Are You Smarter than Your Smartphone?

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Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University. For a list of his recent books and online publications, including some on Dorothy Day, click here. His most recent book is An Age of Progress? Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces (Anthem Press, 2008).

Image via Shutterstock.

First off, let me clarify the title of this essay. By “smarter” I mean wiser; and “smart phone” symbolizes not only modern technology but modernity generally. Thus, I’m asking, “Are you wiser than the mass culture that surrounds you, a culture largely determined by modern technology and economics?”

As a historian, my natural inclination is to look at questions from a historical perspective, so I begin by looking at reflections of four critics of modernity, all dead before smart phones were invented—Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gandhi, and E. F. Schumacher.

Even though the German-English Schumacher is the most contemporary (d. 1977), he most clearly traced modernity back to the scientific revolution of 16th and 17th centuries. In A Guide for the Perplexed, he comments that “the traditional wisdom of all peoples in all parts of the world . . . [has] become virtually incomprehensible to modern man.” (See here for the sources of all Schumacher quotes). The beginning of this trend he attributes to René Descartes (1596-1650) and Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who began a tendency of overemphasizing reason and a scientific approach to the exclusion of other forms of knowledge. “The new science was mainly directed toward material power, a tendency which has meanwhile developed to such lengths that the enhancement of political and economic power is now generally taken as the first purpose of, and main justification for, expenditure on scientific work.” He opposed this “manipulative science” because “the soul disappeared from the description of man—how could it exist when it could be neither weighed nor measured?” As he stated shortly before his death, “the progressive elimination of wisdom has turned the rapid accumulation of knowledge into a most serious threat. . . . Western civilization is based on the philosophical error that manipulative science is the truth.” (An earlier critic of modernity, Joseph Wood Krutch, said something similar in his 1929 book, The Modern Temper: “The universe revealed by science . . . is one in which the human spirit cannot find a comfortable home.”)

Schumacher was an economist, but he believed that like science, which it mistakenly tried to ape, economics reflected too much of a materialist approach. “Out of the large number of aspects which in real life have to be seen and judged together before a decision can be taken, economics supplies only one—whether a thing yields a money profit to those who undertake it or not.” It does not even generally ask “whether an activity carried on by a group within society yields a profit to society as a whole. . . . In a sense, the market is the institutionalisation of individualism and non-responsibility.” He also thought that economics dominated government policies and “absorbs almost the whole of foreign policy” and the “whole of ethics” and takes “precedence over all other human considerations. Now, quite clearly, this is a pathological development.”

We shall return to Schumacher later, but for now we turn to three non-Western critics of Western modernity, two Russians and an Indian.

In 1862, Dostoevsky made his first trip to Western Europe, which lasted ten weeks. One of the highlights of the trip was his eight-day stay in London. He found it a huge, garish, noisy, bustling city with polluted air and water, with overhead railways and also the beginnings of underground ones. He visited the reconstructed Crystal Palace at Sydenham Hill in South London to view the 1862 World Exhibition, which featured all the latest technological wonders collected from all parts of the world. It seemed to symbolize the materialism which he felt had become the new god for Western man. In his Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, which he wrote the following winter, we read:

People come with a single thought, quietly, relentlessly, mutely thronging into this colossal palace; and you feel that something final has taken place here, that something has come to an end. It is like a Biblical picture, something out of Babylon, a prophecy from the apocalypse coming to pass before your eyes. You sense that it would require great and everlasting spiritual denial and fortitude in order not to submit, not to capitulate before the impression, not to bow to what is, and not to deify Baal, that is, not to accept the material world as your ideal.

And later in the book, “To accumulate a fortune and possess as much as possible has become the principal moral code and catechism of the Parisian.” He also spoke of the pride, egoism, godlessness, and absence of brotherhood which he believed were becoming more characteristic of Western Europe. In his subsequent great novels from Crime and Punishment to The Brothers Karamazov we continue to see him criticizing Western materialism and egoism, as well as its influence on Russia, and contrasting it to older Russian spiritual values. One analysis of his novel The Idiot points out that “the mutual accommodation long observed by science and theology was quickly breaking down during these years. From many points of the compass science was quickly forcing consideration of man as but an extension of objective forces in nature that could be understood and used, but not changed. Taken together, the rise of money as a social determinant and the new, objectifying definitions that science was applying to human identity were causing a general shift toward materialism in Europe that successfully displaced more traditional social and religious assumptions.” It was against such a background that Dostoevsky placed his Christ-like “idiot,” “his fool for Christ’s sake,” Prince Myshkin.

In Tolstoy’s 1857 story "Lucerne" his protagonist refers to Western civilization as that "egotistical association of people" which was apparently destroying the "need for instinctive and loving association." As early as 1862, Tolstoy criticized those who equated urbanization and the increased production of material goods with progress. He was convinced that the growth of cities and newspapers, gas-lighting, railways, and sewing machines, all were either regressive developments or not worth the cost of destroying forests and peoples' sense of simplicity and moderation. He believed that the railways, for example, brought the peasant only what he did not need: an increase in the temptations of the city, the destruction of the forests, the carting away of laborers, and an increase in the price of bread. To him, progress meant an overall improvement of well-being, which could not be measured in material terms alone (see here for more on Tolstoy in the 1860s).

In the early twentieth century, now more of a moralist than the writer of great novels he had earlier been, he wrote:

As there is no end to the caprices of men when they are met, not by their own labor but by that of others, industry is more and more diverted to the production of the most unnecessary, stupid, depraving products, and draws people more and more from reasonable work.  And no end can be foreseen to these inventions and preparations for the amusement of idle people, especially as the stupider and more depraving an invention is—such as the use of motors in place of animals or of one’s own legs, railways to go up mountains, or armored automobiles armed with quick-firing guns—the more pleased and proud of them are both their inventors and their possessors.

In the same article he wrote of a “blind faith . . . spreading more and more widely among most of Western nations. This faith is a belief that those inventions and improvements for increasing the comforts of the wealthy classes and for fighting (that is, slaughtering men), which the enslaved masses have been forced to produce for several generations, are something very important and almost holy, called, in the language of those who uphold such a mode of life, “culture,” or even more grandly, “civilization.”

These words about “civilization” would later be echoed by a man who considered himself a follower of Tolstoy—Mohandas Gandhi. In the early twentieth century, he established a rural commune in South Africa which he called The Tolstoy Farm, and he corresponded with Tolstoy. In 1909, just a year before Tolstoy’s death he wrote Hind Swaraj, which contains an incisive critique of modern civilization. The following excerpt will give an indication of his view of it and of modernity.

Let us first consider what state of things is described by the word "civilization". Its true test lies in the fact that people living in it make bodily welfare the object of life. . . . Formerly, in Europe, people ploughed their lands mainly by manual labor. Now, one man can plough a vast tract by means of steam engines and can thus amass great wealth. . . . Formerly, men traveled in wagons. Now, they fly through the air in trains at the rate of four hundred and more miles per day. This is considered the height of civilization. It has been stated that, as men progress, they shall be able to travel in airships and reach any part of the world in a few hours. . . . Formerly, men worked in the open air only as much as they liked. Now thousands of workmen meet together and for the sake of maintenance work in factories or mines. Their condition is worse than that of beasts. . . . Formerly, men were made slaves under physical compulsion. Now they are enslaved by temptation of money and of the luxuries that money can buy. . . .This civilization takes note neither of morality nor of religion.

In this same work Gandhi sounded very Tolstoyan in praising his Indian ancestors who

“reasoned that large cities were a snare and a useless encumbrance and that people would not be happy in them, that there would be gangs of thieves and robbers, prostitution and vice flourishing in them and that poor men would be robbed by rich men. They [modern India’s ancestors] were, therefore, satisfied with small villages.”

Now, let us return to Schumacher. From the 1950s forward, he was strongly influenced by Gandhi‘s economic ideas. In a 1955 paper, “Economics in a Buddhist Country,” he insisted that a country‘s economics should reflect its thinking on the purpose of life and that Western economics was based on a materialistic view incompatible with Buddhism or any other spiritual approach.

Years later he quoted Gandhi’s statement that “there should be no place for machines that concentrate power in a few hands and turn the masses into mere machine minders, if indeed they do not make them unemployed” (see here for a recent article on technology and unemployment). Schumacher thought that if certain types of big technology put people out of work, perhaps it would be better to use a more appropriate technology in order to keep on more employees even if it meant less productivity per person.

By the 1970s, he had become a trenchant critic of modern industrial economics, whether capitalist or communist. He had also become a major advocate of an economics that emphasized ecological concerns. With its emphasis on rapid change, economic growth, and increasing Gross National Product (GNP), modern economics failed to adequately consider “the availability of basic resources and, alternatively or additionally, the capacity of the environment to cope with the degree of interference implied.” By advertising and marketing, capitalist economics also encouraged a “frenzy of greed and . . . an orgy of envy.” By ignoring wisdom humans were in danger of building up “a monster economy, which destroys the world.”

Despite numerous criticisms of modern mass culture, advertising and marketing are still a major part of it, and they still encourage greed and materialism. In the United States and many other parts of the world, we still put economic growth before environmental concerns. So the question is not, “Are smart phones useful?” Sure they are. The real question is, “How do we subsume economics and technological innovation into a wiser view of our individual betterment and the common good?” That view would have to be based on worthy values and consider human spiritual, as well as material, needs (for more, see here). And it would have to emphasize environmental considerations. Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Schumacher did not always have the right answers, but they at least posed important questions about the directions of modern life.

One additional benefit of looking at the views of the four critics above is that all but Schumacher provided non-Western perceptions. And even Schumacher from 1955 on was an occasional economic adviser to non-Western countries, and he tried to see things from their standpoint. In the globalized world of the 21st century, with plenty of anti-Americanism still evident, we can use all the help we can get in looking at our economy and culture from outside perspectives.