making a difference

This is one of those I-want-to-think-further-about-this posts. 

A couple of years ago, Shoshana Zuboff wrote an essay for the NYT in which she summarized the major themes of her enormous book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Thus:

Our digital century was to have been democracy’s Golden Age. Instead, we enter its third decade marked by a stark new form of social inequality best understood as “epistemic inequality.” It recalls a pre-Gutenberg era of extreme asymmetries of knowledge and the power that accrues to such knowledge, as the tech giants seize control of information and learning itself. The delusion of “privacy as private” was crafted to breed and feed this unanticipated social divide. Surveillance capitalists exploit the widening inequity of knowledge for the sake of profits. They manipulate the economy, our society and even our lives with impunity, endangering not just individual privacy but democracy itself. Distracted by our delusions, we failed to notice this bloodless coup from above.

Later in the essay she shifted to a more hopeful tone: “Still, the winds appear to have finally shifted. A fragile new awareness is dawning as we claw our way back up the rabbit hole toward home.” Maybe. But it seems clear now that that awareness proved to be too fragile.

In the intervening two years nothing has changed, and most people seem to have moved on to other, newer outrages. The big tech companies made the bet that they could know everything about us – that they could conscript us as foot-soldiers in their information-harvesting army by flattering us as “creators” – and that (a) we would be too enamored of convenience, or too distracted, to care and (b) our political representatives would be too feckless and incompetent to take action. It seems to me that they won that bet. Congress dragged a few of the Tech Bosses into their chambers, grandstanded for a couple of days, and then lost interest. If there was ever a real chance for significant change, it seems to me that the moment has passed.

Recently, just after revisiting Zuboff’s essay, I read Dorothy Wickenden’s profile of Wendell Berry in the New Yorker, and as I did a question formed in my mind: Who has made more of a difference, Shoshana Zuboff or Wendell Berry? The Harvard Business School professor or the farmer-poet from Kentucky?

Neither of them has been able to achieve what they would most want: to constrain, if not eliminate, certain large-scale forces they (rightly) believe to be diseases attacking the common weal — surveillance capitalism for Zuboff, industrial agriculture for Berry — but which of them has managed to make the greater contribution to their goals?

I am inclined to think that, despite Zuboff’s superior social location — as a longtime professor at one of our most elite institutions, and a person capable of leveraging that status to get attention in rooms of powerful people who have never heard of Wendell Berry — it is Berry who has achieved more, because in addition to critique he has commended and modeled a set of healthy practices — a kind of habitus.

I think of Eno’s famous line that the Velvet Underground’s first record only sold 30,000 copies in its first five years, but everyone who bought it started a band. Wendell Berry isn’t a best-selling writer, but his work — combined with his example — has caused a a number of his readers to change their lives, and not many writers can say that.