“Oh technology is awful, isn’t it? How terrible that we live our lives under the jackboot of the Enlightenment, with all of its individual rights and medicines which actually work”, so says Mark Boyle in the Guardian today. I’m paraphrasing, slightly.
Boyle, it seems, has apparently given up on modern life - seemingly choosing to live in the middle of nowhere having eschewed the use of technology. All he has now is his farm, his smug self-satisfaction and his immense, unacknowledged privilege.
He starts his column by lamenting that “e-Homo sapiens” defend a progressive way of life “with its factories, supermarkets, cheap flights and online shopping” because “the old ways have become alien to us”. Apparently the tyranny of progress is all to blame for deforestation and mass extinction. He worries that about the “impact that industrial civilisation has had on wildernesses”.
Why oh why - seems to be the subtext - can’t we go back to a society where the vast majority of people spent their lives subsistence farming, dying of preventable illnesses and suffering from regular famines when the crops failed?
“Growing lemon balm and sage, instead of importing chai from India, makes little sense within the ecologically idiotic, financially clever economic theories of the Enlightenment era that still tyrannically rule our lives today. Even walking long distances and toughing out the seasons in all their glory seem lost arts.”
Hear that anyone with mobility difficulties? Your wheelchair is just a bourgeois product of the enlightenment. Why don’t you just man up and waste hours every day whittling twigs? And god forbid that any “financially clever economic theories” act as a tool of liberation: Why would you want to make life easier by aggregating our labour to create efficiencies, when we can all live in squalor instead? If we all lived as narcissistically as Mark Boyle, it would not be a world in which you want to get ill or experience winter.
Here’s how Boyle describes some of the things he has to do in his tedious life:
“The brutally efficient chainsaw has been replaced, in a sort of reverse adolescence, by the gym-eliminating qualities of the crosscut saw. Instead of petrol lawn mowers, think scythe or a horse – which is being trained up to pull a cart for transporting wood and people. There are no quick showers (only long baths).”
Meanwhile all of us chumps in the real world are only able to automate the most tedious of tasks, and merely have access to the sum total of all of human knowledge in the palms of our hands. Oh, isn’t it awful?
Boyle gets more unbearable:
“Once you get rid of the aforementioned bills, effectively rejecting Benjamin Franklin’s tightfisted, minute-pinching idea that ‘Time is money’, you find yourself slowly having more time to do the things you love, free from modernity’s relentless financial demands. I’ve no idea what that means for you, but for me it’s reading Henry David Thoreau by the fire, fishing for rainbow trout, playing chess over blackberry wine in our moneyless pub, and blathering on in the Guardian about our minute-wise, millenniums-foolish culture.”
All of those things you think you like doing: You don’t actually like them. Because of evil progress or something. You might think you like watching Netflix or being able to communicate with friends over distances further than earshot - but what you should actually love is fooling yourself into thinking that a romanticised, ahistorical lifestyle built on the shoulders of unseen others in the real world, is somehow fulfilling.
In any case, what I really love is playing video games - but in Boyle’s world I’d have no time for that as I’d be too busy skinning animals or burying my children who have died at birth.
“Our industrial culture is more genocidal and ecocidal than Adolf Hitler or Tony Blair. Yes, even Tony …”, Boyle complains, seemingly suggesting Tony Blair was worse than Hitler. I don’t have anything to add here other than “citation needed”.
Perhaps the worst paragraph he writes - or presumably scratched out on a piece of tree bark - is this:
“You become more acutely aware that industrial culture has replaced craft with efficiency, distinctiveness with standardisation, aspiration with ambition, rootedness with transience, contentment with progress, attentiveness with speed, and the natural rhythms of life with tight schedules.”
Yes, isn’t it awful that efficiency and standardisation has meant that poor people can own things that only used to be within reach of the the wealthy. Fuck you, people in the developing world who want to use mobile phones, vaccines or spectacles: You might think that these tools have improved your life, but you’re actually just replacing aspiration with ambition, whatever that means. And by the way, Mark Boyle definitely doesn’t care about ambition - as you can see detailed in his Guardian column, book, Ted talk or numerous interviews.
And what about replacing rootedness with transience? What he’s saying is that where you’re born is where you should end up. Technology and the enlightenment has enabled people to move around, to discover and change their identity. You can move to the city from the country and become the person who you want to be. But hear that women, gays and other oppressed people? If you want to move away from the circumstances of your birth then you’re just buying into facile enlightenment transience.
I’d carry on going through this, but frankly I’m too furious. It isn’t even like he’ll ever read this. Publishing is, after all, a post-enlightenment technology. I presume that the Guardian is paying him by the chicken. In his article, he mentions that the only way he communicates with people is using the postal service. You know, the postal service which can deliver letters anywhere in the country thanks to standardisation, operational efficiency and modern transport technologies.
Boyle ends on a question:
“So the question is, how do we want to spend the moments given to us in a way that feels fair to the rest of this enchanting, generous planet?”
I don’t know Mark - what about in a meritocratic social democracy with institutions that can actually tackle collective action problems around climate change, rather than narcissistically burying our heads in the dirt and wishing for a regression to the Malthusian trap where we break our backs doing manual labour and die at the age of 30?
James O'Malley is the Interim Editor of Gizmodo UK and can also be found on Twitter, if you're one of those naive fools who ruin their lives with technology.