Monday, August 11, 2014

Undone by the Things that Delight Us

"Here we may remark in passing that mechanism is incompatible with inspiration. The artisan could do and often did do a thoroughly bad job. But if, like Ch’ing, the chief carpenter, he cared for his art and were ready to do what was necessary to make himself docile to inspiration, he could and sometimes did do a job so good  that it seemed “as though of supernatural execution.” Among the many and enormous advantages of efficient automatic machinery is this: It is completely fool-proof. But every gain has to be paid for. The automatic machine is fool-proof; but just because it is fool-proof it is also grace-proof. The man who tends such a machine is impervious to every form of aesthetic inspiration, whether of human or of genuinely spiritual origin. “Industry without art is brutality.” But actually Ruskin maligns the brutes. The industrious bird or insect is inspired, when it works, by the infallible animal grade of instinct – by Tao as manifests itself on the level immediately above the psychological. The industrial worker at his fool-proof and grace-proof machine does his job in a man-made universe of punctual automata – a universe that lies entirely beyond the pale of Tao on any level, brutal, human or spiritual.”

So says Aldous Huxley in his essay “Grade and Free Will,” part of his book “The Perennial Philosophy.” It’s clear from reading this, and reading other things he’s written – notably Brave New World – that Huxley isn’t a fan of technology. Or, as John Naughton writing for The Guardian said in 2013, “[George] Orwell feared that we would be destroyed by the things we fear – the state surveillance apparatus so vividly evoked in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Huxley’s nightmare, set out in Brave New World, his great dystopian novel, was that we would be undone by the things that delight us.”

"Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards,” Huxley said. And indeed, in a world where we share details of our lives with our friends and family in extremely public venues like Facebook, blogs, and other social media, it seems ironic that we decry state-sponsored monitoring of our emails and phone calls. One can argue that what we share on blogs and Facebook is willingly shared and that emails and phone calls are assumed to be private – but the line between public and private is so blurred by what we’ll blurt out in public forums negates the concept of privacy. There are enough pornography addicts bragging about their addiction on social media that to assume torrid phone calls or emails deserve the privacy we assume they offer.

Or, as Naughton puts it: “On the Orwellian front, we are doing rather well – as the revelations of Edward Snowden have recently underlined. We have constructed an architecture of state surveillance that would make Orwell gasp. And indeed for a long time, for those of us who worry about such things, it was the internet's capability to facilitate such comprehensive surveillance that attracted most attention.

“In the process, however, we forgot about Huxley's intuition. We failed to notice that our runaway infatuation with the sleek toys produced by the likes of Apple and Samsung – allied to our apparently insatiable appetite for Facebook, Google and other companies that provide us with "free" services in exchange for the intimate details of our daily lives – might well turn out to be as powerful a narcotic as soma was for the inhabitants of Brave New World.”

(For an interesting compare/contrast between Orwell’s vision and Huxley’s vision and how they might be playing out today, go here.)

Huxley’s vision of technology carrying us backwards is even more beautifully illustrated in his novel “After Many A Summer Dies the Swan,” in which he outlines how genetic manipulation turned a man seeking eternal youth into a reincarnation of primitive cavemen. The American millionaire funding the research, upon seeing the ape-man who is purported to be 200 years old, urges the research be continued so he too can live forever, consequences be damned.

Here we see the fool-roof and grace-proof worldview Huxley holds of technology: It is pursued not because we should do it, but because we can do it. Which obviously brings this to mind:

MALCOLM: Genetic power’s the most awesome force the planet’s ever seen, but you wield it like a kid that’s found his dad’s gun. I’ll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you’re using here. It didn’t acquire any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, packaged it and slapped it on a plastic lunch box. And now you wanna sell it. You’re selling it.”

HAMMOND: I don’t think you’ve giving us our due credit. Our scientists have done things which nobody has done before.

MALCOLM: Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.

And if you want it from the real world, not fiction:

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