First Thoughts on Robert Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities”


Prophesying about the downfall of civilization is like shooting fish in a barrel. Just pick your target, guess at its downward course, and take a shot. If you miss, hey, you’ll still hit something. There’s just so much going on.

I offer this thought as a damper on my own enthusiasm for social prophecy. I am all the time reading things in books from 50, 100, or even 200 years ago and seeing the roots of modern day ills in them. My favorite book last year, Age of Anger: A History of the Present, by Pankaj Mishra, was entirely about this theme.

Still, get a load of this.

It’s from my reading this morning: Robert Musil is setting the stage for his sprawling 20th century novel, The Man Without Qualities. He is describing everyday life in an increasingly automated, motorized, bureaucratized Vienna of 1913. Amid the combustion-engine hubbub, he grapples with questions of how the human mind fits in to modern society. What are people like these days?

For Musil, science was imposing comprehensive technological changes on human life, and, just to keep up, humans had to acquire a certain level of specialized knowledge. For thousands of years, only eggheads or religious crazies had bothered to ask themselves questions about the meaning of life, but now, the disorientation brought about by mass technological change meant we all had to crack open the user’s manual or risk being lost in the backwash of history.

Very suddenly, humans were up to their necks in change, and the only reasonable guess they could make about the future was that more was on the way. Musil wondered where it was all headed. Here’s a glimpse into his Vienna of 1913, which is shocking in its prescience:

Questions and answers synchronize like meshing gears; everyone has only certain fixed tasks to do; professions are located in special areas and organized by group; meals are taken on the run. . . . Tension and relaxation, activity and love, are precisely timed and weighed on the basis of exhaustive laboratory studies. . . . In a community coursed through by energies every road leads to a worthwhile goal, provided one doesn’t hesitate or reflect too long.

To which I say: Oh my God.

Just read that first clause again. Questions and answers synchronize like meshing gears. Tell me it does not evoke every Google search you have done in the last five years. Before you finish typing your question, Google is literally synchronizing it with potential answers. This is the way we live now. Our minds are anticipated by the machines we’ve created.

Yes, I realize Google is not a real person dictating to us how to think; it is a virtual amalgam of persons reflecting the form we have given to millions of our thoughts in Google, but don’t you think all that virtual cognitive assistance will feed back into us and shape the way we perceive the world? I’m thinking of how the forms our thought processes might come to influence substance.

Turn-of-the-century Vienna (image: The Paris Review)

Think about this, for example. All you have to do today to answer a factual question is to have access to the internet. If you can talk, you can simply pose your question to Siri, or some other digital savant, and an answer will be returned. Given the pace of machine learning, don’t you think your children–okay, maybe your grandchildren–will be able to address complex, multifaceted research questions in the same way? What would they do in college then? Access to data is displacing the need to understand.

Will our kids have richer lives for starting their inquiries with a machine-enabled cognitive edge? It’s very possible. Will they have lives whose humanity is recognizable to us? I’m not sure.

In fact, when I think ahead to my kids’s adulthood and how they might try to relate their future experience to me, all I can anticipate is a bunch of opaque digital gobbledygook. They will tell me about their day, and I will stand there like Laura Ingalls Wilder if you had you told her about a particle accelerator. I’ll be as far removed from my kids’ everyday experience of multiply-networked, data-driven life forms (or whatever) as Laura was from, say, airliners. You might as well put a starched calico bonnet on my head as a monument to my mute incomprehension.

Which brings me back to Musil’s passage above. He also has some very telling things to say about specialization. I will refrain for the moment from expatiating on the ways in which Marx was right about this topic: the more we specialize, the greater our capacity to alienate one another, even when not on the job.

Much more interesting is Musil’s point that even deeply personal life experiences (“tension and relaxation, activity and love”) can be subordinated to impersonal, scientifically-derived approaches to utility optimization. Put in terms we now understand very well, we mediate the pursuit of happiness–our life’s animating project– through big data.

There may be nothing wrong with this. Data about others can be an excellent corrective on our own inability to reason our way to happiness. Want to know your chances of say, coupling successfully with a smoker even though you’re a non? Look at ten cases. Want to know even better? Look at a thousand. Today you can do it.

But we can also ask, where is it all taking us? If technology is leading us to replace the poetry of life with algorithms, will our lives be recognizably human in 50 or 100 years?

And take a look for a second at a line in the passage that seems to be a throw-away: “[M]eals are taken on the run.” Musil certainly predicted our fast food nation, but what of it? How does his observation hang together with his other, apparently deeper prophecies about modern life? My personal conviction is that the demise of organized mealtimes has gone hand in hand with a concomitant rise in technological diversions and everyday alienation of others, even those we purportedly love the most. If you have ever just let your kids drift off into screenworld rather than joining the family dinner table (as I occasionally have done), you have, in my opinion, landed smack dab in the middle of what was just beginning to horrify Musil about modern life in 1913.

On balance, we have no way of knowing the full import of what technology will do to society, or the human experience of life on Earth. That’s part of the fun, I suppose. I am glad my kids have all their shots, and may have better cancer treatments and so forth by the time they’re old. It would be inhumane–in fact, inhuman–to deny those very real boons of technology. But I am also melancholy about the fact that I might someday squint very hard to recognizes what is human in their lives and not be able to see it.


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