Gratitude as a Measure of Technology

Last Thanksgiving I posted a few lines from G. K. Chesterton on gratitude. Chesterton carries some weight around here; you’ll notice that another of his memorable observations serves as the tag line for this blog. Chesterton had his flaws, of course, but we would all do well to cultivate the kind of gratitude that pervaded his posture toward existence. His conversion, for example, was famously occasioned by an overwhelming sense of sheer gratitude for the resplendent gratuity of being and the realization that there must be some Being to which such gratitude should properly be directed. And Chesterton’s gratitude and mirth also infiltrated the thinking of another individual who looms large on this blog’s tag cloud, Marshall McLuhan.

And so, perhaps establishing something of a tradition, here again is Chesterton on gratitude:

  • “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”
  • “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”

Last year I paired Chesterton with a poem by Wendell Berry, this year I want to tie gratitude more directly to the question which lies at the heart of much of what I write here: How do we live well with technology?

Chesterton, as the latter quotation suggests, recognized that there was much more to be thankful for than the food on our table. He recognized that God’s gifts encompassed the whole of lived experience.  This led me to wonder what else we might add to that list of activities before which we ought to, and would gleefully, acknowledge a debt of gratitude; and more to the point, I wondered what technologies we might include in such a list. This in turn suggested the following thought: Might we measure the value of a technology by the degree to which we were grateful for it? Could gratitude, in other words, be the measure by which we evaluate our technologies?

Evaluating our technologies, placing them on the dock as the Brits might say, interrogating them (although perhaps not under “enhanced” techniques), these are necessary if we are to live well with our technologies. They are part of the work of attaining a critical distance from our technologies so that we may learn to use our tools toward human ends, rather than find ourselves being conformed to the logic of our technologies. But how do we do this? By what standard or measure do we evaluate our tools and what do we have to know about them in order apply whatever standard or measure we arrive at? Well, it’s complicated, but here is one way to approach the matter.

Gratitude — unlike, say, the “Like” button — is a complex response, and yet one that is not difficult to formulate. As a response it is deeper, more layered than mere approval or even enjoyment. Some of that for which I am grateful, I would scarcely label pleasant; and some of what I might not call unpleasant, would yet fail to trigger gratitude. In this way gratitude becomes a telling measure of what we value, what is meaningful, and what adds genuine value to our lives.

Chesterton’s point, of course, is that there is for most of us very much indeed for which we ought to be grateful. One might be tempted to say that finally there is very little for which we ought not be grateful. Gratitude was for Chesterton more a way of experiencing life than a discreet response to a list of items and experiences. But gratitude does admit distinction. We are justified in ranking that for which we are grateful. It is coherent to ask what one is most grateful for even if it makes less sense to ask what one is least grateful for.

So with all of this in mind, then, we might ask two questions of technology: Am I grateful for it? and, In what relationship does it stand to the things for which I am most grateful?

The first of these questions is the most straightforward. But answering it, and following through on the implications of our answers may prove instructive. So, for example, from where I sit I can see my refrigerator. We are so used to its presence in our houses that we take it for granted and we may not immediately think of it when we think of technologies in our lives. But, of course, it is a technology and I find that I am indeed grateful for it. But if this is not to be a superficial exercise, I should also ask why I am grateful for it. In this case, and perhaps most cases relating to particular technologies, it is not necessarily for the thing itself that I am grateful, but for what it enables; namely, the preservation of food that I both need and find enjoyable. This signals something about the value of our tools: it is often derivative. I may be thankful for the presence of a friend whether or not that friend is at that moment “useful” to me. But it is rarely the mere presence of a technology for which we are grateful.

I might also ask if I could do without the technology as a measure of my gratitude for it. As for the refrigerator, I would have to say, not without great difficulty. Now, having affirmed my gratitude for the refrigerator, I should also ask what makes the refrigerator possible? This becomes a lesson in the complexity of technological systems. Refrigerators are not of much use without electricity and so, when I think about my gratitude for the refrigerator, I have to consider all that makes the power grid possible. Taking these connected factors into consideration might temper or complicate my gratitude or it might extend my gratitude further still.

But, staying in the kitchen, what about the microwave? If I ask myself, “Am I grateful for the microwave?” I find that I am hesitant to say “yes.” I realize that the microwave is often very convenient and it has saved me time and effort on countless occasions. Yet, I am not quite grateful for it and this is the thing about gratitude, either you feel it or you don’t. Admittedly, it is possible in principle for someone to lack gratitude when by every objective measure they ought to be grateful. But — narcissists, misanthropes, and teenagers aside — how common is this really? I can’t bring myself to say I am grateful for the microwave even though I can say I am grateful for the refrigerator. That signals something, no?

Why the hesitation? The microwave, for one thing, is not quite necessary in the same way as the refrigerator. It would take a few adjustments, but I could do without the microwave well enough. And what does the microwave secure that is unique to it and not a conventional oven? Efficiency, speed, convenience? For whatever reason, these fail to elicit gratitude from me. Now, let me quickly add, gratitude is sensitive to context. A single mother of four who works throughout the day and then comes home and has to prepare dinner for her tribe may readily profess her deep gratitude for the microwave. No argument here. This reminds us of the complexities of technology, human context is a part of the equation when evaluating a technology and that is a dynamic and unstable variable. Rarely can we take a technology as a discreet object and evaluate it apart from the uses to which it is put in the context of particular lives and concrete realities.

When we consider digital technologies, things get even more difficult to parse since we are no longer dealing with singular items with a narrow range of functions. The Internet and the growing number of devices through which we access it, infiltrate so many dimensions of lived experience that it may be difficult to apply the standard of gratitude meaningfully. When thinking of digital technologies, then, it may be better to examine the sets of practices that gather around particular platforms and applications rather than the devices in themselves.

And since digital technologies diffuse into the fabric of everyday life, this also leads us to the second question, in what relationship does a technology stand to the things for which I am most grateful? In many cases, we might have little cause to be grateful for a technology in itself. It is rather for the role the technology plays within the complex dynamic of everyday experience that we may or may not be grateful for it. The single mother, for example, may be most grateful for time spent with her children. In which case the microwave, which theoretically reduces her time in the kitchen, frees her up to spend more of her precious time with her children. I realize that in real life the distribution of time is rarely quite so simple, but the basic principle seems sound enough — a technology’s value is heightened if it stands in positive relation to that for which we are most grateful. Under different circumstances, the microwave may in fact undermine that for which we are most grateful by, for example, atomizing and dispersing members of the family rather than drawing them around the work of preparing a meal and sharing it together. The question of gratitude then is a context sensitive measure of value.

Altogether, I’m suggesting that the question of gratitude in relation to technology functions as a lens that focuses our perception. When we consider all for which we are most thankful, we are considering those things which make life worth living. Most often these involve health, loving relationships, and meaningful experiences of beauty and joy.  It is these things which ought to structure our life and order our choices. Considering technologies in light of gratitude, then, is a way of disciplining our use of technology for the sake of those things which truly enhance the quality of our lives.

Take a look around you. Ask yourself if you are grateful for the devices and tools that gather around you. Ask yourself whether these devices and tools enhance and augment your relationship to those things for which you are most grateful. And then, in light of how you respond to those two questions, ask yourself if the amount of time, attention, and money you invest in your tools and devices is reasonably proportional to the gratitude they elicit or the manner in which they relate to that for which you are most grateful.

I’m not suggesting this is the only, or even the best, way to go about evaluating our technologies and their place in our lives. But I do think it is a useful way of approaching the issue and I know that it has helped me identify imbalances in need of correction. Ultimately, it is just a way of aligning our practice with our priorities, a simple thing that our technologies have an uncanny way of complicating.

So be grateful and extend that gratitude to technology when it is warranted, but don’t allow any technology to undermine your experience of those things for which you are most grateful.

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