By Jaron Lanier. Review by Franklin Foer, NYT Book Review, Sunday, July 1, 2018
From the review:
“He [Lanier] worries that our reliance on big tech companies is ruining our capacity for spirituality, by turning us into robotic extensions of their machines. The companies, he argues, have no appreciation for the ‘mystical spark inside you.’ They don’t understand the magic of human consciousness and, therefore, will recklessly destroy it.”
Yes, the “mystical spark”. It’s true, the brain trusts of the big social media companies don’t understand this aspect of human existence. They are zealots in the School of Behaviorism, in which the will to objectivity has reduced the status of the inner experience to that of a mere footnote. This polemic that is instantiated today as the quarrel between Behaviorism and the advocates of the existence of the “mystical spark” stems from the great quarrel between science and the humanities, ultimately between science and poetry, which stretches back into ancient times. Plato is famous for coming down squarely against the poets and for the sciences concerning this crucial question. “And the rest is history” as they say. The Enlightenment had recalled the Greek ideal and Reason as a result becomes the new god, because it has been reified, it has become the Supreme Court which functions as the court of last appeal. One can’t put reasoning at the service of the passions without a return to the triumph of irrational chaos, so the reasoning goes. But the law of unintended consequences is always lurking to find the flaw in the given conception. Since the time of Condorcet we have been grappling with this enormous question, and one then wishes, realizing the enormous stakes invlolved, to look back at the viewpoints gathered under the heading of the Sturm und Drang, or “Counter-enlightenment”, which indicts Reason as the reified master myth of a death-oriented civilization.
The following passage in Foer’s review of Lanier’s book highlights the sorry state of affairs we have arrived at in our society in our “liberal” regime of tolerance:
“Critics of the big technology companies have refrained from hectoring users to quit social media. It’s far more comfortable to slam a corporate leviathan than it is to shame your aunt or high school pals — or, for that matter, to jettison your own long list of “friends.” As our informational ecosystem has been rubbished, we have placed very little onus on the more than two billion users of Facebook and Twitter. So I’m grateful to Jaron Lanier for redistributing blame on the lumpen-user, for pressing the public to flee social media. He writes, ‘If you’re not part of the solution, there will be no solution.'”
Which calls to mind a passsage in a book by Matthew B. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head (2015):
“We abstain on principle from condemning activities that leave one compromised and degraded, because we fear that disapproval of the activity would be paternalistic toward those who engage in it. We also abstain from affirming some substantive picture of human flourishing, for fear of impoising our values on others. This gives us a pleasant feeling: we have succeeded in not being paternalistic or presumptuous. The prioity we give for avoiding these vices in particular is rooted in our respect for persons, understood as autonomous. “People should be allowed to make their own decisions.” Liberal agnosticism about the good life has some compelling historical reasons behind it. It is a mind-set that we consciously cultivated as an antidote to the religious wars of centuries ago, when people slaughtered one another over ultimate differences. After WWII, revulsion with totalitarian regimes of the right and left made us redouble our liberal commitment to neutrality. But this stance is maladaptive in the context of 21st century capitalism…the everyday threats to your well-being no longer come from an ideological rival or a theological threat to the liberal secular order. They are native to that order.”
Foer says at one point in his review that generally speaking, critics have avoided calling out the average “lumpen-user” as complicit in Facebook et al’s “manipulation machine”. But this is inevitable in an ideological framework which is organized around the principle of “vox populi est vox dei” and the liberal tolerance stemming therefrom, the basic principles of which I sketched above. If the numbers are there, the people have spoken and that is the final word. But truth cannot be decided by numbers, and the democratic experiment implodes as a result of this realization. The “lumpen-user”. I like that phrasing. One imagines a mechanism wherein the “lumpen-user” is made progressively more “lumpen” by increasingly greater enmeshment in social media, television, and internet use in general. And this is just the beginning. At such a nodal point I always think of a scene in the movie “The President’s Analyst”, where the head of TPC (The Phone Company) outlines plans to the protagonist of installing transistors right inside the brain so you can make and receive calls just by thinking. Sherry Turkle assures me that the best minds at MIT are working hard at implementing just such a system now. Who wants to have that little tablet in one’s hand all the time when it can all be right inside you?
The overall point must be stressed: We must speak out now against participation in this soul-draining mechanism. Of course speaking out in some inchoate way is not enough. We must develop the sensibility that is adequate to countering this master-myth of reified Reason. Reason has betrayed the mind; what is the way out of this labyrinth? That is my project, some of which has been outlined here beginning this past January.
If it takes “shaming” the lumpen-user into realizing the stakes, then so be it. To me, shaming isn’t necessary, if one can outline the advantages of rejection of this ideologically-based mechanism. This grand initiative, bequeathal of Condorcet and Comte, now takes on its true form as the greatest enemy of the human spirit that has as yet materialized. Victims of technological rationalism unite!