There's a very human moment near the beginning of The Social Dilemma, the 2020 Netflix documentary about how social media companies are manipulating our minds. Tristan Harris, the former design ethicist at Google, stops himself while rehearsing a talk about the "attention extraction" business models of Facebook and the like. He goes off script to explain what he's trying to get people to see. He starts searching for words. He says to the few folks there with him, "There's a problem happening in the tech industry and it doesn't have a name, and it has to do with one source, with one...." He suddenly stops speaking and looks down. He hasn't lost his place. He's just reached the edge of something so large and pervasive it almost defies description.
That's what things feel like right now: indescribably off-track.
I'm touched both by Mr. Harris' humanity and his compulsion to yank the weed with all its roots. What's the old adage about treating the disease and not the symptoms? We all instinctively know that exploitive media, election-rigging, habitat and species extinction, gun violence, fake news, rampant profiteering, police brutality and institutionalized racism are not ascending by coincidence. Something is eating away at our society that we can't quite make out. The decay is easy to see but the underlying cause isn't.
That metaphor is exact, actually. The upper branches of a healthy pine tree start to wilt. Needles turn yellow and then brown. The lower branches get sick. Needles drop and before long, the tree goes barren.
That's what we see. We don't see the nematode invasion that's overtaken the tree's vascular system.
The more scientifically-minded among us might say, no, we're watching the pine tree's dehydration and starvation. And that would be right. But even that is an observation about effect. As to the cause, we are left to guess. Old age? Survival of the fittest? Disease? Only a pinophile might see all this and go "ah -- Pine Wilt parasite. Bursaphelenchus Xylophilus. That's fatal."
It's the underlying cause of our breakdowns that so many of us are urgently searching for now. For one thing, there's comfort in knowing, which often, but not always, leads to knowing what to do.
But more urgently, we are, like a seriously sick person, desperate for the right diagnosis for the sake of our improvement, surely, and our survival, possibly. If our social, political, technological and economic problems are symptoms of something viciously parasitic, our job must be to see it, name it, and remove it.
Hard as that might be, we have to keep trying. We have to recognize that continuously talking, writing and focusing on symptoms is, at one level, counterproductive -- a bit like spray-painting pine needles. Our societal failures need correcting, absolutely. But symptoms can only be managed; they generally hang around until the disease is cured. This is why Paul Kingsnorth talks less these days about climate change (i.e. effect) and more about our collective spiritual crisis (i.e. cause). It's why Douglas Rushkoff is no longer trying to get people to change but is rather teaching how we might change the "register," (e.g. our vocabulary, assumptions, reference points) so people will be more likely to choose differently for themselves. Same with George Monbiot, for whom a cancerous neoliberal story is the underlying disease, and a new redemption narrative the cure.
Our parasite is somehow connected to our spiritual vacancy and neoliberal brainwashing, that much seems clear. But we need to keep digging, to keep asking: how did our societal vascular system become so vulnerable? why are we such easy prey? is there medicine? a cure?
A little understood aspect of Wendell Berry's agrarianism is the idea of immunity -- possibly and ironically because the best known part of his story is the near total ruination of his small-town, small-farm, way of life. On the surface it would appear that the land-based localism that he avows is entirely defenseless against the ravages of global capitalism. But as I've often written, with Berry, nothing should ever be taken at the surface.
What Wendell has seen and foretold is not really a story about the victimization of small farmers and rural places, though those casualities are his Exhibits A and B to be sure. Rather, he is, like the pinophile, continuously showing us the parasite that is inexorably compromising all of us. Mr. Harris, the star of the Netflilx documentary, is correct -- we don't have a name for this thing. Drawing on my many walks with Wendell, I've decided to call it "the okayness of exploitation." Not exploitation of this or that in particular, but exploitation itself, as a culturally acceptable, even desirable, behavior. It's the substitution of an ethic for an anti-ethic.
Runaway online technology isn't the originator of this anti-ethic. Nation states, weapons manufacturers, oil and gas conglomerates, the IMF, hedge fund managers and other global capitalists -- all have been feasting in the absence of a legitimate ethical constraint. But what's new in the tech industry's colonization project is the colony. It's all of us. Until now, colonization was something that happened to the unfortunate who couldn't defend themselves -- poor nations, animals, the unskilled or uneducated. Which didn't excuse any of it, but did leave certain branches of the tree to go on metabalizing even as others perished. No longer. We are now, every last one of us, natural resources being mined and extracted for our data, attention and behavior.
If this seems like sorcery that's because it is. Pathogens are able to evade our antibodies by mimicing the very cells they destroy. Mr. Harris suggests that a mass spell has been cast over us, which AI might make permanent if we don't wake up soon. Or gain some immunity, which can be found in some of our oldest traditions, available to us through agrarian and other small-form, unconventional value sets.
"An Argument for Diversity" is a Wendell essay orginally published 1979 and several times since. It's one of his more significant tracts. In it, he makes the case for diversifying local economies and university disciplines in service to "a beloved country." The modifier there is paramount; it's not one that Berry often uses, and with its introduction, we are transported. He explains it thusly:
If we speak simply of the use of a "a country," then only the first question is asked, and it is asked only by its would-be users. It is not until we speak of "a beloved country" -- a particular country, particularly loved -- that the question about ways of use will arise. It arises because, loving our country, we see where we are, and we see that present ways of use are not adequate.
No one these days speaks of "a beloved country." You're much more likely to hear, from the so-call patriots, "my country" or "our great country" or, heaven help us, a country that needs to be made great again. These sentiments, even if they're sincere (and they often aren't), are not the same as what Wendell is describing.
Mr. Berry has something that nearly all of us lack: a place that he loves. And I don't mean "enjoys," or "is fond of." The northern corner of Henry County, Kentucky, has, for the better part of a century, held his heart as tenderly as a springtime lover. This is his "particular country, particularly loved," and the origin point from which his belief system spirals out. This love has engendered, in some places and times, good land use. That in turn has been known to build, like humus: local culture, economic resiliency, social familiarity and eventually an ethical netting that weaves responsibility, diversity and divinity. In short -- a system of immunity against the exploitation of work and attention.
Such a system does not guarantee perfect health. Infections happen. Parasites happen. The "small and local" places that Wendell speaks for have been horribly infected and quite sick for a very long time. But this is in spite of, and not because of, what they are. They are under ferocious attack, and what Wendell keeps trying to get us to see is that they are not their own attacker. And that they have, deep within them, an immune system, just like people do -- one that we might want to strengthen if we are to reverse our own ever-worsening unwellness.
And it all starts with that necessary modifier "beloved." That's the elixir we need to take from him. His agrianism should not be understood as a directive to send everyone back to the land, but as a legitimization and elevation of belovedness. If not for a place, then for a community. If not for a community, then for an ethic. If not for an ethic, then for an idea. Whatever is beloved to you -- that's the place to begin.
Berry's version, suffused with topophilia, may be the strongest. But belovedness is available to all of us, and by putting it first, we give standing to affection. We return pathos to its rightful place in our pantheon of virtues. We begin to overturn the paradigm (parasite?) that ails us. We re-attach care to use.
Wendell is focused on land use, always, but I think what he says about land users is true of all our corporate and political manipulators:
The problem simply is that land users are using people, places, and things that cannot be well used without affection. To be well used, creatures and places must be used sympathetically, just as they must be known sympathetically to be well known.
Much of "An Argument for Diversity" is a take-down of academia because of its failure to incorporate, validate and teach the intelligence of feeling and affection -- the only intelligence that can refasten care to use. The hard sciences -- cold, remote and objective -- concern themselves with use only, leading to remote expertise, abstraction and inevitably, exploitation. The Humanities, Wendell says, are no better, for having allowed themselves to be convinced of their uselessness or worthlessness because of their unprovability. Neither side of the university embraces a sympathetic view of the world, its people or its creatures. Little wonder then that tech companies don't either. If it isn't happening in our institutions of the mind, it won't likely happen in the minds of the people they shape.
Earlier I asked how we became so susceptible to the parasite that I inelegantly called the "okayness of exploitation." This is how. Somehow along the way, we lost the idea that a lovable and loving world could be the context for what we teach and do. Even as an idea only, or an ideal unrealized, it was a crucial one for protecting us against nihilism, despair and now, algorithmic colonization.
When Wendell Berry writes about the placed community, sustainable agriculture, or the beauty of a tool or farm that's fitted to its purpose, we call this agrarianism, and shrug it off as quaint or unrealisitic.
We might instead understand it as an ethic of belovedness that was once a model for connecting us, and might again be necessary for protecting us.