Reflections on a Pirsig Quotation

I’ve sort of stalled out with the dissertation. Neglected too many other parts of my life. Love. Exercise. Writing poems. I’ve spent the last several weeks getting back to some of the elements of my life that made it rich, not just productive. Productive just wasn’t enough. No balance. So out of whack that I stopped being productive, and without that, and without the riches, a bit of a dark lull. A stall.

So now I’ve been on some dates. And fitness cycling around and outside of Louisville. And writing, again, about my alterego, Jacob, and his pursuit of Emma, and their common tragic friend, Roscoe. None of which, oddly enough, belongs here. So I’ll leave all that at that, and offer a simple bridge.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I read this when I was 16. It floored me back then. I still haven’t bought a motorcycle (and probably won’t), but that’s not to say the book hasn’t played a huge role in shaping my own thinking about technology. Read this:

“All that talk about technology and art is part of a pattern that seems to have emerged from my own life. It represents a transcendence from something I think a lot of others may be trying to transcend. … it isn’t just art and technology. It’s a kind of a noncoalescence between reason and feeling. What’s wrong with technology is that it’s not connected in any realy way with matters of the spirit and of the heart. And so it does blind, ugly things quite by accident and gets hated for that. People haven’t paid much attention to this before because the big concern has been with food, clothing and shelter for everyone and technology has provided these. / But now where these are assured, the ugliness is being noticed more and more and people are asking if we must always suffer spiritually and esthetically in order to satisfy material needs…”

This isn’t so different than some of Marx’s claims of dehumanizing effects of capitalism. And there are also echoes Marcuse’s and Ellul’s critiques of “Technology” as a huge, monolithic, self-directing force of efficiency and self-replication. And the other overwhelming presence in this passage, for me, is the financial technology of the corporation. I bring in the idea of the corporation because at it’s heart, it’s designed specifically for the production of “wealth” as it’s primary objective. The choice of products, services, employees, sustainability, or ethics are all secondary to (and thus bound to) profit. Corporations, like some traditional attitudes toward technology, can become ruthlessly inhuman when logic/reason or profit always trump everything else.

What’s a useful response, then? I’ve been reading a lot of Heidegger, and Ellul, Marcuse, Feenberg, and various theorists who follow up on some of Marx’s ideas about Materialism like Raymond Williams and Anthony Giddens. And one of the most important ideas I keep seeing in the texts (or at least relevant to these texts) is this notion that “Technology” is so often reckoned with as a monolithic and self-directed entity. And most of these authors call this idea into question. Probably the most clear and germinal discussion of this idea is in Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology.” Read it.

But does calling it into question offer anything in the way of making a difference? Yes. In several ways. At least once you get good at calling it into question, I think. Let me cover at least of couple of payoffs:

1. If technology isn’t self-directing or monolithic, then it is human-directed and modular. If it’s human-directed, those humans directing any given module are subject to rhetoric (which, as far as it is logical, is itself a technology).

2. Technologies need constant maintenance. Human maintenance. Which means that there are always opportunities to impose change and human will.

3. Technologies arise in response to environmental needs or perceptions of needs. Those are never static. New technologies will always emerge, and they will be the products of human creativity.

4. All this means NOT that technology offers opportunities of human influence and creativity; rather technology necessitates these activities.

5. Engineers and designers are not the most important people to the evolution of new technologies. Technologies emerge in response to enviroments and users. Users. Essentially, that means customers. Technologies proliferate through use. Use.

6. Decisions result in technologies. Whether you like it or not, your choices about technologies are political choices. If you want to save the enviroment, your choice of technologies WILL impact that impulse. If you concern yourself with the rights of workers, your choice of technologies WILL impact that concern. If you concern yourself with issues of intellectual property, your choice of technologies WILL impact those issues.

Bottom line: Our own choices shape technology, for our own lives and for the lives of others. Other people’s technology choices shape technology, in their lives, our lives, and the lives of others. Technology is an eco-system. Constantly instantiated. Constantly competitive. Human participation is inherent. Not impossible.

You are not powerless. You can’t even escape your own influence on technology. Don’t cop-out by saying there’s nothing you can do. You can. You do. How much responsibility you take for it is up to you. We can only take so much responsibility for the state of the world, right? Your choices about your attitudes toward technology are ethical choices. Instantiations of your values. Whether you like it or not.

Take your medicine.

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