Humanity vs. The Machines

Well, I just finished reading Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano, after reading this, which compared the world in which we are currently living to Vonnegut’s early 1950s vision.

I love dystopian novels. I regularly re-read Brave New World, and occasionally will re-read 1984 just to reacquaint myself with Orwell’s world. Brave New World is the better predictor of the human future, a world of meaningless hedonism and consumerism, than Orwell ever wrote. I also think Zamyatin got the role of science in organizing society better in We, which is such a bracingly strange novel that I had to read it three times just to finally grasp how the narrative works.

None of these novels by itself adequately predicts the future — assuming that was their job. Orwell was worst, since he looked into a world of Stalin and Hitler and saw only the darkness of party-states seeking to annihilate humanity. That has not happened, nor is it likely to. Not so brutally. Better is Huxley’s humanist scientism (also at work in We), which rather than investing the future of humanity in a sole, ruling political party that monopolizing anything resembling meaning, is a life given over to pointless, never ending pleasure. I’d rather live in Huxley’s world, not because I’d love to drink soma all the time and have “everybody belongs to everybody” sex (making the sign of the T right now), but rather the World Controllers of Huxley’s novel appreciate there is at least some room for malcontents and the maladjusted — “Thank God for islands!” I believe is what Mustafa Mond says.

Mostly, what I really appreciate about these novels is their pessimism. There is no not loving Big Brother, no not acting like a child, no not appreciating the gifts of the One State in the great glass city. If Ayn Rand makes any kind of mistake, it’s believing heroic human beings can triumph in the face of such things. We can’t. We can only perish. Or find some corner to be human in.

Which is why I’m going to put Player Piano on my list of books to reread on a regular basis. There is so very much prescient about this 1952 novel. Vonnegut conducts a thought experiment — what if machines made most human labor redundant? What would happen? And there’s an amazing amount he gets right.

The managers and engineers are the privileged class (which is true of all the mid-century dystopian novels save for 1984, which privileges the party hacks), and make inordinate salaries (the lead character, Dr. Paul Proteus, makes around $50,000 a year as the chief of the Ilium Works, I think, an exorbitant sum when considered in the early 1950s) when compared to the take-home pay of most “employed” either in the Army or the Bureau of Reconstruction and Reclamation in fairly pointless, make-work jobs. There is the class division, the sense of privilege on the part of the managers (who, at the same time, realize their jobs will eventually face being made obsolete as machines get better at planning and managing), and the use of a compulsory summer camp (“The Meadows”) to foster group cohesion and class identity among the managerial class. (Which also allows constant opportunities for networking, though Vonnegut doesn’t call it that.)

There’s even an amazingly funny bit at Cornell University dealing with the professionalization and gross ostentation of college sports. An athlete being recruited to play football there, for the princely sum of $36,000 a year, asks if he can also take classes (wanting something other than a future filling potholes with the Wrecks and Reeks when he his football career is over), and is told, “We used to allow that sort of thing, but it didn’t work out so well.”

At stake is the dignity of human labor, and what happens when whole swaths of people no longer have meaningful work to do. At first, it seems like the labor being denigrated is solely that of people who work with their hands, who run machines, who work on assembly lines. They have become meaningless, pointless people, who know they have become meaningless. They exist solely to consume, being provided all they need through their make-work jobs (all paid for out of deductions, so most only take home $30 a weeks).

But the labor also denigrated is that of the managers. It doesn’t seem that way at first — after all, they have all the power. But most don’t really know anything. And they know so little of the world, of art, of history, of anything of real value. (Everything of that nature is eventually demolished to make way for factories and power plants.) At the same time, however, their positions and lives are given inflated pseudo-value through a credentialing process that even requires secretaries have doctorates. (One character, a property managers, is a “Doctor of Realty,” for example.)

Because the whole point of Vonnegut’s novel is that when the machines are allowed to structure society, human beings will always be bent so they can be made of greatest use to the machines, or broken, and thrown away. To compete with machines in this way is to become their slaves.

There’s a lot Vonnegut couldn’t see. He didn’t imagine the transistor, or the integrated circuit, so vacuum tubes make his player piano work. A giant computer, EPICAC, fills up some substantial portion of New Mexico and plans America’s industries. And government. The gender roles are still very much grounded in early 1950s bourgeois norms — men work, women are wives (or secretaries). And no one, and I mean no one, seems to have ever envisioned the mobile phone.

Vonnegut is also writing a mid-century novel. So he sees the New Deal welfare state logically extending itself to “caring” for those displaced by providing them a very generous social welfare in exchange for their pointless jobs filling holes or guarding the far flung bits of America’s global empire. He couldn’t imagine, as a hypothetical (cough cough), a world in which human labor is made redundant  by machines but then the same people made pointless are blamed for their circumstances, and not given anything except payday loans. (I think Ayn Rand would have needed to write THAT novel…) It is still a novel of management triumphant (and yes, Rand wrote those TOO), and would need some rapacious financiers making a lot more than $50,000 a year in order to work for today. At least Player Piano’s managerial class perceived themselves as having an obligation to those they’d made redundant (though Proteus comes to understand that as the condescending liberalism which it is). Which is more than we can say for ourselves today.

Finally, the novel ends badly. An uprising rapidly spreads, breaks the machines, but is quickly crushed. Ilium is besieged. Eventually, Proteus and several of his co-conspirators prepare to hand themselves over to the authorities, having done what they could, having stood their ground and failed. It ends the way it should have. The only other possible, and realistic ending, was one in which some amount of dissent and non-conformity to the economic order would have been accepted or tolerated — a kind-of “Galt’s Gulch” or St. Helena of artisan crafts people who lived on their own, made the things they used and consumed, and where an alternative meaning to human existence could have been constructed. A small thing, but a real thing.

That, however, would have been predicting hipsters. And I’m not sure Vonnegut was up to that.

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Quite Possibly the Worst Sermon I’ve Ever Heard

As some of you know, Jennifer and I have been rambling a bit, staying with friends and seeing the country. We’ve been in Eastern Texas for a while, and last Sunday took in a worship service at a church in the small East Texas town where we live.

I won’t say where, or what church, save that it was a small, local, non-denomination, politically and culturally conservative church in the small town where we are staying outside Austin.

The pastor was a confident speaker, and began by showing his largely mainly white audience slides of various and Sundry buildings in Rome. He pointed out the crosses everywhere, even in the Coliseum, where Christians during the time of the Roman Empire huddled in fear that they might be arrested, tortured and thrown to the animals. Christians had no power, no influence, no standing, were a tiny, persecuted minority in the Roman Empire. Yet, within 300 years (and thanks to the declaration of “Emperor Constantinople”), Christianity became the official ruling faith of that very same empire.

“How?” the pastor asked?

Because Christians had an ethics grounded in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-16 seemed to be the text he was preaching on; there was no reading, just praise music and whatever moved the pastor to preach), an ethic which stressed being “poor in spirit, mourning, meekness, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, mercy, being pure in heart, peacemaking, and being persecuted.” Because the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to them.

More importantly, such people are “salt of the earth” and “light of the world.” When the culture becomes pagan, corrupt, based on “might makes right,” it is the call of the church to save the culture be being salt. There was a fascinating subtext here, and I suspect this sermon would never have been delivered in this way, using imperial decadence and power in such an up front way, had George W. Bush been president. But the pastor said nothing overtly political, at least nothing partisan.

Because Christians are the meek, persecuted “salt of the earth,” the pastor said “You have no standing politically, but you are the last stand.” To save the culture of death and make it a culture of life. (My phrasing, not his.)

At this point, he got his most overtly political. Condemning the recent deal to raise the debt limit, he said that all this empowered Christians to say “Enough is enough!” and to take a stand. The “ethics” of the Sermon on the Mount led to this, he said. This is Christian love in action. (Again, not his phrasing.)

Along the way, he did give some advice for daily living. That the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount begin in our daily lives, in how we live our lives at work, in school, wherever. But we did this not so much to show God’s love, but to do our part in the larger work on reclaiming the Empire and saving the society.

“Because it’s not about us. It’s about who gets the glory,” the pastor said.

Because the final goal of all this ethical action is take control of the Empire. Christians did it once, they can do it again, the pastor said. And to make being Christian respectable again.

The world wants to listen to what Christians have to say, he concluded. But the question for us is: are we going to act in a way that fills the world’s hunger and answers the desire to “make us believe,” or are we simply going to act in such a way that says we just “make believe.”

It was a culturally conservative sermon from top to bottom, one that spoke to the anxieties and fears of some reasonably well-off white Texas Christians, one that didn’t challenge them or invite them to participate in God’s actions in the world. Because aside from “creating an ethical system,” God doesn’t act at all. There was no saving Grace, no love, no sin (except in the culture), just a call to work to redeem the world. (The closest the pastor got to acknowledging anything like grace was noting that, “Some of us are messed up. But God is bigger than your mess!”) Because the saving work of God remains undone, and the call to discipleship is simply a call to organize the world the way God demands and finish God’s work of salvation.

While this approach is a problem I have with conservative Christianity, particularly cultural conservatism, this kind of sermon and this kind of thinking — God sets out an ethics that empowers us to act to (effectively) finish God’s salvation for the world — is not merely a conservative problem. It’s why I don’t like much of Liberal or Progressive Christianity as well. (Walter Wink wrote about redeeming “the powers” in a book I found annoyingly self-righteous and just plain deluded.) It privileges human action over anything God has done. It takes the ethics of the Book of Esther and places them front and center, and not what God speaks through Moses to the Israelites at sea as they witnessed Pharaoh’s army advancing upon them:

And Moses said to the people, “Fear not, stand firm and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.” (Exodus 14:13-14)

 וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל־הָעָם אַל־תִּירָאוּ הִֽתְיַצְבוּ וּרְאוּ אֶת־יְשׁוּעַת יְהוָה אֲשֶׁר־יַעֲשֶׂה לָכֶם הַיּוֹם כִּי אֲשֶׁר רְאִיתֶם אֶת־מִצְרַיִם הַיּוֹם לֹא תֹסִיפוּ לִרְאֹתָם עוֹד עַד־עוֹלָֽם׃  יְהוָה יִלָּחֵם לָכֶם וְאַתֶּם תַּחֲרִישֽׁוּן׃ פ

This theme, “watch what God will do for you today, God will fight for you” is echoed throughout scripture — water from the rock, manna from heaven, Joshua defeating Jericho merely by tooting of a trumpet, Gideon’s 300 to conquer the Midianites, David’s defeating Goliath with a rock (read what David says right before he tosses the stone), Elisha’s increasing the widow’s oil or battling the prophets of Baal, gathering the exiles from Babylon, other examples I’m certain I have forgotten. It is central to Israel’s experience of its relationship with God. It’s even, I believe, the unstated words of Calvary, to those of us who gaze upon our awful work on Good Friday — Fear not, Stand firm, behold the saving grace God is working for you today.

This is not an ethical system. It is… well, I’m not sure what it is. Shared mystical experience, maybe. But it isn’t an ethical system. We who God calls aren’t given an ethical system, not really. The Torah is not an ethics, but an attempt by God to show us — God’s people, not humanity — what it means to live in relationship with God and with each other given that God has called us together as a people. If pressed, I would admit this IS an ethical system (given that ethics is inescapable), but my problem here is that ethics as we do them don’t need or require the relationship with God. They make man the focus, and human action the focus. And as in the Book of Esther, God is not necessary. You don’t need God when you have ethics. You don’t need God when you have culture. You don’t need to stop, to wait, to watch, to be silent. You need to act. Now. Or all is lost.

(If I am sensitive to this, it is because this approach to the human calling is the Islamist approach. God has called humanity, particularly Muslims, to finish saving the world, organizing the world, in the way God wants it organized, so that virtue may be maximized and the opportunities to sin reduced or eliminated.)

To be salt is to trust that we are preserving the world even if we aren’t sure how. That we are light, shining brightly, even if we have no idea what that means. To trust, as Abram trusted, that God will make us a blessing to the world, even if we have no idea what that means or how it will happen.

Human action is not the point of the Bible story. God’s love for Israel, for God’s people, for the world, is the point of the Bible story. We can live into that love, or not, and some form of it may conquer the empire (Thomasite Christians did not conquer India, and Nestorians did not conquer China), but whatever ends up ruling — whatever ends up “redeeming” the powers or the culture — is only a shadow of that saving grace. As long as we live in that moment between Eden and Eschaton, we will only experience that grace sideways, in scattered brilliant moments where God’s grace meets us and overwhelms us and includes us in God’s already completed salvation for the world.

Is There a “Common Good” in America?

Nichaolas Lemann, in a review of Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, which is a legislative, administrative and social history of the New Deal, notes something very interesting about America politics:

Political scientists use the term “pluralist” to describe a system in which interest groups compete incessantly for advantage, and there is no overarching, determinative notion of the public interest. The side that wins gets to define the public interest, and the system’s moral commitment is to the procedure, not the outcomes. The final product of the New Deal, Katznelson argues, was a pluralist, “procedural” state in domestic affairs, and a far more expansive and less democratic state—corporatist, committed to planning in the “national interest”—in military affairs. This amounts to a liberal nightmare (and also demonstrates that one should not be confident that reducing interest-group influence in politics would necessarily produce pleasing results): the aspect of government liberals focus on was constrained, the aspect conservatives focus on was unbridled. And it was the South’s doing.

Katznelson deals mostly with how the New Deal was implemented, and why it took the shape it did. I’ve not read the book, but Lemann’s review is fascinating, and it’s why I pulled the above graf out.

One of the political and social arguments I’ve long been most suspicious of is “the common good.” I’ve said before I don’t believe there is any such thing as the common good, and I generally stand by that statement.

But I would like to nuance it a bit. There is no common good in the American context. Not really. The common good is not an abstract statement of fact, but rather an arrived-at social consensus that, in order to be effectively realized politically, must pre-exist politics. A particularly defined community may say to itself “we care for each person in this community” and then express that care in any number of ways.  The American Left much admires very liberal Scandinavia, all the while ignoring most Scandinavian states are small and very homogenous, and have arrived at their welfare states less through deliberate policy than through shared social understanding of obligations to others — others who are an awful lot like themselves. (We also see a fraying of this in Northern Europe as migrants who do not share the social understanding don’t completely assimilate to it.) So a common good requires a common understanding, and that understanding is a communal feeling or sensibility that precedes political action.

Absent that, all you have are assertions. “Every American child should be educated in a state school,” for example, was an assertion of a common good from the late 19th century that was strongly opposed just about everywhere it was asserted (if John Taylor Gatto can be believed). It has become a “common good,” though one widely questioned (and frequently challenged, and a “good” I would suggest we are forever uncomfortable with). And as Lemann notes, “the side that wins gets to define the public interest.” The “common good” is a product of who can bring the most brute force (in political terms) to bear in a struggle.

This is the risk of a pluralistic society. It is my understanding that in history, most pluralistic societies were empires, ruled by a tight but sometimes very open ruling class that very definitely rules. Non-majority communities were subject, but also had some degree of autonomy, to rule themselves according to whatever traditions they had, so long as those traditions did not threaten (or were not seen to threaten) the empire. In trying to build a pluralistic, multicultural democratic society, we are doing something that has never been done before. That may be possible, but I’m something of a conservative when it comes to human organization: there are only so many ways people can organize themselves. If the kind of society we are trying to build doesn’t show up in history, well, there’s probably a reason for that — it cannot be done. It is likely, I think, that such a state will become democratic in procedure only, as any outcome that challenges multicultural pluralism will simply not be allowed. If what you are making is an empire, than empire will eventually out itself.

I’m not sure how asserting a “common good” and then imposing it via political fiat isn’t authoritarianism. (This is why I am deeply mistrustful of progressivism, because of its authoritarian bent.) On the other hand, it has become clear that contentious political impositions in this country have become part some notion of “common good,” although they remain disputed and challenged.

But in the end, I do not believe you can create with politics and ideology the things that need to hold a society and nation together, if those things — language, culture, shared outlook and understanding, shared stories — don’t already exist. Politics can shape all that, and over time, even create it (much of Europe exists because of someone’s say so, whether it be the nation of France or surnames), and those changes can become very stable and durable. But not when they are frequently challenged, even by a tiny but vociferous group. That usually ends in bloodshed.

My personal preference is for bottom-up organizing, not top-down. Which is why I am generally suspicious of most grand attempts to remake the world using political power. Or assertions of the “common good,” especially on a national level. I’m not sure what a “common good” for 300 million people looks like. I’m not sure there can be such a thing.