Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Magical Thinking

One of the things that gives the mythology of progress its emotional power is the circular logic at its center. From within the confines of the myth, what’s new is better than whatever it replaces by the simple fact that it’s newer, and whatever our technology happens to be good at is more important than the things it does poorly, especially when older methods did a better job of these latter than newer ones do. I had a useful reminder of this the other day, thanks to one of the readers of The Archdruid Report, who critiqued my recent post “Technological Triage” with a certain degree of heat. One of his central points was that technology is here to stay, no matter what the future holds, because it’s better than any alternative. “What is certain is that ‘technology’ will not disappear,” he wrote: “...the engineer’s outlook and the scientist’s methods will continue to be applied to problems. And they will continue to provide better results for questions involving the physical world than magical thinking of any sort.”

His comment missed a central point of my post, of course, which is that there’s no such thing as “technology” in the singular, only technologies in the plural. The notion that technology is a single monolithic thing is a convenient bit of mystification, used to hide the fact that our society, like all others, picks and chooses among available technological options, implementing some and neglecting others. This needs hiding because most of these choices are made by influential members and groups within America’s political class for their own private profit, very often at the expense of the rest of the public. Wrapping the process in a smokescreen of impersonal inevitability is a convenient way to keep awkward questions from being raised via what remains of the democratic institutions of an earlier age.

From another angle, of course, my reader’s comment is true but tautological. Toolmaking is as natural to human beings as singing is to finches, and every human culture across space and time has had its own technologies, each of which draws on available resources to meet culturally recognized needs in culturally desirable ways. It’s habitual in our own culture to think of the particular suite of technologies we’ve come up with as not only better than anybody else’s, but more advanced, more progressive. Think about what these two phrases imply, and you’ll see how they derive from and feed into the core narrative of the myth of progress, the way of telling the story of our species that turns every other culture and every past technology into a stepping-stone on the way to us. From within this narrative, all earlier technologies are simply imperfect attempts to achieve what we’ve got.

Again, this is mystification, and it serves a socially necessary purpose in a culture where talking about the goals and values of specific technologies is taboo. The frequently repeated claim that “technology is value-free” is fatuous nonsense, but as long as we think about tools and techniques as a single thing called “technology,” it’s also plausible nonsense. In reality, of course, individual technologies embody the values and goals of their designers, and are selected by users on the basis of the technology’s relationship to values and goals. Look at the suite of technologies used by a person or a culture, and it’s an easy matter to divine the values that person or that culture holds and the goals they pursue. This is unmentionable in our culture, among other reasons, because the values and goals our technologies reveal to the world are a very long ways indeed from the ones we claim to embrace.

But there’s a third set of issues woven up in my reader’s comments, and these issues take the same points a good deal deeper. His distinction between “the engineer’s outlook and the scientist’s methods” and “magical thinking of any kind” is a valid one, and he’s quite correct to suggest that the former – the set of intellectual tools in which our own culture has specialized – does a better job with certain strictly physical questions than most other ways of thinking, including the ones he labels “magical thinking.” Yet this begs the question on a much deeper level, because problem-solving methods aimed at physical questions aren’t anything like as relevant to the current predicament of industrial society as they sometimes seem.

Peak oil is a case in point. What happens when world petroleum production begins to decline, as it will most likely do in the next few years, has very little to do with physical questions. The forces that will take the lead in the opening phases of the deindustrial age will be political, cultural, and psychological, not physical. About these issues the methods of the scientist and the engineer have very little useful to say, and most of that was drowned out decades ago by the louder voices of political opportunism and middle-class privilege. In the same way, the technical issues involved in the transition from an overpopulated, petroleum-based civilization with an expanding economy to a renewables-based civilization with a sharply reduced population and a much smaller steady-state economy were either solved long ago or could have been solved readily with modest investment. What could not be solved by these methods is the problem of finding the motivating factors and the political will to get these solutions put into place.

Since this latter problem could not be solved by “the engineer’s outlook and the scientist’s methods,” in turn, it has not been solved at all. This is the downside of the superlative technological efficiency of our age: those things we can’t do with our machines, or with ways of thinking that evolved to manage our machines, we can’t do at all. Thus discussions of how to respond to peak oil, when these have not simply been exercises in denial or Utopian fantasy, have tended to focus on finding ways to redefine the issues in technical terms so they can be dealt with by technical methods. We hear endless talk about finding new ways to fuel our cars, and very little about the tangled and dysfunctional human motives that make it seem logical to us to ghettoize our homes, worksites, and marketplaces at such distances from one another that a preposterously inefficient system of freeways, roads, and automobiles has to be used to bridge the distances among them. It’s all very reminiscent of the old fable about the drunkard who dropped his keys in a dark street and went to look for them under the streetlight half a block away, since there, at least, he could see what he was doing.

There’s a rich irony, in other words, in my reader’s insistence that magical thinking is less useful than the technical thinking he champions, because magical thinking is exactly the form of human thought that deals with the realm of motivations, values, and goals that technical thinking handles so poorly. Americans dream of living in suburbs not because suburbs have any particular virtue – most of them lack the amenities of city and countryside alike, while sharing the worst features of both – but because the suburban house, surrounded by its protective moat of grass, is a magical symbol brimfull of potent cultural meanings. Americans drive preposterously oversized and overpowered cars, not because these are better than smaller and more sensible vehicles in any objective way, but because they magically symbolize the freedom and power most Americans long ago surrendered to the machinery of a mass society. For that matter, the hallucinated wealth that keeps our mostly fictional economy churning away consists of sheer enchantment, with even less tangible substance behind it than the moonbeams and fairy dust of a child’s wonder tale.

To speak of these issues in terms of magic is not, by the way, just a metaphor. Dion Fortune, one of the premier magical theorists of the 20th century, defined magic as the art and science of causing changes in consciousness in accordance with will. It’s predictable that a society fixated on seeing its own technology as the be-all and end-all of human achievement would misunderstand magic as a kind of failed physical technology, but that predictability makes modern attitudes about magic no less misleading. This is hardly the place for a detailed discussion of magic, but for our present purposes it can be seen as the use of psychologically potent symbolism to influence consciousness and, through consciousness, the universe as we experience it. The advertising campaigns that seduce so many people into buying, say, fizzy brown sugar water, by associating this product with symbols of happiness, self-esteem, or love, are good examples of magic at work – a debased magic, force-fitted into the manipulative mold of physical technology, but magic nonetheless.

In recent years I’ve heard people in the peak oil community who have no knowledge of magic, and who wrinkle their noses in disgust at the mere mention of the word, shake their heads in bafflement at the way that so many people in today’s world seem to be sleepwalking toward disaster. Words like “trance” and “spell” appear not infrequently in such discussions. Over the next few weeks I want to explore this in more detail, and look at the ways in which issues of meaning, value, and purpose shape the way we approach the predicament of industrial society – and might be reshaped by those who are willing to face up to the challenge of doing so.


John Michael Greer said...

Many thanks, all, for the good wishes during the last two weeks of road time! I'm back home in Ashland at this point, and launching back into the same weekly schedule of postings as before. It was a productive series of travels, too, and is likely to inspire a number of new posts to come...

Ares Olympus said...

Excellent post, and praise coming from an engineer, acknowledging the limitations of my "tools" to solve any significant problem within the human heart.

No "magic" there, but I think of Schumacher's book "A guide for the perplexed", talking about many things, one he called: convergent and divergent problems.

Our faith in our technical success is well-justified, and still defendably unrealistic to expect things to continue indefinitely.

I suppose a need for exponential growth is a good "divergent" problem! :)

Óskar said...

I'm glad you're safely back from your travels, John Michael, and thank you for another good post.

I very much enjoy your discussions of progress as a belief system, and of the concept of magic, because in the past months I myself have come to realize that technological progress was my own personal belief system ever since I was a kid reading about space travel.

My faith had been gradually shaken and broken down in the past 3 years for a number of reasons (third world experiences, disillusionment with first world lifestyle) and all I really needed was something new and positive to reconstruct my world view. A "Gaian" (or Druidic, just as well) view came along eventually.

The point when I realized that the faith in progress had been something spiritual for me - a sort of personal religion - was when I felt the spiritual vacuum as the faith broke down. For a while I didn't know what to believe in and that surprised me because part of my faith in progress had been the conviction that I had no "beliefs", only "facts" - rationally conceived truths.

What makes me feel so much more at peace with the world today is that I no longer fear concepts such as "faith" and "magic". Those concepts were heretical to my faith in progress but I now believe that no human mind can be (or should be) free of faith and a sense of magic. Today I welcome those feelings as worthy elements in my thinking, complimentary to my rationality rather than inferior or superior to it.

Matt Cardin said...

What a necessary post this is. Many thanks, John, for your clarity here. As you say so well, the idea that technology, or rather technologies, are "value-free" is indeed a blatant falsehood or obfuscation when the entire picture is taken into account. And under present circumstances, it's a particularly pernicious falsehood or obfuscation.

I appreciate the above comment by ares olympus that directs interested readers to Schumacher's A Guide for the Perplexed. Schumacher is wonderful for jolting his readers awake from the trance of their unexamined assumptions.

I also recommend Huston Smith's critiques of scientism, which he defines as the view "that what [natural] science turns up and can turn up is the sum of all there is." Smith mounts a heady critique of scientism that reminds me of your own words, John, in which he discusses the types of things physical science cannot explain or get its hands on, as in, e.g., intrinsic or normative values, existential or ultimate meanings, qualities (as distinguished from qualities), and more. Obviously, he's talking about these things as distinguished from "the engineer's outlook and the scientist's methods."

As far as I'm concerned, the more these kinds of ideas are stated, and stated well, the better. I hope you get a lot of mileage with this post.

Jan said...

Thanks, John, and welcome back!

As a technologist, I find myself frequently conflicted. I know you aren't bashing technology per se, but I'm sure it is easy for technologists to feel attacked, and to respond defensively.

Schumacher also wrote of "appropriate technology." I think that's important to point out to those who feel threatened by talk of coming changes, especially if such changes are in the social realm, and especially if those changes will be forced, rather than chosen.

While we have it, we should choose carefully how we spend our petroleum, knowing that doing so is also spending future generation's ability to cope with the environment we leave them.

A wind turbine or a solar panel or a simple, earthen dam -- these are all things that may help future humans to cope. An SUV or an iPod or a nuclear missile almost certainly do not. And there is a continuum of technologies in-between.

Adrynian said...

Welcome back JMG!

Just a couple of quick thoughts:

"...most of these choices are made by influential members and groups within America’s political class for their own private profit."

-And here I thought you were against blaming the elite! No offense intended; I just wanted to reiterate, as I have posted previously, that indeed, the elite do exist, and indeed, they do make decisions that affect our lives.

"Thus discussions... have tended to focus on finding ways to redefine the issues in technical terms so they can be dealt with by technical methods."

-Case in point, the British Columbia provincial government, following its recent declaration to fight climate change, just announced that it will be spending $10mil for just TWO hydrogen fuel-cell buses with plans to spend another $90mil for more of them in time for the 2010 Winter Olympics, "to showcase BC technology," when regular buses cost a mere $400k each. There was no recognition of the criticisms of using hydrogen as a transportation fuel (i.e. hydrogen is really not very dense, so requires a big tank, not to mention lack of infrastructure), or the difficulties with fuel-cell technology more generally (i.e. platinum, the typical catalyst for the reaction, is basically a precious - read: scarce - metal).

Agreed that technology is definitely NOT value-free. I remember reading about some very interesting psychological research where the researchers had a truck that they drove around with either i) a gun loaded on a gun rack behing the driver's head, ii) just the gun rack, or iii) no gun or gun rack. The gist of it is that the surrounding vehicles were much more likely to engage in aggressive behaviour towards this truck (honking at delayed starts, I believe) when the gun rack and/or gun were visible, suggesting that the mere presense of such a technology or its accoutrements influences our emotional & cognitive processes. This argument can, I think, be extended to other technologies as well.

Television is another good one that has been researched alot, which in fact has measurable physiological effects, including reduced brain activity while watching, and it puts people into a kind of mild-depressive state when it's turned off (people feel unhappy/sad, bored/unmotivated, & tired/drained immediately after the tv is turned off), which may explain why people do so much channel surfing: they keep the tv on to avoid the low that follows from turning it off, even though they may be bored of what they're watching.

Anyway, thanks for the great post! I look forward to your weekly deliberations.

PS. If you do get around to initiating a "lengthy discussion" about magic at some point, I will be an avid reader, so I encourage you to do so, if you ever feel like it.

bunnygirl said...

Someone else (I forget who) recently said that every society's downfall has its seeds in the very thing(s) that made it great.

Certain habits of mind and ways of solving problems lead to wild success... until they don't. If the society in question can't adapt its mindset quickly enough, it founders.

Modern Western society seems to me to be in great danger from the attitude that "more" and "bigger" are always good, and that shiny new technologies will always come along to make our lives "better."

"Better" in our society always means more sedentary, with greater options for cheap and varied food, clothing and entertainment. It always means bigger homes, bigger private vehicles, and shinier new stuff.

As a society, we're stuck in circular thinking. "We have X, therefore X must be a good thing to have. And a newer X would be even better!"

I wonder if we will be able to break out of this in time. We have an immense amount of talent and ingenuity in Western society, but we fritter most of it away on things that reinforce the status quo. Anyone who dares suggest that we must re-think our society if we're to continue to prosper gets shouted down.

It'll all work out somehow and "technology" will save us. It will, but almost certainly not in the way people want or expect.

Magical thinking indeed, to believe that the way things are now is the only way, the best way, and just a way station on a straight-line trajectory to more of the same, but with fancier iPods, bigger SUVs, and tinier cell phones. :-(

John Michael Greer said...

Thank you all for your comments! Ares, Schumacher's books are full of magic -- he just doesn't call it yet. I first read "Guide for the Perplexed" (along with "Small is Beautiful") in my teen years and have been following out some of his thoughts ever since.

Oskar, you aren't the only one for whom letting go of a belief in progress is a crisis of faith, in every sense of the word. I've come to think that Kubler-Ross' five stages of grief do a good job of tracking the way most people deal with this process, when they do deal with it. It's always a wrenching experience to have the source of meaning provided by one's culture fall apart.

Matt, thanks for the encouragement! I haven't read much of Huston Smith, mostly because what I have read always seemed to fall too close to the Traditionalist camp for my taste. But I'll take a second look.

Jan, I'm sorry to hear that you feel attacked! By trying to challenge certain aspects of modern thinking about technology, I certainly don't mean to downplay the importance of appropriate technologies (a major piece of the puzzle if we're to get anything worthwhile through the approaching age of decline). It's simply that technology has been so overvalued for so long that the other ways human beings can act on the world and themselves have been devalued -- and that has to be corrected.

Adrynian, notice how you've flattened my comment about "influential members and groups within America’s political class" into "the elite." There's a slew of differences between the two comments, starting with the difference between plural and singular. As I see it, the political class in the US reaches well down into the middle classes (and includes a fair number of the people who rail most loudly in public against "the elite"), and it's not in any way homogenous or unified -- simply a way of talking about those people who, at a given point in time, and for many different reasons, have significant influence over decision-making processes.

Your examples of buses and guns are excellent. As for TV, well, you've cited a few of the reasons why I stopped watching in 1978 and haven't owned a TV since. But the discussion of magic will probably be elsewhere, since most of the readers of this blog probably won't share your enthusiasm for the subject, and it's precisely those who use the machine as a model for reality that most need to hear what I'm trying to say.

Bunnygirl, you're anticipating a future post! You're quite right that current attitudes toward technology are as good an example of magical thinking as anything that takes place in a seance or a sabbat. More on this soon...

Rhain said...

It was a great pleasure to meet you. Glad you ventured into my neck of the woods and I had the opportunity!

I was just lamenting the fact that I.T. is treated as a big expensive black box instead of a set of high tech tools and people educated in their use, so my first visit to your blog and this post at the top seems apropos indeed.

Maybe I shouldn't have laughed when I talked to my boss about finding the right incantation to clear communication channels with other departments. If we are the computer cult inside a much larger black box labeled technology and progress we definitely have magic to perform if we hope to get any messages successfully transmitted to the outside world.

helwen said...

Hi John Michael, just found your journal. Deep and fascinating essay - looking forward to reading more.

Most of my friends have some interest in conserving energy, being more environmentally responsible, etc., but have many varied views on peak oil and what it means. They differ greatly on what the solutions are and what urgency there is/isn't. A number of them are on Live Journal and things got a little feisty at one point, as they got off-topic and even threw in a few ad hominem attacks against an article's author on Fortunately I was able to put up a post that helped diffuse things, because everyone could agree on it (on my LJ)...that one of the reasons for our problems dealing with limited resources was a lack of respect for the earth, others, and even ourselves.

My overarching goal since last August has been to introduce low technology concepts as ideas that are so good they tempt people away from more wasteful ways of doing the same thing. Some work better than others :D

You have a marvelous way of writing about the whole picture! I look forward to reading more of your posts and hope they will help inspire me to be able to bring some of those ideas into my (far less complete) writings, that they may inspire my friends to become closer to the earth.

Thank you!

Shadowfoot (helwen on LJ)