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Excerpt from Welcome to the Machine

Klaus Lenk (p. 212)

From chapter "Humanity"

The social critic Klaus Lenk wrote, “The real issue at stake is not personal privacy, which is an ill-defined concept, greatly varying according to the cultural context. It is the power gains of bureaucracies, both private and public, at the expense of individuals and of the non-organized sectors of society, by means of the gathering of information through direct observation and by means of intensive record-keeping.”

Even more real is the social organization we have been calling the machine versus the life on this planet. The real issue is whether we should tolerate—or even if we can survive—a social organization (including technologies, because technologies emerge from specific social organizations) based on the machine, that is, one that converts all fuels—all life on the planet, including our own—into hierarchically organized power. We say the real issue at stake is how we can stop the machine.

For those who say it’s not so bad, look at all the comfort, all we can say is include the poor (that is, the majority of humans) and the nonhuman in your calculations. We can’t all beat the system and retire rich in Palm Beach. And what’s the use of retiring rich on a dying planet? Those of us who aren’t buying into the machine can’t beat the machine on its own terms either, without getting thugged. The people at the ACLU and the public defender’s office and places like that are really smart, and they’re doing their best, but they seem to be getting nowhere fast trying to use law and technology to repair law and technology.

Shall we continue to lull ourselves into sappy enjoyment of the sticky virtual fruits of the machine? Shall we continue to resist but end up alternating between devotion to “simple solutions” and collapsing in a heap of “radical despair?”

Because it converts everything into hierarchically organized power, and because its deadly efficiency causes it to be able to “outcompete”—code language for destroy—the cultures and beings who live in reciprocal relations with their surroundings, it is difficult to take on the machine on its own terms. John Henry blew out an artery trying to outperform the machine. The Luddites smashed a few machines before those at the center of the Panopticon hung them. Identify with the machine and you will die. Try to destroy the machine and those in power will try to kill you.

What do we do?

How’s this for a first step? Let’s climb out of our cars (mentally and physically) and try walking again. Remember your body? It’s not a concept, it’s not virtual reality. It’s an animal. Animals ‘R’ Us, remember?

If technology isn’t neutral, and using it isn’t free, and beating it is difficult, maybe we need to redefine the problem. Instead of building a better mousetrap, can we ask whether we want to be trapping mice? Or ourselves? Can we turn off the machines in our own lives long enough to hear ourselves think and talk—and to hear our human neighbors think and talk, and to hear our non-human neighbors think and talk, and to hear the land itself thinking and talking—and reconsider what strange fruit we’re making, and for whom it is made, and whether there might indeed be an alternative reality available, one that came before cynicism and surfeit?

Most of us most of the time see technology and technological progress as imperatives. Some of us are against technology, and some of us are all for it, but most of us are ambivalent as we slave away. Many people see the machine culture as an imperative, with a life and a will (virtual though they may be) of its own. But nuclear power plants and automobiles and polyvinylchloride are no more inevitable than an addiction to candy bars. A machine is not a living being; it has no will. It is as rational (blind), will-less, and disciplined (does what it’s programmed to do) as Weber thought the bureaucrats to be. A machine is only as automatic as its computer program and its supply of fuel and its human addicts allow it to be. Do we want to be machines, blind and obedient, manufacturing and consuming plastic- and foil-wrapped artificially flavored candy that goes in one end and out the other without a trace of nutrition?

In the 1970s, the U.S. Senate Church Committee, after an investigation leading to shocking (to some) revelations of the U.S. government’s illegal spying and institutionalized murder and mayhem, came up with ninety-six recommendations (and we forgive them for that, for they were after all lawmakers) ranging from Congressional and Justice Department oversight of intelligence agencies; to limiting those agencies’ budgets; to forbidding intelligence agencies from domestic spying and covert activities unless there is suspicion of criminal activity; to not collecting unnecessary personal information about American citizens; to obtaining judicial warrants allowing domestic spying; to prohibiting the collection of information on the political beliefs, political associations, or private lives of Americans “except that which is clearly necessary for domestic security investigations”; to centralizing domestic security investigations under the FBI; and prohibiting the military, the National Security Agency, and the IRS from domestic spying.

We have seen how centralization, secrecy, and rules are three inherent characteristics of bureaucracies. Unfortunately, the committee’s recommendations were basically a call for more centralization and more rules.

A generation later, there is Congressional oversight over intelligence agencies, but wiretapping warrants are much easier to gain and domestic spying is much easier to do legally. When violations of civil liberties and privacy are disclosed, the best civil rights lawyers come up with virtually the same prescriptions: more oversight, more centralization, more rules. It seems the disease has progressed, but not the medicine.

So we might cast our jaundiced eyes beyond modern progress and attend to Lao-tzu, who warned that rules and structures were for people without responsibility and awareness, and that punishments arose only when people wouldn’t govern themselves. He also pointed out that the more rules were promulgated, the more criminals there would be. Lao-tzu lived a long, long time ago, but he already saw the danger of device and recommended that people reduce their dependence on technology and stay close to home.

A couple millennia later, Ralph Waldo Emerson lamented that “work and days were offered us, and we chose work.” We can choose days and save time. Gardens are for those who don’t have time for supermarkets and all their consequences. Walking is for those who don’t have time for driving. And there’s more to gain than time, though we’ll enjoy lots of that, too, when we return to the real world.

Just do it.

The late U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright wrote, “In a democracy, dissent is an act of faith.”

We write, In a machine, awareness is an act of freedom.