Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Fax Machines and the Invention of the Wheel

It's great to see Tim posting again on I Will Rush No More, one of my favourite blogs. For me, there's a definite connection between his practise of slowing down and the tradition of otium that I've been writing about. What I admire is Tim's talent for placing his reflections in medias res, reporting a conversation with a neighbour while clearing snow off his drive, or over breakfast with a friend:

I ask: "When do you think it all changed, all this speeding up stuff?"

He says: "Easy; it changed the day fax machines became available for the home-office. Then you never got away from it and it also created an expectation of urgency where you had to deal with it right away and get back to the sender."

In a comment on Tim's post, John Xenakis writes:

The fax machine? Naah. It began with the Xerox machine. No, I mean the Univac machine. Wait, no, I mean the telephone. The telegraph. The Pony Express. The carrier pigeon. The tom-tom.

Oh hell, it began when they invented the wheel.

I suppose John has a point, in that it can be worth pushing further back, recognising the extent to which the latest and most obvious source of aggravation may be less new than it seems. Often, it turns out to be an intensification of a pre-existing tendency (as I've been arguing about managerialism in the university).

One direction this can lead is to the sort of radical critique of "civilization" offered by Derrick Jensen, John Zerzan or Ran Prieur. It was Tim who first put me on to Ran's writings, while one of Ran's posts yesterday gives a nice example of how counterproductive rushing can be. He's quoting an email someone sent him about Alan G. Carter's The Programmers Stone:

"Alan Garter [sic] tried to find a reason why some programmers are 10-25 times more productive than others. He stumbled across the answer, and made a team of super-programmers. Then the rest of the organization turned on his team! His theory is that people are literally addicted to stress. Stress releases dopamine in the brain, which gives a the stressee a good buzz. When two people accustomed to different levels of stress meet, they often don't like each other because one is getting overly stressed and the other isn't getting their dopamine hit. Stress also shuts off what he calls juxtapositional thinking, a holistic, comparative mode of thinking."

Basically there are two kinds of thinking and you need both, but under stress you're limited to thinking that is narrowly focused, methodical, and not at all intuitive. And to have a productive/unstressed programming team, you first need an unstressed organization around them. Clearly this goes way beyond programming. This whole civilization is driven by stress, and has been for thousands of years.

(This reminds me, in passing, of a post a while back from JP Rangaswami, a friend of School of Everything, about the different types of laziness.)

But back to John's comment. If we have to trace the tendency to futile acceleration back from the fax machine, via the telegraph, all the way to the invention of the wheel, doesn't this just lead to paralysis? How on earth can you and me escape? ("History," Stephen said, "is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.")

In Illich's thinking, I can find two possible ways out from this paralysis. The first is the idea of thresholds. Particularly in his earlier work, Illich stresses the idea that technologies have a threshold beyond which they become counterproductive. So rather than the vertiginous regression that leads back from the fax machine to the wheel, we could seek to discern the point at which this happened. That's more or less what Tim and his friend seem to be doing in their conversation - though we might want to push the threshold further back.

Dean Bavington, who I met in Cuernavaca, gave an outstanding presentation on the technological threshold in the Newfoundland cod fishery. He illustrated this by passing around the audience a 'cod jigger', the fearsome piece of equipment which he believes represents the crossing of that particular threshold. Prior to the introduction of the jigger, cod could only be caught if they were hungry enough to take the bait; from that point on, fishing increasingly became the indiscriminate scooping up of biomass, until catastrophic collapse led to the closure of the fishery in 1992.

The second possible way out is by shifting attention from the technology itself to the qualities of relationships. What kinds of relationship does a particular technology tend to foster among those who use it and those around them? Does it tend to encourage instrumental attitudes, seeing other people or things as a resource, a means to an end or a source of exchange value? Does it decrease the amount of time and space the user has for those around them?

If we pay attention to questions like these, we may choose to go on using a particular technology, despite its general tendencies, because we see the possibility - with care - of using it in other ways. Or, as I suggested the other day, we may choose askesis - voluntary renunciation, temporary or permanent, of a particular technology, habit, or whatever - so as to allow room for otium, for time spent on the things that matter to us and with the people who matter to us.

This is where I see Anthony's thinking about gentleness leading - and it takes us back to where we are, clearing snow or talking over breakfast.


SimplyTim said...


Thank you very sincerely for your very kind words both here and on my blog from my most recent posting on Neighborliness.

Your posting today is simply outstanding.

A few comments:

1. I like the theme of the "intensification of a pre-existing tendency," and how you weave it in with the example of the cod fishing process where everything changed when it crossed a certain threshold.

I presume this is only known through reference to the rear view mirror. But that is a scary measure in a context of multiple societies which are only looking forward and at that only in the immediate future.

Perhaps the early warning system is to look at how relationships are being negatively impacted as a measure of each new technology, no matter what it (deceptively) promises for better living.

2. Your friend's statement: "history is the nightmare from which I am trying to awake." Powerful statement. I would suggest that the act of trying is counterproductive in itself. Perhaps a simple question, repeated often and at random times like "is this awake?" might be helpful.

I have been thinking of "time-bound" and perhaps (the space of)"no-time" and in that context history locks us into .... I'll have to think more about that.

But remember that history is written by the victor, and as such it is always to be doubted.

3. Stress addiction - absolutely!

4. Voluntary renunciation - absolutely! One of my new (additional) mantras is: "got less. Be more."


SimplyTim said...


John's comment is right on, as he usually is.

I wasn't trying to really locate THE change point in time but to simply take it as a point in time where as you say the process flexed by charging through a threshold.

I see it, like John, as a picket fence, starting now, and extending back in historical time.


Dougald Hine said...

Thanks, Tim!

(1) I think you're right that seeking the technological threshold is rear view mirror stuff, whereas attention to relationships can act as an early warning system. Apart from anything else, focusing on the technology itself involves trying to make sense of the new, whereas human relationships don't change that much over time, so past experience (our own or other people's) tends to remain helpful.

(2) Sorry, I should have been less elusive with my allusions! The quote about history is actually from Chapter 2 of James Joyce's 'Ulysses'. It's a line I often think of in relation to anti-civilisation thinkers like Jensen and Prieur. But you're right, anything that focuses your attention on an abstraction like 'history', even to escape it, is likely to be counterproductive. One of the main challenges I picked up from hanging out with Illich's friends and collaborators in Cuernavaca was the discipline of trying to think in terms which are grounded in the senses.

And yes, none of what I wrote was meant as a criticism of John's comment - it was the combination of your two perspectives which got me thinking!

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