Technology and Empire
What is most novel about the way we have come to view contemporary social crisis is the dynamic and destructive role we ascribe to technology. With rare and prophetic exceptions, like Henry Adams in The Virgin and the Dynamo, most Western writers, even when unsympathetic to the effects of technical progress, have regarded technology itself as morally neutral, though seductive in its possibilities and subject to dangerous abuse. Recently, however, we have come to see that technology may be autonomous, self-perpetuating, and malevolent. Computers and thermonuclear devices do not, as yet, have minds of their own; but by their availability they bring to power men and social institutions less human than themselves. The managers who tend them impose routines more oppressive than any tyrant would devise for purely personal reasons; and this oppression becomes internalized in the expectations and the very perceptions of reality shared throughout technically developed societies, so that rebellion is usually forestalled by repressive de-sublimation or just plain self-betrayal.
The fundamental social and psychological processes underlying this tragic development have been discussed by many contemporary writers: Marcuse, Ellul, and R. D. Laing most notably. No writer, however, has applied these basic processes to the specifically American situation as precisely and clearly as Professor Slater has done in The Pursuit of Loneliness. If I had to select a single book by which to tell a stranger what life in this country has become and why, it would be this one. It is even more useful in telling us about ourselves.
What Slater does to clarify the relationships between our self-imposed subservience to technology and the quality of life in the United States, Grant does in elucidating the more abstract relationships between technological dominance and our capacity—or incapacity—for making moral judgments with any confidence; and judgments about the quality and meaning of life are ultimately moral judgments. Though more difficult and more old-fashioned in style, Grant’s writing deals with even more fundamental issues than Slater’s, and substantially helps the reader to apprehend the extreme gravity of Slater’s implications.
Slater shows exactly what is happening and why it is destructive, and coolly and cagily suggests shifts in society that might possibly prevent it. Grant—a Canadian professor of philosophy who makes few explicit references to the United States—shows us exactly why no post-industrial society is likely to be moved to make such shifts. To speak bluntly, a society committed to categorizing its experiences in the way required to establish and maintain value-free science and continuous technical expansion no longer possesses any basis for legitimizing a preference for life over death. Neither can be proved better by scientific government tests.
Reading The Pursuit of Loneliness provides almost physical relief from the agonies of life in America, in the same way as discussing a painful illness with a physician who clearly understands the symptoms does, even when he cannot promise that the treatment he recommends will cure. The book accounts for the real horrors, as other books have done; but it also…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.