Rod’s Divided Over Progress (And So Are We All)

One of the most constant themes here at Front Porch Republic, or so it seems to me, as been the tension, the struggle, over the degree to which we as modern individualism cannot help but be implicated within the blessings of progress, and the degree to which we are, at the same time, culturally or religiously or ideologically motivated to resist those same blessings. Rod Dreher’s recent encounter with the latest technological gadget–the iPad–fits this theme very well. Citing an essay by Laura Miller, Rod rhapsodizes about the iPad’s ability to make one of his favorite activities–reading–easier for himself: “Looking at the iPad the other day, and holding it in my hands, was a revelation: the first electronic device that made consuming magazines, books and newspapers pleasurable. And as someone who makes part of his living blogging, it’s advantageous to consume media in that way; as it is now, I have to tear articles out of magazines and newspapers and put them on the table so I’ll remember to go to the website and blog about them later.” But he is also attendant to the complaints some, like Cory Doctorow, who point out that the iPad is a streamlined, corporate, monopolistic device–it is a tool designed to be used one way, and one way only. That’s something that should rub Rod–who is, in principle, entirely in favor of doing things for yourself, with your hands–the wrong way…and yet, it doesn’t. Quoting an essay by Nick Carr, Rod explains himself:

One of the keynotes of technological advance is its tendency, as it refines a tool, to remove real human agency from the workings of that tool. In its place, we get an abstraction of human agency that represents the general desires of the masses as deciphered, or imposed, by the manufacturer and the marketer. Indeed, what tends to distinguish the advanced device from the primitive device is the absence of “generativity.” It’s useful to remember that the earliest radios were broadcasting devices as well as listening devices and that the earliest phonographs could be used for recording as well as playback. But as these machines progressed, along with the media systems in which they became embedded, they turned into streamlined, single-purpose entertainment boxes, suitable for living rooms….Progress may, for a time, intersect with one’s own personal ideology, and during that period one will become a gung-ho technological progressivist. But that’s just coincidence. In the end, progress doesn’t care about ideology. Those who think of themselves as great fans of progress, of technology’s inexorable march forward, will change their tune as soon as progress destroys something they care deeply about. “We love the things we love for what they are,” wrote Robert Frost. And when those things change we rage against the changes. Passion turns us all into primitivists.Ouch. That cuts deep. In one of the combox threads yesterday, [a reader] pointed out that there’s something weird about Mr. Crunchy Con getting all gooey-eyed over a piece of technology. Guilty! What can I say, I contain multitudes. Seriously, though, I think Nick Carr is on to me just as much as he’s on to Cory Doctorow. The things I like are food and drink, and I don’t consider things that remove people from the creation of good food and good drink to be progress, but rather regress. Yet I don’t really care about being creative with my computer equipment; I just want the thing to work seamlessly, and let me do what I want to do with minimal hassle. Conversely, it is entirely likely that a geek like Cory Doctorow would see me as a hopeless Luddite for rejecting labor-saving kitchen devices that take away from the pleasure of getting down and dirty with one’s dinner — who, after all, wants to waste time cooking when they could be spending it taking apart a computer and tinkering with it to make it do cool things? If “progress” promotes something I deeply care about — farmer’s markets, say — then I’m all for it. And if not, not. Similarly, if localism promotes things I care about, then up with it, say I; but let localism take away something I care about, and I’m going to whi-i-i-i-ine. As Carr indicates, we’re all reactionaries about the things we really love.

“We’re all reactionaries about the things we really love.” I suspect there is a large, tragic truth to that sentence. Those of us who write for Front Porch Republic do so because, one way or another, we are interested in a way of life that acknowledges and promotes the virtues that a life of limits involves. But in our own specialized lives and vocations, in the particulars of our families and environments, do we appreciate all limits equally? I think not. I think we strongly believe in limiting progress when it runs up against something important to us. But when it serves as a tool for empowering us in regards to other tasks, enabling us to be better at doing something, by changing something else that we were never particularly attached to? That, as Rod–and all of us–are finding, is a harder question.

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  1. Like those of asceticism, the behaviors associated with localism are learned behaviors; the two have much in common. They involve the ability to discern between needs and wants, and then to eschew the mere wants in favor of true needs. One doesn’t learn this overnight, but it is the small decisions that foster this discipline.

    An example from my own life might be a case in point. I put off getting a cell phone for a very long time, but eventually broke down, largely because I have an elderly parent who may need to get hold of me in an emergency situation. But to this date, I have refused to use text messaging. I do not answer texts, except by a return call, and if I were allowed to disable texting on my cell plan I would do so. I find texting completely unnecessary–it really is a “mere” convenience. I also think it dumbs down and depersonalizes human communication. So I refuse to be a part of that.

    By the accumulation of small choices like that, one trains oneself to be more of a consistent Front Porcher. None of us will probably ever be the perfect localist. But that’s not really the point, is it?

  2. The mistake — easily rectified by attentive reading of Chesterton — is in being “for” or “against” progress as such, as opposed to being for or against progress in particular directions, gauged by the compasses provided by particular conceptions of good.

    Liberal modernity does make the mistake of being “for” progress as such, but a great deal of counter-liberal and counter-modern discourse merely inverts that mistake by being “against” progress as such, even when particular instances of progress might be in the direction of said counter-liberal or counter-moderns own conceptions of good.

    The iPad is “progress” if it furthers one’s conception of good and if it doesn’t its not.

    What matters in judging the iPad is one’s conception of good, not one’s attitude toward progress as such — a thing too unspecific for one to have a basis for taking any attitude toward, of one type or another.

  3. “It’s useful to remember that the earliest radios were broadcasting devices as well as listening devices…”

    This sounds apocryphal to me. I don’t recall ever once seeing an early radio for home use that would broadcast as well as listen. Nor do I remember home-made records, at least none that proliferated like the hundreds of cassettes I made from friend’s LPs in the 70s. My old turntable still works, and it still plays records made at the dawn of recorded music, which seems very front porchy to me, completely unlike the iPad and other modern media players that have an expected lifespan of only a few years at best. Who among us still uses a fist generation iPhone, or CD player, or trendy MP3 player from 5 years ago? Few, I expect. Those things are already leaching heavy metals into landfills all over the world

    I sure the iPad will make reading online content more pleasurable, but hyperventilating over the latest media toys is a symptom of techno-lust, which is not unlike carnal lust where a few moments of pleasure with something new and novel results in something that will be outdated, discarded and forgotten in short order. There is a cultural price to pay for having the latest toys.

  4. I think that another piece of this is what motivates you to get the newest whiz bang thing. Are you allowing yourself to be manipulated by the consumer mindset – gotta have that new thing or is it about something that is practical and useful. Dreher has a blog and it seems the Ipad would really save him time etc doing his job. That seems fine to me.

    But it is true that we are on a slippery slope. It can get easy to find what seem like really good reasons to succumb to the consumerist mindset. I wonder too – while my cell phone is great in case my car breaks down am I not also in some way sharing in the responsibility for the person who risks his health and gets paid peanuts to mine the rare earth minerals needed to run my cell phone? I have watched documentary footage of children in Africa who get paid a dollar a day to mine those REM’s. Because they are so poor they leave school to work at these mines. I have seen documentary footage of techniques used in Africa to mine REM that would never be permitted in the US, that make the water toxic and that wash away top soil, leaving the land unfit for agriculture. Progress sure presents a lot of dilemmas.

  5. Absolutely correct Groby. All I’ll add is to make it clear this judgment of technology(and other innovations.) needs to be done from the level of the big picture, the general matrix of socio-technological institutions and their changes, as well as the smaller one. One needs to gauge the Ipad’s impact on both levels.

  6. “Who among us still uses a fist generation iPhone, or CD player, or trendy MP3 player from 5 years ago? ”

    I use an old MP3 player(occasionally.) that my friend gave me. Why waste money on an ipod when there are books or beers to be bought?

  7. My “problem” with Dreher’s enthusiasm for the iPad wasn’t so much about the inconsistency between his “crunchiness” and his desire for Jobs’ latest toy — I’m not immune to the siren-song of toys.

    My concern was that, in many instances, what’s being expressed isn’t so much a desire for simplicity and limits but, instead, an aesthetic preference, i.e., the problem isn’t that people spend $500 on something that isn’t “books or beer” but that they spend it on the wrong thing.

    David Brooks, in “Bobos in Paradise” captured this well in his description of how “bobos” distinguish between “tools” and “toys.” A $50-100 thousand kitchen remodel is a “tool” and, thus, okay but spending a fraction of that on a home theater is a “toy” and, thus, isn’t. It doesn’t matter how many meals are prepared in said kitchen.

    Sometimes, the “crunchy” folk give off a similar vibe: buying a $600K McMansion in the burbs is bogus but spending the same amount (or more) for a townhouse in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia or Charleston is sorta righteous. You can pay $800 for a 3G iPad, plus the price of a wireless subscription or you can pay a similar amount for a flat-screen television — one of these will get you excommunicated from the church of crunchy while the other won’t. Huh?

    In other words, it’s consumption as a kind of social signal — the very stuff that Christian Lander has mocked brilliantly in “Stuff White People Like.”

  8. “But to this date, I have refused to use text messaging. I do not answer texts, except by a return call, and if I were allowed to disable texting on my cell plan I would do so. I find texting completely unnecessary–it really is a “mere” convenience.” I also think it dumbs down and depersonalizes human communication.”

    I too am going to set a similar limit. I have decided to drop this new fangled “reading” business from my life. It leads people to communicate in a de-personalized way, via “letters” and stuff like that, instead of just coming over!

  9. ““It’s useful to remember that the earliest radios were broadcasting devices as well as listening devices…”
    ‘This sounds apocryphal to me. I don’t recall ever once seeing an early radio for home use that would broadcast as well as listen.’

    The first radios were built in the late 19th century. So, you are about 120 or so?

    And note that you added in “for home use” yourself — Dreher never makes that claim.

  10. Rod Dreher wrote: “It’s useful to remember that the earliest radios were broadcasting devices as well as listening devices and that the earliest phonographs could be used for recording as well as playback.”

    I don’t question that some small percentage (obviously not all) of earliest radios were transmitters as well as receivers. It doesn’t take someone 120 years old to recall that simple fact, thank you for asking. After all, without at least one transmitter, what good is a receiver?

    My question is WHY does Mr. Dreher find it “useful to remember” the rather obscure fact that a few early radios could transmit as well as receive and what does that say about today’s disposable media readers and social networking devices like the iPad? Progress has not eliminated two-way radio. For those who want them, today’s two-way radios are far more powerful and plentiful than they’ve ever been in the history of RF communication.

    I would appear that Mr. Dreher, in harkening back to the glory days of earliest radio is just trying to find a more noble justification to buy an iPad, something more high-minded than simply admitting its cool and I want one.

    Ipads just don’t seem that font-porchy of crunchy to me. I’ll bet Wendell Berry’s not getting one either.

  11. I don’t think that was Dreher’s motive — I think he was pointing out that most technologies, over time, move towards a ‘user-friendly,’ rather than ‘maximally user empowering,’ version in their mass market realizations.

  12. ~~I have decided to drop this new fangled “reading” business from my life. It leads people to communicate in a de-personalized way, via “letters” and stuff like that, instead of just coming over!~~

    Reading and writing have proven themselves over thousands of years to be necessary for organized human civilization. Care to make that sort of prediction for texting?

  13. “Reading and writing have proven themselves over thousands of years to be necessary for organized human civilization. Care to make that sort of prediction for texting?”

    No, but I make this retrodiction: when reading and writing came along, there were a bunch of grumpy people who refused to use them because they were “unnecessary.”

  14. ~~~No, but I make this retrodiction: when reading and writing came along, there were a bunch of grumpy people who refused to use them because they were “unnecessary.”~~~

    Reading and writing arose organically out of language; they weren’t “invented” in the same way texting was. Texting is an artifact, more like shorthand than reading and writing. It is a true invention and its sole purpose is convenience. Thus, it is in no sense necessary.

  15. What would you have done when the man came to you and offered an axe? If you have had to chop wood to keep your family alive, as my cousin once had to do, I doubt that you would wax philo/moral about its properties and effects on your soul. You may well have later pondered if the dirt under your fingernails or the good fires the hearth gave were compromised, but…I doubt it. Only if you are prosperous enough and without fear do you worry often about which you like best, your scythe or your Beamer.

    I don’t care about the iPad, but I like my Kindle. My Kindle doesn’t replace either my books or my pencils, which were not replaced by my quill pens. I wrote most of my lectures for about twenty years on a 1928 Underwood, but I don’t miss it. I don’t like to ride horses, and am glad I don’t have to. Go Rod, and make the iPad your friend–as long as you don’t give up on the, let’s see, what style of house was it?

  16. The taint of libertarianism in modern conservatism has impaired our ability to discern between wants and needs.

  17. “The taint of libertarianism in modern conservatism has impaired our ability to discern between wants and needs.”

    I can distinguish these:
    Needs — About 1200 calories per day with a modest mix of foods, a few cups of water, minimal shelter and clothing. If religious, add minimal requirements for salvation. I.e., about the life of a medieval peasant.

    Wants — Everything else. Including the ability to comment on a blog and look down your nose at people who use text messaging for not being able to distinguish wants and needs.

  18. Wow this doesnt seem all that difficult to me. It isnt the radio, the ax or the ipad that is important. It is the importance that we place on them. What did the guy want for the ax when it was offered? Was it your first born or your soul? It is a matter of what we are willing to give up for the sake of something material, how much we idolize it and to what extent we value it above God, family and community. If the use of a gadget diminishes our relationships, it should be tossed, if it adds to relationship there is a real justification for it.
    If some kid in Africa has to die so we can have it as Cecilia suggests, hmmmmm…. I guess this is difficult………….

  19. As food for thought, consider the following passage from Bertrand Russell’s essay entitled “In Praise of Idleness:”

    “Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacturing of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralizing. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?”

    ****

    I have two observations with regard to the blessings of technology.

    First, technology is a blessing only to the extent that it actually increases one’s leisure. Remodeling a kitchen with the latest gadgetry is useless for those who will not cook, and high definition television is actually detrimental to the cause of leisure if it increases the viewing of dull, boring programming by a single minute.

    Second, technology is a blessing only to the extent that the one who receives the leisure it conveys is capable of using it AS leisure. In Russell’s illustration above such capability is neither realized nor, for that matter, even desired.

    All of which suggests that iPads, like hammers and saws and scythes, are perfectly qualified to bless, but that the likely outcome for many will be a greater entanglement with the curse.

  20. “Wants — Everything else. Including the ability to comment on a blog and look down your nose at people who use text messaging for not being able to distinguish wants and needs.”

    Nuance, dude, nuance.

  21. Rob G, I agree — your initial post, in categorizing things as unambiguously either “necessary” or “mere conveniences” lacked all nuance. I’m glad you’ve come around.