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The ever-prescient Christopher Lash on the deleterious effects of “modern technology”:
Modern technology has the same effect on culture that it has on production, where it serves to assert managerial control over the labor force. The study of mass culture thus leads to the same conclusion prompted by a study of the mechanization of the workplace: that much advanced technology embodies by design (in both senses of the word) a one-way system of management and communication. It concentrates economic and political control – and, increasingly, cultural control as well – in a small elite of corporate planners, market analysts, and social engineers. It invites popular “input” or “feedback” only in the form of suggestion boxes, market surveys, and public opinion polls. Technology thus comes to serve as an effective instrument of social control (The Minimal Self, 26).
Replace “advance technology” with “Google,” or “input” with selecting Facebook’s “Like” button, and you have a fitting analysis of our contemporary internet culture.
It’s too bad that Lasch passed before the rise of the internet. He would have no doubt destroyed the faux populism of tech elites.
Although Lash is no longer with us, we do have Andrew Keen, often described as the “antichrist of Silicon Valley.” Keen offers a Laschian-type thrashing of today’s internet culture. And like Lasch, Keen has no patience for corporate speak or facile ‘conservative’ rhetoric about ‘values’ abstracted from economic realities.
In his latest book, The Internet Is Not The Answer, Keen argues that the development of the web and rise of Silicon Valley social technologies has not ushered in the utopia we were once promised. Rather than delivering more democracy, more access to the good life, and more political transparency, the internet has birthed the near opposite: robber baron-style plutocracy, rising levels of economic pain for the masses, and an unprecedented level of corporate and government surveillance that would make the Nazi Secret Police blush.
Similar to Lasch, Keen sees that the rise of social technologies does not just happen at the level of use or consumption, but is driven by the modern division of labor. We once were forced to work in factories; we now give our labor away for free, by uploading “content” to Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Writing about our “data factory economy,” Keen states,
the internet is destroying our old industrial economy – transforming what was once a relatively egalitarian system into a winner-take-all economy of what Tyler Cowen calls “billionaires and beggars.” Rather than just a city, it’s a whole economy that is losing its center. For all Silicon Valley’s claims that the Internet has created more equal opportunity and distribution of wealth, the new economy actually resembles a donut – with a gaping hole in the middle where, in the old industrial system, millions of workers were once paid to manufacture valuable products (110.)
I’m not sure if Keen offers much by way of solution. But as Cornel West pointed out to Keen (around the 33 minute mark), a big part of fixing this massive imbalance of wealth will be to cultivate “soul craft.” A good a place as any to start, I suppose.
From Christopher Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy:
In the commentary on the modern spiritual predicament, religion is consistently treated as a source of intellectual and emotional security, not as a challenge to complacency and pride. Its ethical teachings are misconstrued as a body of simple commandments leaving no room for ambiguity or doubt. Recall Jung’s description of medieval Christians as “children of God [who] knew exactly what they should do and how they should conduct themselves…
What has to be questioned here is the assumption that religion ever provided a set of comprehensive and unambiguous answers to ethical questions, answers completely resistant to skepticism, or that it forestalled speculation about the meaning and purpose of life, or that religious people in the past were unacquainted with existential despair. The famous collection of songs written by medieval students preparing for the priesthood Carmina Burana would be enough in itself to dispel this notion; these disturbing compositions give voice to an age-old suspicion that the universe is ruled by Fortune, not by Providence, that life has no higher purpose at al, and that the better part of moral wisdom is to enjoy it while you can (242-243).
For the most part, Lasch’s assessment is spot on. Yet note how Lasch appeals to medieval Christianity in order to make his argument convincing. In so doing, he conspicuously bypasses the modern Protestant tradition – that which gave birth to religion as a well spring of security, surety and fideism. The “misconstrued” ethical teachings, rightly deplored by Lasch above, unfortunately have less to do with modern secularists like Jung or Wilde, and more to do with a contingent form of bad theology. As John Milbank argues in Theology and Social Theory (published around the time of Lasch’s book), secularism was not birthed ex nihilio; rather, it was a certain form of early modern theology that birthed secularism.