Touch me,
remind me who I am.

–-- Stanley Kunitz

Triumph of the Impersonal

James Brody, a movie reviewer for The Atlantic, comments that Ridley Scott’s “The Martian,” “seems to be offering a sort of advertisement for technical achievement as a model of human achievement, but it’s one in which the human factor is left out.” Brody laments how the main character’s inner life while stranded on Mars is “virtually nonexistent.” As a consequence, the film suffers by missing the most important questions:

“What’s it like for him to be alone for years? Is the sheer solitude a burden? Is the simple lack of human contact a cause of psychological derangement? Are there exercises that he does in order to ward off hallucinations, to control inner voices? And what are those voices? What does Mark say to himself? What does he think—or feel? Is there anything that he has to overcome in order to remain mentally sharp and emotionally stable?”


I find I cannot help but place a more generic spin on Brody’s comments, as if he is speaking to an ongoing, long-term cultural dilemma: the belief that somehow technology trumps — and ought to trump — feeling and the inner life at every turn. By technology I don’t mean just smartphones and internet, but also the technological belief that everything can be more or less reduced to a formula or a tool, and that these formulas and tools are, in fact, more important than the people applying and using them. As a young man who might just as well have been sent to Viet Nam (and who most likely would have died there), I vividly recall how the political formula for winning that war was “technological superiority,” in other words, just because we could. Oh, and how superior and right and safe we all were because of it — a particularly lethal, dare I say stupid belief. People caught up in such equations become less important than the output of the project, the factory of war, shoring themselves up with the conviction that sophisticated machines win anything you want — a total misunderstanding of the human needs and actual causes behind the conflict; a conviction based on an almost incontestable, “patriotic,” head-in-the-sand fantasy, an inept ideology.

We want technology to solve all our problems, and in the course of wanting that so badly, the value of human beings begins to disappear. Amazon as a workplace, of course, is a symbol of all this, noisily justifying itself in the name of “customer service” and “innovation” — at a large human cost. Make no mistake, it’s a formula; a technology; another justified and careless war on the human spirit.

No one is immune. Even garden variety change efforts in organizations are this way — sold around apparently positive purposes, but the human beings become less valued than the raw fantasy that a particular formula, particular technology of change methods can somehow make it happen without the messiness of actual feelings. Better to access what Flow Chain Sensei, Bob Marshall, calls his singular, revolutionary Antimatter Principle: “Attend to folks’ needs.”

I’m not mindlessly bashing technology, by the way. We need it, and there are many, many places where it truly serves. The intellect must have its domain, and should. But technology can also bring its own poisonous concoction of sweet smelling assumptions about what progress actually is. Technology, for all its service, can also be a distraction, a false hope, and worst — becoming a culture — an implicit demand that people should live, work, and die like machines, too; “a vision of a pure and impersonal scientific meritocracy,” to once again quote Brody’s review of a sterile movie that misses its own point.

There has to be more.


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  • Hi Dan,
    Wow, do I love this post!
    So much rich material here.

    Despite the fact that I really enjoyed The Martian, it is the perfect metaphor. I thought compared to many other films about space and science, this one had a human centered feel. Mark Watney is a scientist, a botanist, but first and foremost an intensely trained scientist. As he says to his class of fledgling astronauts in the end, prepare for the worst. Survival is the default mode.

    External progress, achievement and meritocracy are the great American promise, now almost achieving religious status (soon Steve Jobs will open and show us another level of how that reverence has been built).

    App designers and creators of platforms like Snapchat are our new heroes, who knows the names of the people desperately searching for an Ebola cure or the doctors selflessly struggling to save lives while in Afghanistan.

    Let’s face it, technology’s lure has become culture. But, of course, it cannot save us, that is the false promise, the great distraction, the magical thinking.

    But don’t you hear that voice in the dark, saying Attend to folks needs, getting louder and louder? I do, but maybe it’s just magical thinking.

  • To my friend, Louise~

    Yes, I do, Louise — and if it’s magical thinking, I’ll willingly join in.

    William Stafford said it so well:

    “And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
    a remote important region in all who talk:
    though we could fool each other, we should consider–
    lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.”

    “For it is important that awake people be awake,
    or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
    the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–
    should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.”

    All the best

  • Susan Cox wrote:

    As always amazingly simple yet deeply resonant and profound…
    is in the rush to save time and capture convenience we have lost our inner magic and

    CEO and SEESPEAK are coming my friend…they ARE coming. It is a long haul but hauling we are.fondly
    Susan Cox

  • Susan~

    Always nice to hear from you — I’m glad your programs are moving ahead!


  • This post reminded me of a book I read a few years ago.

    If anything, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is more timely now than when it was originally written 40 years ago.

    Pirsig really explores in depth, the idea of what our technology means philosophically.

    He explores other important themes as well. But he keeps as one of the central themes: the relationship between us, our culture and philosophy, and the way we think about and interact with technology on a daily basis.

  • Jon~

    Thanks for dropping by and the reminder about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as a resource on the topic of technology and culture. Much appreciated.


  • I scratch my dead when I Google “change management models” and the emphasis on the “technology” of the process: i.e., steps to follow, steps focused on “doing” this and that and so few models focus on the “be-ing” of the process, i.e., dealing with the psycho-emotional aspects/issues of change.
    Numerous articles and report tell us that 75% of all change efforts fail. Why? Technology alone won’t, can’t solve “people” issues – resistance, fear, anger and the like.

    You’re right, There has to be more. Smart organizations (B-school, WSJ Journal focused stuff)can’t or won’t deal with the people issue; healthy organizations can and do. They see and understand the “more.”

    Nice post, Dan.

  • Peter~

    Thanks for your comment, my friend. I’ve gone so far in management development sessions to pull out a few of those linear models from the web and ask participants what they think of them. The universal response is that these models seem hierarchical, blame and resistance oriented, and while providing a superficial roadmap, neglect the very things that lead to success or failure of the effort, which are related to the full participation and engagement of people in understanding and helping design the change. The gap between senior leadership and middle-management and the hope all problems can be solved with linear programs and quantitative measurement have never been greater. It’s appalling.

    Just last week, I was talking with a highly place middle manager in tech services with an advanced business degree who was looking for a coach to teach her basic supervision skills — as her advanced program from one of the most prestigious universities in the country had not prepared her to do fundamental things like delegate effectively and coach others. Amazing.


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