Part II: Review of book by Morris Berman, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, London, 2006

  20  Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire

William Krehm

In our last issue, I presented to our readers a brief introduction to a remarkable book, Dark Ages America – The Final Phase of Empire by Morris Berman. Its overriding concern is the insensitivity of the United States to other cultures, and to deal with his theme the author draws upon many specialties. The first episodes rest largely on the work of great American historians, many of whom grasped the unique role of the mobile Western frontier as crucial means of letting off pressures from unsolved internal problems by directing potential rebels to move West.

The resulting relative immunity to unresolved problems might seem harmless for the Americans themselves. It was far less so for those whom they encountered en route – whether native tribes, or the former Spanish colonies. By making a purely metaphoric left-turn, the United States was able to avoid a more literal one, thus perpetuating its deep rejection even in theory of all revolutions wherever they may occur, with the exception of its own founding event.

A Profound Encounter

The current episode deals with the Americans’ encounter with technocracy, which, more than a lyric passing affair, was something that ate deeply into their soul, and insulated it still further from a communal life, and a convincing "narrative of existence." But let me allow the author to tell what he has to say in his own quite unique way.

"The most insightful inquiry into the relationship between technology and the way we live today, at least that I am aware of, is Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (1984) by the American philosopher Albert Borgmann. Borgmann’s analysis makes it possible to see that much of globalization, as well as the condition that we have labeled ‘liquid modernity,’ is the result of an internal logic of technological development that reached its highest point (thus far) in the last few decades of the 20th century. In this sense his approach is a corrective to the common perception of technology as being neutral, a tool, a force for good or evil that can be managed or directed by political or economic institutions. The reality, Borgmann argues, is actually very different: modern technology (stress on the word ‘modern’) provides a ‘characteristic and constraining’ pattern to the entire fabric of our lives. Borgmann calls this pattern the ‘device pattern.’

"Consider, for example, a stereo system providing music, as opposed to a group of friends who gather at someone’s home to play music together. What is going on in each case? The first situation involves a kind of abstraction or concealment. Looking at a record or CD, I have no way of knowing what kind of music it contains. Nor do the speakers resemble the human voice or the strings of a violin. And this, in a nutshell, is the device paradigm, the separation of the commodity, in this case music, from the machinery that produces it.

"The opposite of this is what Borgmann calls a ‘focal practice.’ For instance, when friends gather to play their musical instruments – that centers and illuminates their lives. In this case the machinery is not separated from the product; it is fully present, and embodies a long tradition of craft, method, and musical literature. It does not separate means and ends. It is fully ‘whole’ and thus makes us whole. This arrangement, in fact, characterizes a good deal of pre-modern culture. With the device paradigm, on the other hand, the world is transformed in a radical way.

"Let us take heat as a second example. For most of the 19th century, across much of America, if you wanted your house to be warm in the winter, you had to do certain things: cut down a tree, saw and split logs, haul and stack wood, and finally burn the wood in stove. Here, says Borgmann we see the difference between a focal thing and a device. A thing is inseparable from its context, and it provides more than one commodity. Few of us today, of course, would welcome the labour involved in this process, and we appreciate the fact that central heating renders this work unnecessary. But the technological comfort comes with heavy cultural costs. The wood-burning stock, more than just heat; it was also a focus, a hearth. It required different tasks from every member of the family, and marked the seasons. It had its important sensuous dimension as well: the smell of the smoke, or the perspiration you felt in the body as you sawed the wood. All these embodied a way of life."

Device Paradigm vs. Focal Practice

"It is for this reason that the common view of the continuity of technology is a mistake. Yes, man has been a tool-user since the Paleolithic era and, no, technology did not arise with the invention of central heating. But such a view misses the point that the discontinuities are much greater than the continuities. The tools and technologies of traditional cultures are never ‘mere’ means, they are always woven into the context of human ends. Modern technology (say since 1800), based as it is on the device paradigm, introduced a radical new force into society, one that restructured it from ground up. A similar rupture can be posited for the past fifty or sixty years.

"Our problem is that we need to make a distinction between two kinds of burdens: those of hunger, disease, and backbreaking labour, and those that are ennobling, that are exacted by the demands of community and the standards of human excellence. Fast-food outlets may make life more convenient; they also contribute to the nation-wide epidemic of obesity as well as the disintegration of the family, and they make life a lot more empty. Focal things require discipline and commitment; devices are merely forms of short-lived entertainment. In the 20th century, technology freed us up for more technology; it became its own goal."

There is in those lines a vital thought that we should nourish so that it may nurture society.

William Krehm

- from Economic Reform, December 2007