Too Visible to Be Seen

The late David Foster Wallace opened his well-regarded Kenyon College commencement address of 2005 with a joke*:

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’”

The point, of course, is that we tend to lose sight of the most pervasive realities. Or, as Wallace put it, “The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.” This is, as Wallace went on to say, a rather banal observation to make. And yet, it’s not. Or at least, it is an observation that we must make over and over again because, by its very nature, it slips unnoticed from consciousness.

In “The Machine Stops,” an early story of science-fiction by E. M. Forester, the Machine drones on incessantly but the noise is never noticed because it is never not present. In a very different context, C. S. Lewis wrote, “The music which is too familiar to be heard enfolds us day and night and in all ages.” Too familiar to be heard. Too familiar to be seen. Too familiar to be noticed. The most pervasive forms of visibility fade into invisibility. And so it is with all of our senses. There is a paradoxical threshold past which a sensation is too pronounced to be any longer noticed. My understanding is that Hegel made a similar observation about the invisibility of the familiar, but I don’t pretend to be conversant with Hegel.

In any case, the point is simply this: we tend to be disconcertingly unaware of the realities which most profoundly make us the sort of people we are and that give shape to our day-to-day existence.

Sociologist Arnold Gehlen divided culture into background and foreground. He understood this in terms of the choices that present themselves to us. We experience the foreground of culture as a realm in which choices are before us. The background appears to us a realm in which choices are foreclosed. In reality, we do have choices in both cases; but the background elements of culture present themselves with such taken-for-granted force that the choice remains veiled.

In the classic example, we chose what clothes to wear this morning (foreground), but whether or not to wear clothes at all did not present itself to us as a choice (background). Again, ubiquity and pervasiveness serve to blind us. Now putting it that way is unnecessarily pejorative. In fact, we probably couldn’t get very far as individuals or as a society if certain decisions had not moved into the background of culture.

I bring all of this up to register a corollary point regarding technology. Ubiquitous technologies that recede into the realm of shadowy familiarity are perhaps best positioned to exercise a formative influence over us precisely because we have stopped thinking about them.

So take a look around. What technologies have worked their way into the background of our lives, ever present and unnoticed? What choices do they veil? What assumptions to they engender? What patterns of life do they facilitate? What have they led us to take for granted?

These will all be difficult questions to answer — thinking about them is not unlike trying to jump over your own shadow — but we’d better try and keep trying if we’re to live well-ordered lives.

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* I was reminded of this little story while reading a fine essay titled, “Orangic, Locally-Grown Technology.”

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