Technology in America: We need to think about cultivating the necessary habits of the heart and resisting the allure of the ideology of technology.
April 15, 2012
Why are Americans addicted to technology? The question has a distinctly contemporary ring, and we might be tempted to think it could only have been articulated within the last decade or two. Could we, after all, have known anything about technology addiction before the advent of the Blackberry? Well, as it turns out, Americans have a longstanding fascination and facility with technology, and the question of technology addiction was one of the many Alexis de Tocqueville thought to answer in his classic study of antebellum American society, Democracy in America.
To be precise, Tocqueville titled the tenth chapter of volume two, “Why The Americans Are More Addicted To Practical Than To Theoretical Science.” In Tocqueville’s day, the word technology did not yet carry the expansive and inclusive sense it does today. Instead, quaint sounding phrases like “the mechanical arts,” “the useful arts,” or sometimes merely “invention” did together the semantic work that we assign to the single word technology.1 “Practical science” was one more such phrase available to writers, and, as in Tocqueville’s case, “practical science” was often opposed to “theoretical science.” The two phrases captured the distinction we have in mind when we speak separately of science and technology.
To answer his question on technology addiction, Tocqueville looked at the political and economic characteristics of American society and what he took to be the attitude toward technology they encouraged. As we’ll see, much of what Tocqueville had to say over 150 years ago resonates still, and it is the compelling nature of his diagnosis that invites us to reverse the direction of the inquiry—to ask what effect the enduring American fascination with technology might have on American political and economic culture. But first, why were Americans, as early as the 1830s, addicted to technology?
Tocqueville’s rough and ready quasi-sociological approach led him to conclude that Americans preferred technology to pure science for both political and economic reasons. “Nothing is more necessary to the culture of the higher sciences, or of the more elevated departments of science, than meditation,” Tocqueville explained, “and nothing is less suited to meditation than the structure of democratic society.”2 Theoretical science in his view required aristocratic repose and leisure, and nothing of the sort existed in America. Instead, Americans were promiscuously active. The citizens of democratic nations, according to Tocqueville, “are always dissatisfied with the position which they occupy, and are always free to leave it, they think of nothing but the means of changing their fortune, or of increasing it.”3 Tocqueville, himself an aristocrat, did not think this restless, entrepreneurial climate the ideal habitat of sustained theoretical reflection.
Tocqueville understood what impressed Americans and it was not intellectually demanding and gratifying grand theory. It was rather “every new method which leads by a shorter road to wealth, every machine which spares labor, every instrument which diminishes the cost of production, every discovery which facilitates pleasures or augments them.”4 This was how democratic societies measured the value of science and America was no exception. Science was prized only insofar as it was immediately applicable to some practical and economic aim. Americans were in this sense good Baconians, they believed knowledge was power and science was valuable to the degree that it could be usefully applied.
“It is chiefly from these motives that a democratic people addicts itself to scientific pursuits,” Tocqueville concluded. “You may be sure,” he added, “that the more a nation is democratic, enlightened, and free, the greater will be the number of these interested promoters of scientific genius, and the more will discoveries immediately applicable to productive industry confer gain, fame, and even power on their authors.”5
We could summarize Tocqueville’s observations by saying that American society was more likely to produce and admire a Thomas Edison than an Albert Einstein. As a generalization, this seems about right still. The inventor-entrepreneur remains the preferred American icon; Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are the objects of our veneration. This was already evident in the 1830s and Tocqueville eloquently described the distinct blend of technology and economics that we might label America’s techno-start-up culture. But if Tocqueville was right in attributing American attitudes about technology to political and economic circumstances, we should go one step further to ask what might be the political and economic consequences of this enthusiastic embrace of technology.
When we ask questions about technology we often ask about matters such as safety and efficiency or costs and benefits. We don’t often ask, “What sort of person will the use of this or that technology make of me?” Or, more to the present point, “What sort of citizen will the use of this or that technology make of me?” We don’t often ask these sorts of questions because we tend to tacitly endorse a theory about the neutrality of technology, a theory we could call the NRA approach to technology. “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” This slogan nicely encapsulates the view that technologies are ethically neutral and ethical implications attach only to the use to which a technology may be put by individuals.
This notion enjoys a certain commonsensical plausibility, and, as far as it goes, it is true enough. A hammer could be used to build a home or it could be used to injure a person. Nuclear energy could power a city or flatten it. But it is not quite all that can be said on the matter. A fuller account of technology’s ethical ramifications would take into consideration how the use of a technology may inculcate certain habits and engender certain assumptions. In others words, technologies not only allow us to act in certain ways that may or may not be ethical, their use also shapes the user and this too may have ethical consequences. Winston Churchill’s observation about buildings captures this dynamic nicely. “We shape our buildings,” Churchill said, “and afterwards our buildings shape us.”6 He might also have said, we shape our technologies and afterwards our technologies shape us…
The Posthumous Star: Finding fame in life is tough enough. Finding it after death is a different beast altogether
April 15, 2012
We know the story. Van Gogh died having only sold one painting during his lifetime. He was a mad creative genius — our favorite kind — cutting off his ear and giving it to a prostitute. Then, tragically, a suicide, perhaps bereft at the cold reception his work received, so that he never knew how the world would come to embrace him.
We know the story because after he died in obscurity, he quickly became the most overexposed painter in the world. In Philadelphia, where I find myself, the Museum of Art is currently exhibiting a special Van Gogh show, and they’ve installed a special Van Gogh gift shop to accompany it. There you can get “Starry Night” on a T-shirt. “Starry Night” on a coffee mug. “Starry Night” on a magnet. “Starry Night” on a cheap poster. “Starry Night” on an umbrella. I mean, why even bother spending $25 on the exhibit ticket when you can go into the gift shop and buy a Van Gogh of your very own for $8.99?
So what exactly happened in that gap between obscurity and ubiquity? The afterlife of the artist is a tricky thing. Some bestselling writers seem to be forgotten mere seconds after their deaths; others aren’t truly appreciated until decades into their posthumous career. Many artists and writers are subjects of campaigns to re-establish their place in the canon. A few take, but most fall back into oblivion until someone else takes up the cause 10 years later. In the last couple years alone, efforts have been waged to rehabilitate Stefan Zweig, Irmgard Keun, W. Somerset Maugham, Mina Loy, H.D., Heinrich Böll… but none of their sparks ever lit a conflagration.
It comes as something of a surprise, given his current ubiquitous status, that Henry James was ever the subject of such a campaign. Today he is The Master. He is the source of dread for AP English students everywhere, with his syllabus-ready, 600-page novels where all that happens is a woman crosses a room. And yet near the end of his life, his novels were not selling so well. Edith Wharton had to pay his publisher to pay James an advance, as he was considered such an unmarketable writer. And after his death, his books were almost entirely out of print in the U.K., and only available in the U.S. as an absurdly expensive set. If you wanted one James book, you had to buy them all — and the man was astonishingly prolific. Thus it remained for decades, until a post-World War II revival.
In his book Monopolizing the Master: Henry James and the Politics of Modern Literary Scholarship, Michael Anesko details this lull time in James’s afterlife. Problems arise immediately following the death of a genius. As uncomfortable as the juxtaposition of the corporeal and the eternal can be — the artist so often gets in the way of his own work, as James did when he decided in his old age to revise and “improve” his earlier novels — when the work is unleashed from the human form, things can get even more confused. The artist might not always know what to do with her or his own output, but less likely to know is the artist’s descendants. Often it’s the disappointing son or brother or friend left in charge of the great artist’s legacy, and so very, very often, they screw it up.
Because the descendant sees the corporeal before they see the divine. The estate of Henry James was left in the hands of his sister-in-law and nephew, although Wharton schemed hard to dominate. The worry, of Wharton and others in James’s social circle, was that the estate would be “botched” by the descendants, and in Anesko’s telling they were “suspicious of the Jameses’ provincial limitations.” Henry left in charge Alice and Harry James, the wife and son of his brother William. William rather notoriously did not “get” his brother’s writing, thinking it overly verbose, overly poetic, overly just about everything. And here they were, supposed to be guiding the great writer’s landing into literary history. The Jameses first order of business was essentially to restrict any access to Henry’s estate, particularly any of the letters that might have shown him to be a snob, a bore, or sexually confused. They locked up everything and kept his private life a secret for decades. That effort took a much greater priority for the family than, say, making sure people could find and buy and read James’s books. Perhaps they thought his image would be easier to control if no one knew who he was.
The problem with leaving a family member in charge of an estate is, of course, that they know you primarily in human form. Whether or not you created works of unparalleled genius, you still sat across from them in the morning with your hair a mess, slurping oatmeal. They want the world to think well of you, to remember you as airbrushed and always well put together, not dribbling oatmeal down the front of your nightgown. And that protective quality leads to some shocking behavior, like the time the Lord Byron’s inner circle decided to burn the only copy of his memoir after his death. Almost none of those behind the burning had bothered to read it; they just assumed it would be shocking and embarrassing and would ruin his reputation. According to Doris Langley Moore’s examination of the creation of the legend of the Romantic poet, The Late Lord Byron, they feared that Byron had for some reason revealed to the whole world that he had slept with and impregnated his own sister. Everyone panicked, and the literary world is poorer for that decision.
These actions have consequences. The Jameses were so worried that readers of Henry’s letters might construe that he had been gay — “I have been so taken up with living in the future and in the idea of answering you with impassioned lips… I can with utter ease procure myself to be transported. I shall come…” he wrote to Arthur Benson — and refused to address his sexuality at all, so that everyone now just assumes that he was gay. In Byron’s case, by refusing to allow Byron himself to tell the story of his life, everyone who hated him, held a grudge, or had a story to tell was suddenly able to rewrite his biography, flooding the market with distorted tales of who Byron had been. (Although in that particular case, it may have increased his longevity. Had we known Byron for his poetry alone, and not for his scandalous lifestyle, we might have collectively decided to forget him entirely.) And truly, the story about him sleeping with his sister ended up coming out anyway, as usually happens with the truth about these kinds of matters…
April 15, 2012
There is a well-worn story that is told in one form or another in all European history textbooks. In 824, ten years after the death of Charlemagne, Agobard, Archbishop of Lyon, hailed a new Christian imperial ambition to unite all the peoples and lands of the Western Holy Roman Empire by reformulating Galatians 3:28: “There is now neither Gentile nor Jew, Scythian nor Aquitanian, nor Lombard, nor Burgundian, nor Alaman, nor bond, nor free. All are one in Christ.” But the dream did not come true. Charlemagne’s son, Louis the Pious, followed the Frankish laws of inheritance, dividing Charlemagne’s empire among his three sons. He bequeathed the western kingdom of Aquitaine (roughly France) to Pepin. Louis the German received the Kingdom of the Eastern Franks. And ruling over them, in the middle, was the eldest son, Lothar, who retained the title of Holy Roman Emperor, but direct control only over his middle kingdom, which stretched from Utrecht and the Imperial city of Aachen through the Burgundian kingdoms and into the Mediterranean lands of Provence. When Louis the Pious died in 840, the imperial pact collapsed, the brothers went to war, and the ideal of a Christian Pax Romana vanished into the foggy forests of early feudalism.
Lothar’s middle kingdom would endure in one form or another, but mainly under the title of the Kingdom of Burgundy. Wedged in between what is today France and Germany, wealthy Burgundy was the backbone of Charlemagne’s Holy Frankish Roman Empire. With its verdant forests, its vineyards, its rich cities and fantastically rich monasteries, it was linked to Flanders and the Baltic in the north with its fairs and sea trade, and to the Alps and Savoy, and via the Rhône river to the kingdom of Provence and the Mediterranean sea. This coveted wealth would grow over time, and by the nineteenth century coal spilled from the hills of Lorraine and helped cause three wars between France and Germany. It is no accident that the European parliament now stands in Strasbourg, in Alsace-Lorraine, a point of contention between Franks, Bourbons, Hapsburgs, Bonapartes, Hohenzöllerns, free Republics, Nazis, and the U.S. Army.
In his new book, Norman Davies repackages the old story of Burgundy as a model of what he calls a “vanished kingdom”—a shadow of a chivalric world that once existed in Europe, populated by “those whom historians tend to forget.” Davies’s vanished kingdoms include the Visigoth realm, ancient Britannia, the Burgundian kingdoms and dukedoms, Aragon, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Byzantium, Belarus, Savoy, Napoleonic Tuscany, Thuringia, Montenegro, the one-day republic of Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia, Ireland, and Estonia under the Soviet Union. It is hard to understand what holds this group together aside from the map of Easy Jet flights from London. But their history, Davies conspiratorially claims, is shrouded in mystery. Like a magician about to perform a historical hat trick, he announces that “appearances” shroud “reality” and “things never are quite like they seem.” Defying his own expectations, however, Davies makes no revelations. Instead he presents a mix of poorly documented high-Tory historiettes about kingdoms and places that have not vanished, along with a litany of platitudes about the worlds lost to World War II and a disturbing series of omissions about Muslim and Jews in European history.
In Davies’s Europe, valiant tribes and knights roam across forgotten borders speaking lost languages like British, Angle, Old Welsh, Aragonese, and Byzantine Greek. They inexorably vanished or fell, Davies claims. Following them, hundreds of years later, good Poles, Estonians, Belarusians, some Jews (whose national status is never established), and even the Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (the subject of his own inexplicable chapter) fell victim to the decline of monarchy, and to “vengeful” Nazis and Soviets. But never to each other: it seems that most of the vanished kingdoms are good.
Davies calls for a “typology” of “vanished kingdoms.” He declares himself an heir of Gibbon, and cites Hobbes on the “internall diseases” that lead to the “dissolution of the Commonwealth.” He cites the Old Testament, Augustine, Luther, and Marx. While he insists that the “vocabulary” used to define vanished states is “important,” he weirdly cites Monty Python: “One is reminded of the parrot which was ‘demised,’ ‘passed on,’ ‘expired,’ ‘stiff,’ ‘deceased,’ ‘bereft of life,’ ‘off the twig,’ ‘gone to the bleedin’ choir invisible,’ ‘in fact, an ex-parrot.’” In the end, he settles for his own typology of vanishings: “implosion, conquest, merger, liquidation, and ‘infant mortality.’”
WHAT, THEN, is a vanished kingdom for Davies? He harks to his preferred subject, Poland, which he claims has undergone so much “bullying and assault” that it has “ended with the murder of a battered invalid.” Poland has died a “death by unnatural causes.” The problem with Davies’s typology of disappeared states such as Poland, Belarus, Montenegro, and regions like Burgundy is that they are, quite obviously, still here. With a population of more than 38 million citizens, Poland is a member of NATO and the largest and strongest of the former eastern bloc Soviet satellites. Vanished Kingdoms illustrates not how states vanish or “die” in Europe, but how countries such as Poland, which have undergone both internal and external massacres and mutilations, persist and survive.
Savoy and Tuscany (two of Italy’s richest and most culturally vibrant regions) make similarly odd choices for vanished kingdoms. True, there is no king of Italy (its current pretender and claimant to the kingdom of Jerusalem, the former Crown Prince Vittorio Emanuele, was arrested and charged with exploiting prostitutes in 2006), but Savoy, which Davies calls by its Roman name Sabaudia, was the center of the Risorgimento, which was rather the opposite of a vanishing. The palaces, libraries, churches, public squares, and theaters of the House of Savoy are constant reminders that this dishonored dynasty nonetheless grew from a well-administered duchy into a kingdom that unified Italy.
The chapter on Tuscany, luridly titled “Etruria: French Snake in the Tuscan Grass,” focuses on the Napoleonic Tuscan puppet state that lasted from 1801 to 1807, reviving the ancient regional name. What seems to fascinate Davies is that Etrurian Tuscany was briefly ruled by Louis de Bourbon, the only ruling Bourbon in Napoleonic Europe. Otherwise there is little that distinguishes this brief period. And Davies admits that the “incoming Etrurian management would be hard pressed to match its predecessors,” the Hapsburg-Lorraine grand dukes who made Tuscany a model of Enlightened Europe through administrative reforms and the abolition of torture and capital punishment. Napoleonic Etruria was never a real kingdom. It was a puppet state placed on the complex apparatus created by Medici and Lorenese grand dukes. It vanished because it never really existed.
Davies is often less interested in the political history of states than in the romanticized sovereigns who rule them. The German archdukedom of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha makes for its own chapter named after the ducal castle Rosenau. Davies is careful to cite the castle’s website, which describes it as a “medieval structure [which] had been rebuilt from 1808 to 1817 in the neo-Gothic style.” The most famous member of this family is Franz Albrecht Karl August Immanuel von Sachsen Coburg und Gotha, otherwise known as Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s Prince Consort, who, according to his letters to his wife, quoted by Davies, noted that Rosenau castle was a youthful “paradise.”…