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

By Russell Arben Fox for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

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.

  • Share: