By Mark Hurst • October 7, 2022
Douglas Rushkoff told an interesting story during our Techtonic interview this week. Years ago, Rushkoff spoke at a gathering of famous scientists, including Richard Dawkins. This was in middle of the 90s dotcom era, so Rushkoff was describing the young internet’s potential to foster creativity and feed the soul. The scientists scoffed at this, since it was really “the selfish gene” that explained the true meaning of life. When Rushkoff suggested that there was more to life than genetic machinery, Dawkins shot back that he was nothing more than a “moralist.”
The anecdote stuck out. Just two weeks earlier, I spoke with Aaron Sachs about Up from the Depths, his dual biography of Lewis Mumford and Herman Melville. During their lives, both writers were dismissed by critics as “moralists.” Melville, in particular, was a target of scorn for highlighting the U.S.’s mistreatment of native Americans and African Americans. When he wrote swashbuckling seafaring stories, Melville’s books sold. But sales dried up when he began calling attention to difficult truths in American history. It was only decades later, when Lewis Mumford helped bring about a revival of Melville’s legacy, that Americans began to re-engage with Moby Dick and other Melville works.
Mumford wrote some difficult truths of his own, often warning against excessive faith in technology. For example, Mumford said this in a 1963 speech (and thanks to Adrian Hon for quoting it in his excellent new book, You’ve Been Played, soon to be featured on Techtonic):
From late neolithic times in the Near East, right down to our own day, two technologies have recurrently existed side by side: one authoritarian, the other democratic, the first system-centered, immensely powerful, but inherently unstable, the other man-centered, relatively weak, but resourceful and durable. If I am right, we are now rapidly approaching a point at which, unless we radically alter our present course, our surviving democratic technics will be completely suppressed or supplanted, so that every residual autonomy will be wiped out, or will be permitted only as a playful device of government, like national ballotting for already chosen leaders in totalitarian countries.
59 years after this prophecy, how are we faring? Mumford correctly stated the danger to democracy posed by “system-centered” technologies. In contrast, “man-centered” (what today we’d called “human-centered”) systems, which I advocate for in Customers Included and have been writing about here for years, offer a way to benefit from technology without being enslaved by it. There’s no question which is the better choice. But increasingly it looks like our society intends to optimize for the most “system-centered” options available, putting society at risk – just as Mumford warned.
One example of this is the growth of corporate power, fully divested from concerns of human life and community. Generally here I write about the sins of Big Tech companies, of which there are many, but malicious and predatory companies seem to be dominant in most industries today. The new documentary Downfall: The Case Against Boeing, viewable on Netflix, is a perfect case in point. The movie focuses on the two 737-MAX crashes as primary evidence of Boeing’s descent into an immoral actor. The documentary skillfully tells the story of how hundreds of lives were lost due to a combination of design flaws (a single malfunctioning sensor could bring down the entire plane), an obsession with “growth at any cost” (especially the stock price and executive bonuses), and secretive, deceitful senior leadership (ignoring warnings from engineers, hiding the new deadly system from pilots, and covering up mistakes after the crashes).
Downfall is at turns enraging and heartbreaking, as interviews with victims’ family members are interleaved with an ongoing investigation by journalists and congresspeople into what happened. But despite the many inputs into the 737-MAX tragedies, the root cause of the problem is pretty clear. Boeing senior leadership gave itself over to “system-centered” thinking, devoting itself to growing the company’s power, and relinquished any commitment to human-centered thinking. Put another way, there’s right and wrong in the world, and Boeing chose to do wrong. (And that’s the sort of conclusion that gets one called a “moralist.” I’m here for it.)
Separate from corporate power, but often partnering closely with it, is the growth of government power – which increasingly makes use of surveillance technologies to overlay systems of control on citizens, thus foreclosing the possibility of real democratic change. A good example of this, which I featured in my recent Subways and surveillance Techtonic episode, is the launch of intrusive surveillance in the New York City subways. A tap-to-pay system called OMNY will soon replace the MetroCard, all but requiring New Yorkers to walk around the city with a smartphone or scannable chip in their pocket.
Once on the subway train, riders will be watched by two surveillance cameras installed in each car. New York State governor Kathy Hochul boasted at a press conference: “You think Big Brother is watching you on the subway? You’re absolutely right.” I marvel at how irony, arrogance, and sheer stupidity can fuse so elegantly into a single statement. Here we have an elected official announcing a new surveillance system by invoking 1984, the book that warned us not to build a surveillance state. George Orwell would be aghast at where we’re headed. So would Lewis Mumford. And so am I.
A vacuum abhored
The use of “moralist” as an epithet – whether directed at Mumford mid-century, or Dawkins spitting it at Rushkoff decades later – shows that it’s risky to take up the moral high ground. In polite society that’s militant about its objectivity, its purely materialist ways of understanding the world, one might think twice before speaking loudly about the difference between right and wrong.
And yet we see today the results of that approach: the moralist’s role in society, like any other, abhors a vacuum and will not stay empty. Without (enough) people stepping up to call out evil, we see the arrogation, the amplification, and the metastasization of self-serving powers that have rushed in. Big Tech, and Boeing, and other corporate behemoths are running unchecked, stamping competition out of industry after industry, hyperscaling economic inequality, and sacrificing the lives of individuals and communities at the altar of growth. The only ethic, if one can call it that, is: whoever has the most money and power, makes the decisions. It’s a deadly proposition, just as Mumford warned.
The government, which in a more functional state would have put a regulatory stop to this years ago, is barely lifting a whisper against the corporate onslaught, instead joining in the rush for surveillance powers, as we see in New York State – and indeed in many other states, observable in the genetic surveillance state that I wrote about in August. As the surveillance state grows in influence, citizens’ power in the democracy drains away.
It turns out that an absence of moralists can be a very dangerous thing indeed. Our path looks grim unless a few more principled, committed people step forward. As the old quote has it, “the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.” Moralists, unite.
Until next time,
Mark Hurst, founder, Creative Good – see official announcement and join as a member
Read my non-toxic tech reviews at Good Reports
Listen to my podcast/radio show: techtonic.fm
Subscribe to my email newsletter
Sign up for my to-do list with privacy built in, Good Todo
- – -