Some Philosophical Considerations

You can probably tell by now that I’m seriously concerned with ethics; that is, my writing is prescriptive rather than simply descriptive. I have no desire to just “tell a story” but rather to let certain truths unfold as the story itself unfolds. Thus I’ve sometimes wondered if I could properly be called a novelist at all; maybe “philosopher” is the better word, though both connote a certain expansiveness and clarity of mind that I hesitate to claim and would rather let others judge.

In addition, I can’t help wondering if this focus on diagnosis and prescription is one of the reasons I’ve had only one book published and one play produced in a lifetime of writing—is it that we Americans are still enamored of our Dream and aren’t yet prepared to move on to a more considered vision of the possible fulfillment of our aspirations? The fact that my writing isn’t commercial enough to warrant publication—publishers think no one wants to read it—does seem to indicate that. Add to this the fact that I excoriate current cultural beliefs and practices, the very beliefs that literary agents and editors live by and presumably hold dear, and one can be sure that this doesn’t help my case much.

I have been told to “write for the market”—and dozens of agencies’ websites reiterate this commercial plea—yet I’ve been unwilling to do so and thus find myself in a no-man’s-land of the unknown, unread, and fundamentally invisible. What can I say? I write what I have to. In this, I’m not so different from writers and countless other artists, past and present, beating a different drum and hoping someone will hear. And in the spirit of maintaining some dignity (and even sanity) in life, I nurture the dream that if the people of today aren’t receptive to what I’m trying to say, hopefully the people of tomorrow will be. The Van Gogh scenario, one might say.

I also speak emphatically about the formidable power of money and technology at the very time that they seem to be at their peak, which clearly works against me in getting published. How can I compete against their promises (though I’ve been trying to for a lifetime)? In taking the stand that I do, let’s face it—I’m dancing to entirely different music and because of that I’ve been marginalized. By not participating in the American money-go-round, for example, it’s been easy for me to be characterized as a failure—as I think even my family may have believed—or worse, a bum. The fact that I have a Ph.D. and have produced a large body of coherent and interesting work notwithstanding, I’m really a “nobody” in America and this perhaps explains in part why I’ve lived much of my adult life abroad. You go where food for the soul is.

The other god I’ve continually challenged—technology—makes it easy for me to be written off as a Luddite. God knows I’ve heard it enough times if not in so many words. In my writing, I certainly take on the machine (though hopefully with due subtlety and a sense of proportion) and try to show that a reconnection with each other and with Nature offers perhaps the best hope for our spiritual salvation. Is it true, then, that I’m a Luddite?

My case regarding technology has several parts. Please hold onto your hat, because this may be a challenging ride for some. First of all, the claim for technology is that it enlarges human agency, but in far too many cases it actually diminishes it. I speak from long experience. I can’t count how many times I’ve been told subtle variations of “the computer’s right and you’re wrong” or was compelled to do something a certain way because that’s how the technology operates. Sometimes entire ways of doing one’s work are dictated by the computer system in place—such systems are set up and it seems we have no choice but to acquiesce (or be labeled a technophobe). If you like it, fine, but what if you don’t? Yes, you’re “free” all right—perfectly free to quit your job.

It’s the little things, too, that can add up. Let me bring up just a few. I once registered my dissatisfaction with the obtuseness of the card catalog system on the computer at a well-known library and was told “it’s not the computer” (the librarian made quite sure I got the message that I was the one that was obtuse). Or consider this: being denied a credit card and finding myself unable to appeal because “the computer makes those decisions,” as I was politely told. Or being instructed by a university administration to change the way I evaluated students because a new data entry system had been installed and standardization was necessary. Yet we live in a “free” country. Do you see any inconsistency here? Or do you write these things off as the price we pay for living in the modern world?

If the Enlightenment was a movement to liberate the mind, to expand human potentiality through expression of this freedom, in fact we’re increasingly subject to the incessant demands of the machine. I want to decide how to do something, not be told that hoops have already been designed for me to jump through. Some people seem quite happy to live with these shackles all around us—I’m not. It’s like they don’t really see them as being shackles at all. Call me the canary in the coal mine, then.

Okay, let’s take another tack. I’m not too fond of the amount of person/machine interaction—laptop, cell phone, iPod/iPad, computer games, etc. These devices encourage essentially private rather than face-to-face experience, and in an age where alienation and loneliness are more than just minor irritations, this can’t be healthy. And I really don’t want to compete with a laptop or a cell phone or an iPod for someone’s attention. Does it bother you not at all that so many people are busy with these things so much of the time? I’d like to be able to communicate more freely and not always be asking, “Excuse me, do you mind if I interrupt?” (Yet how many times have I had a conversation interrupted by someone’s cell phone, for example? Interrupting someone was once considered boorish—now it’s a daily occurrence. Another long-held value bites the dust.) We’ve all been there, and apparently many of us have accepted this person/machine dance. Hey, lots of us are having great fun with all these toys.

Another undeniable result of embracing technology too lovingly is that in reducing manual labor—mostly by computerizing or robotizing so many workplaces—an entire underclass has been created which lacks the skills (and quite possibly the inclination) to participate in the hi-tech environment we’ve built. Now one practically has to be an engineer to work on the engine of a car, for example. What’s to become of these disenfranchised people in the richest society on earth? How are they to express their “freedom”? Do we even care? If I’m too often treated as an underachiever (or worse!) in America, how must they feel?

The other side of the coin is that capable and intelligent people are spending more and more time doing their own secretarial work—from doctors to professors, real estate brokers to you name it—spending hours a week (or day) in front of a computer performing administrative chores that take time away from more important and hopefully satisfying work. You may be experiencing this yourself. I remember well the promises of technology in the early days—it would take away the drudgery of work and provide us with ever more leisure time to express ourselves and find fulfillment. Yet we work longer hours and do more drudge work today than ever!

Why do I go on about all this? Only to begin to show why I take the position I have about the machine (in its many forms). The truth is, it would be unfortunate if my life’s work were cavalierly dismissed as being the lament of a technophobe. I don’t fear technology. Not in the least. Probably a more accurate word than fear would be disappointment. To be promised one set of things—increased freedom, expanded power, more leisure time—and delivered another, I find disappointing. A disappointment that touches right to the soul—I feel it more acutely than I can say. And add to this the fact that technology clearly reduces eye-to-eye human interaction—undermining and even destroying many long-held values in the process—not to mention aiding in the destruction of Nature!—well, I just have to write about it, don’t I?

I believe technology in its current incarnation has done more to undermine the values of the Enlightenment than all the ranting of religious and political fundamentalists combined. I’m not a technophobe—I just want to express what I understand freedom to be! I want the birthright that’s been promised me as an American.


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