Are You Sitting Comfortably?Michael Walker
Homo confort: Le prix à payer d’une vie sans efforts ni contraintes
Paris: Les Éditions L’échappée, 2022
For several years I worked freelance for a company which specialized in controlling indemnity claims on behalf of automobile insurance companies. Like many others, the company published an annual in-house magazine which included cheesy personal interviews with managers and heads of departments. One of the questions asked was, “What would be your optimal invention and why?” Without exception, all those asked named some fantasy invention which would reduce personal physical effort in one way or another. One manager expressed the wish for a perfect robot that could do all the housework in his home. I asked people in the company what the manager thought he would be doing with himself in his newly-acquired free time. The question caused evident embarrassment.
Sports players play to win and they try hard to win, but no footballer wishes to play a series of teams obviously inferior, nor would many fans come out to watch games in which their team’s success was always a foregone conclusion. What collector wants a magic fairy instantaneously completing his collection of coins or paintings without expense, pain, or sacrifice? What hunter wants all the animals he is hunting to line up in front of him and passively wait to be shot? What sports angler wants all the fish in a lake to rush at his bait and be caught without effort? It is a paradox of life that we expect to suffer and sacrifice for what we want to achieve. The victor cannot dispense with the effort and pain that resistance entails. The ideal of untrammeled comfort does not allow for this, yet effort is a necessary adjunct of happiness; and pain, notes Boni, once marked a rite of passage into a new life (102).
That paradox, although he does not elaborate upon it in quite the way I have, is the point of departure for the anthropologist Stefano Boni’s book, Homo confort. Science, specifically what Boni calls “hypertechnology” (a word he employs frequently in Homo confort) is, he claims, removing us from that world of effort and pain in our personal lives. Human beings are so fixated on the need to increase comfort and efficiency that they are willing to submit to a technical dictatorship which strips them of their autonomy and their role as social animals in order to fulfill that need.
Such a view is unorthodox, and Stefano Boni is unlikely to gain widespread popularity soon for expressing it; he is unlikely to be invited to deliver a speech on behalf of any major political party or influential think tank. His circle of readers is likely to remain small. Homo confort was first published in Italian by the small anarchist-libertarian publisher Eleuthera in 2014, and again in 2019, and was subsequently translated into French and published in 2022 by the equally obscure French publishing house, Les Éditions L’échappée. At the time of writing, Homo confort has not been published in English.
The orthodoxy which Boni challenges is the assumption that increased technological efficiency and the achievements of technology in enhancing comfort are entirely beneficent for human beings, and that their desirability is not a matter of discussion. Even dictatorships, however mendaciously, pay lip service to the priority of working towards greater efficiency and comfort, whatever the sacrifices required to reach that goal. Resulting from the priorities which that orthodoxy gives rise to, Homo sapiens is well on the way, according to Boni, to morphing into something unprecedented in human evolution and social history — something inhuman and unnatural.
Boni opens his study with these words: “In this work I argue that the notion of comfort is a decisive yet overlooked aspect to be taken into consideration when one tries to understand the recent course of human evolution, especially over recent decades” (9).
It is certainly the case that the driving force of social and scientific endeavor for the last 200 years has focused on increasing human comfort and diminishing human effort. Boni argues that in recent decades, technological advances have cascaded and the process of maximizing comfort has become exponential; it has reached a stage where mankind is dehumanized. In the past, the cost of comfort wrested from nature was in large part borne by slaves or subjugated peoples. Over the last 200 years the task has been increasingly that of machines, and just as decadent tyrants become dependent on their slaves, so Homo confort is now irretrievably dependent on the technology which maintains his mechanical servants and comforters. Homo sapiens is transferring the burden and responsibility entailed by effort to a “hypertechnology,” and that hypertechnology creates a restrictive dictatorial system to which we as human actors are compelled to defer. The impulse for man’s drive towards what Boni believes may well be self-destruction is the obsessive, unthinking ideological drive to achieve ever-higher levels of efficiency and comfort. Simply expressed, this is the core message of Homo confort.
Because comfort and efficiency are considered necessary priorities in themselves, the natural world is converted into a sterile comfort zone placed at the disposal of increasingly docile, passive, and alienated human beings. Nature is subjugated, diminished, sterilized, and domesticated in order to make the world a more hygienic and more efficient place for Homo confort to live in:
To a great extent Homo confort is born and raised in protective artificial conditions characterized by an extreme preoccupation with hygiene and a thorough control of exterior phenomena. The peril and menace of confronting untamed nature drives us to seek refuge in our high-tech cocoon. (172)
Hypertechnology is divorcing our species from nature to the point that the natural human being is giving way to a scientific artifact, a humanoid. The global comfort zone created by hypertechnology for Homo confort is a factitious one. Humankind is striving ever harder and with increasing success to live in a world where the entirety of nature is subject to restraint and technical control. Boni argues further that Homo confort is man detached from nature, an unnatural being relying from cradle to grave on technical protection and assistance of every kind — so long as cradle and grave will even continue to exist in the hypertechnological world. Whatever is wild and natural is banished, confined, or replaced by technical imitations. The jungle is replaced by the theme park. The dirt track makes way for the highway. Gas stations replace stables. Drive-in fast food outlets selling comfortable, hygienic mass-produced processed food replace the less predictable food that comes from the traditional kitchen. And so on.
The hypertechnological world’s demands and manifestations look the same and work in the same way all over the world. The world of Homo confort is a uniform, monochrome world interconnected thanks to hypertechnological communications. Commercial airlines and computers keep individuals in rapid contact. Boni notes that those societies, tribes, and groups that do not adopt hypertechnological conformity (“Welcome to the twenty-first century, granddad!”) are dubbed “undeveloped” or “pre-industrial.” The word “underdeveloped” that is used to describe non-technical societies is for Boni revealingly condescending. The assumption underlying such a choice of words is that all “backward” societies need to follow the course of evolution laid down by a “more highly-developed society.” Change (viz change to ensure greater comfort and efficiency), the champions of “growth” insist, is both desirable and inevitable, and inherently superior to what is being changed. “Progress” is by definition improvement.
Boni seems not to reject civilization outright in the manner of a Jean-Jacques Rousseau, however, writing for example:
Social and cultural dynamics are never subject to mechanical, simple, and unequivocal transformations. Critics of civilization are wrong when they describe a process as a dichotomy, setting up “good” savages living a harmonious life against a humanity perverted by the traits of Homo confort. (220)
Nevertheless, the way he uses words like “development” and “progress” reveals his marked discomfort and, one suspects, distaste for modern, and specifically urban, society. Certainly, Boni is questioning the assumption that man’s detachment from all that is onerous in nature is always reasonable, always rational, and always leading to an improvement on the past, with each scientific step forward to make life more comfortable and efficient being regarded as beyond reproach.
Assuming growth and progress are good in themselves does betray an intellectual inadequacy. Assuming they are good (or bad) in themselves makes no rational sense at all. “Progress,” “growth,” and “development” must refer to activity to acquire meaning. They are not attributes, so they are meaningless without a context. They exist only in relation to a process, and it is out of a relation to a process that they can be described as good or bad, desirable or undesirable. “Progress in recovery” is welcome progress, but the “progress of a malignant tumor” is unwelcome progress. So the questions should always be posed: Progress of what and to what end? Development of what and to what end? Growth of what and to what end? Doing so enables us to focus on the sense and the cost of such growth, progress, and development. Boni’s thesis makes us sharply aware of this fact.
Man applies his intelligence to invent machines and technical tools that increase his comfort and diminish discomfort, maximizing the efficiency of procedures. Everything which is stressful or demands physical or mental effort is the object of research and development aimed at reducing that effort. We seek softness and ease in labor-saving devices and in the manner in which goods are obtained, tasks accomplished, and afflictions overcome or reduced. All our efforts are focused on softening us, making our lives (and our deaths as well) less tragic, less eventful, and easier to bear. The polemical subtitle of Stefano Boni’s book is self-explanatory: The Price to Pay for a Life with Neither Restraint nor Effort.
Comfort is naturally tempting. There is a genetically-inbuilt disposition to take the easiest way offered to us. Most people take that for granted without giving it a moment’s thought, but in Homo confort Boni asks us to take a second look at our assumption that this endless quest for ever-increasing comfort, ease, and progress does not have a price which is higher than that we should be prepared to pay. The highway is always considered “superior” to the dirt track road, the e-mail is “superior” to the handwritten letter, the electric light is “superior” to the candle, driving by land-rover is “superior” to hiking on foot, and so on; but in nearly every case we find that the notion of superiority simply refers to a higher degree of comfort and efficiency.
Stefano Boni is clearly influenced by the Jewish writer Günther Anders, whom he quotes several times in his book. Anders, a student of Heidegger and Hüsserl who was Hannah Arendt’s husband, was a deeply pessimistic writer who believed that technological advance had so far exceeded human capacity to responsibly manage it that the self-induced extinction of Homo sapiens within a few hundred years was not only possible, but probable. The more sophisticated and powerful the technological inventions of mankind become, Anders held, the more the power of humans over their own technology will fatally shrink. Human intelligence does not increase — if it increases at all — at anything like the same rate as the intelligence of human inventions. The widening gap between the achievements of science and the modest levels of individual human intelligence may well lead to the self-destruction of the species through the use of the inventions that Homo sapiens is too intellectually weak to manage wisely.
Boni shares both Anders’ cultural pessimism and his skepticism about the benefits of modern technology; however, as the title of his book suggests, Boni’s principal concern is not, as Anders’ was, with the dramatic destruction of mankind by, for example, nuclear holocaust. Instead, Boni concentrates on the rift which an ever more technocratic society creates between mankind and the natural world. Among other things, this rift has brought about the destruction and contamination of land and sea, the decimation of the animal and plant world, the feminization of human society, a loss of individual self-sufficiency, and the disappearance of evidently relevant and useful tasks for human beings to accomplish themselves, entailing a loss of self-worth and self-respect, as well as — a point which Boni stresses — the disappearance of Homo faber: the artisan, the man who creates with his hands, the man who enjoys a sensory relationship with the tools which he uses and himself creates.
The chapter titles of Boni’s book reveal some of the book’s main focal points: The Subjugation of Nature, The Dogma of Growth, The Body behind the Screen, The Converting of Nature into Merchandise, The Quest for Total Happiness, The Decline of Human Know-How, and Ecophobia, a term which came into use in the 1980s and which Boni superbly describes as “disgust towards the organic” (172).
Boni’s book not only challenges the certainty that progress and development can be taken for granted — many critics have done so before him — but more unusually he undermines assurance in the desirability of global growth, development, and progress in the first place.
Boni analyzes many of what he considers to be the ailments of modern society. Different as they are, they are all characterized in this book as being, in one way or another, part of the alienation of the human species from nature and the prevention of it inhabiting a predominantly natural, non-technical environment. The culprit identified by Boni is not a particular human vice nor a particular human group, either ethnic or economic, but rather the inflated power of science and technics, which together constitute hypertechnology, as shown in the increasing presence, dominance, and pervasiveness — and thus power — of technology and scientific progress over every aspect of human life. The human individual and the entire natural environment — as well as, crucially, the relationship of our species to the natural tasks with which people in the past were confronted — is being replaced by hyper-efficient structures and processes that erect a barrier between the human individual and what remains of the natural environment.
Mass production creates uniformity at the expense of diversity, and above all reduces the ability of the individual to fend for himself. Homo confort sacrifices freedom in return for comfort. Quoting Heidegger, Boni notes that the perfectionism of technical processes, as for example in industrial agriculture, divorces human beings from their relationship — physical, natural, organic — to non-human life, the climate, the seasons, dirt, and disease. They are all regarded by Homo confort as alien, inimical factors which need to be banished, destroyed, and tamed, or even not experienced at all if a way to evade or replace them can be devised. Food is efficiently produced, thus becoming bland and unnatural, several stages distanced from the original organic meat or plant — for what Homo confort consumes is a technical product, not produce. It is unnatural. The craftsman is destroyed in a society which optimizes efficiency and comfort, to be replaced by a global production and supply-chain process. Natural immunity is replaced by vaccination. Overactive children are not compelled to exhaust themselves in physical effort, nor are they beaten; instead, they are prescribed mind-bending medications. The storyteller is replaced by the televised medium. Hypertechnology reduces human competence by making diverse skills redundant. Handicraft is demanding and requires its performer to be the master of diverse tasks, whereas “hypertechnology requires operators specialized in the functioning of just a few machines, such as a computer, an excavator, an assembly line, a check-out desk — jobs requiring abilities which are mostly linked to machines and seldom to the organic world” (27).
Boni cites approvingly the French economist Serge Latouche, who argues that “the usefulness of something has become the very criterion of what is good, and what is useful is seen as material improvement” (33).
That is an insightful observation, for it is taken for granted in the hypertechnological societies in which we live (whether democratic or authoritarian seems to play no role whatsoever in respect of this assumption) that an improvement in efficiency, and therefore comfort, is in itself desirable and a sure indication of an advance in civilization.
Boni challenges the belief that the progress of civilization necessarily increases human happiness. Not only does technological progress increase the distance between human beings and nature, the landmarks of technical progress are often deleterious in ways which their promoters are keen to conceal. Examples of the less happy side of technical advances abound. Mobile phones increase efficiency of communication and can save lives, but there is evidence — disputed, of course, by their producers — that prolonged exposure to their electromagnetic waves are carcinogenic. The use of escalators increases efficiency of movement, but causes individuals to be less physically fit and agile, and thus more prone to heart disease. Fast food is more efficient than the traditional cooking of a meal, and soft drinks are highly efficient and convenient, but the repercussions for health and all-round well-being is now widely acknowledged. Low pain thresholds have played their roles in addictions to opioids, for example.
The more efficient the social world becomes, the more people can receive services from machines instead of people; consequently, the world is less social, less entertaining, and there are fewer stories to tell. What child now hears tales told by his or her grandparents, wondrous anecdotes from times long past? A technological society likewise offers fewer opportunities for adventure. People are not “lost in France” any more. They all sit in their heated or air-conditioned cars, equipped with automatic gears and using their navigator. Boni comments ironically, “Having to get out of your car — the peak of discomfort — and asking someone the way is happily no longer a problem since the introduction of GPS” (111).
The time is not very far away before “drivers” can comfortably dispense with driving altogether. The car will drive for them.
People intuitively know that progress has taken something out of the color and quality of human life. Electric light is more efficient than candles, but restaurants like to provide tables with candles to provide a “romantic setting.” A highway is more efficient than a dirt track in every possible respect, but how many people really want highways built through national parks or close to their homes? And doesn’t a dirt track have more appeal to the hiker than a rubbish-strewn, tarmacked road?
Hypertechnology not only tyrannizes us, but it has, according to Boni, contributed to a reinforcement of narcissism and solitude, and like many other cultural pessimists, Boni provides a long list of disorders which show an upsurge in modern “progressive” society, including psychotic disturbances, anxiety, loneliness, depression, and suicide.
Boni does not limit his critique to deep cultural pessimism. He proposes the directions in which change could occur, changes which would bring human societies closer to nature and therefore reverse the dual trend of environmental deterioration and the decline of Homo sapiens as a social being. They are: a defense of the environment, the limitation of comfort, regionalization, more equitable distribution of resources, simplification of products (he projects a decrease in the number of gadgets as the savoir-faire of the human individual in a world post-Homo confort increases), and putting an end to the practice of manufacturing goods with in-built obsolescence, that notorious trick of ensuring the short lives of products so as to maintain high turnover at the cost of further polluting the environment with plastic, metal, and sometimes toxic waste. In a society not obsessed with progress and development, quality and above all durability would be considered supremely important.
What does Boni identify as salient features of the modern, “advanced” society of Homo confort? He notes the decline in sensual ability: the decline in instinct, the sense of smell, and the ability to identify things by any of one’s five natural senses: “The daily hypertechnological dictatorship of which Homo confort is simultaneously defender and victim is accompanied by a sharp decline in sensory experiences, which for thousands of years used to constitute an essential part of the human learning process” (66).
People have become afraid of touching, smelling, or confronting natural phenomena directly. Along with this, there is a fanatical preoccupation with being clean and banishing anything which spoils the image of perfection created by marketing. Depilation, plastic surgery, the use of deodorants, and the obsession with hygiene are all for Boni part of an alienation from nature; even dislike if it. People are increasingly afraid of the natural world, and he notes that whereas in the past people thought nothing of living with animals, nowadays people are frightened of the most harmless insects and banish the tiniest creatures out of their homes as unwanted — because they are natural:
Encounters with animals other than domestic animals have become rare and fleeting. The reaction of Homo confort to such encounters is often hysterical . . . He has difficulty remaining calm when confronted with a wasp, a stray dog, a bat, or a snake. We feel uncomfortable and disgusted not only by fleas, cockroaches, and lice; even spiders, beetles, lizards, and other harmless animals often make us anxious and cry out in panic. (144)
While not everyone reacts as extremely as Boni describes, it is in the experience of this reviewer certainly the case that fear, ignorance, and panic when confronted with an insect (for example) is significantly greater, especially among young people, than it was 50 years ago.
Boni stresses the factitious nature of the world of Homo confort:
Houses, shops, airports, commercial estates, medication, toilet paper, cars, handkerchiefs, cigarettes, etc. are impregnated with artificial odorants . . . Detergents, shampoo, soap, washing liquid, washing powder, body creams have an intense and pleasant smell . . . Our olfactory sense is saturated with synthetic and standardized smells. We become less tolerant of smells which arise from natural processes. They are judged to be “dangerous.” (80-81)
The fear of nature, the raw, and the organic is exactly as Boni describes it. Many shoppers are anxious and disgusted if they can see the features of the slaughtered animal, such as the head or feet when they buy meat; everything has to be processed so that it is impossible to even identify bodily organs. It is literally nature in the raw which disgusts Homo confort: nature sanitized on a computer or a television screen, tamed domestic animals, or nature represented in cartoons, is cute, hygienic, and safe.
Real sounds and sights that we do experience are more and more typically coming from unnatural sources — that is to say, created by machines. Technological experience is replacing natural experience. Boni rightly states that the sounds of technology at all times of year drown out the sounds of nature. Very often the sounds are of loud machines used to control or destroy nature such as the electric saw, the lawn mower, or the leaf blower, the latter gadget being a blatant case of people too indolent and arrogant to use a broom or rake for a simple but time-intensive chore, preferring instead a loud and polluting machine which does the work conveniently and quickly. The noise of machines to make plants tidy, tamed, and anodyne drowns out the softer noises of seasonal nature. In the meantime, in our homes “our senses are assaulted by the sound of the vacuum cleaner, the washing machine, radios, clocks, alarms” (91).
The huge increase in comforts, thanks to the progress of science and technology, has created an effete, sickly, and supremely bored and boring generation with few defeats or triumphs to relate to others, and few ambitions not related to the technical exploitation and subjugation of the natural world. Boni stresses that Homo confort is above all passive, both in the face of the technology which dominates his world and in relation to political and social events over which he has ever-shrinking control.
Homo confort is not healthy. The requirement for physical prowess is obviously greatly reduced in an ever-more computerized and technological world, subverting the importance of male strength. The ability to lift heavy weights declines as more and more tasks are accomplished by touching buttons and understanding computer software, for example. Brute strength is frowned upon, since it is reminiscent of something all too natural.
As the need for physical effort declines, so Homo confort creates artificial physical challenges in the sports studio, where weightlifting and using machines act as substitutes for the kind of physical activity which would formerly would have been necessary merely to survive. Similarly, people pursue dangerous sports artificially given that their own lives, thanks to hypertechnology, are largely risk-free.
Unable to face the least physical discomfort, Homo confort rushes to the medical cabinet. Pain, that natural signal of nature, is feared by him more than anything, and technology and science are there to provide him with the instant means to banish it. Nowadays medication is moving from the attenuation of pain to the regulation of the body, and even to the regulation of character. But progress in modern medicine is not an unqualified blessing. Boni tells us that “people tend to minimize the undesirable consequences of modern medicines” (103).
In view of recent medical disasters such as the American opioid plague and the doleful side-effects of a novel and little-tested “vaccine,” Boni’s observation might strike some readers as an understatement!
It will come as no surprise that Boni believes that the days of Homo confort are numbered:
The hypothesis of a collapse of our techno-economic system is not a matter of “end of the world” prophesies, projected catastrophes, or nihilistic visions. It is based on the evidence of a likely collapse of social order, of the techno-industrial complex, and of the economic system, and the first indications of that are already with us. Beyond any desire to rejoice or regret such a collapse, it is necessary to recognize the specific nature of the current historical moment . . . The skills of the artisan will be in demand again with the coming of global recession. (216)
Boni is very circumspect when it comes to outlining the future, and specifically the future of a world after Homo confort. But it is clear that although he is negative in detail about what is taking place in the world, in a broader, universal sense he optimistically looks forward to the collapse of a technically top-heavy, anti-social global system.
The notion of a collapse as a result of defined economic laws, while not adumbrated with any detail or precision, recalls Marx’s belief in the collapse of capitalism. Another aspect of Boni’s thought which perhaps owes a debt to Marx is the notion of the alienation of human beings from their work. Boni argues strongly that the mechanization of society and the domination of machines at the expense of the work of hands has created dependence — one of them relentlessly expanding — on hypertechnology and distant centers of production such that human beings are alienated from the work process which goes into creating what they consume. The expression Homo faber suae quisque fortunae — “man is shaper of his destiny” — is well-known, and Boni champions the cause of the artisan, the creative individual who is socially integrated, in contrast to the alienating power of technocratic standardization. He calls the society in which we have become dependent on specialists to mend or replace machines which suddenly break down “techno-centrist.” He is entirely right, even if hardly original, when he further notes that the standardization of production is the cause of a decline in quality, notably but not only, of food quality.
Homo confort is alienated from the productive process principally because he is made passive, contributing only to one specialized aspect of the production process (if he is even engaged in the production process at all, given that a hypertechnological society creates redundancies, especially in productive labor). He is also no longer an integral member of a small local community in which cooperation and interaction is expected, and in fact indispensable.
Boni goes so far as to assert that the very notion of civilization is associated with the subjugation of nature. The word, after all, comes from the Latin civitas, meaning “city.” It is certainly true that throughout its history, civilization has been placed in opposition to barbarism and savagery, which can also be said to mean in opposition to what is raw, underdeveloped, and natural. Boni does not explore the philosophical implications of this, or rather the tension which may arise between the idea of man as a natural being and man as “spoiled” by civilization. His book is after all a social critique, not a philosophical treatise.
What of issues relating to progress and rights? For example, is there not a radical contradiction in the premises of self-styled progressives that “civilization” or “Western civilization” is deplorable because it exploited or still exploits “less advanced” ethnic groups or societies, while at the same time those very progressive groups demand an equitable share of the benefits of that very advancement, the fruits of the Western civilization which they denounce? Boni does not discuss this question in his book, but it naturally arises from reading it.
Boni argues that comfort is often assimilated with notions of quality of life and well-being, and that little or no distinction is made between them. He insists that quality of life and level of comfort are not identical. After all, as he points out, “it is possible to live comfortably while being very dissatisfied” (211):
To bring about a major cultural and political shift we should have to get used to drastic reductions in our standard of comfort . . . This reduction certainly implies disagreeable experiences, more effort, weariness, and more incertitude, but in my view the improvement in our physical and mental well-being, the development of our competencies, the increased social cohesion, and more equitable distribution of power are worth the price to be paid. . . . Living with less technology means living better. And we can achieve it. (227)
This is frank. It does not flinch from a price to be paid. But Boni is nevertheless disingenuous here, because he omits to tell his readers where lines could or should be drawn. His book eschews any attempt to show what the “major cultural and political shift” and “drastic reduction” he talks about would mean in real terms, with real examples. Should there be no running water? No highways at all? No commercial flying? Does the “reduction in comfort” mean that someone with a suspected brain tumor will have to forego a CAT scan and magnetic resonance? Boni does not state, but implies, that he has a low estimation of hygiene (or the necessity of hygiene?), even in a medical setting. Quoting and elaborating on views expressed by Ivan Illich, Boni writes:
It can be said that that there was a precipitous decline in Europe in the cultural significance of smells in the course of the nineteenth century, owing in part to the condemnation by emerging medical science of atmospheres heavy with the smell of breath, seen as the potential vectors of infectious diseases. (76)
Elsewhere, Boni writes dismissively of the use of plastic gloves. Is he really proposing the abandonment of standards of hygiene in hospitals and the use of plastic gloves by medical personnel? It was the very introduction of basic hygienic procedures at the end of the nineteenth century, notably washing of hands, which dramatically reduced the numbers of deaths from childbirth, as surely Boni is aware — yet if he is aware, he does not mention it. So how far does Boni propose that this lessening of efficiency should go? Does he also deplore, say, the efficiency of Europe’s sewage filtering and disposal systems? Should Ghana be favored, because it is further removed from Homo confort when compared to, say, Sweden, on the grounds that Ghana has a more “natural” approach to sewage disposal?
For that matter, will sedatives and painkillers be abandoned? What about hip replacements or appendectomy? Boni offers no detailed account of a society without many of the tools and gadgets of progress; consequently, he is vulnerable to the criticism that he is a Luddite and that he seeks a return of humankind to the simplicity and sufferings of the Middle Ages. Boni dodges the most obvious challenges to his arguments, and it is a major failing of his book that he does so.
There is something else which Boni fails to discuss. Not only is it unclear where Boni would make a “cut” in advanced technical societies, but he does not discuss the strength of the animal impulse that is not limited to our species, and which is surely innate, to overcome obstacles in order to achieve ends. In other words, it is not a defining quality of the hypertechnological world that people seek greater comfort; it is rather a defining quality that they are supremely successful nowadays in doing so. Success, once it occurs, invites enhancements, improvements, and further advances. It is in fact natural and predates technology that we seek greater efficiency. Given that this is the case, when some method or process has been discovered, how will people be brought to abandon it? By argument? Force? Deprivation? Desire on their own part? Will there be some kind of religious or crypto-religious taboo crying a halt to advanced technology? Boni does not tell us. He does not so much as hint that there is a dilemma here in the first place.
Homo confort is relentlessly pessimistic and downbeat, at least when it comes to describing the present. Boni has nothing to say about initiatives to counter hypertechnology, neither to praise nor to criticize them, as though the increasing skepticism about the benefits of modern science, modern medicine, and modern exploitation of resources doesn’t exist anywhere. They do exist, and in ever-growing strength. There is increasing awareness of a conflict between the “rights” of technical progress and the “rights” of animals or of the natural world. There is growing skepticism and questioning of the impartiality and fundamental decency of scientists and medical professionals generally. There is nothing about all this in Homo confort.
Related to this point is the fact that Boni does not vary his analysis in any way in relation to different contemporary societies and different places. It is true that an obsession with progress and efficiency is a worldwide phenomenon, but it is simply wrong to write in such a way as to imply that all societies have abandoned themselves entirely and unthinkingly, and at the same rate, to hypertechnology. Boni’s descriptions of the fanatical obsession with hygiene and the production of processed food describes the larger section of consumer society in the United States. In fact, Europeans who return from the US seldom fail to express their dismay that retail outlets there rarely offer proper fresh meat, fresh fruit and vegetables, and home-baked bread. They deplore the lack of fresh food in large parts of the US by contrasting that lack with the availability of fresh produce where they live. Furthermore, there are trends in many countries away from some of the efficiency and sterility which Boni denounces. In Britain, for example, naturally-produced bread and beer have become staple products. The US is today undergoing its own craft-beer boom. These are actually shifts away from the hypertechnology of the 1950s. The demand for organic produce is growing all the time. It is true that the world is moving in the direction Boni describes, but counter-currents abound. Indeed, it was the announcement of this book’s publication in a French journal called Décroissance (Degrowth) which drew this reviewer’s attention in the first place.
Boni’s analysis and proposals merit earnest consideration. He offers directions and ideas for proposing an alternative pattern of society to that of today’s global ultra-technological narrative, and it offers arguments for staking out a challenge. Boni presents a welcome and all-too-seldom-heard critique of the arrogant, unthinking assumption that progress and development are indisputable benefits and that we should unquestioningly trust the scientists, technicians, engineers, and other priests of progress who foist them upon us. “You can’t stop progress!” they cry. “Can’t you?” responds Boni critically.
Stefano Boni is to be commended for offering skeptics the groundwork for an alternative social and economic vision. Despite its faults, Homo confort offers readers serious food for thought.
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And yet. From the first time primitive man used a stick to dig the soil, humanity has used technology to improve our material conditions. European cultures have unquestionably led this process; notwithstanding the impressive list of black inventions we must never forget.
The problem, I believe, is not the pursuit of labour saving technology per se. To go to the awkward question Mr Walker posed for his manager, the issue is how we fill our free time.
Up until quite recently, efficiencies created by labour saving technology were reinvested in other forms of work. As material scarcity disappears from our cultures – and with the offshoring of manufacturing – the need for labour to make more stuff diminishes.
But this need not herald WALL-E like degeneracy for humanity. European nations could, properly motivated, lead the world again; this time in a post-material renaissance. One where struggle is embraced, not against nature, not against each other in fratricidal conflict, but against our baser instincts. One where we seek physical, mental and spiritual excellence through hard work. One where we use this excellence to produce cities of outstanding beauty. One where we revive science and technology to explore the depths of the oceans and space. One where we establish a more challenging, more rewarding way of life for our people.
But for this, we need to be properly motivated. Which means a cultural revolution to put Mao’s in the shade. The business of selling comfort, selling more stuff, this is all detritus of a failed socio-economic system which must be swept away over time.
The problem isn’t technology.
Agreed. The problem is the unwillingness to manage technology and a fawning acceptance of Judeo-economic imperatives of scarcity-induction and exploitation of needs.
Does Boni ever reference Josef Pieper? All this seems very reminiscent of Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture; as a German Catholic Thomist surveying postwar Europe, Pieper was alarmed at how the Traditional worldview (Plato to Heidegger) that ranked leisure and contemplation higher than work, was largely being replaced (Bacon, Kant, Marx) by a world of work and efficiency. (Heidegger’s “pincer movement” between capitalism and communism, united in demanding work and efficiency). Pieper also notes the corresponding estrangement from nature and the organic (For Hegel and Marx, only that which is made by human hands has value). Pieper’s world of Work still values hardship and stress though, not comfort (“Only that for which we struggle has value” — Kant), while Boni’s efficiency entails less effort.
Interestingly, though Heidegger was still persona non grata in Germany, the Pieper cites him with approval on some issues, such as the nature of philosophical contemplation. But the Nazi are Bad Guys too (Arbeit macht frei!) so he rejects all three of Heidegger’s combatants. Also interesting for the Dissident Right, Jünger is a really Bad Guy, whose ideal form of The Worker is merely the idealization of modernist nihilism. It would be interesting for someone to discuss Pieper’s essay alongside both Boni and Jünger’s Der Arbeiter, or the de Benoist book recently published by Counter-Currents.
Didn’t Uncle Ted (Kaczinsky) already write this book?
Boni acts like the working class asked for this ‘efficiency’. They did not. They had to be driven off the land with enclosure acts and some even fought back by smashing the machines that were ‘more efficient’ than their home-spun products and guild factories (Luddites).
“Efficient” is always an equivocal term. Machines are “more efficient” for the owners of the machines, not the workers. Hence, the ultimate “efficiency” would be to discard the workers entirely and replace them with robots, which — despite the bullshit about “AI” –are just sufficiently complex cotton gins.
Marx thought the Luddites were foolish to attack the machines, when they should have been attacking the capitalist owners. Actually, he thought the Luddites were foolish to complain anyway, since the “laws of history” required increasing automation and consequent impoverishment of the workers, until they rebelled and took over the machines. Marx opposed all “reform” efforts, such as child labor, shorter hours, etc., even unions, for the same reason. Arguably, the Jew Marx and his sponsor, the rich capitalist Engels, were controlled opposition for the Money Power, providing “scientific” justification for letting capital have its way. (Revolution is inevitable, don’t stand in the way of progress!)
If you don’t manage technology, it will surely manage you.
I like this kind of theory because I feel there are many parts of the world where they remain quite healthy and happy without the constant exposure to creature comforts we all take for granted. I remember old commercials for Greek yogurt that implied the old villagers were living so long due to eating yogurt everyday. It may very well have been good for their health, but I suspect they did hundreds of other things in their daily lives that contributed positively to a healthy life. Or the constant campaign to get rural communities better internet service. Did the coastal elites and rulers ever think that maybe the rural dwellers were quite content with their own news and entertainment? And they might not want to be connected 24/7? Having a healthy respect for conserving our less refined ways of life and natural survival is a good thing that should be encouraged not disparaged. I’m a desk jockey I admit it. But I still get joy from a job well done mowing the grass and cleaning when needed. I don’t obsess over either one and I believe it’s for the better.
The chief difference between housework or a job and hunting, sports or fishing is that hunting, sports and fishing are games – elective activities, where the effort, sacrifice and pain are chosen, whereas men are not free to choose work. It’s not avoidance of effort, but a desire for freedom that drives the aversion to work.
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