Notes from a technoscape
A conversation with Sajay Samuel
Almantas Samalavicius: You’ve recently edited a book of essays by Ivan Illich, entitled Beyond Economics and Ecology. This is an exceptional volume, not only because it presents the radical thought of an unconventional (and largely ignored) social thinker to new generations of readers unlikely to have come across his name in standard academic books, but also because it brings back into focus a radical critique of the modern mythologies that form the basis of both mainstream economic discourse and dominant concepts in ecology. You seem to agree with Illich that economic growth as well as “greening” of the human environment constitute a road leading nowhere, if these activities continue to be oriented around a modern technoscape, where it is implied that we can somehow solve the most pressing problems of our times with the help of innovative technologies, without reconsidering and reshaping human attitudes towards production, consumption and so-called globally recognized “needs”. Do you think Illich’s ideas might be better received today, as more and more people become disillusioned with growth, progress and prosperity? And do you think there is still hope that today’s self-destructive modern civilization can change course?
Sajay Samuel: The anthropologist Max Gluckman once noted that the ritual rain-dance had a curious property. The belief in its powers is rarely shaken – should it rain after a dance, that is taken as proof of its efficacy, and when the ground remains parched under unclouded skies, that is a signal to dance even harder, that the dance was badly choreographed. Upon bringing out this set of essays by Illich, I do think the belief in progress and general prosperity through economic growth is less self-evident than it was a generation ago. But this is an uneven phenomenon: in the West (roughly speaking), and particularly after the recent so-called “economic crisis”, many are out of work or working much harder for less, carrying large amounts of debt, and experiencing their daily lives and future prospects as being more fragile and precarious. The ritual dance of work and consumption has been interrupted, and this leads many to examine again their belief, even faith, in progress and economic prosperity. Even the most diehard economists are bewildered about what can be done – though they continue helplessly to whip those tired horses, “more work” and “more consumption”, even while dimly recognizing that these nags will not run much more.
However, the mantra of prosperity and progress through economic growth seems comforting to those recently converted to market economies after decades of Development, Planning or Communism. Faith in the economy seems to have taken hold in the so-called BRIC countries, but also in eastern Europe, Latin America and on the African continent. This faith is not unrelated to the millions of peasants and small producers who have been forced into the labour markets over the past couple of decades. So yes, to an extent, I think Illichs’ ideas will find a receptive audience, or at least, that was the hope and intention behind publishing these essays. But, in which places and to what degree – this remains to be seen.
It is nevertheless clear to me, at least, that without careful consideration of his kind of radical critique – which, as you point out, does not offer much solace to those who think a coat of green ecological paint can disguise the barrenness of the technoscape that surrounds us – there is little reason to expect a change in the current course of mans’ progressive entombment in what you call the technoscape.
AS: In your preface to Beyond Economics and Ecology, you suggest that Illich largely predicted the inevitability of the coming crises. You write:
“Explaining the habituation to employment frustrates and destroys self-reliance, and that the increasing power of machines deepens dependence on them, Illich warned against those whose misunderstanding of ‘crisis’ would perversely bring on what they sought to avoid. Even though this is precisely what they have wrought, politicians and scientists continue to insist that the ‘economic crisis’ is simply a matter of not enough jobs and that the ‘ecological crisis’ is a matter of not enough clean energy.”
How would you explain this paradox – which seems to be peculiar to modern assumptions of about almost everything? Do you think this controversy can be solved and if so how?
SS: I’d like to separate what I think of as two distinct phenomena implicit in your question. First, as Gorgio Agamben has most persuasively shown recently, “crisis” is a permanent feature of modern political regimes. The reason why “crises” are always invoked but never resolved is because it opens into a space that is beyond the reach of the law. In a crisis, usually portrayed as an existential threat, the rule of law is suspended by the urgent “need” to do what is “necessary.” One can gauge the extent to which modern polities are infected by endemic crisis when one thinks of some of its founders. For example, Niccolo Machiavelli recommended a prince commit murder to spark fearful gratitude in a populace, and Thomas Hobbes justified the absolute power of the Leviathan by invoking the notion that, in the state of “nature”, man is wolf to man. In both founding instances, we can see that modern politics is the management of crisis. Crisis invokes and promotes the zone of management and administration, which lies beyond the reach of the law. So one must take distance to the use of “crises” as deployed in modern times.
But there is another dimension to your question that I’d like to address more directly. Why is it that those in power cannot think outside the categories of economics and techno-science when faced with the spectre of widespread joblessness and natural disasters caused by an excessive reliance on techno-science?
I’d like to recommend for consideration two points. Modern economic science is founded on the idea of exchange value, for example, the market price of a diamond. But this is only possible if the idea of use-value is disregarded, that is, the worth of useful things – such as water, for example. Adam Smith says this clearly in The Wealth of Nations. A science that is grounded on exchange value, which is to say on the purchase and sale of commodities as the source of all value, has no perspective from which to evaluate the appropriateness of the commodity-form. At best, such a science can oscillate between intensifying or dampening market forces – the familiar dance between the so-called “free market” and regulated markets.
It is no coincidence that the recent financial markets crash, with its disastrous consequences, has been met with calls for more government regulation. Or that twenty years ago, when Reagan and Thatcher presided over the rise of neoliberalism, many of these restrictions and rules were dismantled.
The second point concerns an inability to think outside of techno-science. Giambattista Vico perhaps put the point most succinctly: the true and the made are interconvertible. That is, only what is made can be truly known. Now, it seems to me that one reason why the reign of techno-science remains largely unquestioned is because we believe we only know what we make. That geo-engineering appears to be a solution to smokestacks belching carbon is because we are ignorant of what is given. The world of the made, the constructed, the manufactured is not comprehended as such, from the perspective of the given. Instead, one remains mired within the confines of the man-made, of techno-science.
AS: Like other important thinkers (one might recall the names of Jacques Ellul or Lewis Mumford), Illich was preoccupied with what technology says about us and the course that our culture takes. More recently, philosophers Steven Best and Douglas Kellner have written:
All human cultures have their technological components, but no culture until the twentieth century has been dominated by technology and technological thinking as ours. A techno-culture arises when culture is defined more by science and technology than by religion, social norms, ethics, or the humanities; when face-to-face, concrete relations rooted in the family and neighborhood become electronically and digitally mediated; and when technology, shaped by distinct social and economic relations becomes a driving force of change that overturns all stable traditions so rapidly that it impedes any attempt to control it, understand its nature, and discern its con sequences.1
As a researcher who studies some aspects of technology’s impact with Illich, do you think that our relationship to technologies is becoming more critical and enlightened? Or are we still imprisoned in our own technoscape?
SS: One of Illich’s signal contributions to thinking about technology was his argument that it can be analysed along three interrelated fronts. In addition to studying how a technique functions (the automobile carries bodies in space), and what social consequences it has (traffic jams, displacement of pedestrians, pollution), one can also explore techniques that impact (intended or not) on perception, and particularly on self-perception. During his later years, Illich concentrated more of his efforts on uncovering the ways in which techniques reshape self-perception. The often implicit concern in these studies is the question of what academics call subjectivity: to what extent and how do specific technologies shape self-understanding? For example, to what extent does the technique of writing and the alphabet contribute to the notion and complex of feelings associated with being a liar? Could there be a fixed and verifiable truth against which utterances can be evaluated for their “truthfulness”, unless the spoken word were set in stone or paper through writing?
It seems to me that there is in the design of newer technologies of the computer age, a deliberate effort to target self-perception. Consider for instance the contrast between the eye-glass and the iPhone. The first is an instrument to correct a defect as it were, and makes no obvious claim to shaping one’s perception of the world (though, of course, it does). In contrast, the iPhone (like all “smartphones”) is designed to shape the perceptions of its user. It is not merely an instrument that amplifies ones’ voice such that it reaches places where one could not otherwise be heard, as happens when I speak to my mother in India by phone. Instead, the smartphone brings the world to your fingertips – giving one the illusion of being-in-the-world when looking and interacting with the machine. This environment is designed so that one can be with others (Facebook), simultaneously see what another sees (Snapchat), share their feelings (Twitter, emoticons), and thus feel always “connected.”
I am not now concerned with whether such “connectedness” is illusionary. Rather, unlike the eye-glass, the iPhone is designed to produce “connectedness” by mobilizing the affective dimension of its users. The urgency with which phones are checked, Facebook accounts updated, selfies posted, and WhatsApp texts sent, suggests the smartphone is more than a mere instrument. People cannot give up their phones as they could a book or a shirt; they hold on to their phones with the desperate ardour of a child for its mother.
One reason for this identification with the iPhone and the like is that such technologies lay designs on self-perception, they blur the boundaries of self and other, of self and world, and so induce the vertigo of ob-scenity, as Jean Baudrillard has demonstrated. This invitation to brazenness, to shameless exhibition, is pleasurable because ecstatic. The connected self is not herself. When captured by imagined worlds, those without friction or limit, the connected self has little time for reflection, for thought, for critique. I hope this roundabout reply sufficiently answers your question of whether we are getting more critically engaged with the technoscape that suffuses us.
AS: Together with architect Jean Robert, you study the modern concepts of speed and designed places. Do you think that, by abandoning dominant attitudes towards “engineered” urban spaces, our urban culture can be revitalized? Can contemporary cities still be reshaped and truly humanized instead of merely serving the “needs” of transportation? What is the difference between traditional attitudes towards place and modern understandings of space and speed as prerequisites of urban life?
SS: Illich used the word “dwelling” to speak of the relation between a people and their place. Dwelling is an art and each people dwell differently – from the cliff-hanging Dogon to the marsh-Arabs in Iraq. Dwelling reflects the accord reached between the physical form and cultural matrix of a people and their built environment that has been erased by “housing”, “urban planning” and “design.” These architectural notions are parasites on the idea of “space” and “speed” – both of modern provenance. Space is the stuff in which Newton’s gravity exerts force and out of whose infinitesimal partitions Liebnitz’s calculus fabricates mathematical limits. It is the indifferent, insensible void of Cartesian analytical geometry. On such a mathematical and abstract surface, anything depicted is only a variable – whether city, house, road or park. Space is the basic tool of the designers’ trade, it is constructed, its homogenous volume filled or emptied; it is in space that mountains can be flattened, rivers dammed and valleys covered over by landfill. Space is captured in the grid-lines of an architectural blueprint from which houses, bicycles paths and green fields appear. The idea of Space therefore presupposes that the where of people who move, shit, breathe, and sleep can be designed; and that people are as plastic as the space they are made to occupy. Space is literally non-sense: it cannot be touched, smelt, heard or tasted.
One could say something similar about “speed.” Even though both Aristotle and Aquinas knew of motion and movement, they did not know speed. The ancients were right: we cannot know speed even though it can be arithmetically measured. Speed is a non-sensible scientific construct. It is defined as a ratio of spatium/tempus: distance over time. Jean Robert has suggested that it was Galileo who invented this fantastic notion, which mathematically joins two heterogeneous dimensions. He related distance to time as if these quantities are of the same kind.
This scientific blindness to incommensurables is something we have become familiar with, but still cannot fully digest. After all, dividing feet by seconds or miles by days makes as much common sense as multiplying apples with oranges. However, once speed is constructed, donkeys can be compared to feet, cars to beetles, and bicycles to lizards. When speed is taken for granted, slow means only a lesser quantity than fast. The time of the oak is not incomparable to the time of a cheetah, only slower. Speed creates the illusion that motion can be understood as purely quantitative; a mere change in location.
I don’t doubt the importance and even urgency of revitalizing, enlivening, making lively again our cities and towns. But it seems to me that such an outcome depends on the extent to which the dreams of designers and planners can be reigned in – whether these be of an industrial or eco-friendly kind.
AS: Do you think that traditions of city-building or the art of city-making that existed in earlier human civilizations can still be revived, albeit not necessarily with a view to rebuilding our post-modern cities (that is perhaps sociologically and economically impossible)? Is there any chance of traditional understandings and concepts of place being properly re-examined in contemporary intellectual milieus that tend to ignore and dismiss all forms of traditional wisdom, and instead being treated as what Mumford once called a “useful past”?
SS: I heartily concur with the notion of a “useful past.” But with one coda – you cannot go back, as it were. In speaking of the distinction between dwelling and housing for instance, there are those who say that there is no practical way of going back to the time when people dwelt. Doubtless they are correct. However, even if one cannot go back, one can and should investigate the past to understand fully the contingent historicity of the present. All too often, change is stifled because we take as immutable and given what in fact are only assumptions. As for instance, the assumptions of “space” and “speed”.
But just because we cannot go back does not mean we must go “forward”. For example, many well-meaning architects and urbanists today say that it is imperative to redesign the city and the suburb to avoid the coming Planet of Slums so vividly argued by Mike Davis. They promise to involve people in the “design process”, to eco-design and so on. They promise to be better designers than their predecessors, that with good intentions and up-to-date science they can be trusted to better construct peoples’ places. I disagree. Since these promises of a golden future are based on laying designs on what people can do for themselves, the new designers are no different from their forefathers, who uttered these very same pious formulas before, when they fabricated the current landscape.
When heading towards a cliff it is better to stop. If it is not possible to go back, it is surely folly to go forward. It may be better to stop and reflect deeply on recovering and nurturing those fragile places that still remain; to seek or find a place in the here and now, in the interstices of the spaced-out city.
AS: Do you think that contemporary thinking about our cities and modes of transport can be enlightened by Illichian critique, bearing in mind that his thinking, like the works and attitudes of insightful critics of modernity such as Mumford of Ellul, are kept at a distance in contemporary university programmes? And more generally – do you think that contemporary universities can become a source of serious critique of our civilization and culture instead of merely spouting conventional wisdom generated by our present technoscapes?
SS: The meaning of the word “education” has been misunderstood. As Illich pointed out long ago, despite the efforts of educators to ennoble the word, its Latin root education did not mean to lead, to guide or to teach, but rather was used to refer to what wet-nurses did for infants. It is true that universities today don’t educate in the sense of nursing the ignorant. Illich used the word “learning” in opposition to education. By now, universities and schools have absorbed even that word to shore up their fading relevance. “Practice-based learning”, “learning goals”, and “life-long learning” are the masks behind which universities hide the fact that they are factories for the production of two commodities: knowledge and certificates.
Governments and corporations fund the bulk of the so-called research done in universities today. The production and sale of such “knowledge,” always for others, has little to do with the kind of personal knowing that deepens one’s understanding of the world and oneself. It is the second commodity the university now cynically produces that perhaps best exemplifies this disjuncture between “knowledge” and understanding. The world over, hundreds of thousands of youth are being funnelled into schools and universities to certify them as prepared for the workplace. Every day, parents worry about their children getting into the right schools, doing well, obtaining the right credentials, and the youth work hard in eight-hour shifts attending classes, preparing for examinations, taking up unpaid internships … the sum of fears produced by the “need” to get a diploma mushrooms exponentially. To take one statistic from the USA – student debt mortgaged on the future earnings of the youth now surpass most if not all other consumer loans.
The university is a branding and sorting machine: it brands and sorts into fields of work the human capital flowing through it. But what is widely recognized, as much by the faculty and administrators as by the students, is that little is learnt despite the countless exams taken and papers written. It has become a kind of open secret that the purpose of the university has little to do with the kind of knowing that fosters an inner transformation in character, in attitude, in outlook, but everything to do with obtaining an access pass. It is the grade that counts, not what the grade is supposed to reflect.
So to your question more directly, allow me to give you one example from Penn State, where I am employed. Recently, the administration chose to shut down the Science, Technology and Society” department, one to which Illich had made an annual pilgrimage since the late 1980s. Now, this was a programme of study where students could examine the history and philosophy of science and technology, where they could be introduced to such thinkers as those you mention: Ellul, Mumford, Heidegger, Illich, and so on. What seems curious to me, as one affiliated with that programme, is that the STS department was shut down precisely at the moment when a brand new building named the Millenium Science Complex was completed. For me, that the investigations into genetics and nanotechnology are promoted just as any systematic reflection on it is shut down speaks to the role the university plays in fostering the kind of critique you hope for.