Applying Weber’s concept of disenchantment to Jurassic World

A journalist suggests Weber’s “disenchantment” could explain a world where scientists create new dinosaurs:

Yet the Indominus Rex’s business necessity is itself born of a spiritual void arguably endemic to capitalism itself. If “Jurassic Park” owes its ancestry to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, there’s a straight line between “Jurassic World” and Max Weber, the early 20th century German thinker whose celebrated 1917 lecture “Science As A Vocation” is one of the source texts for an important sociological concept known as “disenchantment.”

“Disenchantment” is the process through which empiricism replaces mysticism as an organising and motivating principle for both individuals and society at large. For Weber, the rise of capitalism meant that the rigors of daily existence started to find meaning through earthly and numerable concerns, rather than through one’s relation to an ineffable metaphysical power. In a sense, disenchantment is shorthand for the victory of the market over religion…

This is the movie about the moral, spiritual, and economic crisis of boredom at a dinosaur park. The crisis is not as far-fetched as it seems. We’re in the era where the Lourve, repository of the some of the world’s most sublime artistic accomplishments, isn’t immune from the selfie stick plague. There are now classes dedicated to taking Instagram photos of food. Look at all these people with their smart-phones out as Nationals pitching demigod Max Scherzer closed in on a (tragically blown) perfect game on June 20th. Layers of distraction and disenchantment separate people from even the rarest and most spectacular of events, even when they’re unfolding directly in front of them…

The movie is a kind of sly meta-joke about the traditional entertainment industry’s finely-honed ability to shovel as much brand identification and fan service down audiences’ throats as is humanly possible. The Indominus Rex — really just a larger, more violent version of “Jurassic Park’s” T-Rex — embodies the soul-deadening, almost self-destructive character of an industry whose primary commercial readout seems to be monstrous retreads. It’s a movie about the movies’ failure to impress audiences, and those audience’s enduring inability to be impressed by anything that’s genuinely new.

And that is why we continue to read and teach Max Weber in sociology courses from the introductory level to graduate school. If this was the subject of an end-of-the-semester research paper in a theory course, it could end up being pretty good. As noted here, Weber saw some of the benefits of capitalism and modernity but was pretty prescient regarding its consequences. Even critiques of the system – such as this film which highlights the downsides of science and progress – still have to play by the same rules, meaning that it has to sell to the mass public to be considered a “success.”

The iPad as magic

Sales of Apple’s iPad have been impressive. Virginia Postrel argues that the appeal of the iPad is in its magic:

When Steve Jobs appeared on stage last week to unveil the iPad 2, which hit stores Friday, he said, “People laughed at us for using the word ‘magical,’ but, you know what, it’s turned out to be magical.”

Apple has long had an aura of trend-setting cool, but magic is a bolder—and more provocative— claim…

With its utterly opaque yet seemingly transparent design, the iPad affirms a little-recognized fact of the supposedly “disenchanted” modern world. We are surrounded by magic…

“Between a wish and its fulfillment there is, in magic, no gap,” wrote the anthropologist Marcel Mauss in “A General Theory of Magic.” Effortlessly, instantly, the magical alters reality with a tap of the finger or wave of the hand. Sound familiar?

This argument reminds me of Max Weber’s claims about the rationalization of the modern world. On a broader scale, Weber argued that bureaucracy, efficient for dealing with large groups of people, would lead to a “iron cage” where everything would be routinized. Postrel argues that even though the iPad is the product of modern bureaucracies (even Apple is a bureaucracy though it positions itself as the anti-bureaucracy, usually referring to Microsoft, with a charismatic leader), it is magic in that the user has little idea of how it all works, is unable to open it up and “look under the hood,” and it is like an extension of oneself.

This could be one explanation for the iPad as magic. There could be some other reasons as well: its size, the vibrant screen, the Apple brand, and its positioning as the most popular (and the first mass-market product?) of the burgeoning tablet market. Another explanation could be this: the iPad brings joy or happiness to its users in a way that many modern products do not. While laptops are often intended for work and new cars are functional transportation options, the iPad is there for enjoyment. In a disenchanted world, this is an re-enchanting product in the same way that the Microsoft Kinect (with its own impressive sales) is magical: it is meant to be used for fun.

Will the magic decline over time as more products offer the same possibilities? Probably. But for now, the iPad may have just cornered the short-lived market on magic and re-enchanting its user’s worlds.