavour that this article reminded me of: "On Labor Day and Memorial Day weekends we travel for miles on these roads without seeing another vehicle, then cross a federal highway and look at cars strung bumper to bumper to the horizon. Scowling faces inside. Kids crying in the back seat. I keep wishing there were some way to tell them something but they scowl and appear to be in a hurry, and there isn’t..."
Superb post. I suppose the big arising question would be: is writing (already a form of artificial and collective intelligence) and even language and all tool use in fact also ‘the machine’? But these things define our very humanity, from the outset a ‘supplementation’ of nature. Was Mumford not really arguing for a de-mythicised machine, a machine subordinated to better myths, better gods, more truly human goals? Therefore for a kind of embedded machine rather in the way that Karl Polanyi wanted an embedded market? A subordination of technology and its selective use, not its abandonment as that would mean abandoning the human as such? That might differentiate him from Agamben’s apparent apocalyptic refusal of the cultural as such. John Milbank
Hi Paul, I certainly would agree with all of your listed 'characteristics' of the 'machine'. I would venture another, and I would describe it as the movement towards a truly global labour market, requiring the deconstruction of barriers to movements of labour. This essentially economic imperative, is assisted by a cultural/ethical 'superstructure' of an antagonism to the nation state, national borders,national identity, and even in many cases the national tongue if it is seen as a barrier to 'progress'. The latter process is exemplified here in Ireland, with the withering away of Irish as a spoken language over the last 200 years. This characteristic of a truly global labour market, of course is connected intrinsically, over time, to the erosion of real wages, the 'gig economy', and further enhances the power of the increasingly 'supra-national' corporations and global 'trading blocs'.
I feel you may be in danger of creating a machine of your own with this story, which seems very Marxian at root, and apt to give rise to fear and resentment and anger in your readers. There's a simpler account. Human beings desire happiness, the satisfaction of their needs and the removal of various forms of uneasiness, including that of excessive labour. Pursuing this desire, institutions (states, markets, technology, companies, etc) arise, which are the product of human action if not human design. Their virtues and flaws are reflections of the human flaws that went into the making of them, with their roots in those desires. All we have to do if we dislike the "machine" that has arisen as a result of our desires and actions is to desire and act differently. It's as simple and as impossibly difficult as that! (Am loving your series of essays by the way and look forward to future installments.)
If - and I agree that it is - it is the story-making that is foundational, then the essential need is to attend to the stories, and the nature of the stories. That is, stories have *rules* - and we are into the multiply overlapping realms of Jung's archetypes, myth-making, magic, mystery traditions and so on. I know you know all this - which is why I shall keep recommending Neil Gaiman's Sandman sequence (or, to a lesser extent, American Gods). It is a story about the nature of stories (and therefore where gods come from - gods not God), and to a great extent it explores the nature of the rules of storytelling. If it is story that is fundamental - and we cannot go deeper than a story - then the question becomes how to distinguish between the stories - MacIntyre's 'Whose Justice? Which Rationality?' In a way this is the Dark Mountain agenda, but I would raise one caveat. Something that Brueggemann writes about the role of the Prophet (the Prophet is the one who stands outside of the Machine speaking the word of the living God to it) - the Prophet isn't called to speak a new language but rather to reanimate the old language. He writes, "The task of prophetic imagination is to cut through the numbness.... To offer symbols that are adequate to the horror and massiveness of the experience which evokes numbness and requires denial. The prophet is to provide a way in which the cover-up and the stonewalling can be ended. This does not mean that symbols are to be invented, for that would be too thin. Rather, it means that the prophet is to reactivate out of our historical past symbols that always have been vehicles for redemptive honesty..." If we are still, despite the superficial denials, living within a fundamentally Christian story within the West - post-Christendom but still haunted by the Holy Ghost - then resistance to the Machine will necessarily employ a revivified Christian language. Not necessarily a church language, of course, but the language of sin and repentance, forgiveness, restoration and redemption, that sort of thing. Sorry, starting to ramble....
Thank you as ever for your essays. For a subtle finessing of Mumford's grasp of the mythos of the Machine, Jeremy Naydler's 'In the Shadow the the Machine, the prehistory of the computer and the evolution of consciousness' is invaluable. Naydler opens up a more nuanced understanding of the mythos's prehistory - particularly in relation to ancient Egypt - and addresses the implication arising from what you're working around here of whether in the relationship between the Machine mythos and the sacral ways of being it repeatedly co-opts into the service of its own myth, the former actively seeks to derail the latter into the lines of travel you outline, and what the import of that might mean in terms of our consciousness and the revelation of the Logos.
Thank you for the wonderful essay, as usual. I had a few thoughts on your notion of openness. It is not just that self-definition is a right, but that self-definition as one's life work is a key part of the mythology of the machine. I've thought a lot about how this myth of the self is embedded in the cultural ecosystem of Anglophone women. There are several possible quests for the self - on the one hand, the mantra of "be yourself" and the justification of limitless consumption (provided the brands reflect your values) as well as defensively limiting how much of this self you share with others (abhorrence of personal sacrifice for others unless it is part of your (maternal) identity, whereas forgoing certain niceties for your career, comfort or physical beauty is a form of self-fulfillment). On the other hand, the system - the Machine? - wants us to be constantly searching for our true self. And our true self is not someone who washes dishes or scrubs floors or darns socks. These tasks must be outsourced (to a machine or, let's be honest, a poorer woman) so that we can spend time doing things that help us pursue our desires and our self-improvement (oh right, once we find the self we must improve upon it). We are conditioned to be in constant battle with our natural appearance and natural aging, and our spiritual energies are depleted by decades of collectively ritualized fasting and exercising to control the shape of our bodies followed by feasting as a "you deserve it" remuneration for our privations. The response to stress or suffering is indignation accompanied by self-care (read: the consumption of goods and services that slightly ameliorate the terrifying and exhausting wonder of being embodied). I think the modern (postmodern?) notion of the self - liberated from metaphysics or a cosmic hierarchy or even Mary Harrington's idea of interdependence, and yet somehow ours alone to individually cultivate - paves the way for the other core values you mention. Technologism, commercialism, and materialism promise us a homecoming to our true self, liberated from tediousness, ugliness, the whims of fortune and history.
Hit the nail on the head when you describe the artists and prophets and such who warn of the Machine as being right — and ineffective. My thought moves in a couple of directions from there, perhaps to make a circle in the end.
First, I don’t think Christianity or any other religion opposes the Machine directly. It cannot be opposed directly; it may only be outwitted, outmaneuvered, its own energy turned against it as in some martial arts. “Render unto Caesar’s what is Caesar’s.”
But that’s not the whole story. “My kingdom is not of this world.” Christianity, like much Eastern religion, proceeds from the premise that this world of human history is, as Tolkien said (citing his own Christian faith as the reason for this view), a “long defeat.” The Book of Nature, as the medievals called it, may be read for the glorification of its Maker, but “the world” i.e. the human world, is basically vicious. If it were not so I don’t think you’d see the monastic impulse arise in East and West alike. Whether speaking of the Kali Yuga or of the Cosmocrat, the Prince of this World, *the great religions do not try to redeem civilization.* There are ways for civilization to be more or less in harmony with “nature and nature’s god,” with Heaven, but civilization as such is not a real object, not something that can be redeemed. In eternity, says Christianity, there is but one kingdom and it is not the making of humankind, though it dwells in humankind and we in it even now, down here on the fallen earth.
So that brings up my second line of thought, which is a question that disturbs me and for which I have no answer: Must critique of the Machine always proceed from some blindness or temporary bracketing of the primordial truth of the Fall? Swap in some other religious system’s way of putting it if you like. But the point is it’s not clear how humankind individually or collectively can fight or actively resist and critique the Machine with the aim of destroying it (and replacing it with what?) if the making of the Machine is part of our very (fallen) nature. You can read this as just another version of the Machine co-opting potential resistance. Or it can be a place to more firmly distinguish between culture and civilization, and perhaps between one kind of civilization and another, or between one particular civilization and another. I think it matters that Jesus, who spoke those words neither for nor against massive civilization but as it were sidestepping it, lived in the Roman Empire at its height. But then, Socrates lived in a city state — albeit an imperializing one — and he met a similar end.
For me, a parable of sorts is to be found in the life of Harlan Hubbard. He was something of a primitivist, anyway a practical, self-reliant man who lived on, or on the banks of, the Ohio River during most of the 20th century, in a home or houseboat of his own construction and without electricity. A Thoreau-type, and friend of Wendell Berry. Or one could think of him as a kind of modern monastic (he had no children, by the way, and it is amazing how all this gets more complicated when you bring children into the equation). I am a great admirer of Hubbard’s life and of his painting and writing. But those two art forms are of course products of at the very least a culture, if not the civilization in which Hubbard lived. He also played baroque music on the cello, and his wife played with him on the violin—Bach, chiefly, who is also my favorite composer. But there it is again, the old rub: Can you have Bach without the massive civilization he was a part of? I am not alone in finding solace and transcendence in playing and listening to Bach’s music. Would I be willing to give it up for a better civilization? I honestly do not have an answer. Or not a constant answer. When I think about it in the abstract I might say yes. When I’m in the music, the answer is a definite No. But I fear the question may be flawed, as all past counterfactuals are.
I look forward to the future installments of this ambitious essay. I think there are distinctions to be made, subtle lines to be drawn — always provisionally, and not for the purpose, usually, of picking out bad guys, but in order to better see how fair is blent with foul, always. I’m particularly keen to see if you will find any viability in the Orthodox Christian vision of the human task as the “spiritualization of matter.” At some point, I think, you must see your way clear to justifying this very medium in which we are communicating, and the other media of the arts. I say “must” because it’s a dilemma I myself have faced urgently, and I sense it haunts you too. You’re a writer after all! That’s not nothing. Especially it’s not nothing if one gets around conceiving the writer’s (or intellectual’s or other artist’s) task as beating the Machine at its own game. Jesus and Buddha and Socrates wrote nothing, but even they weren’t trying to bring down the Machine. So what are we trying to do? It’s a serious question.
JM Greer has written eloquently and revealingly about these topics in his (erstwhile) The Archdruid Report and current blog, Ecosophia—as well as many books. He made, I thought, a useful distinction between tools that expand human capabilities, vs. prostheses that replace them. He explained that all tools create externalities, positive and negative, and our cultural conversations determine our awareness and the values we apply to such spillovers.
Thinking about all the “isms” and theories we apply to our political and economic life, I realized some years ago that the critical distinction was not public vs private, but rather concentrated vs distributed—in other words, power. One might think of the machine in similar terms: concentrated but brittle mechanical power as the opposite of the distributed and resilient biological strength of nature. Yin vs Yang, sun vs. moon, as so beautifully expressed in the I-Ching.
Thank you Paul. Brilliant as always. I am wondering here about Erik Davis's idea of 'techgnosis' - a portmanteau combining the gnostic emphasis on transcending the flesh with the newfangled technological apparatus' that make it possible to do so. For Davis, it is the capacity to imagine ourselves and transcend physical limits that constitutes the divine: we each become angels of our own making connecting up with others in virtual space and time, a kind of informational sacred. You are suggesting techne is anti-material and thus anti-human (and I tend to agree), but there are other readings that cast the technological in a rosier light. I notice Douglas Rushkoff, who used to be a proponent of the technosis idea -- or at least of the internet as a decentralised, utopian space -- has now renounced this for 'team human'. Perhaps in its early stages, various technologies from lawnmowers to washing machines offer transcendence from drudgery (the natural limits none of us enjoy), only to destroy the very freedom they opened up. The same has been written on the arrival of ostensibly time saving domestic technologies. In the end, they created, to quote the title of Ruth Cowan's book, 'More Work for Mother'. (Subtitle: The Ironies Of Household Technology From The Open Hearth To The Microwave).
Just a few thoughts.
Paul, In light of your essay, I am curious about your thoughts on Jacques Ellul and his seemingly parallel take on world-consuming "technique" and how he blended a Marxist critique with a Christian prescription. When I read essays like yours, they impact me in a visceral way of truth being felt in my body and one part of me wonders how we can extract ourselves from this machine. I think for Ellul this is impossible and the Christian challenge is to live as "salt" or "light" during this epoch.
Hello Paul, this is very interesting. So when Mumford talks about how the machine has been turned into a god or has been sacralised, he means as an (false) idol? Since the Machine is anti-God, anti-Good, anti-Beauty, etc.
Also I wanted to ask for some recommendations, you mention there are many novels on the 'abolition of man' theme, I've read Alexandria (really liked it) and other usual suspects like That Hideous Strength, 1984, Brave New World, I guess Lord of the Rings counts as well, what are some other interesting ones?
You could add to your list the animating spirit and organizing life force, Qi, mana of the machine - an interest based, debt based money system tied to international banking that at all costs must be sustained or the machine dies. Like cancer the money supply must continually grow. Like spirit for the most part money is now an ethereal, non-substantial force flowing invisibly like my monthly payment to the Abbey of Misrule which flies from California to Ireland. Failed resistance of the medieval church to usury was key to the current rise of the machine. St. Francis who lived at the beginning of expansion of the money economy and the start of modern banking in Italy. He refused to receive money donations, only material donations. “The love of money is the root of all evil” Here are discussions of this topic and a possible alternative to an usury based money system - https://charleseisenstein.org/essays/money-and-the-turning-of-the-age/ https://charleseisenstein.org/essays/money-a-new-beginning-part-1/ https://charleseisenstein.org/essays/money-a-new-beginning-part-2/
Over the past few days I felt as if I were starving intellectually for another AoM essay. This essay is manna, worth the wait, but why on Earth is writing and discussion like this so /rare/? What else really is worth discussing at this late hour?
Rhetorical questions aside, it strikes me the Machine has only a single (so far) unconquerable foe: entropy. Long periods of time are where forces undestroyed and unenslaved by the Machine wear away at and ultimately digest its vain works, as well as at the foundations of its latest incarnation. As noted in the essay, however, even the vanquished Sauron seems always to rise again. Sauron, of course, was symbolic of the malignancy of power.
One useful definition of "evil" might be: the exploitation of weakness in another for personal gain. This is what makes power always so proximate to evil. As Arundhati Roy once wrote: "Respect strength, never power."