American Talk

A misguided view on technology and humanism

One of New York’s literary lions, Leon Wieseltier, has written a cry of despair over the impact of technology, of data and quantification, and the other components of our digitalised society, on society itself and the very notion of what it means to be human.

It’s an important piece, not only because our humanity — humanism , in Wieseltier’s word — must always take priority in any debate about the lives we lead. Not for the first time, technology threatens that priority.

But Wieseltier, siloed in his literary salon, has totted up the symptoms and pronounced the patient fatally ill. The symptoms exist, for sure. But the toxins he sees — data, technology, digitalisation, media, even economics — don’t define a society unless we let them do so. They are, in fact, no more than tools. Potent tools, but just tools, to be used as we wish.

The debate on how to use these tools — to let them dominate us or to wield them to build a better society — has been going on ever since we entered the digital age. Wieseltier’s article, which led the Book Review of the most recent Sunday New York Times, is a valuable contribution but he has joined a conversation in progress. People everywhere are asking the same questions. Some are even coming up with answers.

Wieseltier needs to get out more. Perspective is needed.

Wieseltier was the long-time literary editor of The New Republic. He joined an exodus from that magazine last month when it became a “digital media company” and hired a new CEO from Yahoo News. It was a traumatic blow-up for a venerable magazine (which, in truth, had been atrophying for years). One suspects this trauma had something to do with Wieseltier’s dim view of digital technology.

In his article, Wieseltier scanned a bleak horizon — closed book and record stores, starvation wages for writers, the “idolatry of data,” vanishing newspapers and magazines, the ubiquity of smart phones and digital readers, the replacement of journalism by “media.” (“What a voluptuous device paper is!” he enthused.)

Then he gets down to business:

“The discussion of culture is being steadily absorbed into the discussion of business,” he said. “There are ‘metrics’ for phenomena that cannot be metrically measured. Economic concepts go rampaging through non-economic realms ... Where wisdom once was, quantification will now be.”

The humanities are roadkill on this digital highway, he says. He defines the humanities as the means by which “individuals can know more than how things work, and develop their powers of discernment and judgment, their competence in matters of truth and goodness and beauty, to equip themselves adequately for the choices and the crucibles of private and public life.”

Certainly, this is an eloquent defense of the humanities. So too is his discussion of humanism, which he sees as moribund. In fact, he says, we may be in the post-humanist age.

Humanism, he says, includes “the centrality of human kind to the universe ... a moral claim about the priority, and the universal nature, of certain values, not least tolerance and compassion.”

Post-humanism, by contrast, “elects to understand the world in terms of impersonal forces and structures and deny the importance of human agency.”

We live now in “the lag between an innovation and the apprehension of its consequences.” In this interim, “there is no more urgent task for American intellectuals and writers than to think critically about the salience, even the tyranny, of technology in individual and collective life.”

The final verdict cannot be “success in the marketplace ... We can no longer roll over and celebrate and shop. The character of our society cannot be determined by engineers ... The requirements of culture cannot be exonerated by the thrills of the digital revolution.”

It’s tempting to say that truer words were never spoken, except that they’re been spoken regularly for some 700 years now, since Gutenberg invented the printing press and forever changed our lives, how we think — our humanness.

The monks of the day took an apocalyptic view of this disruptive technology, but there was more to come. James Watts’s steam engine invented industry and cities. John Deere’s plow killed the family farm. The Sears catalog (the Amazon of its day) undermined small-town stores. Trains and steamships erased splendid isolation in favor a new connectivity. Don’t get me started on Marconi, or radio, or TV.

All these innovations, like the digital revolution, had several things in common. They were engineering events that were economically successful. They drove out earlier technology, all the while changing how we live and think and relate to other humans. In other words, they forced us to rethink humanism, not only to adjust it to the new technology but to ensure that it eventually commanded this technology.

Only a Pollyanna would claim that all these disruptions were for the best, or that they didn’t bring immense human pain in their wake. But only an intellectual Luddite would throw up his hands and proclaim the death of humanism at the hands of technology.

We’ve been here before, and we know better. The history of the West, indeed the history of the United States (and of our own Midwest), is the battle to bend technology to our will.

Each technological revolution has, in the long run, contributed to the general economic well-being. I’d say this is crucial to humanism. Humanistic values such as tolerance and compassion (as Benjamin Friedman has written) most often rise from a full stomach: it is hard to be both hungry and generous.

“The processing of information is not the highest aim to which the human spirit can aspire,” Wieseltier writes, “and neither is competitiveness in a global economy.” He’s right, of course. But they are prerequisites for this aspiration. We see here in the Midwest the descent of whole cities and civilizations into a Hobbesian pre-humanism. In these wastelands, despair truly does drown out the humanities.

The fact is that across the world and across the nation and the Midwest are thoughtful people who understand this and are grappling with it. Not all are literary lions. Some are even engineers and economists. Having midwifed this new economy, they struggle to turn it to the common good. Experts in big data seek to apply it to the problems of society. If post-humanism is the enemy, it is most clearly seen in the data-driven jeremiads of an economist like Thomas Piketty.

Liberal arts colleges remain alive and well, if challenged, and see a new mission in this digital disruption. Journalists, deprived of their voluptuous paper, figure out new ways to tell us what our fellow humans are up to. Their media are no longer the Chicago Tribune or even the New York Times: they now have names like GRNlive, Seedcamp, and NewsFixed: you’ve never heard of them but they are Gutenberg’s great-great-grandchildren.

Wieseltier understands this, I think, but seems to hanker for a fin de siècle nirvana of small magazines and a literary hierarchy. Well, we all had our secure slot in the old pre-digital economy. Much of the Midwest, including many of its intellectuals, wishes it would come back. It won’t.

Wieseltier comes late to this debate, but we welcome his eloquence and commitment. The issue is how human values survive when the economy that supported them goes away, how we join new rivals on other planets in our common humanity, how we turn a menacing technology into the support system for a reaffirmation of our humanism.

This post was originally published at The Midwesterner