A Humanist Frame

Avoiding the usual conservative mistake of stopping with the mere rejection of something bad

May 01, 2018Filed under tech#community#ethicsMarkdown source

A few thoughts this morning on technologies, community, and the need for a positive (as well as a negative) vision of technology, cities, and indeed liberty—taking the latest issue of Michael Sacasas’ newsletter The Convivial Society as a jumping off point.

Early in the newsletter, Sacasas offers this note on technological visionaries stretching back to the telegraph (at least):

It seems that none of these visionaries ever took into consideration the possibility that the moral frailties of human nature would only be amplified by their new technologies.

He shortly thereafter suggests why that vision proved so alluring—the too-readily amplified frailties of human nature notwithstanding:

The rise of communication technologies from the mid-19th century through today has roughly coincided with the dissolution and degradation of the traditional communities, broken and often cruel though they may have been, that provided individuals with a relatively integrated experience of place and self. In 1953, the sociologist Robert Nisbett could write of the “quest for community” as the “dominant social tendency of the twentieth century.” Framing a new technology as a source of community, in other words, trades on an unfulfilled desire for community.

What strikes me as most interesting here is that Sacasas notes, even if only as an aside, one of the most important things that most critics of our current techno/cultural milieu seem entirely content to skip over: that the traditional communities were “broken and often cruel.” One of the reasons that the social revolutions of the last 150 years have had such force is precisely this: that the traditional communities so casually valorized today (though not by Sacasas himself) may have helped people have “an integrated experience of place and self”—but that experience was, often as not, one of abuse: of ethnic minorities, of women, of anyone outside the gentry…

Sacasas’ description—“broken and often cruel”—is more right than is usually granted in these discussions. If we want to escape the shackles of atomistic individualism, we had best be thinking of something other than the glorious past, because the past was not glorious.

Third, and closely related to the above considerations: Sacasas closes the newsletter with a quote from Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!, adding his own emphasis. I’ll reproduce the quotation in full here as he gave it (so: emphasis his) and then comment below.

“You see,” he went on calmly, “measured by your standards here, I’m a failure. I couldn’t buy even one of your cornfields. I’ve enjoyed a great many things, but I’ve got nothing to show for it all.”

“But you show for it yourself, Carl. I’d rather have had your freedom than my land.”

Carl shook his head mournfully. “Freedom so often means that one isn’t needed anywhere. Here you are an individual, you have a background of your own, you would be missed. But off there in the cities there are thousands of rolling stones like me. We are all alike; we have no ties, we know nobody, we own nothing. When one of us dies, they scarcely know where to bury him. Our landlady and the delicatessen man are our mourners, and we leave nothing behind us but a frock-coat and a fiddle, or an easel, or a typewriter, or whatever tool we got our living by. All we have ever managed to do is to pay our rent, the exorbitant rent that one has to pay for a few square feet of space near the heart of things. We have no house, no place, no people of our own. We live in the streets, in the parks, in the theaters. We sit in restaurants and concert halls and look about at the hundreds of our own kind and shudder.”

Alexandra was silent. She sat looking at the silver spot the moon made on the surface of the pond down in the pasture. He knew that she understood what he meant. At last she said slowly, “And yet I would rather have Emil grow up like that than like his two brothers. We pay a high rent, too, though we pay differently. We grow hard and heavy here. We don’t move lightly and easily as you do, and our minds get stiff. If the world were no wider than my cornfields, if there were not something beside this, I wouldn’t feel that it was much worth while to work. No, I would rather have Emil like you than like them. I felt that as soon as you came.”

Sacasas—with many others who are rightly critical of the social situation we have made for ourselves here in late modernity, including many of my friends over at Mere Orthodoxy—calls out the ways that our unrestrained freedom has come at a great cost to us. These critics are right to do so. But the bit that caught my attention as equally worthy of notice in the section from Cather is Alexandra’s response (emphasis mine):

We pay a high rent, too, though we pay differently. We grow hard and heavy here. We don’t move lightly and easily as you do, and our minds get stiff. If the world were no wider than my cornfields, if there were not something beside this, I wouldn’t feel that it was much worth while to work.

There is something in this exchange of the tension between agrarianism and urbanism that seems to come up every time Wendell Berry is mentioned. It is true that cities (and late modernity!) often offer a kind of freedom that itself is slavery. But it is also true that the slavery of freedom is not the only kind of slavery.

It remains one of my chief concerns that few who are taking seriously the problems we have made for ourselves in modernity seem interested in finding solutions that work in cities. It is one thing to have a healthy suspicion of the kind of city-centrism and techno-centrism and indeed techno-fundamentalism that is largely the order of the day. It is something else entirely, however, to fail to imagine either city or technological milieu as possibly good. (To be clear, this does not seem to be the tack that Sacasas is taking; and it is not so much that someone like my friend Jake Meador is hostile to cities as that his own sympathies run more to rural life.) This is, I think, part of what Stephen Carradini has been getting at in his own more optimistic view in especially our most recent Winning Slowly episode.

We must reject techno-utopianism; we must repent of our worship of technique. But we must not make the usual conservative mistake and stop with the mere rejection of something bad. That tends not to go so well. Instead, we need to consciously develop a frame that situates technology as properly subordinate to the humane, and which sets cities and farms and small towns and moon colonies not in opposition to each other but as complements.