Tolkien & the Machine

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


July 30, 2012

Tolkien & the Machine

Last week The Atlantic published a blog post by Alan Jacobs called Fall, Mortality, and the Machine: Tolkien and Technology that concerns Tolkien’s hostility to technology, and closes with these questions:

Is fantasy intrinsically hostile to technology? That is, was Tolkien simply drawing out what is already there in the genre? Or has he limited it in unnecessary ways? What would a fantasy that embraces technology look like?

There’s something rhetorically sneaky about collapsing all kinds of technologies, irrespective of how or why they are produced, for and by whom, or what their impact is or under what economic conditions, into a single thing called Technology that you are either in favor of or not. This sets up a popular move where someone who criticizes a particular technology is supposedly shown to be inconsistent because they implicitly endorse some state of affairs that requires a different set of technologies. So for example, critics of ebooks are regarded as hypocritical because they endorse the printing press.

A completely illogical forced choice is presented that is designed to silence criticism: either endorse all of Technology, or none of it. Criticizing the nuclear bomb means we must hate penicillin, washing machines and the wheel. This is the discourse of self-described inventors who believes themselves to be the heirs of Gutenberg, Franklin and Edison.

Allan Kay says, “Technology is anything that was invented after you were born,” which is regarded as a clever retort to critics of new technologies, implying that they are only critical because they hate Change. Supposedly we don’t criticize old technologies because we’re used to them now, an observation that is blind to the vast reservoirs of ink spilled on opposing decades-old technologies like industrial chemicals, pesticides, fossil fuels, suburban sprawl, non-biodegradable waste, tobacco, high-fructose corn syrup and on and on. This is the wounded bleating of narcissistic technology entrepreneurs who only read what is written about them and feel unfairly singled out for criticism because they are ignorant of the on-going public debate about the technologies in our world.

(At a company Christmas party, we exchanged Secret Santa gifts drawn from each other’s Amazon wish lists. I received Žižek’s In Defense of Lost Causes, and was asked by the Ivy-League educated hacker founder what the book was about. I explained that the book’s lost cause was Enlightenment values, and he was totally shocked by this because he had never heard that they were even in doubt – a typical example of hackers’ ignorance of intellectual trends outside their narrow fields of engineering expertise. But this naivety may explain why some parts of the public finds Silicon Valley’s pseudo-revolutionary marketing message so compelling – their hostility to the humanities has, for good or ill, spared them the influence of postmodernity, so that they are the only segment of society that unselfconsciously adopts universal-emancipatory rhetoric. Admittedly, this rhetoric is misleading and conceals a primarily capitalist agenda. Nonetheless, the public’s misrecognition of Silicon Valley’s potential to liberate also contains a moment of truth.)

Getting back to Jacob’s blog post, he quotes Tolkien’s definition of what he, Tolkien, called “the Machine”:

all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of development of the inherent inner powers or talents – or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognised.

The obvious reading is that Tolkien is repeating the now-classic view that technology is essentially dehumanizing, and this can be disarmed through a cyborg theory that says that humans are always-already enhanced by technological mediation, the Human is not to be opposed to the Technological and so on. This is an easy critique to make, but only by first making Tolkien say what you want him to say. A more accurate interpretation would say that Tolkien’s notion of “inner powers or talents” does not exclude technological mediation. What he refers to as the Machine is technology-as-coercion, not Technology as such.

This reveals the general problem with deconstructing the human-technology binary: it frequently undermines legitimate grievances about the coercive uses of technology. People are not that stupid, they don’t oppose technology because they don’t realize they are always-already technologically mediated. They oppose technology because they do realize it – this is what makes it a crucial site of political resistance.

The idea of Luddism haunts the thinking of pro-technology writers, figured as a movement that rejects technology for fairly superficial reasons, like hating change or just plain hating technology. This Luddite is an illusion created by inverting the author’s own technophilia, a far more widespread affliction. As a rule, Luddism nearly always has some kind of political, economic or social motivation beyond hatred of technology. Only the tech-centric community takes these as mere pretexts for outsiders bent on destroying what they love.

Fantasy literature often gets associated with conservatism, probably because magic frequently refers to some ancient social order, while science fiction is connected to progress. But it’s not clear that these stereotypes map very well on to actual political positions. The ideal of progress, technological or otherwise, sounds like an undeniably positive thing, but putting it in a colonial context changes everything – it begins to take on ugly connotations of civilizing the savages. Just as we collapse all technologies into a single thing called Technology, we also have a bad habit of doing the same to the concept of Changes, as if all change is good, no matter what’s being changed or who is changing things.

Technology critics are frequently derided as nostalgists, as if it is absurd on its face to ever believe the past was better than the present. If that’s always a fantasy, then we’re committing to an extremely naive proposition: the present is always better than the past, the future will always be better than the present, and change can only ever be good. But like everything that happens in society, those in power always have the ability to direct change in a way that guarantees their continued power. Shouldn’t we be more skeptical about how society is changing and whose interests it serves?

Another favorite strategy of apologists of technological change is to simultaneously claim that everything is changing and nothing is changing. To give just one recent example, here is another Atlantic blog post by Megan Garber, who reads A Defense of Poetry, an essay by nineteeth century Romantic poet Percy Shelley, as a complaint about information overload. But in the passage that she cites, Shelley is clearly complaining that the excess of one kind of information, about the external world, conceals the real problem, a lack of information about the internal world, something that he believes poetry can remedy.

Shelley points to this lack so that he can ask for more information – poetry “creates new materials of knowledge,” he says. But Garber converts this into the opposite so that she can claim “our complaints [about information overload] have their plus ça change quality.”

But let’s leave aside this problematic reading and accept that people in the past have complained about information overload. Garber puts this fact to a disturbing use: to dismiss it as a problem. We’ve always had this problem, which is evidence that it is not a problem. What other social ills can we dismiss by breezily pointing out that they have been with us for quite some time? Poverty? Ah yes, Dickens’s social commentaries, plus ça change… War? But there was vigorous opposition in New England to the war of 1812. Plus ça change, amirite? Ecological collapse? But humanity has always worried about famine… Plus ça change!

Evidently Garber lives in a world where enduring problems are treated the way jaded teenagers watch summer reruns, dismissed because they are boring. OK sure, maybe there are problems, she says. But you’ll get used to it. The apathy and complacency towards potential harms is the reverse side of enthusiastic, uncritical technophilia, and its purpose is to smooth the path for technological change by disarming critique and eliminating public participation in the development of technologies. Any problems we encounter will be simply, magically overcome, because they always have.

Partly this is an effort to domesticate technology and technological change, a rhetorical assault on technophobia, always posited as pathological. We’re told that we should embrace change, because fearing change is the mark of a conservative mind. Is it really? Maybe technophobes also have their moment of truth. For them, change is difficult, even devastating. Maybe they’re right.

Those who domesticate social change are telling us that nothing is going to happen: “Yes, things will change, but don’t worry about it! Society will adjust and everything will go back to normal.” This is true conservatism. But some are afraid, because they believe change can really happen. (For example, the Tea Party is the only political group that believes in socialism, while progressives continually deny that it is a possibility.)

What if the converse is also true: those who believe in change are afraid, and this is not the same as opposing it. The technophobic nightmare scenarios of machines spinning out of control is not a delusional fantasy. On the contrary, it gives us an extremely accurate psychological representation of what genuine social change entails. The radical step is to simply endorse it. From the standpoint of the old ways, the birth of the New must be subjectively experienced as an apocalyptic event.