The Paradox of Elective Indispensability: a Faustian pact?


Even for those of us who have lived most of our lives without them, it is hard to imagine now how we ever lived without personal computers and all that stems from them – e-mail, the internet, social networks, smart phones and the like: they seem indispensable.

Which is curious, since many of us still live without them and all of us of a certain age did till twenty-odd years ago. Our major organs are indispensable – remove them and we die – but this business with computers is of a different kind – we might call it voluntary, or elective, which seems paradoxical – how can we choose to make something indispensable to us?

What we do, of course, is alter our lives to accommodate these things: we do not just adopt them, we adapt to them, in such a profound and radical way that they can truly be called ‘life-transforming’ though it is important to remember that we are active participants in that transformation, not passive recipients.

Personal computers and the internet are only the latest in such ‘life-transforming’ technologies: electricity (or any power ‘on tap’) and the internal combustion engine are a couple of others; I’m sure you can think of many more that fall into the same category of elective indispensability, things we have chosen to make ourselves unable to live without by reforming our lives around them.

That element of choice, coupled to the fact that these things are clearly not indispensable in any absolute sense – others manage without them, and everyone did till quite recently – creates a fundamental ambivalence in our attitude towards them: on the one hand, we are grateful to them and think them wonderful – they have changed our lives; on the other, we ponder darkly if our reliance on them is akin to an addiction, if we have allowed what we thought our servant to become our master.

Even with the latest technologies, this ambivalence is becoming evident – scarce a week goes by but there is some feature in the weekend supplements or on television about families testing themselves by trying to live without the internet, mobile phones, games consoles, facebook or twitter. As for the longer-established technologies – the motor car especially, and our reliance on abundant readily-available energy – these are beginning to make us feel trapped in some sort of devil’s bargain: we cannot see ourselves living without them, yet the price we have to pay to keep them seems increasingly unsustainable.

Alongside this ambivalence which creates tensions within ourselves and our society, a tension is also created between Us – who have adopted and adapted to these technologies – and Them, who have not. By buying into these technologies, making a commitment to them, we become evangelists for them: the first thing we forget is that we happily lived without them and never felt the need of them; in our new, altered way of life, our memory of how we lived before is transformed into a puzzling question: how did we live before? how did we ever manage to live without these things?

Our puzzlement is genuine; we really cannot understand, because we overlook the fact that we ourselves have changed – we are no longer the same people. If we do think of this change, we couch it in positive terms: our horizons have been broadened, our lives have improved out of all recognition – we may even use the expression ‘we weren’t born’ to indicate this radical disowning of our former selves. But the crucial thing that we forget is  that we were content to live without these things – not content in an absolute sense (when are we ever content?) but no less contented than we are now.

greatThis is a simple matter of logic: you can’t miss what you have no conception of. Mid-Victorian Britain was the most modern country in the world, the economic dynamo at the heart of a vast empire; its citizens did not yearn for motorised transport and a huge infrastructure of roads to support it – they had Mr Brunel’s marvellous broad-gauge railway offering luxurious travel at a mile a minute; they did not look discontentedly at the amazing steamships which had begun to transform transatlantic travel (Brunel’s SS Great Western  cut the journey from two months to 15 days) and wish they could fly to America in a matter of hours. Gas-lighting had transformed their homes and streets – they didn’t long for electric light, but wondered instead how they got by with oil-lamps and candles.

Rain_Steam_and_Speed_the_Great_Western_RailwayThis inability to connect with our former selves, allied to our evangelism for our new way of living, causes an important shift in our attitude to those who have not altered their lives as we have: we now see such people as impoverished, deprived (forgetting that we were just like them a short time before, but did not think of ourselves like that); we make great efforts to share with them the benefits we enjoy – or to impose our way of life on them, depending on how you look at it.

And even in our evangelism, is there not a strain of ambivalence? While we may genuinely  feel that we have a good thing to share, do we not occasionally glimpse ourselves in the mirror and see the disturbing image of the addict seducing others into his habit, or perhaps  of Lucifer in Marlowe’s Dr Faustus?

Faust.  Stay, Mephistophilis! and tell me what good

will my soul do thy lord?

Meph. Enlarge his kingdom.

Faust. Is that the reason why he tempts us thus?

Meph. Solamen miseris socios habuisse doloris.

(‘misery loves company’)

There is another ‘elective indispensable’ I would like to examine – the notion of literacy – but that is for another time.

(The notion of elective indispensability is bound up with our current dominant myth, the Myth of Progress, discussed here)