Last week’s post here on The Archdruid Report appears to have hit a nerve. That didn’t come as any sort of a surprise, admittedly. It’s one thing to point out that going back to the simpler and less energy-intensive technologies of earlier eras could help extract us from the corner into which industrial society has been busily painting itself in recent decades; it’s quite another to point out that doing this can also be great fun, more so than anything that comes out of today’s fashionable technologies, and in a good many cases the results include an objectively better quality of life as well
That’s not one of the canned speeches that opponents of progress are supposed to make. According to the folk mythology of modern industrial culture, since progress always makes things better, the foes of whatever gets labeled as progress are supposed to put on hair shirts and insist that everyone has to suffer virtuously from a lack of progress, for some reason based on sentimental superstition. The Pygmalion effect being what it is, it’s not hard to find opponents of progress who say what they’re expected to say, and thus fulfill their assigned role in contemporary culture, which is to stand there in their hair shirts bravely protesting until the steamroller of progress rolls right over them.
The grip of that particular bit of folk mythology on the collective imagination of our time is tight enough that when somebody brings up some other reason to oppose “progress”—we’ll get into the ambiguities behind that familiar label in a moment—a great many people quite literally can’t absorb what’s actually being said, and respond instead to the canned speeches they expect to hear. Thus I had several people attempt to dispute the comments on last week’s post, castigating my readers with varying degrees of wrath and profanity for thinking that they had to sacrifice the delights of today’s technology and go creeping mournfully back to the unsatisfying lifestyles of an earlier day.
That was all the more ironic in that none of the readers who were commenting on the post were saying anything of the kind. Most of them were enthusiastically talking about how much more durable, practical, repairable, enjoyable, affordable, and user-friendly older technologies are compared to the disposable plastic trash that fills the stores these days. They were discussing how much more fun it is to embrace the delights of outdated technologies than it would be to go creeping mournfully back—or forward, if you prefer—to the unsatisfying lifestyles of the present time. That heresy is far more than the alleged openmindness and intellectual diversity of our age is willing to tolerate, so it’s not surprising that some people tried to pretend that nothing of the sort had been said at all. What was surprising to me, and pleasantly so, was the number of readers who were ready to don the party clothes of some earlier time and join in the Butlerian carnival.
There are subtleties to the project of deliberate technological regress that may not be obvious at first glance, though, and it seems sensible to discuss those here before we proceed. It’s important, to begin with, to remember that when talking heads these days babble about technology in the singular, as a uniform, monolithic thing that progresses according to some relentless internal logic of its own, they’re spouting balderdash. In the real world, there’s no such monolith; instead, there are technologies in the plural, a great many of them, clustered more or less loosely in technological suites which may or may not have any direct relation to one another.
An example might be useful here. Consider the technologies necessary to build a steel-framed bicycle. The metal parts require the particular suite of technologies we use to smelt ores, combine the resulting metals into useful alloys, and machine and weld those into shapes that fit together to make a bicycle. The tires, inner tubes, brake pads, seat cushion, handlebar grips, and paint require a different suite of technologies drawing on various branches of applied organic chemistry, and a few other suites also have a place: for example, the one that’s needed to make and apply lubricants The suites that make a bicycle have other uses; if you can build a bicycle, as Orville and Wilbur Wright demonstrated, you can also build an aircraft, and a variety of other interesting machines as well; that said, there are other technologies—say, the ones needed to manufacture medicines, or precision optics, or electronics—that require very different technological suites. You can have everything you need to build a bicycle and still be unable to make a telescope or a radio receiver, and vice versa.
Strictly speaking, therefore, nothing requires the project of deliberate technological regress to move in lockstep to the technologies of a specific past date and stay there. It would be wholly possible to dump certain items of modern technology while keeping others. It would be just as possible to replace one modern technological suite with an older equivalent from one decade, another with an equivalent from a different decade and so on. Imagine, for example, a future America in which solar water heaters (worked out by 1920) and passive solar architecture (mostly developed in the 1960s and 1970s) were standard household features, canal boats (dating from before 1800) and tall ships (ditto) were the primary means of bulk transport, shortwave radio (developed in the early 20th century) was the standard long-range communications medium, ultralight aircraft (largely developed in the 1980s) were still in use, and engineers crunched numbers using slide rules (perfected around 1880).
There’s no reason why such a pastiche of technologies from different eras couldn’t work. We know this because what passes for modern technology is a pastiche of the same kind, in which (for example) cars whose basic design dates from the 1890s are gussied up with onboard computers invented a century later. Much of modern technology, in fact, is old technology with a new coat of paint and a few electronic gimmicks tacked on, and it’s old technology that originated in many different eras, too. Part of what differentiates modern technology from older equivalents, in other words, is mere fashion. Another part, though, moves into more explosive territory.
In the conversation that followed last week’s post, one of my readers—tip of the archdruid’s hat to Cathy—recounted the story of the one and only class on advertising she took at college. The teacher invited a well-known advertising executive to come in and talk about the business, and one of the points he brought up was the marketing of disposable razors. The old-fashioned steel safety razor, the guy admitted cheerfully, was a much better product: it was more durable, less expensive, and gave a better shave than disposable razors. Unfortunately, it didn’t make the kind of profits for the razor industry that the latter wanted, and so the job of the advertising company was to convince shavers that they really wanted to spend more money on a worse product instead.
I know it may startle some people to hear a luxuriantly bearded archdruid talk about shaving, but I do have a certain amount of experience with the process—though admittedly it’s been a while. The executive was quite correct: an old-fashioned safety razor gives better shaves than a disposable. What’s more, an old-fashioned safety razor combined with a shaving brush, a cake of shaving soap, a mug and a bit of hot water from the teakettle produces a shaving experience that’s vastly better, in every sense, than what you’ll get from squirting cold chemical-laced foam out of a disposable can and then scraping your face with a disposable razor; the older method, furthermore, takes no more time, costs much less on a per-shave basis, and has a drastically smaller ecological footprint to boot.
Notice also the difference in the scale and complexity of the technological suites needed to maintain these two ways of shaving. To shave with a safety razor and shaving soap, you need the metallurgical suite that produces razors and razor blades, the very simple household-chemistry suite that produces soap, the ability to make pottery and brushes, and some way to heat water. To shave with a disposable razor and a can of squirt-on shaving foam, you need fossil fuels for plastic feedstocks, chemical plants to manufacture the plastic and the foam, the whole range of technologies needed to manufacture and fill the pressurized can, and so on—all so that you can count on getting an inferior shave at a higher price, and the razor industry can boost its quarterly profits.
That’s a small and arguably silly example of a vast and far from silly issue. These days, when you see the words “new and improved” on a product, rather more often than not, the only thing that’s been improved is the bottom line of the company that’s trying to sell it to you. When you hear equivalent claims about some technology that’s being marketed to society as a whole, rather than sold to you personally, the same rule applies at least as often. That’s one of the things that drove the enthusiastic conversations on this blog’s comment page last week, as readers came out of hiding to confess that they, too, had stopped using this or that piece of cutting-edge, up-to-date, hypermodern trash, and replaced it with some sturdy, elegant, user-friendly device from an earlier decade which works better and lacks the downsides of the newer item.
What, after all, defines a change as “progress”? There’s a wilderness of ambiguities hidden in that apparently simple word. The popular notion of progress presupposes that there’s an inherent dynamic to history, that things change, or tend to change, or at the very least ought to change, from worse to better over time. That presupposition then gets flipped around into the even more dubious claim that just because something’s new, it must be better than whatever it replaced. Move from there to specific examples, and all of a sudden it’s necessary to deal with competing claims—if there are two hot new technologies on the market, is option A more progressive than option B, or vice versa? The answer, of course, is that whichever of them manages to elbow the other aside will be retroactively awarded the coveted title of the next step in the march of progress.
That was exactly the process by which the appropriate tech of the 1970s was shoved aside and buried in the memory hole of our culture. In its heyday, appropriate tech was as cutting-edge and progressive as anything you care to name, a rapidly advancing field pushed forward by brilliant young engineers and innovative startups, and it saw itself (and presented itself to the world) as the wave of the future. In the wake of the Reagan-Thatcher counterrevolution of the 1980s, though, it was retroactively stripped of its erstwhile status as an icon of progress and consigned to the dustbin of the past. Technologies that had been lauded in the media as brilliantly innovative in 1978 were thus being condemned in the same media as Luddite throwbacks by 1988. If that abrupt act of redefinition reminds any of my readers of the way history got rewritten in George Orwell’s 1984—“Oceania has never been allied with Eurasia” and the like—well, let’s just say the parallel was noticed at the time, too.
The same process on a much smaller scale can be traced with equal clarity in the replacement of the safety razor and shaving soap with the disposable razor and squirt-can shaving foam. In what sense is the latter, which wastes more resources and generates more trash in the process of giving users a worse shave at a higher price, more progressive than the former? Merely the fact that it’s been awarded that title by advertising and the media. If razor companies could make more money by reintroducing the Roman habit of scraping beard hairs off the face with a chunk of pumice, no doubt that would quickly be proclaimed as the last word in cutting-edge, up-to-date hypermodernity, too.
Behind the mythological image of the relentless and inevitable forward march of technology-in-the-singular in the grand cause of progress, in other words, lies a murky underworld of crass commercial motives and no-holds-barred struggles over which of the available technologies will get the funding and marketing that will define it as the next great step in progress. That’s as true of major technological programs as it is of shaving supplies. Some of my readers are old enough, as I am, to remember when supersonic airliners and undersea habitats were the next great steps in progress, until all of a sudden they weren’t. We may not be all that far from the point at which space travel and nuclear power will go the way of Sealab and the Concorde.
In today’s industrial societies, we don’t talk about that. It’s practically taboo these days to mention the long, long list of waves of the future that abruptly stalled and rolled back out to sea without delivering on their promoters’ overblown promises. Remind people that the same rhetoric currently being used to prop up faith in space travel, nuclear power, or any of today’s other venerated icons of the religion of progress was lavished just as thickly on these earlier failures, and you can pretty much expect to have that comment shouted down as an irrelevancy if the other people in the conversation don’t simply turn their backs and pretend that they never heard you say anything at all.
They have to do something of the sort, because the alternative is to admit that what we call “progress” isn’t the impersonal, unstoppable force of nature that industrial culture’s ideology insists it must be. Pay attention to the grand technological projects that failed, compare them with those that are failing now, and it’s impossible to keep ignoring certain crucial if hugely unpopular points. To begin with technological progress is a function of collective choices—do we fund Sealab or the Apollo program? Supersonic transports or urban light rail? Energy conservation and appropriate tech or an endless series of wars in the Middle East? No impersonal force makes those decisions; individuals and institutions make them, and then use the rhetoric of impersonal progress to cloak the political and financial agendas that guide the decision-making process.
What’s more, even if the industrial world chooses to invest its resources in a project, the laws of physics and economics determine whether the project is going to work. The Concorde is the poster child here, a technological successbut an economic flop that never even managed to cover its operating costs. Like nuclear power, it was only viable given huge and continuing government subsidies, and since the strategic benefits Britain and France got from having Concordes in the air were nothing like so great as those they got from having an independent source of raw material for nuclear weapons, it’s not hard to see why the subsidies went where they did.
That is to say, when something is being lauded as the next great step forward in the glorious march of progress leading humanity to a better world, those who haven’t drunk themselves tipsy on folk mythology need to keep four things in mind. The first is that the next great step forward in the glorious march of progres (etc.) might not actually work when it’s brought down out of the billowing clouds of overheated rhetoric into the cold hard world of everyday life. The second is that even if it works, the next great step forward (etc.) may be a white elephant in economic terms, and survive only so long as it gets propped up by subsidies. The third is that even if it does make economic sense, the next great step (etc.) may be an inferior product, and do a less effective job of meeting human needs than whatever it’s supposed to replace. The fourth is that when it comes right down to it, to label something as the next great (etc.) is just a sales pitch, an overblown and increasingly trite way of saying “Buy this product!”
Those necessary critiques, in turn, are all implicit in the project of deliberate technological regress. Get past the thoughtstopping rhetoric that insists “you can’t turn back the clock”—to rephrase a comment of G.K. Chesterton’s, most people turn back the clock every fall, so that’s hardly a valid objection—and it becomes hard not to notice that “progress” is just a label for whatever choices happen to have been made by governments and corporations, with or without input from the rest of us. If we don’t like the choices that have been made for us in the name of progress, in turn, we can choose something else.
Now of course it’s possible to stuff that sort of thinking back into the straitjacket of progress, and claim that progress is chugging along just fine, and all we have to do is get it back on the proper track, or what have you. This is a very common sort of argument, and one that’s been used over and over again by critics of this or that candidate for the next (etc.). The problem with that argument, as I see it, is that it may occasionally win battles but it pretty consistently loses the war; by failing to challenge the folk mythology of progress and the agendas that are enshrined by that mythology, it guarantees that no matter what technology or policy or program gets put into place, it’ll end up leading the same place as all the others before it, because it questions the means but forgets to question the goals.
That’s the trap hardwired into the contemporary faith in progress. Once you buy into the notion that the specific choices made by industrial societies over the last three centuries or so are something more than the projects that happened to win out in the struggle for wealth and power, once you let yourself believe that there’s a teleology to it all—that there’s some objectively definable goal called “progress” that all these choices did a better or worse job of furthering—you’ve just made it much harder to ask where this thing called “progress” is going. The word “progress,” remember, means going further in the same direction, and it’s precisely questions about the direction that industrial society is going that most need to be asked.
I’d like to suggest, in fact, that going further in the direction we’ve been going isn’t a particularly bright idea just now. It isn’t even necessary to point to the more obviously self-destructive dimensions of business as usual. Look at any trend that affects your life right now, however global or local that trend may be, and extrapolate it out in a straight line indefinitely; that’s what going further in the same direction means. If that appeals to you, dear reader, then you’re certainly welcome to it. I have to say it doesn’t do much for me.