Subscriber Commentary and Review (#16)
Technology; Society; The Chinese Car Empire; 12-ft Tall Pagan Puppets of Syrian Refugee Children
Welcome subscribers new and old! This is the Upheaval Subscriber Commentary and Review thread, where I share some things I read recently that I thought were particularly interesting, and you can discuss whatever you want in the comments. It’s been on hiatus since May, but now it’s back. My stretch goal is to start keeping it concise so I can more easily put it out on the regular; I completely failed at that today, but I’ll keep working on it… Anyway, our big themes in this issue are: technology, community, and society. Enjoy. – N.S. Lyons
Part I: The Troublesome Tribulations of Technology
Rod Dreher, “The Digital Apocalypse Is Here: Reading Anton Barba-Kay on the Meaning of Online Culture” (The European Conservative)
Dreher has written an intriguing review of a new book by American philosopher Antón Barba-Kay, A Web of Our Own Making: The Nature of Digital Formation, which I think I will pick up to read myself. Barba-Kay’s point, which Dreher tries to get across, seems to be that collectively we have only begun to wrestle with the true depth of the transformation wrought by the digital revolution, including on how we humans conceive of ourselves, our place in the world, and the world itself.
Barba-Kay predicts that many of the cultural assumptions and institutions (including political institutions) that have dominated the West for centuries, and which we pre-digitals take for granted, were really the product of the age of the printing press, and are unlikely to survive the digital upheaval.
Why is digital culture so different from other technologies? Because, argues Barba-Kay, it acts directly upon us to capture and control our attention, and promising us that we can control the world by controlling our experience of the world. “Digital technology is a spiritual technology,” he writes. Why? Because “the digital era thus marks the point at which our concern will be mainly the control of human nature through our control of what we are aware of and how we attend to it.”
As he writes:
Never has such change been struck so fast. The printing press and firearms were technological watersheds with world-historical implications, but they took decades or centuries to assimilate. Digital technology has, by contrast, so changed human life within a couple of decades that teens are today growing up in an altogether new cultural environment – with different expectations, habits, and standard points of orientation from their parents’. There is now arguably a greater chasm between someone age twelve and someone age fifty (or forty, or thirty) than there ever was between people separated by a millennium of pharaonic rule in ancient Egypt. The fact that we must make a concerted effort to remember how we did things “before” digital technology bespeaks the abrupt and thorough extent to which it has captivated our imagination of the ordinary.
The digital is the advent of a new religion—not literally, but effectively. We live in a culture that considers technological advancement to be the greatest measure of progress. If we associate perfection with divinity, then, he argues, “digital technology will continue to occupy a role undeniably analogous to that of religion in other ages.”
“If the present technological age has a lasting gift for us,” writes the philosopher, “it is to urge as decisive the question of what human beings are for, what the point of us is at all.”
L.P. Koch, “The German Soul” (Substack)
This is a fascinating essay that is rather hard describe or even quote from, but which essentially argues the case that there was once a uniquely German way of viewing the world, and we might be able to learn something from it today. This “German soul” was:
[T]o a large degree, anti-materialist, anti-mechanistic, anti-positivist. Even in the face of the apparent successes of the natural sciences in the 19th century, the German soul couldn’t help but rebel against scientism: after the philosophical school of German idealism, to many Anglo ears the epitome of irrationality, the Germans went even further with their Lebensphilosophie—the philosophical movement that emphasized life, wholeness, organism as opposed to cold causality, materialism, and reductionism. This life-centered philosophy was everywhere in the early 20th century.
In particular, this approach, by rejecting a vulgar philosophy of pure causality as the root of true reason, was better able to grapple with and overcome the “disenchantment of the world” and other metaphysical challenges posed by technological development. In fact, the author argues, it helped propel a golden age of German science before the war, leading to such insights as quantum theory. E.g.:
You can clearly see this mindset in the work of Werner Heisenberg (of uncertainty principle fame), too. The great physicist jotted down his own philosophy and cosmology throughout his career, published posthumously under the title Ordnung der Wirklichkeit (“Order of Reality”). In it, Heisenberg explicitly follows Goethe’s work, painting a multi-layered picture of the cosmos where each level—physics, chemistry, biology, human consciousness, and the highest layer, “creative forces”—brings about entirely new planes of being that cannot be reduced to the layers below. Of the “creative forces” level, he said that it “can only be expressed in parables.”
[A] very different mindset emerged in the Anglo world. Analytic philosophy, with its reductionist approach to philosophical concepts, took over and stood in stark contrast to the German focus on wholeness. And of course, Darwinism, tightly linked with eugenics as well as a general secular, naturalistic program to eliminate all traces of the mystical or supernatural, originated in Britain. The neo-Darwinian “modern synthesis” was Anglo-driven as well. The rest, as they say, is history…
The German soul was twisted and corrupted by the Nazis, who succeeded in “paradoxically turning the Romantic anti-modernist impulse into modern bureaucracy, technology, and earthly socialist ideas” by exploiting a longing for community and transcendent rebirth, in addition to adopting Darwinist ideas. Then the Anglo-Americans took over and post-war Germans turned into the stereotype of hyper-technocratic, bureaucratic automatons most of us think of them as today.
Spengler’s fear and longing, stripped of its cosmic, transcendent essence, strikes again: fear not of soul death, longing not for connection between the inner and the outer world, but a deeply paradoxical fear of man-made technology, and longing for more man-made technology to fight old man-made technology. Of all the great things a healthy German soul could have contributed to the world, this crippled, crippling constellation turned out to be our most successful export.
The author argues, however, that this old “German soul” is today making a comeback by necessity, echoed for example in the work of Iain McGilchrist on the dangers of overreliance on a mechanistic, “left-brain” dominated world. There’s a lot more here, as well, including a very interesting discussion of “the German way, for better or worse, of dealing with authority,” and some especially fascinating correspondence between Max Planck and a young Heisenberg on the best way to resist Nazism. I recommend reading the whole thing.
Morgoth, “Ruminations By A Vegetable Patch” (Substack)
Behind me is an old cabinet with smaller planters — swedes, and the aforementioned turnips are waiting impatiently to rejuvenate the wasteland in the centre. Isolated and alone in a separate planter entirely stand the radishes. I contemplate the celery once more, kneeling down in wet dirt and gently inspecting the multitudinous stalks and contrasting to supermarket celery and images on the internet. A thought flits across my mind. I could nip back into the house and look quickly on the phone at images or do a brief Google.
Oh God, the phone, the internet, notifications, and messages. No, I don’t think I will.
I shall weed instead. After weeding I decided to thread a few of the creeping pea vines which came loose back onto the shambolic trellis I constructed.
This is my favourite reality.
Relevant and beautifully written…
Back inside and logging into the digital realm, the first images I see are enormous lines of young people queuing to have their retinas scanned in order to access a cryptocurrency called ‘‘Worldcoin’’. The eye scan proves to the Machine that they’re human. The symbolism of this grandiose techno-grid being unable to determine what a human is without such intrusive measures is almost palpable as they dance and scan their way into a future that seems utterly at odds with what being a human is.
This is my worst reality. The gamified world of unlocking and progressing, unlocking and progressing sits at the core of digital logic whether that be Skyrim, a digital ID, or gaining access to crypto. I, and I believe many others, are half in and half out of this grid — trapped between two portals, and sooner or later the tension between the two will result in a break. A few years ago such a scenario would have concerned me far more, but now I view it almost as a liberating event — the turning away will be set, and the city intellect and those who will become the Fellaheen will have chosen their separate destinies.
Centuries ago men sat content tending to gardens. Centuries in the future, if there is a future, men will still be feeling content as they enjoy the fruits of their labour. What happens in between is an aberration to be endured and survived.
This kind of essay is what makes me love Substack. But I wonder if “Morgoth” has considered changing his name, given that the Lord of Technique doesn’t really seem to fit anymore. Maybe Oromë would suit better, perhaps? Just saying. Also, this all sounds suspiciously German for an alleged Brit, to be honest…
Vincent Kelley, “Ted Kaczynski and the Paradox of the Postwar Predicament” (Substack)
How do I describe this essay? It’s about the 2003 film The Net: The Unabomber, LSD and the Internet, and hippies, and techies, and the American security state, and The WELL, and cybernetics, and how pseudo-humanism and the 1960s New York art scene helped destroy the world. I guess you’d probably better just read it.
Part II: Social Studies
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