Tech Worship: Eating Apples

The locus of social discipline has, in my estimation, shifted from the body to the mind. Before I explain this shift, which has been mediated by and through technology, let’s consider these famous passages from Foucault’s Discipline and Punish:

The body now serves as an instrument or intermediary: if one intervenes upon it to imprison it, or to make it work, it is in order to deprive the individual of a liberty that is regarded both as a right and as property. Physical pain, the pain of the body itself, is no longer the constituent element of the penalty. From being an art of unbearable sensations, punishment has become an economy of suspended rights. If it is still necessary for the law to reach and manipulate the body of the convict, it will be at a distance, in the proper way, according to strict rules, and with a much “higher aim.”

As a result of this new restraint, a whole army of technicians took over from the executioner, the immediate anatomist of pain: warders, doctors, chaplains, psychiatrists, psychologists; by their very presence near the prisoner, they sing the praises that the law needs: they reassure it that the body and pain are not the ultimate objects of its punitive action.

In modern justice and on the part of those who dispense it there is a shame in punishing, which does not always preclude zeal. This sense of shame is constantly growing: the psychologists and the minor civil servants of moral orthopedics proliferate on the wound it leaves.

For allusive reasons that are bolded above, I was reminded of these passages while reading about Steve Jobs, whom Atlantic writer Megan Garber aptly diagnoses as an “asshole.” Like most zealots, Jobs blindly believed that his vision — technology as connection, technology as power, technology as self — was world salvational. After remarking on the irony of unveiling consumer products with “religious zeal,” Garber comments on a famous advertisement which Jobs voiced and believed:

The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

Setting aside for a moment the absurdity of these claims as they apply to Apple users and device addicts (all of whom are connected to power in ways they can hardly imagine), Garber correctly sees this as a progressive myth:

It’s a libertarian notion of human progress — progress as defined not by social connections, but by the rejection of them. The lone geniuses. The round pegs. The stubborn individualists. “A system can only produce a system,” Jobs remarks. “I don’t want to be part of that.” Which is both admirable and, in the context of Apple’s own story, flawed. Apple is — like everything else, you and me and Steve Jobs included — a system. It is, like everything else, the result of connectivity and exchange.

This is classic Durkheim, whether Garber knows it or not. But one question Durkheim did not ask, and which seems most relevant in today’s tech-addicted world, is whether the system of connectivity causes pain or results in imprisonment. Has our self-imposed tech discipline and faith in progress become a form of control? When Steve Jobs is messiah for many, these are questions we should ask.


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3 thoughts on “Tech Worship: Eating Apples

  1. Darryl

    “The civil religion of progress… begins with a lone genius who shakes himself free of the prejudices and superstitions of the ages, and thus manages to see some part of the world clearly for the first time. The dramatic action emerges out of the conflict between the lone genius and his (or, very rarely, her) less gifted contemporaries, who defend those prejudices and superstitions against the efforts of the genius to upset the applecart of conventional thought.

    The plot thus defined includes a few variations, mostly involving the end of the story. The genius may be condemned and killed by the outraged authorities of his time, only to be vindicated and glorified by future generations. He may struggle on gamely to the end of his life, ignored or denounced by all right-thinking people, and then be vindicated and glorified by future generations. Alternatively, he may triumph over the opposition by proving his case conclusively, and having vindicated himself, is then glorified by future generations. In each case, the emotional reaction expected from the audience is the same: identifying themselves with the future generations just mentioned, they are called on to glorify the great heroes of progress, to rejoice in the salvation from the prejudiced and superstitious past that these heroes have conferred on them, and to wait expectantly for the even more wonderful things that future heroes of progress will inevitably bring the world in times to come.”

    -John Michael Greer

  2. Dominik Lukes (@techczech)

    I’ve re-read your final question several times now and I’m not sure I understand it. Are you asking about the dangers of connectivity or the dangers of individualism? It seems to me that both are frequently eulogized, reified, religionized and also in constant tension with each other along many axes. And in that, they are a form of control. But everything that is subject to public discourse enters the process through which we control our social environment. Whether you talk about the role of an individual in the process of invention or who should do the dishes today. It’s not that different form the Chicago school’s thoughts on urban alienation or Putnam’s nostalgia for local bowling clubs. They both yearn for a communitarian vision of humanity that is an active form of ‘imprisonment’ of individuals in close knit networks and causes significant pain to those who struggle against the bonds. All the internet and all this other new technology provides is more opportunities to ignore on one’s immediate bonds and seek out other ones. Just like all forms of rebellion from religious reform to the wearing of jeans. And even extreme libertarian individualism is just a social badge – a bond of a sort. Even the absolute monarchs were bound in surprising and complex ways. Being social animals, our most extreme individual freedom can ultimately be just the choice of our social chains.

  3. Joe Miller

    “Being social animals, our most extreme individual freedom can ultimately be just the choice of our social chains.”

    I simply can’t empathize with the misanthropy underpinning this statement anymore. Our social connections are the sources of our power, they are the fount of our being. There can be no self without the presence of others. Bemoaning our propensity to congregate is the epitome of self-sabotage, if only because it furthers one’s own subjugation at the hands of the powerful.

    However, this emphasis upon the social does not excuse systematic oppression or the ostracism of unusual people – quite the contrary. Only by collaborating and communicating with each other will we be able to surmount the degradations visited upon us by the neoliberal system.

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