In this essay, anti-civilization, anarchist philosopher John Zerzan critiques the concept of 'next nature.' He argues that rather than freeing us, our self-domestication through technology has created a disconnected, depressed and over-medicated population. Phenomena from global warming to workplace shootings are all symptoms of global human "progress" gone totally awry. If we abandon 'technology' in favor of 'tools', what are the next steps for humanity?
Next Nature “refers to the nature produced by humans and their technology.” The prevailing attitude of Next Nature is “techno-optimism.” What is the nature of this “nature” and what are the grounds for the optimism?
I’ll start by citing some recent technological phenomena and what they seem to indicate about the nature and direction of our technoculture. We’re already increasingly inhabitants of a technosphere, so let’s look at some of its actual offerings.
A virtual French-kissing machine was unveiled in 2011. The Japanese device somehow connects tongues via a plastic apparatus. There is also a type of vest with sensors that transmits virtual “hugs.” From the Senseg Corporation in Finland comes “E-Sense” technology, which replicates the feeling of texture. Simulating touch itself! Are we not losing our grounding as physical beings as these developments advance?
In some nursing homes now, the elderly are bathed in coffin-shaped washing machines. No human touch required. And as to the mourning process, it is now argued that online grieving is a better mode. Less intrusive, no need to be physically present for the bereaved!
There is an iPhone application now available called the “baby cry app.” For those who wire their baby’s room to be alerted when she stirs, this invention tells parents what the baby’s cry means: hungry, wet, etc. (there are five choices). Just think, after about two million years of human parenting, at last we have a machine to tell us why our child is crying. Isn’t this all rather horrific?
On a less emotional/interpersonal plane, there are the new cars with GPS built in. “Turn here, turn there.” Simple skills like map-reading are eroding, and people are losing their sense of direction and their grasp of the geography of place. Our connection to the earth (e.g. recognizing landmarks) diminishes further in the dematerializing techno-world. Push a button and the sensor-equipped vehicle parks itself or avoids collisions. We can be inert, kill-less pods, along for the ride.
“Some new technologies like Facebook or mobile phones can actually help people to live a more natural, tribal existence,” proclaims Next Nature’s website. But how can one not notice that the more society is dominated by technology, the less “natural” or “tribal” our existence becomes?
In the U.S., according to many studies, people are increasingly atomized and adrift. Levels of isolation are growing at a shocking pace. Since the mid-1980s, for example, the average adult has 50 percent fewer friends and visits friends less often. The number with no friends at all has tripled since the mid-1980s. We are connected to our machines much more than to others, or to the earth. Facebook “friends”– often individuals one has never even met – are a bitter joke.
Andrew Keen, a CNN writer, authored “How Our Mobile Phones became Frankenstein’s Monster” (February 28, 2012), about personal disempowerment and growing smart phone addiction. In a fragmented, isolated techno-scape, many cling to their phones as to life rafts; but the devices mostly connect nowhere to nowhere. Leaving aside the surveillance capability and brain cancer threat represented by mobile phones, they are more emblematic of an empty life-world than of anything “natural” or “tribal”.
There is a ton of research showing that Internet immersion is connected to shallow, no-attention-span thinking – the inability to think seriously or in-depth. It has been observed that children now make eye contact much less often, as a function of the number of hours they spend online. Ours is a more and more mediated, disembodied world in which the face-to-face aspect keeps declining, as does direct experience itself.
“A cultural project or phenomenon turns into nature when it becomes potentially or entirely autonomous and uncontrollable” (Next Nature FAQs). If nature means, in effect, technology, then nothing could be further from the truth than this statement.
The technological imperative – its inner logic – is the opposite of autonomous and uncontrollable. Technology is born of, and always bears the stamp of domestication. From domestication of animals and plants – and of ourselves in the process – we entered and began to move ceaselessly along the path of control, within the ethos of domination.
The technological imperative – its inner logic – is the opposite of autonomous and uncontrollable.
To tame or conquer is the hallmark of technology, as opposed to the realm of tools. Domestication began about 10,000 years ago; various commentators have called it “the worst mistake in human history.” Domestication was the shift away from what nature more or less freely gave us, to a colonization of nature.
The earth was put to work, and so many negatives resulted from this fundamental turn: The objectification of women, a life of toil, organized violence, the systematic destruction of nature, and hierarchy, to name a few. Orthodox anthropology now posits that an egalitarian life of sharing was traded, not without huge resistance, for domestication and civilization.
Paul Shepard tells us that nanotechnology, cloning, genetic engineering, etc. were implicit in that first step: the move into domesticated life of ever-increasing control and domination. Not exactly autonomous or uncontrollable is the ensuing trail of technological systems. Not exactly free or wild. More control, and always more work.
Technology is never separable from culture, and this relationship is deeply revealing. A society’s technology is the physical incarnation of that society. The primary values and choices of a culture or society can be read in its technology.
In very early, non-complex societies we find simple tools, which express values such as equality and autonomy. Tool-based technology is visible, transparent, and accessible; anyone is potentially capable of fashioning, say, stone tools. Early technological processes imply other values such as playfulness, intimacy, and flexibility. In contrast, modern technology expresses, generally speaking, a near total dependence on experts, and standardization, coldness, lack of individuality.
Technology is never a neutral tool.
Technology is never a neutral tool. It is rather a socio-cultural dimension, always political in the sense of representing choices – consciously made or not. And choices are not made consciously, by the way, when technology is thought of as neutral and non-political.
“Over time, the expanding influence of humanity on earth has replaced old nature with next nature.” This formulation makes it sound like a seamless, natural process because it leaves out the intervention of a basic social institution. Domestication changed everything, not some abstract “humanity.” It is social institutions, and their corresponding technologies, that specifically impact nature.
Take population, for example. There are two pronounced spikes in the human record: The first upon the arrival of domestication globally, and the second about 200 years ago, with the Industrial Revolution. These jumps in population growth, establishing ever-higher levels, correspond to the emergence of two social institutions. Some of us argue that the solution to unnatural population growth is to remove the two primary causal factors, domestication and industrialism. The call for more technology only adds to the problem, since both social institutions are necessary for the existence and growth of technology or “next nature.” “Evolution goes on” – but in a bad direction.
“We are certainly as opposed to species loss, habitat destruction, and global warming as anyone else.” But again, developing the techno-future is based on the systematic destruction of the unbuilt world, on global industrialization. What else enables it?
The call for “increased diversity” is completely hollow. Not only are species, languages, and indigenous cultures being sacrificed; the general cultural homogenization is overtaking diversity. Increasingly, the malls, airports, apartments, etc., become identical in a globalizing world. Techno-industrial life grows flatter, texture-less, and standardized. Perhaps most important: Technology is the same everywhere.
Techno-industrial life grows flatter, texture-less, and standardized
Is it a coincidence that as the techno-culture crowds out everything else, we see growing pathologies in society? In the U.S., tens of millions of people need addictive drugs to sleep, to have sex, to counter anxiety and depression. Meanwhile the shooting sprees – rampage killings in schools, family workplaces, shopping malls – are daily occurrences. The emptiness and desolation are palpable, bringing continually worsening symptoms.
In today’s mass techno-society, community has all but disappeared. And without social bonds and solidarity, anything can and does happen. Virtual “community” is a mockery of actual, face-to-face community, where individuals can be accountable and responsible.
Technology is forever promising solutions. We live in an age where technology fills an ideological vacuum, as political ideologies fade in significance. But by and large, the solutions address problems that were created by technology in the first place––a fact we are not supposed to notice. (Think of diseases spread by intercontinental travel, oil spills, or nuclear power disasters, for instance — and even those diseases that did not exist prior to domestication, including virtually all infectious and degenerative diseases.)
The German sociologist Ulrich Beck argues in his “risk society” thesis that disasters are a built-in feature of complex society. Global warming, the biggest disaster of all, evidently is a function of the growth of global industry. The more factories, the higher the temperature. Again, just what does onrushing technology rest upon? There is an intimate connection between a mobile phone and the destruction, not of illusory “next nature,” but of billions of years’ worth of natural systems that have made life on earth possible.
Fredric Jameson wrote, somewhat famously, that “Postmodernism is what you get when the modernization process is complete and nature is gone for good.” Postmodern culture is indeed, in my opinion, a surrender of this kind: Let’s just accept the erasure of the natural world and go on from there. In IBM’s watchword: “Let’s Build a Smarter Planet.” We should accept the inevitable success of the cyber/cyborg/digital/virtual/ information technology juggernaut, not think about what “advanced” society is really advancing toward.
Postmodernism is what you get when the modernization process is complete and nature is gone for good.
But we know what the fullness of the technological project has brought us. Since Emile Durkheim in the 19th century we’ve known, for example, that modern industrial cities breed much higher rates of suicide and madness. Reams of empirical studies and a century or two of social theory have noticed that modernity produces increasingly shallow and instrumental relationships, amid a life-world that is barren and isolating.
Recently, a friend who is an emergency medical professional told me of calls received during the holiday season, from those who don’t have a health emergency. “I think I might be having a heart attack,” for example, in order to get a visit – in order to have some human contact.
Do we really want to push all this even further? Life, health, freedom and community need a different direction.
For thousands of generations we lived in band society. Before tribalism, this form of community – perhaps the only actual form that has existed – featured the face-to-face society that consisted of fewer than a hundred people. Mass society of course erased this, and so much more.
In a 1973 interview, novelist Kurt Vonnegut rejected the claims of modern techno-society, in favor of band society. "Human beings will be happier...when they find ways to inhabit primitive communities. That's my utopia. That's what I want for me." I, too, want to go in that direction. We need a new paradigm, a new vision, which would involve a radical decentralization, a move away from the ever more integrating world system.
Not alter-globalization, a new catch-phrase on the Left, but anti-globalization based on anti-authoritarian perspectives. More than that we need to start de-domesticating ourselves and re-skilling ourselves. Reconnecting with the earth in a literal sense. All of us are domesticated but we can start the process of transition. Toward immediacy, wholeness, vitality. It won't be easy, but if a growing number becomes involved in such a move the ways and means can be found. I think that a growing number may be feeling the need for such a new direction.
There are no blueprints. We will figure out our paths when our goals can be seen and discussed. As we find each other, the necessary public conversation will begin and the effort to go forward together may ensue. No guarantees, but worth the liberating journey!