“Neither helplessness nor unbounded enthusiasm and indifference to consequences would have allowed humans to inhabit the earth for very long,” observed Bruno Latour in a lecture in Copenhagen in February. “Rather a solid pragmatism, a limited confidence in human cunning, a sane respect for the powers of nature, a great care invested to protect the fragility of human enterprise — these appear to be the virtues for dealing with first nature. Care and caution: a totally mundane grasp of the dangers and of the possibilities of this world of below.”
We live in two worlds, Latour says. There’s first nature, the earthly “world of below,” and there’s second nature, the transcendent “world of beyond.” Second nature reflects our yearning for a world “more solid, less transitory, less perishable” than that of the earth. Through most of history, second nature manifested itself in myth and religion. Now, argues Latour, it manifests itself in the “laws” of economics:
The transcendent world of beyond has always been more durable than the poor world of below. But what is new is that this world of beyond is not that of salvation and eternity, but that of economic matters. […] The world of economy, far from representing a sturdy down-to-earth materialism, a sound appetite for worldly goods and solid matters of fact, is now final and absolute.
Purging an economic system of its contingencies and investing it with inexorability tends “to generate for most people who don’t benefit from its wealth a feeling of helplessness and for a few people who benefit from it an immense enthusiasm together with a dumbness of the senses.” You get either fatalism or hubris.
It strikes me that what Latour says about our current conception of economics goes equally well for our current conception of technology. Consider the following passage from his speech in which, in three instances, I’ve replaced the word “capitalism” with the word “technology”:
We begin to see how difficult it is to disentangle the contradictory affects created by an appeal to the concept of technology: it generates a prodigious enthusiam for seizing unbounded opportunities; a dystopian feeling of total helplessness for those who are submitted to its decrees; a complete disinhibition as to the long-term consequences of its action for those who profit from it; a perverse wound of smug superiority in those who have failed to fight its progression; a fascination for its iron laws in the eyes of those who claim to study its development, to the point that it appears to run more smoothly than nature itself; a total indifference to how the soil on which it is rooted is occupied; a complete confusion about who should be treated as a total stranger and who as a close neighbor. And above all, it marks a movement towards modernization that delegitimates those who stay behind as so many losers. Actually now that technology is thought to have no enemy, it has become a mere synonym for the implacable thrust forward of modernization. From this tangle of effects, I get no other feeling than an increased sense of helplessness. The mere invocation of technology renders me speechless.
“Resistance is futile”: Depending on who’s speaking, it’s a statement of triumphalism or of defeatism.
Latour finds, in thinking about our shifting sense of economics, a great irony in the “inversion of what is transitory and what is eternal.” The irony becomes even stronger when we consider the similar inversion that has taken place in our view of technology. The glory of technology stems from the possibilities it opens to people in the material world of first nature. The glory hinges on technology’s contingency, on the way it yields not only to circumstance but to human desire and planning. When technological progress comes to be seen as a transcendent, implacable force, a force beyond human fashioning, it begins to foreclose opportunities at least as often as it opens them. It starts to hem us in.
“A solid pragmatism, a limited confidence in human cunning, a sane respect for the powers of nature, a great care invested to protect the fragility of human enterprise”: Would not these earthly virtues serve us equally well in dealing with technology?
Image: detail of Botticelli’s “St. Augustine in His Studio.”