The Integrity of Offline Practices

In Technology Matters, historian David Nye distinguished between the knowledge we might gain of a tool by “reading” it as if it were a text and the knowledge that would arise from using the tool. It is the distinction between conceptual knowledge and embodied knowledge or knowledge that we can articulate (e.g., what is the capital of Argentina)  and knowledge that we simply carry in our bodies (e.g., how to type).

To illustrate this distinction, Nye used the American axe as an example:

“The slightly bent form of an American axe handle, when grasped, becomes an extension of the arms. To know such a tool it is not enough merely to look at it: one must sense its balance, swing it, and feel its blade sink into a log. Anyone who has used an axe retains a sense of its heft, the arc of its swing, and its sound. As with a baseball bat or an axe, every tool is known through the body. We develop a feel for it. In contrast, when one is only looking at an axe, it becomes a text that can be analyzed and placed in a cultural context.”

This was well put and instructive. When I recently came across a short essay called “Axe worship” by Bella Bathurst that described the joys of chopping wood, I recalled the passage above from Nye and went on to read the essay with interest piqued.

Bathurst did not disappoint. The essay was just the right length for what it aimed to do and was written in just the right tone. It also included two paragraphs in particular that nicely captured the joy of wood chopping. Here’s the first:

“Personally, I just like chopping for its own sake. There’s something warming about the ritual of it and the sense of provision. Place, stand, breathe, swing, cut. Watching the wood. Watching the radial splits out from the centre, marking the place to bring the axe down, waiting for the faint exhalation of scent from the wood as it falls. Like cooking, it provides a sense of sufficiency and delight but, unlike cooking, log-chopping has a particular rhythm to it, like a form of active meditation. You do, very literally, get into the swing of it.”

And then there was this:

“The point and the pleasure of chopping logs is that it is just me and a stone-age tool. Standing there in the shed in a deep layer of sawdust and chippings, I can hear the birds and the river and the changing note of the blade as it strikes different ages and sizes of timber. I can sense the rhythm of my own work and the difference between old wood and new.”

This resonated with me. Unlike Bathurst, I don’t live in a place that necessitates the chopping of wood for fires to keep warm by. But I have exerted myself in other physical tasks which yielded not entirely dissimilar experiences. But even as Bathurst words were resonating, I was thinking to myself, “I bet Nathan Jurgenson would file this under “IRL Fetish.’”

(IRL – “in real life” – Fetish, you may remember, is Jurgenson’s name for what he takes to be the unseemly valorization of offline, non-digitally mediated activities. Sherry Turkle’s reflective stroll on the shores of Cape Cod was Jurgenson’s paradigmatic case.)

But then I realized something: Bathurst doesn’t mention digital technology at all. She did not frame her experience as an escape or respite from the tyranny of the digital. There was no angst about the hyper-connected life. It was simply a meditation on the joys of swinging an axe. So, then, can it be classified as an instance of “IRL Fetish” if it makes no mention of digital technology?

I wouldn’t think so. This sort of experience appears to be altogether un-preoccupied with the discontents of digital technology. It is not that we can claim that some thought of the digital world never entered Bathurst’s mind — how could we know anyway — but that even if it did (to note that this would make a good online essay for example) it appears to have done so unproblematically.

Bathurst’s account of her experience strikes me, in fact, as another example of a practice which offers, in Joseph Conrad’s words, “a chance to find yourself.” It is a practice in which we might become absorbed, and one that offers the particular pleasures of working against the resistance presented by the material world and the satisfaction that comes from having done so successfully toward some end.

These practices and the pleasures they yield have an integrity of their own that are not necessarily coupled with digital technology (although they may sometimes be justly contrasted to digital technology). What they offer are goods in themselves irrespective of their relationship (or non-relationship) to digital technologies. We should, in other words, engage in these sorts of practices for their own sake, not merely as antidotes or countermeasures to digital mediation.

Perhaps we do such practices and experiences a disservice, those of us who do highlight their significance in light of digital realities, when we discuss them only as such. Ironically, we may, in doing so, be granting digital technology undue prominence, as if these other practices were significant only as modes of resistance to digitally mediated life. Such is not the case.

Hilaire Belloc noted the following long before the advent of digital technology:

“… the most important cause of this feeling of satisfaction is that you are doing what the human race has done for thousands upon thousands of years … Whatever is buried right into our blood from immemorial habit, that we must be certain to do if we are to be fairly happy (of course no grown man or woman can really be very happy for long — but I mean reasonably happy), and, what is more important, decent and secure of our souls. Thus one should from time to time hunt animals, or at the very least shoot at a mark; one should always drink some kind of fermented liquor with one’s food – and especially deeply upon great feast-days; one should go out on the water from time to time; and one should dance on occasions; and one should sing in chorus. For all these things man has done since God put him in a garden and his eyes first became troubled with a soul. Similarly some teacher or ranter or other, whose name I forget, said lately one very wise thing at least, which was that every man should do a little work with his hands.”

Written today this may have “IRL Fetish” written all over it. Written, as it was, in the early 20th century, it is a reminder that advocating such practices and experiences need not necessarily be an act of escapism or fetishizing. It might simply be an honest recognition of what has long been uncontroversially true about human experience. Or, as Freud reportedly put it, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

The Technological Sublime, Alive and Well

Natural wonders, lightning storms, tornadoes, sunsets — we sometimes describe the experience of these sorts of natural phenomenon as experiences of the sublime. They leave us in awe and render us speechless if only for a moment. There is a long tradition of reflection about the nature of the sublime experience going back at least to the eighteenth century. Kant and Burke in particular are often taken as starting points for the discussion. The sublime in Burke’s view was tinged with a certain terror, and for Kant the ability of human reason to take in and domesticate the sublime was a testament to its power.

More recently historian David Nye has argued that it is not only nature that inspires sublime experiences, our modern technologies also have the ability to elicit similar reactions of wonder, awe, and not a little trepidation. In American Technological Sublime, Nye argued that these experiences of the technological sublime have been especially characteristic of American society and have amounted to a kind of civil religion. They have at least been an integral part of the American civil religion. These experiences were more than moments of profound personal experience. They were moments that forged the collective national character. They were rituals of solidarity.

The first railroads, the first massive industrial factories, the electrified cityscapes, the Hoover Dam, the atomic bomb — all of these and more have inspired sublime experiences in those who first witnessed their appearance. One is reminded as well of Henry Adams’ famous account of the massive Corliss engine that powered the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876 and led Adams to compare the place of the dynamo in modern society to the place of the Virgin Mary in medieval society.

In more recent history the space program has supplied most instances of the technological sublime. Nye describes rocket launches at Cape Caneveral as quasi-religious events: “the event is less a matter of spectatorship than a pilgrimage to a shrine where a technological miracle is confidently expected.” In his account of the launch of Apollo 11, Nye describes Norman Mailer’s experience of the event. Mailer came as a skeptic, bent on resisting the allure of the event. He was determined not to be caught up in the fervor and devotion of the crowd of pilgrims. And yet … When the rocket launched and the earth began to rumble and the sound caught up with the sight, Mailer found himself saying over and over again, “Oh, my God! oh my God! oh, my God! oh my God!” That is the power of the technological sublime.

I write all of this today because yesterday Americans in Florida and the Washington D. C. area got an experience of the technological sublime. The space shuttle Discovery whose launches had been occasion for numerous pilgrimages to the Cape, especially as the shuttle program wound down, took her final voyage mounted on a specially fitted 747. If you were able to catch a glimpse of the spectacle, perhaps you know experientially what Nye theorized. If you were not able to see the sight in person, you have only to read the new stories, personal accounts, and, yes, tweets to conclude that the technological sublime is alive and well, if perhaps increasingly rare.

The technological marvel, the national pride, the sense of solidarity, the awe, the pride, the wave of emotion, the patriotic fervor abetted by the military jet accompanying the shuttle on its final voyage — you can read all of it on the faces of the spectators and in the nature of the pictures that made their way around the news outlets and blogs.

In the midst of it all, however, there was a sense of nostalgia as well. Of course, part of that nostalgia arises from the fact that this was a final voyage, and as such it recalled to mind all of the previous voyages, including those that ended in tragedy. But perhaps the nostalgia also arose from a tacit realization (if such a thing is possible) of the absence of such experiences from our more common and ordinary encounters with technology. In his final chapter, Nye describes the transition to what he calls the “consumer’s sublime” typified by Las Vegas and Disneyland. “The epiphany,” Nye writes, “has been reduced to a rush of simulations, in an escape from the very work, rationality, and domination that once were embodied in the American technological sublime.”

Put that way, one wonders whether it is not on the whole better that the American technological sublime is waning. And yet when one experiences its “melancholy, long withdrawing roar,” perhaps it is only natural to feel a tinge of sadness.


My thanks to Christopher Friend for the excellent images posted below.

You can see additional photo-documentation of the technological sublime here, here, and here.

Image courtesy of Chris Friend

Image courtesy of Chris Friend.

Technology Use and the Body

Here is David Nye again, this time on the embodied character of our tool use and of our knowledge of technology:

“Tools are known through the body at least as much as they are understood through the mind. The proper use of kitchen utensils and other tools is handed down primarily through direct observation and imitation of others using them. Technologies are not just objects but also the skills needed to use them. Daily life is saturated with tacit knowledge of tools and machines. Coat hangers, water wheels, and baseball bats are solid and tangible, and we know them through physical experiences of texture, pressure, sight, smell, and sound during use more than through verbal descriptions. The slightly bent form of an American axe handle, when grasped, becomes an extension of the arms. To know such a tool it is not enough merely to look at it: one must sense its balance, swing it, and feel its blade sink into a log. Anyone who has used an axe retains a sense of its heft, the arc of its swing, and its sound. As with a baseball bat or an axe, every tool is known through the body. We develop a feel for it. In contrast, when one is only looking at an axe, it becomes a text that can be analyzed and placed in a cultural context. It can be a basis for verifiable statements about its size, shape, and uses, including its incorporation into literature and art. Based on such observations, one can construct a chronology of when it was invented, manufactured, and marketed, and of how people incorporated it into a particular time and place. But ‘reading’ the axe yields a different kind of knowledge than using it.”

This is a remarkably rich passage and not only because of its allusion to baseball. It makes an important point that tends to get lost in much of our talk about technology: technology use is an embodied practice. This point gets lost, in part, because the word technology, more often than not, brings to mind digital information technologies, and the rhetoric surrounding the use of these technologies evokes vague notions of participation in some sort of ethereal nexus of symbolic exchange.

On the one hand, we tend to forget about our more prosaic technologies — cars, refrigerators, eye glasses, drills, etc. — that are still very much a part of our lives, and, on the other, we forget that even our supposedly immaterial technologies have a very material base. We are not, as of yet, telepathically interacting the Internet after all. Having recently switched from a PC to a Mac, whenever I have occasion to use a PC again I am reminded of the embodied nature of our computer use. My fingers now want to make certain gestures or reach for certain keys on a PC that only work on the Mac. Or consider the proficient texters (or are they text messengers) who are able to key their messages without so much as glancing at their phones. Their fingers know where the keys are.

These sorts of observations resonate with the work of philosopher Hubert Dreyfus on knowledge and skill acquisition. You can read a very brief overview of Dreyfus’ position in this recent post on the body and online education. Simply put, Dreyfus, not unlike Merleau-Ponty, argues for the irreducibly embodied nature of our knowing and being in the world. Much of what we know, we know more with our bodies than with our minds. Or, perhaps better put, our mind’s engagement with reality is unavoidably embodied.

Likewise, our engagement with technology is unavoidably embodied and we would do well to focus our analysis of technology on the body as the intersection of our minds, our tools, and the world. The use a technology may ultimately have more in common with learning a skill, than with acquiring knowledge.  There is, as Nye points out, some value in “reading” our tools is if they were a text, but a deeper understanding, at least a different sort of understanding can only be had by the use of the technology under consideration.

Technology and the Stories We Tell

It is sometimes suggested that human beings may be characterized as tool-using animals. Some, for example Katherine Hayles, have alternatively ventured to define human beings as meaning-making animals:

“… the primary purpose of narrative is to search for meaning, making narrative an essential technology for human beings, who can arguably be defined as meaning-­seeking animals …”

To put this point another way, we might say that human beings are story-telling animals.

Interestingly, Hayles suggests a link between technology and narrative by defining narrative as a kind of technology. In Technology Matters, historian David E. Nye also links narrative and technology in a slightly different, but likewise intriguing manner:

“Consider the similarity between what is involved in creating and using a tool and the sequence of a narrative …. Composing a narrative and using a tool are not identical processes, but they have affinities. Each requires the imagination of altered circumstances, and in each case beings must see themselves to be living in time. Making a tool immediately implies a succession of events in which one exercises some control over outcomes. Either to tell a story or to make a tool is to adopt an imaginary position outside immediate sensory experience. In each case, one imagines how present circumstances might be made different.”

A little later on Nye adds, “To improvise with tools or to tell stories requires the ability to imagine not just one outcome but several. To link technology and narrative does not yoke two disparate subjects; rather, it recalls an ancient relationship.”

And further on still, “A tool always implies at least one small story. There is a situation; something needs doing.”

All told, Nye is arguing that tools and narratives emerged symbiotically, seemingly as byproducts of a capacity to imagine that was not temporally encased in the present, and that human culture depended on their emergence. Nye is hesitant to enter into debates about the chronological priority or primacy of either tools or narrative and this strikes me as a rather sensible position to take.

It is interesting, however, to entertain the problem if just momentarily. In one respect, seeking to discern the primary partner in the relationship is a variation of the debate over technological determinism. Let us agree that we have, for all intents and purposes, always told stories and always made tools. But what frames what? This may be the critical question. Do our stories define our tools or do our tools shape our stories? (Of course, I admit at the outset that this is most likely a misleading question in that the best response is of a both/and rather than either/or nature.)

Narrative is essentially geared toward the production of meaning. We tell stories to make sense out of experience. To understand our relationship to technology, then, it is worth asking what stories we tell about our tools.

Immediately, I am reminded of the grand narratives of progress told by Western societies — and perhaps American society most enthusiastically — in which technology has been a central character, if not indeed, the central character. These stories have framed the place of technology within society; they have given a certain meaning to the presence and evolution of technology. As Leo Marx, among others, has noted, as the grand narrative of progress mutated over the course of the nineteenth century, technology assumed a dominant role, eventually making the story of progress coterminous with the story of technology. This was a powerful story and it influenced the nature of technology’s relationship to society as long as the story was widely affirmed.

The conventional wisdom is that postmodernity has fatally undermined all such grand (or, meta-) narratives. I’m not so sure. I think there is certainly something to the claim, no doubt. Certain kinds of totalizing grand narratives seem intuitively implausible, or what amount to the same thing, unpalatable. Yet, even though varieties of technological pessimism seem more widespread, the myth of the machine, to borrow Mumford’s phrasing, seems alive and well. The transhumanist project and its quite grand narrative is just one example. On a less grandiose scale we may perceive a survival of the grand narrative of progress in the popular insistence (or hope) that the answer to the problems introduced by technology is simply more technology. And, of course, the myth of the machine/progress still infuses a good bit of advertising.

Moreover, if we are indeed meaning-making, story-telling animals, then it is unlikely that the lure of grand narratives will ever permanently fade away. Certain types of grand narratives will undoubtedly pass from the scene, and all grand narratives may for a time leave a bad taste in our mouth, particularly if we have binged on one of them, but in time, I suspect, our taste for them will return and we’ll go looking once again to make sense of it all.

Returning specifically to the narrative of technological progress, it was undoubtedly challenged more recently by the dystopian stories of the twentieth century, particularly postwar science fiction, which framed technology within darker, more ambiguous narratives. These stories, many of which are quite popular, elicit a more reserved and chastened posture toward technology. But, more to the point, they are narratives and as narratives they frame technology in a meaningful way.

Along with these macro-narratives that order a society’s relationship to technology, we should also note the micro-narratives we weave around our own personal tools and devices. These micro-narratives may tell the story of how we came to possess the technology, they may instruct others in using the technology, they may explicitly tell of the technology’s significance to us; in all of these ways and more, they constitute our meaning making activity with regards to technology in our lives. These micro-narratives, in conversation with the macro-narratives, go a long way toward ordering our own personal relationship with technology, or at least they are symptoms of that ordering (or dis-ordering as the case may be).

Additionally, at a level between the micro- and the macro-, we might also consider the stories of particular technologies and the way these stories intersect with larger grand narratives and more personal accounts. One might take the story of the car, for example. The story of the automobile has a privileged place in narratives about the character of American society in the twentieth century. It is intimately woven into local histories such as that of Detroit, and it may even feature prominently in our personal histories. Who, after all, doesn’t remember their first car? The story of the automobile also attracts other prominent thematic elements that comprise the larger stories we tell about our culture including freedom, motion, autonomy, and restlessness. At this level we might also include the role accorded the printing press in the larger story of the Protestant Reformation or that accorded the cotton gin the story of the American Civil War. These stories may not always be entirely truthful, but they are believed and so secure their influence.

Altogether, we may distinguish at least the following kinds of technologically related stories:

a. Narratives about a particular technology

b. Small vignettes about our personal experience with technology

c. Large scale narratives in which technology figures prominently

d. Grand narratives that frames cultural attitudes toward technology

Technologies, we might then conclude, elicit a multiplicity of narratives. They invite meaning and encourage its construction.

Finally, I’m inclined to add that while it is true that narrative preceded literacy, literacy reshaped narrative. We have always told stories, but the shape and form of those stories have shifted in response to the appearance of new communication technologies, be it the stylus, the printing press, the radio, or the motion picture, to name but a few. And so again we are left with a reciprocal relationship. Narratives shape the way we use our tools and our tools shape the way we construct our narratives.

A. Leydenfrost, "Science on the March" (1952)

The Art of Technology and Empire

The phrase “Manifest Destiny” is likely one of those bits from high school history class that lingers on in most Americans’ memory for no obvious reason; in much the same way, for example, that I remember William Katt’s name (you know, the guy who starred in Greatest American Hero). If our memory serves us a little better than most, we’ll recall that the destiny that was so plainly manifest was America’s destiny to possess all of the territory between the eastern states and Pacific Ocean. “Go West young man!” and all of that.

What you may not immediately think of even if you do remember your American history class lucidly is the important role that technology played in the ideology of Westward expansion. In Dominance by Design: Technological Imperatives and America’s Civilizing Mission, Michael Adas lays out that case in convincing detail. If David Nye’s American Technological Sublime successfully argues that the experience of the technological sublime has been America’s civil religion, then Adas has documented the attendant missionary project.

In the likely event that you don’t have time to read Adas’ sizable book, here’s the “Manifest Destiny” portion of his argument in a visual nutshell:

John Gast, “American Progress” (1872)

Yes, that is telegraph line that she is stringing out. I tend to think that the old line, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” is generally misleading, but in this case, it just might work. The portrait, according to historian Merritt Roe Smith*, was commissioned by publicist George Crofutt who tasked John Gast with painting a “beautiful and charming female … floating westward through the air, bearing on her forehead the ‘Star of Empire.’” The beautiful female was to carry a book in her right hand symbolizing the “common school — the emblem of education” while with her left she “unfolds and stretches the slender wires of the telegraph, that are to flash intelligence throughout the land …”

Crofutt also wanted Gast to depict certain elements “fleeing from ‘Progress’”; these included “the Indians, buffalo, wild horses, bears and other game.” The Indians were to “turn their despairing faces toward the setting sun, as they flee from the presence of wondrous vision. The ‘Star’ is too much for them.” We should, by now, know this unfortunate part of the story well.

Smith neatly summarizes the significance of the painting: “As art goes, ‘American Progress’ is not a work of great distinction. But as a popular allegory that amalgamates the idea of America’s Manifest Destiny with an old republican symbol (the goddess Liberty, now identified as Progress) and associates progress with technological change (represented by telegraph lines, the railroads, the steam ships, the cable bridge, and the urban landscape in the background), it is a remarkable achievement.”

One could read a political allegory into the evolution of goddess Liberty into goddess Progress. A similar sort of allegory that might arise if we were to compare John Trumbull’s famous (if not quite accurate) paining of the signing of the Declaration of Independence with this later painting by Christian Schussele, “Men of Progress”:

Christian Schussele, “Men of Progress” (1863)

The two paintings are linked by the image of Benjamin Franklin who, in Trumbull’s paining, is positioned prominently before the Declaration of Independence by the side of John Hancock and, in Schussele’s work, appears in the portrait in the top left of the scene watching approvingly over these 19th century men of progress. These men included Samuel Colt, Cyrus McCormick, Charles Goodyear, Elias Howe, and Samuel Morse. We might safely call this the American Pantheon, and may not be too far off the mark if we gather that the reverence paid the Founders had been, by the middle of the 19th century, transferred to these “men of progress.”

And, of course, the century was all about Progress. That sentiment was captured in this lithograph by Currier and Ives from 1876:

Currier and Ives, “The Progress of the Century” (1876)

The telegraph tape reads, “Liberty and Union, Now and Forever” along with “One and Inseparable” and “Glory to God in the Highest, On Earth Peace and Good Will Toward Men.” These political and religious sentiments are not only conveyed by the telegraph; the realities they articulate are effectively secured by the telegraph — and the railroad, and the steam boat, etc. It is technology that binds the nation together and the whole project is given a theological hue (further reinforcing Nye’s thesis).

James P. Boyd, writing in 1899, looked back upon the 19th century and marveled: “Indeed, it may be said that along many lines of invention and progress which have most intimately affected the life and civilization of the world, the nineteenth century has achieved triumphs and accomplished wonders equal, if not superior, to all other centuries combined.” This was a rose colored assessment, to be sure; it glossed over some of the century’s darker shades and, of course, seemed oblivious to the cataclysms that lay ahead.

What Boyd’s rhetoric does capture is the reduction of the notion of Progress to the narrow channel of technical advance. All other measures — be they political, religious, or cultural — are subsumed within the grand narrative of the evolution of technology. The lineaments of what Neil Postman termed technopoly have, by the close of the 19th century, begun to appear.

Early into the 21st century, we may find a painting like “American Progress” naive at best, if not offensive and misguided. Boyd’s rhetoric may strike us as grandiose and a bit too earnest. Both together suffering from a bad case of what Adas has called techno-hubris. And yet, how far do we have to go back to find similarly effusive and eschatological hopes attached to the World Wide Web and the Information Superhighway? To what degree have we continued to measure progress by the single measure of technical innovation, forsaking more demanding political and ethical standards? And haven’t we also paid homage to the goddess of technological progress, stripped perhaps of some of her earlier glory, no longer radiant, illuminated now by the lesser light of some backlit screen?


*Citations from Merritt Roe Smith are drawn from his essay, “Technological Determinism in American Culture,” in Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism.