Saturday, April 17, 2010

Human Extensions of Our Machines

A couple of weeks ago, I was watching an interview with one of my favorite bloggers, John Michael Greer (The Archdruid Report) on Peak Moment television.  And, like most of the time I'm exposed to Greer's thinking, there was something that really made me stop and think.  I've copied that section from the transcript below.  You can find the entire interview -- video, audio and transcript -- at

(John Michael Greer): One of the things about the age of cheap energy is that it’s made us think that, it’s made us ignore our own capacities, our own potentials as human beings, and encouraged us to focus instead on what we can make machines do. And on the one hand that leads to ignoring a lot of our potential as human beings, but it also leads to a very specific kind of thinking in terms of power relationships. You don’t have a conversation with your car or with your alarm clock…you tell it what to do. And what it doesn’t do exactly what you do you get grumpy, and you take it to the repairman or you throw it out and buy a new one. You don’t converse with it, you don’t live with it you don’t…

(Janaia Donaldson): You don’t work things out…

(JMG): There’s no negotiation, there’s no sharing, there’s no community…

(JD): Right, that’s true.

(JMG): And so it’s encouraged a very mechanistic attitude that we apply to ourselves, we apply to each other, we apply to the living earth that supports all of our lives. And it’s not been…I mean it’s had some very negative consequences. One of the things that we need to reacquaint ourselves with is the fact that our own capacity…I mean human beings have enormous capacities that we’ve left unused for 300 years. And we need to reacquaint ourselves with our own capacities, with our own innate human abilities to do a whole range of things. We are actually, you know, we are a very successful life form. We’ve got a lot of capacities that we’ve evolved down through millions of years and we need to put those to work rather than just running to a machine. And, on the one hand that’s all we’ve got left now, is ourselves. On the other hand, I’m not sure we actually need that much more than ourselves and each other, and of course the natural world that supports our lives.
Whether you agree or disagree with Greer's ideas about a post-industrial future, I think he's on to something quite significant here regarding to the way that human relationships have changed with the introduction of cheap energy.  The most obvious in a historical sense, at least from my perspective, is the introduction of Taylorism (the ideas of scientific management of the workplace introduced by Frederick Taylor in the late 19th and early 20th century).  In the crudest sense, Taylorism sought to remove every last trace of humanity from the factory.  Assembly-line tasks were broken down into specific movements made by workers to perform each task, and a time value in seconds or even fractions of a second was assigned to each movement.  If employees were tired from working on the factory floor for fourteen hours with only twenty minutes for lunch and two ten-minute bathroom breaks, it did not matter.  According to the principles of Scientific Management, they should be performing their tasks within the same amount of time.

While humans have used machines to complete tasks throughout all of our history on this earth, starting with the use of rocks by the earliest hominids, at all times those machines were an extension of our human selves.  Cheap energy and industrialism, however, sought to reverse this relationship.  According to Taylor and the factory operators who followed his advice, human workers were to become extensions of the machines they operated.

This attitude, Greer points out, has now spilled into our personal relationships as well.  One reason behind a divorce rate that hovers around 50% could be the changes in the way we relate to each other.  I came across an article in Psychology Today a few weeks back that addressed this high divorce rate and, more importantly, how to avoid being one of those failed relationships contributing to it.  The main point of the authors was that many of us get married expecting our spouse to be everything that we are looking for, and often without much time or effort put in on our part.  When our spouses fail to live up to our lofty expectations, we convince ourselves that the cause of our unhappiness lay in them, and that the "perfect person" is still waiting for us out there to fulfill all of our needs.  The authors of the article write that this way of thinking is rooted in our world of nearly limitless choices.  I think they're right, but they still tread too near the surface.  Our modern world of limitless choices is a product of cheap, abundant energy and the mass-production through machines that it powered.  In a world of abundance, there no longer has to be any negotiation, any compromise -- when someone fails to meet your expectations, they can be thrust aside in favor of others who can better make us happy...  until, after a certain amount of time, when we realize that the second person is also less-than-perfect, and the cycle repeats itself and leaves us consistently unfulfilled.

This "industrial conditioning" has manifested itself in our politics as well.  While people have always divided over issues, ideas and worldview since the beginnings of complex civilization, our modern society has taken this to the extreme.  People of differing viewpoints can choose to avoid interacting with each other now, even to the point of completely avoiding exposure to other viewpoints, where before their physical and social proximity often meant that they had to negotiate and compromise.  The result is a completely polarized politics in which opposing camps claim the mantle of their own ideological purity and level charges of the unquestionably evil intentions at their opponents.  In this game, there is never any "working it out" -- instead, success is portrayed as occurring only if "my side" is able to enact its agenda completely and fully, and  the "other side" is completely marginalized or even purged from the political process (or, in the more extreme instances, literally purged from society).

So, what does this all mean in the grand scheme of things?  In the current sense, it means that we have abandoned the kinds of negotiation and compromise that was necessary for human relationships and, by extension, survival, for a mechanistic kind of thinking in which other people exist only to meet our needs, much as our machines do.  If we do face a difficult, industrialized future based upon declining supplies of fossil fuels and a more unpredictable and unstable climate and environment, such an approach will not work.  Cooperation and community, as Greer pointed out, are not the result of treating people like machines.  They are the result of learning to get along with others and accepting the ways in which they differ from us -- because in the end analysis it is the common ground, the end result of negotiation and compromise, that has ensured our survival as a species for all but the last 0.1% of our existence on this planet.

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