One of the lines from Kraus that matters the most to me is “Ein Teufelswerk der Humanität,” an infernal machine of humanity. In the mid-’90s, when I started to feel worried about what was happening to literature with the introduction of the third screen, and with the increasingly materialistic view of human nature that psychopharmacology was producing, I was looking for some way to describe how technology and consumerism feed on each other and take over our lives. How seductive and invasive but also unsatisfying they are. How we go back to them more and more, because they’re unsatisfying, and become ever more dependent on them. The groupthink of the Internet and the constant electronic stimulation of the devices start to erode the very notion of an individual who is capable of, say, producing a novel. The phrase I reached for to describe all this was “an infernal machine.” Something definitionally consumerist, something totalitarian in its exclusion of other ways of being, something that appears in the world and manufactures our desires through its own developmental logic, something that does damage but just seems to keep perpetuating itself. The sentence that summed this up for me owed a lot to Kraus’s writing: “Techno-consumerism is an infernal machine.”
It’s interesting that in the ’90s, a number of different writers and thinkers were all becoming alarmed about these things. You can see Infinite Jest as a giant book in response to the problem of techno-consumerism—with the cartridge film that, once you start watching, you can never stop looking at. Already, in the ’90s, it seemed like machines were beginning to command us with their logic, rather than serving us. Whether we like it or not, Moore’s law says that computers are going to be twice as powerful and compact 2½ years from now as they were today. Obviously, 20 years later we’re reaching the limits of Moore’s law, but at the time it was in absolutely full swing. Applications were developed, and then people had to throw their old machine away because a whole new set of machines and apps had come along. And without our ever giving our active consent, this just became the way we lived. Became the way I lived, despite the strong misgivings I felt.
And then there’s the second part of Kraus’s phrase, “der Humanität”—“of humanity.” I didn’t pay much attention to it in the nineties, but going back and reworking the translations and starting to think harder about what Kraus was actually saying, I was struck by the strange word “Humanität.” He had a different word available to him, “Menschlichkeit,” which he didn’t use. He was working in a vein similar to Walter Benjamin in “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Benjamin saw that mechanical reproduction and increasing technologization of life could bring real social benefits, but that it would come at the cost of a flattening of life. What I find particularly troubling about our own technological moment is that I hear people saying again and again—happily and proudly and excitedly—that computers are changing our notion of what it means to be a human being. The implication of all those excited people is that we’re changing for the better. Whereas, when I look at social media, it seems like a world that once had adults in it is being changed into the 8th grade junior-high cafeteria. When I look at Facebook, I see a video-poker room in Vegas.