Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The high cost of technologically controlling our social environment

Few people are in the position, or have the means, to be able to know just how detrimental the incremental control of our social environment – and our own feelings – by technological means really is. In a nutshell, it is a process that is gradually extinguishing the very core of our being. In his illuminating recent book, ‘Thinking about Technology’ (Lexington Books, 2017), Canadian philosopher Gil Germain delivers a tour de force in this regard by contrasting a life cognisant of the need for experiencing the ‘otherness’ and ‘openendedness’ of the world, on the one hand, with one that is hell-bent on eradicating such otherness and openendedness in favour of ‘sameness’ (in the sense of being of human construction) and optimal control or predictability, on the other.

Here I only have space to focus on one chapter of the book, but one that encapsulates what was written above in eloquently graphic terms. Germain contrasts a truly human mode of existence, as depicted in Plato’s Phaedrus more than 2000 years ago, with a mode of existence that is almost imperceptibly undermining the distinctive quality of human existence. Disturbingly, however, his evocation of these two contrasting modes of life has the effect of opening one’s eyes to the degree to which the latter is already being actualised today.

Our world is fast approaching its fictional counterpart depicted in George Orwell’s 1984, with the difference that ours does not, at first sight, appear to be totalitarian. And yet it is, albeit in a much more subtle way, as I shall show below with reference to Germain’s work. To be able to unmask the pretensions of our all-too-modern, but increasingly ‘posthuman’ world, Germain needs a foil, which he finds in the figure of Socrates in the Phaedrus. Here Socrates is depicted by Plato as the ‘erotic’ being, or ‘lover’ par excellence – not in the narrow sexual sense, although that is also subsumed under the term, but in the much more encompassing sense of someone who knows that the world is open-ended, and moreover, that any striving on the part of humans is motivated by the fact that our lives are constitutively or inescapably ‘lacking’.

Succinctly put: Socrates is a ‘lover’ to the extent that the wisdom he loves cannot ever be fully attained – this is why he, as philosopher, loves wisdom (which is the etymological meaning of the word ‘philosophy’). This also explains why true philosophers (not what Robert Pirsig, in Lila, calls ‘philosophologists’, or those who expect students to regurgitate what they have been ‘taught’ through textbooks) do not really fit into our ‘posthuman’ modern world, which encourages the view that everything we ‘want’ (which is mistakenly seen as a synonym for love) is technically attainable.

Anyone familiar with Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory of the subject would immediately recognise in Plato’s Socrates a precursor of Lacan’s subject, who is said to be constitutively ‘lacking’ as subject. This, in turn, explains the fact that we are ‘desiring’ subjects – where ‘desire’ is NOT synonymous with ‘need’; a need (like hunger) can be temporarily satisfied, but one’s unique human desire can NEVER be satisfied (that is where motivation to reach certain goals comes from), unless people can be persuaded that needs are the same as desire(s). This is exactly what Germain shows to perfection in this beautifully written book (which is highly commendable as reading material for students).

From his discussion of Socrates in the Phaedrus, Germain switches to something radically different, but just as illuminating in a subtle satirical manner: a short story called “Jon” by award-winning science fiction writer, George Saunders, in which we encounter a near-perfect microcosm of the consumer capitalism and technology engendered social world of contemporary modernity. In a compound tellingly called the “Facility” we meet the eponymous Jon, who is one of the ‘product assessors’ living there, isolated from the less-than-perfect (but continually approximating consumerist perfection) world on the outside.

As Germain notes, these ‘assessors’ can attain ‘rock-star’ status through their product assessment, and some do, inducing in them the impression that they live in consumer paradise. After all, every need on their part (including their emotional needs, via drugs resembling what we know as Prozac and its equivalents), is satisfied in a carefully controlled fashion, and their assessments are used to improve the products they test and evaluate for being marketed in society outside the Facility. A largely successful attempt is even made to apply this to sex, by means of instructional videos where assessors are encouraged to masturbate in order to quell any potentially disrupting sexual needs or desires. This is the point about capitalist consumer paradise: technology is employed to eradicate all needs – at least in appearance, because a fully satisfied consumer is anathema to capitalism; at best the semblance of satisfaction should be created. And the ‘erotic’, in the Socratic sense of an awareness of the chronic incompleteness of the human universe, is not allowed to enter here, because it would throw everything out of kilter. (Can you see where this is leading to?)

But the question is: CAN all human needs, let alone desire in the Platonic/Lacanian sense, be satisfied? Earlier I pointed to Plato’s, and Lacan’s, instructive insights into human ‘nature’ as being founded on ‘desire’( or ‘love’) that is, in principle, not satisfiable. George Saunders is clearly cognisant of this, because love (Eros) does intrude into this would-be utopia of satisfaction when a friend of Jon’s slips into the girls’ living quarters, has sex with one of them, and a pregnancy results in due course, culminating in the birth of Baby Amber. In the meantime Jon has followed suit, sleeping with the girl he loves (Carolyn), with identical consequences. When Baby Amber dies soon afterwards, Jon resorts to pharmaceutical control of his grief, suppressing it by means of Aurabon, but Carolyn refuses to do so, opening herself to the experience of unpredictable pain and disaster.

Cutting the story short, Jon and the pregnant Carolyn end up leaving the Facility for the less-than-ostensibly-perfect outside world, where – while Jon is not entirely happy because he misses all the ‘cool’ stuff he got to assess, and keep, in the Facility – he discovers what human life really means. As Germain paraphrases Saunders (2017, p. 29):

“What has changed, however, is Jon’s sense that life beyond the confines of the Facility possesses a gravity not found within its walls. This weight is a consequence of his participating in an order of being marked by an open-endedness, in direct opposition to the closed and hyper-managed confines of the Facility. The world is not Jon’s to do with what he likes: It acts on him as much as he acts on it.”

The disturbing aspect of Saunders’s short story is not merely its uncomfortably accurate depiction of modern society (albeit projected some years into the future) as one intent on exercising extreme managerial control over social life through technology, in the process tending towards the eradication of human (and humanising) desire. As Germain observes, Saunders is quite aware of the limiting effect of consumer culture on human language and thought (2017, p. 26):

“Saunders uses language to underscore the general point that there is no strict separation between our inner thoughts and feelings, on the one hand, and the world with which we interact, on the other. In short, our inner or private world is shown never to be entirely our own. Our ability to articulate thoughts and feelings — and to some extent even to have them — is shaped both by the nature of the social order we inhabit, and by the character of our relations with this order. It would be odd indeed, for instance, if living in a world given over to branding did not tend to elicit the production of truncated thoughts and caricatured feelings. And perhaps more importantly, and unsettling, nor should it be assumed that restrictions of this sort are recognised as such by language users.”

To any teacher this would cast light on the noticeable deterioration of the language used by students, shaped as it is by our increasingly consumerist society. Nor are students equipped to notice this. Together with the tendency, to constrain, if not eradicate, the erotic (in the Platonic sense), are capitalism and technology not exacting too high a price from us in light of the above?

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