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We have surrendered what once was a grand community here in these United States. Robert Nisbet writes about this in his book Quest for Community. It’s not just the digital ones and zeroes and the availability of the DVD drive, the unavailability and who it is that’s serving ads to you. There’s always something larger at play and at work here. Nisbet’s book is describing the loss of community. I just want to share three brief paragraphs from Nisbet’s book with you, which should help explain why it was I brought the subject up of big brother and played the Apple 1984 ad. Nisbet writes, in the first chapter–bear in mind, ladies and gentlemen, he is writing this in the late 1950s. This is before Texas Instruments will sell its first pocket calculator:

“There are of course prophets of optimism who find hope in the monumental technological achievements of the age and in the manifest capacity of our industrial machine to provide food and comfort for the many. Such minds see in present conditions of social and moral distress only an ephemeral lag between man’s still incompletely evolved moral nature and his technological achievements. In the long run, it is argued, the material progress of society will not be denied, and with the diffusion of material goods and technical services there will be an ever constant lessening of present disquietudes.”

But it has become obvious, surely, that technological progress and the relative satisfaction of material needs in a population offer no guarantee of the resolution of all deprivations and frustrations. Human needs seem to form a kind of hierarchy, ranging from those of a purely physical and self-preservative nature at the bottom to needs of a social and spiritual nature at the top. During a period when a population is concerned largely with achieving satisfaction of the lower order of needs—satisfaction in the form of production and distribution of material goods—the higher order of needs may scarcely be felt by the majority of persons. But with the satisfaction of the prime, material needs, those of a social and spiritual nature become ever more pressing and ever more decisive in the total scheme of things. Desires for cultural participation, social belonging, and personal status become irresistible and their frustrations galling. Material improvement that is unaccompanied by a sense of personal belonging may actually intensify social dislocation and personal frustration. “The true hall of the proletarian,” Toynbee warns us, “is neither poverty nor humble birth but a consciousness–and the resentment which this consciousness inspires–of being disinherited from his ancestral place in society and being unwanted in a community which is his rightful home; and this subjective proletarianism is not incompatible with the possession of material assets.”

“Whether or not it is the presence of the machine and its iron discipline that creates, as so many argue in our day, the conditions of depersonalization and alienation in modern mass culture, the fact is plain that the contemporary sense of anxiety and insecurity is associated with not merely an unparalleled mechanical control of environment but, more importantly, with widespread faith in such control. Fears of famine, pestilence, destruction and death have been present in all ages and have been allayed by appropriate mechanisms of relief. What is so striking about the present sense of anxiety is that it has little determinable relation to these timeless afflictions and is rooted in an age when their control has reached unprecedented heights of success. It is impossible to escape the melancholy conclusion that man’s belief in himself has become weakened in the very age when his control of environment is greatest. This is the irony of ironies. Not the most saturnine inhabitant of Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey, not even the author of that 19th century dirge, The City of Dreadful Night, foresaw the Devil in the guise he has taken.”

You’ve got to read this a couple times and think about it. What he’s basically saying is we have collectively, and are continuing to do this right now, surrendered what once was a grand community here in these United States. If you go back and read De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, this is what he was most amazed by. Everywhere he went, there was a community. There were people that congregated together, built homes together, businesses together, towns together and what have you. They didn’t live like communists in that sense of the word, but they were bound together by certain traditions, customs and habits. One of them was their devotion to their service of their fellow man under Christian order.

That has evaporated. That doesn’t exist anymore. The faith that he’s writing about is the faith in the machine. If there is a problem that we have today, don’t worry about it. Someone will use technology and fix it. You don’t need to pray. The point that he’s really making is there is no room for God in this technological wonderland. That is what is dangerous. When you just remove the eternal order or the transcendent and say, “Don’t worry about it. Somebody will come up with something. So what it’s harder to get from point A to point B. Somebody will create a better way to do that.” There’s always some new technology on the horizon. Nothing that’s happened in the past is worth a damn. That tablet that you have in your hand is useless. It is a piece of crap. Why? Because it’s too small, it’s too slow, doesn’t do what you want it to do. Don’t worry about it, somebody will create a better one. You’ll have to go out and stand in line to buy it and you’ll probably charge it, too. This is a faith in what it is that other men may do for you.

This is a faith in what it is that technology may do for you, not what you may do for yourself and not what you may do for yourself because your God has told you to do it, or you were inspired, or somewhere along the lines you thought, “Maybe I ought to do that because I’m going to die some day and I don’t want to burn in the fires of hell.” What’s that? That’s almost mythology. Few people believe in Dante’s inferno. Few people believe there’s actual atonement in the afterlife. A hundred years ago or 150 years ago, that was just a foregone conclusion. Today it’s mythology. It’s becoming more and more and more mythological by the day, which is why the Christian is seen as some sort of a wacko, which is why the devout Muslim is seen as some sort of a threat. You can’t possibly believe there are 72 virgins. Well, for them, that is an article and an item of faith. We’re telling the Muslims: Don’t you dare have faith, because if you do, we’re going to mock you for it and then we’re going to find these passages in your book called the Koran and we’re going to identify you as a bunch of murdering savages, all of you, not just the 20 percent of you that are radical lunatics. We’re going to demonize all of the Muslim faith. That is exactly what has been done to Christianity here and we don’t even realize it. We’re replacing all those faiths. We’re asking for those faiths to be replaced by machines.

What is it that the machine can do for you, to you? I’d say what is it that it could ultimately do to you, not what can it do for you. In the film Blade Runner Philip Dick sees into the future and says: These things are going to rise called the replicants. They’re machines. Even though they appear to be human, they’re not human. It’s what the machine can do to you. It’s an allegory. It’s a tale of machines gone bad and of fate placed in machines and what happens when you do that. This Blade Runner cat is called in to put it down.

Books related to this topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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3 replies to this post
  1. Interesting. Though I have to dissent from Mr. Church's interpretation of Blade Runner. Yes, there is a "machines gone bad" thread running through the film. To focus on that thread however is to get lost in the image, the presentation, in what's on the surface of the film. It's actually a meditation on life and death, and whether or not one can derive meaning during one's life in the face of impending death. If Mr. Church wanted to use a film about nothing more than "machines gone bad" he need look no further than The Terminator series or perhaps the Matrix films.

  2. Late Results

    We wanted to confess our sins but there were no takers.

    And the few willing to listen demanded that we confess on television.
    So we kept our sins to ourselves, and they became less troubling.

    The halt and the lame arranged to have their hips replaced.
    Lepers coated their sores with a neutral foundation, avoided strong light.

    The hungry ate at grand buffets and grew huge, though they remained hungry.
    Prisoners became indistinguishable from the few who visited them.

    Widows remarried and became strangers to their kin.
    The orphans finally grew up and learned to fend for themselves.

    Even the prophets suspected they were mad, and kept their mouths shut.
    Only the poor—who are with us always—only they continued in the hope.

    Scott Cairns, “Late Results” from Philokalia: New and Selected Poems

  3. Paul

    Daniel – I think you are missing the point, technology has replaced God and instant gratitification with the latest technology has taken the place of introspection, communication and the ability to know thy neighbor face to face to form a community that will rise up to help each other. We see it only in times of sever crisis such as Hurricane Sandy or especially after 911 but then it goes back to sleep. That spirit of community, what De Tocqueville spoke about is what is missing. We have also become dependent on the government to take the place of community.

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