Mouth-Breathing Morons, Slurpee-Sucking Geeks, and Beer-Drinking Dufuses

In That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis warned that if man tried to conquer nature, he would only succeed in conquering himself.  In The Matrix, the Wachowski brothers portrayed a world in which precisely this had happened.  More recently, in Digital Barbarism, novelist Mark Helprin laments the people “who surrender to machines their time, judgment, discrimination, emotions, and humanity.”  He illuminates the implication of the other two stories: that “Too many people are in danger of becoming or have become what the Italians call industriali: extensions and servants of a machine culture of which they fancy themselves the masters when in truth they are the slaves.”

In contrast with Wendell Berry, Helprin is not against technology or progress, nor does he romanticize the 14th century.  Rather, like Lewis, he is against the people who desire to enslave themselves to a machine culture.  The evil in such slavery is not technology or progress, but the technocratic mindset that claims there is a world outside morality, ideology and human nature that can be governed by scientific experts (i.e. geeks, nerds, etc.) free from such petty restraints.  At the individual level, this premise leads to

“mouth-breathing morons in backwards baseball caps and pants that fall down; Slurpee-sucking geeks who seldom see daylight; pretentious and earnest hipsters who want you to wear bamboo socks so the world doesn’t end; women who have lizard tattoos winding from the navel to the nape of the neck; beer-drinking dufuses who pay to watch noisy cars driving around in a circle for eight hours at a stretch; and an entire race of females, now entering middle age, that speaks in North American chipmunk and seldom makes a statement without, like, a question mark at the end?”

(Yes, the whole article is that fun to read.)

Such individuals are arguably a microcosm of what the technocratic premise does to political order.  Trading relationships and responsibility for a new gadget might dehumanize a person, but doing the same for machinelike political systems that promise uniform freedom from want dehumanizes a society.  As William Schambra notes in a recent essay entitled “Obama and the Policy Approach,” this is not because society is not a complicated web as the technocrats claim, “but precisely because it is – a web far too intricate to be reliably manipulated.”

Helprin, it seems, is motivated by what David Brooks recently described as “the fierce desire to see the human whole, to be aware of people as spiritual beings and not economic units or cogs in a technocratic policy machine.”  According to The New York Times, this makes him “pompous, snarky, nasty, absurd, modernity-hating, and pigheaded,” among other things.  But on the plus side, his moral compass isn’t an app on his iPhone.

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