Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

How technological control undermines human desire

Contrary to what most people believe, the world is approaching the dystopian totalitarian society portrayed in George Orwell’s 1984, although ours does not, at first sight, appear to be totalitarian. And yet it is every bit as controlled, albeit in a much more subtle way. The Canadian thinker, Gilbert Germain, homes in on this state of affairs in relation to the question of technology. Germain contrasts a huan life of experiencing the ‘otherness’ and ‘open-endedness’ of the world, on the one hand, with one that is hell-bent on eradicating such otherness and open-endedness in favour of ‘sameness’ (in the sense of being of human construction) and optimal control or predictability. It is the latter that is already being actualised today.

In Thinking about Technology (2017) Germain addresses this issue of the relation between human needs-satisfaction and consumerist (neoliberal) capitalism and technology by focusing on the question concerning ‘desire’. In Plato’s Phaedrus, he argues (2017: 1-8), where Socrates converses with the sophist, Phaedrus, the former shows himself (and by implication all human beings) as being a ‘lover’, or in different terms, a creature of ‘desire’ — not in the exclusive sense of sexual desire, but more fundamentally as that force which impels humans to strive towards some kind of fulfillment. The implication is that the world, human society, and our personal lives are not ‘all they could be’ at any given time, but that there is always something ‘more’, and ‘other’ to strive towards. Put differently, humans constitutively ‘lack’ something, and this lack can never be conclusively eradicated by satisfying physical and psychic needs.

Germain contrasts Plato’s account of what it means to be human, as embodied in Socrates’s nature as ‘lover’, with a contemporary (science-fictional) account — one that is completely incommensurate with that of Plato, and articulates the currently accepted, techno-oriented belief about what it means to be human. In the short story, “Jon”, by George Saunders, we encounter a ‘utopian’ microcosm of modern consumer society which is predicated on the possibility of satisfying human needs via technological control to the point where people are self-sufficient beings. 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 ‘rockstar’ 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 through biochemical technology, 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.

But the question is: can all human needs, let alone desire in the Platonic sense, be satisfied? Earlier Plato’s instructive insights into human ‘nature’ as being founded on ‘desire’( or ‘love’) that is, in principle, not satisfiable, were mentioned. 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-technological 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. Jon and Carolyn end up leaving the Facility for the less-than-ostensibly-perfect outside world, where Jon — while he is not entirely happy because he misses all the ‘cool’ stuff he got to assess, and keep, in the Facility – 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 hyper-managed 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 desire. As Germain observes, Saunders is also quite aware of the limiting effect of consumer culture on human language and thought, which is reflected in the somewhat stunted language Jon uses when he waxes lyrical about his first sexual encounter. It could not be different, however; after all, his linguistic universe comprises the jargon of advertising and product assessment. Germain summarises this disturbing state of affairs as follows (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 recognized 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 and gadget-oriented society. Most students are not equipped to notice this, of course. Together with the tendency, to constrain, if not eradicate the erotic (in the Platonic sense), through its use of technology, I believe that capitalism is exacting an unconscionable price from humanity in light of the above. By contrast, in the ancient world, as embodied in Plato’s Socrates, there was no question about acknowledging human beings’ status as erotic beings. Germain comments as follows on this (2017: 22):

“The same cannot be said for us moderns. A curse rather than blessing, the erotic pull that draws us out of a state of complacency is deemed a problem in need of remediation…Eros for us is an evil that must be extirpated. Being ‘in want’ is anathema to the proper functioning of the social order. Anything that smacks of existential openness is contrary to the spirit of our times. It is for this reason that the air of openness that suffuses the Phaedrus is utterly absent in George Saunders’s Jon, at least initially. Through the lens of the short story’s eponymous protagonist, Saunders supplies us with a picture of a closed universe whose end is the production of equally closed, unerotic, or self-satisfied beings.”

Latently all of us are still beings of desire, of course, and as long as we don’t allow capitalist control of our desire through technology to eradicate this, we won’t lose that which makes us truly human.

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