Saturday, 6 February 2010


I just finished reading Chuck Klosterman's Eating the Dinosaur. It's a bit different from his earlier work, the topics that he focuses on are more serious, and though they are dealt with in the same kind of style, the general feeling is of an author who has consciously tried to raise himself above the level that he feels other people have placed him on. Having said that, I enjoyed it, and I especially enjoyed the final essay about the manifesto of the Unabomber, Industrial Society and its Future.

In this work Theodore Kaczynski outlines his philosophy, which is extremely pro-individual and anti- both society and technology. One of the claims he makes is that "technology is a more powerful social force than the aspiration for freedom". What does this mean? Klosterman frames the argument in terms of his desire to live in an air-conditioned apartment:
Yet what am I giving up in order to have a 70 degree living room in July?

Nothing that's particularly important to me.

For the air conditioner to work, I need to live in a building that has electricity, so I have to be connected to the rest of society. That's fine. That's no problem. Of course, to be accepted by society, I have to accept the rules and laws of community living. That's fine, too. Now, to thrive and flourish and afford my electric bill, I will also have to earn money. But that's okay--most jobs are social and many are enriching and unnecessary. However, the only way to earn money is to do something (or provide something) that is valued by other people. And since I don't get to decide what other people value, what I do to make a living is not really my decision. So--in order to have air-conditioning--I will agree to live in a specific place with other people, following whatever rules happen to exist there, all while working at a job that was constructed by someone else for their benefit.

In order to have a 70-degree living room, I give up almost everything.

Yet nothing that's particularly important to me.

Now, that is interesting. Our desire for comfort far outweighs our desire for the freedom to live our lives in the manner that we would in the absence of these temptations. I think the technology in this example is a red-herring, or at the very least it is only a symptom and not the root of the problem. I want to ask 2 questions: To what extent can any of us actually have desires which are separate from our social environment? And to what extent can any of us, even cabin-living recluses, be said to be "outside" of society?

I have spent a significant portion of my adult life trying to both avoid responsibility and generally act in a way which defies the expectations placed on me by society. I'm not entirely sure which one of those is the cause of the other. I do know that I have failed in both. By trying to confound expectations, I have framed my life in opposition to those expectations. Is that really any different from taking the expected path? In both scenarios, my conception of what society wants from me is influencing my actions. When I think about how I could live outside of society, my ideas are the ideas my society has of people who live outside of it. Let me make that clearer. I can imagine living on an island, and fishing for my food. But I only think of that as a possibility because I have seen it 100 times in movies and films as representing what a person who has forsaken society acts like. Quite apart from the practical impossibility, my escape from society is in a very real sense an act of a member of that society. Even in dropping out, I would be dropping out in one of the ways that society has mandated. I don't think that anyone, with the possible exception of the truly insane, can escape the pull of our socialisation.Can we, as functioning, or even semi-functioning, members of our societies, even comprehend what freedom is? Would we want it if we could?


Matt McGrath said...

Very interesting ideas.

Isn't the heart of the problem that in reality we would want to take the benefits of society without the responsibilities (or the constraints on freedom).

The other problem, I'd guess, is the proliferation of humanity. *There's nowhere left to go*. You can't just head off and find a patch of dirt and make it work for you.

The final problem (that I can be bothered to think of just now) is that the very act of staying alive involves constraint on freedom. We need to eat, so we must find and prepare food. So we cannot just hang-out doing whatever the hell we like, without dying.

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