This is the first entry in a series of essays by which I want to hone my rhetorical and argumentative skills. I'm particularly interested in feedback from whose who disagree with my conclusions or the merits of specific arguments. Let's get smarter, together.
The comments are always open.
The world is shrinking. Some would say it’s already shrunk. Everywhere you turn people are offered a limitless existence: same-day delivery, infinite hours of entertainment, and bottomless personalized feeds. The tricky nature of time remains an obstacle but you — yes, even you — can chip away at finitude through the self-flagellation of self-optimization and the latest life-hacks.
The world has become small, but we are still smaller. Our growing number of options has done nothing to increase actual human capacity. We have limits but limits are not synonymous with weakness. In this essay, I will argue for a return to limits for the sake of our natural and social environments. I will attempt to show limits as bulwarks, both necessary and good, to the irresponsibilities of unbounded freedom, ease, and profit.
Abundance is Limited
Limitlessness is a lie. It’s easy to ignore this fact in times and places of abundance but it remains true. Wendell Berry, poet-farmer and advocate of life lived at a human scale, describes our problem:
[…]the commonly accepted basis of our economy is the supposed possibility of limitless growth, limitless wants, limitless wealth, limitless natural resources, limitless energy, and limitless debt. The idea of a limitless economy implies and requires a doctrine of general human limitlessness: all are entitled to pursue without limit whatever they conceive as desirable—a license that classifies the most exalted Christian capitalist with the lowliest pornographer.
Berry is a staunch critic of industrial agriculture and the above passage, from his essay Faustian Economics, captures a key component of his thought. Elsewhere, speaking of farming, he reminds readers that no amount of money or government intervention can buy food from land that will not produce it. This is why productivity cannot be the only benchmark for success.
Only what is used responsibly can be said to be used rightly.
Berry says our “human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning.” In other words, less is surely more. He goes on to propose a freeze on our confidence in science and technology to extend our limits—they don’t, they only the fool us into thinking so. Berry suggests putting art back at the centre of human making, “for an art does not propose to enlarge itself by limitless extension but rather to enrich itself within bounds that are accepted prior to the work.”
The sickness of limitlessness has long since passed from human hearts to the nature surrounding us, and now infects the digital frontier. Leaving aside urban-dwellers’ ignorance of the ruin industrial agriculture has wrought, the fallacy of limitless growth in a limited world shapes—and continues to threaten—all corners of culture. Instead of world peace and a global village we got hate mobs and transnational totalitarian corporations.
Tomatoes don’t taste like tomatoes anymore but at least we can Quote Tweet fools (who remain our neighbours) on Twitter. Welcome to the future. It’s here, and we paid for it on credit—or is this the free ad-supported version?
Returning to Responsibility
Alan Jacobs, in his article Tending the digital commons: A small ethics toward the future, highlights the need for a perspective akin to Berry’s, not only in natural ecology but also media ecology. Given the power and scope of 21st-Century technologies, Jacobs argues, “a wholly new ethics is required.” We can’t simply go back to the philosophers for answers, “because no previous society possessed powers that could extend its reach so far in both space and time” as we now do.
Jacobs uses a beautiful finitude-affirming image from The Lord of The Rings as an approach for human responsibility that would serve us equally well in the fields as it would online. …
It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.
I’ll let Jacobs connect the dots for us himself:
Gandalf first urges his friends to remember the limits of their powers: They cannot “master all the tides of the world,” the world-historical forces that exceed the mental as well as the potential (as in the Latin > potentia> , “power”) grasp even of those whom characters in the novel refer to as “the Great.” Rather, responsible actors must direct their attention more locally, to “the fields that we know,” and even then must also remember what forces they cannot “rule.” Their task is simply to give “those who live after … clean earth to till.” This is an agricultural, ecological metaphor — and not just a metaphor. Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor, “can torture and destroy the very hills,” we are told, and his ally, the wizard Saruman, with his “mind of metal and wheels,” has transformed the woods and glens of Isengard into a massive industrial powerhouse.
But it is as metaphors that I want to consider these images. What, in media ecology, might count as “clean earth to till”? And how might it be cultivated by those who accept responsibility — the responsibility of > stewardship> , which disavows “rule” and “mastery”?
Jacobs goes on to argue for a rejection of powerful internet platforms, like Google, Facebook, and Amazon. A more decentralized online environment, Jacobs says, would limit the concentration of power in the hands of a few and likewise serve to increase responsibility among the small hands that move the wheels of the world (to borrow another image from Tolkien).
So, like farms small enough to be worked with the care, skill, and responsibility of farming families, we ought to hold up ownership and responsibility as ideal features of the open web. Blogging was declared dead years ago but it can make a comeback if people are willing to cultivate a smaller audience. The largest possible audience doesn’t have to be the only benchmark for success.
The Right Limits
A future where the web is controlled more and more by massive platforms is not a better one. More convenient? Maybe, but convenience always involves a trade-off and in this case we trade the free and open web of tomorrow for algorithmic ease today.
The economics of online surveillance and data collection are not responsible. The invasive and pervasive collection of personal data by hidden means and to ends largely unknown to us is a kind theft, and it is predatory. We haven’t invited the wolves into the sheepfold, we’ve moved onto the wolves’ territory. Jacobs says we owe it to those who come after us to make sure there are options beyond ceding our online lives to the pleasures and whims of Silicon Valley. We must preserve a way of life “outside the walls the factory owners have built.”
What’s needed online is a new kind of “back to the land” movement. If you have any misgivings about the power of Google and Facebook then get some cheap hosting and a domain—a place of your own—and then use it. Jacobs is careful to remind us that he is “not speaking here of complete digital independence, but, rather, independence from the power of the walled factories and their owners.”
Independence will cost us, however. It will cost money, time, and effort which means it will be inconvenient and uncomfortable. Boosting posts on Facebook and letting the likes, shares, and comments roll in feels good but it is short-sighted. And short-term economics is the economics of bandits, not citizens. Reorienting our freedom from the hidden-costs of convenience toward the valuable work of cultivating non-commercial spaces for community will safeguard a future where people will remain free to choose. Free to choose what is good, and not just what is easy. The hard work necessary to ensure there will be clean earth to till in the fields and digital commons tomorrow is, mercifully, good work.
“We are fond of talking about ‘liberty’; but the way we end up actually talking of it is an attempt to avoid discussing what is 'good.’ We are fond of talking about 'progress’; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. We are fond of talking about 'education’; that is a dodge to avoid discussing what is good. The modern man says, 'Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace unadulterated liberty.’ This is, logically rendered, 'Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it.’ He says, 'Away with your old moral standard; I am for progress.’ This, logically stated, means, 'Let us not settle what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it.’ He says, 'Neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education.’ This, clearly expressed, means, 'We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children.” ~ G. K. Chesterton