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 

Troubles We Must Not Refuse

If you’re not paying attention to Evan Selinger’s work, you’re missing out on some of the best available commentary on the ethical implications of contemporary technology. Last week I pointed you to his recent essay, “The Outsourced Lover,” on a morally questionable app designed to automate romantic messages to your significant other. In a more recent editorial at Wired, “Today’s Apps Are Turning Us Into Sociopaths,” Selinger provides another incisive critique of an app that similarly automates aspects of interpersonal relationships.

Selinger approached his piece by interviewing the app designers in order to understand the rationale behind their product. This leads into an interesting and broad discussion about technological determinism, technology’s relationship to society, and ethics.

I was particularly intrigued by how assumptions of technological inevitability were deployed. Take the following, for example:

“Embracing this inevitability, the makers of BroApp argue that ‘The pace of technological change is past the point where it’s possible for us to reject it!’”

And:

“’If there is a niche to be filled: i.e. automated relationship helpers, then entrepreneurs will act to fill that niche. The combinatorial explosion of millions of entrepreneurs working with accessible technologies ensures this outcome. Regardless of moral ambiguity or societal push-back, if people find a technology useful, it will be developed and adopted.’”

It seems that these designers have a pretty bad case of the Borg Complex, my name for the rhetoric of technological determinism. Recourse to the language of inevitability is the defining symptom of a Borg Complex, but it is not the only one exhibited in this case.

According to Selinger, they also deploy another recurring trope: the dismissal of what are derisively called “moral panics” based on the conclusion that they amount to so many cases of Chicken Little, and the sky never falls. This is an example of another Borg Complex symptom: “Refers to historical antecedents solely to dismiss present concerns.” You can read my thoughts on that sort of reasoning here.

Do read the whole of Selinger’s essay. He’s identified an important area of concern, the increasing ease with which we may outsource ethical and emotional labor to our digital devices, and he is helping us think clearly and wisely about it.

About a year ago, Evgeny Morozov raised related concerns that prompted me to write about the inhumanity of smart technology. A touch of hyperbole, perhaps, but I do think the stakes are high. I’ll leave you with two points drawn from that older post.

The first:

“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.

The second relates to a distinction Albert Borgmann drew some time ago between troubles we accept in practice and those we accept in principle. Those we accept in practice are troubles we need to cope with but which we should seek to eradicate, take cancer for instance. Troubles we accept in principle are those that we should not, even if we were able, seek to abolish. These troubles are somehow essential to the full experience of our humanity and they are an irreducible component of those practices which bring us deep joy and satisfaction.

That’s a very short summary of a very substantial theory. You can read more about it in that earlier post and in this one as well. I think Borgmann’s point is critical. It applies neatly to the apps Selinger has been analyzing. It also speaks to the temptations of smart technology highlighted by Morozov, who rightly noted,

“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.”

From another angle, we can understand the problem as a misconstrual of the relationship between means and ends. Technology, when it becomes something more than an assortment of tools, when it becomes a way of looking at the world, technique in Jacques Ellul’s sense, fixates on means at the expense of ends. Technology is about how things get done, not what ought to get done or why. Consequently, we are tempted to misconstrue means as ends in themselves, and we are also encouraged to think of means as essentially interchangeable. We simply pursue the most efficient, effective means. Period.

But means are not always interchangeable. Some means are integrally related to the ends that they aim for. Altering the means undermines the end. The apps under consideration, and many of our digital tools more generally, proceed on the assumption that means are, in fact, interchangeable. It doesn’t matter whether you took the time to write out a message to your loved one or whether it was an automated app that only presents itself as you. So long as the end of getting your loved one a message is accomplished, the means matter not.

This logic is flawed precisely because it mistakes a means for an end and sees means as interchangeable. The real end, of course, in this case anyway, is a loving relationship not simply getting a message that fosters the appearance of a loving relationship. And the means toward that end are not easily interchangeable. The labor, or, to use Borgmann’s phrasing, the trouble required by the fitting means cannot be outsources or eliminated without fatally undermining the goal of a loving relationship.

That same logic plays out across countless cases where a device promises to save us or unburden us from moral and emotional troubles. It is a dehumanizing logic.

Low-tech Practices and Identity

Hipsters, low tech, and the quest for authenticity — what do we make of the interplay among these three phenomena? In two recent posts at Cyborgology, P. J. Rey and Nathan Jurgenson addressed this question in an exchange of overlapping perspectives with competing points of emphasis. I encourage you to read each piece, but here is how I would characterize their respective arguments.

Rey, for his part, advanced the thesis that hipster fixation on lo-tech gear is mostly about achieving a sense of mastery over technology, a mastery that is mostly unattainable over more complex contemporary technology. This mastery also affirms a sense of individuality and independence. Rey concludes:

“The hipster low-tech fantasy–”the dream of the 1890s“–is one of escape from the complex socio-technical systems that we are highly dependent on but have little control over. It is a fantasy of achieving the most radical expression of individual agency: the opt-out.”

In his response, Jurgenson argues that Rey is focusing on the wrong thing. To put in Aristotelian terms, the retro-tech is accidental, identity construction is the essence. The really important dynamic is  not the hipster fixation on low-tech, but rather the imperative to construct an authentic, individual identity. Of course, shifting to Hegel-ese, the contradiction that constructs the desire is the inherent inauthenticity of constructed identities; the goal, under the conditions it is pursued, is unattainable.

Reading these two posts, particularly Rey’s initial offering, I was reminded of categories employed by the philosopher of technology Albert Borgmann. Borgmann, whose thinking about technology arises from his engagement with Martin Heidegger, distinguishes between devices and focal things. Here’s the difference as I explained it in an earlier post:

Writing about technological culture, Borgmann distinguished between devices characterized by a “commodious,” accessible surface and a hidden, opaque machinery below the surface on the one hand and what he calls focal things on the other.  Devices are in turn coupled with consumption and focal things are paired with focal practices.  Focal things and practices, according to Borgmann, “gather our world and radiate significance in ways that contrast with the diversion and distraction afforded by commodities.”  In short, we merely use devices while we engage with focal things.

With those distinctions in mind, Borgmann continues, “Generally, a focal thing is concrete and of commanding presence.”   A commanding presence or reality is later opposed to “a pliable or disposable reality.”  Further on still, Borgmann writes, “Material culture in the advanced industrial democracies spans a spectrum from commanding to disposable reality.  The former reality calls forth a life of engagement that is oriented within the physical and social world.  The latter induces a life of distraction that is isolated from the environment and from other people.”  On that last point, bear in mind that Borgmann is writing in the early 2000s before the onset of social media.

Borgmann’s categories enjoy some interesting points of contact with Rey’s analysis. The notion of a  commodious device, for example, that presents what we might call a user-friendly surface while hiding an inaccessible complexity below that surface tracks with Rey’s sense that hipsters have turned to low-tech in order to engage with technologies over which a certain degree of mastery can be achieved.

The objects in themselves are not, therefore, mere signifiers in a what is essentially the work of identity construction as I take Jurgenson to argue. Not too long ago I offered a few disorganized reflections on the sources of the modern imperative to construct one’s identity. This imperative arises, in part, from the erosion of traditional social structures that functioned as anchors for the self. It is a by-product of the solidity of the premodern world dissolving into the liquidity of the postmodern, to borrow Bauman’s metaphor. That said, it would be a mistake to conclude that we are always involved in the work of identity construction in equal measure. In fact, I think this is where Borgmann’s phenomenological analysis of the commanding presence of focal things may prove most useful.

Borgmann, if I understand him correctly, distinguishes between focal things and devices mostly on the basis of the sort of engagement they require. Simply put, a focal thing demands more of one’s self than a device. We are mere users of devices, focal things invite us to become practitioners. The paradigmatic focal thing for Borgmann is a musical instrument, and this example is particularly instructive.

It is possible for a musician to have the experience of losing themselves in the act of playing a musical instrument. In other words, in such focal practices the imperative to construct one’s identity is counteracted by the very nature of the focal thing and its attendant practice. It is, of course, possible to argue, and in fact very likely, that the pursuit of musical skill is itself an instance of identity creation. But the nature of the practice itself, if the testimony of practitioners may be trusted, finally resists that impulse. We might imagine the same to be true for a wide range of practices, particularly as one approaches a level of expertise in the practice and find themselves “in the flow,” which is to say in a state of almost non-conscious action. This state, phenomenologically, would appear to be the polar opposite of the hyper-self-consciousness that the performance of identity assumes.

I should add that such practices are not necessarily limited to the low-tech or the analog. I imagine that for the expert coder or computer programmer, for example, may find themselves similarly taken in by their work.

I am reminded once again of a passage in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:

“It was a great comfort to turn from that chap to . . . the battered, twisted, ruined, tin-pot steamboat. . . . I had expended enough hard work on her to make me love her. No influential friend would have served me better. She had given me a chance to come out a bit—to find out what I could do. No, I don’t like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done. I don’t like work—no man does—but I like what is in the work,—the chance to find yourself. Your own reality—for yourself, not for others—what no other man can ever know.”

Conrad’s Marlow captures neatly the dynamic of Borgmann’s focal things and practices. They are not finally about the performance of an identity, and they may even allow for an entirely different approach to the matter of identity. As Marlow puts it, he values what is in the work, namely “the chance to find yourself.”

It is the desire expressed by the lyrics of what might possibly be a rather hipster-ish band, The Head and the Heart:

“I wish I was a slave to an age-old trade.
Like ridin’ around on railcars and workin’ long days.”

My interest in these matters, however, is not tied to an exploration of the hipster psyche. In the limited case of the hipster, Jurgenson may very well be right, it is all performance all the way down. But I believe that Rey is also right in focusing on the low-tech objects that are the paraphernalia of hipster culture. They are not insignificant in themselves even if the hipsters have stumbled upon this reality accidentally.

Happily, the world is populated by more than hipsters and it includes those who find in their analog and low-tech practices something more than an opportunity to perform a particular identity, they find a respite, momentary perhaps, from the imperative to perform. Moreover, it is not mastery that they are after, but rather a certain form of engagement with the world that is its own reward.

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Update: Some further thoughts on authenticity here.

Technology and Trust

The best kind of blog posts and essays are the ones that make you think, and that was exactly the effect of PJ Rey’s smart post on Cyborgology, “Trust and Complex Technology: The Cyborg’s Modern Bargain.” After doing some of that thinking, I offered some on-site comments. Because they are related to previous posts on this site (here, here and here), I’m going to also post them here. Before reading them, I recommend you click over to Rey’s post and read the whole thing which would only take a few minutes.

In case, you’re in a hurry, here’s Rey’s argument in brief, as I understand it: We live in a world of increasingly complex technologies, the workings of which the average person is, for the most part, unable to understand. Because we nonetheless use these technologies, often without so much as a second thought, this means that we are trustingly committed to these technologies and the expert systems that generate them. This trust, which presupposes a lack of self-sufficiency, is a fundamentally social dynamic.

In light of that argument, here are my comments, edited somewhat so as to make better sense as a stand alone statement:

I’m not sure how well this describes the actual existential experience of modern technology. Mostly, I wonder if there is not a distinction between implicit and explicit trust when we talk about the sociability of technology use. In other words, I’m not sure if the users of complex technologies such as the iPhone or social media platforms are consciously deploying what we might meaningfully call “trust” in their use of these technologies and platforms.

We could argue that their use implies a kind of de facto trust in the equipment, but does this amount to the kind of trust that operates in truly social relationships? Trusting systems and trusting persons seem to me to be two different phenomenon. And while it’s possible to argue that people set up and run systems so that finally we’re trusting in them, but I would suggest that the system, if it is running well, practically obscures the human element. So if we’ve outsourced our trust as it were to expert systems, is it still trust that we are talking about or habituated responses to (mostly) predictable systems?

Historians of technology (and Arthur C. Clarke) have pointed to an affinity between magic and technology that can be traced back to the early modern era. I would suggest that our existential experience of using an iPad, for example, more readily approximates our experience of magic than it does trust among social relations. As I write this it occurs to me that perhaps the analysis assumes the other half of the atomized (political) individual that is being criticized, the rational (economic) actor whose decision making is a fully conscious, calculated affair. In other words, I suspect most people are not consciously rationalizing their use of technologies by invoking trust in the persons who stand behind the technologies, rather they use the technology as if it were a magical tool that “just worked” — Apple products, I think, are paradigmatic here. And, if the trust in persons is not explicit, can it meaningfully be called social?

One last thought. Philosopher Albert Borgmann’s “device paradigm” comes to mind here. In brief, he argues that our tools are increasingly offering ease of use, effectiveness, and efficiency but at the expense of becoming increasingly opaque to the average user — much the same dynamic that you describe. But this opacity, in his view, has the effect of alienating us from the technology, and to some degree from the experiences mediated by those technologies. In part, I suspect, this is precisely because we are made to use that which we don’t even remotely understand, and this is not really trust, but a kind of gamble. Trust, in social relations, is not quite blind faith; it is risky, but not, in most cases, a gamble. Coming back to the airplane, for many people, statistics not withstanding, boarding an airplane feels like a gamble and involves very little trust at all.

To wrap up, I’m suggesting that we need to phenomenologically parse out “trust”: reasoned, explicit trust; reasonable, implicit trust; unreasonable, implicit trust; unreasonable, explicit trust (blind faith); explicitly untrusting acquiescence; gambles; etc. Our use of technology relies on many of these, but not all of them amount to the kind of trust that might render us meaningfully social.

There you have it; comments, as always, welcome.

Update: The conversation continues at Cyborgology. Click through to read Rey’s response, etc.

Meeting the Rule of Technology with Counterpractices

From Albert Borgmann’s Power Failure:

“… for a long time time to come technology will constitute the common rule of life.  The Christian reaction to that rule should not be rejection but restraint … But since technology as a way of life is so pervasive, so well entrenched, and so concealed in its quotidianity, Christians must meet the rule of technology with a deliberate and regular counterpractice.

Therefore, a radical theology of technology must finally become a practical theology, one that first makes room and then makes way for a Christian practice.  Here we must consider again the ancient senses of theology, the senses that extend from reflection to prayer.  We must also recover the ascetic tradition of practice and discipline and ask how the ascesis of being still and solitary in meditation is related to the practice of being communally engaged in the breaking of the bread.  The passage through technology discloses a new or an ancient splendor in ascesis.  There is no duress or denial in ascetic Christianity.  On the contrary, liberating us from the indolence and shallowness of technology, it opens to us the festive engagement with life.”

The crucial insight here, for Christians and non-Christians alike, is the necessity of formulating deliberate and intentional counterpractices.  It is not enough to merely desire or will to live well with technology.  The “rule of technology” engraves itself on us by shaping the routines and habits of daily life so that it is both pervasive and unnoticed. Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu, Jamie Smith makes a similar point in a recent blog post:

But as Pierre Bourdieu would emphasize, such “micropractices” have macro effects: what might appear to be inconsequential micro habits are, in fact, disciplinary formations that begin to reconfigure our relation to the wider world–indeed, they begin to make that world. As Bourdieu puts it in The Logic of Practice, “The cunning of pedagogic reason lies precisely in the fact that it manages to extort what is essential while seeming to demand the insignificant” (p. 69).

The force of such habituated, world-making practices and micro-practices must be met with counterpractices.