John Zerzan was critiquing a book about the negative impact technology has on our interpersonal interactions on his radio program last week. The idea that we might actually work to limit technological mediation in our social world is, of course, a non-starter; instead, according to the author we should work to establish better manners. A caller commented that there has indeed been a general deterioration of manners in our society as of late, and then went on to claim that manners are a separate issue from technology. I think the caller was definitely right about the first part of what he said but wrong about the second. There is a direct link between technology and the degradation of manners in our society—a link that can probably be traced all the way back to the intrusion of civilization and its requisite social stratification.
Industrial technology has become metaphor for us. We think of each other in mechanical terms, as cogs and sprockets in the machine of civilization. We treat people according their two-dimensional roles in the mechanical process rather than as multidimensional human beings. When we play the role of customer, we demand obsequiousness from those playing the role of merchant. We treat the person at the customer service desk with the contempt we have for the corporation. We direct our frustration with the institution at the people the institution employs.
Add to this the influence of our rapidly increasing dependence on electronically–mediated communication. When we talk to each other through machines large pieces of the humanity of the communicative experience are lost. It’s easy to be rude to a voice coming from a little plastic box or a string of words on a screen.
Manners are the rules of polite engagement among people. They are superfluous in a society where people are reduced to “consumer units” in a global machine and personhood has been redefined so as to apply to mindless corporations.