“I KNOW WHEN I’M BEING CATERED TO,
I KNOW WHEN I’M BEING CATERED TO,
I WILL NOT SETTLE FOR THE LOWEST COMMON DENOMINATOR.”
Car Seat Headrest, “Not What I Needed.”
Marshall McLuhan’s “Challenge and Collapse: The Nemesis of Creativity” appeared frequently on my graduate school seminar syllabi. My professors believed that it was a text that deserved to be read, revisited, and remembered. Occasionally, a passage from the text comes to me as I am thinking or writing. Finding the right quotation is like coming home to discover that someone else has cleaned your apartment, that someone else has already done the dirty work and put everything in the right place. Ironically, the following quotation is a quotation of a quotation of a quotation from the tale of an old Chinese Sage to Werner Heisenberg’s The Physicist’s Conception of Nature to McLuhan’s text itself:
“As Tzu-Gung was travelling through the regions north of the river Han, he saw an old man working in his vegetable garden. He had dug an irrigation ditch. The man would descend into a well, fetch up a vessel of water in his arms and pour it out into the ditch. While his efforts were tremendous the results appeared to be very meagre.
Tzu-Gung said, “There is a way whereby you can irrigate a hundred ditches in one day, and whereby you can do much with little effort. Would you not like to hear of it?” Then the gardener stood up, looked at him and said, “And what would that be?” Tzu-Gung replied, “You take a wooden lever, weighted at the back and light in front. In this way you can bring up water so quickly that it just gushes out. This is called a draw-well.”
Then anger rose up in the old man’s face, and he said, “I have heard my teacher say that whoever uses machines does all his work like a machine. He who does his work like a machine grows a heart like a machine, and he who carries the heart of a machine in his breast loses his simplicity. He who has lost his simplicity becomes unsure in the strivings of his soul. Uncertainty in the strivings of the soul is something which does not agree with honest sense. It is not that I do not know of such things; I am ashamed to use them.”
In 1962, Everett Rogers proposed a theory of the diffusion of innovation to explain the spread of an idea or invention through a society. The circulation of new thoughts or technologies involves five different types of people: the innovators, the early-adopters, the early majority, the late majority, and the laggards. Diffusion starts with the innovator who introduces an invention that appeals to the early-adopters, and then gradually becomes popular with the majorities. In terms of the market, the innovator is the entrepreneur; the adopters and majorities are the consumers.
So, where does that put the laggard? The laggard is usually classed as a traditionalist who refuses to abandon their old, less efficient ways in favor of the latest technology. Marketers do not bother to appeal to laggards, because it is not profitable to advertise to a demographic who are unlikely to buy the latest products. They are immune to hype. They will not settle for the lowest common denominator. The elderly gardener in Tzu-Gung’s tale personifies this laggard. Despite the obvious advantages of the draw-well, he prefers his outmoded methods and simple way of life.
So, what the hell is this gardener’s problem? What’s the harm in adopting a draw-well? Although the gardener accepts that he could irrigate ditches more quickly with a draw-well, he understands that using this invention would integrate him into a market that prioritizes efficiency over simplicity. As soon as he adopts this invention, the humble gardener becomes the industrial farmer. Forty-Six Indian farmers commit suicide every day; their hearts cannot endure their transformation into machines.
The laggard, much like the luddite, is often painted as a reactionary figure who reviles and resists progress: the old granny in the retirement home, the cantankerous codger in his vegetable garden, the rural recluse in an empty farmhouse… What possibilities are thought-leaders and marketers hiding behind these caricatures? Should we trust their definitions or propose an alternative?
Any alternative description of the laggard lies in defining freedom as the rejection of optimism. Rejecting optimism means knowing that the promise of the latest technologies will probably be broken, and contesting the platitude that better machines create a better world automatically. We live in a technocracy, where we are ruled by technology. Fun is no longer any fun. Innovation is no longer innovative. Customization obscures standardization. Everyone searches for different products on the same websites; everyone scrolls through different Facebook newsfeeds on the same screen. This is why people slobber over typewriters from the 1940s, dig their Gameboy cartridges out of boxes in the basement, and scribble handwritten letters to their new pen-pal. We are living in the future of technology, but it is so boring that we are desperate to return to the past. Laggardism compels us to find a way to approach technology without believing the hype of futurists and advertisers. Laggardism is a pessimistic futurism.
Admittedly, the alternative Laggard could be misconstrued as a bit of a spoilt brat. Complaining about one’s ability to afford and access new and efficient technology can seem trivial compared to the fact that many people in the U.S. do not have a reliable supply of clean water. Although it appears that these two problems differ in type and scale, they represent the same predicament. An anecdote from Henri Lefebvre’s masterpiece Critique of Everyday Life might help to prove this claim:
“Several years ago a world-wide firm which was trying to extend the market and put a rival firm out of business decided to distribute paraffin lamps to Chinese peasants free of charge, while its rivals, less ‘generous’ or less shrewd, went on selling them. And now in several million poverty-stricken Chinese households artificial light (an immense progress) shines down on muddy floors and rotten matting—because even peasants who cannot afford to buy a lamp can afford to buy paraffin…The ‘progress’ capitalism brings, like its ‘generosity,’ is just a means to an end: profit.”
The people of Flint, Michigan took pictures with their smartphones of the dirty water flowing out of their faucets. Immense progress can coexist with the most scandalous regression. Laggards are aware of this hypocrisy of progress. In fact, they would prefer a kind of progress that enables people to access clean water over one that attempts to relocate the global elite to a colony on Mars. Laggards do not feel much affection for these advancements that transport only the few to their destination of profit.
Silicon Valley, a contemporary synonym for “progress,” is entering a dangerous period in which it must introduce solutions to problems that it created (solving progress with more progress). Mark Zuckerberg puts “disputed” tags on Fake News stories which could not have gone viral without Facebook’s ‘Share’ feature; Elon Musk launches Neurolink to combat Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity. Eventually and inevitably, these solutions will become problems that will require new solutions. Every new solution must be greeted with a critical glare rather than open arms. We lose our freedom if we succumb to the optimism of innovation and early-adoption.
So, how does someone become a laggard? Let’s be realistic (et demandez l’impossible). Whether one subscribes to the philosophical tenets of Hobbes or Rousseau, no one possesses a return-ticket to the state of nature. Golden Ages are no more than the apparitions of forgetful nostalgia. Moreover, Golden Ages were not golden for everyone. If you wish for a world free of technology, sign up for the nearest Amish community. We must acknowledge that most of us live (comfortably or otherwise) in a capitalist society. Furthermore, our participation in this society requires a minimum level of prosperity. Ironically, I cannot write or publish these words without the products made by those people in Silicon Valley that I seem to hold in contempt. The whole affair reminds me of Louise Mensch’s comments about Occupy London in an old episode of Have I Got News For You?
One is not ethically obligated to return to a pre-technological state of nature to critique the role of technology in our lives. One can protest capitalism while drinking Café Lattes and using your smartphone. The Laggard is the opposite of the person who believes that we cannot have innovation without capitalism. Under capitalism, we are permitted only one regime of innovation: FREE WIFI AND DIRTY WATER FOR ALL! The Laggard wants to try out other regimes of innovation. Some of them even hold the radically subversive view that everyone has a right to access clean water (in Flint, Michigan, Sebring, Ohio, and the Standing Rock Indian Reservation…): FREE WIFI AND CLEAN WATER FOR ALL!
So, I start and end with water and machines. Why did McLuhan deem it appropriate to insert an ancient tale into his book about the then-emergent phenomenon of mass media? Every new technology disrupts the physical body and the body politic in electrifyingly dramatic ways, but very few people notice. Two decades ago, no one could have imagined or anticipated the seismic impact of Facebook. Nowadays, the extraordinary become mundane instantly. The abnormal becomes hypernormalized. That’s why we need people who pay attention more than ever. Admittedly, Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris’ famous awareness tests prove that we see only what we are told to watch:
We are too busy watching the basketball game to notice the gorilla. Some people do not realize that there is a heart of a machine growing in their chest, wired up to the market with transcontinental fiber-optic cables. Everyone has a heart of metal these days, but they also have a choice to sever the wires. Water is too precious and necessary to become a commodity. Water is life. Ironically, the humble gardener refused the offer of more clean water, whereas the new Laggards demand it. Sites of struggle change. As soon as we cut the wires, our machine hearts can roam wherever they wish and fight whenever they want. They will beat and beat. To fight for one’s life and the lives of others is the only progress worth chasing.