But seriously, is the protestor right? Are we all sheep?
Yes, and maybe no.
A sheep is a tamed creature. It follows behavior patterns that its shepherd designed for it. Those patterns serve the shepherd’s interests; they only serve the sheep’s interests insofar as those interests align with the shepherd’s. Once those interests diverge… it’s time for some lamb chop.
A wild creature, on the other hand, looks to its own interests. It decides behavior patterns for itself, and spontaneously changes those patterns if circumstances call for it.
What are the behavior patterns of an industrialized human? Here are a few:
Whose interest do those patterns serve? Are those roles empowering? Do they lead to satisfaction? Are the roles, as they are performed, written by the actors, or are they imposed from the outside?
It buys the latest iPhone then rubs the lotion on itself.
It’s popular to imagine — as megaphone guy probably does, as Occupy Wall Street hypothesized — a cabal of sociopathic one-percent-ers deliberately domesticating humanity for their own perverse pleasure.
There’s some degree of truth to this story. There are certainly people in business and politics who understand the rules of the game and decide they’d rather be the shearer than the sheep. I’d suggest, though, that it’s deeper than that; that even the one percent are being swept up by forces beyond their control.
The real culprit is technology.
Technology domesticates because it makes life easier. It reduces the level of challenge required to navigate the day-to-day world.
Challenge is important for wild humans. The human body and mind develop strength by pushing themselves to their limits, and then recovering, and then pushing again, and then recovering again, and so on. A healthy, happy person is in a continuous cycle of building their courage, developing their skills, and becoming more proficient at navigating the world.
Ironically, we’ve mastered the world so well as a species that we’ve become victims of our own success. Building a technological civilization was an incredible, vastly challenging achievement. But now we live in a world where we’ve systematically removed risk and challenge from day to day life.
By reducing risks and creating comfort, technological civilization created a vicious cycle of atrophy. The less exposure to challenge, the weaker and less courageous people get. The weaker people get, the more they abhor challenge, and seek to stamp it out even further. Taming isn’t just imposed through force by powerful elites; it’s an activity that everyone in society collaboratively participates in.
Why do college students drink so much? Alcohol is one of the few generally-available outlets for getting close to the edge, of feeling, for a few hours, like you’re wild. Same with rock climbing, extreme sports, and other activities that push beyond the normal limits. These activities are all entertainment, now, though: challenge has been relegated to a domesticated leisure activity, another form of specialized consumption.
In Lord of the Rings, Tolkien created a metaphor for the addicting, taming force of technology: the One Ring. In the hands of an average person, it transforms them into a gollum; in the hands of a dark lord (such as a CEO or political leader), it strips landscapes bare to create Mordor.
Tolkien’s protagonists choose to destroy the ring, rather than use it against Sauron. They reject technology. They reject the modern world of factories and industrialization — Isengard and Mordor — in favor of a pastoral fantasy of Hobbits tilling fields and Elves in the forest.
As a fantasy, the Lord of the Rings is a nostalgic work: good and beauty are fading away in the world, and things once pleasant turn to darkness. Although Tolkien let his protagonists defeat their dark lord, he knew very well — and it comes through in his story, via the departure of the Elves and the scouring of the Shire — that his good guys are on the wrong side of history.
It’s significant that Lord of the Rings looks backwards nostalgically, dreading the future. Significant, because the books occupy an outsized role in our cultural imagination. It’s the main work of myth-making that’s happened in the modern era, and its influence on subsequent culture is profound.
Tolkien has no solutions for us. He sees technology as evil, but also as inevitable. Unfortunately, the nerds who grew up on Tolkien and his successors, who had their moral imagination shaped by his definitions of good and evil, are now the ones building the systems that run the world. And with a victory for good being impossible, they’re defaulting to “well, huh, I guess if I can’t save the world, maybe I should make some cash — let’s retarget those advertisements!”
Tolkien was right that technology has agency, that it shapes its users to its own ends. The idea that technology is just a passive instrument is a pleasant fantasy we tell ourselves, as we sit in front of our computers, pushing buttons to earn our paychecks so we can afford our utility bills. He was wrong, though, that technology’s ends have to be evil.
What is good technology? Good technology is technology that empowers rather than consumes the user. The role for humans in a good technological system is a role that requires their courage, skill, and conscience. Humans are the brains of the system, allowing it to change, grow, and evolve.
In contrast, evil technology sees humans as scripted automatons behaving in ways that serve to perpetuate a status quo. People and landscapes are resources to be exploited, to consume and to be consumed.
The 20th century in many ways was a history of evil technology. It featured the rise of the office worker, the factory farm and the strip mall, among other innovations. But with the rise of the internet, there’s now a new front in the war between good and evil. The internet can and is being used to create closed systems of consumption and control, but it can also give rise to things like Kickstarter (and, with fortune, Bubble): open-ended systems that depend on their human participants to be courageous, take risks, and master challenges.
We need to update our old notion of good and evil. It’s too late to avoid going down the technology path. We’re all interdependent now: throwing the ring back into the fire would be a suicide pact. It’s time to embrace interdependence and start thinking through what that looks like in a non-evil way.
What does it look like for an education system to produce courageous, independent thinkers as opposed to conformist hoop-jumping office workers? What does it look like for an economic system to produce what people need rather than addicting them to stuff that they don’t? What does it like for a political system to empower and engage citizens rather than alienate and control them?
Let’s find out.