Hole In Our Hearts

Many thanks to Kevin Kelly for linking to Matt Honan’s “Fever Dream of a Guilt-Ridden Gadget Reporter.” Writing for Gizmodo, Honan describes his experience at the massive Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and it reads like a passage from Augustine’s Confessions had Augustine been writing in the 21st rather than 5th century.

The quasi-religious overtones begin early on when Honan tells us, “There was ennui upon ennui upon ennui set in this amazing temple to technology.”

Then, a little further on, comes the passage that caught Kelly’s attention, and deservedly so. Honan writes:

“There is a hole in my heart dug deep by advertising and envy and a desire to see a thing that is new and different and beautiful. A place within me that is empty, and that I want to fill it up. The hole makes me think electronics can help. And of course, they can.

They make the world easier and more enjoyable. They boost productivity and provide entertainment and information and sometimes even status. At least for a while. At least until they are obsolete. At least until they are garbage.

Electronics are our talismans that ward off the spiritual vacuum of modernity; gilt in Gorilla Glass and cadmium. And in them we find entertainment in lieu of happiness, and exchanges in lieu of actual connections.

And, oh, I am guilty. I am guilty. I am guilty.

I feel that way too. More than most, probably. I’m forever wanting something new. Something I’ve never seen before, that no one else has. Something that will be both an extension and expression of my person. Something that will take me away from the world I actually live in and let me immerse myself in another. Something that will let me see more details, take better pictures, do more at once, work smarter, run faster, live longer.”

Here is the confession, the thrice repeated mea culpa, alongside a truly Augustinian account of our disordered attachments and loves complete with a Pascalian nod to the diversionary nature of our engagement with technology.

I call this an Augustinian account not only because of the religiously inflected language and the confessional tone. There is also the explicit frame of an unfulfilling quest to fill a primordial emptiness. Augustine’s Confesssions amounts to a retrospective narrative of the spiritual quest which takes him from dissatisfaction to dissatisfaction until it culminates in his conversion. He famously frames his narrative at the outset when he prays, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.” The restless heart knows its own emptiness and seeks, often heroically and tragically, to fill it. It loves and seeks to be loved, but it loves all the wrong things.

Pascal, writing in the shadow of Augustine’s influence, put it thus:

“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”

In his post, “Making Holes in Our Hearts,” Kelly agrees to a point with Honan’s diagnosis, but his interpretation is quite different and also worth quoting at length. Here is Kelly:

“If we are honest, we must admit that one aspect of the technium is to make holes in our heart. One day recently we decided that we cannot live another day unless we have a smart phone, when a dozen years earlier this need would have dumbfounded us. Now we get angry if the network is slow, but before, when we were innocent, we had no thoughts of the network at all. Now we crave the instant connection of friends, whereas before we were content with weekly, or daily, connections. But we keep inventing new things that make new desires, new longings, new wants, new holes that must be filled.

Yes, this is what technology does to us. Some people are furious that our hearts are pierced this way by the things we make. They see this ever-neediness as a debasement, a lowering of human nobility, the source of our continuous discontentment. I agree that it is the source. New technology forces us to be always chasing the new, which is always disappearing under the next new, a salvation always receding from our grasp.

But I celebrate the never-ending discontentment that the technium brings. Most of what we like about being human is invented. We are different from our animal ancestors in that we are not content to merely survive, but have been incredibly busy making up new itches which we have to scratch, digging extra holes that we have to fill, creating new desires we’ve never had before.”

Kelly is on to something here. Discontentment is generative. Dissatisfaction can be productive. When Cain, having murdered his brother, is cursed to be forever a wanderer alienated from God and family, he builds a city in response. Here is an allegory to match Kelly’s observation. The perpetually wandering, alienated heart builds and makes and creates.

But does it follow that we should then celebrate discontentment, dissatisfaction, and unhappiness? I don’t see how. It is hard to cheer on misery, and it is a certain misery that we are talking about here. Perhaps the more appropriate response is the kind of plaintive admiration we reserve for the tragic hero. They may posses a real nobility, but it is finally consumed in despair and destruction.

The narrator of Cain’s story tells us that he built his city in the land called Nod, a name that echoes the Hebrew word for “wandering.” This touch of literary artistry poignantly suggests that even surrounded by the accouterments of civilization the human soul wanders lost and alienated – never satisfied, never home, never secure.

There is at least one other reason why we need not celebrate generative misery. Misery is not the only fount of human creativity. Love, wonderment, compassion, kindness, curiosity, beauty — all of these might also set us to work and marvelously so.

Augustine understood that finding rest for his restless heart in the love of God did not necessarily extinguish all other loves. It merely reordered them. Having found the kind of satisfaction and happiness that our stuff (for lack of a more inclusive word) can never bring does not mean that we can never again create or enjoy the fruits of human creativity. In fact, it likely means that we may create and enjoy more fully because such creation and enjoyment will not be burden with the unbearable weight of filling the primordial vacuum of the human heart.

The simplest and only way to enjoy penultimate and impermanent things is to resist the temptation to invest them with the significance and adoration that only ultimate and permanent things can sustain.

Saint Augustine by Phillippe de Champaigne, c. 1645

8 thoughts on “Hole In Our Hearts

  1. I once heard or read a C.S. Lewis scholar – Thomas Howard I believe it was – point out that magic and technology are closely related. Lewis illustrates this point in his fiction; for instance, in The Magician’s Nephew, Uncle Andrew is a scientist who forges magic rings. The same truth is illustrated by Tolkien in Lord of the Rings. The thought that magic & technology, and humankind’s relationship to them, are closely related has always struck me as significant.

    I’m telling you this because your excellent post reminded me of that idea. We run after iPhones like primitive villagers run to the witch doctor – seeking a shortcut to cure what ails us.

    1. Definitely. I’ve not fully worked out what the various ramifications of the nexus of technology and magic to my satisfaction, but I agree it is significant. I also think I may know the passage in Lewis’ prose that Howard may have been referring to. It’s in The Abolition of Man and I’ve cited it at length here (along with some passages from Mumford on the magic/technology connection):

      https://thefrailestthing.com/2011/08/16/capitalism-magic-and-technology/

      In the passage Lewis uses the phrase “magicians bargain” which obviously connects to the imagery in The Magician’s Nephew. Very interesting and suggestive confluence of themes. By the way, Ellul has some interesting things to say on magic and technology as well:

      https://thefrailestthing.com/2011/12/14/technology-and-magic/

      1. Thanks Michael. I was having a hard time squeezing references out of my head last night at 1:00 AM. I’ve read Abolition and some Ellul, but I’ve not read Lewis Mumford. Thanks for the info. I’m going to go read those two previous posts of yours now. : )

  2. “The simplest and only way to enjoy penultimate and impermanent things is to resist the temptation to invest them with the significance and adoration that only ultimate and permanent things can sustain.”

    Nice. Echoes the everyman of spiritual longing. Yet aren’t we all, like the ouroboros, perennially stuck in the penultimate? I know no example of a “permanent thing.” And Kant reminds us that a “thing itself” will always remain separate and partially unknown from our limited perception of the “thing.” Perhaps, as KK implies, in pure technology (the creative application of mind) we find our best hope towards (as you say) the “ultimate and permanent.” Not technology as a substitute, but as a vehicle.

    A quote that comes to mind is Arthur C. Clarke’s “third law” from 1961, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” When I consider the miracle stories embedded in just about every world religion, I’m reminded that many of our collective ideals are founded (for better and worse) on variations of magic. In the Christian tradition, the cross becomes the ultimate technology, the ultimate magic, for it claims to bridge the generative, creative power of the universe with humanity’s deepest vulnerabilities and desires.

    Having just returned from CES, and Las Vegas in general, I understand how technology can be defined mostly by its abuses and dysfunctions. But that’s the veneer of a short-term culture. I think if we could see the long impact of applied creativity, it will reflect a balance and harmony, a shared hope. We can’t artificially or forceably separate our pure technology from our faith, hope, or dreams. They are related.

    We need to discover ways to integrate applied creativity in ways that harmonize with the ideals we hold “ultimate and permanent.” I would offer that the healthiest expression of religion is not a separation into tribal and ideological ghettos, but an inclusive, collaborative, grand creative enterprise.

    1. John,

      Many thanks for your comment, a lot to think about.

      Perhaps a degree of unhelpful ambiguity or equivocation is at work in a couple of the key words we’re using here: permanent and technology. I think I understand the general drift of the point you’re making about the cross, but I would hesitate to label what took place there technological without pushing the term toward semantic incoherence. As the comments threaded above suggest, I do think there is good deal of significance wrapped up in the nexus of magic and technology though. I realize you’re defining “pure technology” pretty broadly, but I think it might be useful to use the term more modestly. The creative application of mind may yield phenomena, such as plainsong for example, or pure mathematics that I would hesitate to label technology.

      I do think the idea of technology as a vehicle is useful. A vehicle is not the destination, but may bring us to it. I can certainly agree that technology can potentially be a vehicle in this way. Within this analogy I would restate my point thus: We should not mistake the vehicle for the destination.

      Likewise, I don’t want to create a strict dichotomy between our technology on the one hand and our faith, hope, and dreams on the other. But I believe there are ordered and disordered ways of living the relationship.

      Creativity is undoubtedly an essential part of our humanity and harmonizing our creative efforts with what we hold ultimate and permanent is the ideal. I would only add that what is creative is not by default good or beautiful. A good deal of human creativity has been put to inhuman ends. It may be possible then to idolize creativity making it an end in itself, turning the vehicle into the destination.

      Again, thanks for taking the time to make the stimulating comment.

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