Note — May 29, 2022

The Myth of the Machine

Excellent piece (another one!) by L. M. Sacasas who considers modernity, technology, and what he calls the myth of the machine. His proposal (which is really what it is, he invites counter opinions) is basically that society—western and especially US, but applies elsewhere to varying degrees—has, in three phases, aligned much of its thinking and governance along the development of technology and “three related and interlocking presumptions which characterized modernity: objectivity, impartiality, and neutrality.” ‘We’ did so starting in the 17th century, with “the quest for objectively secured knowledge” which Arendt characterized as “the search for an Archimedean point from which to understand the world, an abstract universal position rather than a situated human position.”

Followed liberalism in the 18th and the creation of “a ‘machine’ for the adjudication of political differences and conflicts, independently of any faith, creed, or otherwise substantive account of the human good.” Then in the 19th, where the republican formula was transformed into a “different technocratic commitment to improving ‘technology’ as the basis and the measure of—as all but constituting—the progress of society.” (Leo Marx)

Over the 20th and early 21st centuries, this vision has crumbled in roughly the same order as it was established, with lessening trust in science, crumbling trust in governance, and now a growing scepticism of technology and the way it’s been used as a proxy for ‘progress.’

Sacasas wraps a lot of things together in this proposal, which I’ve greatly compressed here. So, even more than usual, click through and read his whole argument. I’ll mention to pay attention to how he maps this to the left and right axis, and to keep this myth lens in mind when you hear people talking about ‘the system’ and ‘they.’ This construct along technology and a ‘machining’ of society lines up pretty well.

If the myth of the machine in these three manifestations, was, in fact, a critical element of the culture of modernity, underpinning its aspirations, then when each in turn becomes increasingly implausible the modern world order comes apart. […]

Indeed, the left/right distinction may be less helpful than the distinction between those who uphold some combination of the values of objectivity, impartiality, and neutrality and those who no longer find them compelling or desirable. […]

“The general progression has been to increasingly turn to technologies in order to better achieve the conditions under which we came to believe public knowledge could exist [i.e., objectivity, disinterestedness, impartiality, etc]. Our crisis stems from the growing realization that our technologies themselves are not neutral or objective arbiters of public knowledge and, what’s more, that they may now actually be used to undermine the possibility of public knowledge.” […]

[W]hat if abundance was an unsustainable solution, either because it taxed the earth at too high a rate or because it was purchased at the cost of other values such as rootedness, meaningful work and involvement in civic life, abiding friendships, personal autonomy, and participation in rich communities of mutual care and support?