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Palliative technologies

Palliative technologies
A tool in the hand is worth a metaphysical question or two in the head

In Wind, Sand and Stars, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writes that the earth “teaches us more about ourselves than all the books in the world because it is resistant to us.” Self-discovery makes an appearance, he says, when we measure ourselves against obstacles. Our “implements” are especially helpful for self-definition. Within the context of a well-lived life, they help us to focus our attention. They guide our confrontations with all the so-called “old problems” that emerge as the earth opposes us.

Saint-Exupéry doesn’t say what these ‘old problems’ are, but we might guess they are akin to the old metaphysical questions. Problems of being, truth, teleology, and meaning. Problems of how we find and make sense of things and ourselves. What are we asking of the world? What is it asking of us? The ‘implements’ Saint-Exupéry has in mind include a carpenter’s plane, a plough, and an aircraft. The resistance felt through such things can wake a person up, and help to define borders, edges, and differences. Such resistance draws an outline around the self, and by doing so, offers us a clue into our identity. It also insists on otherness. The outline of the self sets the self apart from what it is not. This is a refreshing thought in an age in which genuine otherness has been replaced by the merely consumable otherness of ideological unanimity.

While reading Saint-Exupéry, I was reminded of the first time I held and used an axe when I was very young, after a day of hiking through wild and beautiful mountains in South Africa with my father and brother. As dusk began to fold the day up into itself, a day in which the resistance of the earth was continuously felt, the sun began to sink below the horizon and the air began to cool. To compensate for the loss of warmth, we wanted to make a miniature sun, a fire, of our own. Firewood was provided at the campsite but needed to be cut to a size that would make it better to burn. An axe had been left by the people who maintained the hiking trail. I remember the shock of realising how much effort was required to lift it and, because its blade was blunt, to split that wood. The spirit was willing but my scrawny boyish flesh was weak. If I didn’t know I had some growing to do before, I knew it then.

Paul Jennings takes this idea of resistance further in his chucklesome satire on certain existential phenomenologists, penned in 1963 and published in The Spectator as a Report on Resistentialism. Not quite existentialism, resistentialism suggests an upside-down revolution of thought that declares things—the Latin is res—to be resistant to us. “Things are against us,” Jennings writes. “Resistentialism,” he explains, is therefore “largely a matter of sitting inside a wet sack and moaning.” At the risk of taking Jennings seriously here, which is not what he intends as he multiplies examples of uncooperative objects, I can’t help but see his joke philosophy as having a symbolic significance. He presents the resistance of things as an overwhelming experience; the person resisted by the earth and by his tools is defeated from the outset and he does not like it. The resistentialist doesn’t have the inner fortitude to handle the experience of rebellious whatchamacallits. He wants his will uncontested. He wants his world to be friction-free and uncomplicated. The idea of inanimate things refusing to obey him is appalling to him. Perhaps something like this resistance to resistance is behind the seemingly unending technological drive for perfection.

Overcoming resistances

In a nearly forgotten but utterly marvellous smorgasbord of epiphanies penned in 1946, The Failure of Technology: Perfection without Purpose, Friedrich Jünger notes that technological progress has always had “overcoming resistances” as its aim. Although this turns out to revolve around a rather stupid confusion of ends and means, this is something also noticed by Saint-Exupéry, for whom technology, even if once helped to foster a necessary resistance, soon becomes obscured behind the drive for perfection—seeing ends up as unseeing. But this self-concealment is not just because of the anaesthetising effect of habituation. Rather, it is because of an intention evident in all modern inventions. Our various technological prostheses become extensions of our absentmindedness as they become more refined. How annoying it is when things break; when they don’t function optimally; when they seem to be against us after all. Was their purpose not to remain invisible, hidden behind the task they have accomplished? “The more perfect machines become,” Saint-Exupéry writes, “the more they are invisible behind their function.” Consider Jünger again: “resistances are obstacles” to the technician “which must be and are being smoothed out by mechanical laws.” It is a mistake to believe that we can completely dissolve resistance through technological innovation, and Jünger is well aware of this. Resistance remains ever-present, like the earth itself, if only as a latent potential lurking in the shadows—as if it hopes to bite back at our desire to keep things cool, calm, and controlled. No matter how much we attempt to repress resistance, “it is still there watching in ambush, forever waiting to burst into destruction.”

And yet, again, built into all of our notions of technological innovation, built into this technological society of ours with its ever-shrinking frame of technological thinking, is a well-supported mimetic desire to make everything always easier and more efficient; to iron out wrinkles and steamroll away bumpy roads. Clunky typewriters have given way to keyboards that barely require any pressure, and even those keyboards have been swallowed up and transformed into the simulated buttons of tablets and smartphones. The rough has been replaced by the smooth. The real world has been virtualised.

Now, ever-improving—at least by modern technological standards—AI can take over significant aspects of the work formerly done by people. Thinking itself is resistance, a kind of negativity within the mind that pauses, meditates, ponders, and tests—never merely rapidly, usually slowly. But now the advent of ever more advanced forms of generative machine learning, advanced by technological and not ethical standards, is helping us to do away with even that form of negativity as if reflective thought is an inconvenience that must be overcome. By this same logic, any desire to wait for the transcendent in prayer and meditation is worse than useless. Predictably, technical thinking has a solution. Why not opt for a quicker and more efficient enlightenment through the use of the technology of psychedelics? Faith has become utilitarian. Contact with reality is replaced by comfort and accessibility.

Overpowering pain

Friedrich Jünger’s brother Ernst also articulates the sense that the obsessive technological pursuit of perfection is permanently committed to overriding resistance. However, he refers to resistance by another name. Pain. “Tell me how you relate to pain,” he says in On Pain, “and I will tell you who you are.” In considering pain and how technology is created to respond to it, we begin to understand better that the essence of modern technological (so-called) progress is that it is meant as a palliative. Its essence is a movement towards ever-more advanced forms of regularity, featurelessness, orderliness, blandness, and even deadness. It seems to be an existential and not only literal pain reliever. Often it functions not just as a pain reliever, in fact, but as a tranquiliser or sedative. All feelings are jeopardised by technological perfectibility. Feeling, after all, and especially the feeling-that-we-feel, by which the phenomenologist Michel Henry locates our sense of being alive, is a threat to the reign of dead machinery and dead software. To recall Marshall McLuhan, the medium is a massage. He means, in part, that all technological extensions of ourselves inevitably numb us. They numb us to their very presence but also to any and all difficulty. They numb us to their very effects.

What does this mean for creativity itself, which relies so much on a depth of feeling? I think of Kierkegaard’s little parable, which acknowledges the crucial role even of a kind of suffering in the act of creation: “What is a poet? An unhappy man who hides deep anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so formed that when the sigh and cry pass through them, it sounds like lovely music .... And people flock around the poet and say: ‘Sing again soon’ — that is, ‘May new sufferings torment your soul but your lips be fashioned as before, for the cry would only frighten us, but the music, that is blissful.’”

The arc of the technological universe is long, but it bends towards desensitisation. Because of the fear that things are against us, we have ordered our world such that things are not so against us anymore. And yet, paradoxically, this may be a sign that things are even more against us than ever. They do not embody an aim to strive for the good but only an aim to maintain the given process of perfectibility. Things have been replaced by non-things, as material realities are increasingly forced to make way for more disembodied data and disincarnate theories. One consequence is that we can no longer learn anything about our relationship with the world through our technologies. If anything, especially electronic technologies have the erasure of knowledge built into them. We have more data but less wisdom.

Of course, we have always been porous. But now we are pushed to be porosities without definable edges. Saint-Exupéry praised our tools for their ability to help us to confront the world, and for the way they helped us to get a better sense of our physical and psychological limitations. But his tools are not the ones that dominate our age. Our tools are far more perfect. They are far more hidden. The ongoing destruction of negativity fostered by our tools removes a sense of what it means to act in the world. We are, more and more, simply rendered as passive observers of large-scale systems of mere ease and easing.

Palliation as ideology

However, it would be an error to think that this is just a consequence of technology. McLuhan was wise to notice that effects often precede their causes. This is to say, among other things, that a specific social consciousness precedes and welcomes certain technological developments. A technological mindset foreshadows both invention and the acceptance of invention. And so, technologies do not merely create certain environments but often manifest certain given ideological commitments. We should ask what sort of ideological possession has ensured such a pervasive commitment to developing technologies as forms of palliation. We might ask, for instance, whether the vice of sloth has anything to do with our elevation of convenience to the status of an idol. Are any other vices at the root of a technological consciousness? I sense that such vices will not be accidental but foundational to technological developments.

Medicinal palliatives are also palliative technologies—and it is likely the same ideological inclination that has fostered the administration on a mass scale of painkillers to absolutely healthy people. Treating pain and easing suffering is one thing. Trying to eradicate it completely is quite another. The idea that pain is a part of life, part of our feeling that we are feeling, is close to being anathema in our time. Bizarrely enough, the most comfortable person often feels the strongest pull towards opiate addiction. An opioid crisis will not be found where life is trying but in places where life is, oxymoronically speaking, unbearably bearable. It is impossible not to see the connection between the Canadian opioid crisis and the arrival, with little resistance, of state-approved medically assisted suicides. What is state-endorsed suicide, in fact, but technological palliation persevering on the largest scale? Even if you happen to be in favour of euthanasia in one way or another, at the very least, it is worth questioning whether euthanasia arises less out of compassion than out of a desire to be rid of the inconvenience of people overcome by their feelings.

“Only an ideology of permanent wellbeing,” writes Byung-Chul Han in The Palliative Society, can be behind such an obsession with numbing. Han does not mean well-being here to refer to the holistic well-being sought by the perennial tradition but a much narrower kind of well-being, a kind of dumbed-down happiness psychology suited to the age of what Philip Rieff calls ‘psychological man.’ The radically individualised person, rid of all gods and divorced from all teleologically-minded traditions, knows only how to make demands of the world and not how to pursue an aim. Palliative technologies, it seems, cultivate a society in which genuine heroism is impossible. The ancient aim of seeking to know and love the real has been replaced by the modern aim of seeking to manufacture and perpetuate a narcissistic connection to the self. This is probably what one should expect, given the consistent modern confusion of ends and means, and the resulting obsession with processes. Are we not told, often and in different contexts, to ‘trust the process’ even though we are not told what the true goal of the process is? Society has ended up, as a result of this sort of thinking, not with selves known through a confrontation with the world, but with imaginary or surrogate selves, heavily filtered through representations and simulations. These are not authentic but entirely theoretical selves living in a hypothetical world.

One extreme but still apt example of this, perfectly consonant with the general drift of technological palliation, is the push for so-called herbivorisation. Wanting to rid the animal world of suffering, some people, self-defined activists and compassionists, hope to reform predators by turning them into herbivores. Even with so few evolutionary precedents and no scientific basis for such a move, the fact that not a small group of people finds this idea easy to accept is rather telling. It extends the ideology of technological perfectibility with its compulsive desire for endless, uninterrupted happiness. It manifests as a desire to technologise reality itself, transforming it into the product of human thought.

Echoes of such a nominalist addiction to palliation are everywhere, always following the same algophobic logic, even in something as seemingly innocuous as the promotion of politically correct speech, which flattens out the technology of language as much as possible to render it barbless. Against the ancient wisdom that declared that an argument from the possible to the actual invalid, the possibility of a pain-free, trouble-free life is all that matters. Often, therefore, the general appeal to science nowadays, rather than being concerned with supporting truth claims, is a kind of rhetorical palliative— a coverup for deeply fantastical beliefs constructed by a consciousness only capable of being resentful towards pain. Fully automated luxury paralyzation is well underway.

The hell of anaesthesia

In his astonishingly prescient 1957 novel The Glass Bees, Ernst Jünger explores how this naivety about pain, most commonly evident as a numbing out of the real by technological means, is accompanied by a deep desire for power. He symbolises this by introducing the reader to a Walt-Disneyesque technocrat who aims for global domination through entertaining people. The desire for pleasure and the desire for ideological and political control become one and the same. This is sensed by the conspiratorial mind, which attunes itself to ambiguities and then seeks an explanation. Such a mind cannot fail to notice a connection between technocracy and slavery, even if the relationship is not fully understood or explained. What results from the endless urge for perfection is not a pain-free world, after all, but a world in which people have no idea who they are and are open to new depths of psychological and spiritual torment. The gradual destruction of negativity, far from creating the conditions of well-being for people, gives rise to deep suffering—a global crisis of meaning. How can we know ourselves if we block out all negative feedback? How can we know who we are if our technologies separate us from the earth? How can we find true purpose if all we have been taught to do is conform to and trust the so-called ‘process’?

This is the primary danger of placing no limits on the palliative tendencies of technological development. If an AI can do your work better than you can, even though it is ontologically akin to a zombie, why would any employer keep you around given that you come with all kinds of costs and liabilities? It is ludicrously gullible to assume that automation will free us to embrace a life of leisure. Unemployment is not the same as leisure in any way. Unemployment will bring all the boredom and demoralisation that comes with having no tangible or otherwise perceptible function. What we need for a meaningful life is “a yes, a no, a straight line and a goal,” as Nietzsche proposed. But what if there is no authentic yes or no answers, no clear goal to aim for anymore?

One possible consequence of such thinking—or, rather, unthinking—is the inevitable creation of what Ted Kaczynski, in his infamous Industrial Society and Its Future, calls “surrogate activities.” These are artificial goals meant to give people something, anything, to aim for—micro-aims to concoct a false sense of real purpose. People have always created ways to busy themselves even if what they busy themselves with is of no ultimate meaning. In the absence of real pain, it should not surprise us that people will create surrogate ways to experience pain. In the age of technological palliation, identity is thought to be something that can be surgically constructed.

But surrogate activities do not generate fulfilment or rest. They do not provide leisure because they stem from the pain caused by silencing the real. As Han says, “the palliative society produces extremists. In the absence of a culture of pain, there emerges a barbarism.” Human beings need stimulation. We need to know ourselves in relation to the world. And if the system we inhabit is designed to prevent self-insight and self-understanding, we will be forced to seek out ever more exaggerated forms of stimulation to break through the fog of palliation. To put this provocatively, paradoxically, taking all the guns away may result in even more mass shootings.

Having said all of this, as already hinted above, I don’t think we should combat technological palliation by begging for a return of all kinds of pain and suffering. Such a suggestion would be precisely the extremist suggestion we should avoid. The problem is not palliation itself but its automation and reach. What I am indicating, therefore, is that perhaps a better approach would be to come to terms with pain rather than simply seeking, in a knee-jerk fashion, to rid the world of it so thoughtlessly. Indeed, I have suggested that to rid the world of pain amounts to being rid of the world itself. After all, in the technological society, it is not just pain that presents problems but feeling itself. The drift towards further embracing technologies that rob us of purpose is also a drift towards further numbing. Technological palliation ultimately proposes that the human being as such is a problem that must be overcome.

I am aware, of course, that I have only really named and provisionally described a philosophical problem. Given that it is now absolutely intertwined with our technologies, I am mindful of just how painfully feeble any suggestion would be that articulates even the beginning of an alternative. And so, in principle, I return to Saint-Exupéry’s suggestion that we need a confrontation with the earth helped but not dominated by implements, and so, essentially, a confrontation with the so-called old problems. It must be an embodied confrontation, evident in ritual and not just in theory. Still, we do need to ask the big metaphysical questions again; we need to ask not just how the process works but what it is all for. And what are we here for? Already we know, at least, that the answer to such questions, which we feel in the depths of ourselves if we pause long enough, will not be simply: We need more technology and more technological perfection.

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