One of the pleasures of writing The Glass Cage was discovering the works of the American pragmatic philosopher John Dewey, particularly the 1934 book Art as Experience. In “Self-Reliance,” Emerson wrote, “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” I had that feeling often while reading Dewey. There was this passage, for instance:
An environment that was always and everywhere congenial to the straightaway execution of our impulsions would set a term to growth as surely as one always hostile would irritate and destroy. Impulsion forever boosted on its forward way would run its course thoughtless, and dead to emotion. For it would not have to give an account of itself in terms of the things it encounters, and hence they would not become significant objects. The only way it can become aware of its nature and its goal is by obstacles surmounted and means employed; means which are only means from the very beginning are too much one with an impulsion, on a way smoothed and oiled in advance, to permit of consciousness of them. Nor without resistance from surroundings would the self become aware of itself; it would have neither feeling nor interest, neither fear nor hope, neither disappointment nor elation. Mere opposition that completely thwarts, creates irritation and rage. But resistance that calls out thought generates curiosity and solicitous care, and, when it is overcome and utilized, eventuates in elation.
Among other things, Dewey here provides us with a powerful way of examining and interrogating technologies. A tool that simply smooths and oils our way, that speeds us to the execution of an impulsion, has a deadening effect. It removes us from the world and hence from the struggle with the world and its objects that gives definition to the self. The best tools are the ones that expand and extend our contact with the world, that give us more not fewer frictional surfaces.
Dewey’s teaching runs directly counter to our assumption that we should seek out the technologies that offer us the greatest convenience and ease. Imagine, for instance, if software developers, and users, embraced Dewey’s philosophy. The entire software industry would evaporate in an instant, and along with it many fortunes, and a new industry would emerge in an entirely different form.