November 22, 2012

The Question Concerning Technology

Dear Wafers and Other Friends:

As we are approaching the 200-message mark on the previous post (god, you guys have been engaged these days!), it is with some regret that I must leave the topic of Mittney (Rom! Can you forgive me?), and move on to other topics. I'm not really ready to talk about Japan, since I'm still reeling from my trip and need time to process the whole thing, but for now let me say a few words about one thing I observed there that forced me to rethink a basic premise I've had about the history/sociology of technology. This is mostly thinking out loud, if you guys can tolerate something only partially digested (to mix metaphors).

Actually, it involves two premises. One, technology is not, as is commonly thought, value-neutral. In other words, the conventional wisdom is that you can use an axe to fell a tree and thus build yourself a house, or you can chop off your neighbor's head, which would not be very polite. Virtually all Americans (not the sharpest 'race' on the planet, I grant you) believe this, the president included. But as so many scholars have demonstrated, perhaps beginning with Marshall McLuhan, this just ain't so. Technologies are the bearers of culture, and if you introduce any particular technology into a society (print medium into the oral culture of medieval Europe, for example), you eventually transform that society into something else. The introduction of vaccines for cattle into rural Mexico, many decades ago, led to the marginalization of the 'sacred' culture of the curandero, and thus to a different concept of man's relationship to the cosmos. The vaccine cannot be isolated, in other words; it carries with it the world view of modern science and all that that entails (in particular, a 'disenchanted' world).

Second premise: Japan is a hi-tech society and people there are walking around with iPads, cell phones, and whatever stuffed into every available orifice. But it proved not to be so. The Japanese are fascinated with the new, that is true; but technology is not their 'hidden religion' (see Why America Failed, ch. 2). Yes, there is some degree of zombification operating there, to be sure, but much less than I anticipated; maybe 20% of the population is awash in Finnish and Korean (and Japanese) techno-crap. So you do see folks (the young, esp.) walking down the street staring into electronic screens, for example; but only about 20% at most. Tokyo aside, Japan is not a 'loud' country. Even then, I was amazed to ride the subway in Tokyo and see signs showing a cell phone with the word OFF (in English) in block capitals superimposed on the image. Occasionally, an electronic voice comes over the air and says, "Please make sure your cell phones are turned off." You look around, and people are busy texting, but not making any noise. When I took the express bus out to Narita Airport en route to returning to Mexico, an electronic voice also added, "It disturbs your fellow passengers." This bowled me over, because in the U.S., who gives a damn about the people around them? You can sit in a restaurant in LA or NY with some woman three feet away, literally yelling into her phone about her recent gall bladder operation. Y'all can identify with this, I'm sure.

The only exception I found to this was the lounge in the hotel I stayed in in Hiroshima. It was terribly American in design, very un-Japanese: formica tables, fluorescent lights, a completely sterile environment. There, people would sit and yak away loudly on their phones, and to hell with anyone else. So what the heck is going on?

Try this: if the 'hidden religion' of the United States is technology, as well as an extreme form of individualism (which I discuss in A Question of Values), the hidden religion of Japan is interrelatedness, or group consciousness. In fact, it's hardly hidden: everybody knows this about the Japanese, including the Japanese. Nor is it always a positive thing, as it can stifle personal expression and creativity, and some Japanese scholars have argued that it was the root cause of the Pacific War (1931-45), during which time it was impossible to speak out against the military direction of the nation. Whistleblowers have a hard time in Japan. Well actually, they are practically nonexistent, and the 2011 disaster at Fukushima is only the latest example of this. Maruyama Masao, in the postwar period, blamed the war on a "system of irresponsibility," and recently one courageous critic (although I believe he lives in New York) said that Fukushima was the product of Japanese culture itself.

To return to the subject of cell phones, then, what we see is not the introduction of a new technology and the subsequent transformation of the culture. No; the culture of Japan is strong enough to resist the negative effects of this technology, by a factor of something like 80%. I remember sitting in a luncheonette in a subway station and seeing a woman receiving a call on her phone, and actually taking out a small towel and putting it over her mouth, and the phone, so as to mute her voice while she was talking. More often, the Japanese will leave the space, and conduct the conversation out of earshot of those around them. Whereas Americans live like they were individual atoms, bouncing around with no civic responsibility whatsoever (and certainly as it concerns technology, since it is the hidden religion), the Japanese live in society, in community, and in relatedness to other people, and therefore are acutely sensitive to the potential impact they have about those around them. Despite the negative aspects of the group mentality mentioned above, I found this institutionalized, semi-conscious courtesy quite refreshing. So while in the US, technology combines with the ideology of extreme individualism to create a race of obnoxious techno-buffoons and zombies, in Japan the culture of public respect limits what technology can do--even though, as I said above, the Japanese tend to love the new. In a word, Marshall McLuhan doesn't apply to Japan. Or one might say, it is the cultural medium that is the message there, not the technological medium. I had to rethink my basic assumptions regarding all this (always a good thing, if somewhat disorienting).

In that regard, I was fascinated by the recent comment James Howard Kunstler made on his blog, which got reported in the comment section of the previous post here:

"Finally, I have one flat-out prediction, one I have made before but deserves repeating: Japan will be the first society to consciously opt out of being an advanced industrial economy. They have no other apparent choice really, having next-to-zero oil, gas, or coal reserves of their own, and having lost faith in nuclear power. They will be the first country to enter a world made by hand. They were very good at it before about 1850 and had a pre-industrial culture of high artistry and grace - though, granted, all the defects of human psychology."

Could Japan be the model, the cutting edge of a post-capitalist or post-industrial society? Is a kind of "back to the future" logic operating here, in which it is the craft tradition, rather than the latest piece of technological garbage, that might create a viable culture, and thus a viable model for the rest of us? Think of the Renaissance, during which time cultural renewal depended on a return to Classical civilization ("reculer pour mieux sauter"--step backwards in order to better jump ahead). As Gary Snyder once said to me, when I teased him about having a 'romantic' vision: We may have to return to the used-parts bin, and discover that some of the stuff we threw out in our zeal for progress is not so obsolete after all.

Well, I said I was thinking out loud. Food for thought, in any case, eh wot?

(c)Morris Berman, 2012