Relations of Power, Relations of Grace

Technology is a critical component of what I like to call the material infrastructure of our moral lives. I’m perhaps overly fond of that line, but I do think it does a nice job of capturing an important reality:  we become who we are in relationship with our material environment. This is true because we are the sort of creatures who make their way in the world with a body. With our bodies we think and feel our way through the world. Our perception of the world is inextricably bound up with our bodies and our character is inextricably bound up with the habits that have written themselves on our bodies. The shape of our built environment and the tools we take in hand, then, are drawn into this matrix of moral formation.

Those claims deserve further elaboration and consideration, but I offer them chiefly to get on to another point. What matters about our technology is not merely how this or that particular artifact or system affects us. It is also a matter of how the distinctive shape of our material environment conditions us in deep and broad ways, ways that may often be imperceptible precisely because they are not objects of perception but rather constitute our perceiving. It is a matter of understanding what we might call the total effect of our techno-material milieu.

One way of thinking about this is to explore how the total effect of our techno-material milieu positions us vis-a-vis the world. How are we encouraged to perceive and relate to the world and all who share it with us? I am generally convinced by those who, in trying to get at how we are positioned in this way, find that this positioning is best characterized as a relation of mastery and control, which is to say, a relation of power. Positioned in this way, we are tempted to see the world, including ourselves, as a field of objects to be limitlessly manipulated and exploited.

It would be hard to overestimate how productive this positioning has been: it has yielded valuable fruit that we should not lightly discount. But it has not come without costs. The costs are material, social, psychic, and, if we still entertain such notions, spiritual. It seems safe to say that we still await a final accounting if not a final judgment.

What alternative do we have to this positioning, to this stance toward the world that is characterized by a relation of mastery and whose inevitable consequence is a generalized degree of alienation, anxiety, and apprehension?

We have a hint of it in Arendt’s warning against a “future man,” who is “possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself.”  We hear it, too, in Wendell Berry’s poetic reminder that “We live the given life, not the planned.” It is, I would say, a capacity to receive the world as gift, as something given with an integrity of its own that we do best to honor. It is, in other words, to refuse a relation of “regardless power, ” in Albert Borgmann’s apt phrase, and to entertain the possibility of inhabiting a relation of gratitude and wonder. In one way or another, all that I have to say about technology comes down to this. We must learn like Gloucester in King Lear to see the world and our life in it anew. We, like Gloucester bent in despair on taking his own life, must hear his son Edgar’s voice: “Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.”

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