John Zerzan

Where’s the Remote?

Anarchist writer ponders technology and distance

The remote-control device for one’s TV is a reminder of a wider and deeper web of technological mediation, of remoteness.

The standard definition of “remote” is “at a distance,” as in operating at a distance, but also “separated.” The latter aspect may come into view when we think of a person who is remote –– that is, detached, emotionally distant, not connecting.

What isn’t remote these days? More and more technology, at every level, in every sphere, and ever greater separation, disconnection. The exact opposite of tech’s promise of connection. The isolation and loneliness in the culture of modernity is now commonly recognized as no less than a public health crisis.

Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) was a philosopher of ethics who countered the remote with the supposedly transcendent value of a face-to-face relationship to the Other. He recognized people as related to each other, but also as “solitary and lost.” With a level of abstraction, however, that is basic to philosophy, Levinas offered nothing tangible to combat remoteness. He saw closeness to the natural world as having no importance; nature is “unethical.” Levinas likewise had no real interest in actual technological society and its results.

In thesis 28 of The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord grasped that “isolation underpins technology, and technology isolates in turn.” 

Where’s the remote? Where isn’t remoteness? We are so distanced and separated from the non-remote. A prime example is found in what should be a bastion of intimacy and directness: health. Now it increasingly resides in “telemedicine,” “telehealth.” Norman Cousins’ Anatomy of an Illness (1979) warned of what has come to pass.

Cousins cited Dr. Jerome Frank, who spoke of the remote, techno-approach and its deficiencies. He cited a 1974 British study showing that “the survival of patients with heart disease being treated in an intensive-care unit was no higher than the survival rate of similar patients being treated at home. His interpretation was that the emotional strain of being surrounded by emergency electronic gadgets… offsets any theoretical technological gain.” 

Also mentioned in Cousins’ book is an article by Dr. Robert Ryerson in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, where he cautioned against replacing the human touch with the mediation of machines. “A thorough physical examination fosters trust –– there is a laying on of hands and a listening attitude. The sufferer is being touched and understood.” 

Life need not be remote. 

John Zerzan is a local anarchist writer whose books include Elements of Refusal and Future Primitive. You can listen live to his “AnarchyRadio” at 7 pm Tuesdays on KWVA 88.1 FM or via audio streaming.

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