Sunday, 9 September 2012

Good Artists Copy, Great Artists Steal

* Taking your premise that technology is a bad thing or at least a bad thing for human communities, do you regard technological innovators like Steve Jobs as especially bad actors relative to the rest of us who merely use technology?

Zerzan: I do. I'll give you an extreme case. During the whole Unabomber ordeal in the late 90s, the media would occasionally interview me and try to get me say that "it was great that somebody would send bombs in the mail to these people" which I never said and which I don't believe. I respond that while I did not believe in sending bombs to people in the mail that did not mean that these people, the targets, were innocent. People like Jobs who devise this "Brave New World" type stuff are choosing and there's a moral dimension to those choices. I remember Steward Brand of the Whole Earth Catalog saying at one time that "in the sixties some of us realized the question was 'technology, yes or no?' and we basically answered yes." That includes people like Leary and Kesey and others who thought there was this great promise to technology, that we could achieve all of these things through the magic of computers. That was a conscious choice by some of these people and it was the wrong choice. So you have to ask, critically, how has it worked out? It's not just a question for theory, it's an empirical question: what does society look like that embraces that goes full tilt for that way of living? 

* Is that fair, though? To push you a little bit on that point, is it fair to regard technology as a whole? Why can't we select among technologies empirically to see which ones are doing the real cultural harm, instead of hanging everything bad that's come of technology on that single choice from the sixties, that 'yes or no'?

Zerzan: That's a fair point and I'll tell you I was very involved in the sixties and I didn't have a clue what was coming, so it is out of line to demonize somebody like Stewart Brand, although he's had a lot of time to reassess that choice and he's only deepened his embrace of the whole techno thing. I guess I'd have to say again, I don't think it is so much of individual devices, but rather a whole orientation to reality and to life and to community that's become mediated. I could mention Martin Heidegger who looked at it as something much more basic, as really how you relate to the world; he felt that when pushed far enough along everything basic becomes fuel for technology.

Everything becomes a technological question and everything else is ruled out. That's why he called technology: the end of philosophy, because these really technical questions come to override everything else. To some extent, you can see that in politics now, where the regime seems to have become much more technically oriented and the real human questions are just subsumed under the weight of technocracy. You can go all the way back to simple stone tools and then follow it all the way out, in terms of the values or the choices that are embedded there. For example, if you look at simple stone tools, before you get to systems and technology, they don't require much specialization or division of labour and accordingly, you can see the potential tool for equality: anyone makes this tool, anyone can use it and you don't depend on an expert for using it. But as we move ahead in technological time, the need for a lot of specialists and experts gives those specialists and experts gives us those specialists and experts total power over us and that's a disabling and de-skilling process. It involves everything you can think of; people used to work on their cars, but now there are hundreds of computer sensors that prevent a normal person from tinkering around under the hood of a car. Kids' way back could make their own radio set. There was a time when you could still have some access or some agency, but now you need an expert. That's not healthy. We have to re-skill ourselves in my view, or else we're just sitting there passively waiting for the next thing to buy. 

* Where would you place a figure like Jobs within the spectrum of technological innovators, with particular attention to what you described earlier as the moral dimension of innovation?

Zerzan: Well, he was obviously very good at figuring out how to make these things, these devices, easier to use. He did it with marketing and with technology that cut across generations so that people like didn't have to figure out programming or anything. Instead, we just sort of crudely move our fingers across a screen and there it all is. But if you follow that long enough, eventually you don't need to know anything, you can just be inert, a blob and lay there and push a button and then what happens to our place in the world? We use to walk around on this planet and have some autonomy and capability of knowing how to do things. If you don't know how to do anything, then ultimately if and when the system crashes, we're screwed, because we don't know the simplest things--and I include myself in that. I don't have many actual skills, in terms of interacting with this we live on. 

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