Do I really have to answer this guy?

November 20, 2010 • 3:21 pm

In today’s New York Times is a petulant letter from one John Daniel, taking issue with some remarks in my recent NYT review of Kevin Kelly’s book, What Technology Wants.

I found Kelly’s book flawed in its comparison of biological with technological evolution, but did in general agree with his thesis that the expansion of technology has been a pretty unalloyed good, since it gives people the maximal opportunity to fulfill their potential.  Note, though, that this is not my thesis, but Kelly’s.  And of course lots of technology doesn’t serve that purpose.  Mr. Daniel, however, would have us return to the halcyon days before antibiotics and modern medicine, when most people were ineluctably stuck in their class—and women were always in the second class—and when infant mortality was much higher.

To the Editor:

Jerry A. Coyne, in his review of Kevin Kelly’s “What Technology Wants” (“Better All the Time,” Nov. 7), too hastily endorses Kelly’s notion that unlimited choice is a pure good. Of the 48,000 supermarket food items he cites, many are insubstantial or outright harmful, and many of the rest are redundant. How many brands of linguine do we need, and if there were none, would spaghetti do? The colonial pantry, containing vastly fewer items, probably held superior nutritional value and no lack of flavor.

When Coyne asserts that the choices technology makes possible enhance “our potential for self-realization,” does he mean that we can fulfill ourselves through TV, Twitter and video games? By purchasing a new car? I’ve seen more happiness in the hovels and muddy streets of Mexican villages than in the affluent suburbs of America. The problem with ever-expanding technological variety is that it spawns ever-expanding desires, a condition unknown to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, with their three-hour workdays.

Many helpful goods have come of our technological genius, and for those I am grateful, but paeans to material progress seem never to acknowledge its shadowy side. What Coyne calls self-realization looks a lot like obsession and addiction, or at least like perpetual distraction. Henry David Thoreau, content with his limited 19th-century choices, got it right: “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end.”

Elmira, Ore.

Of course I didn’t endorse every technological innovation as an unalloyed good, or a tool for self-realization. Had Daniel read Kelly’s book, he would have seen that Kelly indeed points out the “darker side” of technological advance.  But who among us would want to return to, say, 1930, when the smallest infection could kill us?

And the statement, “I’ve seen more happiness in the hovels and muddy streets of Mexican villages than in the affluent suburbs of America,” seems palpable and romanticized nonsense. Yes, some individuals in those hovels may be happer than some dour denizens of American suburbs, and perhaps sociological surveys would show such a parity.  But would those people stay in their hovels if they were offered a swap? I doubt it.

There is a reason why people are abandoning villages throughout the world and swelling the populations of cities, and why people are flocking from poorer countries to richer ones—and it has something to do with fulfillment, choice, and technology. In this I’m with Kelly.

h/t: Miranda Hale

51 thoughts on “Do I really have to answer this guy?

  1. Just as the ‘Noble Savage’ is a romantic myth, the ‘Satisfied with limited choices ancestor’ is a myth too.

    Unless John Daniel is a member of the Amish, of course, and even they choose what technology to accept.

  2. The idea that the colonial was a cornucopia of taste is rubbish. There’s a reason that wars were fought over spice supplies. And not because access to spices abounded at prices common folk could afford.

    1. And further to that, a recent NOVA program on underwater Mediterranean archaeology touched on some highly salted, fermented fish juice (made from the entire fish as in guts ‘n all) that the Romans made (forget the name) and which was part of the cargo (in amphorae) of the wrecks they discovered. It was a highly valued export, and they apparently put it on everything including dessert. The basis of it? It was essentially hydrolyzed protein, which meant rich in glutamic acid; with the NaCl –> monosodium glutamate!

      1. That can’t be right, because MSG is obviously an evil of the modern age that no one would ever consume back when we frolicked with nature. /sarcasm.

        There was a great little short video from Goldman Animation on YouTube that appeared on the history channel that I usually bring up when someone goes on about how great the world used to be:

        Some of his other animations are great too, but not appropriate to the subject at hand.

        1. “some highly salted, fermented fish juice (made from the entire fish as in guts ‘n all) that the Romans made (forget the name)”

          It was called garum (Greek, garon, which form the Romans also used). Personally, I think that Worcester sauce (made of anchovies) is a good modern version, though I have a bottle of something called Burgess’ Anchovy Essence which is 99% salt and keeps for decades and is absolutely fantastic (in very small doses). I’m not surprised that the Roman version is still recognisable after 2,000 years or so.

          Haven’t tried the modern versions on apple pie yet, though.

    1. I would point out to that fine gentleman that although people from the hovels often have difficulty moving to the suburbs, he’s more than welcome to join them in the hovels any time he’d like. Strangely, he’s chosen to pass up that opportunity…

      1. Beat me to it. My comment would have been something like:

        “I’ve seen more happiness in the hovels and muddy streets of Mexican villages than in the affluent suburbs of America.”

        As sent by Mr Daniel from…an affluent suburb of America. Makes one wonder.

    2. So that’s the reason some people want a border fence. Keep out those gringos looking for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

  3. And in re. the Amish (who I don’t have much complaint with since so far as I know they’re not in your face about anything), I have a friend who lives in central PA Amish country & has Amish neighbors who he gets along fine with. They’re not allowed to use a telephone, but borrowing the use of one is fine as long as the use is bartered for (not sure if that part is a requirement, but regardless they get pies in exchange). But the use of the phone got so extensive, and the guy’s boots were always so muddy that as a solution they just installed an extension phone outside on the corner of the house for him to use whenever he liked.

  4. I dont have a problem with the letter. I think he brings up some good points. And he never says he would prefer to be in a 1930’s situation; he says “Many helpful goods have come of our technological genius, and for those I am grateful”. Its fun to debate, but I dont think there’s much to fight about here.

    1. It’s a well-written letter, but let’s not let that fool us into thinking he has some good points. I don’t see any. As technology improves, naturally, more and more will become possible. It’s up to us to use it responsibly. None of this “the devil made me do it” blame-shifting. See the “chimp w a telescope” analogy someone else offered elsewhere in this thread.

      Just what is this guy advocating? If we’re not advancing, we’re regressing. Does he have a list of areas approved for technological advancement? What were his criteria for determining where we can push forward and where we need to quit our exploration?

  5. Claims about the “dark side” of technology are broadly analogous to claims about the “dark side” of science. Some argue (mostly on the religious right, but also some on the left), that there is a “dark side” of science. They point out the many millions killed by destructive technology, beginning in WWI. They point out the crimes of researchers doing patently unethical medical experiments (Tuskegee etc.) Such examples are taken as proof that science has a “dark side” and should be mistrusted. But these examples are at bottom instances of abominable human behavior, not of the unethical consequences of science per se.

    The best argument against this is made by Sam Harris in a footnote somewhere in ‘The End of Faith’: Critics argue that Holocaust reveals the “dark side” of science (instead of say, the dark side of human nature). Similarly, if you give a chimpanzee a telescope, and he cracks his neighbor on the head with it, the “dark side” of science will have been revealed.

  6. The problem with ever-expanding technological variety is that it spawns ever-expanding desires,

    Rubbish. In economical terms, “desires” (needs actually) isn’t totally elastic with variety. Or in other words, a finite world can’t use infinite resources.

    As a matter of fact it is the increased efficiency and replacement possibilities of new materials and devices that has elevated us from repeated localized work-days to other interests. Don’t knock vacations & travels! 😀

  7. And the statement, “I’ve seen more happiness in the hovels and muddy streets of Mexican villages than in the affluent suburbs of America,” seems palpable and romanticized nonsense.

    I wonder what his metric was for gauging “happiness.”

    1. Happiness is watching one of your children grow up into adulthood, while ignoring the other 4 that died from disease, starvation, or crime. See, that was easy!

  8. Love your blog and you are usually spot on, but I don’t find this letter so egregious. I think you are over reacting due to too much criticism lately. Of course you needn’t respond. It’s a non-issue. Get some rest. Enjoy life!

    1. Ho! Do fuck off, it’s the noble savage bullshit though and though. Unless the author goes and lives in a cave or mud hut he’s a hypocritical knob. Though feel free to enlighten us why Jerry is wrong (apart from your claim that he’s a little bit tried.)

      1. No, it doesnt make him a “hypocritical knob” to understand that unlimited choice is not pure good. For example, creating a huge amount of choices gobbles up a huge amount of natural resources, and it requires a huge amount of time to process those choices.
        It looks to me like the letter writer is merely advocating a reasonable perspective on technology. Despite the fact that many people here want to characterize the letter writer as an absolutest and extremist, he said, “Many helpful goods have come of our technological genius, and for those I am grateful”. He is not the fanatic here.

  9. “…perpetual distraction…”

    Uh…that strikes uncomforably close to home…

    Otherwise, I’ve never thought “if only my options were fewer” when aiming for self-improvement.

  10. If it’s three-hour workdays you want, that’s easier than ever in the modern age.

    Median wage is about $26,000, or about $13 / hour. Fifteen hours a week at that rate puts you right at the poverty line.

    Now, granted, poverty-level income ain’t so hot. But, compared to any previous time in history, you’ll live like royalty — indoor plumbing, health care, the Internet, and more.

    Though it takes levels of self-discipline that seem to be beyond most people, it’s really not that hard on a middle-class income to get to the point where you can switch to that kind of work schedule and still live quite comfortably. Buy a $100,000 house instead of a $200,000 house; drive a clunker; never (or very rarely) eat out; that sort of thing. Even on a mere $26,000 / year, a single person should be able to pay off a mortgage in under a decade — at which point your net income increases by a dramatic percentage. Two wage earners cut that figure in more than half. Keep at it just a bit longer so you can pay cash for whatever toys you want, and then go for that part-time job so you can spend most your time doing whatever it is you really want to do.

    Of course, if you’re really lucky, your job will be what you really want to do…but damned few of us are so lucky. Still, chances are good that you can make at least poverty-level income doing whatever it is you want to do — and poverty-level income is pretty comfortable if you’re debt-free (including the mortgage).

    On the other hand, if what you really want to do is sleep in a $200,000 house and spend hours a day driving back and forth between the same two concrete slabs in a $50,000 car so people you can’t stand being around can admire your $500 suits, after which you stare at a $3000 TV until you’re tired enough to sleep…well, be prepared to spend the rest of your productive life paying for that privilege. It sure ain’t my cup o’ tea…which is why my own mortgage should be paid off sometime early next year.



  11. I have no objection to sentiments of this letter. I fully endorse the view that progress is not itself good. It depends on what one progresses.

    Also I think he is probably right in saying that self-sustaining villagers are more happy overall despite the lack of most gadgets. I don’t see why one HAS to be more happy because of accessto technology. I can see one COULD be. Citizens of Hiroshimi rather didn’t care for their close encounter with cutting edge technology, nor where the happier for it, I assume.

    The potential for happines with tech is likely false correlation of general wealth standards. Once you are secure, healthy, fed and generally engaged in something societal, I dont think happiness scores with or without gadget will differ too much. But that presumes a baseline of wealth.

    Think theres some studies into correlation happiness and wealth. I know i could do withouth most useless capitalist tat from china and junk food.

    1. Sorry it doesn’t work like that, ignorance might be bliss but when we have knowledge, are we free to withhold that knowledge from others? I noticed you bring up one example of modern science the atom bomb without balancing it out with higher mortality rates and advances in medicine etc. Most people are better off in the 21th century than other periods of history. People not only surviving birth but living three times as long as there ancestors then whether they have gadgets or not is a trivial matter.

  12. There is a reason why people are abandoning villages throughout the world and swelling the populations of cities, and why people are flocking from poorer countries to richer ones—and it has something to do with fulfillment, choice, and technology.

    I generally agree with your perspective, but many of us have abandoned rural areas and “flocked” to cities because technology has reduced the economic opportunities in rural towns (by enabling mail-order and discount warehouse stores that eliminate the need for local businesses) and by industrializing agriculture (piecewise eliminating the family farm).

    People are flocking to urban slums all over the world.

    1. Conversely many people – who can afford it – are moving back to the countryside in the UK – what we have left of it anyway. When it comes to a choice between Mankind & Nature I am with Nature!

  13. Colonial pantries were more nutritional. That’s why I remember seeing people with goiters when I was a kid lots of things lacking in their nutrition.
    That’s why meat had to be hung, cheese was a shriveled and cracked block, butter was usually rancid and vegetables that wouldn’t keep were seasonal. Give me modern food and supermarkets any day.

  14. For a less greviously flawed comparison of biological with technological evolution, the curious might track down George Basalla’s “The Evolution of Technology” (ISBN 0-521-29681-1).

  15. Huh. I didn’t know hunter-gatherers had such short workdays too. Whenever I’d gone hunting it’s been a whole day thing; if I don’t know an area I’d have to visit and explore for at least 2 days before deciding if there were any good hunting spots. (The poor animals were generally ambushed as they went for a drink – they have no chance against the carnivorous apes.)

    Anyway, Jack Daniels’ cousin can go live in the ghettos of Mexico City if that makes him happy. I’m sure most of the rest of the world thinks he’s an idiot.

  16. Great Cthulhu, I have never liked these sorts of people who talk about some completely romanticized version of “The Good Old Days,” doesn’t matter if they’re talking about the 1950s America, Paleolithic Africa or somewhere in between. As other people have said, how often do you actually see one of these people actually volunteering to go try living out their “ideal” life.

    Hmm, kinda like FGM in that regard.

  17. John Daniel: “a condition unknown to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, with their three-hour workdays”

    I hear this assertion frequently — our pre-agriculture ancestors “only worked 3 hours a day”.

    To me this sounds like the ideal — for those few sitting on top of a supply of abundant fish and game — and not the norm. I would think most of the time, our ancestors were hungry and scratching around for roots and worms when game was hard to come by.

    We took up agriculture so that we could have a more reliable food supply. Populations grew after agriculture was established simply because there was enough to eat for a change.

    1. This has always been a fairly contentious point in anthropology. Some studies of Australian aborigines indicate that they didn’t have to work many hours, “on average”, but of course there was often shortages. (ref Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics) The development of agriculture allowed, indeed demanded, population growth, but skeletal remains may indicate that individuals were less well nourished than those of hunter gatherer societies. Agriculture also led to greater social stratification.

  18. Most of the evils usually attributed to technology are in fact a consequence of capitalism. On the other hand, I don’t think technology could have developed to such an extent in a centralized economy (the profit motive is quite powerful).

    What bothers me the most, however, is the assumption that people are robots, and that their happiness or unhappines will be determined by market forces. It is true that the variety of goods available in modern supermarkets is silly and wasteful; but then nobody is forcing me at gunpoint to buy any of it.

    1. If all these ‘evils’ are the fault of capitalism how do you explain the poor living conditions of the now mostly extinct socialist nations ? The problem with this downside of technology stuff is that it’s basically a strawman, nobody with any sense thinks that advanced technological societies are some kind of Shangri-La. Human life will always contain struggles and contingencies it’s what makes it interesting but I’d rather have an uncertain life in reasonable comfort than back breaking misery, whatever the deluded romantics who would like to stop the clock may think.

      1. If all these ‘evils’ are the fault of capitalism how do you explain the poor living conditions of the now mostly extinct socialist nations ?

        Ignoring the non-sequitor, the social democracies in Europe seem to have done rather well compared to the American example.

        1. How is it a non-sequitor? If the ‘evils’ are mostly a result of capitalism then a non-capitalist society ought to be largely free of them surely and yet far from it, environmental disaster and poor health to name but two were/are rife in socialist countries. As for the social democracies of Europe, they are capitalist to the core.

      2. Thornavis, Antonio has already pointed out that your reply was a non sequitur, so I won’t rub it in. Or maybe I will…

        In any case, I am not a deluded romantic. I know all about failed socialist utopias. My point was that it does not make sense to blame technology for greed and general human stupidity.

        1. No your point was that the ‘evils’ are mostly the result of capitalism, it’s up there in black and white, you don’t seem to understand your own comment.
          I quite agree that it doesn’t make sense to blame technology for greed and general stupidity but then it doesn’t make sense to make a similar claim about capitalism either.

      3. I would start by pointing out that the so-called socialist countries you refer to were all built on the state-capitalist model, rather than actually being socialist.

        Of course, Marx stated outright that socialism would emerge naturally as a consequence of the internal contradictions of capitalism, rather than as a result of violent revolution in a feudal society.

        In the end, criticising socialism on the basis of the USSR`s failure is rather like criticising democracy because the People`s Democratic Republic of Congo is a bloodbath.

        A better criticism of Marx would be his failure to predict the rise of the welfare-state, which introduced elements of socialism into capitalism, stabilising it substantially.

        He also could not have forseen the emergence of mass media, or the effects that would have in allowing the capitalist class to guide the path of the public discourse.

        Of course, the only point to this is that socialist policies have invariably made life better in the nations where they have been implemented. Socialist economies, on the other hand, have never existed, and thus have never been tested. Finally, states that CALL themselves socialist, but aren`t, are generally murderous dictatorships.

        That`s what I`d say to explain the poor living conditions in `socialist nations`, anyway.

        1. Yes I thought someone would come out with not true socialism argument. It’s no different from the not true Christianity/Islam/Scotsman, whatever, argument. Not surprising as Socialism is essentially just another religion. If you can give me a definition of socialism that more than two other people can agree on I might take some notice of your argument.

          1. I didn’t say ‘not true socialism’, but rather “not socialism at all.”

            The simple litmus test for socialism is to ask “what happens to the profit.” If the answer is “There is no profit, workers are paid for what they produce” then you can continue looking, because you might have a socialist economy. If there actually is profit, then workers are being exploited. That makes the system not socialist.

            For example, when houses are built in a socialist system, the goal of doing so will be to house people. When houses are built in a capitalist system, the goal is to create wealth and power for the capitalist class.

            In Russia, it is clear to see that the goal of the workers labour had little to do with the worker’s wellbeing, and much to do with acruing wealth and power for the political class.

            One can make a case for Cuba as a corrupt socialist state, but the USSR is clearly capitalist in organisation – the goal of labor, invariable, is profit to the capitalist class. The difference between them and the US had little to do with economic organisation, and much to do with intellectual freedom.

            As the power of the capitalist class rises in the US, it becomes more, not less, like the USSR. Is that because we’re becoming more socialist? No, it’s because we’re moving towards oligarchy, becoming more purely capitalist.

  19. I love this part:

    “The colonial pantry, containing vastly fewer items, probably held superior nutritional value and no lack of flavor.”

    “Probably” is rich – oh well, if you think so, that’s good enough for me.

    The colonial pantry was crap.

  20. “I’ve seen more happiness in the hovels and muddy streets of Mexican villages than in the affluent suburbs of America.”

    I don’t really wish to quarrel with Mr Daniel, but I do find this hard to take seriously. He must know an awful lot of people: or, alternatively, he knows very few indeed. Is this an argument from authority, or is he just trying to sound impressive?

    1. It is an argument from what has become known as “utter imbecility”. It is very easy for an outsider to find happiness in unlikely places; it is not so easy for the dwellers of those unlikely places. Maybe Mr. Daniel has never given much thought to the fact that those “happy Mexicans” are the ones lucky enough to have survived birth and a disease-ridden childhood.

  21. Well, had I been born 100 years ago, I would have died 40 years ago.

    I’ll take the modern era with its foibles…thank you very much.

    Doesn’t anyone remember that there was a time when child hood mortality was about 50 percent, even in affluent societies?

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