This essay is the first written contribution from the Punkt. Community, a team of like-minded people interested in the movement for a good relationship with technology. In ‘Losing Traction’, Josh Berson, anthropologist and author, explores how technology's grip on us creates an illusion of control that risks robbing our lives of meaning.
Not long ago I found myself up to my ankles in mud trying to free a stuck car. I was visiting a friend, call them R, in the kind of place where, twenty years ago, there would have been not much to do at the weekends but where, today, you’ll find a Saturday market to meet the produce needs of a fifty-cover farm-to-table restaurant. It was pouring rain. Our uneventful trip to the market had taken a turn for the dramatic when, returning to the car, we learned that in the time we’d been inside the patch of grass where we’d parked had turned to slime.
What ensued was a scene out of Hokusai or Bruegel, with a succession of kindly passersby pitching in to push on the front fender while R floored it in reverse, all of us ending up covered in mud. At length R went back inside, returning with a strip of felted matting. This we got under the front tire that seemed to have more traction, and with three of us pushing managed to free the damned thing.
Moments like this have become all too rare. I mean not the camaraderie of a bunch of strangers working together to solve some problem but the loss of traction, the loss of control, the unbidden interruption to the smooth unfolding of our Instagram prescribed Saturday morning. We have lost our taste for the unbidden, the uncontrollable, the spanner. We expect the carpark to be paved. We have come to inhabit an ethos of control.
Chad Wellmon is a professor of literature at the University of Virginia. Four years ago, Wellmon writes, I thought I knew what a university was.
When Wellmon became principal of one of the university’s residential colleges, he came face-to-face with what he calls the Other University.
The Other University does not have a faculty; it has a staff with professional degrees and doctorates in higher-ed administration. The Other University does not have a curriculum; it has programming: health and wellness, multicultural awareness, community outreach, personal enrichment and career counseling. Within the managerial ethos of the Other University, these aren’t topics for discussion and discovery, they are messages to be internalized and abided. …
If faculty teach students, the Other University trains them.
But the managerial ethos, the ethos of control, is not limited to the professional managerial class and its heirs. It infects us all. Its causes are manifold and have unfolded over a span of generations. Technology, be it understood either in the broad sense or in the limited sense of the slab of glass and semiconductors you carry in your pocket, did not bring about the ethos of control. But it certainly facilitates it.
By now we are all familiar with surveillance capitalism, with the drip-drip colonization of our attention, not to say our desire. They know — I lie awake, nights, thinking, they know, despite my efforts at concealment, that my trips to this part of the world are not just to visit an old friend, I’m there to look at old dairy farms, abandoned hunting caravans, to find a patch of well-drained ground where my partner and I might seek shelter from runaway asset inflation. At root, the attention economy is about turning every act of consciousness into an opportunity to sell something. Somewhere, a Lagrange multiplier has been updated to feed me ads for real estate.
But the ethos of control, the determination to have complete awareness of one’s environment, to anticipate every adverse outcome and manage it in advance, is, if anything, more insidious than surveillance capitalism — for we experience it not as something imposed on us from without but as something that arises from within.
Then come the big losses of control: floods, wildfires, pandemics (note the plural) — and we find ourselves ill-equipped. (Twenty years ago it would have been snowing, not raining, on our trip to the farmers’ market — had there been one.)
Just as phones and the technical-administrative-ethical apparatus they stand in for did not call the ethos of control into being, so a phone cannot free you from that ethos. Learning to abide in impermanence is not a one-time struggle but a lifelong practice, and a practice that must be undertaken not just on one’s own but collectively. Don’t wait. Embrace everyday losses of traction, so that when the world turns to mud you can at least have the forbearance to get out and push.
About the author:
Josh Berson is an anthropologist and the author, among other things, of The Human Scaffold: How Not to Design Your Way Out of a Climate Crisis (2021) and The Meat Question: Animals, Humans, and the Deep History of Food (2019). With Carla Nappi he directs the research studio Midden.
Wellmon, Chad. 2021. Degrees of Anxiety. The Point 25 (August 15). https://thepointmag.com/examined-life/degrees-of-anxiety/