IV: hitting bottom - Langdon Winner

IV: hitting bottom

Plutonium, broken back, debit card … denial.  And as they say about denial: it ain’t a river in Egypt.  The defense mechanism may better be described as the pall the mind casts over realities it cannot bear to glimpse.  Evolutionary psychologists tell us that a psychic function as slippery as this one aided survival by greasing the wheels of escape while facing a clawed animal in the savannah.  But today, given that technological society has rolled like a bulldozer over every blade and tendril on the planet, the modern-day version -- the chronic, unbreakable, impenetrable denial that may help one survive the claws of a demanding day, also directs us toward the demise of everything
         I attempted to put words to this terrible reality in an essay for the Institute for Policy Studies’ 1993 anthology Technology for the Common Good:

I met with a young political activist for conversation last week at my favorite café. The founder of an anti-war organization during the first Gulf War, this 21-year-old lives to explore social issues and act on his convictions. His burning question of the hour con­cerned technology. "Has television made people less intelligent?" he wondered, and he based his conclusion on the deconstructionist dictate that one speak only from personal experience. His answer, "Decidedly not," and indeed this young man's mental capacity was as substantial and his wit as clever as any I had seen of any age. 
But I could not help but notice that even before a quadruple espresso latte had exploded onto his brain cells, my young friend was ranting at 120 words-per-minute, vibrating in his seat like a rocket poised for take-off, and hurling about words like VPL, CDTV, HyperCard, and Macromind. And answering his own questions in quantum leaps across paradigms unintegrated by coherent worldview, physical reality, or moral obligation.
Like my friend, most of us who inhabit mass technological society find it difficult to understand technology's impact on social reality, let alone on our psyches. Like the tiny aerobic bacteria that reside within computer hardware, we are so entrenched in our technological world that we hardly know it exists. Yet widespread radioactive contamination, cancer epidemics, oil spills, toxic leaks, environmental illness, ozone holes, poisoned aquifers, and cultural and biological extinctions indicate that thetechnological construct encasing our every experience, perception, and political act stands in dire need of criticism. Further, such a critique requires integration by a coherent worldview, physical reality, and moral obliga­tion.
Gazing at ourselves from outside our hardware, few of us will be able to deny that we need to reconstruct both our world and our worldview. Yet not many of us have begun the conversation that would lay a concep­tual framework for such a shift. Instead, we remain trapped within both hardware and hardware-determined worldview, and technological development promises to march onward toward nanotechnology, virtual reality, genetic engineering, biological weapons, and all kinds of new technologies that will further disrupt ecological balance, cultural diversity, and psychological well-being.
I count myself as both technology critic and activist, proudly following in the footsteps of such insightful thinkers as philosopher Lewis Mumford, sociologist Jacques Ellul, historian David Noble, political scientist LangdonWinner, and social critic Jerry Mander.[i] The system under observation is mass technological civilization. As philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote, "We are questioning concerning technology in order to bring light to our relationship to its essence.”[ii]  What is the essence of modern technology? How does it structure our lives?  Our perceptions? Our politics? How does it shape our psyches? What does it say about our relationship to our humanness and to the Earth? Unfortunately, obstacles to answers are entrenched, like concrete piers at a freeway exchange, in both our social and psychological reality.
I discovered the scope of such obstacles while I was on a promotional tour for my book When Technology Wounds.[iii]The book is based on a psychological study of technology survivors:  people who have become medically ill as a result of exposure to some health-threatening technology. I interviewed Love Canal residents, atomic veterans, asbestos workers, DES daughters, electronics plant workers, Dalkon Shield survivors, homeowners whose groundwater had been contaminated, Nevada Test Site downwinders, sufferers of cancer, environmental illness, chronic fatigue immune dysfunction, and many other survivors.

By all accounts, this population is on the rise. Forty-one thousand Louisiana residents are exposed to 3.5 million tons of toxic landfill along the industrial corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.[iv]  Thirty million U.S. households, or 96 million people, live within 50 miles of anuclear power plant.[v] One hundred and thirty five million residents in 122 cities and counties breath consistently polluted air,[vi]while 250 million American -- everyone of us-- are exposed to 2.6 billion pounds of pes­ticides each year, in addition to all the radioactive fallout ringing the globe from Hiroshima, Chernobyl, and the nuclear test sites in Nevada and Khazakstan.[vii]
On the book tour I suggested that since people are getting sick from technological exposure, we had best enter into an informed conversation about technology. Such a conversation was not forthcoming. In a debate on Public Radio International with MIT Professor Marvin Minsky, the founder of artificial intelligence, I was asked if I had any objections to computers. I expressed concern that the deadly chemicals used to manufacture computers -- such as chlorofluorocarbons, diethylamine, lencast, 4,4 isophopylidenediphenol, and biosphenol A -- contaminate the biosphere. I mentioned Yolanda Lozano, a 36-year-old worker from the GTE plant in Albuquerque who died of cancer from chemical exposure on the job. In reply, Professor Minsky quipped, "It doesn't matter.”[viii]
Elsewhere on my tour, the conversation ended before it began. "Get this woman off the air! She's the stupidest guest you've ever had!" shrieked one talk show listener.[ix]

I compare today's public awareness of the impacts of technology to that of alcoholism in the 1950’s. Back then, everybody drank.  It was more than socially acceptable to drink; it was required.  Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was 20 years old and growing, but still considered an embarrassment.
It is not a new idea that we who live in mass technological society sufferpsychological addiction to specific machines like cars, telephones, and computers, and even to technology itself. But the picture is bigger and more complex. As social philosopher Morris Berman says:

Addiction, in one form or another, characterizes every aspect of industrial society.... Dependence on alcohol (food, drugs, tobacco . . .) is not formally different from dependence on prestige, career achievement, world in­fluence, wealth, the need to build more ingenious bombs, or the need to exercise control over everything.[x]

The editor of Sciencedescribes the nation’s dependence on oil as an addiction,[xi] while Vice President Al Gore claims that we are addicted to the consumption of the Earth itself.[xii]  Evolutionary philosopher GregoryBateson points out that addictive behavior is consistent with the Western approach to life that pits mind against body and concludes, "It is doubtful whether a species having both an advanced technology and this strange [polarized] way of looking at its world can survive.”[xiii]

To clarify this notion that contemporary society itself is based on addic­tion, what I call "techno-addiction," we will do well to turn to the pioneersof the sociology of technology. Mumford, Ellul, Winner, and Noble remind us that no machine stands alone.[xiv]  In other words, we will forever be trapped in a narcissistic "I-want-my-mammogram" analysis as long as we view technology only as specific machines that either serve us in­dividually or do not.  What Mumford calls the “Megamachine" is an entire psycho-socio-economic system that includes all the machines in our midst; all the organizations and methods that make those machines possible; those of us who inhabit this technologi­cal construct; plus the ways in which we are socialized and required to participate in the system; and the ways we think, perceive, and feel as we attempt to survive within it.

What I am describing is a human-constructed, technology-centered social system built on principles of standardization, efficiency, linearity, and fragmentation-like an assembly line that fulfills production quotas, but cares nothing for the people who operate it. Within this system, tech­nology influences society. The automotive industry reor­ganized American society in the 20th century. Likewise, nuclear weapons define global politics. At the same time, society reflects the technological ethos. As Mander shows, the social organization of workplaces, as well as their architecture and physical layout, reflect the mechanistic principles of standardization, efficiency, and production quotas.[xv]
From our everyday experience we might note that "normal" acts like standing in line, obeying traffic signals, orregistering for the draft all constitute acts of participation in this grand machine. Regarding our minds and bodies as disconnected in health and disease, or thinking that radioactive waste buried in the Earth won't eventually seep into the water table, are symptoms of the fragmented thinking that emerges from such a mechanical order.
At this point in history, technology and society are completely interwoven. The feminist philosopher Susan Griffin characterizes the impos­sible task of distinguishing the two as "like saying my hand causes my fingers.”[xvi]"Technology has become our environment as well as our ideology," writes the Dutch social critic Michiel Schwarz, "We no longer use technology, we live it.”[xvii]
Vine Deloria, Lakota author of books on Native history and politics, describes the results of this social-technological imbrication as "the artificial universe."

Wilderness transformed into city streets, subways, giant buildings, and factories resulted in the complete substitu­tion of the real world for the artificial world of the urban man ...Surrounded by an artificial universe when the warning signals are not the shape of the sky, the cry of the animals, the changing of seasons, but the simple flashing of the traffic light and the wail of the ambulance and police car, urban people have no idea what the natural universe is like. . . . Their progress is defined solely in terms of convenience within the artificial technological universe with which they are familiar.[xviii]

Langdon Winner moves the idea further, arguing that the artifacts and methods invented since the technological revolution have developed in size and complexity to the point of canceling our every ability to grasp their impact upon us. The scientific-technological reality that now threatens to determine every aspect of our lives and encase the entireplanet is out of control, he asserts. "Our technologies are tools without handles.”[xix]
Characteristics like total immersion, loss of perspective, and loss of control tip us off to the link between the psychological process of addiction and the technologicalsystem.  According to Craig Nakken of the Rutgers School of Alcohol Studies, addiction is a progressive disease that begins with inner psychological changes, leads to changes in perception, behavior, and life-style, and then to total breakdown.[xx]  Its hallmark is the out-of-control, often aimless compulsion to fill a lost sense of meaning and connectedness with substances or experiences.
Throughout technological society the recognized symptoms of the addictive process are blatantly evident. They are obvious in the behavior of those Jacques Ellul calls "the cabal of self-serving officials and execu­tives"[xxi]who promote technology to maintain control over society or inflate their own bank accounts and egos. And they are evident for us all because our experience, knowledge, and sense of reality have been shaped by life in the technological world. Some symptoms of the addictive process include: denial, control, dishonesty, thinking disorders, grandiosity, and an unhealthy relationship with one's feelings.

This blog is a book. Please feel free to read the next chapter now. Go to the Table of Contents under the introduction on the right side of the page and click on the next chapter.

[i] Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development. New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1967; The Myth of the Machine: The Pentagon of Power; Technics and Civilization; Jacque Ellul, The Technological Society. New York: Vintage, 1964; The Technological Bluff. Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans, 1990; David Noble, America by Design. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1977; Langdon Winner, Autonomous Technology. Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1977; Langdon Winner, The Whale and the Reactor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986; Jerry Mander, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. New York: Quill, 1978; and Jerry Mander, In the Absence of the Sacred. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1991. 
[ii] Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” in Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Levitt. New York: Harper & Row, 1977, p. 3.
[iii]Glendinning, When Technology Wounds.
[iv] David Maraniss and Michael Weisskoff, “Corridor of Death along the Mississippi,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 31, 1988; and Jay Gould, Quality of Life in American Neighborhoods. Boulder CO: Westview Press, 1986, pp. 2.117-2.120.
[v] Critical Mass Energy Project, “The 1986 Nuclear Power Safety Report.” WashingtonDC: Public Citizen, 1986; and Daniel F. Ford, Three Mile Island. New York: Penguin, 1982.
[vi] Aerometric Information and Retrieval System: 1988 with Supplemental Data from Regional Office Review. Washington DC: Environmental Protection Agency, July 1989.
[vii] Unfinished Business: A Comparative Assessment of Environmental Problems. Washington DC: Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Policy Analysis, February 1987, pp. 84-86; Lawrie Mott and Karen Snyder, “Pesticide Alert,” Amicus Journal,  Vol. 10 No. 2, Spring 1988, p. 2; and Information Disease Almanac, 1986. Boston MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1986, p. 129.
[viii]“Neo-Luddism Is Sweeping North America: An Interview with Chellis Glendinning and Marvin Minsky,” Canadian Broadcasting Company rebroadcast on National Public Radio, March 26, 1990.
[ix] “The Mike Cuthbert Show,” WAMU-FM, May 16, 1990.
[x] Morris Berman, The Re-Enchantment of the World.New York: Bantam, 1981, p. 242.
[xi] D.E. Koshland, “War and Science,” Science, Vol. 251 No. 4993, February 1, 1991, p. 497.
[xii] Al Gore, Earth in the Balance. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1992.
[xiii] Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Random House, 1972, pp. 309-337.
[xiv] Mumford, Technics and Civilization, p. 12; The Myth of the Machine: The  Pentagon of Power, Chapter 13; Ellul, The Technological Society, pp. 3-11; Winner, Autonomous Technology, pp. 8-12; and Nobel, America By Design, Chapters 8-9.
[xv] Mander, In the Absence of the Sacred, Chapter 7.
[xvi]Conversation with Susan Griffin, Berkeley CA, June 15, 1987.
[xvii] Michiel Schwarz and Rein Jansma, eds., The Technological Culture. Amsterdam: De Bailie Publishers, 1989, p. 3.
[xviii] Vine Deloria, We Talk, You Listen. New York: Delta, 1970, p. 185.
[xix] Winner, Autonomous Technology, p. 29.
[xx] Craig Nakken, The Addictive Personality. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988, pp. 19-62.
[xxi] Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes. New York: Vintage Books, 1965, p. 121.

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