Technology and Culture

The last two posts have effectively answered the question raised about Scott Alexander’s account of cultural decline. What could be meant by calling some aspects of culture “less compatible with modern society?” Society tends to change over time, and some of those changes are humanly irreversible. It is entirely possible, and in fact common, for some of those irreversible changes to stand in tension with various elements of culture. This will necessarily tend to cause cultural decay at least with respect to those elements, and often with respect to other elements of culture as well, since the various aspects of culture are related.

This happens in a particular way with changes in technology, although technology is not the only driver of such irreversible change.

It would be extremely difficult for individuals to opt out of the use of of various technologies. For example, it would be quite difficult for Americans to give up the use of plumbing and heating, and a serious attempt to do so might lead to illness or death in many cases. And it would be still more difficult to give up the use of clothes, money, and language. Attempting to do so, assuming that one managed to preserve one’s physical life, would likely lead to imprisonment or other forms of institutionalization (which would make it that much more difficult to abandon the use of clothes.)

Someone might well respond here, “Wait, why are you bringing up clothes, money, and language as examples of technology?” Clothes and money seem more like cultural institutions than technology in the first place; and language seems to be natural to humans.

I have already spoken of language as a kind of technology. And with regard to clothes and money, it is even more evident that in the concrete forms in which they exist in our world today they are tightly intertwined with various technologies. The cash used in the United States depends on mints and printing presses, actual mechanical technologies. And if one wishes to buy something without cash, this usually depends on still more complex technology. Similar things are true of the clothes that we wear.

I concede, of course, that the use of these things is different from the use of the machines that make them, or as in the case of credit cards, support their use, although there is less distinction in the latter case. But I deliberately brought up things which look like purely cultural institutions in order to note their relationship with technology, because we are discussing the manner in which technological change can result in cultural change. Technology and culture are tightly intertwined, and can never be wholly separated.

Sarah Perry discusses this (the whole post is worth reading):

Almost every technological advance is a de-condensation: it abstracts a particular function away from an object, a person, or an institution, and allows it to grow separately from all the things it used to be connected to. Writing de-condenses communication: communication can now take place abstracted from face-to-face speech. Automobiles abstract transportation from exercise, and allow further de-condensation of useful locations (sometimes called sprawl). Markets de-condense production and consumption.

Why is technology so often at odds with the sacred? In other words, why does everyone get so mad about technological change? We humans are irrational and fearful creatures, but I don’t think it’s just that. Technological advances, by their nature, tear the world apart. They carve a piece away from the existing order – de-condensing, abstracting, unbundling – and all the previous dependencies collapse. The world must then heal itself around this rupture, to form a new order and wholeness. To fear disruption is completely reasonable.

The more powerful the technology, the more unpredictable its effects will be. A technological advance in the sense of a de-condensation is by its nature something that does not fit in the existing order. The world will need to reshape itself to fit. Technology is a bad carver, not in the sense that it is bad, but in the sense of Socrates:

First, the taking in of scattered particulars under one Idea, so that everyone understands what is being talked about … Second, the separation of the Idea into parts, by dividing it at the joints, as nature directs, not breaking any limb in half as a bad carver might.”

Plato, Phaedrus, 265D, quoted in Notes on the Synthesis of Form, Christopher Alexander.

The most powerful technological advances break limbs in half. They cut up the world in an entirely new way, inconceivable in the previous order.

Now someone, arguing much in Chesterton’s vein, might say that this does not have to happen. If a technology is damaging in this way, then just don’t use it. The problem is that often one does not have a realistic choice not to use it, as in my examples above. And much more can one fail to have a choice not to interact with people who use the new technology, and interacting with those people will itself change the way that life works. And as Robin Hanson noted, there is not some human global power that decides whether or not a technology gets to be introduced into human society or not. This happens rather by the uncoordinated and unplanned decisions of individuals.

And this is sufficient to explain the tendency towards cultural decline. The constant progress of technology results, and results of necessity, in constant cultural decline. And thus we fools understand why the former days were better than these.

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