Jaron Lanier [“Voodoo Electronics,” interview by Arnie Cooper, May 2005] suffers from a common form of denial known as “technological cornucopianism” — the belief that science and technology, if just applied correctly, can save us from ourselves and from the “cruelty of nature,” as Lanier puts it.
The pursuit of technological solutions has brought us to the brink of global ecological collapse, nuclear holocaust, unsustainable population levels, and a host of other monstrous problems. In essence, science has made it easier for us to destroy ourselves, each other, and other forms of life. Human nature and technology are a deadly mix.
I enjoy the comforts and conveniences of modern science. Books, the Internet, dentistry, tractors, and toilet tissue are all wonderful inventions. Still, I think we need to take our cues not from scientists, but from the indigenous cultures that know how to live sustainably, simply, and intimately with the earth for extended periods of time.
Changing from our current industrial culture to simple, primitive living may sound dangerous, foolish, and improbable to the techno-cornucopian mind, but I suspect that the global military-petroleum complex is setting us up to do just that — sooner rather than later.
Jaron Lanier describes nature as “a cruel . . . engine of death,” while civilization is much kinder in his view. I wonder what the thousands of species that have been pushed off the planet by civilization would have to say about its kindness. We may judge nature to be cruel in the way it weeds out inferior genetic stock to make way for other life, but in the broader view of sustaining life on the planet until evolution got around to Mr. Lanier, nature could perhaps be called wise, even kind. The immense suffering in nature also brings forth its sustaining and transformative physical and spiritual beauty. The slaughter of billions of microbial pathogens supports our life. I prefer to see it as self-sacrificing compassion.
I am not anti-technology, for even technology is “natural.” Didn’t nature evolve our big, curious brains, our forward-facing eyes, and our hands, which are exquisitely designed for manipulating the environment? Technology was inevitable. It has become part of the equation that will mold the future of the planet. Calling it good or bad makes about as much sense as calling nature cruel or kind.
The workings of the natural universe nearly wiped out life on this planet five different times. We are trying for a sixth. But this time there are new factors in the mix: consciousness and choice. Will we employ our talents to aid survival or to destroy ourselves along with a good chunk of the remaining life forms?
If Lanier hasn’t found a dynamic vision for the future it must be because his little electric window on the world hasn’t turned up the word “sustainability.” The concept is out there, and people all over the world are working on it. Even I know about it, and I don’t have a computer, though I am sure technology has a vital role to play.
Jaron Lanier responds:
Douglas Willhite and John Kastner represent a view I hear frequently. There are two concerns: one on the level of symbolism and mythic outlook, the other on the level of practical decision-making. On the practical side, I have worked with many wonderful friends and colleagues on green energy systems, and I believe this work is essential. And yet one must be a realist. I, too, deeply want to believe that we could redesign our lives so that, for instance, solar and wind power would be sufficient to support them, but so far as I can tell, that isn’t possible.
Here we must not fool ourselves. Sustainability as an ideal is a wonderful technology driver, but the best available evidence shows that a static sustainable solution — meaning one in which we know in advance why what we do is sustainable — is not available to us. To my knowledge, there is no hopeful future that does not demand continued radical scientific exploration and technological risk-taking and innovation.
There are many who criticize the current administration’s policies, saying that they are based more on desire than reality. We greener folk (and I count myself as one) must also find the discipline to work with nature as she is instead of losing ourselves to the temporary comfort of our false hopes.
It is possible for a small number of people to live safely in a low-tech way, provided they are surrounded by a civilization that filters out pirates, desperados, grizzly bears, and plagues and gives occasional respite when droughts or forest fires plow through. I adore Thoreau and couldn’t live without his writings, and yet if everyone tried to be Thoreau, there could be no Thoreau. Once again, I deeply wish this wasn’t so.
You can’t really love someone if you see only your own illusions of her. So it is with the love of nature.
P.S. One small correction to the interview: Richard Dawkins himself is not the source of the economic theories I seemed to attribute to him. He merely serves as part of the inspiration for other people who devised those theories. All he really talked about was biology and religion, not economics.
Norman Fischer’s “The Religion of Politics, the Politics of Religion” [May 2005] was a voice of sanity. He confirmed my idea that we are not a world of good guys and bad guys, saved and unsaved, enlightened and ignorant; we are all just humans with different beliefs and convictions. It is only when we can respect our perceived enemies’ points of view that we truly honor our religious beliefs, whatever religion we may be.
A friend of mine recently attended a controversial play; protesters stood at the entrance as theatergoers entered. My friend later wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper commending not only the people who attended the play, but also the protesters for standing up for what they believe in. I don’t know if I ever told her how proud I am of her. I cringe at members of my own religion who lack the tolerance to accept differences in others and who consider themselves superior because of their beliefs.
Like Norman Fischer, I wish to respect the Republican message. I ask myself: Is there a nugget of truth, of thoughtfulness, something of value I have perhaps not considered? The answer is always the same: If so, it is nullified by their actions.
If Republicans’ words give one pause or inspire a moment of internal debate, the actions of these political leaders leave no doubt as to what their true beliefs are. A “culture of life” that applies only to fetuses is hollow. Reverence for marriage apparently cannot trump the money to be made from entertainment that glorifies infidelity and showcases cruelty. Pretty speeches about personal and fiscal responsibility fall flat when CEOs swindle stockholders and our federal deficit blooms like algae.
Fischer’s attempt to respect and learn from the current administration is laudable, but this respect will not be returned in kind. I do not believe that I will be respected or protected in radical Christian America, and I don’t intend to try to “understand” them. Their behavior tells me everything I need to know.
I agree with Norman Fischer that political activity should be invested with religious and spiritual principles, but I don’t believe George W. Bush is sincere. The president may have believed the words in his speech at the time he spoke them (though they were likely written by a speechwriter), but is he a great enough leader to live up to his words? Does he have the spiritual presence and conviction necessary to bring his vision into being? And most importantly, can I trust this man?
If we are not realistic, if we allow ourselves to be swayed by sentiment, if we excuse rather than truly forgive, then we are in grave danger of being deceived and wronged again. We must hold our leaders accountable primarily for their actions and secondarily for their words.
I too have made the error of overlooking someone’s wrongdoing in an attempt to be “spiritual” about the matter. All I was really doing was hiding my resentment, fear, and condemnation from myself, rather than addressing them with my highest ideals.
Seeing accurately the wrongs someone has committed and condemning them for those wrongs are two separate actions, connected only by habit. Compassion dictates forgiveness, but we can’t forgive until we know the truth. One must be open-eyed to see by the light of compassion.
Norman Fischer responds:
A friend of mine wisely points out that we judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions: that is, seeing someone’s actions, we assume we know their motivations and intentions, but we don’t. My point is that actions ought to be judged and opposed where opposition is needed, but we ought to be humble in recognizing that we don’t know the hearts and minds of those whose actions we oppose. If we are not sure that our opponents’ intentions and motivations are terrible, it is better for us personally — as well as politically — not to assume that they are. Furthermore, when I suggest that the Christian and political Right (certainly more varied and complex groups than such broad terms would indicate) may have something to teach us, I do not mean that we should validate their positions. I propose only that it would behoove us to look more deeply at their message — deeper, perhaps, than they do — rather than dismiss it outright.
After what has seemed like years of progressively depressing and despondent writing, your May issue gave me a sense of humanity and hope. Jaron Lanier and Norman Fischer delivered intelligent and articulate messages of common sense. Fischer’s ability to see the “other side” as human too, and to realize that they also passionately believe in the rightness of their cause, was refreshing.
The thought has crossed my mind several times over the last few months not to renew my subscription, but each time I come back to the reason I subscribed in the first place: nowhere else can I find such heartfelt emotion. Even when I don’t agree with the writer’s perspective or get depressed because of the hopelessness conveyed, The Sun still touches me like no other magazine.