In this episode, I speak with L.M. Sacasas, who has become a leading voice in examining the ethical, social and cultural consequences of technologies. His prior blog, The Frailest Thing, and current Substack newsletter, The Convivial Society, offer a wealth of insight, encouraging a greater awareness of the ways that technologies shape the conditions within which we live and act. His appearance last year on Ezra Klein’s show, where they explored his list of 41 Questions concerning technology, was a wonderful example of how to think in a critical and productive way about these issues. Both the podcast and the post are thoroughly recommended.
Revisiting and extending the insights of previous generations of thinkers, what Sacasas points to is the necessity of carefully considering the place and importance given to technologies in reference to what goals and values we want to pursue, both individually and collectively. Through his work, he has developed what he describes as ‘a humanist critique of technology’, which ‘entails a preference for technology that (1) operates at a human scale, (2) works toward human ends, (3) allows for the fullest possible flourishing of a person’s capabilities, (4) does not obfuscate moral responsibility, and (5) acknowledges and respects certain limits inherent to the human condition.’ Even by briefly considering these principles, it is clear that much of today’s world is not made to measure. Sacasas’ framing suggests the need to ask basic questions about technology and its place in shaping our lives, rather than unthinkingly accept whatever role it has come to play. Becoming more conscious and aware, engaging in thought and questioning, these are simple but vital steps that we can take.
Ivan Illich, a thinker who Sacasas engages closely with and was discussed in IW01 with David Cayley, once observed that, ‘the blackout of reality in the smog produced by our tools has enveloped us. Quite suddenly we find ourselves in the darkness of our own trap.’ Metaphorically and literally, this is the world we find ourselves in. Sacasas’ work helps to shine a bit of light, offering some ways to see better through this darkness. The conversation I had with him is a rich and meaningful one, centred on where technology and ethics overlap, with some fruitful discussion around identifying commonalities and differences across various cultures and traditions.