With the news of Robert Pirsig’s death last week, I’ve picked up Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to reread it. It was an important book to me growing up — it helped me think through my own value system and also to think through technology and its relationship to ourselves and our communities.
It’s a slower paced book from a slower paced time. It was originally published in 1974, when I was just 3 years old, and 2 years before Apple was founded.
It’s a bit of a cliche (although true) to talk about how relevant books like Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death & Technopoly, McLuhan’s The Medium is the Message, Orwell’s 1984, and Huxley’s Brave New World are today — but this book of Pirsig’s seems (to me) to capture so much of the tension between technology & progress & self.
I’ll quote an early passage at length. The author is taking a cross country backroads motorcycle trip with some friends — he is himself a very capable motorcycle mechanic and loves the work of keeping his bike running well. But he’s puzzled by his friends’ relationship with technology.
Long passage follows. Pretty sure I’ll post more as I slowly work my way through this rereading of the classic. Lots of these thoughts keep rattling around in my head days later.
What is it they say about history? That it doesn’t repeat but it often rhymes? I’m sure feeling that a lot these days, for better or worse.
They [his friends] talk once in a while in as few pained words as possible about “it” or “it all” as in the sentence, “There is just no escape from it.” And if I asked, “From what?” the answer might be “The whole thing,” or “The whole organized bit,” or even “The system.” Sylvia once said defensively, “Well, you know how to cope with it,” which puffed me up so much at the time I was embarrassed to ask what “it” was and so remained somewhat puzzled. I thought it was something more mysterious than technology. But now I see that the “it” was mainly, if not entirely, technology. But, that doesn’t sound right either. The “it” is a kind of force that gives rise to technology, something undefined, but inhuman, mechanical, lifeless, a blind monster, a death force. Something hideous they are running from but know they can never escape. I’m putting it way too heavily here but in a less emphatic and less defined way this is what it is. Somewhere there are people who understand it and run it but those are technologists, and they speak an inhuman language when describing what they do. It’s all parts and relationships of unheard-of things that never make any sense no matter how often you hear about them. And their things, their monster keeps eating up land and polluting their air and lakes, and there is no way to strike back at it, and hardly any way to escape it. That attitude is not hard to come to. You go through a heavy industrial area of a large city and there it all is, the technology. In front of it are high barbed-wire fences, locked gates, signs saying No TRESPASSING, and beyond, through sooty air, you see ugly strange shapes of metal and brick whose purpose is unknown, and whose masters you will never see. What it’s for you don’t know, and why it’s there, there’s no one to tell, and so all you can feel is alienated, estranged, as though you didn’t belong there. Who owns and understands this doesn’t want you around. All this technology has somehow made you a stranger in your own land. Its very shape and appearance and mysteriousness say, “Get out.” You know there’s an explanation for all this somewhere and what it’s doing undoubtedly serves mankind in some indirect way but that isn’t what you see. What you see is the No TRESPASSING, KEEP OUT signs and not anything serving people but little people, like ants, serving these strange, incomprehensible shapes. And you think, even if I were a part of this, even if I were not a stranger, I would be just another ant serving the shapes. So the final feeling is hostile, and I think that’s ultimately what’s involved with this otherwise unexplainable attitude of John and Sylvia. Anything to do with valves and shafts and wrenches is a part of that dehumanized world, and they would rather not think about it. They don’t want to get into it. If this is so, they are not alone. There is no question that they have been following their natural feelings in this and not trying to imitate anyone. But many others are also following their natural feelings and not trying to imitate anyone and the natural feelings of very many people are similar on this matter; so that when you look at them collectively, as journalists do, you get the illusion of a mass movement, an antitechnological mass movement, an entire political antitechnological left emerging, looming up from apparently nowhere, saying, “Stop the technology. Have it somewhere else. Don’t have it here.” It is still restrained by a thin web of logic that points out that without the factories there are no jobs or standard of living. But there are human forces stronger than logic. There always have been, and if they become strong enough in their hatred of technology that web can break. Clichés and stereotypes such as “beatnik” or “hippie” have been invented for the antitechnologists, the antisystem people, and will continue to be. But one does not convert individuals into mass people with the simple coining of a mass term.