Unplugged

I’m back. In fact, I’ve been back for more than a week now. I’ve been back from several days spent in western North Carolina. It’s beautiful country out there, and, where I was staying, it was beautiful country without cell phone signal or Internet connection. It was a week-long digital sabbath, or, if you prefer, a week-long digital detox. It was a good week. I didn’t find myself. I didn’t discover the meaning of life. I had no epiphanies, and I didn’t necessarily feel more connected to nature. But it was a good week.

I know that reflection pieces on technology sabbaths, digital detoxes, unplugging, and disconnecting are a dime a dozen. Slightly less common are pieces critical of the disconnectionists, as Nathan Jurgenson has called them, but these aren’t hard to come by either. Others, like Evgeny Morozov, have contributed more nuanced evaluations. Not only has the topic been widely covered, if you’re reading this blog I’d guess that you’re likely to be more or less sympathetic to these practices, even if you harbor some reservations about how they are sometimes presented and implemented. All of that to say, I’ve hesitated to add yet another piece on the experience of disconnection, especially since I’d be (mostly) preaching to the choir. But … I’m going to try your patience and offer just a few thoughts for your consideration.

First, I think the week worked well because its purpose wasn’t to disconnect from the Internet or digital devices; being disconnected was simply a consequence of where I happened to be. I suspect that when one explicitly sets out to disconnect, the psychology of the experience works against you. You’re disconnecting in order to be disconnected because you assume or hope it will yield some beneficial consequences. The potential problem with this scenario is that “being connected” is still framing, and to some degree defining, your experience. When you’re disconnected, you’re likely to be thinking about your experience in terms of not being connected. Call it the disconnection paradox.

This might mean, for example, that you’re overly aware of what you’re missing out on, thus distracted from what you hoped to achieve by disconnecting. It might also lead to framing your experience negatively in terms of what you didn’t do–which isn’t ultimately very helpful–rather than positively in terms of what you accomplished. In the worst cases, it might also lead to little more than self-congratulatory or self-loathing status updates.

In my recent case, I didn’t set out to be disconnected. In fact, I was rather disappointed that I’d be unable to continue writing about some of the themes I’d been recently addressing. So while I was carrying on with my disconnected week, I didn’t think at all about being connected or disconnected; it was simply a matter of fact. And, upon reflection, I think this worked in my favor.

This observation does raise a practical problem, however. How can one disconnect, if so desired, while avoiding the disconnection paradox? Two things come to mind. As Morozov pointed out in his piece on the practice of disconnection, there’s little point in disconnecting if it amounts to coming up for breath before plunging back into the digital flood. Ultimately, then, the idea is to so order our digital practices that enforced periods of disconnection are unnecessary.

But what if, for whatever reason, this is not a realistic goal? At this point we run up against the limits of individual actions and need to think about how to effect structural and institutional changes. Alongside those longterm projects, I’d suggest that making the practice of disconnection regular and habitual will eventually overcome the disconnection paradox.

Second consideration, obvious though it may be: it matters what you do with the time that you gain. For my part, I was more physically active than I would be during the course of an ordinary week, much more so. I walked, often; I swam; and I did a good bit of paddling too. Not all of this activity was pleasurable as it transpired. Some of it was exhausting. I was often tired and sore. But I welcomed all of it because it relieved the accumulated stress and tension that I tend to carry around on my back, shoulders, neck, and jaw, much of it a product of sitting in front of a computer or with a book for extended periods of time. It was a good week because at the end of it, my body felt as good as it had in a long time, even if it was a bit battered and ragged.

The feeling reminded me of what the Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote about his stay in a monastery early in the late 1950s, a kind of modernity detox. Initially, he was agitated, then he was overwhelmed for a few days by the desire to sleep. Finally, he emerged “full of energy and limpid freshness.” Here is how he described the experience in A Time to Keep Silence:

“The explanation is simple enough: the desire for talk, movements and nervous expression that I had transported from Paris found, in this silent place, no response or foil, evoked no single echo; after miserably gesticulating for a while in a vacuum, it languished and finally died for lack of any stimulus or nourishment. Then the tremendous accumulation of tiredness, which must be the common property of all our contemporaries, broke loose and swamped everything. No demands, once I had emerged from that flood of sleep, were made upon my nervous energy: there were no automatic drains, such as conversation at meals, small talk, catching trains, or the hundred anxious trivialities that poison everyday life. Even the major causes of guilt and anxiety had slid away into some distant limbo and not only failed to emerge in the small hours as tormentors but appeared to have lost their dragonish validity.”

“[T]he tremendous accumulation of tiredness, which must be the common property of all our contemporaries”–indeed, and to that we might add the tremendous accumulation of stress and anxiety. The Internet, always-on connectivity, and digital devices have not of themselves caused the tiredness, stress, and anxiety, but they haven’t helped either. In certain cases they’ve aggravated the problem. And, I’d suggest, they have done so regardless of what, specifically, we have been doing. Rather the aggravation is in part a function of how our bodies engage with these tools. Whether we spend a day in front of a computer perusing cat videos, playing Minecraft, writing a research paper, or preparing financial reports makes little difference to our bodies. It is in each case a sedentary day, and these are, as we all know, less than ideal for our bodies. And, because so much of our well-being depends on our bodies, the consequences extend to the whole of our being.

I know countless critics since the dawn of industrial society have lamented the loss of regular physical activity, particularly activity that unfolded in “nature.” Long before the Internet, such complaints were raised about the factory and the cubicle. It is also true that many of these calls for robust physical activity have been laden with misguided assumptions about the nature of masculinity and worse. But none of this changes the stubborn, intractable fact that we are embodied creatures and the concrete physicality of our nature is subject to certain limits and thrives under certain conditions and not others.

One further point about my experience: some of it was moderately risky. Not extreme sports-risky or risky bordering on foolish, you understand. More like “watch where you step there might be a rattle snake” risky (I avoided one by two feet or so) or “take care not to slip off the narrow trail, that’s a 300 foot drop” risky (I took no such falls, happily). I’m not sure what I can claim for all of this, but I would be tempted to make a Merleau-Ponty-esque argument about the sort of engagement with our surroundings that navigating risk requires of us. I’d modestly suggest, on a strictly anecdotal basis, that there is something mentally and physically salubrious about safely navigating the experience of risk. While we’re at, it plug-in the “troubles” (read, sometimes risky, often demanding activities) that philosopher Albert Borgmann encourages us to accept in principle.

Of course, it must immediately be added that this is a first-world-problem par excellence. Around the globe there are people who have no choice but to constantly navigate all sorts of risks to their well-being, and not of the moderate variety either. It must then seem perverse to suggest that some of us might need to occasionally elect to encounter risk, but only carefully so. Indeed, but such might nonetheless be the case. Certainly, it is also true that all of us are at risk everyday when walking a city street, or driving a car, or flying in a plane, and so on. My only rejoinder is again to lean on my experience and suggest that the sort of physical activity I engaged in had the unexpected effect of calling on and honing aspects of my body and mind that are not ordinarily called into service by my typical day-to-day experience, and this was a good thing. The accustomed risks we thoughtlessly take, crossing a street say, precisely because they are a routinized part of our experience do not call forth the same mental and bodily resources.

A final thought. Advocating disconnection sometimes raises the charges of elitism–Sherry Turkle strolling down Cape Cod beaches and what not. I more or less get where this is coming from, I think. Disconnection is often construed as a luxury experience. Who gets to placidly stroll the beaches of Cape Cod anyway? And, indeed, it is an unfortunate feature of modernity’s unfolding that what we eliminate from our lives, often to make room for one technology or another, we then end up compensating for with another technology because we suddenly realized that what we eliminated might have been useful and health-giving.

It was Neil Postman, I believe, who observed that having eliminated walking by the adoption of the automobile and the design of our public spaces, we then invented a machine on which we could simulate walking in order to maintain a minimal level of fitness. Postman’s chief focus, if I remember the passage correctly, was to point out the prima facie absurdity of the case, but I would add an economic consideration: in this pattern of technological displacement and replacement, the replacement is always a commodity. No one previously paid to walk, but the treadmill and the gym membership are bought and sold. So it is now with disconnection, it is often packaged as a commodified experience that must be bought, and the costs of disconnection (monetary and otherwise) are for some too hight to bear. This is unfortunate if not simply tragic.

But it seems to me that the answer is not to dismiss the practice of disconnecting as such or efforts to engage more robustly with the wider world. If these practices are, even in small measure, steps toward human flourishing, then our task is to figure out how we can make them as widely available as possible.

Innovation, Technology, and the Church (Part Two)

What has Silicon Valley to do with Jerusalem?

More than you might think, but that question, of course, is a riff on Tertullian’s famous query, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” It was a rhetorical question. By it, Tertullian implied that Christian theology, represented by Jerusalem, should steer clear of Greek philosophy, represented by Athens. I offer my question, in which Silicon Valley represents technological “innovation,” more straightforwardly and as a way of introducing this second post in conversation with Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry’s essay, “Peter Thiel and the Cathedral.”

In the first post, I raised some questions about terminology and the force of Gobry’s analogy: “The monastics were nothing if not innovators, and the [monastic] orders were the great startups of the day.” I was glad to get some feedback from Gobry, and you can read it here; you can also read my response below Gobry’s comment. Of course, Internet reading being what it is, it’s probably better if I just give you the gist of it. Gobry thought I made a bit too much of the definitional nuances while also making clear that he was well aware of the distinctions between a twenty-first century start up and a thirteenth century monastery.

For the record, I never doubted Gobry’s awareness of the fine points at issue. But when the fine points are relevant to the conversation, I think it best to bring them to the surface. It matters, though, what point is being made, and this may be where my response to Gobry’s essay missed the mark, or where Gobry and I might be in danger of talking past one another. The essay reads a bit like a manifesto, it is a call to action. Indeed, it explicitly ends as such. Given that rhetorical context, my approach may not have been entirely fair. In fact, it may be better to frame most of what I plan to write as being “inspired” by Gobry’s post, rather than as a response to it.

It would depend, I think, on the function of the historical analogies, and I’ll let Gobry clarify that for me. As I mentioned in my reply to his comment, it matters what function the historical analogies–e.g., monasteries as start-ups–are intended to play. Are they merely inspirational illustrations, or are they intended as morally compelling arguments. My initial response assumed the latter, thus my concern to clarify terminology and surface the nuance before moving on to a more formal evaluation of the claim.

The closing paragraphs of Gobry’s response to my post, however, suggested to me that I’d misread the import of the analogies. Twice Gobry clarified his interest in the comparisons:

“What interests me in the analogy between a startup and a monastic foundation is the element of risk and folly in pursuit of a specific goal,”

and

“What interests me in the analogy between monastic orders and startups is the distinct sense of mission, a mission which is accomplished through the daring, proficiency and determination of a small band of people, and through concrete ends.”

That sounds a bit more like an inspirational historical illustration than it does an argument by analogy based on the assumed moral force of historical precedent. Of course, that’s not a criticism. (Although, I’m not sure it’s such a great illustration for the same reasons I didn’t think it made a convincing argument.) It just means that I needed to recalibrate my own approach and that it might be best to untether these considerations a bit from Gobry’s post. Before doing so, I would just add this. If the crux of the analogy is the element of risk and folly in pursuit of a goal and a sense of mission executed by a devoted community, then the monastic tradition is just one of many possible religious and non-religious illustrations.

Fundamentally, though, even while Gobry and I approach it from different angles, I still do think we are both interested in the same issue: the religious/cultural matrix of technological innovation.

In Gobry’s view, we need to recover the innovative spirit illustrated within the monastic tradition and also by the building of the great medieval cathedrals. In a subsequent post, I’ll argue that a closer look at both helps us to see how the relationship between technology and culture has evolved in such a way that the strength of cultural institutions that ought to drive “innovation” has been sapped. In this light, Gobry’s plea for the church to take the up the mantle of innovation might be understood as a symptom of what has gone wrong with respect to technology’s relationship to religion, and culture more broadly. In short, the problem is that technological innovation is no longer a means directed by the church or some other cultural institution to some noble end, it is too frequently pursued as an end in itself. For the record, I don’t think this is what Gobry himself is advocating.

Gobry is right to raise questions about the relationship between technological innovation and, to borrow Lynne White’s phrasing, cultural climates. White himself argued that there was something about the cultural climate of medieval Europe that proved hospitable to technological innovation. But looking over the evolution of technology and culture over the subsequent centuries, it becomes apparent that the relationship between technology and culture has become disordered. In the next post, I’ll start with the medieval cathedrals to fill out that claim.

Innovation, Technology, and the Church (Part One)

Last week I read a spirited essay by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry titled “Peter Thiel and the Cathedral.” Gobry’s post was itself inspired by a discussion of technology, politics, and theology between Thiel, the founder of PayPal, and theologian N.T. Wright, formerly bishop of Durham. That discussion was moderated by NY Times columnist Ross Douthat. As for Gobry, he is a French entrepreneur and writer currently working for Forbes. Additionally, Gobry and Douthat are both Roman Catholics. Wright is a minister in the Church of England. Thiel’s religious views are less clear; he identifies as a Christian with “somewhat heterodox” beliefs.

So, needless to say, I found this mix of themes and personalities more than a little interesting. In fact, I’ve been thinking of Gobry’s post for several days. The issues it raised, in their broadest form, include the relationship between technology and culture as well as the relationship between Christianity and technology. Of course, these issues can hardly be addressed adequately in a blog post, or even a series of blog posts. While I thought about Gobry’s post and read related materials, relevant considerations cascaded. Nothing short of a book-length treatment could do this subject justice. That said, beginning with this post, I’m going to offer a few of considerations, briefly noted, that I think are worth further discussion.

In this post, I’ll start with a quick sketch of Gobry’s argument, and I’ll follow that with some questions about the key terms at play in this discussion. My goal is to read Gobry charitably and critically precisely because I share his sense that these are consequential matters, and not only for Christians.

Reduced to its essence, Gobry’s essay is a call for the Church to reclaim it’s role as a driving force of technological innovation for the good of civilization. The logic of his argument rests on the implications of the word reclaim. In his view, the Church, especially the medieval church, was a key player in the emergence of Western science and technology. Somewhere along the way, the Church lost its way and now finds itself an outsider to the technological project, more often than not a wary and critical outsider. Following Thiel, Gobry is worried the absence of a utopian vision animating technological innovation will result in technological stagnation with dire civilizational consequences.

With that sketch in place, and I trust it is a fair summary, let’s move on to some of the particulars, and we’ll need to start by clarifying terminology.

Church, Technology, Innovation—we could easily spend a lot of time specifying the sense of each of these key terms. Part of my unease with Gobry’s argument arises from the equivocal nature of these terms and how Gobry deploys them to analogize from the present to the past. I would assume that Gobry, as a Roman Catholic, primarily has the Roman Church in view when he talks about “the Church” or even Christianity. On one level this is fine, it’s the tradition out of which Gobry speaks, and, moreover, his blog is addressed primarily to a Catholic audience. My concern is that the generalization obscures non-trivial nuances. So, for instance, even the seemingly cohesive and monolithic world of medieval Catholicism was hardly so uniform on closer examination. Consequently, it would be hard to speak about a consistent and uniform attitude or posture toward “technology” that characterized “the Church” even in the thirteenth century. Things get even thornier when we realize that technology as it exists today was, like so much of modernity, funneled through the intellectual, economic, political, and religious revolution that was the Reformation.

But that is not all. As I’ve discussed numerous times before, defining “technology” is itself also a remarkably challenging task; the term ends up being a fiendishly expansive concept with fuzzy boundaries all around. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that in the medieval era there was no word that did the same semantic work as our word “technology.” It is not until the ninth century that the Carolingian theologian, John Scotus Erigena, first employed the term artes mechanicae, or the “mechanical arts,” which would function as the nearest equivalent for some time.

Finally, “innovation” is also, in my view, a problematic term. At the very least, I do not think we can use it univocally in both medieval and contemporary contexts. In our public discourse, innovation implies not only development in the “nuts and bolts” of technical apparatus; it also implies the conditions of the market economy and the culture of Silicon Valley. Whatever one makes of those two realities, it seems clear they render it difficult, if not impossible, to make historical generalizations about “innovation.”

So, my first major concern, is that speaking about the Church, technology, and innovation involves us in highly problematic generalizations. Generalizations are necessary, I understand this, especially within the constraints of short-form writing. I’m not pedantically opposed to generalizations in principle. However, every generalization, every concept, obscures particularities and nuances. Consequently, there is a tipping point at which a generalization not only simplifies, but also falsifies. My sense is that in Gobry’s post, we are very close to generalizations that falsify in such as way that they undermine the thrust of the argument. This is especially important because the historical analogies in this case are meant to carry a normative, or at least persuasive force.

Because the generalizations are problematic, the analogies are too. Consider the following lines from Gobry: “The monastics were nothing if not innovators, and the [monastic] orders were the great startups of the day. The technological and other accomplishments of the great monastic orders are simply staggering.”

As a matter of fact, the second sentence is absolutely correct. The analogies in the first sentence, however, are, in my view, misleading. The first clause is misleading because it suggests, as I read it, that “innovation” was of the essence of the monastic life. As Gobry knows, “monastic life” is already a generalization that obscures great variety on the question at issue, especially when eastern forms of monastic life are taken into consideration. But even if we concentrate on the more relevant strand of western and Benedictine monasticism, we run into trouble.

As George Ovitt found in his excellent work, The Restoration Of Perfection: Labor and Technology in Medieval Culture, technical considerations were consistently subordinated to spiritual ends. The monastics, were, in fact, much else even if they were at times innovators. This is evident in the Benedictine’s willingness to lay aside labor when it became possible to commission a lesser order of lay brothers or even paid laborers to perform the work necessitated by the community.

The second clause—“the [monastic] orders were the great start-ups of the day”—is misleading because it imports the economic conditions and motivations of the early twenty-first century to the medieval monasteries. Whatever we might say about the monasteries and their conflicted relationship to wealth—most monastic reform movements centered on this question—it seems unhelpful, if not irresponsible to characterize them as “start-ups.” The accumulation of wealth was incidental to the life of the monastery, and, historically, threatened its core mission. By contrast, the accumulation of wealth is a start-up’s raison d’être and shapes its life and work.

I hope these considerations do not come across as merely “academic” quibbles. I’ve no interest in being pedantic. In writing about technology and Christianity, Gobry has addressed a set of issues that I too consider important and consequential. Getting the relevant history right will help us better understand our present moment. In follow-up posts, I’ll take up some of the more substantive issues raised by Gobry’s essay, and I’ll follow his lead by using the construction of the cathedral’s as a useful case study.

tres_riches_heures_march1410

The World of Tomorrow 75 Years Later

April 30th will mark the 75th anniversary of the opening of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. With a decade of Depression behind them and a world war looming ahead, 44 million visitors came to catch a hopeful glimpse of the future. The essay below, an earlier version of which first appeared on this site two years ago, explores the convergence of technology, utopian aspirations, and corporate power that animated the vision of the future visitors encountered 75 years ago. 

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1939 World's Fair Progress“The World of Tomorrow”—that was the theme of the 1939 NewYork world’s fair. Prior to 1939, the American fairs had been characterized by what historian Astrid Böger has aptly called a “bifocal nature.” Janus-faced, they looked back to a glorified past and forward to an idealized future.The fairs were both “patriotic commemorations of central events in American history” and they “envisioned the nation’s bright future.” During 1930’s, however, the fairs turned their gaze decidedly toward the future.

The ’39 New York fair offered an especially grandiose and compelling glimpse of a techno-utopian society poised to materialize within a generation. Its most popular exhibits featured Cities of Tomorrow—Zions that were to be realized through technological expertise deployed by corporate power and supported by benign government planning. And little wonder these exhibits were so popular: the nation had been through a decade of economic depression and rumors of war swept across the Atlantic. “To catch the public imagination,” historian David Nye has explained, “the fair had to address this uneasiness. It could not do so by mere appeals to patriotism, by displays of goods that many people had no money to buy, or by the nostalgic evocation of golden yesterdays. It had to offer temporary transcendence.”

This link between technology and the realization of religiously intoned utopian visions did not, however, appear out of nowhere in the 1930s. In fact, the late cultural historian David Noble has argued convincingly that this religiously inspired techno-utopianism has been integral to the Western scientific project since at least the late middle ages; it was the central tenet of faith for what Noble called the “religion of technology.”

The planners of the 1939 fair instructed the industrial designers, who “looked not with the pragmatic eye of the engineer but with the visionary gaze of the utopian,” to weave technology throughout the fabric of the whole fair. In previous fairs and expositions, science had occupied a prominent but localized place among the multiple exhibits and attractions. The ‘39 fair intentionally broke with this tradition. As world’s fair historian Robert Rydell put it, “Instead of building a central shrine to house scientific displays,” the designers decided “to saturate the fair with the gospel of scientific idealism.” With nearly a decade of economic depression behind them and a looming international conflagration before them, the fair planners remained committed to the religion of technology and they were intent on creating a fair that would rekindle America’s waning faith. It may not be entirely inappropriate, then, to see the 1939 New York world’s fair as a revival meeting calling the faithful to renewed hope in the religion of technology. But the call to renewed faith in 1939 also contained variations on the theme. The presentation of the religion of technology took a liturgical turn and it was alloyed with the spirit of the American corporation.

GM Building designed Albert Kahn and Norman Bel Geddes

GM Building designed Albert Kahn and Norman Bel Geddes

Ritual Fairs

Historians of the world’s fair typically focus on the explicit message fair designers intended to communicate. They have studied the fairs as texts laid out for analysis. But it’s debatable whether this tells us much about the experience of fairgoers. Böger suggests a better way of understanding how the fairs made their impression. “World’s fairs,” she tells us, “are performative events in that they present a vision of national culture in the form of spectacle, which visitors are invited to participate in and, thus, help create.” Writing of the Ferris Wheel at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Böger explained that it was the “striking example of the sensual–primarily visual–experience of the fair, which seems to precede both understanding of the exhibit’s technology and, more importantly, appreciation of it as an American achievement.” What Böger picks up on in these observations is the distinction between the fair’s intellectual content and the embodied experience of attending the fair. It is the difference between reading the fairs as a “text” with an explicit message and constructing a meaning through the experience of “taking in” the fair. The planners intended an intellectualized, chiefly cognitive experience. Fairgoers processed the fair in an embodied and mostly affective manner. It is this distinction that leads to the observation that the religion of technology, as it appeared at the ‘39 fair, was a liturgical religion.

1939 World's FairThe genius of the two most popular exhibits at the fair was the embodiment of their message in a ritual experience. Democracity, housed inside the Perisphere, and General Motors’ Futurama both solved the problem of the impertinent walkers by miniaturizing the idealized world and carefully choreographing the fairgoer’s experience. Earlier fairs presented themselves as idealized cities, but this risked the diffusion of the message as fairgoer’s crafted their own fair itineraries or otherwise remained oblivious to the implicit messages. Democracity and Futurama mitigated this risk by crafting not only the world, but the experience itself–by providing a liturgy for the ritual. And the ritual was decidedly aimed at the cultivation of hope in a future techno-utopian society, giving ritual expression to the religion of technology.

As David Nye observed, “the most successful [exhibits] were those that took the form of dramas with covertly religious overtones.” In fact, Nye describes the whole fair as “a quasi-religious experience of escape into an ideal future equally accessible to all … The fair was a shrine of modernity.” Nowhere was the “quasi-religious” aspect of the fair more clearly evident than in Democracity, the miniature city of the future housed within the fair’s iconic Perisphere.

Fairgoers filed into the sphere and were able to gaze down upon the city of the future from two balconies. When the five-and-a-half minute show began, the narrator described the idealized miniature landscape featuring the city of the future at its center. Emanating outward from the central city were towns and farm country. The towns would each be devoted to specific industries, and they would be home to both workers and management. As the show progressed and the narrator extolled the virtues of central planning, the lighting in the sphere simulated the passage of day and night. Nye summarizes what followed:

“Once the visitors had contemplated this future world, they were presented with a powerful vision that one commentator compared to ‘a secular apocalypse.’ Now the lights of the city dimmed. To create a devotional mood, a thousand-voice choir sang on a recording that André Kostelanetz had prepared for the display. Movies projected on the upper walls of the globe showed representatives of various professions working, marching, and singing together. The authoritative voice of the radio announcer H. V. Kaltenborn announced: ‘This march of men and women, singing their triumph, is the true symbol of the World of Tomorrow.’”

What they sang was the theme song of the fair that proclaimed:

“We’re the rising tide coming from far and wide
Marching side by side on our way
For a brave new world,
That we shall build today.”

Kihlstedt believes Democracity’s designer, Henry Dreyfuss, modeled this culminating scene on Dutch Renaissance artist Jan Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece featuring “a great multitude … of all nations and kindreds, and people” as described in the book of Revelation. “In this well-known painting,” Kihlstedt explains, “the saints converge toward the altar of the Lamb from the four corners of the world. As they reveal the unity and the ‘ultimate beatitude of all believing souls,’ these saints define by their presence a heaven on earth.” Ritual and interpretation were thus fused together in one visceral, affective liturgy.

Democracity, inside the Perisphere

Corporate Liturgies

Earlier fairs were driven by a variety of ideologies. Robert Rydell, arguably the leading historian of world’s fairs, has emphasized the imperial and racial ideologies driving the design of the Victorian Era fairs. These fairs also promoted political ideals and patriotism. Additionally, they sought to educate the public in the latest scientific trends (dubious as they may have been, as in the case of Social Darwinism for instance). But in the 1930s the emphasis shifted decidedly. Böger notes, for example, “the early American expositions have to be placed in the context of nationalism and imperialism, whereas the world’s fairs after 1915 went in the direction of globalism and the ensuing competition of opposing ideological systems rather than of individual nation states.” More specifically the fairs of the 1930s, and the 1939 fair especially, sought to buttress the legitimacy of democracy and the free market in the face of totalitarian and socialist alternatives.

“From the beginning,” Rydell observed, “the century-of-progress expositions were conceived as festivals of American corporate power that would put breathtaking amounts of surplus capital to work in the field of cultural production and ideological representation.” Kihlstedt put it this way: “whereas most nineteenth-century utopias were socialist, based on cooperative production and distribution of goods, the twentieth-century fairs suggested that utopia would be attained through corporate capitalism and the individual freedom associated with it.” He added, “the organizers of the NYWF were making quasi-propagandistic use of utopian ideas and imagery to equate utopia with capitalism.” For his part, Nye drew on Roland Marchand to connect the evolution of the world’s fairs with the development of corporate marketing strategies: “corporations first tried only to sell products, then tried to educate the public about their business, and finally turned to marketing visions of the future.” Nye also tied the ritual nature of the fairs with the corporate turn: “Such exhibits might be compared to the sacred places of tribal societies … Each inscribed cultural meanings in ritual … And who but the corporations took the role of the ritual elders in making possible such a reassuring future, in exchange for submission.”

In this way, the religion of technology was effectively incorporated. American corporations presented themselves as the builders of the techno-utopian city. With the cooperation of government agencies, corporations would wield the breathtaking power of technology to create a rationally planned yet democratic consumer society. Thus was the religion of technology enlisted by the marketing departments of American corporations.

Framing the 1939 New York World’s fair as an embodiment of the religion of technology highlights the convergence of technology, utopian aspirations, and corporate power at this pivotal cultural moment in American history. This convergence was taking shape before 1939, but at the New York fair it announced itself in memorable and compelling fashion. Through its imaginative liturgical experience, the fair renewed the faith of a generation of Americans in the religion of technology, and it was this generation that went on to build post-war American society.

Why A Life Made Easier By Technology May Not Necessarily Be Happier

Tim Wu, of the Columbia Law School, has been writing a series of reflections on technological evolution for Elements, the New Yorker’s science and technology blog. In the first of these, “If a Time Traveller Saw a Smartphone,” Wu offers what he calls a modified Turing test as a way of thinking about the debate between advocates and critics of digital technology (perhaps, though, it’s more like Searle’s Chinese room).

Imagine a time-traveller from 1914 (a fateful year) encountering a woman behind a veil. This woman answer all sorts of questions about history and literature, understands a number of languages, performs mathematical calculations with amazing rapidity, etc. To the time-traveller, the woman seems to possess a nearly divine intelligence. Of course, as you’ve already figured out, she is simply consulting a smartphone with an Internet connection.

Wu uses this hypothetical anecdote to conclude, “The time-traveller scenario demonstrates that how you answer the question of whether we are getting smarter depends on how you classify ‘we.’ This is why [Clive] Thompson and [Nicholas] Carr reach different results: Thompson is judging the cyborg, while Carr is judging the man underneath.” And that’s not a bad way of characterizing the debate.

Wu closes his first piece by suggesting that our technological augmentation has not been secured without incurring certain costs. In the second post in the series, Wu gives us a rather drastic case study of the kind of costs that sometimes come with technological augmentation. He tells the story of the Oji-Cree people, who until recently lived a rugged, austere life in northern Canada … then modern technologies showed up:

“Since the arrival of new technologies, the population has suffered a massive increase in morbid obesity, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes. Social problems are rampant: idleness, alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicide have reached some of the highest levels on earth. Diabetes, in particular, has become so common (affecting forty per cent of the population) that researchers think that many children, after exposure in the womb, are born with an increased predisposition to the disease. Childhood obesity is widespread, and ten-year-olds sometimes appear middle-aged. Recently, the Chief of a small Oji-Cree community estimated that half of his adult population was addicted to OxyContin or other painkillers.

Technology is not the only cause of these changes, but scientists have made clear that it is a driving factor.”

Wu understands that this is an extreme case. Some may find that cause to dismiss the Oji-Cree as outliers whose experience tell us very little about the way societies ordinarily adapt to the evolution of technology. On the other hand, the story of the Oji-Cree may be like a time-lapse video which reveals aspects of reality ordinarily veiled by their gradual unfolding. In any case, Wu takes the story as a warning about the nature of technological evolution.

“Technological evolution” is, of course, a metaphor based on the processes of biological evolution. Not everyone, however, sees it as a metaphor. Kevin Kelly, who Wu cites in this second post, argues that technological evolution is not a metaphor at all. Technology, in Kelly’s view, evolves precisely as organisms do. Wu rightly recognizes that there are important differences between the two, however:

“Technological evolution has a different motive force. It is self-evolution, and it is therefore driven by what we want as opposed to what is adaptive. In a market economy, it is even more complex: for most of us, our technological identities are determined by what companies decide to sell based on what they believe we, as consumers, will pay for.”

And this leads Wu to conclude, “Our will-to-comfort, combined with our technological powers, creates a stark possibility.” That possibility is a “future defined not by an evolution toward superintelligence but by the absence of discomforts.” A future, Wu notes, that was neatly captured by the animated film WALL•E.

Wall-E-2

Wu’s conclusion echoes some of the concerns I raised in an earlier post about the future envisioned by the transhumanist project. It also anticipates the third post in the series, “The Problem With Easy Technology.” In this latest post, Wu suggests that “the use of demanding technologies may actually be important to the future of the human race.”

Wu goes on to draw a distinction between demanding technologies and technologies of convenience. Demanding technologies are characterized by the following: “technology that takes time to master, whose usage is highly occupying, and whose operation includes some real risk of failure.” Convenience technologies, on the other hand, “require little concentrated effort and yield predictable results.”

Of course, convenience technologies don’t even deliver on their fundamental promise. Channelling Ruth Cowan’s More Work For Mother: The Ironies Of Household Technology From The Open Hearth To The Microwave, Wu writes,

“The problem is that, as every individual task becomes easier, we demand much more of both ourselves and others. Instead of fewer difficult tasks (writing several long letters) we are left with a larger volume of small tasks (writing hundreds of e-mails). We have become plagued by a tyranny of tiny tasks, individually simple but collectively oppressive.”

But, more importantly, Wu worries that technologies of convenience may rob our action “of the satisfaction we hoped it might contain.” Toward the end of his post, he urges readers to “take seriously our biological need to be challenged, or face the danger of evolving into creatures whose lives are more productive but also less satisfying.”

I trust that I’ve done a decent job of faithfully capturing the crux of Wu’s argument in these three pieces, but I encourage you to read all three in their entirety.

I also encourage you to read the work of Albert Borgmann. I’m not sure if Wu has read Borgmann or not, but his discussion of demanding technologies was anticipated by Borgmann nearly 30 years ago in Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry. What Wu calls demanding technology, Borgmann called focal things, and these entailed accompanying focal practices. Wu’s technologies of convenience are instances of what Borgmann called the device paradigm.

In his work, Borgmann sought to reveal the underlying pattern that modern technologies exhibited–Borgmann is thinking of technologies dating back roughly to the Industrial Revolution. The device paradigm was his name for the pattern that he discerned.

Borgmann arrived at the device paradigm by first formulating the notion of availability. Availability is a characteristic of technology which answers to technology’s promise of liberation and enrichment. Something is technologically available, Bormann explains, “if it has been rendered instantaneous, ubiquitous, safe, and easy.” At the heart of the device paradigm is the promise of increasing availability.

Borgmann goes on to distinguish between things and devices. While devices tend toward technological availability, what things provide tend not to be instantaneous, ubiquitous, safe, or easy. The difference between a thing and a device is a matter of the sort of engagement that is required of user. The difference is such that user might not even be the best word to describe the person who interacts with a thing. In another context, I’ve suggested that practitioner might be a better way of putting it, but that does not always yield elegant phrasing.

A thing, Borgmann writes, “is inseparable from its context, namely, its world, and from our commerce with the thing and its world, namely, engagement.” And immediately thereafter, Borgmann adds, “The experience of a thing is always and also a bodily and social engagement with the things world.” Bodily and social engagement–we’ll come back to that point later. But first, a concrete example to help us better understand the distinctions and categories Borgmann is employing.

Borgmann invites us to consider how warmth might be made available to a home. Before central heating, warmth might be provided by a stove or fireplace. This older way of providing warmth, Borgmann reminds us, “was not instantaneous because in the morning a fire first had to be built in the stove or fireplace. And before it could be built, trees had to be felled, logs had to be sawed and split, the wood had to be hauled and stacked.” Borgmann continues:

“Warmth was not ubiquitous because some rooms remained unheated, and none was heated evenly …. It was not entirely safe because one could get burned or set the house on fire. It was not easy because work, some skills, and attention were constantly required to build and sustain a fire.”

The contrasts at each of these points with central heating are obvious. Central heating illustrates the device paradigm by the manner in which it secures the technological availability of warmth. It conceals the machinery, the means we might say, while perfecting what Borgmann calls the commodity, the end. Commodity is Borgmann’s word for “what a device is there for,” it is the end that the means are intended to secure.

The device paradigm, remember, is a pattern that Borgmann sees unfolding across the modern technological spectrum. The evolution of modern technology is characterized by the progressive concealment of the machinery and the increasingly available commodity. “A commodity is truly available,” Borgmann writes, “when it can be enjoyed as a mere end, unencumbered by means.” Flipping a switch on a thermostat clearly illustrates this sort of commodious availability, particularly when contrasted with earlier methods of providing warmth.

It’s important to note, too, what Borgmann is not doing. He is not distinguishing between the technological and the natural. Things can be technological. The stove is a kind of technology, after all, as is the fireplace. Borgmann is distinguishing among technologies of various sorts, their operational logic, and the sort of engagement that they require or invite. Nor, while we’re at it, is Borgmann suggesting that modern technology has not improved the quality of life. There can be no human flourishing were people are starving or dying of disease.

But, like Tim Wu, Borgmann does believe that the greater comfort and ease promised by technology does not necessarily translate into greater satisfaction or happiness. There is a point at which, the gains made by technology stop yielding meaningful satisfaction. Wu believes this is so because of “our biological need to be challenged.” There’s certainly something to that. I made a similar argument some time ago in opposing the idea of a frictionless life. Borgmann’s analysis, however, adds two more important considerations: bodily and social engagement.

“Physical engagement is not simply physical contact,” Borgmann explains, “but the experience of the world through the manifold sensibility of the body.” He then adds, “sensibility is sharpened and strengthened in skill … Skill, in turn, is bound up with social engagement.”

Consider again the example of the wood-burning stove or fireplace as a means of warmth. The more intense physical engagement may be obvious, but Borgmann invites us to consider the social dimensions as well:

“It was a focus, a hearth, a place that gathered the work and leisure of a family and gave the house its center. Its coldness marked the morning, and the spreading of its warmth the beginning of the day. It assigned to the different family members tasks that defined their place in the household. The mother built the fire, the children kept the firebox filled, and the father cut the firewood. It provided for the entire family a regular and bodily engagement with the rhythm of the seasons that was woven together of the threat of cold and the solace of warmth, the smell of wood smoke, the exertion of sawing and of carrying, the teaching of skills, and the fidelity to daily tasks.”

Borgmann’s vision of a richer, more fulfilling life secures its greater depth by taking seriously both our embodied and social status. This vision goes against the grain of modernity’s account of the human person which is grounded in a Cartesian dismissal of the body and a Lockean conception of the autonomous individuality. To the degree that this is an inadequate account of the human person, a technological order that is premised upon it will always undermine the possibility of human flourishing.

Wu and Borgmann have drawn our attention to what may be an important source of our discontent with the regime of contemporary technology. As Wu points out in his third piece, the answer is not necessarily an embrace of all things that are hard and arduous or a refusal of all the advantages that modern technology has secured for us. Borgmann, too, is concerned with distinguishing between different kinds of troubles: those that we rightly seek to ameliorate in practice and in principle and those we do well to accept in practice and in principle. Making that distinction will help us recognize and appreciate what may be gained by engaging with what Borgmann has called the commanding presence of focal things and what Wu calls demanding technologies.

Admittedly, that can be a challenging distinction to make, but learning to make that distinction may be the better part of wisdom given the technological contours of contemporary life, at least for those who have been privileged to enjoy the benefits of modern technology in affluent societies. And I’m of the opinion that the work of Albert Borgmann is one of the more valuable resources available to us as seek to make sense of the challenges posed by the character of contemporary technology.

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For more on Borgmann, take a look at the following posts:

Low-tech Practice and Identity
Troubles We Must Not Refuse
Resisting Disposable Reality