What Motivates the Critic of Technology?

Last year I wrote a few posts considering the motives that animate tech critics. I’ve slightly revised and collated three of those posts below.

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Some time ago, I confessed my deeply rooted Arcadian disposition. I added, “The Arcadian is the critic of technology, the one whose first instinct is to mourn what is lost rather than celebrate what is gained.” This phrase prompted a reader to suggest that the critic of technology is preferably neither an Arcadian nor a Utopian. This better sort of critic, he wrote, “doesn’t ‘mourn what is lost’ but rather seeks an understanding of how the present arrived from the past and what it means for the future.” The reader also referenced an essay by the philosopher of technology Don Ihde in which Ihde reflected on the role of the critic of technology by analogy to the literary critic or the art critic. The comment triggered a series of questions in my mind: What exactly makes for a good critic of technology? What stance, if any, is appropriate to the critic of technology toward technology? Can the good critic mourn?

First, let me reiterate what I’ve written elsewhere: Neither unbridled optimism nor thoughtless pessimism regarding technology foster the sort of critical distance required to live wisely with technology. I stand by that.

Secondly, it is worth asking, what exactly does a critic of technology criticize? The objects of criticism are rather straightforward when we think of the food critic, the art critic, the music critic, the film critic, and so on. But what about the critic of technology? The trouble here, of course, stems from the challenge of defining technology. More often than not the word suggests the gadgets with which we surround ourselves. A little more reflection brings to mind a variety of different sorts of technologies: communication, military, transportation, energy, medical, agricultural, etc. The wheel, the factory, the power grid, the pen, the iPhone, the hammer, the space station, the water wheel, the plow, the sword, the ICBM, the film projector – it is a procrustean concept indeed that can accommodate all of this. What does it mean to be a critic of a field that includes such a diverse set of artifacts and systems?

I’m not entirely sure; let’s say, for present purposes, that critics of technology find their niche within certain subsets of the set that includes all of the above. The more interesting question, to me, is this: What does the critic love?*

If we think of all of the other sorts of critics, it seems reasonable to suppose that they are driven by a love for the objects and practices they criticize. The music critic loves music. The film critic loves film. The food critic loves food. (We might also grant that a certain variety of critic probably loves nothing so much as the sound of their own writing.) But does the technology critic love technology? Some of the best critics of technology have seemed to love technology not at all. What do we make of that?

What does the critic of technology love that is analogous to the love of the music critic for music, the food critic for food, etc.? Or does the critic of technology love anything at all in this way. Ihde seems not to think so when he writes that, unlike other sorts of critics, the critic of technology does not become so because they are “passionate” about the object of criticism.

Perhaps there is something about the instrumental character of technology that makes it difficult to complete the analogy. Music, art, literature, food, film – each of these requires technology of some sort. There are exceptions: dance and voice, for example. But for the most part, technology is involved in the creation of the works that are the objects of criticism. The pen, the flute, the camera – these tools are essential, but they are also subordinate to the finished works that they yield. The musician loves the instrument for the sake of the music that it allows them play. It would be odd indeed if a musician were to tell us that he loves his instrument, but is rather indifferent to the music itself. And this is our clue. The critic of technology is a critic of artifacts and systems that are always for the sake of something else. The critic of technology does not love technology because technology rarely exists for its own sake. Ihde is right in saying that the critic of technology is not, in fact, should not be passionate about the object of their criticism. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that no passion at all motivates their work.

So what does the critic of technology love? Perhaps it is the environment. Perhaps it is an ideal of community or friendship. Perhaps it is an ideal civil society. Perhaps it is health and vitality. Perhaps it is sound education. Perhaps liberty. Perhaps joy. Perhaps a particular vision of human flourishing. The critic of technology is animated by a love for something other than the technology itself. Returning to where we began, I would suggest that the critic may indeed mourn just as they may celebrate. They may do either to the degree that their critical work reveals technology’s complicity in either the destruction or promotion of that which they love.

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Criticism of technology, if it moves beyond something like mere description and analysis, implies making what amount to moral and ethical judgments. The critic of technology, if they reach conclusions about the consequences of technology for the lives of individual persons and the health of institutions and communities, will be doing work that rests on ethical principles and carries ethical implications.

In this they are not altogether unlike the music critic or the literary critic who is excepted to make judgments about the merits of a work art given the established standards of their field. These standards take shape within an institutionalized tradition of criticism. Likewise, the critic of technology — if they move beyond questions such as “Does this technology work?” or “How does this technology work?” to questions such as “What are the social consequences of this technology?” — is implicated in judgments of value and worth.

But according to what standards and from within which tradition? Not the standards of “technology,” if such could even be delineated, because these would merely consider efficiency and functionality (although even these are not exactly “value neutral”). It was, for example, a refusal to evaluate technology on its own terms that characterized the vigorous critical work of the late Jacques Ellul. As Ellul saw it, technology had achieved its nearly autonomous position in society because it was shielded from substantive criticism — criticism, that is, which refused to evaluate technology by its own standards. The critic of technology, then, proceeds with an evaluative framework that is independent of the logic of “technoscience,” as philosopher Don Ihde called it, and so they become an outsider to the field.

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“The contrast between art and literary criticism and what I shall call ‘technoscience criticism’ is marked. Few would call art or literary critics ‘anti-art’ or ‘anti-literature’ in the working out, however critically, of their products. And while it may indeed be true that given works of art or given texts are excoriated, demeaned, or severely dealt with, one does not usually think of the critic as generically ‘anti-art’ or ‘anti-literature.’ Rather, it is precisely because the critic is passionate about his or her subject matter that he or she becomes a ‘critic.’ That is simply not the case with science or technoscience criticism …. The critic—as I shall show below—is either regarded as an outsider, or if the criticism arises from the inside, is soon made to be a quasi-outsider.”

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The libertarian critic, the Marxist critic, the Roman Catholic critic, the posthumanist critic, and so on — each advances their criticism of technology informed by their ethical commitments. Their criticism of technology flows from their loves. Each criticizes technology according to the larger moral and ethical framework implied by the movements, philosophies, and institutions that have shaped their identity. And, of course, so it must be. We are limited beings whose knowledge is always situated within particular contexts. There is no avoiding this, and there is nothing particularly undesirable about this state of affairs. The best critics will be self-aware of their commitments and work hard to sympathetically entertain divergent perspectives. They will also work patiently and diligently to understand a given technology before reaching conclusions about its moral and ethical consequences. But I suspect this work of understanding, precisely because it can be demanding, is typically driven by some deeper commitment that lends urgency and passion to the critic’s work.

Such underlying commitments are often veiled within certain rhetorical contexts that demand as much, the academy for example.  But debates about the merits of technology might be more fruitful if the participants acknowledged the tacit ethical frameworks that underlie the positions they stake out. This is because, in such cases, the technology in question is only a proxy for something else — the object of the critic’s love.

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*Ultimately, I mean love in the Augustinian sense: the deep commitments and desires which drive and motivate action.

Walker Percy on the Surrender of Our Experience

I’ve long had The Message in the Bottle, a collection of Walker Percy’s essays on my shelf. Over the years, I’ve dipped in it to read an essay or two here and there. Somehow I’d missed the second essay in the collection, “The Loss of the Creature.” I’m grateful to Alan Jacobs for mentioning this essay in a comment thread this morning. The essay is well-worth your time to read. Here are a couple of selections. I commend the whole thing to you.

“Why is it almost impossible to gaze directly at the Grand Canyon, under these circumstances and see it for what it is — as one picks up a strange object from one’s back yard and gazes directly at it? It is almost impossible because the Grand Canyon, the thing as it is, has been appropriated by the symbolic complex which has already been formed in the sightseer’s mind. Seeing the canyon under approved circumstances is seeing be symbolic complex, head on. The thing is no longer the thing as it confronted the Spaniard; it is rather ‘that which has already been formulated-by picture postcard, geography book, tourist folders, and the words Grand Canyon. As a result of this preformulation, the source of the sightseer’s pleasure undergoes a shift. Where the wonder and delight of the Spaniard arose from his penetration of the thing itself, from a progressive discovery of depths, patterns, colors, shadows, etc., now the sightseer measures his satisfaction by the degree to which the canyon conforms to the preformed complex. If it does so, if it looks just like the postcard, he is pleased; he might even say, “Why it is every bit as beautiful as a picture postcard!” He feels he has not been cheated. But if it does not conform, if the colors are somber, he will not be able to see it directly; he will only be conscious of the disparity between what it is and what it is supposed to be. He will say later that he was unlucky in not being there at the right time. The highest ‘point, the term of the sightseer’s satisfaction, is not the sovereign discovery of the thing before him; it is rather the measuring up of the thing to the criterion of the preformed symbolic complex.

Seeing the canyon is made even more difficult by what the sightseer does when the moment arrives, when sovereign knower confronts the thing to be known. Instead of looking at it, he photographs it. There is no confrontation at all. At the end of’ forty years of preformulation and with the Grand Canyon yawning at his feet, what does he do? He waives his right of seeing and knowing and records symbols for the next forty years. For him there is no present; there is only the past of what has been formulated and seen and the future of what has been formulated and not seen. The present is surrendered to the past and the future.”

And:

“This loss of sovereignty is not a marginal process, as might appear from my example of estranged sightseers. It is a generalized surrender of the horizon to those experts within whose competence a particular segment of the horizon is thought to lie. Kwakiutls are surrendered to Franz Boas; decaying Southern mansions are surrendered to Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. So that, although it is by no means the intention of the expert to expropriate sovereignty — in fact he would not even know what sovereignty meant in this context — the danger of theory and consumption is a seduction and deprivation of the consumer.

In the New Mexican desert, natives occasionally come across strange-looking artifacts which have fallen from the skies and which are stenciled: Return to U.S. Experimental Project, Alamogordo. Reward. The finder returns the object and is rewarded. He knows nothing of the nature of the object he has found and does not care to know. The sole role of the native, the highest role he can play, is that of finder and returner of the mysterious equipment.

The same is true of the layman’s relation to natural objects in a modern technical society. No matter what the object or event is, whether it is a star, a swallow, a Kwakiutl, a ‘psychological phenomenon,’ the layman who confronts it does not confront it as a sovereign person, as Crusoe confronts a seashell he finds on the beach. The highest role he can conceive himself as playing is to be able to recognize the title of the object, to return it to the appropriate expert and have it certified as a genuine find. He does not even permit himself to see the thing — as Gerard Hopkins could see a rock or a cloud or a field. If anyone asks him why he doesn’t look, he may reply that he didn’t take that subject in college (or he hasn’t read Faulkner).

This loss of sovereignty extends even to oneself. There is the neurotic who asks nothing more of his doctor than that his symptom should prove interesting. When all else fails, the poor fellow has nothing to offer but his own neurosis. But even this is sufficient if only the doctor will show interest when he says, ‘Last night I had a curious sort of dream; perhaps it will be significant to one who knows about such things. It seems I was standing in a sort of alley –‘ (I have nothing else to offer you but my own unhappiness. Please say that it, at least, measures up, that it is a proper sort of unhappiness.)”

The Inhumanity of Smart Technology

I’m allergic to hyperbole. That said, Evgeny Morozov identifies one of the most important challenges we face in the coming years:

“There are many contexts in which smart technologies are unambiguously useful and even lifesaving. Smart belts that monitor the balance of the elderly and smart carpets that detect falls seem to fall in this category. The problem with many smart technologies is that their designers, in the quest to root out the imperfections of the human condition, seldom stop to ask how much frustration, failure and regret is required for happiness and achievement to retain any meaning.

It’s great when the things around us run smoothly, but it’s even better when they don’t do so by default. That, after all, is how we gain the space to make decisions—many of them undoubtedly wrongheaded—and, through trial and error, to mature into responsible adults, tolerant of compromise and complexity.”

Exactly right.

“Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made,” Kant observed. Corollary to keep in mind: If a straight thing is made, it will be because humanity has been stripped out of it.

What is the endgame of the trajectory of innovation that is determined to eliminate human error, deviance, and folly? In every field of human endeavor — whether it be industry, medicine, education, governance — technological innovation reduces human involvement, thought, and action in the name of precision, efficiency, and effectiveness.

Morozov’s forthcoming book, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, targets what he has called “solutionism,” the temptation, I take it without having read the book yet, to view the Internet as the potential solution to every conceivable problem. I’m tempted to suggest for Morozov the target of his next book: eliminationism — the progressive elimination of human thought and action wherever possible. Life will increasingly consist of automated processes, actions, and interactions that will envelope and frame the human and render the human superfluous. Worse yet, insofar as the human is ultimately the root of our inconveniences and our problems, solutionism’s ultimate trajectory must lead to eliminationism.

There are tragic associations haunting that last formulation, so let me be clear. It is not (necessarily) the elimination of human beings that I’m worried about; it is the elimination of our humanity. The fear — and why not, let’s embrace its most popular cultural icon — is that we will be rendered zombies: alive but not living, stripped of the possibility for error, risk, failure, triumph, joy, redemption, and much of what renders our lives tragically, gloriously meaningful.

Albert Borgmann had it right. We must distinguish between “trouble we reject in principle and accept in practice and trouble we accept in practice and in principle.” In the former category, Borgmann has in mind troubles on the order of car accidents and cancer.  By “accepting them in practice,” Borgmann means that at the personal level we must cope with such tragedies when they strike. But these are troubles that we oppose in principle, and so we seek cures for cancer and improved highway safety.

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Against these, Borgmann opposes troubles that we also accept in practice, but ought to accept in principle as well. Here the examples are preparation of a meal and hiking a mountain.  These sorts of troubles, sometimes not without their real dangers, could be opposed in principle — never prepare meals at home, never hike — but such avoidance would also prevent us from experiencing their attendant joys and satisfactions. If we seek to remove all trouble or risk from our lives; if we always opt for convenience, efficiency, and ease; if, in other words, we aim indiscriminately at the frictionless life; then we simultaneously rob ourselves of the real satisfactions and pleasures that enhance and enrich our lives — that, in fact, make our lives fully human.

Huxley had it right, too:

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”

In claiming the right to be unhappy, the Savage was claiming the right to a fully human existence. It is a right we must take increasing care to safeguard against our own fascination with the promises of technology.

The Lifestream Stops

David Gelernter, 2013:

“And today, the most important function of the internet is to deliver the latest information, to tell us what’s happening right now. That’s why so many time-based structures have emerged in the cybersphere: to satisfy the need for the newest data. Whether tweet or timeline, all are time-ordered streams designed to tell you what’s new … But what happens if we merge all those blogs, feeds, chatstreams, and so forth? By adding together every timestream on the net — including the private lifestreams that are just beginning to emerge — into a single flood of data, we get the worldstream: a way to picture the cybersphere as a whole … What people really want is to tune in to information. Since many millions of separate lifestreams will exist in the cybersphere soon, our basic software will be the stream-browser: like today’s browsers, but designed to add, subtract, and navigate streams.”

E. M. Forster, 1909:

“Who is it?” she called. Her voice was irritable, for she had been interrupted often since the music began. She knew several thousand people, in certain directions human intercourse had advanced enormously.

But when she listened into the receiver, her white face wrinkled into smiles, and she said:

“Very well. Let us talk, I will isolate myself. I do not expect anything important will happen for the next five minutes-for I can give you fully five minutes …”

She touched the isolation knob, so that no one else could speak to her. Then she touched the lighting apparatus, and the little room was plunged into darkness.

“Be quick!” She called, her irritation returning. “Be quick, Kuno; here I am in the dark wasting my time.”

[Conversation ensues and comes to an abrupt close.]

Vashti’s next move was to turn off the isolation switch, and all the accumulations of the last three minutes burst upon her. The room was filled with the noise of bells, and speaking-tubes. What was the new food like? Could she recommend it? Has she had any ideas lately? Might one tell her one”s own ideas? Would she make an engagement to visit the public nurseries at an early date? – say this day month.

To most of these questions she replied with irritation – a growing quality in that accelerated age. She said that the new food was horrible. That she could not visit the public nurseries through press of engagements. That she had no ideas of her own but had just been told one-that four stars and three in the middle were like a man: she doubted there was much in it.

When I read Gelernter’s piece and his world-stream metaphor (illustration below), I was reminded of Forster’s story and the image of Vashti, sitting in her chair, immersed in cacophonic real-time stream of information. Of course, the one obvious difference between Gelernter’s and Forster’s conceptions of the relentless stream of information into which one plunges is the nature of the interface. In Forster’s story, “The Machine Stops,” the interface is anchored to a particular place. It is an armchair in a bare, dark room from which characters in his story rarely move. Gelernter assumes the mobile interfaces we’ve grown accustomed to over the last several years.

In Forster’s story, the great threat the Machine poses to its users is that of radical disembodiment. Bodies have atrophied, physicality is a burden, and all the ways in which the body comes to know the world have been overwhelmed by a perpetual feeding of the mind with ever more derivative “ideas.” This is a fascinating aspect of the story. Forster anticipates the insights of later philosophers such as Merleau-Ponty and Hubert Dreyfus as well as the many researchers helping us understand embodied cognition. Take this passage for example:

You know that we have lost the sense of space. We say “space is annihilated”, but we have annihilated not space, but the sense thereof. We have lost a part of ourselves. I determined to recover it, and I began by walking up and down the platform of the railway outside my room. Up and down, until I was tired, and so did recapture the meaning of “Near” and “Far”. “Near” is a place to which I can get quickly on my feet, not a place to which the train or the air-ship will take me quickly. “Far” is a place to which I cannot get quickly on my feet; the vomitory is “far”, though I could be there in thirty-eight seconds by summoning the train. Man is the measure. That was my first lesson. Man”s feet are the measure for distance, his hands are the measure for ownership, his body is the measure for all that is lovable and desirable and strong.

But how might Forster have conceived of his story if his interface had been mobile? Would his story still be a Cartesian nightmare? Or would he understand the danger to be posed to our sense of time rather than our sense of place? He might have worried not about the consequences of being anchored to one place, but rather being anchored to one time — a relentless, enduring present.

Were I Forster, however, I wouldn’t change his focus on the body. For isn’t our body and the physicality of lived experience that the body perceives also our most meaningful measure of time? Do not our memories etch themselves in our bodies? Does not a feel for the passing years emerge from the transformation of our bodies? Philosopher Merleau-Ponty spoke of the “time of the body.” Consider Shaun Gallagher’s exploration of Merleau-Ponty’s perspective:

“Temporality is in some way a ‘dimension of our being’ … More specifically, it is a dimension of our situated existence. Merleau-Ponty explains this along the lines of the Heideggerian analysis of being-in- the-world. It is in my everyday dealings with things that the horizon of the day gets defined: it is in ‘this moment I spend working, with, behind it, the horizon of the day that has elapsed, and in front of it, the evening and night – that I make contact with time, and learn to know its course’ …”

Gallagher goes on to cite the following passage from Merleau-Ponty:

“I do not form a mental picture of my day, it weighs upon me with all its weight, it is still there, and though I may not recall any detail of it, I have the impending power to do so, I still ‘have it in hand.’ . . . Our future is not made up exclusively of guesswork and daydreams. Ahead of what I see and perceive . . . my world is carried forward by lines of intentionality which trace out in advance at least the style of what is to come.”

Then Gallagher adds, “Thus, Merleau-Ponty suggests, I feel time on my shoulders and in my fatigued muscles; I get physically tired from my work; I see how much more I have to do. Time is measured out first of all in my embodied actions as I ‘reckon with an environment’ in which ‘I seek support in my tools, and am at my task rather than confronting it.'”

That last distinction between being at my task rather than confronting it seems particularly significant, especially as it involves the support of tools. Our sense of time, like our sense of place, is not an unchangeable given. It shifts and alters through technological mediation. Melvin Kranzberg, in the first of his six laws of technology, reminds us, “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” Our technological mediation of space and time is never neutral; and while it may not be “bad” or “good” in some abstract sense, it can be more or less humane, more or less conducive to our well-being. If the future of the Internet is the worldstream, we should perhaps think twice before plunging.

Worldstream Gelernter

Violence and Technology

There is this well known line from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus that reads, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” There is much wisdom in this, especially when one extends its meaning beyond what Wittgenstein intended (so far as I understand what he intended). We all know very well that words often fail us when we are confronted with unbearable sorrow or unmitigated joy. In the aftermath of the horror in Newtown, Connecticut, then, what could one say? Everything else seemed trivial.

I first heard of the shooting when I logged on to Twitter to post some frivolous comment, and, of course, I did not follow through. However, I then felt the need to post something — something appropriate, something with sufficient gravitas. But I asked myself why? Why should I feel the need to post anything? To what end? So that others may note that I responded to the tragedy with just the right measure of grace and seriousness? Or to self-righteously admonish others, implicitly of course, about their own failure to respond as I deemed appropriate?

When we become accustomed to living and thinking in public, the value of unseen action and unshared thoughts is eclipsed. “I should be silent,” a part of us may acknowledge, but then in response, a less circumspect voice within us wonders, “But how will anyone know that I am being silent? A hashtag perhaps, #silent?”

I felt just then, with particular force, the stunning degree of self-indulgence invited by social media. But then, of course, I had to reckon with the fact that the well of self-indulgence tapped by social media springs from no other source but myself.

There is only one other point that I want to consider. Within my online circles, many have sought to challenge the slogan “Guns don’t kill people,” and they have done so based on premises which I am generally inclined to support. I have myself associated the technological neutrality position with this slogan, and I have found it an inadequate position. Guns, like other technologies, yield a causal force independent of the particular uses to which they are put. They enter actively and with consequence into our perception and experience of the world. This, I continue to believe, is quite true.

Several months ago, in the wake of another tragic shooting, Evan Selinger wrote a well-considered piece on this very theme and I encourage you to read it: “The Philosophy of the Technology of the Gun.”

Less effectively, in my view, but thoughtfully still, PJ Rey revisited Zeynep Tufekci’s appropriation of Aristotle’s categories of causality to frame the gun as the material cause of acts of violence. The argument here is also against technological neutrality, I’m just not entirely sure that Aristotle’s categories are fully understood by Rey or Tufekci (which is not to say that I fully understand them). The material cause is not “that without which,” but “that out of which.” But then again, I put Wittgenstein’s dictum to my own uses; I suppose Aristotle too can be used suggestively, if not rigorously. Maybe.

Thus far, I’ve been sympathetic to the claims advanced, but there is latent in these considerations (but not necessarily in the thinking of these authors) an opposite error that I’ve also seen expressed explicitly and forcefully. Last night, I caught the following comment on Twitter from Prof. Lance Strate. Strate is a respected media ecologist and I have in the past appreciated his insights and commentary. I was, however, stopped short by this tweet:

I want to make all the requisite acknowledgements here. It is a tweet, after all, and the medium is not conducive to nuance. Nor is one required to say everything one thinks about a matter whenever one speaks of that matter. And, in fairness to Strate, I also want to provide a link to his fuller discussion of the situation on his blog, “On Guns and More,” much of which I would agree with.

That said, “Surely the blame is also on him,” was my initial response to this tweet. Again, I want to read generously, particularly in a medium that is given to misunderstanding. I don’t know that Strate meant to recuse the shooter of all responsibility; in fact, I have to believe such was not the case. But this comment reminded me that in our efforts to critique the neutrality of technology position, we need to take care less we end up endorsing, in my view, more pernicious errors of judgment.

Thinking again about the manner in which a gun enters into our phenomenological experience, it is true to say that a gun wants to be shot. But this does not say everything there is to say; it doesn’t even say the most important and relevant things that could be said. Why is it, at times, not shot at all? Further, to say it wants to be shot is not yet to say what it will be shot at or why? We cannot dismiss the other forms of causality that come into play. If Aristotle is to be invoked, after all,  it should be acknowledged that he privileged final causation whenever possible.

Interestingly, in his illustration of the four causes –the making of a bronze statue — Aristotle did not take the craftsman to be the best example of an efficient cause. It was instead the knowledge the craftsman possessed that best illustrated the efficient cause. If we apply this analogously onto the present case, it suggests that knowledge of how to inflict violence is the efficient cause. And this reminds us, disturbingly, of what is latent in all of us.

It reminds me as well of some other well known lines, not from Wittgenstein this time, but from Solzhenitsyn: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Kyrie Eleison.