The myriad benefits and comforts of contemporary life in information society are often rhetorically deployed in political discourse to justify modernity’s policies of labor exploitation, ecological devastation, and sensory overload. In discourse comparing modernity to various pre-modern eras, these comforts appear as advantages on the side of modernity. After all, we are so often told, without the Internet (or cell phones, vaccines, or modern construction methods) we would be unable to even have debates about the relative merits of various historical eras and their uses of technology; so the debate is already over, right? Not quite.
The rebuttal to this rhetorically powerful and immobilizing argument can be found by reconsidering our conception of modernity’s putative benefits. We must recognize telecommunications networks, social media, big data, and trade infrastructure not as outputs given to us by modernity, but instead as inputs that must constantly be maintained in order for modernity to remain solvent. These new phenomena are not a set of conditions created by modernity. Rather, they are the set of external conditions necessary for modernity to continue to function.
This shift in perspective allows us to see modernity differently. No longer is modernity a system at our disposal that produces favorable conditions of living for us. Rather, modernity demands that trade continue to move at hyperfast speeds, that data networks continue to gather unfathomable quantities of information about private citizens, that corporations continue to prey on our vulnerable sensory organs, and that we remain domesticated and dominated by the assorted tools of convenience assembled for us.
No longer are we humans at the helm, designing and employing a complex global network from an Archimedean, immovable, objective standpoint. Rather, we are subject to systems that precede us and that are so complex, each of us can only hope to partially understand their full nature. These a priori forces render us subject to—rather than components of—a world that exploits and controls us.
The consequences of this radical decentering of our perspective reveal themselves when we re-consider the relative merits of modernity versus the pre-industrial age. No longer do the apologists of modernity possess a de facto trump card. It now seems bizarre to consider modernity superior, prima facie, to all other ages. At the very least, modernity no longer can be said to produce an arsenal of undeniable benefits that all other eras lacked. But the consequences run deeper. We likely understand the merits of a historical era for humans to comprise something akin to the value ascribed to human life in that era. If we argue, too, that human life is more enjoyable and valuable when it is richest, most colorful, unmediated, and enmeshed in life and being more generally, then modernity rapidly descends in our estimation. Though creature comforts are, thanks to new media and technology, available to a wider proportion of humans now than ever—as laissez-faire advocates love to point out, free enterprise has lifted many out of abject poverty—we must ask ourselves: are the contemporary arrangements of technology, digital media, and production in the best interests of our corporeal selves, enmeshed in the fabric of a vibrant world? But first: why might we take human life to derive value from its integration in the physical world?
We humans cannot exist without a physical or corporeal dimension. Life of all sorts requires bodily existence. Our physical experiences are, without doubt, fundamental to our experience of life. Though much of our experience of life takes place in the cognitive and psychic realms, it is evident that physical stimulation accounts for a great deal of our experience of life. Moreover, even our cognitive, emotional, and spiritual experiences are deeply co-imbricated with our corporeal experiences. The upshot of this is that without sensory experience, our emotional, psychological, and spiritual centers would be considerably deteriorated. While our faculties of thought might still operate, our thoughts would be different from and less meaningful for us than they are. Our ideation relies in large part on our physical, empirical, and bodily condition. Even Kantianism is in line with this claim: the ideal has its cognitive manifestation, but only when preceded by an actual empirical condition.
The effect of the assemblage of modernity’s preconditions and liabilities is to alienate us from our immediate, sensuous experiences. Telecommunications, social media, search engines, infrastructure, overpathologization in medicine, and widespread availability of goods and foodstuffs has served to remove humanity from the experience of being. To be is to experience a range of conditions, to work, to labor, and to struggle. The experience of living under the conditions of modernity is to limit our experience only to complacent consumption combined with ignorance of the systems that produce the goods we consume. We are, then, doubly alienated: not only are we blind to the experience of building shelters, making food, and being fully in our bodies; we also know nothing about the reasons why we are so limited in our experiences.
Modernity’s deep flaw is its double alienation of the human from her own experience of life. In Henry David Thoreau’s words, the reason for being, the only reason to get out of bed in the morning, is “to get the most life.” Eyes glued to screens; monotonously consuming without laboring for our food, drink and shelter; heads bowed and eccentricity smothered under the weight of advertising and the injunction to pursue careers; and constantly ordered by the forces of capital to conduct our lives in regulated, predetermined fashion, we are getting very little of life. Modernity’s putative benefits cripple our capacity to valorize and enjoy our lives. Moreover, they distract us from the deleterious aspects of modernity, including growing wealth inequality, labor exploitation, neocolonialism, and the struggle of the global South. It is not even the case that increased human knowledge redeems modernity: for even scholarship in the area of sociopolitical critique is exclusive to modernity only insofar as modernity’s difficulties produce problems for thinkers to contemplate. Public access to human stores of knowledge and scientific works, both of which have been considerably benefited by modern technology, likewise have their downsides. Universal access to information through digital systems has enabled a world in which we sleep less than ever before, have reduced attention spans, are increasingly depressed, and experience incurable social alienation. Meanwhile, scientific progress has, both wittingly and unwittingly, produced myriad new ways of making us miserably lonely while giving us the tools to end our miserable loneliness. Scientific progress has been salutary to humanity in many ways, not least in the area of medicine and health, but it is not without its own flaws.
Comfort is essentially a corporeal state of being. It seems absolutely the case that modernity allows people to live in comfort, especially relative to pre-modern society. But the apparent comfort that modernity provides is an abstract, market-based comfort; it is an impoverished version of the comfort that comes with the experience of being a self-sufficient being, physically laboring for one’s necessities. Comfort in the truest sense cannot be commoditized, since any production or sale of comfort will corporeally alienate the subject from her own experience.
How then can we recover a pure and unalienating form of comfort? The mechanization of society is a firmly entrenched state of affairs, and increasing automation will not stop anytime soon. The solution is not, as Marx and Engels rightly noted, to advocate for a return to the past. We should instead seek to progress to a form of comfort that is still corporeally engaging and vivifying: this could be found by actively laboring to satisfy vital necessities, instead of complacently accepting a prefabricated, commoditized set of goods. This would incline us toward self-sufficiency by encouraging us to both live simply and support ourselves: growing food, fashioning garments, and constructing furnishings and homes are all methods of achieving corporeal comfort. Actions can also recover comfort: rather than operating machinery such as automobiles and computers, the modern subject might walk and cycle, or read and fill books. Equipped with modern machinery, the contemporary human subject will not have a pressing corporeal necessity to engage in this physical labor—and yet, it may be salutary for her to pursue occasionally, nonetheless.
As mechanization of society continues and the production process becomes increasingly automated, self-sufficiency will become increasingly difficult to achieve. The human being will increasingly become recognizable as that being who externalizes her limbs and self-perpetuating functions. Utilizing technics in order to survive, the human will become less capable of performing basic survival actions without the aid of technology. It is uncertain whether the technology of an age makes a person more capable, or less capable as a result of her reliance on that machinery. As Emerson rightly noted in “Self-Reliance”, “The arts and inventions of each period are only its costume, and do not invigorate men. The harm of the improved machinery may compensate its good.”
With this awareness of the harm of improved machinery comes the possibility for reform and proactivity. Modern subjects can reclaim a part of their corporeal experience, and with it, pure and unadulterated comfort, by practicing self-reliance as a form of active self-sustenance.