“People degrade themselves in order to make machines seem smart all the time. Before the crash, bankers believed in supposedly intelligent algorithms that could calculate credit risk before making bad loans. We ask teachers to teach to standardized tests so a student will look good to an algorithm. We have repeatedly demonstrated our species’ bottomless ability to lower our standards to make information technology look good.”—
"At the moment, then, of Man’s victory over Nature, we find the whole human race subjected to some individual men, and those individuals subjected to that in themselves which is purely ‘natural’ - to their irrational impulses. Nature, untrammelled by values, rules the Conditioners and, through them, all humanity. Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man."
~ C.S. Lewis from The Abolition of Man ca. 1947
The Abolition of Man is a tiny book, really a series of three lectures, in which Lewis attempts to describe what is really bothering him about the modern world. I’ve shared some quotes already, but I think the one above is particularly interesting because of the way it points to our particular little technology-driven crisis.
The core assumptions of our society are those of classical economics - that the striving of each individual for individual gain is for the ultimate good of all, that the ‘natural’ impulse towards greed, is in fact healthy, good, desirable, etc. If you doubt it, take a good hard look at the dominant class in the United States. I think it would be hard to make the case that we have a cultural elite, outside an arbitrary self-selecting “elite” that feeds off the financial classes on the East Coast. What we do have is a financial elite, a sector dedicated first and foremost to its own enrichment, to greed. And their ideology is just this one: the rule of impulse.
The impulse toward greed is interesting in that like the impulse towards, religion, it has as its object an abstraction. This is not a trivial matter. As an abstraction, money, can become its own end, the source of a set of self-referential games and conceits all revolved around its particular logics and whims. Money, typically, has been the product of production, of the “Gross National Product” variety, subject to cycles of boom and bust with a regularity similar, in some ways, to that of the seasonal shifts from Fall to Winter. To everything there was a season.
The goal of economics for the past several decades has been either to defeat this cycle - creating what is known as a “Goldilocks” economy, neither too hot nor too cold - or a least to dampen in it - in one some economists have called the “Great Moderation.” In essence the science of economics attempted to study the nature of man, as economic beast, to conquer him, ostensibly for the good of all, but definitely for the good of those seeking, primarily, after money.
But the conquerors, as we found out, were all too human. Because in the end, even if economic nature is conquered, people are still fearful, greedy, rapacious, apt to take it too far. We found out that instead of being ruled by cycles of production we are now ruled by the greed and fear of our economic class, the angels and demons of “natural” man, homo economicus, as he has been constructed since the 15th century. For this was the kind person we had placed in positions of power in our society, in positions to aggregate wealth, influence and control, to arbitrate ideals of culture, politics and lifestyle.
This was a mistake. And as anyone who’s noticed the unemployment rate can tell you, this crisis is not over. We’re living through it. An alternative construction is in order. A new ideal. Forget how. First we need to recognize (or at least attempt to grapple with) the nature of the problem.
“It is not the greatest of modern scientists who feel most sure that the object stripped of its qualitative properties and reduced to mere quantity, is wholly real. Little scientists, and little unscientific followers of science, may think so. The great minds know very well that the object, so treated, is an artificial abstraction, that something of its reality has been lost.”—
C.S. Lewis again from The Abolition of Man ca. 1947
“Such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”—
In London, in the old days - per Martin - there were two mails, the evening and afternoon. And this was the stripped down version, there had been four or so in the 19th century. So matrons would send out invitations to their dinners or salons in the morning and get back replies in the afternoon mail. How magical; we were walking by the old houses of Yankee traders in the Heights, the twin city in the evening, looking at the iron work and masonry. I worry about the loss of these little masteries. Something is lost in a shortcut.
Chameleons feed on light and air: Poets’ food is love and fame: If in this wide world of care Poets could but find the same With as little toil as they, Would they ever change their hue As the light chameleons do, Suiting it to every ray Twenty times a day?
Poets are on this cold earth, As chameleons might be, Hidden from their early birth In a cave beneath the sea; Where light is, chameleons change: Where love is not, poets do: Fame is love disguised: if few Find either, never think it strange That poets range.
Yet dare not stain with wealth or power A poet’s free and heavenly mind: If bright chameleons should devour Any food but beams and wind, They would grow as earthly soon As their brother lizards are. Children of a sunnier star, Spirits from beyond the moon, O, refuse the boon!
~Percy Bysshe Shelley, re: “Are We Serving the Lord or Percy Bysshe?” Good question. (Painting by JMW Turner.)