Thursday, January 7, 2010

Progress and Its Discontents

This semester, beginning next week, I am leading six exceptional students at The King's College in a seminar on Francis Bacon's Invention of Modern Politics. We will be exploring Lord Verulam's plan to conquer nature for the relief of our estate, the benefits that have come of it, as well as the problems inherent in it. We will look closely and critically at Bacon's writings--The Great Instuaration, New Organon, New Atlantis, Essays--and then students will research the benefits and moral complications of subsequent technological developments.

Robert Faulkner, in his penetrating work on Bacon's artful and revolutionary project to reshape and redirect Western civilization, Francis Bacon and the Project of Progress, expresses this sober assessment nicely: "Now it seems that a thoughtful citizen of a modern country must be prepared to defend the benefits of progress, or at least to reconsider them while being aware of the defects as well as the advantages" (p.3).

For example, consider email. Most of us depend on it because we find it useful, and so we use it all the time. But we also sense a downside. What is that disturbing impulse we feel to be constantly checking our inboxes. That's not good. John Freeman explores the complexity of the technology in his book, The Tyranny of E-Mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox. "E-mail might be cheaper, faster and more convenient, but its virtues also make us lazier, lonelier and less articulate."

Also have a look at "Louis c.k." claiming that Everything's Amazing and Nobody's Happy. Warning, this is very funny, and you may see yourself in one of the "spoiled idiots" he describes.

He's entertained by the fact that conservatives and Christians find his routine resonates with what they believe. What they like is clearly the call to moderation and contentment. Louis just despises them, but that's a sign that he doesn't understand either what he's saying or the conservatives and Christians. He himself is incoherent. He meant to condemn capitalism in this routine. He explains this to Opie and Anthony. (The second clip is better than the first, but blasphemous at points.) Yet capitalism is the economic system on which he depends for his lucrative career and high flying lifestyle. He also explains that he is not against technology. He just thinks we should chasten our expectations for it and have a little more peace while using it. This thought has clearly hit a nerve with people given the video's "viral" popularity. People are uncomfortably aware that while technology is good, it affects the way we see the world in ways that are morally unhealthy. And that is a subject worthy of study.


John said...

I'm looking forward to this class. The point about email reminded me of a Wendell Berry essay called "Why I'm Not Going to Buy a Computer." In the essay, Berry lists the personal pleasures he receives from using a typewriter and documents how those joys would be lost by switching to a word processor. What interests me is the compelling nature of technology. People today have to have the latest gadget, even if it doesn't truly improve their happiness.

David C. Innes said...

Sure, but try finding a ribbon for it. I used an old Underwood as an undergraduate. It was ancient. Then I got a Selectric for grad school. By the time I was at the dissertation stage I got a Mac Plus (1989), but even at that time, I was finding it hard to find ribbons. These old technologies become the privileges of the rich (old oven, old car, old typewriter).

Philip Wainwright said...

You can get typewriter ribbons cheaply and easily on the web, of course, and for some amazingly ancient machines! It's things like that that make it so hard to put this technology in its place. When you're ready to damn it all to hell, it offers to find the perfect curse with which to do it.

David C. Innes said...

Ahh! Though it would be Baconian but not wise to look to technology to solve all our problems, even the problems that technology itself introduces, it is interesting that whereas an advance in technology (and the economics of the marketplace) made typewriter ribbons difficult to obtain, a further advance in technology--the Internet--again along with the economics of the marketplace, has made them easily available once again and at what Phillip tells us is an easily affordable price, even for my old Underwood. Oh brave new world that has such wonders in it!