Good Artists Copy, Great Artists Steal

Ross Anderson
The Atlantic Online

One has had to work hard to find an ill-written word about Steve Jobs, the technologist. While some have attacked Steve as a personality or as a ruthless businessman, even his harshest critics have agreed that his dazzling inventions have been a force for good in the world. 

Hence, you might think of John Zerzan as anti-Steve Jobs. Zerzan is an intellectual leader of the anarcho-primitivist movement, an ideology that regards technology as a destroyer of human communities. His first brush with national prominence came after a 1995 interview with The New York Times in which he expressed some sympathy with the ideas, if not the methods of Ted Kaczynski. Yesterday, I spoke to Zerzan by phone in order to gather his thoughts on what Jobs meant to the world of technology and to our culture at large.

* As someone openly opposed to technological progress, have you been frustrated by all of the public mourning and tributes that has been attended Steve Jobs' passing?

Zerzan: I am, though I'm not surprised at all given the popularity of these devices and the cultural predominance of technology. Steve Jobs has been in the limelight for so many years, you kind of expect that this would happen, that there would be these different ecomiums etc. 

There's an interesting contrast to the reaction to the innovators of the early Industrial Revolution. For example, the inventors of the power loom for the first textile factories in England; I was reading recently these accounts of how they used to have slink around and hide their work and identities. They were spat upon and even chased down in the streets because they were so hated. And now look at Jobs, there's all of these vigils and tributes, even a huge spread in The Wall Street Journal the other day calling him "a secular saint".

One of the things I noticed in the obits and letters to the editor about Jobs was the recurrent notion that he enhanced our connectivity. This is something that strikes me as such an irony. We're all connected now, we're all wired, we have this complete ease of contact with everybody--but it's also obvious that the more society becomes entrenched in these so-called connecting technologies, the more isolated we are as individuals. It's clear the machines are connected, but to what extent are humans connected? Everybody's on their cellphone all the time, to me it's like zombies, you walk along the street and people bump into you because they're so enthralled by these devices. 

* I wonder if that's a criticism best levelled at particular technologies, or even certain features of those technologies. It might be the case that certain gadgets are pushing people apart, while others actually enable the community. For example, Facetime for the iPhone allows families to video conference when they're apart. So even if I grant you that these large technological trends are widening the space between people, can't some individual technologies work to bridge those spaces? 

Zerzan: Well, there are these band-aids, these substitutes, of course there are. That's the appeal, that's why they're popular, but in the meantime we're more and more dispersed. And don't get me wrong I use them too. I have a close friend in Serbia. How often am I going to see him? Not very often, so I rely on a fixed version of the technology you're describing. But those are consolations and you ultimately have to look at what's being traded away. When you weight the whole ensemble of this, the whole culture of this and you see the direction it's going, and again getting back to the community, which to me is really the key thing, it's evaporating. So I look at the technology not so much in terms of specific devices or even features, but rather than the overall thing. What is modernity now? Where is it going? What is holding it together?

You have these extreme sociological phenomena like mass shootings that seem to occur with some regularity now. It seems to me that when you no longer have community, and you no longer have solidarity, then almost anything can happen. And the technology isn't helping. It's no substitute for real cohesion and connection. Everybody uses that term--every politician, every developer--talks about community, but it's disappeared with the advent of mass society.

* Unpack that for me a little bit. Focussing in particular on Apple and Steve Jobs, and fortunately we don't have to zoom in much because Apple has been such a big player in a lot of technological advances of the past twenty years, at least in the consumer technology space. How do you think that those technologies are really driving people apart, or taking away from community? 

Zerzan: Well, yeah, I threw out a really general kind of thing, but it doesn't seem coincidental that what is really accelerating more than anything is the PACE of technological change, and people in social theory don't pay much attention to that. At the same time, the bond that holds society together seems to be loosening with the advance of mass culture. Again, I'm talking about technology on a more fundamental level, not just Apple devices specifically. On one hand technological change is proceeding apace, and on another people are being driven further apart. Of course, this is an overnight thing, but when you look at this historically, it's not going well.

* It sounds like you're saying that rather than connect the dots from particular technologies or even technological trends to this creeping sense of human isolation, all you have to do is zoom out and notice that the two dominant features of modern life are rapid technological changes and the fraying of human community. But I'm not so sure that people are obviously drifting apart from one another. In fact, there might be some empirical evidence that people are, as you've even said, more connected than ever. You mentioned mass shootings as one signpost, but those are still fairly anomalous, so what are the other symptoms that you associate with that fraying, what makes it especially obvious to you that we're drifting apart as a species? 

Zerzan: One of the things I often point to in lectures is a study I saw in an American sociological journal that looked at how many friends adults have over a twenty year period from 1985 to 2005. In the study, the definition of a friend was someone you'd consider as a confidant. Anyway, after thousands and thousands of interviews these researchers determined that in the mid eighties the average American adult had three friends, but that in 2005 that figure had come down to two. That's fifty percent fewer over twenty years. The study also noted that the number of people with no friends at all had tripled. 

I was talking to Sherry Terkel, from M.I.T. who writes about new technologies from the point of view of a psychologist and she gave a talk here at the University of Oregon a couple of years ago, with a special reference to her daughter who was 13 at the time. She was talking about the toll that total immersion in technology has on the human soul and she was saying that at a certain age, her daughter didn't really grasp the difference between something that's living or animate and something that's a machine. She was really staggered, really appalled by this and as a result, it was a very moving lecture. In the end and this is typical of commentary about the nefarious effects of technology, she just kind of shrugged and smiled as if to say: "Oh well, that's modernity for you" and sat down. I said to her, "wait a second, you can't give us this two hour picture of how desensitized and machine-like we've become and then just shrug and say oh well." That's ethical and intellectual bankruptcy.


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