Neophilia

In the past, I have suffered from a psychological disorder that can best be described as neophilia. I have been enthralled by the idea of a revolution in thought: a brand new philosophy to blaze forth and sweep away the inadequacies and misconceptions of our old, encrusted mental landscape. I dreamt of technological wonders, life extension, cybernetics, space exploration, colonisation and transhumanism.

It strikes me as a very immature mindset, akin to that of a rebellious teenager. I remember proudly telling my parents that I was an anarchist, only to be told that my grandmother once told her parents that she was a communist. It appears that we both grew out of it. I look back on the political views of my teenaged self with a mixture of embarrassment and knowing self-indulgence. Many people seem to go through similar periods of teenaged rebellion, although it manifests in different ways for different people, but I would like to think that most people grow up eventually. [1]

Of course, many people never do grow out of it. On those few occasions that I encounter what is now called the “mass media”, I find ample evidence that modern society is governed almost entirely by men and women with the mental age of teenagers (and fairly obnoxious ones at that.) It is a great shame and, I am sure, a cause of much misery, but it no longer surprises me.

Although long immune to such conceits in the world of politics, it was not that long ago that I last found myself caught up in the excitement of some futurist philosophy. Transhumanism is exciting: it is positive, optimistic, groundbreaking, thrilling and new. But if one takes a step back and attempts a sober assessment, one quickly sees the similarity between youthful exuberance for political revolution and the “positive optimism” of futurists. Both are symptomatic of arrested development, both are the application of a teenaged mind to an adult problem.

I find myself thinking along similar lines when I consider technological development. There is a part of me — a geeky part of me that spent too much of its youth playing with computers — that admires technological development for its own sake. There is something bewitching about new gadgets, spacecraft, artificial intelligence and robotics. But ultimately it is nothing more than immature boys with new toys, perhaps doing more harm than good.

I recently completed a two month journey around the western half of North America. I travelled the whole distance, many thousands of miles, by car. I saw some fantastic and awe inspiring sights. All the way, I was struck by how lucky I was to be able to see all these phenomenal and humbling scenes and how I owed it all to the invention of the motor car. There is no way I could have had the wonderful experience of the last two months without a car. And yet, as I travelled along tarmac roads cut into thousand-year-old redwood forests, along tunnels blasted through mountains, down roads cutting across otherwise pristine desert, I grew to loathe cars and what they have done to our world.

Every new technology, no doubt invented with the best of intentions, seems to have its detrimental effects. I am sure plenty of people would disagree with my contention that cars do more harm than good but few people can seriously think the world is a better place with atomic weaponry in it. How about mobile telephones? They are now, my friends tell me, indispensable. Yet we all seemed to manage without them a few years ago. How much of our modern technology, the wonders of which neophiles are so keen to extol, actually improves the human lot? How much exists only thanks to an immature and unreflective passion for novelty?

Medicine is perhaps the best example of technological development that genuinely does improve lives. But even there the effects are not solely beneficial: pneumonia used to be known as the “old man’s friend” and with good reason. I am sure that almost all technological inventions are benevolently intended but I find it hard to discover a single recent invention that is unquestionably beneficial.

I have often thought that the world would be a better place if gunpowder had never been invented. Now I find myself thinking that most inventions — especially those that have come to characterise modern civilisation, such as the revolutionary changes in transport and communication — do more harm than good. In almost every case, it seems that technological innovation is justified solely by the fact that the new technology will allow us to do something that we currently desire to do but cannot. What better epitomises teenage rebellion than the selfish and unthinking attempt to satisfy desire at any cost?

During the Second World War, Tolkien wrote to his son who was then training with the Royal Air Force:

I wonder how you are getting on with your flying since you first went solo — the last news we had of this. I especially noted your observations on the skimming martins. That touches to the heart of things, doesn’t it? There is the tragedy and despair of all machinery laid bare. Unlike art which is content to create a new secondary world in the mind, it attempts to actualize desire, and so to create power in this World; and that cannot really be done with any real satisfaction. Labour-saving machinery only creates endless and worse labour. And in addition to this fundamental disability of a creature, is added the Fall, which makes our devices not only fail of their desire but turn to new and horrible evil. So we come inevitably from Daedalus and Icarus to the Giant Bomber. It is not an advance in wisdom! This terrible truth, glimpsed long ago by Sam Butler, sticks out so plainly and is so horrifyingly exhibited in our time, with its even worse menace for the future, that it seems almost a world wide mental disease that only a tiny minority perceive it. Even if people have ever heard the legends (which is getting rarer) they have no inkling of their portent. How could a maker of motorbikes name his product Ixion cycles! Ixion, who was bound for ever in hell on a perpetually rotating wheel!

— J.R.R. Tolkien to Christopher Tolkien, 7th of July 1944. Excerpt from The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (London: 2006) pp. 87-88

[1] But I must admit, when I consider the modern state, I might as well be an anarchist still.

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Published in: on October 19, 2009 at 5:33 am  Leave a Comment  

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