We can operate as mechanisms, and use mechanical reasoning – or we can use our own kind of reasoning, and operate as humans.
The boundary between the two has never been clear; but nobody worried about that. We just went on using both ways, whichever way seemed that best for the situation at hand. But gradually, over the last two hundred years or so, the mechanistic mode began to dominate. We began to operate more like things than like humans.
I assume so far my line of reasoning seems fairly reasonable to you – a trifle hysterical perhaps, but not too far out. If so, you do not understand the seriousness of the problem, and I will have to try harder.
The problem is that we don’t understand the nature of our two ways of being. They have resided in our unconsciousness, ready to be used – without understanding them at all. It’s now time to come clean with you and confess that this idea is not mine at all. I got most of them from the book The Technological Society by Jacques Elllul. This was written, in French, in 1954 – and the published in English in 1964. And virtually ignored since then.
Many agreed that it was important – but no one wanted to admit they couldn’t understand it. This amazes me, because I can almost understand it – and its importance blows me away. How come no one else is impressed as I am? In some ways I seem to have some unusual insights into what is going on in whatever environment I am in – especially the work environment. Not that this has done me much good. Normal people think I am just seeing things that are not really there. However, let me resume my train of thought.
Ellul keeps talking about technique - over and over – clearly an obsession with him. The basics here are simple – so simple you would not believe it. What he calls technique we now call programming – in the computer sense – an algorithm. Do this, and this, and then this. The computer then does exactly what we tell it to do. All well and good.
Now consider the technique of propaganda, or marketing. Some clever people have figure out a way to do the same kind of programming with people. People have become so used to following subliminal suggestions, they perform them automatically.
At this point, you may be saying “Not me! I am too smart to be fooled by advertising.” You are exactly the kind of person’s advertiser’s love – someone completely out of touch with how the media affects them. You can take comfort in one thing, however – you have a lot of company – nearly everybody.
From this concrete example, we can generalize to nearly everything else. In a sense, we have outsmarted ourselves. Our concentration on technology has made us forget what it is like to be human.
Some theory is in order here – straight from Ellul, whose insights amazed me. Any technique tends to become autonomous in its domain. It will dominate it, and impose its own logic on it. For example, the propaganda technique is only interested in controlling people’s minds – and as totally and efficiently as possible. Note the emphasis on efficiency, this the the inevitable effect of any technique.
Take the economic technique. This changes a traditional economy, which is always part of a society, and controlled by it – into a vast machine completely operating only by its own rules. In other words, the market economy, which has no interest in human affairs – only efficiency – on its own terms. The WTO in action.
And the list of techniques goes on indefinitely. None of them has any interest in human needs – and instead turns humans into minor players in its own ball game. Are you following me? I doubt it. This is the core problem we have as an advanced society. A problem we are determined to overlook because it has progressed so far the horror of it is imaginable.
What Ellul could not see was that in the last 50 years all our techniques would merge into one huge mega-technique I call the techno-corporate complex – which includes nearly every organization in existence. Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex is at its core, but it includes all three branches of the Federal Government (which it owns, like everything else), the Media (especially television), the Financial industry – and more and more, the Educational Establishment. Throw in our penal institutions for good measure. This is all made possible by computers and the Internet. As far as people are concerned, the one important fact here is that it owns all the jobs – and it has no interest in them as humans.
So far I have only discussed the mechanical way of being. What about the human way of being? Does this exist? If you were able read American’s minds the answer would probably be – that they don’t really believe in it – or at best they are suspicious of its existence.
Indeed some schools of psycho-therapy don’t believe in it either – although they are reluctant to come right out and say so.I have in mind here the cognitive behavior-modification types, who do not believe in the unconscious mind. Now Freud’s theories have been largely discounted, but his discovery of the unconscious ranks as one of our outstanding achievements – a big part of our discovery of who we are.
What we are is ultimately a mystery – as the wise have told us since ancient times. In contrast to the mechanical way of being, which can be easily understood. We can say very few things for certain about ourselves – except that, at our best, we are creative creatures. All the hoopla about artificial intelligence is just that – with some predicting that computers will take over the world. In a sense, they are right – but not in the way they think. We have allowed computers (mechanical thinking) to take over – computers can do nothing on their own.
So again, what does it mean to be human? It means being irrational creatures part of the time, and rational creatures part of the time. It means having an unconscious part of us that is most of what we are. This is what makes us so interesting and strange - even to ourselves. When we lose interest in ourselves, by paying too much attention to our things, we are doomed.
But there is more to being human. We are social beings – intensely so. We form attachments to other people – if we cannot do this as infants, we die. Unfortunately, as adults our social skills are atrophying – as described in the book Born to Love: why empathy is essential and endangered. What else could be expected from people who are becoming like machines? Computers, needless to say, don’t do any of this.
And there is one more thing: humans need respect and recognition from their fellow-humans. The present totalitarian trend in America denies any respect for human dignity. People only respect power and money – nothing else. Is this part of being human? Yes, but its least attractive part. It may end up being all we have left of a once noble heritage.