We really are on the verge of modernity reaching its ultimate form. I just found a video on YouTube that is as broad an indictment of rational positivism and the cult of progress as I have ever seen.
Watch the whole thing, start to finish including the infomercial at the end:
Now, my first thought during the part with the astrolabe was that one of the great losses of modernity was a keen awareness of nature and how to use simple tools to make nature work for them with minimal intervention. Modernity pushes the force of invention beyond mere necessity, and makes telling the time so much a part of an increasing laundry list of measurements and precise quantities we must live out lives by that we don’t have time for a device like this. And yet, an astrolabe can be made of wood, something that can be gathered locally; your smart watch had to be made from exotic minerals dug up by slave laborers and prisoners of civil wars funded and perpetuated by politicians so that those minerals are easy to get at.
Then when the infomercial came on, I saw what all this has come to. Sweden, in a bid to reduce air pollution, has installed cameras that read the license plate of cars coming and going into the center of Stockholm. The only thought on my mind was “this is absurd. We will not save the planet this way!” How many tons of ore had to be dug out somewhere in Africa, transported by oil-burning ships, oil-burning trucks, and processed by oil-burning factories? How much oil, Stockholm, did you have to burn to procure your “climate-friendly” system? And isn’t it convenient that this system would be so easy to use to track the movements of people in an ever-widening global police state? Stockholm used to be the kind of city where people ran to get away from that sort of thing!
There is an attitude that old technology is bad. But tell me, what’s worse: making a tape with iron oxide on cellophane, ordinary, common materials you can get anywhere, or making an .mp3 player with rare earth elements that only exist in remote, conflict-ravaged corners of the earth and then dragging it all the way here? And was the world really so wretched when I sat in the back of my parents’ car listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on my Walkman to pass the time on long trips? We already have a “livable” technology for reproducing sounds, and it’s much lower impact too.
I think that, over several thousand years of Western history plus the added knowledge of what the Arabs and Asians knew, we could easily find livable technologies that put a minimal impact on the environment if we dug around. Relying on police state tactics isn’t going to do it, and looking to the cutting edge of technology isn’t either.
That isn’t to say we should give up on new technology, but we should be smarter about how we develop it and take some time to really learn, adapt, and integrate the whole of human achievement because I think the growth of technology has out-stripped our ability to do that. The free market gave us an explosion of new technologies, but that technology grew so fast that before we knew what was going on, it was being used against us. If you were working class, they kept you there by asking you to borrow tens of thousands of dollars to try to keep up with your neighbor’s buying habits, and it forever became a contest to be the most well-equipped, smartest-dressed modern man while descending into wage slavery. If you were rich, you were kept rich by your ability to buy the latest gadget and invest in the professional labor to make newer gadgets, and people would fawn over you on TV as an aspirational hero. Technocracy is the end result of meritocracy: we have descended into a minority rule by a technological elite.
Revolution, then, can only come from the people taking as little participation in that market as possible. I think it’s time to re-assess the value of epicurean virtue over the stoicism of the modernist. Epicurus is a poorly-understood thinker; he was what philosophers call a negative hedonist, which means that his idea of pleasure is in keeping life simple and being happy with the least amount of effort. It’s a simple idea that flies squarely in the face of modernism, the sort of idea that will empower the working class toward our own happiness. If one person understands negative hedonism, they are labeled lazy and a deviant but if a hundred million understand negative hedonism, they are a movement and a force to be reckoned with.
We could put the brakes on a runaway world if we only understand the value of this simple idea and adopt it whole-heartedly, turning a deaf ear toward critical modernists and the positivist cultural milieu who will call us lazy, selfish, unproductive, parasites, value destroyers, hippies, and all sorts of slurs. Peer pressure is the modernist’s number one weapon against you, and you don’t have to let it rule your life any more.
The key to all this is simple: remember that productivity and destruction are like Yin and Yang. If you produce more of something, you must destroy more of something else. If we produce only when we must produce, then we destroy only when we must destroy and we complicate our lives only when we must.
Don’t eschew technology completely. Use it as it suits you for the bare minimum of your happiness, and don’t keep trying to make yourself happier with new toys. Use older devices or used appliances, and when buying new, only do it when a used item won’t serve you, and go for something that will last and get the job done over something faddish.
Live every day of your life with the goal in mind to attend to your personal happiness with as little effort as possible. Learn to love the simple things, and value your down time instead of fretting over whether or not you should be a good little Puritan with a hammer in your hand and a scowl on your face. And if you can do that, then you can contribute to making the world a better place more than you will ever know.