My 2021 essay on “cosmotechnics” begins thus:

In the 1950s and 1960s, a series of thinkers, beginning with Jacques Ellul and Marshall McLuhan, began to describe the anatomy of our technological society. Then, starting in the 1970s, a generation emerged who articulated a detailed critique of that society. The critique produced by these figures I refer to in the singular because it shares core features, if not a common vocabulary. What Ivan Illich, Ursula Franklin, Albert Borgmann, and a few others have said about technology is powerful, incisive, and remarkably coherent. I am going to call the argument they share the Standard Critique of Technology, or SCT. The one problem with the SCT is that it has had no success in reversing, or even slowing, the momentum of our society’s move toward what one of their number, Neil Postman, called technopoly.

The basic argument of the SCT goes like this. We live in a technopoly, a society in which powerful technologies come to dominate the people they are supposed to serve, and reshape us in their image. These technologies, therefore, might be called prescriptive (to use Franklin’s term) or manipulatory (to use Illich’s). For example, social networks promise to forge connections – but they also encourage mob rule. Facial-recognition software helps to identify suspects – and to keep tabs on whole populations. Collectively, these technologies constitute the device paradigm (Borgmann), which in turn produces a culture of compliance (Franklin).

The proper response to this situation is not to shun technology itself, for human beings are intrinsically and necessarily users of tools. Rather, it is to find and use technologies that, instead of manipulating us, serve sound human ends and the focal practices (Borgmann) that embody those ends. A table becomes a center for family life; a musical instrument skillfully played enlivens those around it. Those healthier technologies might be referred to as holistic (Franklin) or convivial (Illich), because they fit within the human lifeworld and enhance our relations with one another. Our task, then, is to discern these tendencies or affordances of our technologies and, on both social and personal levels, choose the holistic, convivial ones.

The point of this essay was to say that (a) the SCT is absolutely correct and (b) there’s no point in continuing to restate the SCT, even if you shift the terms around a bit or employ alternate ones. (For instance, Paul Kingsnorth talks about “the Machine” — but it’s precisely the same set of concepts and critiques.)

That essay, for me, marked the end of a decade or so of articulating my own version of, or elaborations on, the SCT. For much of that decade I wrote about Technopoly’s demands on our attention, and insisted that we can attend otherwise.

But how many times can you say that?

Since I wrote that essay I have (mostly) refrained from saying “We should attend to things other than those Technopoly wants us to attend to” and instead have tried simply to attend to other things. In other words: I’ve given up on making arguments about where our attention should go – not primarily because such arguments are useless, though they may well be, but because I have made them already – and have instead pursued demonstration. Hey, look at this fascinating thing I’ve been looking at. That’s what I’ve been doing since 2021, and it’s what I plan to keep doing. 

Basically, I’m just a simple caveman; your modern world confuses and frightens me. But one thing I do know: That I ain’t buying what Technopoly (or the Machine, or whatever you want to call it) is selling.