Monday, February 17, 2014


I used to have these fights with my old friend Steve Jobs . . . I’d say to him, Steve, these computers you’re inventing here, they’re destroying the world!  . . . it was like telling a Catholic that there’s no God.

- Doug Tompkins

            I must confess: I am writing on a computer. And I use a computer often, more often than I’m comfortable with. For writing. For composing and recording music. For connecting with friends and family across the world. For taking in music and writing and film and art. For learning, and sharing ideas, philosophies, and knowledge.
            All these pursuits seem worthy, don’t they? They seem to be valid reasons to use technology. So why do I feel I must confess to using it?
            In reading an interview conducted by Paul Kingsnorth with Doug and Kris Tompkins (founders of The North Face and Patagonia, respectively), I came across the passage above. Doug Tompkins puts forth the common criticisms, so easily dismissed today as curmudgeonly or overly romantic, that through our immersion in computers, we are becoming more and more disconnected from the world at hand. ‘. . . all these kids,’ he says ‘. . . looking at their little screen, oblivious to anything . . . they’ve unplugged themselves from the real world and put themselves in the virtual world.’ These are tried and true complaints. I think most people tune them out. Who are we to whinge about the state of ‘the kids’ these days? Especially when nearly everyone with access to them seems to gravitate toward computers and the internet. Why are we so concerned with how people spend their free time, especially when there is so much wealth being created in this area of technology?
            Tompkins pushes the question further. There are underlying assumptions about the use of technology that are rarely questioned, when ‘the technologies you use will dictate how a society is.’ While we might criticize a younger generation for having their face in their iPad all the time, we are happy to accept all the comforts technology provides us without criticism. That you will own a plurality of electronic devices, or at least use the internet, is a foregone conclusion. Who among us enjoys tallying the costs?
            But let us tally them. The easiest target is the one above, disconnection from our immediate world, but it goes deeper than simple misanthropy, or the fact that your teenager talks to you less than you’d like. If we are disconnected from our surroundings emotionally, we cannot be bothered to care when they are ruined. This is not a critique of how kids misspend their free hours; it’s a critique of ennui in the face of world-wide destruction. Likewise, if we’ve been inculcated to believe that computers and technology are a necessary, and almost always positive, part of our world now, that destruction seems more and more like simply the cost of doing business. A necessary sacrifice.
            Tompkins lays out the cost in a broad way, pointing out how the computer has caused  a ‘massive acceleration in the conversion of nature to human culture.’ He goes on: ‘Oceans, healthy water, soil, healthy atmosphere and forests: those five components of life were all being converted that much faster – five times faster, ten times faster, a hundred times faster – because of the pace of computers amplifying economic activity.’ Indeed, the cheerleaders of technology would be happy to point out the recent advancements in the abilities of computers, and hence our own affect on the world. The argument could be made that while computers have added a few things to the repertoire of what we do, they have mostly increased the efficacy and efficiency of what we were already doing. And as an industrial society, what we were doing was grinding the bones of the world to get to the tasty bits.
            Tompkins brings Steve Jobs in particular to task on this issue because of his belief in technological utopianism, while ignoring the broader effects of the machines he was creating and pushing:
[Jobs] once had this gigantic ad campaign about twenty five years ago, where they had ‘1001 things that the personal computer could do,’ and of course all the things were great, you couldn’t argue with any of them. But they only added up to about 5 percent of what the bloody personal computer actually did. The other 95 percent he left out and that was the massive acceleration in the conversion of nature to human culture ... I’d say don’t give me all this shit about all the wonderful things your machines do, that’s just the cherry on top of this shit cake!

            This is to say nothing of the building of the computers themselves. We don’t need too many precise statistics; we only need imagine the number of computers (including phones and GPS units and tablets and chips in car engines and all the rest) in the world in say, 1975, and now. Include all the servers that run Google and your cloud computing services, trans-oceanic cables and satellites and NSA networks. Include your microwave. Now think about the number of chips, boards, LCDs. The fresh water it took to make the chips (a lot.) The toxic chemicals created and put into the environment (a lot.) The plastics, the metals and the rare earths that had to be extracted and processed (a lot.) The people pressed into making the devices by economic circumstances (a lot.) The energy required to produce and run all these devices (almost impossible to imagine.)
            In this light, our assumptions about the necessity of electronics, wait, not even an assumption really, a dearly held belief that is so fundamental as to not be recognized as a belief at all but a plain fact, this belief seems quite delusional and crazed. It’s the kind of mindset that once lead people to burn their neighbors at the stake.
            It’s why I had a strange feeling around all the RIP posts following Steve Jobs death. (Consider the number of status updates regarding Nelson Mandela’s legacy after his death, and compare with that of Jobs. Think about it for a second. Now let’s go on.)
            I didn’t completely understand my own response at the time (vaguely disquieted; a bit like observing a church service wherein the goers speak in tongues.) I chaulked the gushing and eulogizing up to a kind of cheerleading for Team Apple, and the mythos surrounding the company, of innovation, of creativity, of individual vision pushing outside the norms of utilitarianism and profit. I repeat, this is a mythos, but many of us buy into it. Also, at the time I lived in the Bay Area and there is a certain home-team possessiveness we feel about our silicon valley start-ups writ-large, even as they leap through tax loop-holes the size of Tahoe, and our state founders in an intractable financial morass.
            One thing with which we can credit Jobs and others at Apple is there recognition of the importance of thingness to most of us. Thingness refers to the objective existence of something (as opposed to the virtual, which we could consider a kind of projection or interpretation). I tend to use it regarding beautiful objects, human-crafted or otherwise, and how we relate to them. I think we are attached to, and in the sense of quantum  physics entangled with, our physical surroundings, the more so with objects we appreciate and in which we invest emotions.
There’s a great example in the recent Jim Jarmusch film Only Lovers Left Alive, which is, at least on the surface, a vampire movie. The conceit sets up a main character, Adam, to be wearied by centuries of watching the ‘zombies’ – average humans – blindly ruin what’s beautiful in themselves and the world. He’s disgusted by crass materialism and cults of fame. His disillusionment brings him to the point of planning his suicide.
Adam is no Luddite however, nor is he against scientific knowledge or technology. He is if anything a technical wizard, even putting Tesla’s ideas of drawing electricity from the environment to use in his house and car. He sees the poetry in Einstein’s ‘spooky action at a distance.’
 Likewise, he’s enamored of the artfully wrought objects people make, musical instruments in specific. His appreciation for their sound and architecture seems almost depthless; the film provides space for us to feel this too. The vampires even have the ability to tell the age of objects through touch, as if they’re attuned to the resonance of the molecules as the skin of their hands brush lacquered wood.
This is the kind of relationship people can have with the objects around them, particularly hand-made things, that carry a story, an individual sensibility. Steve Jobs and Apple were well aware of this, hence the exteriors of their computers and the look of their operating systems subtly invite us to get attached to the machines. They attempt to give us a kind of individual physical intimacy normally reserved for hand-carved music boxes, grandmothers’ wedding rings, mother-of-pearl inlay. This in a time when these quite-individualized objects are in shorter and shorter supply, supplanted by the mass-produced.
A step back reveals however that Apple computers are not some kind of personally crafted gift from Steve Jobs to each of us, at least not one worthy of all the status update eulogies. They are the result of extremely well-deployed business acumen. Apple is a corporation designed to sell, as much as possible. Therefore: planned obsolescence, product placement, carefully planned roll-outs. All the issues mentioned already: toxicity, energy consumption, Chinese factory workers throwing themselves from the roof for the sake of the iPhone 5.
Apple could be the most insidious example because of how they have manipulated thingness to get us to love their machines. But their success is merely symptomatic of a time when the ubiquity of technology goes unquestioned, when the cooptation of hand-made tangible thingness by virtual operating systems is not an aberration but perhaps inevitable.
This is the state in all sectors, even those thought of as progressive or conscientious. On the environmental front, the focus is always on ‘meeting the energy needs of the future’ – never really assessing where those needs come from, or if they’re actually needs, but merely attempting to maintain the status quo by way of a techno-fix, from huge wind turbines to wave power to solar arrays to nuclear reactors, all of which come with extreme environmental and aesthetic detractors. Doug Tompkins puts it this way:
When I look at one of those giant turbines, I see the icon of techno-industrial culture. I see the contemporary expression of the Enlightenment, of Cartesian logic, the scientific revolution and then the Industrial Revolution and then the information revolution. I see this as all symbolised there, as if it were a logotype … The way of thinking that could create those windmills is the same way of thinking that caused climate change in the first place. Just imagine for a minute … ruining the whole climate! That’s the result of the techno-industrial culture which these big turbines symbolise … It requires all the mining, all the alloys, all the computers – the whole scaffolding of civilisation. And that scaffolding is undoing the world.

            The same thinking is deployed regarding humanitarian concerns. How are we going to feed 10 billion people on the planet without GMOs? the technocrats ask. Never mind that we grow enough for that many now, and waste much of it. Never mind Monsanto’s predatory capitalism and all it stands to gain if everyone in the world must use its proprietary grains and herbicides and pesticides. Never mind that the mindset Tompkins outlines above has created the climate in which people find it difficult to grow enough food on their home land-base. There is a great problem of human hunger in the world and technology will solve it, they say.
            Similarly, we see efforts to put inexpensive laptops in the hands of the African poor in order to raise them out of poverty. If they don’t have electricity, well, we’ll think of a way to get them electricity, there’s more technology for that. Critiques that this is not quite appropriate should be dismissed as racist.
            Those who created this project can only see technology as a boon. Technology has given us in the West this vast amount of wealth, we ought to allow others entrance to the party, give them a hand up to our level. Whether or not use of technology in this way is appropriate for anyone goes unexamined.
            However philanthropic, it is a kind of progress trap. A great example on a human scale is related in Kathleen Jamie’s essay Three Ways of Looking at St Kilda. Jamie is a Scottish poet and has spent many years exploring the islands that surround her country. Many of them have been inhabited since the stone age and are as far as forty miles from the mainland. In stone-age terms, forty miles by sea is not quite like traveling to the moon, but it is significant. As Jamie shows, it’s significant even in the modern day, mostly because of weather. Actually living on the tiny islands is that much more challenging, yet people did it for thousands of years. They created endemic technologies – houses built of stone and thatch and sod, food from sea bird eggs and seals, tight terracing for grains – which matched their environment, and which they could perform into perpetuity. Jamie quotes an archeologist as saying of St Kilda that ‘the Stone Age went on till 1930!’
            Yet soon after that, Kilda was completely abandoned except for a naval radar station and some visiting scientists. The why can be found in a well-intentioned nobleman’s visit to the island. To him, the dark hovels of the populace, windowless and smoky, housing both people and animals, looked like the extreme of poverty. He pledged money to build what he thought were better homes for them. Money from outside, and also resources. Soon they had wooden houses on an island with no trees, glass windows and paint in a place where they had previously built with only stone and straw.
            The houses were completely unsupportable based on their environment. In essence, inappropriate. Not because the people were peasants and didn’t deserve them. They appeared as a boon, but were in fact a bane. A progress trap. ‘That was the beginning of the end,’ the archeologist says, ‘Seventy years later everyone was gone.’ The end of a way of life that had managed to persist on a rocky island in a harsh sea for thousands of years.

            And so I confess, I didn’t mix the lampblack with oil, I didn’t sharpen the goose quill, I didn’t grind the wood pulp and press it into paper. Here I type on a computer, and too often. I don’t harbor illusions that people the world over will willingly give up their electronics. But the next roadblock I so often reach in conversations on this topic, after it’s been established that perhaps we ought to examine our relationship to technology, is something like this comment: ‘Well, yes, but we have to be practical. We have to be realistic.’ This implies that considering a move away from high technology is equal to mere romanticism. In response to that I would make this analogy: It might be unrealistic to imagine racism would disappear in our time. That would be romanticism, true. Yet our response is not then to condone racism, or further, to shrug and join a neo-Nazi parade.
            That is exactly what many would do, though. Follow along with the technocracy, of which Steve Jobs was a kind of high priest, it’s basis unexamined. Build the wind-farms to meet ‘our energy needs.’ Techno-fixes to problems created by technology, progress traps. This is the romantic, impractical notion: that we can go on as we have. Not the other way around.
            I suppose what I hope is that the assumptions we’ve brought to this conversation in the past will be put aside, because the alternative is truly untenable. Personally, I’m going to move more toward a way of life where I don’t feel I need such resource-expensive objects, where I can get more thingness out of things.

            In the meantime, I’ll use my computer, and continue to confess it.

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