Rage Against the Machine

Something’s been on my mind and I’m going to ask your indulgence again for a moment to talk about it. Far back in this weblog I asked the question, Am I a Luddite? The answer was no, as I think I made clear, but I somehow feel there’s more to be said on the subject. I say this because I believe I gave a number of logical reasons for my opposition to our ever-cozier dance with the machine, but it seems to me that I have a gut reaction as well that I never mentioned. And in truth it’s my emotional feeling about the increasing pervasiveness of technology rather than any reasoned argument that prompted me to alter my opinion about it long ago after once being such a fervent fan.

This is an important issue—my instinct tells me we’ve got to control the machine and not vice versa, and yet there’s so much money to be made with it nowadays that one wonders if there’s any way to stop its present momentum. And because it’s innovative and in many cases “cool” (Kindle, Viagra, Facebook, computer graphics, the latest cell phone, etc.), a large percentage of our people have no desire to stop it. So how do I justify my position? How do I answer the potential charge that I’m simply upset and unable to cope with the radical social transformation that any new era brings? That I’m not just like one of those bewildered guys around 1910 who, when a Model T suddenly zooms by, shouts out, “Get a horse!”

Rather than repeating what I already said about the machine in an earlier post, I’d rather stick to my own feelings about it. I’m not going to solve the problem of what to do about technology; I mentioned before that each person with his or her own expertise (doctor, teacher, engineer and so on) would have to do that to take us into the America of tomorrow. My hope for my writing is that it will help them see the modern age more clearly so that their decision-making is more informed. Right now it’s not.

I liked “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Its sojourners took an incredible number of important values into the future. They didn’t lose their humanity. If anything, they seemed to be more evolved than we are now. One could watch that show and go to bed thinking that all would be right with the world—science and technology properly handled could be a boon to humankind. If only it could be so!

I’m thinking now of a book by Alvin Gouldner called “The Future of Intellectuals and the New Class.” He made the case (thirty years ago!) that the intelligent people of the country could be divided into two groups—“intellectuals” and “the technical intelligentsia”—and the latter group will become the new dominant group (along with business people who also profit from their discoveries). For intellectuals, think along the lines of history or philosophy professors; for technical intelligentsia, think dotcom millionaires and their minions. The conclusion of Gouldner’s research? That the technical intelligentsia is just as narrow, ruthless and venal as the commercial class it is replacing; that money rather than “values” will continue to call the shots. One only need be the slightest bit perspicacious to see that this is indeed unfolding. Let’s face it, we have a new breed of robber barons who have little more than commercial expansion and profit in mind. It’s really just business as usual.

How do I feel about this? What’s a good adjective? Concerned? Troubled? Heartsick? Let’s just say that sometimes it’s a state probably not unlike the one that the Chinese democracy demonstrator had when facing the tank in Tiananmen Square. The machine seems set to run over us. Star Trek isn’t coming to pass. Rather, it’s the same old materialistic rubbish dressed in new clothes. Not an age revitalizing the values of the heart, mind and soul, but ever more those of Alexander Hamilton! On a larger scale! Why do I write? Cherished reader, this is why I write!

It seems to me that as long as massive amounts of money are to be made in computers, computer games, communication devices, new pharmaceuticals, GM crops, electronic surveillance and all the rest, there’ll be no stopping the machine and it’ll roll right over us. Young people, especially, may not know it’s happening as much (if at all) because they have no memory of times where profounder human values played a larger part in everyday activities; they’ll have no recollection of how largely unspoiled Nature was in so many places during their childhoods. And because intellectuals who might have acted as the caretakers and propagators of humane values (as they did in the past) are in status decline while so many at college nowadays seem to want to study courses that will allow them to join the bandwagon of the technical intelligentsia, who will be there to try to better define the human being, let alone put their hand up to say stop a moment? Stop and think.

We’re not simply going to halt the momentum of technology. The only solution I see is to get people to take a good look at money. What it is, what it can do for us, what it takes away from us. What its adoration is all about. It’s the materialism that’s killing us, not the technology. The machine is just the extension of the materialism. Thus while I’m sometimes taking technology to task in one way or another in my writing, my actual target in every major work (any in many of the minor ones) is materialism. I try to open the door to an alternative view, which in effect is a balanced human being. That’s all I can do. I’ve seen what verbal sparring with the man on the street or the woman in the office can do: nothing. When I do it, they look at me as if I’m speaking a different language, which in fact I am. Writing, then, is my way of making my case.

The juggernaut cannot be stopped by protesting against the machine. The machine is the servant of materialism and that’s where we have to focus our efforts if we’re to save humanity from itself. Yet every person must ask himself: does humanity want to be saved? Or do those who are successful and reaping the benefits of our materialistic culture appear to be having too much fun—and we long to join them?

Let me finish this post with a simple story. I’ve been reading about the Huichol Indians of the Sierra Madre Occidental in Mexico. According to the many anthropological accounts quoted in the book, they’re a centered and happy people, though they don’t have two pesos to rub together.

Deer are sacred animals to them, and provide not only food and hides for living, but blood, horns and tails for their spiritual rituals. Deer were plentiful in the mountains but exceedingly difficult to hunt with primitive weapons. Several decades ago, some of the more modernized Huichol who went to the city now and then to make some cash decided that they could bring down deer more easily by buying and using .22 rifles. This strategy was so successful that today, there are almost no deer left and the Huichol must often do without, even to the point of profaning their rituals by substituting bull’s blood instead, though they feel they have no choice.

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