Who by Fire?

David Guston
4 min readOct 1, 2019


“And who by fire//who by water//who in the sunshine//who in the nighttime…”

These Leonard Cohen lyrics are drawn in part from a Hebrew prayer called the U’netaneh Tokef, which is a central part of the liturgy of the Jewish High Holidays — Rosh Hashanah (the New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) — currently being observed by Jews around the world. Cohen’s sly lyrics add a modern twist on the original prayer, which includes such “Life of Brian” versions of death as stoning, plague, sword, beast, and strangling.

“who by high ordeal//who by common trial…”

But Cohen’s update, however trenchant, is alas not as necessary as we might think, for some of the old stuff is still around. Earlier this year, the tiny country of Brunei caused world-wide concern by passing a Sharia-inspired law to punish adultery and male homosexual acts with stoning. After high-profile protests and threats of boycotts, the sultanate backed down and imposed a moratorium on the death penalty, but the law remains on the books. Even in the dozen or so countries where stoning may still be a lawful punishment, many contemporary incidents of stoning are extra-judicial — apparently including a case in the United States a few years ago as retribution for alleged homosexual advances.

“who by avalanche//who by powder//who by his greed//who by his hunger…”

On the other hand, there are contemporary twists on some of the ancient themes in which even Cohen might not find the poesy: While plague, at least the bubonic variety, remains in the background (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report an average of fewer than ten cases per year over recent years in the US), other potentially pandemic diseases are not just lurking but spreading. With climate change, the ranges of many diseases once bound to the tropics are expanding. A recent analysis shows that Valley Fever, a fungal infection spread through airborne dust, may double its area of impact outside of the American southwest. Mosquito-borne infections like dengue are spreading north with warmer, wetter weather, and the occurrence of mosquito-borne eastern equine encephalitis in the northern Midwest shows this is not just a subtropical phenomenon. Netting works relatively well, but the newest genetic technologies are being brought to bear in an attempt to extinguish particular mosquito species that transmit dengue and other diseases.

“And who by brave assent//who by accident…”

Such is the diversity of the world we live in, culturally, geographically, environmentally, technologically and temporally. The globe spins and circles as one, but individuals, ecosystems, countries and cultures move into the future with different strides and dispositions. Even as only some of the most intrepid travelers are willing to take a hindward glance for wisdom or precedent, others insist that, despite its new scenery, the path forward only circles back onto what we have already been taught. And as if on a group hike through the woods, no one wants to be forced into the pace or destination of any particular hiker. I want to hurry to the waterfall, and you want to linger over the Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora). Yet we can’t agree, like Bruce Springsteen’s affianced lovers that “I’ll wait for you//And should I fall behind//Wait for me.”

“who in solitude//who in this mirror…”

If we can’t wait for each other, then can we at least design the itinerary to accommodate both hurrying and lingering, both visions of progress and cycles of regeneration?

On Yom Kippur, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, many Jews cease all forms of work and focus their minds and spirits by fasting. While this is the most extreme of my personal religious observance, I find the denial of work, food and some of the “conveniences” of modernity like e-mail that move between work and non-work a useful reflection on this question of design. It is reminiscent of Langdon Winner’s suggestion in his 1977 book Autonomous Technology that we engage in what he called “epistemological Luddism” — the studied, self-conscious dismantling of a technology in thought in order to understand and recover the role of human agency in practice. For the Day of Atonement, at least, I become a Luddite with respect to my iPhone.

“who in mortal chains//who in power…”

I can turn off my iPhone for a holy day. I can ride public transportation. I can buy organic produce. But I can’t turn off the 5G network that feeds everyone else’s smart phone. I can’t avoid breathing diesel exhaust. And I can’t reconstruct the unsustainable agricultural system of pesticides, fertilizers, hormones, antibiotics and monocultures. Individuals might be able to opt out of certain technologies locally, or — as the Amish — in small groups for some sets of technologies. But we currently do an exceptionally poor job of creating the paths and places in which people with different strides into the future and dispositions toward it can move at a comfortable pace — or at no pace at all. There are too many systemic risks, too many spill-overs, and not enough protected spaces.

“and who shall I say is calling?”

Many of our emerging technologies — with visions of wireless power, wearable networks, and implantable improvements — promise users an independent, off-the-grid experience without the consequences of being a frail, disconnected being. Such users recognize the same truths as epistemological Luddites, but go about addressing them in an altogether different way. A sense of humility should encourage us toward plural approaches to these questions of technological choice, and a commitment to pluralism should help us create the fair diversity of paths and places.



David Guston

Professor at Arizona State University and director of its School for the Future of Innovation in Society; contributor to https://slate.com/author/david-guston