Human Scale

Posted: January 22, 2012 in Culture, Idealism, Philosophy, Technophilia

I wonder if there is such a thing as proper human scale or whether we’re truly at liberty to adopt whatever scale we can imagine. The question was prompted upon viewing two documentaries: Ken Burns’ Civil War and This is It by and about Michael Jackson.

I had never seen a Ken Burns documentary before. This one has aged pretty well, especially considering how its subject is already well removed from the present day. Among the many impressions it made on me, it seemed very much that the people profiled, be they presidents, generals, or foot soldiers, were men of surprising integrity who still yet operated at human scale. One might expect to have seen any of them — even those quite famous in retrospect — walking along the streets in Washington, D.C.; Richmond, Virginia; or elsewhere. Much was made of generals who fought, were injured, and sometimes died with their troops, even though military officers have always been somewhat insulated from the thick of battle. So despite having made icons of them as we now look back upon the history they experienced, they were of decidedly human scale in their own time. Washington was undoubtedly the first superstar prez, for instance, but the office didn’t immediately confer upon Lincoln the awe in which we now hold him. Lincoln was actually quite disliked during his first term as president and is resented in the South even down to today.

In contrast, well into the era of mass media, Michael Jackson became known as the King of Pop and carried around him (or everyone projected onto him) a powerful aura or presence. Whereas the folks in the documentary about the stage show Jackson was mounting for his comeback (or swan song) just prior to his untimely death regarded him simultaneously as showbiz genius and saint among men (not even oblique mention was made of Jackson’s many legal, financial, and identity issues), Jackson apparently regarded himself with surprising humility and was more motivated by the work than by being Michael Jackson. No doubt his talent was quite unique. In fact, even though the film was only clips of rehearsal from the show, not yet a fully polished performance, Jackson was riveting to watch. I suspect that this is due in part to how media remakes people into mythological characters or demigods. Who among us would not admit to being star-struck when in the presence of someone as famous as Jackson (or Sherman or Davis)?

The peril, in my view, isn’t one of simple hubris, like the story of Icarus. Rather, it’s that so many of the products of our imagination are enlarged to a scale that is clearly dangerous. We meddle with powers we don’t well comprehend or control, as has been shown repeatedly with nuclear technology. But the impulse to think big is widespread. We regard ourselves as superior to the animals, though we are clearly one of them; we project ourselves into the skies and space as travelers, explorers, and would-be colonists; and our institutions take on lives of their own, often no longer serving the people who created them.

It’s as though SkyNet from the Terminator films is already amongst us, though perhaps not yet sentient and self-aware. It’s not the computer network, however, that is behaving amorally, like a machine or a blind, remorseless algorithm; it’s us. We have lost all sense of ourselves as individuals, as members of families and communities, or as humble servants of the public good. We now think of ourselves, or our idols and models at least, as superhuman, no longer mere participants in the pageant of life but directors and engineers of achievements (and destruction) on scales so vast and impersonal that we scarcely have the capacity to understand them. This may be one of the prices of hypercomplexity: a dangerous lack of awareness of consequence, and if awareness dawns, then indifference to it as well.

In the philosophical realm, discussions of ontological man interest me, though everything points instead to technological man or mass man. Tech man must become something other than himself through the assistance of gadgetry. It’s not just cybernetics, which are surely coming as soon as the mind/computer bridge can be solved (technophiles can hardly wait for the Google implant, whatever its costs). Even now, most average Americans are content to leave knowledge and understanding “out there” at Wikipedia or some other resource to be tapped at will rather than doing the long work to acquire it “in here” where it has meaning and relevance. Tech man is the dream of transhumanism, of course, with its undertones of self-hatred (I’d rather be an emotionless machine), grass is always greener (whatever comes next is always gonna be better), and grandiosity (must no longer be human in scale).

Ontological man, in contrast, is content to be who and what he is with his constraints, flaws, and yes sometimes even glory. That contentedness is lost on those always in the process of becoming rather than in being. It’s like the inability to enjoy a good meal, unable to settle into the actual experience because of preoccupations with becoming a connoisseur or trendsetter. The whole idea of ontology is a little too subtle for most of us, and I struggle myself with the idea that perhaps today might be enjoyed for its own sake rather than as a stepping stone to some future greatness, an endless pursuit of the carrot on the stick. I’d like to believe that we’re smart enough that the carrot wouldn’t work as a prod or goad the way it does with a mule, but even cursory evidence demonstrates otherwise.

Advertisements
Comments
  1. john patrick says:

    “We meddle with powers we don’t well comprehend or control, as has been shown repeatedly with nuclear technology. But the impulse to think big is widespread. We regard ourselves as superior to the animals, though we are clearly one of them; we project ourselves into the skies and space as travelers, explorers, and would-be colonists; and our institutions take on lives of their own, often no longer serving the people who created them.”

    Nicely said, Brutus. Thanks for the thoughtful writeup.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s