Practical Paradoxes When Resisting Reduction

If we want to resist reduction in practice, it’s worth revisiting movements that reacted to previous cultural shifts, Romantic history in particular. How it succeeded—and failed—can show how to achieve real change while avoiding the most dangerous consequences.
Practical Paradoxes When Resisting Reduction
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Published
Apr 25, 2019

As the world becomes more connected, automated, and systematized, a corresponding backlash has emerged. In “Resisting Reduction: A Manifesto,” Joi Ito calls for a cultural change in which we value systems that are diverse and complex beyond our ability to understand, rather than trying to simplify the world into short-sighted models. However, just as technological acceleration is not new, this backlash has its own long history. If we want to resist reduction in practice, it’s worth revisiting earlier movements reacting to previous cultural shifts. In particular, Ito’s message is reminiscent of the cultural response to the first Industrial Revolution, known as Romanticism.

Nineteenth century Romantics were concerned about about rapidly accelerating technology, shrinking traditional cultures, and above all, the reduction of the human spirit and the natural world. However, the legacy of Romanticism has been complicated, with Romantic concepts implicated in some of the worst moments of the century that followed. Understanding Romantic history is useful when attempting to put Ito’s ideas into practice; where they succeeded and failed can show how to achieve real change and avoid the most dangerous consequences. While the goals of Ito’s manifesto and the other articles in the issue are inspiring, it is less clear how those goals will be achieved, which brings to mind a troubling history.

1. Fear of the Machine

The modern world seems to be changing incredibly fast, but it can’t yet compare to the complete overhaul of the Western world during the Industrial Revolution. The final impact of the computing revolution is still unknown; the Internet is still redefining how we communicate, and advances in “artificial intelligence” may one day have the greatest effects of all. But within a few decades in the early nineteenth century, Westerners were introduced to the steam locomotive, gas lamp, telegraph, and assembly line factory, and toward the end of the century, to the automobile, electric lighting and power, the radio, telephone and film. Ways of life were disrupted that had lasted for millennia. Common people went from rarely communicating with anyone outside their village to hearing broadcasts from the other side of the world. In a few generations, a rural, agricultural existence supported by cottage industries was replaced for many by urban life, built on centralized mass-production.

While the modern concept of the “Singularity” relies on an idea of “artificial intelligence” only developed after the invention of computers, nineteenth-century thinkers had their own visions of runaway mechanization producing a completely ordered world. The Industrial Revolution marked the beginning of “scientific management”: the recording of workers’ behavior and mathematical analysis of factories to increase efficiency. These practices were formalized in the 1890s by American management consultant Frederick Taylor and referred to as Taylorism or Taylorization, and were the subject of much debate; in a 1913 essay, Lenin would call Taylorism “the most widely discussed topic today in Europe” (more on Lenin’s thoughts on Taylorism later).

Many writers were quick to draw Taylorization to its logical conclusion: a world where all production was in factories, every worker monitored, all aspects of society handled mathematically. Think of it as the Singularity, but with the math done by hand; even without computers, more technology allows for more surveillance of the worker, more management. Accountancy and clerking were becoming exponentially more important in daily life, so there’s no need to include artificial intelligence to predict a world where everything might be completely ordered, recorded, and analyzed. Like today, many thinkers were optimistic about the outcomes of their version of a singularity. One of the best-selling books of its day was Edward Bellamy’s 1888 novel Looking Backward, a utopian vision of the year 2000 where all work is nationally organized and all goods are perfectly distributed. It was followed by over a hundred unofficial sequels that expanded on its promise, most notably 1894’s The Human Drift by King Gillette, founder of the Gillette razor company. Gillette envisioned a nation so urbanized that there was only one, perfectly rectangular city, run by a single company operated under “a perfect economical system of production and distribution.” Gillette didn’t care much for issues of inequality, reasoning that the great pace of technological advancement would make everyone wealthier and happier in the end. Ito refers to the Singularitarians as believing “this wonderful tool, the computer, has worked so well for everything so far that it must continue to work for every challenge we throw at it.” By the close of the nineteenth century, it seemed that these wonderful tools of automation and factory management had been so effective, one could just expand the factory model to every aspect of society and achieve a perfect world.

<p><em>Gillette’s ideal future: identical buildings organized in a hexagonal grid</em></p>

Gillette’s ideal future: identical buildings organized in a hexagonal grid

However, there were more negative responses. Few shared our modern fear of “AI apocalypse,” where the machines themselves take control, though this idea does first appear in Samuel Butler’s classic 1863 essay “Darwin Among the Machines.” A better representation of the backlash against mechanization and management is visionary science fiction author Jules Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century, written the same year, but left unpublished as publishers feared it was too depressing. Verne’s vision is similar to Ito’s worries: residents of Paris in Verne’s 1960 insist they live in a society that has solved all problems, thanks to technological advances and efficiency ensured through constant bookkeeping (a character sarcastically exclaims “I’m a cog, you’re a cog! Let’s do our cog work and get back to the litanies of Holy Accountancy!”) However, it is a world without art or culture, and one which has become ecologically fragile. The novel ends with an environmental catastrophe: a severe winter that the nation, due to overreliance on powerful machines and top-down social control, cannot recover from.

These criticisms of industrialization and reductionism came from different nations, time periods, and disciplines, and are not easily categorized. I don’t mean to portray history as a simple, linear progression of ideas from one era to the next, and I strongly encourage the reader to look up further context that this essay does not have room to include. But there was a fairly clear trend spanning this century; I will follow philosopher and historian Isaiah Berlin in labeling it “Romanticism,” a movement emerging from the “Counter-Enlightenment” reaction to the dominance of reason in philosophy in the late eighteenth century. Romanticism coalesced in Germany in the early nineteenth century as an artistic and intellectual movement centered on individual experience and the natural world. (The word “romantic” did not at the time refer to love, but to natural beauty, viz. “a romantic sunset.”) Through the latter half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, it spread outwards, influencing everything from American Transcendentalist philosophers to nationalist movements to Gothic fiction writers.

What all Romantics had in common, though, was a distrust in any way of seeing the world deemed objective or universal, and an emphasis on subjectivity, emotion, and irreducible complexity. As Berlin said in The Roots of Romanticism, a collection of his 1965 lectures on the subject:

In the aesthetics of romanticism […] the notion of eternal models, a Platonic vision of ideal beauty, which the artist seeks to convey, however imperfectly, on canvas or in sound, is replaced by a passionate belief in spiritual freedom, individual creativity.

In short, the Romantics tried to resist reduction.

2. The Worst of Both Worlds

Romanticism and its competitors (the Realist school of art, and the still-popular utopian visions of technocracy) struggled against each other throughout the nineteenth century. But the tenor of the debate changed drastically after a cataclysmic event: the First World War.

The war represented a complete breakdown of the earlier political order, and a failure of elite models to predict real world events. More than that, it showed Europe the previously unimaginable horrors of full-scale war after industrialization. Before, many had thought the effect of industry on war would be to make it faster and less costly, like the relatively quick Franco-Prussian war of 1870, or stop it altogether; even Verne’s pessimistic 1863 novel predicted that the threat of chemical warfare would make war impossible. Instead, chemical weapons were used, as were planes, tanks, and massive artillery. The idea of peaceful, ordered, centrally managed societies happily advancing forever seemed fatally flawed. The would-be managers had failed, and technology’s harms seemed to outweigh its charms; in the postwar years, the heirs to the Romantics were more popular than ever.

Take Fritz Lang’s influential 1927 science fiction film Metropolis. Though remembered today as one of the first depictions of mechanical intelligence, the real horror of the film is not the robotic antagonist, but the entire system of control that turns the workers of the city into “cogs and levers and rods” made of flesh and blood, as Norbert Wiener would later fear.

<p><em>Workers moving through Lang’s Metropolis</em></p>

Workers moving through Lang’s Metropolis

Metropolis ends with an inter-title that bluntly expresses the early twentieth-century Romantic vision, and approaches the message of Ito’s essay: “The Mediator Between the Head and the Hands Must Be the Heart.”

Or look at Margot Starke’s satirical essay “The Bank Clerk,” published in the German poetry magazine Der Querschnitt1 in 1923. Starke describes the clerks who increasingly controlled Germans’ daily life as inhuman:

For the bank clerk only acts as if he were a human being, but he is not one; for if he were human, he could not be a bank clerk [...] Should we examine his insides, a practice by preference anxiously avoided, we find no such notions as love, friendship, desire, passion, or hate; we see only—decorated with strokes and dashes—numbers…2

To Starke, finance is more than an occupation; it is a sort of anti-poetry, a transformation of all human experience to an exchange of numbers. Mirroring Ito’s concern about the reduction of nature to a single currency to accumulate and exchange, Starke makes a powerful plea for wisdom, irreducible and indescribable, over the clerk’s blunt mathematics:

As a child one learns to recognize objects, later one recognizes truths, delusions, the world, isolated, heavenly, impenetrable. Geniuses recognize invisible laws; the Holy God. But the bank clerk can imagine nothing of this whatsoever; for when he says he “knows,”3 to him that means pay, just like everything, everything that he contemplates, says, and bears within himself means pay. [...] He has no access to further words and, finally, to none at all; he uses them only for the sake of concealment, to satisfy the sorriest propriety, or in place of a number.4

Starke’s message feels similar to the conclusion of Ito’s essay. But by now, the potential alarming effects of Romanticism may be becoming clear; in hindsight, there’s something unnerving about writing from inter-war Germany so viciously criticizing a profession stereotyped as Jewish.

In my defense, Ito’s essay was the first to trigger the infamous Godwin’s Law: we’re going to have to talk about the Nazis.

In fact, this is where I find the manifesto most lacking; Ito attributes the Nazi genocide to reductionist science oversimplifying the process of evolution. This is partially true, but the initial rise of fascism in Germany was not caused by a scientific inaccuracy; there is a well-established link between fascism and the backlash against reduction.

Berlin puts it:

Fascism too is an inheritor of romanticism, not because it is irrational—plenty of movements have been that– nor because of a belief in elites—plenty of movements have held that belief. The reason why Fascism owes something to romanticism is, again, because of the notion of the unpredictable will either of man or of a group, which forges forward in some fashion that is impossible to organise, impossible to predict, impossible to rationalise. That is the whole heart of Fascism.

Reduction can feel degrading, but ideas like free speech, blind justice, and equality before the law are also a kind of reduction. The Enlightenment-era conception of society split all citizens into mathematically equivalent parts, viewing the law as a blind algorithm that applied universally; while this may be less personal and nuanced than other ways of imagining society, it can also be freeing to those for whom complex societies have become oppressive. Indeed, this has been considered the quintessential bargain for immigrants to the United States: if the ancient traditions of your homeland had singled you out for persecution, you could go to America, and be considered just another citizen.

It was the Romantics who asserted there was more to life than the visible, and thus more to unite a people than laws, generating the modern idea of nationalism. Romantic nationalism was best expressed by influential German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte in 1806, here in his eighth Address to the German Nation:

People and fatherland far transcend the State in the ordinary sense of the word, viz., the social order as comprehended by mere intellectual conception and as established and maintained under the guidance of this conception. [...] That is why this love of fatherland must itself govern the State and be the supreme, final, and absolute authority.5

And later, in the thirteenth:

Those who speak the same language are joined to each other by a multitude of invisible bonds by nature herself, long before any human art begins; they understand each other and have the power of continuing to make themselves understood more and more clearly; they belong together and are by nature one and an inseparable whole. Such a whole, if it wishes to absorb and mingle with itself any other people of different descent and language, cannot do so without itself becoming confused, in the beginning at any rate, and violently disturbing the even progress of its culture.6

While Fichte’s nationalism was based more on culture than on race, he still became an important intellectual foundation of the Nazi version of German nationalism. The distinction between fascism and other forms of government, as it was sold to the people, was that other governments were based on reductionist laws that treated humans as “mere intellectual conception,” whereas the fascist nation was built on an indescribable love and shared purpose of people held together by bonds science could not identify. While other societies treated people like numbers in a bank balance or cogs in a factory machine, fascism promised a heroic, fully realized existence, beyond the reductionist paradigm.

It is here that I should make some things very clear: I don’t think Joi Ito is a fascist.7 Nor do I think all attempts to resist reduction are crypto-fascism, or that they will end in fascism. There is also long history of dismissing those skeptical of reductionism as anti-science or tribalist, and I don’t wish to continue that here. But the links between Romanticism and fascism are fairly uncontroversial among historians, and are best described in George Mosse’s seminal 1964 Crisis of German Ideology: Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich, which describes in more detail Nazi ideology’s appeal to restore Germans’ “spiritual roots dislodged through industrialization and the atomization of modern man.” As Mosse puts it in full:

It was an ideology which stood opposed to the progress and modernization that transformed nineteenth-century Europe. It used and amplified romanticism to provide an alternative to modernity, to the developing industrial and urban civilization which seemed to rob man of his individual, creative self while cutting him loose from a social order that was seemingly exhausted and lacking vitality.

But romantic thought does not inevitably lead to fascism, and is not fascism’s only parent. Indeed, I think Ito is correct that overly reductionist thinking was also in part responsible for twentieth-century atrocities like the Holocaust. I propose that fanatical movements like fascism be seen as the “worst of both worlds”: identifying reductionism, and its ensuing loss of purpose, community, and identity as the problem, and then using reductionist logic to identify a simple solution. Germans in the inter-war period, like so many today, felt they were being treated like disposable parts or meaningless numbers; the Nazis reduced their problem to a single, identifiable enemy. Of course, once they had simplified the problem of “resisting reduction” down to Völkisch ideology, they were free to use all the machinery of the industrial revolution to their own ends.

A similar pattern emerged in the other great political reaction to changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution. In 1913, Lenin wrote on Taylorism as “A ‘Scientific’ System of Sweating,” saying that “its purpose is to squeeze out of the worker three times more labour during a working day of the same length as before,” and thus “they squeeze out of the worker three times more labour, mercilessly drain him of all his strength, and are three times faster in sucking out every drop of the wage slave’s nervous and physical energy. And if he dies young? Well, there are many others waiting at the gate!” Upon taking power after the October Revolution, though, Lenin began openly promoting Taylorism within the Soviet Union, with his central organization and Five Year Plans directly inspired by Taylor’s works. Communism was not as Romantic as other movements of its day, but clearly appealed to workers’ sense that they were being used rather than treated as human beings. Once those in power felt they were fighting for the side that respected human dignity, they felt free to impose the same structures that had reduced workers in the first place.

The crux of my disagreement with Ito’s essay is not with his moral framework but with his methods. We have seen from history that surface-level cultural developments intended to resist reduction are easily co-opted by authoritarian power structures; at the very least, we have certainly seen that Romantic hopes are no guarantee against oppressive regimes. Ito hopes that a new culture, one that values natural flourishing over mechanical accumulation of capital, will “spread as music, fashion, spirituality or other forms of art.” But as long as our centralized infrastructures of power and communication remain, a message of natural flourishing can itself be reduced to the simplest soundbite used to drown out the noise of the reductionist machine continuing apace. The worst abuses of the twentieth century were not committed by those who worshipped machines, models, and a mathematical singularity; as Mosse writes, “poetry, music, and art played an important part in the fascist movement as expressions of the non-rational needs of men, which must be satisfied if men were to achieve [...] necessary spiritual unity.” If the dangers of reduction are as great as Ito says, organizing ethics initiatives at elite institutions can hardly confront it, and are hard not to see as a surface-level change covering a much deeper problem.

It is not songs and fashions we must change, but technologies and societies. Ito’s goals are most closely aligned with influential twentieth century theorist Lewis Mumford, whose 1970 work The Myth of the Machine directly addresses the myth now arriving as the “Singularity”; the idea that all problems are solvable with more expansion, management, and surveillance. Unlike the earlier Romantics, though, Mumford understood that this myth would not be confronted by discussion, but by action; by individuals refusing to participate in the machine, and by designers creating “biotechnic” technologies that had decentralization built into their use. If we do not create structures now that are in harmony with the natural world, we may yet see all our songs about beauty, diversity, and flourishing used in support of limitlessly terrifying regimes.

3. Past, Present, and Future

We are in a new era of rapid technological and social shift, and are thus seeing new nascent proto-fascist movements. They have a similar ideology to their predecessors, opposing simple concepts of nationhood in favor of ones based on race or religion. Scott Greer, a writer for the mainstream conservative publication The Daily Caller, was recently outed as a former contributor to infamous white nationalist Richard Spencer’s publication Radix Journal. In a post on Radix from 2014, his terminology is revealing, as he laments that:

American in my mind still stood for being a normal White person who can speak English. Little did I know it just means living here. I thought America was actually a country, not a great Lockean shopping mall.

Both “Lockean” and “shopping mall” are important here; like the original fascists, the alt-right can be considered anti-capitalist. But they reject both the idea of reducing people to how much money they have in the bank, and the Lockean concept of reducing them to equivalent citizens before the law, in favor of an “actual country,” meaning a nation united by race and language, as well. In a 2013 interview with white supremacist magazine American Renaissance, philosopher Alain de Benoist (founder of the French nouvelle droite think tank GRECE and foundational “alt-right” thinker) discussed the “myth of development, of technological progress” as follows:

Today, everyone looks at the same films, listens to the same music, lives in the same kind of houses. This is something that greatly concerns me. I have traveled a great deal, and every year I see the world becoming more similar. I call this the ideology of sameness. This ideology can take religious and not-at-all religious forms, but the central idea is that we are all part of mankind, that we are brothers of the same family.

With small tweaks, this could be seen as a lament against reduction of the same type Ito wished to put forth. In Sasha Costanza-Chock's essay on Design Justice, they favorably mention anthropologist Arturo Escobar’s work on design processes for a “pluriverse,” a “Zapatista concept of creating ‘a world where many worlds fit,’ rather than the ‘one-world’ project of neoliberal globalization.” The alt-right also opposes globalization, and seek to create a “world where many worlds fit”; a set of separated ethno-nationalist states, with no immigration between them to disrupt their individual cultures. Just to be extra clear: the alt-right’s goals are very different from a Zapatista’s. But the rhetoric can be remarkably similar, so the primary way we resist reduction cannot be through rhetoric.

See this widely copy-pasted definition for the slang term “bugmen,” taken from alt-right subreddit /r/milliondollarextreme:

A bugman is your typical big left leaning city dweller. He is usually obsessed with consumerism, lining up to purchase the newest iPhone or MacBook when it comes out, and using a smartwatch/smart home speaker for longer than the week after he bought it. Chances are he owns other throwaway smart gadgets as well. All his tastes in movies, music, expensive food, art, and more are determined by what review sites and blogs say. . Everything about his personality and life is not defined by who he is, but by what he buys and his consumerist tendencies. He'll be subscribed to at least one, maybe multiple subscription services, he'll happily use social media and upload all of his information to the cloud, and he’ll gravitate towards things that seem “rational” and use big words. In fact, their social media use defines a lot about who they are, as they try to get the most likes on social media bragging about their life and viewing the lives of others who do the same. Yet there is something big missing about their life, something that can be seen in their face. Something that can be seen the minute you strip away all the consumerist choices and realize, there’s nothing else. Their lives are empty, hollow, and all about serving corporations, until they die, and this is seen in their empty insectoid stare that implies they’re dead inside, giving them the name bugmen.

Compare with Starke’s essay on the bank clerk. Or, for that matter, with Ito's description of Singularitarians, trying to avoid death and process the entire world through computation.

In 1863, Verne was concerned not just with the death of poetry; his Paris in the Twentieth Century also includes a long digression about the nature of women. A problem equal to the soulless nature of the factory was the extinction of what Verne thought of as distinctly French women:

The caressing manner of the Parisienne, her alluring figure, her witty and tender glances, her affectionate smile, her firm yet precise embonpoint soon gave way to certain long, lean, skinny, arid, fleshless, emaciated forms, to a mechanical, methodical, and puritanical unconcern. The waist flattened, the glance austerified, the joints stiffened; a stiff, hard nose lowered over narrowed lips; the stride grew longer; the Angel of Geometry, formerly so lavish with his most alluring curves, delivered woman up to all the rigors of straight lines and acute angles. The Frenchwoman has become Americanized; she speaks seriously about serious matters, she takes life seriously, she rides on the rigid saddle of modern manners, dresses poorly, tastelessly, and wears corsets of galvanized tin which can resist the most powerful pressures.

It now seems bizarre, but fear of mechanization is terribly close to reactionary fear of all change, and clinging to a largely imaginary vision of the past. If our rhetoric holds up ancient traditions and indigenous cultures as an antidote to reduction, we run the risk of including all sorts of oppressive systems in our models of the future, and avoiding any arguments against them on the grounds that our systems are supposed to be too interconnected to be fully understood, and thus to be interrogated. Notorious alt-right troll Ricky Vaughn (recently outed as 28-year-old consultant Douglass Mackey) chose for the second interview of his podcast popular anonymous alt-righter @ecochud, who described the need for ethnic homogeneity as an ecological measure, to stabilize society with common heritage in the event that our common reductionist laws and systems break down. The problem @ecochud identifies is at the root the same as Ito’s concern; when all things are reduced to money and abstract concepts, humanity acts as a cancer, growing unsustainably and eventually collapsing. The only solution he sees is a return to his idea of tradition; small, sustainable, local communities... with traditional gender roles and healthy suspicion of foreigners.

In fact, Ito borrows this idea of unrestrained growth as the ideology of a cancer cell from influential conservationist Edward Abbey8 who eventually came to similar conclusions. In the name of environmentalism and ecological stability, he urged the United States to become more stable and self-contained—by ceasing all immigration from “culturally-morally-genetically impoverished people” to preserve a more romantic vision of an “open, spacious, uncrowded, and beautiful—yes, beautiful!—society.”9 Abbey’s vision was not of individuals reduced to a system that prioritized endless cancerous growth, but of traditional cultures, with corresponding traditional racism and traditional gender roles.10

I’m not trying to present these observations as some “gotcha!” on Ito’s entire thesis; it shouldn’t be surprising that any ideology more than a few years old has a history of racism and sexism. I think Ito’s message is vital and important; it really is the case that reduction is dehumanizing, Singularitarians’ attempts to model the world are counterproductive, and cancerous ideals of growth without limit will lead to ecological collapse. But there is real and serious danger in raising the issue of reduction without a corresponding solution.

And unfortunately, Ito’s essay, and the overall idea of a journal dedicated to these issues, feel so much like another reductionist attempt to reduce reduction. What is more reductionist than a manifesto? In the end, we are still only left with Ito’s hopes of what a future world will look like, and the knowledge that people like him, in positions of power, will be better able to shift the world toward their preferred paradigms.

The answer is not to reduce the problem of reduction itself down to a simple issue that can be solved with a certain set of songs, programs at a university, or essays; we must create worlds ourselves. We must have fewer models of what we think a world without models would look like, and more direct interfacing with the world itself; building actual communities on whatever scale we are able, over theorizing about what these communities must look like. The alt-right is, of course, wrong; the idea that a massive nation is united by invisible bonds of spirit as long as everyone looks the same is just propaganda, used to justify centralized power. As a counter, we must build our own, actual communities; smaller in scale, perhaps, but built the way a designer builds, slowly, from the ground up, iterating designs based on what has actually worked. This means fewer publications on where we should be headed, and more work to get us there. Fewer essays delivered from on high about what makes a stable ecosystem, and more work done in practice to make our own ecosystems more stable. (Fewer essay contests with massive payouts to a random few, and more longterm investment in local communities.) Our goal cannot be just another model of the future, this time called “a culture of flourishing,” pushed onto the world through cultural means, but to actually build that world where we will flourish, little by little, practically, wherever we can.


Footnotes

Footnotes
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Comments
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Ben Tolkin: wrote some more about this here https://twitter.com/_bbctol/status/1122669472383471617