In his 1978 bestseller, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, Jerry Mander argued that television is, by its very nature, a harmful technology. The trouble with television is not a matter of content, as the current debate suggests, it goes deeper than that. Whether one watches children's programming on public television or violent, late-night crime dramas, the effects are essentially the same, Mander said: the medium itself acts a visual intoxicant, entrancing the viewer and thereby replacing other forms of knowledge with the imagery of its programmers. Television's effects on young children are especially deleterious, Mander insisted, since it infuses them with high-tech, high-speed expectations of life and separates them from their natural environments. Furthermore, television is used as a vehicle for commercialism -- a commercialism predicated on the need to sell viewers back the very feelings their entrancement has eclipsed. We cannot hope to understand television, Mander concluded, without looking at the totality of its effects.
In the Absence of the Sacred takes this argument a step further by examining our relationship to technology as a whole. It's a tremendously forceful critique that has permanently changed the way I think about technology and its role in our lives.
Mander takes issue with the widespread notion that technology is neutral and that only people determine whether its effects are good or bad. "This idea would be merely preposterous if it were not so widely accepted, and so dangerous," he writes. Because technologies contain certain inherent qualities, they are not neutral. In the case of nuclear energy, for example, it doesn't matter who is in charge because the dangers inherent in the process are the same: the long- term effects of waste, the safety hazards, the lack of local controls, etc.
The belief that technology is neutral is only one aspect of what Mander calls "the pro-technology paradigm" -- "a system of perceptions that make us blind and passive when it comes to technology." It's a cultural mindset that has emerged over time as we've become more and more accustomed to living with technology. It's also a product of the optimistic, even utopian, claims that invariably accompany the introduction of new technology. Another factor contributing to our passivity in the face of technology, Mander contends, is the habit of evaluating it in strictly personal terms. By stressing the benefits of technology in our personal lives -- the machine vacuums our carpets, the television keeps us informed, the car gets us around, the computer allows us to work from home, etc. -- we make little attempt to understand its larger societal and ecological consequences.
What we need, in Mander's view, is a society-wide debate about the costs of technology -- economically, socially, environmentally, and in terms of public health. "In a truly democratic society," he writes "any new technology would be subject to exhaustive debate. That a society must retain the option of declining a technology -- if it deems it harmful -- is basic. As it is now, our spectrum of choice is limited to mere acceptance. The real decisions about technological introduction are made only by one segment of society: the corporate, based strictly on considerations of profit."
Mander sees a close connection between the advances of modern technological society and the plight of indigenous peoples around the world. Since the dawn of the technological era, he says, the only consistent opposition has come from land-based native peoples. Rooted in an alternative view of the planet, Indians, islanders, and peoples of the North have not only warned of the dangers of technology, they have also been its most direct victims. Mander illustrates this point with numerous examples, from Hopi-Navajo territory, where the government is forcing people off their ancestral land to make room for coal strip-mining; to Hawaii, where Native Hawaiians are struggling to save their sacred Pele, the islands, from geothermal drilling and destruction caused by bombing by NATO ships; to Death Valley, where the Western Shoshone fight for a reservation even though they never ceded any of their land to the United States, where they struggle against military pressure to keep nuclear missiles from being placed near their homes; and to the Great Plains, where the Lakota people refuse to accept a $300 million federal offer for the Black Hills. "That technological society should ignore and suppress native voices is understandable, since to heed them would suggest we must fundamentally change our way of life. Instead, we say they must change. They decline to do so."
According to Mander, we are in the midst of "an epic worldwide struggle" between the forces of Western economic development and the remaining native peoples of the planet, whose presence obstructs their progress. The ultimate outcome of this conflict is not hard to predict given that the technological juggernaut inevitably chews up the societies that warn that this path will not work. "Worst of all," Mander concludes, "these are the very people who are best equipped to help us out of our fix, if only we'd let them be and listen to what they say."