Theodore Roszak

The intellectual world in the late 1960s and early 1970s was vibrantly polemic.  While their students were taking to the streets in the US, England and the Continent, academics were embroiled in often savage disputes as many sought to demolish what they saw as the pseudo-objective pretensions of the so-called social sciences, especially in the fields of history, sociology, psychology and social anthropology.  Like many students at that time, I was fascinated, energised and probably rather dazzled by the flood of books and articles, all of which seemed to be throwing previous decades of theorising up in the air.  Much of this was centred around a Marxist analysis of capitalism and its weaknesses, often with large chunks of structuralism, psychoanalytical theory and postmodernism thrown in.

One of the key writers was Herbert Marcuse, whose book One-Dimensional Man was published in 1964.  Rereading it today, I am overwhelmed by its prescience, if not by all of its arguments.  In it, Marcuse sees modern ‘industrial society’ as a means of social control, achieved through a consumerist lifestyle.  Indeed, rather than just being concerned about an industrial society, and its technological basis, he describes its further development into an ‘affluent society’, where day-to-day comfortable living hides an exploitative and controlling system.  In such a society, a small number of people shape perceptions and expectations, encouraging people to believe the path to happiness comes from consumption.  In such a society, people consume more than they need, and in doing so encourage waste, inflict ongoing environmental damage, and focus priority on material items at the cost of social and psychological well-being.  His analysis went on to examine the influence of advertising in creating a consumerist society.  He said that sixty years ago:  if anything, it’s worse today.

Following his initial study, Marcuse became interested a broader social critique, and in so doing became a key figure in the student movements of the 1960s.  He was described in the mass media as the ‘Father of the New Left’.  In 1965 he published an essay, Repressive Tolerance, in which he argued capitalist democracies have totalitarian tendencies, and launched a whole new set of concerns.  He claimed genuine tolerance does not allow any room for ‘repression’ since if it did,  marginalized voices would remain unheard.  The tolerance of repressive speech was ‘inauthentic’, and he advocated a form of tolerance that is intolerant of repressive (or right-wing) political movements.  Clear?  This was clever.  ‘Liberating tolerance’ in his view would mean toleration of movements from the Left, and  intolerance against movements from the Right.  This  would include the withdrawal of both freedom of speech and assembly from groups and movements that promoted aggressive policies, armament, chauvinism, discrimination on the grounds of race and religion, or that opposed the extension of public services, social security, medical care, etc.  Yes, clever.

Views like Marcuse’s spread out in many directions.  As one illustration, at my university Robert M Young wrote a critique of Darwin, Mind Brain and Adaptation, arguing all facts are theory-laden, all theories are value-laden, and all values occur within an ideology or world view. Scientists and technologists pursue agendas; they have philosophies of nature, world views usually tacitly held.  In looking at a broad spectrum of disciplines he claimed that our culture is disastrously divided.  It is characterised by sharp dichotomies, each and every one of which is false or, at least, overdrawn, and yet our beliefs in them preclude any unified deliberations about the scientific and the moral.  Fragmentation rules, the humanities opposed to science, qualitative opposed to quantitative methods, values opposed to facts, and culture opposed to nature.  If that sounds familiar, it mirrors the divergence C P Snow wrote about in The Two Cultures, back in 1959.  A divided world – sounds familiar!

Out of all this analysis, a whole new world of communitarian experiments emerged.  In 1968, even I had succumbed to this new way of thinking (new?), living in a mini-commune in the hills outside Cambridge.  Others were far more adventurous, especially in California where there were cults, spiritual entrepreneurs and competing new-age psychotherapies, a process to be captured in 1969 by Theodore Roszak as creating a counterculture, in The Making of a Counter Culture (TMCC).  The term counterculture was adopted by rebellious university youth, especially in San Francisco and Berkeley in the late 1960s.  The concept has stuck.

Contrary to what many believed, Roszak, a professor of history at California State University, was far from being a hippy.  A sober, career-aware academic, he saw himself an observer of the explosive social changes taking place at the time.  While he admitted to being a ‘leftist’, he was predominantly an analyst, although he made it clear he rejected ivory tower isolation and promoted political engagement, in his case against the Vietnam War and the cold war.  He foresaw a collapse in industrial society and wanted to accelerate concern over ecological problems, in a world he saw facing an environmental crisis.  In 1992, he invented a new term, ‘ecopsychology’ based on the view, “Other therapies seek to heal the alienation between person and person, person and family, person and society. Ecopsychology seeks to heal the more fundamental alienation between the person and the natural environment.”

Roszak was a self-proclaimed neo-Luddite but not a supporter of anti-science.  Broadly, his concerns ranged over the abuse of power, and various forms of dictatorship, control and manipulation.  His overarching theme was that the ‘logic of progress’ should be questioned and cited various examples, such as the development of the nuclear bomb.  He feared the pursuit of progress (in relation to affluence, scientific knowledge, and technology) had resulted in the development of increasingly destructive processes and devices.

It was Roszak who used ‘technocracy’ to refer to the regime of technical and professional expertise that he saw had taken root to dominate American culture.  In Frontiers of Capital Annelise Riles, Professor of Law and Anthropology at Cornell University, wrote “Roszak’s technocracy offers a way to describe the power that is generated from a system of knowledge creation … within this system, those who govern justify themselves with an appeal to experts.  Then, those experts justify themselves with an appeal to scientific forms of knowledge … [and] beyond the authority of science there is no appeal.  Roszak’s technocracy offers a form of knowing the world and managing the world that is inherently abusive of power”.

Roszak saw power in the counterculture movements of the 1960s, arguing “if we want to change society, we must first be able to imagine a playing field where it is possible to fight. We must be able to understand and see ourselves with some measure of power”, (TMCC page 201).  In The Making of a Counter Culture, Roszak described youth as searching for alternatives to the status quo by dropping out, learning about Eastern faiths, and taking on new lifestyles.  While he saw this as positive, he was critical of many ideas, including a “youthful fixation on introspection, examining their motives and behavior” in a way that results in a “final appeal to the person (individualism) and not the doctrine” (op cit: page 62).

Roszak was a romantic, arguing a “poet’s experience is defined precisely by the fact that [s/he]…does not go beyond” the social and human tools of seeing (page 253). By using a different logic to engage with the world, “the validity of the experts can be questioned”.  He explains the 1960s youth movements, not only in relation to resistance to contemporary issues but also by tracing their philosophical roots to romanticism. Not to detract from the important rights being fought for during this period in history and despite Roszak’s somewhat loose adherence to the standards used by historians, his book addresses how the ‘look and feel’ of youth rebellions are in some ways shaped by historically specific forces.  The Making of a Counter Culture was an important contribution a time characterised by considerable questioning and dispute, and the concept of the ‘counterculture’ was one of the key ideas in the debates between critics and supporters.  Going back to the text, it is surprising to realise he was rather critical of student activists and many of their proposals for the future.  He wrote from a romantic tradition, and he made it clear his preference was to encourage a return to a smaller scale, more humane and more ecologically sustainable world.

For me, one of the particularly interesting contributions he made was back in 1986, with the publication of The Cult of Information, a review of the dangers he saw in the rapidly developing world of information technology.  Living close to Silicon Valley, he commented he “did not buy the hype”.  He had already expressed concerns about technology in The Unfinished Animal, in 1975, where he explained his concerns: “As for technology, which was meant to serve as the engine of progress, it becomes a compulsive and self-defeating pursuit of total dominance over society and nature …urban industrial society is doomed to lurch from crisis to crisis, emergency to emergency… the final act of this unhappy scenario [is] a global wasteland where a bandit elite of corporate profiteers, commissars and technocrats…enjoy the dwindling riches of the Earth, while the impoverished billions starve without even clean air in which to draw their last breath.”  Overstated?  Fifty years later, surrounded by climate change, pandemics and other crises, with seven of the world’s top ten most valuable companies being technology enterprises, I think he was soberly prescient.

It is almost impossible today to understand what the world was like before information technology began to hold us tightly in its hands.  If McLuhan observed ‘the medium is the message’, the updated version of that might be ‘the information is the idea’.  We hardly ever stop to ask whether there are more than computer analogies to how the brain works, as the information processing model become the quintessential way to explain how individuals made decisions:  the brain ‘processes’ its data inputs, with these inputs providing the stimulus to generate responses.  Data in, data out.  In other words, humans are information processing machines, complex certainly, but that is an increasingly trivial issue as computers grow (grow?) increasingly powerful in terms of data manipulation capabilities and operational speed.  We no longer talk about a post-industrial world today, but an information society.

It is a focus on the dangers of substituting machines for human minds which underpins The Cult of Information.  In his introduction Roszak observes  “…mind has never been dependent on machinery to reach the peaks of achievement” (page xx).  The Cult of Information has a subtitle – A Neo-Luddite Treatise on High-Tech, Artificial Intelligence, and the True Art of Thinking.  In fact, his book begins with a passionate defence of what he calls “the naked mind”.  However, for most of the analysis, it is a dark vision of what computer technology was achieving through replacing thinking with data management and information systems.  The early chapters describe how so much of work, business and life was being transformed into information, data to be managed and processed, and in so doing intelligence downgraded to digital processing.  After a middle section where he reminds us that ideas precede data and information, that software is process and not thinking, he explains how the counterculture is attempting to arrest this takeover of the human mind, and finally adds that it is failing!

One easy way to understand the range of his concerns is to look at the section of the book that addresses education, and the role of  libraries.  In a section on ‘The Library’s High-Tech Identity Crisis’ he comments: “In the era of the electronic book, the neographic text, and the virtual library, librarians have understandably begun to wonder: maybe libraries no longer need walls, maybe walls no longer need libraries, maybe librarians no longer need books, maybe libraries no longer need librarians. Maybe librarians need a hot new identity. Maybe they should become Information Managers-Scientists-Brokers, Data Surfers, Digital Gurus, Info-shamans, Cyber-hypertext-punks.” (page 181).  If that was meant to be witty, the humour falls flat in today’s environment, although I do see signs of librarians fighting back.

His comments on libraries raise many issues which are as relevant today as they were fifty years ago. Roszak quotes from the Library of Congress’s general reference librarian’s summation of why libraries can not and should not go fully digital, and should not even attempt it. These include “the combination of essentially unbudgeable legal, economic, preservation and psychological impediments”. The legal impediments are primarily copyright issues, which publishers and authors are even more concerned about today than they were back then. The economic and preservation impediments are the cost of digitising in the first place, and then of maintaining access to the material as machines wear out and need replacing, and new software has to be purchased and constantly updated. The psychological impediments were not as well-researched then as they are now, and include what is currently known on the ways in which humans read differently on screens than on paper, and retain and understand what they get from books better than what they learn from looking at screens.

Roszak has a lovely way to capture points.  Sections of the book cover ‘Electronic Alzheimers’ and ‘Literacy Imperiled’, before he ends with a heartfelt appeal to real librarians, whom he calls ‘ecologists of the mind’, people who understand the relationships between sources of knowledge, and can help readers and researchers find both what they already know they want to know, and also – and just as importantly – what they did not even know was there to be found.  Would Roszak be relieved to see that libraries still hold physical books, that they are home to seminars and discussion groups, and library staff are often engaged in conversations about ideas and their relevance?

It’s possible I am just as much a romantic as Roszak.  When I go into my local library branch, which is almost every day, there are always people borrowing books, people taking part in discussions, as well as meetings of book groups, programs for young readers and much more.  There are people reading magazines and newspapers.  Why, there are even people using computers!  Despite the variety of activities, the sight that never ceases to please me is that of piles of books being returned, books being shelved on hold, and people walking out with a collection of books to read.  It seems that I am not the only one who likes to hold a book and be able to read it in the quiet of my own home, absorbed, free from other distractions, happy I can easily flip back to an earlier page when I get confused or forget a character.

Fifty years after Roszak’s critique, what do we see?  With increasing access to databases and digital repositories and with a higher level of education and training, the amount of soft information (that is, words, numbers, pictures) has exploded. Societies are becoming ever more complex and the conventional wisdom, as well as popular culture’s vision of the future, is of an information society where the very few provide the tangible and physical necessities of life and where the majority will be processing information as the core of their work tasks, only absorbing information in their leisure time, using sources curated to the needs of each individual.  As information technology has become more pervasive, we no longer use the term ‘the cult of information’:  today, that would be like referring to the cult of living.