Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch-hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs, changed naturally into pity and contempt. As he turned over the almost ​endless creations of the last century—and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed—this was the page at which the favourite volume always opened:

“ELLIOT OF KELLYNCH-HALL. (Jane Austen, Persuasion)

The first lines in most of Jane Austen’s books strike right at the core of what follows. Though Sir Walter is not the hero, or even the principal character in Persuasion, his attitude points to the general object of persuasion: to move someone or something away from the tradition which we have become accustomed to, which gives us a sense of “place” in the world. Tradition is a comfort to most people, and reaching back into personal history is the most common trope at a writer’s disposal to elicit some sort of identification or sympathy with an unknown audience. Attention to the past can be a diversion or salve against the pressures of the present, but it provides one means of gaining grounded authority against uncertainty.

The common center of any definition of rhetoric is that persuasion is the goal, and I was surprised to find a twenty-five year old article from the DGS at Minnesota during my time there, Art Walzer, about Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Art argues, and I think rightfully, that this novel has at least a minor spot in the rhetorical canon due to its interface with rhetorical theory. Art’s core thesis is that Austen pursues the idea that persuasion functions using reason as well as desire.

The tension in the persuasive process between desire and reality is an instance of this broader theme, a process in which the will, under the influence of the imagination, is moved to act. As such Austen’s depiction of the process follows in its basic mechanics the account provided by the theorists. But while for Austen reason is often an effective critical faculty disciplining judgment to attend to what Bacon calls the “nature of things,” reason is generally an instrumental (rather than an independent) faculty in the persuasive process, a function of desire in the case of characters such as Sir Walter and Elizabeth, who are in the grip of their appetites, or of the moral passions in the case of Anne.

The relevance to my project here is that “reason is generally an instrumental (rather than an independent) faculty in the persuasive process” – Art always had a certain spare eloquence in scholarly writing. When humans desire new technologies, these desires are always rationalized using a number of strategies implying that new technologies are generally superior to old technologies. In this case, reason often fails us, blinded by better faster shiny new. Reason is simply one tool among many, urging us ever onward on our technological path, ignoring the inconvenient reality of planetary destruction.

Reason cannot, and will not, win over desire– particularly when there are as many reasons to gratify our desire as there are to deny ourselves. Resistance to technology (and change in general) often takes the form of a nostalgia for a time before the change, and like Sir Walter thumbing through the Baronetage to trace our place, we ignore the new at our peril. Witold Rybzynski’s second book, Taming the Tiger: The Struggle to Control Technology (1983), recounts the long history of the failures of reasonable means of resistance to technology. Desire, whether for technology or people, is tricky and often tragic given that what we want and what is good for us are seldom the same thing.

In Persuasion, once Anne Elliot is persuaded by Lady Russell that Captain Wentworth was a poor match for her, she resists desiring him although his circumstances have changed. She applies reason to her passions in service of thwarting change. Reason, in an Austen heroine, often restrains and disciplines decision making. It’s a complex and interesting tale in which competing interests apply a wide range of persuasive techniques to a somewhat surprising conclusion. Everyone involved is pulled between what they feel is their duty and their desires.

A similar process occurs when we suddenly discover a new attractiveness in old technologies, “quixotic attachments” to old realities as Rybczynski labels them: “The picturesque medieval hamlet is appealingly portrayed in charming paintings, but the smell, the putrefaction and decay that were part of a sewerless society are forgotten” (225). Self-satisfied revisionary reasoning slows decisions, but it does not stop the progress of change (or desire). The troubling part, regarding technology, is that new technologies are generally portrayed as inhuman while older technologies get a makeover as somehow more human in their impact on our lives. This does little to thwart the “progress” of technology. Most people inevitably give in to their desire for better faster shiny new. Does this make us weak?

The answer, for Austen, lies in a sort of feminist rhetoric. As Art Walzer describes it:

That persuasion is under the sway of the passions does not, however, make persuadability a sign of weakness, for the novel complicates the simple dichotomy of the rhetorics between a non-rational, weak, feminine persuadability and a strong, rational, masculine conviction. The novel invites the reader to subject the ethical questions the theory raises to Elizabeth Bennet’s more complicated test-whether a persuadable temper might indicate an affectionate heart, rather than a weak will, and a mind characterized by a discriminating moral sensibility rather than by a timid suasibility.

Understanding that we persuade ourselves to accept technological progress is an important part of my current thinking. It’s not simply a matter of capitalism overshadowing all decisions through “bad rhetoric.” Wanting things, however, may not be a bad thing. A desire to improve the range of possibilities seems natural, and perhaps admirable. But there should be a limit to what we expect from the tools we use. That’s the hard part.

Langdon Winner’s seminal The Whale and the Reactor: The Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology (1986) aims at understanding how technology might actually be tamed (limited) by political will. In the eponymous essay that ends it, Winner describes visiting the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant as a whale swam by, driving the realization that reason wasn’t always the best way to approach the presence of the technology that surrounds us: “The thing should have never been put there, regardless of what the most elegant cost/benefit, risk/benefit, calculations may have shown” (176). The implication, obviously, is that deference should be given to the natural world that provides for our “common humanity.” It’s an old trope, really: the book of nature cannot be understood through reason. Like Sir Walter Elliot, he opens the book for comfort.

The core of Winner’s book, however, is frequently cited for a reason. It presents a cogent argument that we have been “sleepwalking” our way to our own destruction, largely by taking refuge in the idea that it isn’t the technology that’s evil, it’s the men that deploy it. The view doesn’t hold— technologies are far from neutral instruments of our will. Arguments for limits, or to position technology as “savior” for the human condition are notoriously bad. It’s time to work on better, more workable policies towards it in the political sphere. I found myself wanting to substitute “rhetoric” for “politics” in many key arguments in his book, wondering how that might change a reading of it in the 21st century.

Rybczynski’s aim is different from Winner. He suggests that it’s fruitless to try to separate “human” from “inhuman” technologies, and that we would be better served by thinking of technology (and the desire for it) as being inseparable from being human. This would be a positive turn and it necessitates better definitions of just what we consider to be technologies. The limits then, are not simply on which technologies we condone or adopt, but rather on our own desires and expectations for technology.

Whether  we control technology by directing its evolution, by choosing when and how to use it, or by deciding what significance it should have in our lives, we shall succeed only if we are able to accept what appears at first to be an impossible shift in point of view: different as people and machines are, they exist not in two different worlds, but at two ends of the same continuum. Just as we have discovered that we are a part of the natural environment, and not just surrounded by it, so also we will find that we are an intimate part of the environment of technology. The auxiliary “organs” that extend our sight, our hearing, and our thinking really are an extension of our physical bodies. When we are able to accept this, we shall discover that the struggle to control technology has all along been a struggle to control ourselves. (227)

We control things by political choices we make, as Winner frequently invokes, but we also control ourselves by self-persuasion. I think that the future of our relationship with technology lies as much within, as it does without. It isn’t about not being persuaded by technology and our desire for it (Luddism) but rather by exercising better judgment with more meaningful expectations. Both technophobes and technophiles will be better served by being persuadable.