The Ribbonfarm blog has always been one of my preferred locations for imaginative societal analysis online. What Ribbonfarm offers, perhaps more than any other blog out there, is close attention to calibrating the lenses through which we can analyse the dynamics of our society. It is a blog that is frequently daring in its analysis, offering bold theories and frameworks where others give more predictable and unoriginal readings of our societal situation. For me, it is blogs such as Ribbonfarm that justify the continued existence of blogging as a serious medium.
Venkatesh Rao, the Executive Editor of the site, has a tremendous systematizing instinct and the ability to discern patterns and dynamics. I still refer to posts such as his ‘The Gervais Principle’, ‘Rediscovering Literacy’, and ‘Welcome to the Future Nauseous’.
However, more recently it has been the work of Sarah Perry, the site’s Contributing Editor, that has most attracted my attention. The following posts may help to explain why: ‘Gardens Need Walls: On Boundaries, Ritual, and Beauty’, ‘Weaponized Sacredness’, and ‘The Theory of Narrative Selection’. Perry’s work is characterized by a deeper attention to psychology and human nature and alertness to the ways in which social systems intersect with and engage with our psychology. In my estimation, both Rao and Perry rank up with Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex as some of the most consistently thought-provoking bloggers out there.
Ribbonfarm is an example of the unique potential of blogging as a sort of sandpit of argument, a realm for more explorative thought to occur. In my own ways, I’ve often tried to take advantage of this same potential. At its best, blogging creates a space where ideas, understandings, and theories can be tried out, experimented with, and developed, without the same pressure of finality that comes with traditional forms of publication. It can be an intellectually lively and stimulating place as a result, encouraging readers to collaborate in a more open-ended process of thought and reflection. It is a site of creative, heuristic, and experimental thought, where readers can become active participants. Different participants can take the ideas being explored in rather different directions, but everyone benefits in their own ways from the collaborative space for imaginative and creative development of thought.
Sarah Perry recently wrote a fascinating post on the subject of technology as ‘de-condensation’. While I ended up demurring at her claims about our entering an ‘age of recondensation’, I believe the core thesis of the post provides an exceptionally useful lens through which to consider a number of cultural changes. The post also advances concepts that merit deeper consideration within the discussions around the phenomenon of ‘secularization’ in various quarters.
Perry argues that, in the past, ‘time, artifacts, institutions, and even people are more condensed.’ Entities within past cultures were bearers of multiple meanings, purposes, and functions and, as a result, were associated with deep values that often bordered upon or existed within the realm of the sacred. However, as human society became more settled and technologically advanced, the formerly highly condensed entities steadily lost their integrity as their purposes, meanings, and functions were separated and outsourced to various other technologies, domains, agencies, and entities. Perry writes:
Almost every technological advance is a de-condensation: it abstracts a particular function away from an object, a person, or an institution, and allows it to grow separately from all the things it used to be connected to. Writing de-condenses communication: communication can now take place abstracted from face-to-face speech. Automobiles abstract transportation from exercise, and allow further de-condensation of useful locations (sometimes called sprawl). Markets de-condense production and consumption.
Such de-condensing effects a breach or wound in the world order, which must somehow rebuild itself around this new de-condensed reality.
I am here reminded of Albert Borgmann’s discussion of the difference between technological ‘devices’ and more traditional ‘things’. For instance, the hearth represents the sort of ‘thing’ that has been displaced by technological devices such as central heating, cookers, and microwaves. These devices perform key functions of the hearth considerably better than the hearth ever could. However, it is easy to forget those things that were lost through the ‘de-condensing’ the hearth. The hearth was never merely a ‘device’ for producing heat. It was a focal point of family life, community, and practice, a site of often deep meaning. The hearth brought the family together. It represented their interdependence, as each family member had their own tasks of making and tending the fire, cooking with it, cleaning it out, gathering, buying, or chopping fuel for it. If a member of the family failed to play their part, all could suffer. It established shared daily rituals and structured the day. It required the development and passing on of skills and active involvement with nature.
It created a specific place, which ordered wider social spaces and itineraries (note that the hearth names the place primarily and the fire upon it only by metonymy). In many cultures the hearth had a deeply gendered meaning, being associated with the wife and mother at the very heart of the family. The hearth metonymically stood for the home and for domestic life and its relations as a whole.
Although people still have fireplaces in their houses, long after the development of central heating, these fireplaces are only a shrunken semblance of what they once were. No longer the site of condensed meaning and the necessary confluence of family activity, they now function chiefly as luxuries for our comfort and sentimental enjoyment. Freeing us from often onerous former necessities, the technological process of de-condensation gives us benefits of convenience, efficiency, ease, and comfort, but at the price of much meaning, purpose, social bonding, and embeddedness.
As Perry observes, technological de-condensing chiefly tends to address problems nearer to the base of Maslow’s Pyramid. However, the practices and entities that are displaced by the process of de-condensing typically addressed needs further up the pyramid too. For instance, Leon Kass writes of modern eating practices, which have often been technologically disembedded from former practices that addressed deeper hungers:
We face serious dangers from our increasingly utilitarian, functional, or “economic” attitudes toward food. True, fast food, TV dinners, and eating on the run save time, meet our need for “fuel,” and provide close to instant gratification. But for these very reasons, they diminish opportunities for conversation, communion, and aesthetic discernment; they thus shortchange the other hungers of the soul. Disposable utensils and paper plates save labor at the price of refinement, and also symbolically deny memory and permanence their rightful places at the table. Meals eaten before the television set turn eating into feeding. Wolfing down food dishonors both the human effort to prepare it and the lives of those plants and animals sacrificed on our behalf. Not surprisingly, incivility, insensitivity, and ingratitude learned at the family table can infect all other aspects of one’s life.
De-condensation can occasion the ‘dis-integration’ of meaning, or the reduction of meaning and purpose to shallow material functions and ends. Perhaps it could be argued that the process of de-condensation necessarily begins with a perceptual atomization of realities into discrete parts of which they can never exceed the sum or a reduction of them into simple functions, dismissing the wider reality they form around themselves. In particular, the integrating power of former practices and realities is dismissed, devalued, or neglected. The result of such a process of de-condensation can be a vague but pronounced sense of existential lack of value, self, agency, meaning, and purpose even in the midst of relative material plenty. While we are glad to be free of old necessities and their attendant hardships, their passing has often left us emptier.
The last couple of centuries in particular have witnessed the rapid de-condensation of key dimensions of human life. Yet the next century promises to take this process of de-condensation further than we may currently even imagine, with potentially dire consequences for humanity. While de-condensation has previously unsettled the realms of human relations and labour, it now threatens fundamentally to undermine them.
This recent essay is just one of a great many voices that have been declaring our movement into an age where human labour in general (and ‘male’ labour in particular), is increasingly redundant. As we move towards ever greater levels of automation, technologization, and artificial intelligence, human labour is worth less and less on the employment market. If you look at the most common job in each US state, you will notice that truck drivers are the most common in the majority of states: those jobs are going to start to disappear rapidly within the next few years as self-driving vehicles start to appear on the roads. Technology has already hit manufacturing and farming jobs: truck driving is next. Even if big manufacturing companies were to return to the US from overseas, they would only employ a small fraction of the numbers that they once employed. Nor is arresting the immigration of cheap labour going to prevent the steady collapse of the labour market.
The situation that we now face is due in no small measure to the extreme de-condensation of human work. Human work has always served a wide array of ends beyond those at the bottom of Maslow’s Pyramid. Work offers us a means of making our mark upon the world and of investing the self in objects of our creation. Work externalizes the human spirit and also gives us a stake in the future. Work has been a means of binding us to the natural world within which we live. We must learn to be attentive to the world and diligent in labouring upon and within it.
Work is a means of bringing people together in communities. In most human societies, work has served to affirm people in their sex and given them deep relationships with others of their sex. Work has enabled and trained people to exercise adult responsibility, agency, independence, and providence. Work has given people a deep sense of purpose and has structured their lives within sacred patterns of work and rest. Work has secured people’s place and status in society. Work is a means by which we can give of ourselves to others and a means by which we are dependent upon each other.
As we have sought to maximize the ends of production, efficiency, and profit, we have de-condensed work. Many of the purposes that work once served are now dispensed with or even directly undermined. In the modern economy, rather than serving to bind communities together, work tends to atomize them instead, as we are all uprooted and pushed to migrate within and without our countries to follow work opportunities. The more that machines and processes intervene between us and our creations, the harder it is to find meaning in our labour, or to feel that we are making a mark in the world. We may feel alienated from our labour. It no longer provides us with the rich forms of sociality it once did. Rather than affirming us in our sexed agencies and identities, the modern gender neutral workplace is often a stifling and emasculating environment for men and an oppressive and marginalizing environment for women. As work becomes rarer, the work that remains will probably also become less and less meaningful and fulfilling. For many, the minimal gains of precarious low paid work over unemployment benefits are simply not sufficient to compensate for the indignities it inflicts.
De-condensation tends to narrow or relocate ends. Work, which once served a more integrated human meaning, can now be reduced to the ends of production and securing the means for consumption. The economy and its growth can become an end in itself (perhaps even to a point where we could imagine human beings being cut out of the loop altogether!). However, the end of maximizing production can easily become antagonistic not only to human life and society, but also to the planet, which was not created to sustain unrestrained growth.
What happens when meaningful work no longer exists? Well, on account of welfare and charity, most people probably won’t starve. Indeed, there is growing support for a guaranteed income as a measure to stave off the worst prospects of a post-work world. Yet we can already see what happens to people, perhaps especially young men, when they lack a sense of meaning and purpose, meaning and purpose that work once supported. Their human spirit is starved and they can turn to forms of escapism—entertainment, sport, video games, drugs, promiscuous sex and porn, etc.—which at least offer weakly to scratch their deep existential itches.
Work is not the only realm under threat. Our fundamental human relations themselves are increasingly threatened. Marriage traditionally functioned as a socially integrating institution and has been regarded as sacred or holy by many societies as a result, right down to the present. Although the form it took could vary considerably from society to society, it generally served to unite or strengthen the bond between a range of different persons and practices. It bound the generations together. It bound different families together. It related the sexes together. It strengthened communities and cultures as marriages became the bearers of religious and social meaning. It connected sex with procreation. It connected private life with communal life.
The power of marriage and family as an institution arose in large measure from the vast array of functions that were condensed within it: provision, security, welfare, healthcare, education, investment, employment, public representation, community, religious practice, etc., etc. However, over the last few centuries marriage has been radically de-condensed, many of its former functions outsourced to other institutions or drastically reduced through new technologies. Whereas marriage was once a deeply meaningful necessity for people’s physical and social survival, now it is steadily reduced to a realm of sentimental community. Without the force of necessity holding people together, the deeper integrating goods that marriage once represented are harder to perceive and its meaning is drastically diminished. Marriage becomes much weaker as an institution.
Marriage once powerfully represented the condense and integrated meaning of human sexuality, a deep mystery of the union of man and woman, the wonder of the other sex and the deeper reality of our own, the most fundamental common project of all human society, the union of our most animal of drives with the highest of our ideals, the connection between our bodies and our deepest selves, the significance of the loving and committed sexual bond as the site where the gift of new life is welcomed into the world, the difference between human making and human begetting, the miracle of the development of new life, the wondrous natural blossoming of private sexual unions into public families, a bond that stretches over generations, the deep union of blood, the interplay and union of the sexes in all areas of human life and society, the maturation of man and woman together and in union through all of the seasons of their lives, until they cross the threshold of death.
This meaning hasn’t entirely disappeared, but it is fast fading. Through many and various developments, the meaning of marriage in relation to human sexuality has been slowly eroded. Human sexuality is being de-condensed. Contraception and prophylactics separate sexual relations from procreative potential and reduce the need for discriminating choice of partners, reducing sex to primarily genital stimulation. Porn offers to satisfy our unruly lusts, compartmentalizing our sexuality. Reproductive technology separates procreation from sexual congress. It abstracts bodily material from persons and biological parenthood from social parenthood. Surrogacy abstracts child-bearing from motherhood. The coming together of bodies is no longer presumed to necessitate a uniting of selves. Sexual reassignment surgery and hormone replacement therapy reinforce the abstraction of one’s gender from one’s natural bodily sex. Social science de-condenses the function of ‘parenting’ from the condense reality of being a mother or father.
Although male identity has historically been especially powerfully located in the realm of work within the world, the value and identity enjoyed by women in society has had much to do with the fact that they bear children and forge the most fundamental human bonds within their very bodies. As Ivan Illich once powerfully put it, women ‘leave behind a trail of new life.’ They do this as ‘condense’ and ‘integrated’ persons—as bearers of sacred meaning—not merely as an aggregation of discrete functions.
However, this is increasingly going to come under threat. When we can engineer artificial human eggs from men’s skin cells, grow the resulting embryos in artificial wombs, and men can have artificial sexual relations that cater to their every fantasy, what becomes of women? Will they represent something more to men than an outmoded sexual and reproductive ‘technology’? What sort of relation between the sexes will exist in such a world? What sort of bond will exist between generations when reproductive technologies and genetic engineering increasingly intervene? What becomes of parenthood in such a world, especially in relation to the state?
Here it becomes clearer that de-condensation is something that directly threatens human beings themselves. It isn’t just our tools, institutions, and societies that are being de-condensed, but our very selves. The humanity that will result will be much reduced in stature. What it means to be a mature human being, to be made in the image of God, is closely bound up with our creative and procreative activity and both of these dimensions of our humanity face imminent threats. Even if we survive such developments in relative material comfort, it will most likely be in a sort of puerile dependency on a stifling government.
As I have argued in the past, these de-condensing developments are already underway, driven in large measure by the desire to normalize such things as gender neutral marriage. Contemporary progressivism is, at heart, a transhumanist movement, a movement that necessitates the radical de-condensing and refashioning of the human being in order to achieve its ends. While often well-intentioned, it is imperative that we register the danger that it presents. The transhumanism it envisages has many appealing features, yet the de-condensation it necessitates will seriously reduce humanity in its dignity, severing the bonds of meaning that give us purpose, identity, and a place in the creation. As Oliver O’Donovan has maintained, the crucial difference between begetting and making human beings may seem small at points, yet is vast in its implications.
Behind the process of de-condensing is often the drive to overcome unwelcome necessity. The condense meanings we once enjoyed were typically preserved through hardship and suffering, through limits imposed on us by nature, through the lack of an alternative. Our society, however, is founded upon the value of ‘choice’ over all else and eschewing necessity and constraint wherever possible. The destructive power of the reality of capitalism lies precisely in the fact that it represents the destabilizing effect of the de-condensing maximization of choice upon all settled social realities. Given the choice between a difficult practice and an easy de-condensed alternative that relieves us of its burden, we will incline towards the latter almost every time.
Where choice is maximized, what were formerly virtues formed and meanings maintained through necessity now must be established through self-imposed discipline. We are creating a world where, as we no longer have a virtuous and strong humanity developed under the force of the gravity of necessity, we risk surrendering our very selves to the whims of petty and untamed vices. I will conclude with a lengthy quotation from C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man, which expresses the problem well:
From this point of view the conquest of Nature appears in a new light. We reduce things to mere Nature in order that we may ‘conquer’ them. We are always conquering Nature, because ‘Nature’ is the name for what we have, to some extent, conquered. The price of conquest is to treat a thing as mere Nature. Every conquest over Nature increases her domain. The stars do not become Nature till we can weigh and measure them: the soul does not become Nature till we can psychoanalyse her. The wresting of powers from Nature is also the surrendering of things to Nature. As long as this process stops short of the final stage we may well hold that the gain outweighs the loss. But as soon as we take the final step of reducing our own species to the level of mere Nature, the whole process is stultified, for this time the being who stood to gain and the being who has been sacrificed are one and the same. This is one of the many instances where to carry a principle to what seems its logical conclusion produces absurdity. It is like the famous Irishman who found that a certain kind of stove reduced his fuel bill by half and thence concluded that two stoves of the same kind would enable him to warm his house with no fuel at all. It is the magician’s bargain: give up our soul, get power in return. But once our souls, that is, ourselves, have been given up, the power thus conferred will not belong to us. We shall in fact be the slaves and puppets of that to which we have given our souls. It is in Man’s power to treat himself as a mere `natural object’ and his own judgements of value as raw material for scientific manipulation to alter at will. The objection to his doing so does not lie in the fact that this point of view (like one’s first day in a dissecting room) is painful and shocking till we grow used to it. The pain and the shock are at most a warning and a symptom. The real objection is that if man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be: not raw material to be manipulated, as he fondly imagined, by himself, but by mere appetite, that is, mere Nature, in the person of his de-humanized Conditioners.