What Would Thoreau Do?

Yesterday, July 12th, was Henry David Thoreau’s 195th birthday, or 195th anniversary of his birth, or however that is best put when the person in question is no longer alive. In any case, Thoreau is best remembered for two things. The first is his experiment in living simply and in greater communion with nature in a cabin on the outskirts of Concord, Massachusetts. The cabin was situated on Walden Pond and Thoreau’s reflections on his “experiment” were later published as Walden.

Thoreau is also remembered for making a better pencil. It seems that Thoreau is actually not generally remembered for this, but it is nonetheless true. His family owned a pencil factory at which Thoreau worked on and off throughout his life. Thanks to his study of German pencil making techniques, Thoreau helped design the best American pencil of its day. Apparently, in the early 19th century, there remained significant technical challenges to the making of a durable pencil, mostly having to do with the sturdiness of the graphite shaft and fitting it into a casing. Among Thoreau’s many accomplishments was the development of a process of manufacturing the pencil that solved these engineering problems.

I thought of Thoreau yesterday not only because it was the anniversary of his birth, but also because I had come across an article titled, “Tweets From the Trail: Technology Can Enhance Your Wilderness Experiences” (h/t to Nathan Jurgenson). The author, novelist Walter Kirn of Montana, had the temerity to suggest that maybe there is something to be gained by brining your technology out into nature with you, rather than venturing into nature in order to escape technology. As you might imagine, many of Kirn’s Montana nature-enthusiast friends were less than pleased.

Now, we should note that these distinctions we make — nature/technology, for example — are a bit complicated. To illustrate here is the opening of a recent, relevant post by Nick Carr:

A couple of cavemen are walking through the woods. One sighs happily and says to the other, “I’m telling you, there’s nothing like being out in nature.” The other pauses and says, “What’s nature?”

It’s 1972. A pair of lovers go camping in a wilderness area in a national park. They’re sitting by a campfire, taking in the evening breezes. “Honey,” says the woman, “I have to confess I really love being offline.” The guy looks at her and says, “What’s offline?”

You see the point. Our idea of “nature” owes something to the advance of technology just as our idea of “offline” necessitates the emergence of online. But back to Kirn’s article. He discovered that his writing flourished when he set up a work station on an old wooden telephone wire spool under the big, blue Montana sky with badgers and gophers scampering all about. Subsequently he made a habit of screening movies on his iPad in “natural” settings such as the seaside or the shores of a river. Finally, he confesses to the manner in which being out in the wilderness inspires fits of creativity that he feels compelled to tweet and post. And here is his eloquent conclusion:

“To sever our experience of wilderness from our use of technology now seems to me an unnatural act, shortsighted and unimaginative. No one appreciates a ringing cell phone while they float on a muddy river through western badlands or stand in the saddle between two massive mountain ranges, but short of such rude interruptions of heavenly moments, technology has a mysterious way, at times, of providing the perfect contrast, the happy counterpoint to scenes and experiences and settings that are easy to take for granted or grow numb to. Along with harmony, contrast is one of the two great rules of art. It wakes the senses, jars the tired mind, breaks up routines that threaten to grow mechanical. If you don’t believe me, try it. Travel to that secluded spot you keep returning to, the one where you go to leave the world behind, and turn on some music, play a movie, capture a passing thought and send it onward, out of the forest, out into society, and then wait, while the wind blows and the treetops sway and the clouds pile up a mile above your head, for someone, some faraway stranger, to reply. Even when we’re alone, we’re not alone, this proves, and in the deepest heart of every wilderness lurks a miracle, often, the human mind.”

I can’t help but wonder, what would Thoreau think? I can’t pretend to know Thoreau well enough to answer that question. I suspect that present day technophile’s would suggest that Thoreau ought to approve, after all he took his pencil to Walden and that was a technology. Well, yes, but he didn’t string a telegraph wire to the cabin.

I wouldn’t discount the dynamic Kirn describes, particularly since it is measured (let’s do without the ringing cell phone) and it still recognizes the contrast. The juxtaposition of unlike things can be creatively stimulating, and if that is what you are after, then Kirn’s formula may indeed yield something for you.

But what if your aims are different? What if you’re seeking only to listen and not to speak? What if your goal is not to be inspired toward yet another act of self-expression? We may carry technology with us into nature, in fact, we may carry it within us. But this does not mean that we ought always to answer to its prerogatives. Nor does it mean that we should always assume the posture toward reality that technology enables and the frame of mind that it encourages. And, of course, different technologies enable and encourage differently. It is the difference between the pencil and the telegraph and the smartphone.

I am not against human civilization (which is a silly thing to have to say), and the human mind, as Kirn puts it, is a “miracle” indeed. But the miracle of the human mind lies not only in its ability to create and to build and to express itself and impose its own symbolic order on the world. The miracle lies also in its ability to listen and to receive and to contemplate and to be itself re-ordered; to be taken in by the world as well as to take the world in. Perceiving the value of such a stance draws us into an awareness of the various ethical or philosophical frames that inform our evaluations. I cannot sort all of those out, but I can acknowledge that for a wide array of people the point would not be to speak, but to be spoken to. Or perhaps, even to find that we are not addressed at all.

An even greater array of people would likely agree that our posture toward this world ought to be more than merely instrumental. Human civilization must advance, but it does so best when it abandons Promethean aspirations and acknowledges its finitude along with its power.

I suppose all of this is a way of saying that beauty resides not only in what we make and say, but also in what we find and encounter. But shouldn’t this found beauty be shared? Maybe. But perhaps not before it has done its work on us. Perhaps not before we have allowed it to speak to us and to transform us. The space in which beauty can do its work is precious, and it would seem that the logic of our technologies would have us collapse that space in the service of sharing, commodification, self-expression, capturing, publicizing, and the like.

I don’t want to speak for Thoreau, but I would venture to guess that he might have us preserve that precious space where beauty has its way.

The Borg Complex

[Update: See the Borg Complex primer here.]

“Is technology good for religion?”

Well, it was only a matter of time. Actually, I’m surprised I’ve only lately come across the question. The formulation echoes previous queries such as “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” In this case, the title does not belong to a fully developed essay in The Atlantic, but rather to a brief blogpost. It was published at The Immanent Frame, a scholarly site devoted to the sociology of religion, and it pointed readers to a recent (and not quite scholarly) piece in the Washington Post by Lisa Miller.

The title of Miller’s article dispensed with the pretense of an interrogative, opting instead for a confident declarative: “The religious authorities and pundits are wrong: Technology is good for religion.” So there you have it. Case closed. End of discussion. Although, of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

I read a lot about technology and its consequences for individuals, institutions, and society. To the writing of such articles, essays, and books there is now seemingly no end. The quality of such work varies considerably; some of it is thoughtful, some of it hysterical (and not in the humorous sort of way). Perspectives on the relative merits of technology vary greatly as well. There are unabashed critics and boosters, and more temperate souls as well. All of this is as one would expect, and I typically don’t mind reading pieces from points all along the spectrum.

But occasionally I will come across a piece that irks me. Usually it is not the content that manages to unbalance my humors, it is the tone. This tone arises from what I’ve just now decided to call a “Borg Complex.” The implicit tone of those with a Borg Complex can be summed up by the line, “Resistance is futile.” That line has entered our pop-cultural lexicon through the Star Trek franchise. I won’t pretend to be an expert on Borg lore; I’ll only note that the Borg always announced some variation of the following to their victims: “We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Resistance is futile.”

The spirit of the Borg lives in writers and pundits who take it upon themselves to prod on all of those they deem to be deliberately slow on the technological uptake. These self-appointed evangelists of technological assimilation would have us all abandon any critique of technology and simply adapt to the demands of technological society.  Except, of course, that when this message is articulated by humans with a Borg Complex it loses the tone of cool, malevolent indifference and instead takes on a tone of grating condescension. The tone is also characterized by the annoying self-assurance of those who have seen the light and feel a mixture of pity and disgust toward the poor souls who remain in the darkness.

Miller’s essay is a case in point. Although it displays a milder manifestation, it still helpfully demonstrates some of the standard symptoms of the Borg Complex.

1. Makes grandiose, but unsupported claims: “Technology can greatly enhance religious practice. Groups that restrict and fear it participate in their own demise.”

2. Uses the term Luddite a-historically and as a casual slur: “Luddites insist that nothing can replace the human touch of a faith community …”

3. Pays lip service to, but ultimately dismisses genuine concerns: “And this, of course, is true. But …”

4. Equates resistance or caution to reactionary nostalgia: “To insist that new ways of relating are not good or Godly ones is backward looking.”

5. Starkly and matter-of-factly frames the case for assimilation: “When new generations bring their values to religion, religion will have to adapt.”

6. Announces the bleak future for those who refuse to assimilate: “If religious groups don’t embrace and encourage the practice of faith online, the faithful might go shopping instead.”

In the coming days I might work on a fuller diagnostic guide for the Borg Complex with some suggestions for treatment.

Until then, carry on with the work of intelligent, loving resistance were discernment and wisdom deem it necessary.


Read updates to the Borg Complex case files here.

While My Robot Gently Weeps

The possibility of a robot-apoclaypse — in which robots either enslave, destroy, or otherwise disrupt human civilization — has been a recurring plot of science-fiction for some time now. The Terminator franchise is perhaps the most recognizable and popular variation on the theme. In these stories the robots are malign in their clinical, calculating, robot-like way. Not the sorts of creatures one would envision offering comfort and sympathy by one’s death-bed. But this is the scenario Dan Chen’s installation, “Last Moment Hospital,” invites us to imagine and even experience.

The robot Chen created amounts to a padded mechanical arm that “senses” the impending moment of death and while stroking the patient’s outstretched arm offers these words of succor:

“I am the Last Moment Robot. I am here to help you and guide you through your last moment on Earth. I am sorry that your family and friends can’t be with you right now, but don’t be afraid. I am here to comfort you. You are not alone, you are with me. Your family and friends love you very much, they will remember you after you are gone.”

According to Leslie Katz’s write up of the exhibit, Chen’s intent is two-fold:

“On the one hand, the image ‘reveals the cruelty of life, lack of human support/social connections,’ Dan Chen, who created the robot, tells Crave. ‘On the other hand, the robot becomes something that you can trust/depend on. It could give you the ‘placebo effect’ of comfort.'”

This, again, is an art exhibit, but one does not have to stretch the imagination very far to imagine it as a very real feature of end-of-life care in, say, Japan, for example, where robots already serve many similar purposes.

There’s a great deal that can be said about this exhibit, its message (if I may be so crass), and its plausibility. Others will be able to say most of those things with greater depth and wisdom than I; but there’s one observation I’d like to register, however inadequately.

It will be tempting for many to see in this installation a parable of technology’s nefarious application, of the manner in which machines barbarize society. But this exhibit, and its materialization if it comes to it, signals not the manner in which machines brutalize humanity, but rather another sad truth, how humanity brutalizes itself.

Technology is not neutral. This is the point I usually stress. But we are not, therefore, absolved of the manner in which we put our technologies to use. Moreover, we are not absolved of the guilt incurred by the creation of conditions which finally necessitate the design of technologies of care that must perform the acts of love and mercy that are the proper work of human persons.

The robot-apocaplyse, if it comes to it, will not arise from the maliciousness of robots, but from the inhumanity of human beings toward each other. It is a paradox: our machines become more human to the degree that we become more machine-like. The great task before us, then, is to fulfill our humanity in such a way that robots will never be needed to do for us what we alone can do for one another.

Keeping Time, Keeping Silent

What shape does a well ordered life take and how does one achieve such a thing? I certainly don’t have a story of personal triumph on this score to share with you, but I’m fairly certain that if I did it would focus on the re-ordering of a disordered relationship to time. Time, in fact, is the theme of a commencement address delivered by Paul Ford to the Interaction Design MFA program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. The speech, titled “10 Timeframes”, addresses the changing frames by which we measure and understand our experience of time, from the farmer whose frames are the changing season to the computer scientist who works with nanoseconds.

Commencement addresses are difficult to do well or in any kind of original fashion, but Ford managed both and my excerpts here will not convey either the feel or the insight of the whole. That said, here are the fragments of Ford’s speech I want to bring into conversation with the second piece which I’ll get to in just a minute. After giving a few illustrative examples, Ford reminds his listeners of the following:

“So it’s only a few hundred years ago that people started to care about centuries, and then more recently, decades. And of course hours and minutes. And in the last 40 years we’ve got 86 trillion nanoseconds a day, and a whole industry trying to make every one of them count.”

He introduced the nanosecond by referring back to a book published in the early 1980’s on the history of the computer, The Soul of a New Machine. After quoting one engineer describing the significance of nano-seconds, Ford then tells his audience,”One of the engineers in the book burned out and quit and he left a note that read: ‘I am going to a commune in Vermont and will deal with no unit of time shorter than a season.'”

Ford, who is speaking to creative types who will design digital tools that other creative types will use to do all sorts of work, concludes: “And I want you to ask yourself when you make things, when you prototype interactions, am I thinking about my own clock, or the user’s? Am I going to help someone make order in his or her life, or am I going to send that person to a commune in Vermont?”

Perhaps it would not be so bad to be in a commune in Vermont, but Ford clearly understood that one engineer’s decision to be the product of exhaustion — exhaustion that resulted from continuous work within a frame of time that led to a disordered experience of life.

Many of the discontents and disorders associated with modernity, discontents and disorders that are exacerbated by the advent of digital culture, revolve around time. Ford reminds us that our experience of time has a history, a history intimately tied to our machines for measuring time as Lewis Mumford observed many years ago. Mumford’s observations about the mechanical clock, whose origins lie in medieval monasticism, segue nicely (and somewhat paradoxically) to the second piece.

“How Silence Works”, a transcript of Jeremy Mesiano-Crookston’s email interviews with Trappist monks in the Benedictine Order living in Quebec, also dwells on the shape of the well ordered life. As the title suggests, the interviews focus on the place of silence in the monastic life. Contrary to popular belief, the Trappists take no “vow of silence,” although silence is an integral part of their communal life. As with Ford’s piece, I encourage you to read the whole, it is brimming with timely wisdom and insight.

Out of the many passages that are worth noting in the email exchanges, I’ll draw your attention to two. The first ties in nicely with Ford’s concerns. Mesiano-Crookston asks, “Out of curiosity, do the monks in the cloister watch the daily news? Are you interested in cultural changes in the world?” In response one monk wrote,

“I wonder if a lot of the cultural complexity you refer to [in a previous question] seems interesting to people because they have lost so much consciousness of [their] ancestors and the long view afforded by a knowledge of history. If you don’t know history, everything today can seem quite novel. But in the larger context of the story of human history, much of what fascinates, today, is quite redundant.”

The practices of the monastery, including the practice of silence, a practice that has the collateral effect of slowing down time, yield a frame of time (to borrow Ford’s terminology) quite different from the frame of time most of us work with in our day to day life. Saying as much is probably stating the obvious. But without suggesting that we all take up the monastic life, it would seem that with smaller gestures we might come closer to an ordering of time that was, simply put, better for us. Perhaps taking a cue  from the monastic life, we might learn to cultivate small rituals that establish a more humane rhythm for our daily life. Such small gestures are certainly within the realm of the possible for most of us. We might find that such small gestures — micro-practices to borrow sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s wording — may have a considerable impact on the shape of our experience.

Asked whether they believed the practice of silence were beneficial for all people, one of the monks replied,

“I would say the cultivation of silence is indispensable to being human. People sometimes talk as if they were “looking for silence,” as if silence had gone away or they had misplaced it somewhere. But it is hardly something they could have misplaced. Silence is the infinite horizon against which is set every word they have ever spoken, and they can’t find it? Not to worry—it will find them.”

Perhaps. It is hard to quibble with a point so eloquently put; but while silence may indeed find us, I think that we ought also to do a little searching for it ourselves. At the very least, we should be prepared to receive it when it does find us. Perhaps then, in silence, we will find ourselves better able to recalibrate our frame of time and achieve something more closely resembling a well-ordered life.

Body and Soul

From Alasdair MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals. Speaking of Aristotle’s many commentators:

“They have underestimated the importance of the fact that our bodies are animal bodies with the identity and continuities of animal bodies. Other commentators have understood this. And it was his reading not only of Aristotle, but also of Ibn Rushd’s commentary that led Aquinas to assert: ‘Since the soul is part of the body of a human being, the soul is not the whole human being and my soul is not I” (Commentary on Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians XV, 1, 11; note also that Aquinas, unlike most moderns, often refers to nonhuman animas as ‘other animals’). This is a lesson that those of us who identify ourselves as contemporary Aristotelians may need to relearn, perhaps from those phenomenological investigations that enabled Merleau-Ponty also to conclude that I am my body.”

This passage struck me for two reasons. The first is the host of assumptions that are challenged by that one line from Aquinas. That line alone troubles all sorts of commonly held misconceptions regarding the theological anthropology of the medieval Christian tradition. Misconceptions held both by those inside and outside of the tradition.

The second, of course, is MacIntyre’s recommendation of Merleau-Ponty and his investigations of the body’s role in structuring experience. Seconded.