Are you sitting comfortably? If so, how much do you know about the chair that’s holding you off the ground – what it’s made from, and what its production process looked like? Where it was made, and by whom? Or go deeper: how were the materials used to make the chair extracted from the planet? Most people will find it difficult to answer these basic questions. The object cradling your body remains, in many ways, mysterious to you.
Quite probably, you are surrounded by many things of which you know next to nothing – among them, the device on which you are reading these words. Most of us live in a state of general ignorance about our physical surroundings. It’s not our fault; centuries of technological sophistication and global commerce have distanced most of us from making physical things, and even from seeing or knowing how they are made. But the slow and pervasive separation of people from knowledge of the material world brings with it a serious problem.
Until about a century ago, most people knew a great deal about their immediate material world. Fewer and fewer do today, as commodities circulate with ever greater speed over greater distances. Because of the sheer complexity of contemporary production, even the people who do have professional responsibility for making things – the engineers and factory workers and chemists among us – tend to be specialists. Deepened knowledge usually also means narrowed knowledge. This tends to obscure awareness of the extended production chains through which materials, tools, components and packaging are sourced. Nobody – not an assembly-line worker, not a CEO – has a comprehensive vantage point. It is partly a problem of scale: the wider the view comes, the harder it is to see clearly what’s close at hand.
In effect, we are living in a state of perpetual remote control. As Carl Miller argues in his book The Death of the Gods (2018), algorithms have taken over many day-to-day procedures. These algorithms are themselves driven by algorithms, in a cascade of interconnected calculation. Such automated decisionmaking is extremely efficient, but it has contributed to a crisis of accountability. If no one understands what is really happening, how can anyone be held responsible? This lack of transparency gives rise to a range of ethical dilemmas, chief among them our inability to address climate change, due in part to prevalent psychological separation from the processes of extraction, manufacture and disposal. [Continue reading…]