The poetics of progress


“I meet an American sailor,” writes Alexis de Tocqueville in his 1840 masterwork Democracy in America, “and I ask him why the vessels of his country are constituted so as not to last for long, and he answers me without hesitation that the art of navigation makes such rapid progress each day, that the most beautiful ship would soon become nearly useless if it lasted beyond a few years. In these chance words said by a coarse man and in regard to a particular fact, I see the general and systematic idea by which a great people conducts all things.”

Far more than a marketing ploy, planned obsolescence is an expression of a deep, romantic faith in technology. It’s a faith that Tocqueville saw as central to the American soul, argues Benjamin Storey in an illuminating essay in The New Atlantis:

For Tocqueville, technology is not a set of morally neutral means employed by human beings to control our natural environment. Technology is an existential disposition intrinsically connected to the social conditions of modern democratic peoples in general and Americans in particular. On this view, to be an American democrat is to be a technological romantic. Nothing is so radical or difficult to moderate as a romantic passion, and the Americans Tocqueville observed accepted only frail and minimal restraints on their technophilia. We have long since broken many of those restraints in our quest to live up to our poetic self-image. …

Democratic peoples, Tocqueville [writes], “imagine an extreme point where liberty and equality meet and merge,” and, in our less sober moments, we believe that technology can help us get there by so thoroughly vanquishing natural scarcity and the limits of human nature that we can eliminate unfreedom and inequality as such. We might be able to improve the human condition so far that what seemed in the past to be permanent facts of human life — ruling and being ruled, wealth and poverty, virtue and vice — can be left behind as we achieve the full realization of our democratic ideal of liberty and equality.

The glory of this view manifests itself in admirable technical skill and an outpouring of ingenious, if disposable, goods. But when embraced as a philosophy, a way of seeing the world, it turns destructive.

Not content with the obvious truth that our technical know-how has made us, on average, healthier and more prosperous than peoples of the past, we insist that it has also made us happier and better — indeed, that human happiness and virtue are technical problems, problems our rightly-celebrated practical know-how can settle, once and for all. Tocqueville saw how the terminology of commerce in the 1830s was coming to penetrate all aspects of American language, “the first instrument of thought.” As our technological utopian project advances, as our science enters further into the domain of the human heart and mind, we come to see our lives less in terms of joys, virtues, sins, and miseries and more in terms of chemical imbalances, hormones, good moods, and depressions — material problems susceptible to technological solutions, not moral challenges or existential conditions with which we must learn to live.

We are flawed not because we are flawed but because we were born into an insufficiently technologized world.

Image of Oculus Rift: Wikipedia.

3 thoughts on “The poetics of progress

  1. Tim

    I read this post and I thought, “Dostoevsky, prescient again”, and my mind immediately went to the closing paragraph of Richard Peaver’s intro to his and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation of Notes from Underground (one of my favorite books): “There is, however, one tradition of mistranslation attached to Notes from Underground that raises something more than a question of “mere tone”. The second sentence of the book, ya zloy chelovek, has most often been rendered as “I am a spiteful man.” Zloy is indeed at the root of the Russian word for spiteful, but it is a much broader and deeper word, meaning wicked, bad, evil….The opposite of zloy is dobryi, good. This opposition is of great importance for Notes from Underground; indeed it frames the book from “I am a wicked man” at the start to the outburst close at the end: “They won’t let me…I can’t be…good!” We can talk forever about the inevitable loss of nuances in translating from Russian to English but the translation of zloy as spiteful instead of wicked is not inevitable, nor is it a matter of nuance. It speaks for the habit of substituting the psychological for the moral, of interpreting a spiritual condition as a kind of behavior, which has so bedeviled our century, not least in its efforts to understand Dostoevsky.”

    So it seems we now not only substitute the psychological, but also the technological, for the moral.

  2. Daniel Cole

    Great post, and interesting connection to Dostoevsky. That brings to my mind another passage from the close of that book – “We are oppressed at being men, men with a real individual body and blood. We are ashamed of it. We think it a disgrace, and try to contrive to be some sort of impossible generalized man. We are stillborn, and for generations past have been begotten not by living fathers, and that suits us better and better. We are developing a taste for it. Soon we shall contrive to be born somehow from an idea.”

    Dostoevsky saw the trend already forming with books in his day. We’ve started thinking of ourselves as being only as good as our latest update. Limits embarrass us even though we want to be seen as individuals. We want to include everything, and be constantly reborn with a click of “refresh”.

  3. Carrie

    I have just started reading essays in this blog. I am a professor of education. The notion of “embracing technology” in education has puzzled me for a long time because it has become over time a disposition (virtue) that all teachers should possess. A good teacher works hard, resists racism, and embraces technology. I haven’t been able to put a sensible rationale on my unease, but this essay nailed it. Thank you!

    And about the two comments about Dostoyevsky: You may have heard some of the recent controversy surrounding the imposition of the Common Core standards on public schools. One element of the CCSS is a stronger emphasis on students reading “informational text” over reading narrative text. Certainly this move away from narrative is an affirmation of the growing value of the technical and an official enculturation of US public school students into “embracing technology” as an invisible unquestioned element of democracy. Moreover, by reducing the amount of narrative literature students read and its importance in public schools’ curriculum, the CCSS architects reduce the chance that a critical mass of young people will be influenced by the ideas of authors like Dostoyevsky. What is a better way to buttress technophila than to reduce children’s and adolescents’ access to literature?

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