Interview with Ross Andersen
for The Atlantic Online, October 13, 2011
You might think of John Zerzan as the anti-Steve Jobs. Zerzan is an intellectual leader of the anarcho-primitivist movement, an ideology that regards technology as a destroyer of human communities. His first brush with national prominence came after a 1995 interview with the New York Times in which he expressed some sympathy with the ideas, if not the methods, of Ted Kaczynski. Yesterday I spoke with Zerzan by phone in order to gather his thoughts on what Jobs meant to the world of technology, and to our culture at large.
As someone openly opposed to technological progress, have you been frustrated by all of the public mourning and tribute that has attended Steve Jobs' passing?
Zerzan: I am, though I'm not surprised at all given the popularity of these devices and the cultural predominance of technology. Jobs has been in the limelight for so many years, you kind of expect that this would happen, that there would be these different encomiums, et cetera. There's an interesting contrast to the reaction to the innovators of the early Industrial Revolution. For example the inventors of the power loom for the first textile factories in England; I was reading recently these accounts of how they used to have to slink around and hide their work and identities. They were spat upon and even chased down in the streets because they were so hated. And now look at Jobs, there's all of these vigils and tributes, even a huge spread in the Wall Street Journal the other day calling him a secular saint.
One of the things I noticed in the obits and letters to the editor about Jobs was the recurrent notion that he enhanced our connectivity. This is something that strikes me as such an irony. We're all connected now, we're all wired, we have this complete ease of contact with everybody - but it's also obvious that the more society becomes entrenched in these so-called connecting technologies, the more isolated we are as individuals. It's clear the machines are connected, but to what extent are humans connected? Everybody's on their cell phone all the time, to me it's like zombies, you walk along the street and people bump into you because they're so enthralled by these devices.
I wonder if that's a criticism best leveled at particular technologies, or even certain features of those technologies. It might be the case that certain gadgets are pushing people apart, while others actually enable community. For example Facetime for the iPhone allows families to videoconference when they're apart. So even if I grant you that these large technological trends are widening the space between people, can't some individual technologies work to bridge those spaces?
Zerzan: Well there are these band-aids, these substitutes, of course there are. That's the appeal, that's why they're popular, but in the meantime we're more and more dispersed. And don't get me wrong I use them too. I have a close friend in Serbia. How often am I going to see him? Not very often, so I rely on a fixed version of the technology you're describing. But those are consolations, and you ultimately have to look at what's being traded away. When you weigh the whole ensemble of this, the whole culture of this and you see the direction it's going, and again getting back to community, which to me is really the key thing, it's evaporating. So I look at the technology not so much in terms of specific devices or even features, but rather the overall thing. What is modernity now? Where is it going? What is holding it together?
You have these extreme sociological phenomena like mass shootings that seem to occur with some regularity now. It seems to me that when you no longer have community, and you know longer have solidarity, then almost anything can happen. And the technology is not helping. It's no substitute for real cohesion and connection. Everybody uses that term - every politician, every developer - talks about community, but it's disappeared with the advent of mass society.
Unpack that for me a little bit. Focusing in particular on Apple and Steve Jobs, and fortunately we don't have to zoom in much because Apple has been such a big player in a lot of the technological advances of the past twenty years, at least in the consumer technology space. How do you think that those technologies are really driving people apart, or taking away from community?
Zerzan: Well, yeah, I threw out a really general kind of thing, but it doesn't seem coincidental that what is really accelerating more than anything is the pace of technological change, and people in social theory don't pay much attention to that. At the same time the bonds that hold society together seem to be loosening with the advance of mass culture. Again, I'm talking about technology on a more fundamental level, not just Apple devices specifically. On one hand technological change is proceeding apace, and on another people are being driven further apart. Of course this is not an overnight thing, but when you look at this historically, it's not going well.
It sounds like you're saying that rather than connect the dots from particular technologies or even technological trends to this creeping sense of human isolation, all you have to do is to zoom out and notice that the two dominant features of modern life are rapid technological change, and the fraying of human community. But I'm not so sure that people are obviously drifting apart from one another. In fact there might be some empirical evidence that people are, as you've even said, more connected than ever. You mentioned mass shootings as one signpost, but those are still fairly anomalous, so what are the other symptoms that you associate with that fraying, what makes it especially obvious to you that we're drifting apart as a species?
Zerzan: One of the things I often point to in lectures is a study I saw in an American sociological journal that looked at how many friends adults have over a twenty year period, from 1985 to 2005. In the study the definition of a friend was someone you'd consider a confidant. Anyway, after thousands and thousands of interviews these researchers determined that in the mid-eighties the average American adult had three friends, but that in 2005 that figure had come down to two. That's fifty percent fewer over twenty years. The study also noted that the number of people with no friends at all had tripled.
I was talking to Sherry Terkel, from M.I.T. who writes about new technologies from the point of view of a psychologist, and she gave a talk here at the University of Oregon a couple of years ago, with special reference to her daughter who was 13 at the time. She was talking about the toll that total immersion in technology has on the human soul, and she was saying that at a certain age her daughter didn't really grasp the difference between something that's living or animate and something that's a machine. She was really staggered, really appalled by this, and as a result it was a very moving lecture. But at the end, and this is typical of commentary about the nefarious effects of technology, she just kind of shrugged and smiled as if to say "oh well, that's modernity for you" and sat down. I said to her "wait a second, you can't give us this two hour picture of how desensitized and machinelike we've become, and then just shrug and say oh well." That's ethical and intellectual bankruptcy.
Taking your premise that technology is a bad thing, or at least a bad thing for human communities, do you regard technological innovators like Steve Jobs as especially bad actors relative to the rest of us who merely use technology?
Zerzan: I do. I'll give you an extreme case. During the whole Unabomber ordeal in the late 90's, the media would occasionally interview me and try to get me to say that "it was great that somebody would send bombs in the mail to these people" which I never said, and which I don't believe. But I would respond that while I did not believe in sending bombs to people in the mail, that did not mean that these people, the targets, were innocent. People like Jobs who devise this Brave New World type stuff are choosing, and there's a moral dimension to those choices. I remember Stewart Brand of the Whole Earth Catalog saying at one time that "in the sixties some of us realized the question was 'technology, yes or no?' and we basically answered yes." That includes people like Leary and Kesey and others who thought there was this great promise to technology, that we could achieve all of these things through the magic of computers. That was a conscious choice by some of these people, and it was the wrong choice. And so you have to ask, critically, how has it worked out? It's not just a question for theory, it's an empirical question: What does a society look like that embraces that, and goes full tilt for that way of living?
Is that fair, though? To push you a little bit on that point, is it fair to regard technology as a whole? Why can't we select among technologies empirically to see which ones are doing the real cultural harm, instead of hanging everything bad that's come of technology on that single choice from the sixties, that 'yes or no'?
Zerzan: That's a fair point, and I'll tell you I was very involved in the sixties and I didn't have a clue what was coming, so it's out of line to demonize somebody like Stewart Brand, although he's had a lot of time to reassess that choice and he's only deepened his embrace of the whole techno thing. I guess I'd have to say again, I don't think it's so much a thing of individual devices, but rather a whole orientation to reality, and to life, and to community that's become mediated. I could mention Martin Heidegger who looked at it as something much more basic, as really how you relate to the world; he felt that when pushed far enough along everything becomes fuel for technology. Everything becomes a technological question, and everything else is ruled out. That's why he called technology the end of philosophy, because these really technical questions come to override everything else. To some extent you can see that in politics now, where the regime seems to have become much more technically oriented, and the real human questions are just subsumed under the weight of the technocracy.
You can go all the way back to simple stone tools and then follow it all the way out, in terms of the values or the choices that are embedded there. For example if you look at simple stone tools, before you get to systems and technology, they don't require much specialization or division of labor, and accordingly you can see the potential for equality: anyone make this tool, anyone can use it, you don't depend on an expert for using it. But as we move forward in technological time, the need for a lot of specialists and experts gives those specialists and experts total power over us, and that's a disabling and de-skilling process. It involves everything you can think of; people used to work on their cars, but now there are hundreds of computer sensors that prevent a normal person from tinkering around under the hood of a car. Kids way back could make their own radio set. There was a time when you could still have some access or some agency, but now you need an expert. That's not healthy. We have to re-skill ourselves in my view, or else we're just sitting there passively waiting for the next thing to buy.
Where would you place a figure like Jobs within the spectrum of technological innovators, with particular attention to what you described earlier as the moral dimension of innovation?
Zerzan: Well he was obviously very good at figuring out how to make these things, these devices, easier to use. He did it with marketing, and with technology that cut across generations so that people like me didn't have to figure out programming or anything. Instead we just sort of crudely move our finger across a screen and there it all is. But if you follow that long enough, eventually you don't need to know anything, you can just be inert, a blob, and lay there and push a button, and then what happens to our place in the world? We use to walk around on this planet and have some autonomy and capability of knowing how to do things. If you don't know how to do anything, then ultimately if and when the system crashes, we're screwed, because we don't know the simplest things - and I include myself in that. I don't have many actual skills, in terms of interacting with this earth we live on.
Isn't that a sort of utilitarian argument as it relates to our eventual survival? So if there's this inevitable crash, we'll all be turtles wallowing upside down in the mud. But what if there's not a crash? What if these technologies simply open up more time for things like reading to children, or good conversation?
Zerzan: Well there may not be a crash. I'm not a so-called collapsist where I'm just banking on this all failing. I think there's a good chance that as our systems get more interdependent and vulnerable that some small thing could unravel a lot of it, but I'm certainly not counting on that. It's up to us to make choices, not just sit around and wait for the whole thing to fall apart. But yeah, there are tradeoffs. That's why people buy these things; they do have use value, and you can find the attractive part of the exchange. Like you just said you can pay attention to your family, you can do something valuable, or maybe you'll just look at another screen. Unfortunately if you look at what's actually happening, if you look at it empirically, we're spending more and more of our time looking at one screen or another, and that gets back to mediation, the sense that there are more and more layers between us and the things that matter.
Getting back to Jobs' legacy, is there an Apple product, or an Apple-enabled product that you regard as particularly corrosive to culture?
Zerzan: I was reading in the New York Times about this Baby Cry app for the iPhone that interprets the cry of a baby when it wakes up, whether it's wet or hungry or whatever. I look at that, and I think to myself the human species has been around for two million years and now we have a fucking machine to tell us what our babies' cries mean. If that isn't horrendous, I don't know what is. To me, that is just so telling about our dependence on this stuff, and you can say this is a loony example, but is it not indicative of where we're going? And it's everywhere, this dependency. When did you need a life coach? When were there billions and billions of dollars in self-help books?
As for Jobs himself, I was reading all of these editorials talking about the elegance of Apple and what Jobs did to reintroduce an aesthetic, and I thought to myself: you've got millions of these devices which are the exact same thing, and which to me are pretty sterile: Where is the artistry? Isn't that more of the massification of everything? You've got all of these iPhones that are absolutely identical, and yet shouldn't there be something in there that's personally distinct, or something with your own stamp on it? It seems to me a spurious claim to say that Jobs gave us all this artistry and aesthetic; that's only true in a completely mass-produced sense. Is that how we now define artistry and aesthetics? I would hope not.
In closing, if we look ahead five hundred years -crash or no crash-how do you see Jobs being remembered?
Zerzan: If we survive that long, we're not going to have a positive image of Jobs, because at some point we're going to realize where all of this "elegant" technology comes from. It all rests on industrialization, ugly stuff that we don't want to think about right now, stuff that's happening in China and India. You can wax poetically about this clean, gleaming thing that is the Steve Jobs product, but in order to get it you have to have the ugly, systematic assault on the natural world. That's the other obvious thing that hasn't been a part of the conversation either. If we continue at this rate, we'll be lucky to make it fifty years.