Human beings or human resources?
By Harry Eyres
Published: December 23 2009 23:11 | Last updated: December 23 2009 23:11
Recently, my partner Ching Ling got an iPhone. It is an amazing piece of engineering, so sleek and clever and attractive to handle that you could hardly fail to fall for it. A poet friend who, a while ago, penned a magnificent invective against mobile phones, comparing them to sex aids, would have to revise his lines. This thing is more like a cat: you stroke it and it purrs. Not always a well-behaved cat; plugged in for recharging, it woke us up in the middle of the night bleeping loudly. I have no idea what it wanted.
Essentially, though, it is a toy. Once you acquire an iPhone, you can’t stop playing with it. But the phone is also playing with you. It is making money out of you, cajoling you into signing up for all sorts of unnecessary applications. Watching me playing with it, Ching Ling observed that I had reverted to the age of five; shortly after she revised that to three.
The iPhone represents the power and attraction of the new – of technological innovation, promising social benefits but driven by commercial interests that do not uphold the principle St Paul enunciated in his first letter to the Corinthians: “When I was a child ... I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things”. I really don’t know whether an iPhone will help me to live better; I rather suspect not. I have no idea whether mobile phones in general have added to the sum of human well-being. We seemed to get on quite well without them; I have a feeling they have made it harder for people to be on their own.
For a long time now the power of the new has trumped the power of the old. But almost a year ago, when President Barack Obama gave his inaugural address, I noted a sea-change. In the most stirring piece of political oratory delivered for decades, Obama made a distinction between new challenges and instruments and old values, including “tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism”. Later in the speech he harked back to one of the battles that gave birth to the US. It seemed the old was making a comeback, and in the UK that coincided with a sense of hollowness and decrepitude in the political project that has dominated the late 1990s and the 2000s, New Labour.
One old thing Obama did not so much talk about as represent was the power of the word. The word is probably the ultimate old thing that went out of fashion: words became “mere rhetoric”, windy nothingnesses set against the hard truths told by numbers. But Obama did not offer rhetoric so much as oratory, and many commented on the debt his speeches owed to classical models. Something rather strange and fascinating was going on: a youthful president, of African-American ancestry, was speaking not in bullet points but in the style of Cicero.
My gripe with Obama’s old things is that they are not old enough. He may speak in the style of Cicero but his values are drawn from the Enlightenment. Of course that makes sense, because America is a product of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment values Obama praises, such as tolerance and curiosity, are both admirable and essential – especially so in the context of insurgent bigotry. But they are not sufficient.
Sixty-five years ago, in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer had a nightmare. The Enlightenment, instead of liberating mankind, had bound it in chains. “The wholly enlightened earth is radiant with calamity ... What human beings seek to learn from nature is how to enslave both it and human beings.”
You don’t have to go quite as far as the two dour Frankfurt philosophers to see that the Enlightenment project of raising human reason to god-like power has had disturbing results. These can be seen both in the state of nature, reduced and damaged possibly beyond repair, and of human beings, retooled as “human resources” – that is, means to be exploited rather than ends in themselves.
I think we need to go back beyond the time of the Enlightenment and the birth of the US to rediscover the values that give god-like dignity (what Plato called the “divine something”) to human beings and restore the non-instrumental beauty of the natural world. One place to start would be the beautifully redesigned Medieval and Renaissance galleries at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. And within those galleries you might pause in front of the Symmachi panel, an exquisite late Roman ivory carving showing a young woman performing a pagan rite at an outdoor altar. Under the shade of a spreading oak an offering is being made, and thanks are being given. We don’t know exactly of what, for what, but we can imagine it has something to do with sky and earth, and the sustaining of life.