Dec 3, 2015

The Shadows in the Cave

via The Archdruid Report

I had intended this week’s post to be the next episode in the Retrotopia narrative, chronicling Peter Carr’s meeting with the irrepressible Col. Tom Pappas of the Lakeland Republic Army, and the trip out to Defiance County for the annual drone shoot, but that will have to wait another week. No, I haven’t decided to comment instead on the recent spate of terror attacks in France.  As people in a variety of other corners of the world have pointed out, identical outrages happen all over the Third World every few days.  The only reason this latest horror has gotten so much air time is that it affected people in one of the world’s privileged countries instead.
Nor am I going to be devoting this week’s post to the latest, extremely troubling round of news from the climate change front—though that’s going to get a post to itself down the road a bit, when I’ve had time to do a little more research. That’s a far bigger story than the terror attacks in Paris, though of course it’s not getting anything like as much attention in the media.  From the beginning of serious salt water infiltration into South Florida’s aquifers, through ominously bulging sediments in Arctic Ocean shallows, to an assortment of truly frightening data points from Greenland, it’s clear that we’ve passed the threshold from “something may happen someday” to “something is happening now”—a transition that probably has quite a bit to do with the increasingly shrill tone of climate-change denialist rhetoric just now, and even more to do with the increasingly plaintive tone of those activists who still insist that everything can be fixed if we all just join hands and sing “Kum ba ya” one more time.
No, this week’s post is going to explore a topic that’s far less important in the overall scheme of things, though it’s not without its relevance to the crisis of our age. I want to talk about the reaction I fielded in response to last week’s post here on The Archdruid Report, which was an exploration of our culture’s taboo against choosing not to use the latest technologies.
I expected that post to field its share of outraged denunciations, and it certainly did. What I didn’t expect was that it would receive more comments than any other post in the history of The Archdruid Report, and the vast majority of those comments would agree heartily with the two points of that post. The first of these points is that there’s a significant number of Americans out there who, for one good reason or another, choose not to use cell phones, televisions, automobiles, microwave ovens, and an assortment of other currently fashionable technologies. The second is that there’s an even larger number of Americans out there who get really, really freaky about people who make such choices.
Some of the stories I heard from readers of my blog were absolute classics of the type. There was the couple who don’t enjoy television and so don’t own one, and had a relative ask them every single year, over and over again, if she could buy them a television for Christmas.  They said no thank you every single year, and finally she went out and bought them a television anyway because she just couldn’t stand the thought that they weren’t watching one. There was the coworker who plopped a laptop playing some sitcom or other right down on the lap of one of my readers and demanded that the reader watch it, right then and there, so that they would have something to talk about. There was the person who, offended by another reader’s lack of interest in television, finally shouted, “You must be living in a dream world!” Er, which of these people was spending four to six hours a day watching paid actors playing imaginary characters act out fictional events in contrived settings?
Televisions were far from the only focus of this sort of technobullying. Other readers reported getting similar reactions from other people because they didn’t happen to have, and weren’t interested in having, microwave ovens, smartphones, and so on down the list of currently fashionable trinkets. The stories are really quite eye-opening, and not in a good way. Forget about all the popular cant that insists that you’re free in the USA to make your own choices and have whatever lifestyle you want.  According to a significant fraction of Americans—and to judge from what my readers reported, that fraction isn’t limited to any one class, income level, or region of the country—the only freedom you’re supposed to exercise, when it comes to technology, is that of choosing which brand label will be slapped on each item in the officially approved list of devices you’re expected to own.
The prevalence of technobullying and technoshaming in today’s America is a fascinating point, and one we’ll explore in a few moments, with the able assistance of the denunciations flung at last week’s post by the minority of readers who reacted that way. What I want to consider first is the fact that so many people responded to last week’s post so positively. One blog in an uncrowded corner of the internet, written by an author whose day job as an archdruid locates him squarely on the outer fringes of contemporary American life, is very nearly the opposite of a statistically valid poll. Still, the sheer volume of the response makes me suspect that something significant is going on here.
By that I don’t mean that there’s some sort of groundswell of renunciation, leading people to walk away from technologies in the same spirit that led medieval ascetics to don hair shirts and flog themselves for the good of their souls. That’s one of the common stereotypes directed at those of us who aren’t interested in the latest technotrash, and it completely misses what’s actually going on. I’ll use myself as an example here. I don’t own a television—I haven’t owned one in my adult life—and it’s not because I have some moral or political objection to televisions, or because I’m into self-denial, or what have you. I don’t own a television because I find watching television about as enticing as eating a bowl of warm snot.
It’s not the programming, either—that’s another of the standard stereotypes, that the only thing one can find objectionable about television is the programming, and it’s as inaccurate as the rest.  To me, quite simply, the activity of watching little colored shapes jerk around on a screen is boring and irritating, not relaxing and enjoyable, no matter what the little colored shapes are supposed to be doing. Yes, I grew up with a television in the house.  I experienced plenty of it back in the day, and I have zero interest in experiencing any more, because I don’t like it. It really is that simple. It’s that simple for others as well: they don’t find this or that technology enjoyable, useful, or relevant to their lifestyles, and so they’ve chosen to do something else with their money and time. Shouldn’t so simple and personal a choice be their own business, and nobody else’s?
To judge by the reactions that those who make such choices routinely field, apparently not. The pushbacks discussed in the comments page last week range from the sort of in-your-face confrontations discussed above to a much-forwarded article in I forget which online rag, where somebody was airily announcing that he wasn’t interested in being friends with somebody unless he could text some vacuous comment about lunch to the other person at 2:15 and get a response by 2:30. (My readers and I are good with that—somebody who insists on getting immediate feedback for their random outbursts of mental flatulence isn’t somebody we want as a friend, either.) Then there were the indignant responses to last week’s post, which belong in a category by themselves.
I’m sorry to say that my favorite diatribe didn’t show up in the comment queue for The Archdruid Report. It appeared instead on one of the many other websites that carry my weekly posts, and it insisted, among several other less juicy bits, that my lack of enthusiasm for television obviously meant that I was conspiring to deprive everyone else of their teevees. You’ve got to admit that for sheer giddy delirium, that one’s hard to beat. By the same logic, if I dislike peanuts—as in fact I do—I must be committed to some kind of anti-peanut crusade devoted to eradicating the entire species. Not so;  Arachis hypogaea is welcome to live and thrive, for all I care, and my fellow hominids are equally welcome to eat as much of its produce as they happen to desire.  In fact, they can divide my share among them. The only thing I ask in return is that nobody expect me to eat the things myself.
The same rule applies equally to television, as it does to a great many other things. Like most human beings, I enjoy some things and don’t enjoy others, and in the vast majority of these cases, nobody feels particularly threatened by the fact that I don’t like something they do, and avoid it for that sensible reason. For this one commenter, at least, that obviously wasn’t the case, and it’s worth reflecting on the vast personal insecurities that must have driven such a bizarre reaction. Still, that was one of a kind, so we’ll pass on to the others.
A theme that showed up rather more often in the hate mail responding to last week’s post was the insistence that if I don’t have a television, a microwave, or a cell phone, I’m a hypocrite if I have an internet connection. I encourage my readers to think about that claim for a moment. I suppose a case could be made that if my lack of interest in having a television, a microwave, or a cell phone was motivated by the kind of passion for hair-shirt asceticism mentioned above, and I had an internet connection, I could be accused of the kind of slacking that used to get you thrown out of the really top-notch hermitages. From any other perspective, it’s a triumph of absurdity. If people are in fact allowed to choose, from among the currently available technologies, those that make them happiest—as the cheerleaders of the consumer economy delight to insist—what could possibly be wrong with choosing some old technologies and some newer ones, if that’s the mix you prefer?
Then there are the people whose response to the technology of an older time is to yammer endlessly about whatever bad things happened in those days, even when the bad things in question had nothing to do with the technology and vice versa. People like the couple I discussed in last week’s post, who prefer Victorian furnishings and clothing to their modern equivalents, get this sort of bizarre non sequitur all the time, but variants of it turned up in my inbox last week as well. Here again, there’s some heavy-duty illogic involved. If a technology that was invented and used in the 1850s, say, is permanently tarred with the various social evils of that era, and ought to be rejected because those evils happened, wouldn’t that also mean that the internet is just as indelibly tarred with the social evils of the modern era, and ought to be discarded because bad things are happening in the world today? What’s sauce for the goose, after all, is sauce for the gander...
Finally, there’s the capstone of the whole edifice of unreason, the insistence that anybody who doesn’t use the latest, hottest technotrash wants to go “back to the caves,” or to even take all of humanity to that much-denounced destination. “The caves” have a bizarre gravitational effect on the imagination of a certain class of modern thinkers.  Everything that’s not part of the latest assortment of glitzy technogimmicks, in their minds, somehow morphs into the bearskin kilts and wooden clubs that so many of us still, despite well over a century of detailed archeological evidence, insist on pushing onto our prehistoric ancestors.
When people of this kind archly dismiss people like the Chrismans, the neo-Victorian couple just mentioned, as going “back to the caves,” they’re engaged in a very interesting kind of absurdity. Do cavemen and Victorians belong on the same level? Sure, cavemen had flush toilets and central heating, daily newspapers and public libraries, not to mention factories, railways, global maritime trade, a telegraph network covering much of the planet’s land surface, and a great deal more of the same kind! That’s absurd, of course. It’s even more absurd to insist that people who simply don’t enjoy using this or that technology, and so don’t use it, are going back to “the caves”—but I can promise you, dear reader, from my own personal experience, that if you show a lack of interest in any piece of fashionable technology, you’ll have this phrase thrown at you.
That happens because “the caves” aren’t real. They aren’t, for example, the actual cave-shrines of the Magdalenian people who lived fifteen thousand years ago, whose lifestyles were quite similar to those of Native Americans before Columbus, and who used to go deep into the caves of Europe to paint sacred images that still stun the viewer today by their beauty and artistry. “The caves” of contemporary rhetoric, rather, are thoughtstopping abstractions, bits of verbal noise that people have been taught to use so they don’t ask inconvenient questions about where this thing called “progress” is taking us and whether any sane person would actually want to go there. Flattening out the entire complex richness of the human past into a single cardboard bogeyman labeled “the caves” is one way to do that.  So is papering over the distinctly ugly future we’re making for ourselves with a screen shot or two from a Jetsons cartoon and a gaudy banner saying “We’re headed for the stars!”
It’s really rather fascinating, all things considered, that the image of the cave should have been picked up for that dubious purpose. Not that long ago, most literate people in the Western world tended to have a very different image come to mind when someone mentioned caves. That was courtesy of a man named Aristocles of Athens, who lived a little more than 2300 years ago and whose very broad shoulders got him the nickname Plato. In the longest, most influential, and most problematic of his works, usually called The Republic—a bad choice, as this word nowadays has connotations of rights under law that the Greek title Politeia lacks—he framed his discussion of the gap between perception and reality with an arresting image.
Imagine, Plato says, that we are all shackled in a cave, unable to turn our heads to either side. All we can see are dark shapes that move this way and that on the flat wall of the cave in front of us. Those dark shapes are all we know.  They are our reality.
Now imagine that one of these prisoners manages to get loose from his shackles, and turns away from the cave wall and the dark shapes on it. He’s in for a shock, because what he sees when he turns around is a bonfire, and people moving objects in front of the flames so that the objects cast shadows on the cave wall. Everything he thought was reality is simply a shadow cast by these moving objects.
If the prisoner who’s gotten loose pays attention, furthermore, he might just notice that the cave isn’t limited to the bonfire, the prisoners, the objects casting the shadows and the people who manipulate those objects. Off past the bonfire, on one side of the cave, the floor slopes upwards, and in the distance is a faint light that doesn’t seem to come from the fire at all. If our escaped prisoner is brave enough, he might decide to go investigate that light. As he does so, the bonfire and the shadows slip into the darkness behind him, and the light ahead grows brighter and clearer.
Then, if he’s brave enough and keeps going, he steps out of the cave and into the sunlight. That’s not an easy thing, either, because the light is so much more intense than the dim red glow in the cave that for a while, he can’t see a thing. He stumbles, rubs his eyes, tries to find his bearings, and discovers that the detailed knowledge he had of the way shadows moved on the cave wall won’t help him at all in this new, blazingly bright realm. He has to discard everything he thinks he knows, and learn the rules of an unfamiliar world.
Bit by bit, though, he accomplishes this. His eyes adapt to the sunlight, he learns to recognize objects and to sense things—color, for example, and depth—which didn’t exist in the shadow-world he thought he inhabited when he was still a prisoner in the cave. Eventually he can even see the sun, and know where the light that illumines the real world actually comes from.
Now, Plato says, imagine that he decides to go back into the cave to tell the remaining prisoners what he’s seen. To begin with, it’s going to be rough going, because his eyes have adapted to the brilliant daylight and so he’s going to trip and stumble on the way down. Once he gets there, anything he says to the prisoners is going to be dismissed as the most consummate rubbish:  what is this nonsense about color and depth, and a big bright glowing thing that crosses something called the sky? What’s more, the people to whom he’s addressing his words are going to misunderstand them, thinking that they’re about the shadow-world in front of their eyes—after all, that’s the only reality they know—and they’re going to decide that he must be an idiot because nothing he says has anything to do with the shadow-world.
Plato didn’t mention that the prisoners might respond by trying to drag the escapee back into line with them and bully him into putting his shackles back on, though that’s generally the way such things work out in practice. Plato also never saw a television, which is unfortunate in a way—if he had, he could have skipped the complicated setup with the bonfire and the people waving around objects that cast shadows, and simply said, “Imagine that we’re all watching television in a dark room.”
Now of course Plato had his own reasons for using the cave metaphor, and developed it in directions that aren’t relevant to this week’s post. The point I want to make here is that every technology is a filter that shapes the way we experience and interact with the world. In some cases, such as television, the filtering effect is so drastic it’s hard not to see—unless, that is, you don’t want to see it.  In other cases, it’s subtle. There are valid reasons people might want to use one filter rather than another, or to set aside an assortment of filters in order to get a clearer view of some part of the world or their lives.
There are also, as already noted, matters of personal choice. Some of us prefer sun and wind and depth and color to the play of shadows on the walls of the cave. That doesn’t mean that we’re going to drag those who don’t share that preference out into the blinding light, or that we’re going to turn ourselves into the Throg the Cave Man shadow that’s being waved around so enthusiastically on one corner of the cave wall. It does mean—or so the response to last week’s post suggests—that a significant number of people are losing interest in the shadow-play and clambering up the awkward but rewarding journey into the sunlight and the clean cool air, and it may just mean as well that those who try to bully them into staying put and staring at shadows may have less success than they expect.

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