THE FUTURE WITHOUT A PAST:
in a Technological Society.
By John Paul Russo.
Univ. of Missouri Press. 313 pp. $39.95
In this dense, learned, and eclectic study, John Paul Russo sounds the alarm, loud and long, about what ever-burgeoning technology is doing to our civilization and our very souls. “The future,” he proclaims, “has taken shape.” “The great transition” predicted for so long by figures such as Matthew Arnold “is finally over,” and the world “powerless to be born” has settled upon us. Not that there’s much to cheer in this dehumanized world. What class conflict was for Marx and instinctual urges were for Freud, the technological imperative is for Russo: the ultimate cause, the engine always running in the background, the underlying reality beneath all the visible phenomena.
Technology, in his view, has grown so pervasive and so minute in its regulation of our existence that we’re rapidly losing the ability to imagine what we would be, and once were, without it. Computers and cell phones, along with a host of ever more powerful simulations of reality, have become the media in which we “live and move and have our being.” And the consequences of this technological regime are almost entirely pernicious for the life of the mind. Technological values have “trumped all others,” “decimated historical memory,” and “infiltrated education to the point of limiting the humanities and undermining their force.”
There’s a considerable intelligence operating in these pages. An English professor at the University of Miami, Coral Gables, Russo brings to his task an astonishingly wide range of reading, from ancient philosophers to modern novelists. He joins a well-established tradition of cultural critics who have shared many of the same concerns, including Henry Adams, Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, Neil Postman, and Wendell Berry. He’s especially perceptive about the ways technology may have led us into a predominantly visual culture, a culture whose inattention to “the word” has left language devalued, and whose sense of connection to the past has atrophied almost beyond restoration. The irony is that the decline of the humanities has been facilitated by the fecklessness of the disciplines’ most visible and honored practitioners.
Though stimulating, Russo’s book has some weaknesses. Its allusiveness and amorphousness combine to make it a challenging read. Moreover, Russo sometimes seems to assume what he wishes to prove. He takes the pervasiveness of the omni-technological life-world as a given, without providing the sort of evidence and argument that might persuade skeptics. Nor does he offer practical prescriptions for remedying the unfortunate condition he diagnoses. (More than once, he mentions monastic withdrawal as a method that worked in the past and might work now—though, to his credit, he acknowledges that such an approach may be “far-fetched.”) And he doesn’t help his cause when he gives in to hyperbole: “Never in the 500-year history of humanism in the academy has it been more disadvantageous to be a humanist—intellectually, socially, culturally.”
Still, the book’s failings are inseparable from its considerable virtues, which in the end outweigh its faults. The Future Without a Past deserves a wide reading, particularly by those who believe that our technological enmeshment will substantially influence the future of our discourse, and who fear that, as Ralph Waldo Emerson long ago put it, “things are in the saddle and ride mankind.”
—Wilfred M. McClay