by Sandy Krolick, who blogs at kulturCritic
The tame and domesticated contours of civilized life have eclipsed our sense of the feral in everyday experience — that irrepressible anchor of human embodiment, our elemental interlacing with nature, “that subtle knot which makes us man.” Neglecting this wild core, we’ve abandoned our original gift of freedom, the inherent power of just being-there, outside the chains of time and the terror of history. Forsaking this primal autonomy, the groundwork was laid for our own entrapment, the beginning of our enslavement. But we might again reawaken that sense of primitive sovereignty, and experience the untamed, ecstatic undercurrent of life.
Ever since discovery of the appearance of Homo habilis approximately two million years ago, humankind has been defined as toolmaker, technician, and tinkerer. Whether or not a direct link to Homo sapiens can ever be definitively unearthed is a moot point. Clearly we humans live and die by our tools. But, while necessity may be the “mother of invention,” what manner of need could have led to the never-ending flow of new tools and technologies evidenced today? What of this unyielding pace of technological innovation that seems to be of another, qualitatively different order?
The Greek “techne” suggests “craft” or “art,” the practical discipline of making things. Technology, then, would refer to the results or products of techne — artifacts, devices, tools, and other handicrafts — the artifices of human culture. This sounds like an old story, about which we can be neutral. But we are not neutral; we adore our modern technologies excessively. Is it because they create nice, clean, artificial surfaces, insulating us from the wild and uncultivated underbelly of life, of nature, of our own embodiment?
With America leading the way, the path charted and engineered by Western civilization has spawned a hegemony that is rapidly overtaking the globe, socially, economically, and culturally. This unheralded ascendancy has unleashed a domination of values, which unlike political hegemonies of the past, is lightning fast, wide ranging, and spreading insidiously, artfully enabled by those very technologies to which it has given birth.
Engineering and technological sophistication now appear to constitute the religion of a new epoch. The foundation stones of a nascent techno-theocracy, they march us, hyper-rationally, to a contrived and perhaps apocalyptic Eschaton. Their dominion is so complete that they have undermined our very enjoyment of a more spontaneous life, lived naturally on Mother Earth. After all, the “virtual reality” they promise seems less messy than the real thing.
With an implacable call for progress in our visually dominated world, it is no wonder we are so enthralled by the steady array of new toys and tools paraded before our eyes. But why do HDTVs, TiVOs, iPhones, iPods, cell phones, Blackberries, electronic notebooks, and a myriad of other digital gadgets hold such sway, and command our rapt attention? Some might call it convenience; others would say it’s just the fulfillment of the American Dream — the Holy Grail of our continuously advancing civilization.
A large part of this digital delight may simply be a function of its visual appeal, the marketing hook that drives our consumerism. Perhaps it really is all about the spectacle. Or maybe it’s the continuous enhancement in microchip effectiveness and processing speed, betraying our “end user” mentality — to accomplish more things more quickly so we can buy more toys and move more rapidly into a brighter future.
More pointedly, perhaps, these technologies serve as valuable tools of social, economic, and cultural control. They encourage and validate our fixation with civilization’s fundamental construct, unilinear time and its underlying implication — the necessity of historical progress. This insures our continued dependency and our unquestioned faith in a certain path or trajectory, let us call it the curriculum of the West.
All the while, these same technologies distract attention from the inchoate, but developing sense of our own anonymity in today’s digitized, urban landscape. They signal the arrival of a new world, the global village, where we all share common values and concerns. But it is an erector set village, artfully crafted from our own infantile dreams of omnipotence — Western domination — now exported around the globe. These technologies claim to “connect us.” But, it is a hollow promise aimed at disarming a potential epidemic of cultural alienation that might otherwise expose the tinkerers on the scaffolding propping up the gloss of our blueprinted lives.
So our suspicions go undetected and our faith in the curriculum remains intact. We continue on, accepting as axiomatic that the paths of technological advancement, happiness, and righteousness coincide; in fact, we take for granted that progress is a good in itself – the only legitimate means of achieving happiness and living the good life. But why can’t we jettison this belief? Why this insatiable need for novelty? Why is it we have so little regard for what is primal and founding? And, why do we attempt to light up every corner of the globe, demystify the naturally chiaroscuro quality of life, making everything one-dimensionally bright? What is it about the curriculum of the West that is so captivating?
It may be that this race for technological innovation is nothing other than the best efforts of our civilization to ensure that we citizens keep producing and consuming, and remain focused on the future. We are being led to the abattoir of our own planned obsolescence by a marketing wizardry that locks us firmly onto a path of never-ending progress. Could this also explain our disproportionate emphasis on free will and unrestrained choice in America? After all, it provides an unassailable platform from which to produce and market an inexhaustible stream of saleable products and commodities that in turn validates our freedom, again keeping us future-oriented and chasing the ever-receding horizon of our Dream.
Who could argue with the shrewdness of such an agenda, or its efficacy in herding us into quiet submission? I was just as susceptible, just as committed to the plan, as were my fellow citizens. But I also sensed that this driving “will” to consume was not part of my natural constitution. It seemed to be the result of a story we had all been told about the future, about “making something of ourselves” and “getting ahead.”
Certainly, no one could deny that America had achieved great distinction for its material advancement and its extravagant pursuit of innovation. Nor did I wish to underestimate the value of specific advances in medical science and biotechnology. But that did not mean all progress was necessarily good, or even necessary.
Could I let go of my MacBook or do without email? No. Not completely. But, I refused to buy the iPhone, the TiVo, or the Blackberry; and I rejected a host of other gadgets and toys. I knew that I was being ensnared in a vicious cycle of work-buy-owe, and that I was partly to blame for the entire arrangement. I was a willing accomplice, collaborating with our clever cultural missionaries. I had become just another spokesperson trying to sell the Dream to the rest of the world, perpetuating the illusion.
Yet, along with most of my fellow citizens, I could not just renounce all the “benefits” of this way of life without consequences. The social covenant our ancestors had entered into long ago guaranteed that each and every one of us would come to rely on these tools as a matter of simple survival. I recalled what Rousseau, perhaps the single most important Enlightenment figure, had written centuries before in his work, On the Social Contract:
[Civil society] must transform each individual into a part of a larger whole … deny man his own [natural] forces in order to give him forces that are alien to him and that he cannot make use of without the help of others.
As I now saw things, we had proceeded too far down this road for anyone to turn back. If I, or anyone else, were to survive in civilized society — and really, one could no longer leave it because our own natural forces had long ago been replaced by civilized ones over generations of indoctrination to the curriculum — then I had little choice but to make use of the tools provided, or perish. I was in a double bind from which I could not easily escape. But at least I understood the game, some of the rules, and the potential consequences of playing it. Such awareness enabled me to develop healthier positioning with respect to the curriculum and its artifices; I no longer permitted them their insidious and unchecked control over my life.
But, how was I or anyone else to survive as a citizen in the twenty-first century, yet learn to live again, ecstatically? How to recollect that feral core, that elemental intertwining with nature? I was certain only of the most rudimentary aspects of such a return and recollection.
Excerpted from The Recovery Of Ecstasy: Notebooks From Siberia, Sandy Krolick, Ph.D.