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Tolkien’s Legacy

Please enjoy the following long-form piece by a member of the ALCStudies team. Happy holidays. — DA

J.R.R.Tolkien’s Legacy to the Modern World

Courtesy Tolkien Gateway (http://tolkiengateway.net)

The biopic of J.R.R. Tolkien released this past year1 reinforces the relevance of his life and work in our modern (or post-modern world). Tolkien conceived the creation of Middle Earth in The Hobbit, which he initially wrote for his children and published in1937. The final book of The Lord of the Rings followed in 1954. The film focuses less on Tolkien’s writing than his life, but gives insight into the evolution of his ideas.

Tolkien was caught up in the forces of industrialization and global conflict during his childhood and adolescence. In the second decade of the 20th century these culminated in a war devastating and profound. Rather than being a war to end all wars, the First World War, the 100th anniversary of whose end we observed recently, unleashed a conflagration of economic, technological and cultural forces that few understood then and which we fail to understand today at our peril. It raised the curtain on the carnage and brutality of the last century and the one in which we live now.

Tolkien and his boyhood comrades served in the trenches where artillery, high explosives, aerial warfare, gas and machine guns shredded bodies, maimed souls and devastated minds. The trauma the war and its aftermath inflicted on the soldiers and the populations on both sides led Sigmund Freud to question the value and prospects for western civilization.2 It is not too much to say that Tolkien and his companions, along with the populations of most of Europe, never knew what hit them. Their lives were divided forever by their experiences.

The comfort-loving hobbits encounter similar threats to their existence. The Lord of the Rings is set in the fictitious land of Middle Earth inspired by Tolkien’s study of Old English, Norse and Anglo Saxon myth and language. The Catholic-raised Tolkien claimed his story of the one ring was not an allegory, as opposed to his Oxford colleague C.S. Lewis’s Christian-influenced Narnia series. But given The Lord of the Rings’ mix of good, evil, ambition, sacrifice and loss, it’s hard not to see at least allegorical elements.

My two friends and I read the series starting when we were twelve, when it was popular on college campuses and in communes across the country. On the threshold of adolescence and just beginning to confront the complications and realities of the adult world, we were enthralled by the story populated by elves, wizards, dwarves, men, goblins, orcs and hobbits confronting dark forces beyond their understanding and control looming beyond the the Shire. While our other friends were playing cops and robbers and army (somehow still innocently in the Vietnam war era), we created our own fellowship, undertaking quests among the mountains of central Pennsylvania as our stand-in for Middle Earth while quoting passages and dialogue from the books,.3

Tolkien’s legacy resonates today in contemporary games such as Dungeons & Dragons, Peter Jackson’s film interpretation and in television shows such as Game of Thrones.4 Tolkien did not originate the archetypes and mythology these contain of course. From creation stories told around campfires to the Greek’s Odysseus to the Wizard of Oz, books and stories have always allowed us to escape or at least re-frame our experience to make it bearable through narrative. But long before film, television and web technology commodified the process, Tolkien tapped into a visceral desire among his readers to undertake heroic quests and inhabit a secondary world of their imagination.5 In our ostensibly civilized, rational, enlightened and data-driven age, the popularity of television shows such as Game of Thrones, online gaming sites, sword and sorcery graphic novels, films such as the Matrix and Bladerunner and fan fiction sites reflects a persistent yearning to connect to some human part of ourselves and transcend the world that often disappoints. Many of the people involved in developing and promoting the Internet came from the counterculture generation of the 1960s and 70s and were influenced by The Lord of the Rings.6 As our lives today seem ruled by obscure forces and impersonal algorithms, our souls threatened with being reduced to a series of data points solely for the profit of others, often hidden from us, it is perhaps useful to revisit the tale of the one ring again.

Steeped as he was in Edwardian education ranging from Greek and Roman classics to Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, it’s easy to think of an orphaned young Tolkien creating scenarios that allowed him to prevail against dark forces and vanquish his grief. The trauma of the trenches, the loss of his friends and a bucolic way of life, preceded by the loss of his parents confronted Tolkien with an almost unbearable reality. After 1914 the trauma was compounded tenfold. The world he had known was gone, along with childhood friends killed. His relationships with his friends and remaining family were immeasurably altered. It is a cliché by now to say that soldiers enduring combat have difficulty relating to others who don’t share their experience. But you don’t need to have an official diagnosis of PTSD (Shell Shock) to be affected by the constant stress of battle and witnessing your companions blown to bits.

Perhaps Tolkien and his surviving comrades felt in the aftermath, as Bilbo tells Frodo, their spirits ‘stretched ‘ like butter scraped over too much bread’. The Lord of the Rings (and before it the Hobbit, along with The Silmarillion) where forged in the smithy of Tolkien’s soul as an anodyne to his pain and confusion as a survivor of the 20th century’s opening apocalypse.

My two friends and I had no clue of this when we read the books in the early 1970s. While the generation ahead of us occupied themselves with the Vietnam War, accelerating changes in technology, the environment, the threat of nuclear annihilation, and opportunities provided by protests, drugs and sex, we found a more youthful and innocent escape from the anxieties of adolescence. We inhabited a world filled with swashbuckling heroes carrying swords such as as Aragorn, Boromir, Gimli, Legolas, and of course Gandalf, along with elvish queens and princesses such as Galadriel and Arwen. We could have found worse inspiration to counter the excesses and incipient narcissism around us. Many since have found solace in the books’ mix of Christian moralism, ancient mythology, and presentations of chivalry. Maybe that accounts for The Lord of the Rings’ persistent popularity as a best-seller.

In creating the tale of the Hobbit’s journey there and back again in the mythic Middle Earth, Tolkien undertook a personal journey to expunge the horrors of the war. This allowed him to live his life in England with a wife and family with a measure of peace and acceptance. Like the hobbits,Tolkien and his comrades were small, seemingly powerless beings caught up in events beyond their understanding that challenged their capacity to endure, let alone survive.

The story resonated with college students, professors and others in the 60s and 70s beset by rumors and realities of war, clashes between East and West, and threats of Armageddon. Tolkien’s tale of life in the Shire is filled with gardens, second breakfasts and parties. Their existence is interrupted by distant events that threaten the occupants’ bucolic way of life: a ring, a wizard, rumors of disquiet and revelation, forces and visions, machines and technology and the passing of an age.

Today in a reality increasingly of our own construction, our individual and collective fantasies provide an alternative to a world that daily challenges our capacity to understand or endure it. We seek refuge in our own private secondary worlds, spending time in social networks and in possession of smartphones and other technology that reflect a narrow slice of reality to suit our desires. These representations are not always benign. Many appeal to our herd instinct and need for reassurance in return for our uncritical allegiance to an organization, group or ideology.

We are caught between those who would unleash dark forces to control the world in their own image and the quest to preserve our humanity7. Perhaps we are more like Saruman, the foolish wizard, than Sauron, the manifestation of evil who seeks to bring all of Middle Earth under his thrall. Saruman possesses the craft and desire to rival his nemesis. But he falls prey to o’erweening ambition similar to the Greek’s hamartia.8 He becomes himself possessed by the will to power, drawn into Sauron’s circle and seduced.

One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

In The Lord of the Rings good ultimately prevails. The ring is cast into the ancient fire of its origin. The old world passes away and a new world emerges through the combined efforts of former enemies — the peoples of Middle Earth. But as with Tolkien’s wartime experience, no one escapes unscathed. The one ring corrupts those who wear it9, testing the will of the most noble and brave. It causes the breaking of the Fellowship and the death of one of its members. Frodo, the protagonist, receives a permanent wound: The portion of a Morgul10 blade pierces his flesh and makes its way toward his heart. The wound would prove fatal to his soul except for the ministrations of Aragorn and the elf-queen Galadriel. The pain flares yearly on the anniversary of its receipt.

Far from being a book for children,The Lord of the Rings presents an adult tale of suffering, hope and redemption. People die and don’t return. Frodo, Bilbo Sam and the others don’t simply move on with the right therapy, medication and a positive attitude. They are permanently altered, even damaged, by their experiences. At the end of The Return of the King, the final book of the series, Frodo and Bilbo leave Middle Earth forever with Gandalf and the elves at the Gray Havens.

Whatever Tolkien’s original intent, The Lord of the Rings contains elements of allegory still relevant to our own age. The ring itself is being re-forged by those who would obey only the power of technology. Saruman has incorporated as a consultant, headquartered at his tower of Orthanc – offering his dark satanic mills and workforce of orcs, half-men and goblins for offshore manufacturing. The dark riders are abroad, sowing fear and distrust on social media. Each of us carries our own personal palantir which draws our gaze and through which we are gazed at by the unblinking eye of consumerism.11 Anyone who attempts to assert their agency and think critically about the world we are creating risks being labeled of subversive or malcontent.

The Lord of the Rings reminds us there are consequences to dedicating our efforts solely toward the unchecked machine of progress. We surrender our peril those small gardens of humanity where love and laughter flourish and are shared, where we are free to enjoy elevenses and birthday parties. It was a world Tolkien grew up in and enjoyed before war destroyed it. But of course that was just a fable. — CDL

# # #

1Tolkien, Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2019

2Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, 1930

3Including naming specific geographic features of the terrain after those in the LOR, such as the Carrock.

4Often unacknowledged

5Tolkien wrote about the appeal of such secondary worlds and standards for their success or failure in his essay On Fairy Stories.

6Tim Berners-Lee, a co-developer of the ArpaNet and Stewart Brand, author of the Whole Earth Catalog and current promoter of trans-humanism, to name two.

7See David Noble’s, The Religion of Technology; The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention, 1997

8Greek ἁμαρτία, from ἁμαρτάνειν hamartán, a fatal flaw leading to the downfall of a tragic hero or heroine.

9Even, significantly, those who would use its power for good.

10Signifying the black arts, sorcery or necromancy. (Tolkien Gateway).

11See Shoshana Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism ( “Big Other: Surveillance Capitalism and the Prospects of an Information Civilization.” Journal of Information Technology 30, no. 1 (March 2015)

Those Who Can

After twenty-seven years working in a corporate environment in the U.S., a colleague has taken a job teaching in a different country. He has left his own country, his own language, to travel 8000 miles away.

I am intimidated at the prospect of teaching kids who have grown up in a different culture with a different language. But they want someone to teach them English and other skills necessary to compete in the global economy. My friends here are supportive. But I am a guest. I have spent months (and a chunk of change) getting a visa, having my CV translated, becoming familiar with the customs, and gaining a basic knowledge of the language.

In the West we seem increasingly preoccupied over the complications and dangers of living in the civilization we have created over the last 2000 years. A lot of ex-pat sites on the web extol the virtues of living in a supposedly simpler third- (or second-) world country.

For all the benefits — and there are benefits, not the least of which is the weather here — the society around me has absorbed some of the worst lessons from the West. These include toxic consumerism, idolatrous worship of technology oblivious to its dysfunctional effects, and a view of urban development that still equates progress with larger cities, more cars and more buildings.

More Buildings

Competing for the Ugliest Building in the World


So why did he leave?

I spent years doing office work related to IT trying to convince myself (and allowing myself to be convinced) that it was meaningful labor. It’s increasingly evident it was a vain pursuit for a paycheck to support someone else’s bottom line. This was achieved by treating employees and customers as commodities. My ideas, goodwill and efforts were ultimately wasted to perpetuate the vast shell game of corporate capitalism.

What about volunteering? Or joining a commune, if he is against capitalism?

I’m not against capitalism practiced on a human scale. And I’m not a fan of communism, which historically has led to its own depredations. The fact  is in the West we recognize the value of work by paying for it. I and those close to me have volunteered in the past, teaching literacy, working with the homeless, and assisting with various causes. In some cases these efforts have enabled the very dysfunction they seek to ameliorate. I’ve paid my dues. At this point I want to be compensated for my time, talent, effort and experience. I want to enjoy what I do and feel rewarded. Plus, I can use the money. (The cost of living here is more modest, but not nonexistent.)

And will teaching accomplish that? Colleges and universities are tied up in knots nowadays over political correctness and questions about their relevance. Public schools are threatened as safe havens for children to learn and be nurtured. Society seems to celebrate being unenlightened and anti-intellectual. The public itself are increasingly treated merely as marks to be exploited by rampant consumerism and venal politicians.

I’ve passed my sixth decade and my life is still a work in progress. I look at this as an experiment. I’ve committed to the coming year. I’d be an idiot if I didn’t admit to being intimidated. The kids I’m teaching range from 11 – 14. The subjects covered in school range from English and history to humanities and science. As adults these kids will make decisions that will affect not only their own lives, but the direction their society (and maybe the world) takes. My desire is to instill some knowledge and perspective that will help them live their lives with a sense of agency. Why not try?

— DA

# # #

A Wild Demise

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been …

— John Keats

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818

 

Thanks to Facebook Business for reminding us, no matter what (fire, flood, earthquake, chemotherapy, ecstasies, epiphanies, personal crises, or a bad day), we must produce fresh content for their – I mean our — ‘customers’:

Hi Valued Advertiser,

People visiting Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies haven’t heard from you in a while. Write a post or share a photo or video to keep people engaged.
Thanks,

The Facebook Ads Team

We unsubscribed from FB’s services a year ago. In any event I am happy to say my imminent demise has been exaggerated, so that I can share this blast from the past. Ladies & gentlemen (and everyone in between), please see a link to the Connections series from the 70s created and hosted by James Burke, and available on the Internet Archive, Enjoy. – DA.

 

We Need Some Human Help

Welcome to the Valentine’s Day installment.

We navigate our days these days watched and prodded by our non-human talismans of technology1. These constant companions prompt us with questions or suggestions under the guise of being interactive. One not-so-subtly pops up on my phone lately, like an annoying partner in an old comedy routine (Didya see, didya see? What? Huh? What? Huh?), with the ironic phrase We need some human help.

Knowing our days are numbered to a suddenly-definable sum (whether the Biblical three-score and ten, shorter or longer) focuses our attention remarkably on what is important and what is not. Having been informed that I am scheduled to leave this earth sooner than I planned, I confess to a certain sensitivity to having my time wasted. In the past year I have confronted what seems more than my share of dysfunctional officials, health insurance that fails to reassure, and medical care that feels anything but caring. I know I’m not the only one facing an individual Gethsemane, but since when has that been a real consolation? I have watched my friends and acquaintances at home and abroad wishing the cup would pass for all of us: the lady whose son was diagnosed with schizophrenia last year, a former colleague staying in a dissatisfying job for the health insurance, men and women seeking love and connection amidst the wasteland and darkling plain of fraught relationships. For some it proves too much to endure. We try to live our lives with a modicum of peace and happiness amidst Dickensian bureaucracy allied with bad technology, dysfunctional workplaces [bullshit jobs, ‘open’ offices], alienated lives and absurd trappings of so-called civilization. Human help indeed.

In your life you will know trouble, Jesus said, a phrase curiously absent from the dogma of positive thinking. Like too much sugar, being optimistically (if not relentlessly) positive can sweeten the appreciation of life or make it almost intolerable. Troubles exist in our lives whether we are rich or poor, privileged or marginalized, mentally-challenged or on the genius scale.

There are plenty of reasons to feel cynical and hopeless amidst the dehumanizing juggernaut of technology and capitalism, including an apparent media obsession with bad news and human failure. But being optimistic does not mean suspending our critical faculties or our humanity. I think it’s about time we fessed up, set aside our fear (or meanness or just plain obliviousness which technology so easily aids and abets2) and did what we can to ameliorate or sympathize with, rather than marginalizing, fellow human beings.

I don’t much care if you text, blog, tweet, e-mail or use a carrier pigeon. Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes writes about the dilemma of globalization and the need for human (and local) connection. Globalization and technology used exclusively in the service of profit threaten to undermine our sense of agency and make individuals feel expendable. If community is to be more than a marketing ploy and love not just a slogan, the primary job each of us in this world of our creation is to take back hope from the ashes and connect to our own hearts and the hearts of others . ### — DA

1See Shoshanna Zuboff’s recent, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

2See emotional deskilling.

Words & Pictures

There seems to be an overabundance of words recently: describing, explaining and inflaming our reactions to events from those in my previous home town to politics, to immigrants at the border.

Words seem to have lost their power to change anything. My own are no exception.

Emails, tweets, texts, blog entries, advertisements demand our attention this time of year and encourage us to buy and consume. We’ve all become desensitized to loquaciousness.

We send words out into the void, hoping for an intelligent reply, an acknowledgement from the common mass of men and women that we are not alone. Yet our own intimate conversations suffer. It’s obvious words have their limits. So I am drawing the birds in our garden.

Hummingbirds hover in the bamboo and sip nectar from the flowers. Doves land like B-52s and strut around like they own the place.

A pair of male and female gorriones (house sparrows) arrive each morning hopeful of finding breakfast if the doves haven’t eaten it all.

I stopped drawing and painting when I was younger, frustrated by a lack of skill and afraid of being a dilettante. The word dilettante is close to the more positive word amateur, with its root in the Latin amatore. You could do worse than to do a thing motivated by passion and love.

Drawing provides a different way of seeing. Cellphones allow us to collect images without looking, look without seeing. In our obsession with immediacy and sharing, we lose the interest and capacity for reflecting and appreciating the world around us in our own hearts and minds.

We all want to create and maintain an image of ourselves in the eyes of others. But our desire to be heard and noticed competes against all the other images and undifferentiated content, including cat videos.

At the same time our institutions seem increasingly in the hands of dilettantes, men and women who pursue politics, business, education and the arts serve mainly to fill their own hollowness; fulfilling an image but not the reality.

The Roman Empire fell because its citizens failed to create and support the substance beneath their institutions. Governing was given over to amateurs, or worse. The society maintained the image of civilization until reality intervened in the form of Goths, Vandals and internal corruption.

The Romans left behind wonderful sculptures, architecture, roads and aqueducts, and some not bad literature and theater. But ultimately their civilization failed to endure. – CDL

# # #

 

L is for —

Leap
Leave
Lose
Legal
Ludicrous

I am waiting to hear whether I can stay. We assembled my documents as best we can according to the latest information (which keeps changing). We woke in the middle of the night to try and make another (fourth? fifth?) appointment at the immigration office using the broken online scheduling system (which keeps breaking). Bureaucracy and crappy technology are a bad combination.

On TV here there are stories of political corruption, financial malfeasance and bus crashes. Despite this, immigrants from another country where things are worse flock across the borders. Since the fall in oil prices, professionals and working-class, immigrants and locals alike struggle to find work. People sell oranges in the streets and juggle at traffic lights.

In keeping with the Halloween spirit in my home country citizens exclaim and pontificate like people trying to dislodge a rabid bat that has flown in their house. The word loser has gotten a lot of attention there in the past few years – occupying the public rhetoric to the point of irony. It’s a sort of joke unless you are on the receiving end – among those who, to paraphrase A Wonderful Life (the title itself a bit of irony) ‘do most of the working and paying and living and dying’ in this world.

BBC/Getty Images


Love
Loyal
Laughter
Lucky

Like other immigrants, I left personal heartache and darkness; my job, my home, my city, my language, my connections – familiar landmarks by which I navigated a former life. I traveled to a different culture. I was fortunate to find new friends, affection, joy and love among intelligent, hard-working people who know how to enjoy life. Many of them have lost as well.

One had her social security savings embezzled at a previous employer. Another lost her husband to someone else. A young man in his late twenties fled from a nearby country and now works for low wages in a local restaurant. A few weeks ago we heard a Vivaldi concert with two of them. The weekend after we ate dinner and drank wine and danced at a friend’s house till three in the morning. People here know how to throw a party. If they are losers, I’m proud to be in their company.

Living in a privileged society does not make you immune from challenges and loss, of course. In the past six months a former colleague back home died in her sleep. She had a voice like angel and was afraid to tell our employer when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Another colleague in his forties who races bicycles had serious surgery last summer. A third in his fifties has a non-fatal form of leukemia and works to retain his benefits. Some self- help advice I’ve read suggests separating yourself from such people and the ‘negative energy’ they carry — a curious inversion of Christian charity.

Even though the rainy season has arrived, the strong sun requires liberal amounts of sun block. We were hoping to visit the surrounding villages and see historic sites. It’s hard to make plans. Leaving the country starts the visa process over, and I might have to pay a fine to return: Do not pass Go; Do not collect $200. Some days I feel like an exile. Contacting our embassy twice by phone and e-mail for an appointment resulted in impersonal replies to check their web site.

Lo siento (I’m Sorry)
Llegar (Arrive)
Levantar (Raise up, Carry)
Libre (Freedom)

We are all going about the business of trying to live as human beings in the face of institutions, bureaucracies and technologies that increasingly confound our notions of being human. Businesses wittingly or unwittingly abuse the talent and motivation of their employees. Countries squander the hope and goodwill of their citizens and immigrants arriving to seek a better life. Who are the losers?

We are programmed to pursue the better, the new and improved, the different. Because nothing is more constant than change, and what we have is never enough. As for me, here I am 2800 miles away from what used to be home. I tell myself in the positive thinking parlance of the day that I am going toward something. – CDL

###

 

Tick, Tick

Labor Day has come and gone. the black bears along the Tangascootack are eating acorns like the lunch  crowd at the Bucktail.

The rattlesnake roundup went fine. No one got bit. By a snake anyway. No one asked the snakes their opinion of the event.


Ed Blezny retired in May from the Credit Union. He’s been sitting around all summer getting cabin fever, not quite sure what to do with himself. Over the weekend his wife suggested he take their dog Red over by the reservoir to blow some of the stink off both of them.

Loois acting as a stand-in.

It did him good. September in the central part of the state has brought cool mornings and hot, dry days. A few trees are beginning to turn on the ridges. Red looked for squirrels and chased chipmunks till Ed whistled.

On the way back they stopped at the Chat ‘n Choo at the old railroad station in Cross Fork for coffee. Earl and his cousin Troy were there. Troy’s niece Maxine was pouring the coffee. She’s a nice, smart kid with tattoos up to her ears and in places she won’t say. She’s working at the Chat n’ Choo for the summer with plans to go to Triangle Tech in October.

When Ed came in with Red, Troy looked at them.

Be careful he didn’t pick up a tick. They’re bad this year.

Ed said he would. He always checks Red’s ears, under his chin and neck.


There’s just a few ways you can remove a tick from a dog, or a human, for that matter. The first is you take yourself some kerosene from the local hardware. Dab the skin around the tick so it can’t breathe. When he backs out, grab him with some tweezers. Be sure not to break his head off beneath the skin.


Two, light a match and hold it near the skin where the tick is burrowed. When he wriggles backward, grab him with the tweezers.

Just don’t use the match with kerosene at the same time. You want to avoid canine combustion.

Maxine started talking about her Facebook page. She uses it to stay in touch with her friends, but she also uses it to post messages about politics. She’s an opinionated young lady and not a fan of the nation’s current leader.

Troy looked uncomfortable. Like most people in the region, he voted with the Republican Party. He thinks the world of Maxine, but isn’t quite sure how to take her. He’s also not too sure any longer about the current White House resident.

Earl is less shy about his opinion. He lost his job at the sheet metal fabrication plant two years ago. Then he lost his retirement benefits when the company got a buyout. He’s fed up with politics. He says, The way I see it it’s like you got a tick stuck between a dog’s shoulders. The harder you try to get at him, the harder he digs in.

He holds on, a suckin’ away at the dog’s lifeblood, getting fat. The madder you get, the fatter he gets, head jest a blowin’ up like a balloon. Folks would rather get mad than do anythin’. But don’t do to get mad at a tick: it’s his nature. He’s along for the ride as long as it’s comfortable. You can accommodate them for a while. But at some point you have to come to a parting of the ways.

Just don’t set the dog on fire. — CDL

###

‘Smart Machines’ 30 Years Later

‘Dave? Dave? What are you doing?’ (Image courtesy Amazon)

 

Thirty years ago a book appeared that anticipated the automation of nearly every aspect of our lives and the world we live in, including the promise and dilemmas of computers in the workplace, social networking, privacy and the recent debacle with Facebook.

The New York Times called In the Age of the Smart Machine ‘a penetrating study of how automation is affecting the workplace.’ But the implications go much further. The author, Shoshana Zuboff, based the book on her consulting work in the 1980s with business organizations installing personal computers in the 1980s and her Ph.D. research at Harvard. The book’s full title, In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power, belied its uniqueness and the breadth and depth of the material covered.

When the first PCs emerged from antediluvian garages and hobbyists’ living rooms1 in the last decades of the 20th Century, early businesses were not quite sure what to do with them. Before the Internet, before email, before Facebook, texts and Twitter, large mainframe computers dominated the marketplace. Apple’s IIc and Macintosh, lurking in the evolutionary underbrush with their revolutionary graphical user interfaces, were the domain mainly of college professors, designers and artists.

Zuboff went into paper mills, insurance companies and other organizations experimenting with the new technology. She investigated how the new technology implemented at the time affected employees’ and managements’ jobs and the ways they interacted. She combined her findings with research on communication theory, cognitive psychology and labor and social history. The result is one part oral history, one part case study and two parts social history accompanied by a plethora of citations.2 Along the way Zuboff coined several terms, including informating and intellective skills. The former she defined as follows:


… [informating] technology is used to reproduce and extend the process of substituting machines for human agency… Devices that automate by translating information into action also register data about those automated activities, thus generating new streams of information. (Smart Machine, page 9)

In comparison to 1970s and 1980s prognosticators of the future such as as Alvin Toffler and John Naisbitt3, Zuboff’s writing is even-handed and thoughtful. Her work compares favorably to that of 90s writer Neil Postman.4 Why the book is not more widely known is somewhat of a mystery. Amidst the current hype over virtual reality, artificial intelligence and smart cars, Smart Machine still stands as the sine qua non toward thoughtful discourse on the place of computing technology in the workplace and society against the pessimism of writers such as Jaron Lanier and Evgeny Morozov5 on one hand, and the relentless promotion of technology by business and academia on the other.

Although retired from teaching, Zuboff continues to write on the vicissitudes and dilemmas of computing.6 Nowadays the vagaries of social networking, the abstraction of labor, deskilling, and monopolies of power are becoming abundantly clear. Zuboff shows that the seeds for the unchecked flow, control and consumption of data and digitization of our lives were sown in the factory system of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, including technologies such as the power-loom and Ford’s assembly lines. Contemporary dilemmas around the impact of computers on human agency, alienation and our fraught online interactions have their antecedents in the telegraph and telephone7. The radio and television brought information to the masses. The world wide web expanded the role of technology as a magnifier of thought and ideas8, for good or ill.

Advances in computing power and global networking since have led to 24/7 connectivity through our smartphones and the ubiquitous presence of applications like Facebook. Despite 1980s rhetoric promising a Third Wave of computing and mass empowerment through the free sharing of information, a digital age of Aquarius has not dawned. Unchecked social networking and social media also carry a danger of creating a more tribal, fragmented society9. We are increasingly subject in our daily lives to the Taylorization10 of our work, our thoughts, our bodies and our relationships and disconnection of our human from our virtual selves. We are sold the notion that we conduct our virtual lives through disinterested ‘bots and algorithms designed for smoothly-functioning utilitarian efficiency without messy emotion.11 In reality they reflect the predilections and character of their creators: business executives, programmers, government bureaucrats, and ‘thought leaders’ accountable to no one. Whatever opportunities they presume to offer toward enlightenment and realizing the better angels of our nature, commercial entities like Cambridge Analytics, Facebook, Uber and Google also reflect and feed off the fear, frustration, greed, anger, lust and chaos in our souls.

Zuboff is an insightful guide to the mundus novus of computing in the last century and a superb writer. She asks good questions of herself and her subjects, questions we should be asking still.

  • Is computing technology transformative, or just an extension of the automation of our lives and work that has occurred over the past 200 years?
  • What are executives’ and managers’ obligations toward workers and consumers in applying the new technology? Is it to to improve their productivity and happiness, liberating them for more creative ‘intellective’ tasks – or solely to achieve the lowest common denominator of efficiency?
  • Is technology ever merely neutral?
  • Are workers and consumers obligated to embrace possibilities of technology? Or do they have rights to obstruct and even undermine changes that may not be in their best interests?

Smart Machine offers a prescient guide toward developing a mindful, humane and sane approach to technology. However, it’s unclear who is interested in employing it thus. Corporations are driven by the same bottom line of optimizing profit that they have been since the 19th Century. Universities have become extensions of the corporate state and mere pipelines to employment. Government extols innovation for its own sake and as a spurious source of profit without regard for ethics or the public good12. The result (at least as far as computers and the web) is the expenditure of untold amounts of talent and money to develop trivial applications (think clickbait) which at best distract us from important matters and at worst separate us from our money, personal data and identity. Despite the cautionary mythology presented in films such as the Matrix, there is little relief today from an advancing tide of futurism, reductionist scientific thinking and technological determinism that sees all aspects of our existence as a nail for the same digital hammer.

The EU attempts to protect members’ privacy with it’s own bureaucracy. Writers such as Jaron Lanier and Evgeny Morozov are shrill counterpoints to unmitigated boosterism. Small groups such as the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, attempt a mindful approach through The New Atlantis to ensure the appropriate use of technology, ethics, and involvement of an informed citizenry in decision-making.

Technology is more than a device or solution. It it is a way of thinking which offers benefits and limitations in navigating this world of our creation. Far from simply being a benign extension of ourselves, the tools have the power to change the nature of the user and the manner in which we live.  -CDL

1Such as the Tandy TRS-80, which could be purchased as a kit (?) through Radio Shack.
2Including semiotics, problem-solving, the abstraction of work and media studies addressed in writing by Karl Polanyi, Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman
3Authors, respectively, of the Future Shock (1970) and Megatrends (1982)
4Author of books including Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), Technopoly (1992), Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future (1995)
5Authors, respectively, of Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now and To Save Everything Click Here.
6No escape from the Panopticon, ScienceNode, October 14th 2017
7See Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet.
8A machine is a magnifier of labor
9In Ill Fares the Land the late Tony Judt describes the ‘connected isolation’ that results.
10Named for Frederick Winslow Taylor, Henry Ford’s manager and promoter of ‘one best way’ for completing tasks.
11 Facilitating superficial, zipless interactions without emotional investment or accountability, to borrow a term from 1970s writer Erica Jong,
12The late Neil Postman, in Building a Bridge to the 18th Century, proposed we ask of technology, What problem does it solve; what problem(s) does it create? Who benefits? Who pays?

 

Bon Voyage, Tony

I enjoy cooking. I find it creative and practical, and I’m not bad it it. I used to joke that I wanted Anthony Bourdain’s job. Now I guess that’s more of a possibility.

His death Friday from apparent suicide hit me. He was my age. I have the usual thoughts and questions:

  • He had such a cool job
  • He had a girlfriend and a young daughter
  • He traveled all the world, talked to people, ate with them, got paid for it
  • He kicked heroin

What the hell?

As a survivor of someone who committed suicide, over the past year I’ve reached out to friends, family, strangers, professionals and colleagues. I sought comfort, peace and reconnection. With important exceptions what I encountered disappointed me. Our get-ahead go-ahead society turns our thoughts, feelings, need for intimacy, friends and acquaintances into commodities to be bought, sold and easily discarded. (And thanks for capitalizing on that Facebook.) Most people I tried to connect with did not have time or patience for the grief, loss, nagging thoughts and memories I experienced and am still experiencing. You may have spent a week with someone or a lifetime, known them casually or intimately, said hello at the office or woke up in the same bed, who was enmeshed in so much pain, confusion and despair in their head (or body) that they decided to leave this world. As you struggle to comprehend, to move on, people you’ve known for years throw a few clichés at you. They tell you to see a therapist, ask if you’re on meds, and are gone. No time for conversation, tears, laughter or reminiscences or even a meal together. And sure as hell not serious questions.

I don’t know why Anthony Bourdain killed himself. We’ve created a world that pushes our buttons and makes us constantly doubt and feel afraid and anxious about whether we fit in and at the same time makes us feel isolated. That requires us to do crazy things and pretend to like it. Then, when we act out and feel bad, we sell ourselves services and products and meds and therapy. Nice little business you got going on there. Be a shame if anything happened to it.

I was told that people often don’t know what to say. Certainly this life (and death) can leave us at a loss for words. But people know what to say about plenty of other things, like politics or their sex lives (or other people’s sex lives if they don’t have one). My expectations are not high. Maybe I’m idealizing here (Thank you Big Chill), but give it a shot. Knock on the door of someone who’s experienced a loss like I and millions of others have. Take five minutes to give them a call. Invite them them to lunch or to take a walk or have a beer, or take a bicycle ride. And for the sake of whatever belief system you have, mention the name of the person they lost instead of pretending they never existed. Even if you’re afraid it might upset them (um, what, more?). Grow an anatomically-correct pair of ovaries or testicles. Or a heart. Dare to be brave. Don’t make them do all the work themselves in isolation, which helped create the mess we’re in in the first place.

I don’t know whether Anthony Bourdain was depressed (as if that explains anything) or narcissistic or had a personality disorder. I’ll leave the armchair therapizing to the self-appointed experts. To me cooking and enjoying good food and traveling and telling stories and getting people to share their stories and recipes around the world and having an ego does not mean you have a personality disorder. It means you contributed just a tiny part of the solution in this crazy mixed up world.

In my mind I imagine me and Tony drinking mojitos in Cuba and arguing baseball. Or sitting down in Istanbul for shish kebab or in Barcelona for tapas.

My sense from watching is that he could be a cranky son-of-a-bitch: standoffish, opinionated and garrulous. He also appeared witty, wry and self- deprecating, generous and kind. And to genuinely savor life. We could use more of that in the human species.

So for me now keep your tributes, your marches, your causes, your ribbons, your 1-800 suicide hotlines, your therapists on the clock, your platitudes and statistics, your by-the-book support groups, your medications that distance those of us left behind from our anguish and questions so we can work and buy groceries and feed the cat and ourselves and maybe our kids. Don’t ask me for money, or to write my congress-person.

Show up.

And I don’t want Anthony Bourdain’s job. I’ll skip the heroin, thanks. I think I would hate running a restaurant. But for a long while he seems to have recovered and turned it into a pretty good life and work. I want him back so i can continue watching him show us how it’s done.

Bon voyage, Tony. Buen provecho. – CDL

 

Our Stars, Ourselves

Nuestra Estrellas, Nosotros Mismos

‘The spirit of sect and bigotry has planted its hoof amid the stars .
H.D.Thoreau, Life Without Principle

‘The fault is not in our stars, Horatio, but in ourselves.
Hamlet, Act I scene 1

In January this year I spent an afternoon walking in Quito, the capitol of Ecuador. Near the cathedrals and shops of the colonial city, I came across the Observatorio Astronómico ( Astronomical Observatory). Completed in 1878, it’s a museum now. The entrance fee was ~5.00 usd, so I went in.

Coincidentally, I recently read American Eclipse by David Baron. I wasn’t sure at first the subject was my thing, but his storytelling is superb. And of course I like most any history of technology. Barron’s book tells the story of the 1878 race to capture a total solar eclipse in the western U.S. The event took place at the start of the gilded age, when the country became obsessed by wealth and figures such as Pittsburgh’s Andrew Carnegie and J..C Frick made their fortunes. The book mentions Samuel Langley of the Allegheny observatory.

A few weeks ago mi novia texted me that drug dealers from Columbia murdered three journalists kidnapped in Esmeralda province in her home country of Ecuador. She and I traveled through Esmeralda on the way to La Costa. It’s a lush green landscape, but poor.

It’s hard for me to ascribe any cosmic meaning to the fates of three journalists unless we address the causes of their deaths on earth. A year ago I couldn’t tell you why events in Ecuador would amount to a hill of beans for me. But looking up at the stars today makes the world seem a very small place. — CDL

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