The Crisis of Control

After much time spent lately reading the reports and reflecting on the import of the nuclear crisis in Fukushima, I would like to suggest that what we are actually witnessing and experiencing today, which has now taken on a global dimension, may be more broadly described in the appropriate sense as a “crisis of control”.

What I mean by the term “crisis of control” requires some explanation beyond the particular attempts to prevent a meltdown of the Fukushima reactors. It is not just a crisis of control over a nuclear technology gone amok, but also of perception management by industrial lobbies and government, and even more a crisis of what we call “techno-science”. In even broader terms, it is a crisis of control even over the process of “globalisation”.

And that might even be the true message of the Amy Chua book World on Fire that I reviewed briefly earlier.

Anything we call “accident” or “accidental” means, of course, a loss of control. In an accident, my intentions are frustrated by some “chance” or unanticipated factor or anomaly that distorted the expected and predicted outcome. With the unexpected outcome, whatever it may be, there is also an attendant loss of the sense of mastery — a sense of disempowerment. I might ask myself the question: “How could I do that?” or “Why did I do that?” or “What just happened?” It may be that more than just carelessness and lack of vigilance is involved. Sometimes there may be the truly unexpected — the reasonably unforeseen and unforeseeable. The big surprise that seems “apocalyptic”.

I’m driving down a highway I’ve driven down hundreds of times without incident. One day, I round a curve and lose control of the car on an oil slick. I had no reason or evidence to expect that might happen. I could be the most careful, safe, and attentive driver in the world but on this particular day my mastery of the machine and my environmental circumstances didn’t matter. I’m taken by surprise. I spin out. I lose control.

The narrative and mantra of “safety” surrounding nuclear technology is a narrative of mastery and control that has not been demonstrated in our global experience. Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Fukushima are just particular instances of a loss of control. Time Magazine provided a slideshow, to which I linked earlier, highlighting other instances of a loss of control leading to nuclear mishaps. These are just episodes and instances of the accidental that, viewed in isolation, don’t necessarily form an intelligible pattern.

But when I speak here of “the crisis of control”, I mean something broader in scope — an unfolding pattern of the surprising. I mean, the cumulative effect, rather, of the accelerating individual instances, perhaps exponential, of the loss of control. In short, I mean a crisis of techno-science itself. A crisis of mastery and of the sense of mastery. This sense of a crisis of mastery — and therefore a crisis of the core scientific objective of prediction and control — has insinuated itself in many literary and film works of science fiction, but also of sociology and philosophy lately as the notion of “autonomous technology“, an autonomous self-organising (or self-disorganising) dynamic that over-rides or overwhelms human goals, ends, and purposes.

· 1810: The legal exposure limit for the workers was raised on Wednesday from 100 to 250 millisieverts, a move officials said was “unavoidable”. Most individuals will absorb 6 millisieverts a year, AP reports. (BBC Live, 16. March).

What I have in mind is something that Jean Gebser wrote in the preface to his book The Ever-Present Origin, and it speaks incisively to the problem of the crisis of control and of the mitigation of crisis. I will quote it at some length, bearing in mind that it was written in 1949 but which is still pertinent today,

“The crisis we are experiencing today is not just a European crisis, nor a crisis of morals, economics, ideologies, politics or religion. It is not only prevalent in Europe and America but in Russia and the Far East as well. It is a crisis of the world and mankind such as has occurred previously only during pivotal junctures — junctures of decisive finality for life on earth and for the humanity subjected to them. The crisis of our times and our world is in a process — at the moment autonomously — of complete transformation, and appears headed toward an event which, in our view, can only be described as a ‘global catastrophe.’ This event, understood in any but anthropocentric terms, will necessarily come about as a new constellation of planetary extent.

We must soberly face the fact that only a few decades separate us from that event. This span of time is determined by an increase in technological feasibility inversely proportional to man’s sense of responsibility — that is, unless a new factor were to emerge which would effectively overcome this menacing correlation.

It is the task of the present work to point out and give an account of this new factor, this new possibility. For if we are not successful — if we should not or cannot successfully survive the crisis by our own insight and assure the continuity of our earth and mankind in the short or the long run by a transformation (or a mutation) — then the crisis will outlive us.”  (my italics throughout)

In other words, what I’m calling “the crisis of control” is what Gebser describes here — particularly in his remarks of “an increase in technological feasiblity inversely proportional to man’s sense of responsibility“, (or, which amounts to the same meaning — a deficit of maturity, which we will also have to define). For, in the more profound sense, the loss of mastery of life’s circumstances and the crisis of control is the central significance of what Gebser came to call Late Modernity’s display of “deficient rationality” which, for being a deficiency, is a deficit of awareness. The crisis of control is the outcome a deficit of awareness. Something is wrong with the focus and the contents of human consciousness.

The ultimate failure of the crisis of control would be the inability, the complete breakdown, of our capacity to take corrective measures or what is called “mitigation”. In such a case, the autonomous logic of technology would be completely realised, as it may well become with genetic engineering — another significant critical threat. This is the import of that statement from biologist David Ehrenfeld that I am so fond of quoting and which I have identified as the central human problem of narcissism,

One of the most serious challenges to our prevailing system is our catastrophic loss of ability to use self-criticism and feedback to correct our actions when they place us in danger or give bad results. We seem unable to look objectively at our own failures and to adjust the behavior that caused them. (“The Coming Collapse of the Age of Technology“).

What that statement suggests, in consonance with the aforementioned quote from Jean Gebser, is that the time may come when our ability to take corrective measures in the face of the autonomous logic of technology fails completely and there will be an uncontrollable chain reaction of consequences, in which instance it may will be the end of our species, if not our earth.

I will have much more to say about this, for I think that, upon reflection, what we are witnessing unfolding is a more general crisis of control that informs and gives broader meaning to what are only the particular instances of breakdown or “accidents”, and that also recent events have compounded the sense of the crisis of control with the apparent breakdown of the organised efforts of industry lobbies and government to exercise and maintain control the perception of events.  As one wit put it, it now seems like putting lipstick on a pig.

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5 responses to “The Crisis of Control”

  1. Scott says :

    Ah… very interesting. Perhaps a witness to the power of control? The original article in The Washington Post to which I linked with the reference “lipstick on a pig” above has been retracted and replaced by different one. The original article was headlined -“Nuclear power lobbyists try to limit damage from Japan crisis on Capitol Hill” and is still referenced, too, by another site called “Citizens for Legitimate Government” under that headline. The original linked article which mentioned putting “lipstick on a pig” has now been replaced by a fairly innocuous article entitled “U.S. takes conservative approach in response to nuclear crisis in Japan”. It contains some of the material of the original article, but has been heavily redacted, including the excision of the reference of one industry critic to the nuclear lobby’s attempt to “put lipstick on the pig” of the actual safety record of the nuclear industry and the nuclear lobby.

    It’s not stated on The Washington Post website why the original critical article has been replaced with this new pablum.

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      Here’s something else you might find interesting. The sheer logistics involved in providing energy to billions of workplaces and homes is apparently enough to force us “to consider nuclear as an energy option”. From the article (via):

      Nuclear has lost its dubious “renewable” status permanently. Anything that makes land and resources unusable and dangerous for years should not qualify as a first solution. But with coal use likely peaking as an energy source and because (of) its threat to climate, we are forced to consider nuclear as an energy option.

      Here’s my question: Why do we not feel compelled instead to come up with those viable (and, preferably, more localized) alternatives — and fast — rather than “forced” to consider something with the proven potential to “make land and resources unusable and dangerous for years” to come?

      • Scott says :

        Yes. You notice the language used, too. Although we speak of the freedoms brought by technology (which are real) at the same time we speak of being “forced”, or of things “unavoidable” or “inevitable”. So, while the foreground rhetoric is seductively appealing to liberty, the background reality of compulsion, fatality, inevitability, etc pokes through now and then in such terms.

        What this indicates is the crucial aspect of Gebser’s “deficient rationality”, which is this: thinking becomes increasingly inadequate to master its circumstances — circumstances it has largely created for itself. Those words “forced”, “unavoidable”, “inevitable” are witnesses to that essential deficiency. Like the gods and idols of old, we subordinate ourselves to the objectified products of our own thinking as fates. Here’s where the earlier reference to the original meanings of “disaster” and “desire” become most interesting.

        And so the scale of values keeps shifting, also. What was formerly deemed a “disaster” — which is loss of control — now becomes the “new normal” — an inevitability, a routine event. The critical intensity of the event must increase (statistically, emotionally) before it can be called a disaster. That also signals the loss of reason’s capacity to master its circumstances. We see this, now, in event after event — economic crisis, political crisis, technological crisis, just as Gebser describes above. What it signifies to me, fundamentally, is an older linear logic now unable to master or account for an increasingly non-linear reality. This is Gebser’s “deficiency”.

        • InfiniteWarrior says :

          the background reality of compulsion, fatality, inevitability, etc pokes through now and then in such terms.

          Reminiscent of my use of the term “compelled” to denote inspiration (in the sense Rosenstock described it).

  2. Scott says :

    Come to think of it: there might be more sociology and perceptiveness than we appreciate in a film like Get Smart, about the struggle between “Control” and “Kaos”. Maybe I should look at that film again.

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