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“It turns out that most of the effects of technology are actually known by the people who invent and disseminate them. This is logical because those people put a lot of money into figuring out all possible uses of those technologies. They can then develop marketing strategies based on the assessment of the positive effects. At the same time, they figure out possible negative effects and proceed to downplay those. The car is promoted as freedom—private and noiseless travel, comfort, and so on—without any suggestion of its profound multidimensional effects. There’s no mechanism in our society for hearing the downside. There are no controls on technological invention or evolution.”  – Jerry Mander

No Time Like the Present

Here’s an article (“Speed Kills”) about one of the downsides of “progress”: the loss of free, unstructured time:

Moore’s Law, according to which the speed of computer chips doubles every two years, now seems to apply to life itself. Plugged in 24/7/365, we are constantly struggling to keep up but are always falling further behind. The faster we go, the less time we seem to have. As our lives speed up, stress increases, and anxiety trickles down from managers to workers, and parents to children.

There is a profound irony in these developments. With the emergence of personal computers and other digital devices in the late 1960s and early 1970s, many analysts predicted a new age in which people would be drawn together in a “global village,” where they would be freed from many of the burdens of work and would have ample leisure time to pursue their interests. That was not merely the dream of misty-eyed idealists but was also the prognosis of sober scientists and policy makers. In 1956, Richard Nixon predicted a four-day workweek, and almost a decade later a Senate subcommittee heard expert testimony that by 2000, Americans would be working only 14 hours a week.

Obviously, things have not turned out that way. Contrary to expectation, the technologies that were supposed to liberate us now enslave us, networks that were supposed to unite us now divide us, and technologies that were supposed to save time leave us no time for ourselves.

I think it should be obvious at this point that I am dubious of almost all new technology—as long as there’s an oligarchy around, just waiting to undemocratically make such technology ubiquitous to serve its own purposes, at the detriment of everyone and everything else. It was Arthur C. Clarke who once said that all sufficiently advanced technology should be indistinguishable from magic, and I agree—except that I don’t apply the rosy connotations that most others do to the notion of “magic” (magical reasoning, more like it). I more agree with Marx, who described technology as a sorcerer’s spell that has become wildly (and dangerously) out-of-hand.

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“It is apparent that one of the primary reasons we have not experienced a revolution of values is that a culture of domination necessarily promotes addiction to lying and denial. That lying takes the presumably innocent form of many white people (and even some black folks) suggesting that racism does not exist anymore, and that conditions of social equality are solidly in place that would enable any black person who works hard to achieve economic self-sufficiency. Forget about the fact that capitalism requires the existence of a mass underclass of surplus labor. Lying takes the form of mass media creating the myth that the feminist movement has completely transformed society, so much so that the politics of patriarchal power have been inverted and that men, particularly white men, just like emasculated black men, have become the victims of dominating women.”  – bell hooks, from Teaching to Transgress

Love in the Time of Ebola

I’ve probably read more about the Ebola outbreak in the past five days than is healthy, but the social and political response has got me thinking a lot about quarantine. I’m reminded of a chapter in One Hundred Years of Solitude where everyone in the town catches a plague of insomnia and then amnesia, forgetting the words of their language (so they just make up new ones). How quickly, it seems, that the arrival of a distant disease will make people forget about everything else.

Also, I just re-read Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish, Panopticism,” which I suggest reading in its entirety. Ebola is pretty scary, but wide-scale quarantine—which can not be instituted without omnipotent surveillance and control—might just be scarier. From the aforementioned work:

The plague-stricken town, traversed throughout with hierarchy, surveillance, observation, writing; the town immobilized by the functioning of an extensive power that bears in a distinct way over all individual bodies – this is the utopia of the perfectly governed city. The plague (envisaged as a possibility at least) is the trial in the course of which one may define ideally the exercise of disciplinary power. In order to make rights and laws function according to pure theory, the jurists place themselves in imagination in the state of nature; in order to see perfect disciplines functioning, rulers dreamt of the state of plague. Underlying disciplinary projects the image of the plague stands for all forms of confusion and disorder; just as the image of the leper, cut off from all human contact, underlies projects of exclusion.

Thus the peripheral ramifications of Ebola, or of any disease, are just as (if not more) terrifying than the symptoms themselves—even though one of the symptoms in this case is death. The disease as concept, or, namely, the realization of our inability to contain it, let alone fully understand it, is as anathema to the average person as philosophical determinism: a complete lack of control over circumstances. This prospect is truly horrifying to most people. The result of combating this horror is that you either get a breakdown of civility (and I mean that literally, from the Latin civitas: life in the city) or its truest form: a society segmented, gridded, surveilled, and sterilized.

My fear is that before this Cartesian utopia/dystopia can be carried out, either through vigilantism or through martial law (which is really the same thing), the specter of Ebola—or of disease itself: the fear of contamination in general—might push people and/or governments to drastic ends, and people’s response to anything is usually worse than the thing itself. I think the hysteria will get much worse before it subsides, and will probably be the justification for (further) stratification, compartmentalization, and xenophobia—it not outright violence—here in the US. Just wait until a Mexican contracts the disease. Google “Alex Jones ebola” if you don’t know what I’m talking about.

In the meantime, we’re running out of water, but for some reason that’s not as terrifying to people.

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“But life involves before everything else eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing and many other things. The first historical act is, therefore, the production of material life itself. This is indeed a historical act, a fundamental condition of all history, which today, as thousands of years ago, must be accomplished every day and every hour merely in order to sustain human life.”  – Karl Marx