Franzen on Kraus #2: the Sorcerer’s Apprentice

As my ageing brain increasingly depends on my Google Calendar for reminders of everything from a doctor’s appointment to a library book due for return, I know exactly what this extract is saying.

From the Franzen article – see previous post here.

“Nowadays, the refrain is that “there’s no stopping our powerful new technologies”. Grassroots resistance to these technologies is almost entirely confined to health and safety issues, and meanwhile various logics – of war theory, of technology, of the marketplace – keep unfolding automatically. We find ourselves living in a world with hydrogen bombs because uranium bombs just weren’t going to get the job done; we find ourselves spending most of our waking hours texting and emailing and Tweeting and posting on colour-screen gadgets because Moore’s law said we could. We’re told that, to remain competitive economically, we need to forget about the humanities and teach our children “passion” for digital technology and prepare them to spend their entire lives incessantly re-educating themselves to keep up with it. The logic says that if we want things like Zappos.com or home DVR capability – and who wouldn’t want them? – we need to say goodbye to job stability and hello to a lifetime of anxiety. We need to become as restless as capitalism itself.

Not only am I not a Luddite, I’m not even sure the original Luddites were Luddites. (It simply seemed practical to them to smash the steam-powered looms that were putting them out of work.) I spend all day every day using software and silicon, and I’m enchanted with everything about my new Lenovo ultrabook computer except its name. (Working on something called an IdeaPad tempts me to refuse to have ideas.) But not long ago, when I was intemperate enough to call Twitter “dumb” in public, the response of Twitter addicts was to call me a Luddite. Nyah, nyah, nyah! It was as if I’d said it was “dumb” to smoke cigarettes, except that in this case I had no medical evidence to back me up. People did worry, for a while, that cellphones might cause brain cancer, but the link has been revealed to be feeble-to-nonexistent, and now nobody has to worry any more.

“This velocity doesn’t realize that its achievement is important only in escaping itself. Present in body, repellent in spirit, perfect just the way they are, these times of ours are hoping to be overtaken by the times ahead, and that the children, spawned by the union of sport and machine and nourished by newspaper, will be able to laugh even better then … There’s no scaring them; if a spirit comes along, the word is: we’ve already got everything we need. Science is set up to guarantee their hermetic isolation from anything from the beyond. This thing that calls itself a world because it can tour itself in fifty days is finished as soon as it can do the math. To look the question “What then?” resolutely in the eye, it still has the confidence to reckon with whatever doesn’t add up. And the brain has barely an inkling that the day of the great drought has dawned. Then the last organ falls silent, but the last machine goes on humming, until even it stands still, because its operator has forgotten the Word. For the intellect didn’t understand that, in the absence of spirit, it could grow well enough within its own generation but would lose the ability to reproduce itself. If two times two really is four, the way they say it is, it’s owing to the fact that Goethe wrote the poem “Ocean Calm.” But now people know the product of two times two so exactly that in a hundred years they won’t be able to figure it out. “Something that never before existed must have entered the world. An infernal machine of humanity.”

Of all of Kraus’s lines, this is probably the one that has meant the most to me. Kraus in this passage is evoking the Sorcerer’s Apprentice – the unintended unleashing of supernaturally destructive consequences. Although he’s talking about the modern newspaper, his critique applies, if anything, even better to contemporary technoconsumerism. For Kraus, the infernal thing about newspapers was their fraudulent coupling of Enlightenment ideals with a relentless pursuit of profit and power. With technoconsumerism, a humanist rhetoric of “empowerment” and “creativity” and “freedom” and “connection” and “democracy” abets the frank monopolism of the techno-titans; the new infernal machine seems increasingly to obey nothing but its own developmental logic, and it’s far more enslavingly addictive, and far more pandering to people’s worst impulses, than newspapers ever were. Indeed, what Kraus will later say of Nestroy could now be said of Kraus himself: “he attacks his small environs with an asperity worthy of a later cause.” The profits and reach of the Viennese press were pitifully small by the standards of today’s tech and media giants. The sea of trivial or false or empty data is millions of times larger now. Kraus was merely prognosticating when he envisioned a day when people had forgotten how to add and subtract; now it’s hard to get through a meal with friends without somebody reaching for an iPhone to retrieve the kind of fact it used to be the brain’s responsibility to remember. The techno-boosters, of course, see nothing wrong here. They point out that human beings have always outsourced memory – to poets, historians, spouses, books. But I’m enough of a child of the 60s to see a difference between letting your spouse remember your nieces’ birthdays and handing over basic memory function to a global corporate system of control.”

Find the full original article here.

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