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Magical thinking

One of the things that gives the mythology of progress its emotional power is the circular logic at its center. From within the confines of the myth, what’s new is better than whatever it replaces by the simple fact that it’s newer, and whatever our technology happens to be good at is more important than the things it does poorly, especially when older methods did a better job of these latter than newer ones do.

I had a useful reminder of this the other day, thanks to one of the readers of The Archdruid Report, who critiqued my recent post “Technological Triage” with a certain degree of heat. One of his central points was that technology is here to stay, no matter what the future holds, because it’s better than any alternative. “What is certain is that ‘technology’ will not disappear,” he wrote: “...the engineer’s outlook and the scientist’s methods will continue to be applied to problems. And they will continue to provide better results for questions involving the physical world than magical thinking of any sort.”

His comment missed a central point of my post, of course, which is that there’s no such thing as “technology” in the singular, only technologies in the plural. The notion that technology is a single monolithic thing is a convenient bit of mystification, used to hide the fact that our society, like all others, picks and chooses among available technological options, implementing some and neglecting others. This needs hiding because most of these choices are made by influential members and groups within America’s political class for their own private profit, very often at the expense of the rest of the public. Wrapping the process in a smokescreen of impersonal inevitability is a convenient way to keep awkward questions from being raised via what remains of the democratic institutions of an earlier age.

From another angle, of course, my reader’s comment is true but tautological. Toolmaking is as natural to human beings as singing is to finches, and every human culture across space and time has had its own technologies, each of which draws on available resources to meet culturally recognized needs in culturally desirable ways. It’s habitual in our own culture to think of the particular suite of technologies we’ve come up with as not only better than anybody else’s, but more advanced, more progressive. Think about what these two phrases imply, and you’ll see how they derive from and feed into the core narrative of the myth of progress, the way of telling the story of our species that turns every other culture and every past technology into a stepping-stone on the way to us. From within this narrative, all earlier technologies are simply imperfect attempts to achieve what we’ve got.

Again, this is mystification, and it serves a socially necessary purpose in a culture where talking about the goals and values of specific technologies is taboo. The frequently repeated claim that “technology is value-free” is fatuous nonsense, but as long as we think about tools and techniques as a single thing called “technology,” it’s also plausible nonsense. In reality, of course, individual technologies embody the values and goals of their designers, and are selected by users on the basis of the technology’s relationship to values and goals. Look at the suite of technologies used by a person or a culture, and it’s an easy matter to divine the values that person or that culture holds and the goals they pursue. This is unmentionable in our culture, among other reasons, because the values and goals our technologies reveal to the world are a very long ways indeed from the ones we claim to embrace.

But there’s a third set of issues woven up in my reader’s comments, and these issues take the same points a good deal deeper. His distinction between “the engineer’s outlook and the scientist’s methods” and “magical thinking of any kind” is a valid one, and he’s quite correct to suggest that the former – the set of intellectual tools in which our own culture has specialized – does a better job with certain strictly physical questions than most other ways of thinking, including the ones he labels “magical thinking.” Yet this begs the question on a much deeper level, because problem-solving methods aimed at physical questions aren’t anything like as relevant to the current predicament of industrial society as they sometimes seem.

Peak oil is a case in point. What happens when world petroleum production begins to decline, as it will most likely do in the next few years, has very little to do with physical questions. The forces that will take the lead in the opening phases of the deindustrial age will be political, cultural, and psychological, not physical. About these issues the methods of the scientist and the engineer have very little useful to say, and most of that was drowned out decades ago by the louder voices of political opportunism and middle-class privilege. In the same way, the technical issues involved in the transition from an overpopulated, petroleum-based civilization with an expanding economy to a renewables-based civilization with a sharply reduced population and a much smaller steady-state economy were either solved long ago or could have been solved readily with modest investment. What could not be solved by these methods is the problem of finding the motivating factors and the political will to get these solutions put into place.

Since this latter problem could not be solved by “the engineer’s outlook and the scientist’s methods,” in turn, it has not been solved at all. This is the downside of the superlative technological efficiency of our age: those things we can’t do with our machines, or with ways of thinking that evolved to manage our machines, we can’t do at all. Thus discussions of how to respond to peak oil, when these have not simply been exercises in denial or Utopian fantasy, have tended to focus on finding ways to redefine the issues in technical terms so they can be dealt with by technical methods. We hear endless talk about finding new ways to fuel our cars, and very little about the tangled and dysfunctional human motives that make it seem logical to us to ghettoize our homes, worksites, and marketplaces at such distances from one another that a preposterously inefficient system of freeways, roads, and automobiles has to be used to bridge the distances among them. It’s all very reminiscent of the old fable about the drunkard who dropped his keys in a dark street and went to look for them under the streetlight half a block away, since there, at least, he could see what he was doing.

There’s a rich irony, in other words, in my reader’s insistence that magical thinking is less useful than the technical thinking he champions, because magical thinking is exactly the form of human thought that deals with the realm of motivations, values, and goals that technical thinking handles so poorly. Americans dream of living in suburbs not because suburbs have any particular virtue – most of them lack the amenities of city and countryside alike, while sharing the worst features of both – but because the suburban house, surrounded by its protective moat of grass, is a magical symbol brimfull of potent cultural meanings. Americans drive preposterously oversized and overpowered cars, not because these are better than smaller and more sensible vehicles in any objective way, but because they magically symbolize the freedom and power most Americans long ago surrendered to the machinery of a mass society. For that matter, the hallucinated wealth that keeps our mostly fictional economy churning away consists of sheer enchantment, with even less tangible substance behind it than the moonbeams and fairy dust of a child’s wonder tale.

To speak of these issues in terms of magic is not, by the way, just a metaphor. Dion Fortune, one of the premier magical theorists of the 20th century, defined magic as the art and science of causing changes in consciousness in accordance with will. It’s predictable that a society fixated on seeing its own technology as the be-all and end-all of human achievement would misunderstand magic as a kind of failed physical technology, but that predictability makes modern attitudes about magic no less misleading. This is hardly the place for a detailed discussion of magic, but for our present purposes it can be seen as the use of psychologically potent symbolism to influence consciousness and, through consciousness, the universe as we experience it. The advertising campaigns that seduce so many people into buying, say, fizzy brown sugar water, by associating this product with symbols of happiness, self-esteem, or love, are good examples of magic at work – a debased magic, force-fitted into the manipulative mold of physical technology, but magic nonetheless.

In recent years I’ve heard people in the peak oil community who have no knowledge of magic, and who wrinkle their noses in disgust at the mere mention of the word, shake their heads in bafflement at the way that so many people in today’s world seem to be sleepwalking toward disaster. Words like “trance” and “spell” appear not infrequently in such discussions. Over the next few weeks I want to explore this in more detail, and look at the ways in which issues of meaning, value, and purpose shape the way we approach the predicament of industrial society – and might be reshaped by those who are willing to face up to the challenge of doing so.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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