The longest spoon

Let me extend yesterday’s effusion; for judging from th’email, my point was incomprehensible. And this was not quite my intention. Let me restate the argument in a slightly different way, thus providing a stereo effect.

The point was not about cars, but made through cars. They are a physical nuisance, to be sure; a source of noise, distraction, and invasive ugliness in our material landscape. Imagine men chained to big metal boxes, and one begins to descry the reality. They are a means of “access” which, to be McLuhan about this, change everything they touch. Our cities are now built for cars; the most remote shrines can also be turned into car lots. And in the example with which I began, so ancient and human a thing as a serious conversation, while walking, must be sacrificed to awareness of them.

Driverless cars are the coming “game changer.” The full implications will not be thought through. For instance, most moving cars have only one passenger, who is also the driver. This creates urban sprawl, and rush-hour phenomena that are horrendous. But with driverless cars we will now have many more in motion, without even one person aboard — summoned to fetch a person or a thing from a distance. We will also have increasingly sophisticated drones and so, the effect of cars in three dimensions instead of two.

Cars are an instrument of control. This is brought home by the transition from drivered to driverless. The hands-on “freedom” associated with hopping in a car, and driving off wherever (itself purchased at the cost of more basic freedoms), will now have to go; for drivered and driverless cars don’t mix. Clearing the former off the public roadways will require legislation, that will be negotiated between the large commercial interests and government departments. “The people” need not be consulted; they’ll adapt.

Note that our whole way of life was already out of our hands, and now becomes more so; that our dependence on the benignity of the masters of technology has dimensionally increased. And that, as with the Internet, every movement, every keyboard stroke, becomes susceptible to computer tracking and recording.

Forget “privacy” — we are talking about Control.

By these masters I hardly mean the inventors. Those are harmless dreamer types, unless like a Tom Edison or a Bill Gates they have the drive to become rich and powerful. The myth of capitalism is in the “get rich,” an innocent enough ambition. But that is a fuel, not the machine. You don’t get rich by inventing something; more people get poor that way. You get rich by controlling the invention.

The sort of person who gets rich, in the “real world” as presently constituted, will be ruthlessly focused not on “creativity,” as the promoters of capitalism tell us, but on the opposite act of appropriation; on the “corporate takeover,” in its many overt and subtle forms, starting with the takeover of the corporation by oneself. The person who wants to become a “success” must live for that: be every hour alert to the possibilities, and constantly manipulating to his ends.

It is a game of nerves, which usually begins with a confidence trick, and continues with forms of leveraged finance that closely resemble kiting. The successful entrepreneur has the face to borrow and apply large amounts of other people’s money, to a project that may or may not earn them a return. (Usually not; but then he tries again.) The “trust” of investors and lenders is in his very cockiness. His “idea” might well be cracked; it certainly need not be original. But he has the “charisma,” the “fire in his belly,” the willingness to do “whatever it takes.”

Similarly, in politics, power is to the ruthless and cocky; the “take charge” types who say, “follow me.” It has little to do with where they are going. Indeed, the very destination is adaptable: a pragmatic assessment of what the “follower” types can be persuaded to buy. In this sense, capitalism and socialism are interchangable: both founded on the will of men, emancipated from humility and deference; and both in their nature revolutionary.

At the top of our contemporary “mixed economy” is that nexus of commerce and government. They are bureaucracies on both sides, the one usually more efficient than the other, because more responsive to accounting conventions, but that’s beside the point.

They interface. The deals are struck, through the lobbying process, very little of which involves controversy. Market territories are negotiated: Who gets control of what? It is hardball, but the players can benefit by remaining sane. It is not usually in their interest to destroy or impoverish one another — so long as everyone continues to play by the (constantly “evolving”) rules. We call this, “enlightened self-interest.”

High tech is not about whiz-bang gizmos; that is just advertisement, for show. It is instead about granting and withdrawing access; about controlling the machinery to which the great mass of society are connected, through things like those metal boxes. At one remove, it is about controlling lives. The captains of industry and the captains of government are alike the human, ego-driven creatures who get their satisfaction from being in control.

They are not in it for money alone, but for the broader power: the satisfaction of “making things happen.” A shopping mall or skyscraper can come into being at their command; so can a huge new wing of a hospital, or a mandatory pension plan. Too, we have the phenomenon of “total war” — a continuation of this “total peace” by other means.

Here we are far beyond cars, but still in our earthly terrain. We have a machinery tremendously complex, that makes comprehensive management seem necessary, creating the argument to perpetuate itself, along with the lure: for the prizes of wealth, power, and fame are made extremely visible. Yet freedom always lay in the simple.

Too, we have a system that is vulnerable to catastrophe on an apocalyptic scale, for everyone depends on the machine working. Yet real security always lay in personal independence — of a kind for which modern management has no time. No time at all: for little people getting in the way.

With material arrogance comes moral arrogance. Perhaps the most frightening thing about Donald Trump was revealed in a remark that he “doesn’t ask God for forgiveness.” Trump is unusually candid; such things are seldom baldly said. Yet that is the attitude of most men today, not only those of wealth and power. They “believe in God,” but “don’t ask forgiveness.” In other words, they don’t believe in God; or they would be down on their knees.

I am neither prognostick, nor prophet. In mentioning, yesterday, that “Carrington Event” — an inevitable, recurring fact of nature — I was pointing to the ease with which the whole machine could be smited. In a moment our worldly masters would be disarmed of their means of control, leaving only their legacy: a population of abject dependants, unable to feed themselves.

My worldly hope is not extravagant. I do not think I am in a position to “warn” anybody, let alone assemble a “back to the earth” Crusade; only in a position to help each gentle reader rethink his relationship with the worldly powers.

For they are tin men. Their works are not beautiful, and their technology is not impressive. They control us only so far as we agree to be controlled. So many are, knowingly or unknowingly, agents of the Prince of This World, who must not be served, but rather avoided; or when we are trapped, directly resisted. One might almost say that, “living simply is the best revenge.”