To Think, or Not to Think

From my present vantage point, if and when my dissertation gets written, these two passages will very likely serve as epigraphs.

Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition:

“What I propose in the following is a reconsideration of the human condition from the vantage point of our newest experiences and our most recent fears. This, obviously, is a matter of thought, and thoughtlessness–the heedless recklessness of hopeless confusion or complacent repetition of ‘truths’ which have become trivial and empty–seems to me among the outstanding characteristics of our time. What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.”

Alfred North Whitehead in An Introduction to Mathematics:

“It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle — they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.”

Discuss, particularly in light of our tendency to outsource or offload our intellectual, moral, and emotional labor to our devices.

Traditions of Technological Criticism

Given how the word technology gets used and abused, we might sometimes be tempted to respond this way.

In fact, technology is a word we use all of the time, and ordinarily it seems to work well enough as a shorthand, catch-all sort of word. That same sometimes useful quality, however, makes it inadequate and counter-productive in situations that call for more precise terminology. See yesterday’s post for more on that.

The challenge lies in the difficulty of precisely defining what we mean by technology, but this wasn’t always the case. In fact, the word wasn’t commonly used at all until roughly the mid-20th century. See, for example, this Google ngram charting the use of the word technology from 1800 – 2000:

Google_Ngram technology

Ngrams aren’t perfect, for one thing they are limited to the books Google has managed to scan, but in this case I think it may give us a pretty good picture of what was actually the case. It certainly supports Langdon Winner’s claim that by the late ’70s “technology” had become a ubiquitous concern in a way it had not been before, say, World War II. Of course, this doesn’t mean that no one was talking about technology until roughly 1920 or so. There were other words or phrases that named the sort of stuff we would just dump in the category of technology. If you’re interested, Leo Marx’s article on the word technology gives a helpful summary of the semantic history of the concept.

Long before the word got both popular and complicated, though, it had a fairly straightforward sense. You can probably guess it by thinking of some similar words that we use with less ambiguity, words like biology, geology, and theology. The words are derived from Greek roots suggesting the study of a field or subject. In these three cases, the study of life, the earth, and God respectively.

Likewise, the word technology, derived from the Greek root techne meaning “craft” or “art,” originally suggested not the technical or mechanical artifacts themselves, but rather their study or the knowledge involved in their making. Winner, for example, cites Webster’s Second International dictionary published in 1909, which defines technology as “industrial science, the science of systematic knowledge of the industrial arts, especially of the more important manufactures.”

By 1961, however, Webster’s was defining technology as “the totality of means employed by a people to provide itself with the objects of material culture.”

One of the most comprehensive definitions I’ve seen lately comes from David Kaplan and runs to paragraph length:

“Technologies are best seen as systems that combine technique and activities with implements and artifacts, within a social context of organization in which the technologies are developed, employed, and administered. They alter patterns of human activity and institutions by making worlds that shape our culture and our environment. If technology consists of not only tools, implements, and artifacts, but also whole networks of social relations that structure, limit, and enable social life, then we can say that a circle exists between humanity and technology, each shaping and affecting the other. Technologies are fashioned to reflect and extend human interests, activities, and social arrangements, which are, in turn, conditioned, structured, and transformed by technological systems.”

This definitional bloat is a symptom of the technological complexity of modern societies. It is also a consequence of our growing awareness of the significance of what we make.

One interesting, somewhat whimsical way at getting at this complexity and at the pervasive place that technology occupies in modern societies might be to imagine that the earliest sense of the word technology persisted and that their existed a disciplined called Technology.

It would, I suggest, occupy the same place in our universities that Theology occupied in the medieval schools. It might even give substance to the claim implicit in the etymology of the word university by unifying the disparate disciplines and organizing the human experience around what we make rather than what we know, driven by material rather spiritual aims.

If we imagine that medieval society envisioned Theology as the pinnacle of a pyramid of human knowledge, unifying human experience by providing a transcendental goal from above, we might consider Technology instead as the base of the pyramid, the foundation upon which all else rested, providing unity from below.

Theology took as its object of study an unseen reality that permeated and ordered human experience and yet could never be fully understood. Analogously, Technology would take as its object of study a mostly seen reality that permeates and orders our experience which also resists our understanding. As St. Paul said of God, so we might say of technology: in it we move and breathe and have our being.

In fact, there is no one master discipline called Technology. While matters technological are threaded through every discipline to greater and lesser extents, these are never woven into any coherent theoretical fabric. Approaches to the study of technology also mirror the diversity of disciplines: historical, sociological, philosophical, economic, etc.

I’ve been thinking lately of laying out a taxonomy of sorts for the many approaches to technology, or the question concerning technology if you like. This would be mostly for my benefit, although I imagine others might find it useful. Consider it a heuristic that might introduce one to the field of technology studies (not that there is something quite so coherent that encompasses all of the theorists/thinkers/writers I have in mind).

I’m struggling to find the best organizational schema. Academic disciplines or fields of study might work, but I’m leaning toward loosely defined schools or traditions of thought that may not necessarily overlap with disciplinary boundaries. The richest explorations of technology, after all, tend not to abide traditional disciplinary boundaries. Take someone like N. Katherine Hayles, for example, who’s background includes both computer science and literary studies and ranges in her work from deep readings of cyberpunk fiction to in-depth discussions of mid-20th century cybernetic theory.

Eventually, I’d like to identify the leading representatives of these schools of tech criticism, along with their key ideas and concepts, a history of their development, etc., but to wrap up this meandering post I’m going to list a few of the schools of tech criticism that I’ve been toying around with and leave it to you, if you are so inclined, to help me refine my categories, fill in my blind spots, and otherwise improve my organizational schema.

Again, the object here is to find a useful way of grouping, for purely heuristic purposes, a diverse field of scholars and writers that includes Martin Heidegger, Albert Borgmann, Langdon Winner, Jacques Ellul, Walter Ong, David Nye, Karl Marx, Michel Foucault,  Walter Benjamin, Neil Postman, Katherine Hayles, Lewis Mumford, Leo Marx, Donna Haraway, Marshall McLuhan, Herbert Marcuse, Carl Mitcham, Don Ihde, Bruno Latour, Andrew Feenberg, David Noble, and the list could go on. It is, to say the least, an eclectic field.

So here is my first attempt with a few examples to give you an idea of what I’m thinking with each grouping:

Media-critical tradition including Ong, Postman, and McLuhan.

Critical-theoretical tradition including Frankfurt Schoolers (better than Frankfurters, no?) and their heirs such as Benjamin, Adorno, Marcuse, Habermas, and Feenberg.

Phenomenological tradition including Heidegger, Borgmann, and Ihde.

Autonomous Technology tradition including Winner and Ellul.

Posthumanist tradition including Hayles and Haraway.

Social Constructivist tradition including Nye and Thomas Hughes.

I can see a lot of problems with this first offering, but it’s a start. Here are some questions to consider for take two: Does Actor-Network Theory get its own category? What about the journalistic critics (and I don’t mean that disparagingly) such as Nicholas Carr or Alexis Madrigal? What about someone like Sherry Turkle? Is there grounds for a psycho-analytic tradition? Where does someone like Mumford fit in? Or Leo Marx? Could there be a French tradition that might include both Foucault and Ellul? What about a literary-poetic tradition?

Suggestions welcome.

Self-Defeating Technological Projects

In Technoculture and Critical Theory, Simon Cooper seeks a third way to understand technology that avoids the pitfalls of technological determinism on the one hand and instrumental accounts of technology on the other. According to Cooper, an instrumental approach to technology which treats technologies as neutral tools enabling human beings to do better (or worse) what they already do in any case fails to ask whether “the meanings of these human capacities are reconstituted through the operation of a technological framework.” Cooper thinks that is the crucial question.

“Understanding technology’s capacity to reconstitute human meanings and activities within different constitutive frameworks,” Cooper believes, “provides the condition for determining whether we might say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to technology.”

Cooper goes on to argue that “technology enables a more constitutively abstract mode of engagement with the world.” The levels of abstraction, which may be either intellectual or material, effect both “modes of social integration” and “ontological categories of existence.” The ontological categories of existence include space and time as well as subjectivity and embodiment. Following Paul James, Cooper suggests three levels of social integration: the face-to-face, the agency-extended, and the disembodied (Cooper is quick to point out that these do not exist in pure form).

These concepts are crucial to Cooper’s argument. In his view, desires and meanings that are constituted at the face-to-face level of social integration, are re-constituted when their fulfillment is pursued through technologies that shift the interactions to the higher levels of abstraction. This leads Cooper to ask,

“If technology allows for a more abstract mode of engagement with the world, if it reconstitutes social and cultural settings, in effect creating a new constitutive framework through which to operate, then how ought we to negotiate the relationship between this emergent level and prior levels of engagement and association?”

Ultimately, Cooper wants to recognize “the benefits of technological reconstitution while setting limits to the extent of its operations.” He offers two reasons why such limits are worth pursuing. “The first,” Cooper explains, “concerns the degree to which the abstract reconstitution of social and cultural meanings is easily harnessed to the commodity relation.”

The second revolves around what Cooper calls ontological contradiction, “the process whereby desires and practices contained within one constitutive layer contradict those carried within another.” Cooper explains further: “Insofar as human needs and desires are carried within specific historical and cultural frameworks, it is necessary to consider whether technology is able to consummate these needs, or whether the reconstituting process it enables works to undermine the ground which historically sustained them.” In other words, it’s worth considering if the pursuit of certain ends through certain technological means does not ultimately undermine the end being pursued.

Cooper goes on to give a handful of examples of such self-defeating operations from the theorists he has chosen as his conversation partners:

“Heidegger’s technologised subject, whose power to objectify the world through a process of abstraction only comes at the coast of objectifying the self, is a classical formulation. Paul Virilio’s claim that technological ‘speed’ ultimately leads to inertia has a similar tenor, in that both theorists describe a situation in which technological mediation extends previous capacities only to undermine the ground on which such extension would have any meaning. The Futurists desire for a more powerful and regenerated nation-state was attempted within a theory that worshipped technology for its transgressive and universalising character. Yet the nation-state was invoked at the very same time that emerging technologies allowed for the easy transcendence of any physical and cultural boundary and hence threatened to undermine the meaning of the nation.”

The Ethics of Ethical Tools

In a passage I’m rather fond of, T.S. Eliot wrote of “the endless cycle of idea and action, Endless invention, endless experiment.” How one reads those few words might reveal a good bit about that person’s posture toward technology. If you read it triumphantly, then odds are you are on the whole at peace with the world wrought by modern technology. Eliot, naturally, intended them a bit more gloomily. Endless invention and endless experiment partake in our growing ignorance that brings us nearer to death and no nearer to God. It prompts his well-known series of questions,

“Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

Whatever you make of the relative merits of endless invention and endless experiment, the former at least is built into the technological project. Melvin Kranzberg captured this reality in the second of his six laws of technology. Reversing the cliché, Kranzberg’s second law reads, “Invention is the mother of necessity.” “Every technical innovation,” he explains, “seems to require additional technical advances in order to make it fully effective.”

And that is a relatively cheery way of putting it. We might simply say that technology creates as many problems as it solves. Naturally, we then turn to additional technologies to solve those problems. Endless invention, endless experiment – for better and for worse. All of this said, consider Blokket.

Blokket is a stylish pouch woven of nylon and silver thread designed to block cell phone signals. (That its name happens to sound as if it were a profane Nordic expression of exasperation is a felicitous coincidence as far as I can tell.)  As one write-up puts it, “once you slip your smartphone in, there will be no calls, texts, or notifications to alert you to activities happening outside arm’s reach.” In the same article, Chelsea Briganti, one of the lead designers, explains Blokket’s usefulness: “Blokket helps people engage in the present moment by providing interludes of relief from technology.”

I don’t know about you, but my initial response to this was decidedly … mixed. As I’ve written before, I’m very much on the side of those who urge us to give our attention, so far as we are able, to those fellow human beings in our immediate presence. Moreover, that attention can be as delicate and tenuous as it is precious.

There are, of course, perfectly reasonable extenuating circumstances. If, for example, your dear friend, who has been out of touch for weeks, is calling from Burkina Faso where she is an aid worker, then, please, by all means take the call. If, while we are talking baseball over beers, your ailing grandmother, wherever she might be, wants to hear the sound of your voice, please do oblige. If, while we are hiking the Appalachian Trail, I am bit by a rattlesnake, then, yes, I release you to check your smartphone for the appropriate first aid protocol. All of that should go without saying.

But otherwise, I’m of the party that finds the recent Facebook Home ad campaign … what is the word … grotesque. Or, as Evan Selinger more eloquently put it, “Social media — including self-indulgent interfaces like Home — only gets in the way of us being genuinely responsive to and responsible for others if we let it undermine ethical effort in maintaining meaningful connections. It only diminishes our characters and true social networks if we treat Selfish Girl as a role model rather than a tragically misguided soul.”

Attention is a precious resource these days, and we need to be better at directing it ethically rather than self-servingly or even efficiently. Incidentally, making that point is a perfectly good excuse to include a short film rendering a relevant portion of David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College address (see below).

So I am naturally inclined to appreciate a product that markets itself as an aid to the humane deployment of attention. Good for them. Of course, another response soon arises from the more cynical recesses of my consciousness. Do we really need to buy what amounts to a fashion accessory in order to behave like minimally decent human beings? Are we so pathetic that we have to enlist the help of ethical props in order achieve the mere baseline of civilized action? Isn’t this merely the aestheticization and commodification of decency?

Well, maybe. As my cynicism subsides, I consider the fact that we are rarely as good as we want to be. Many seem not to want to be good at all, but that is a separate problem. I know, from my own experience, that when the moment comes to act on the principles I embrace, I don’t always follow through. I know what is right in the abstract, but when it comes time to act concretely, I appear to forget. Of course, I am not really forgetting. I am simply heeding other motives and desires, which at that moment override my desire to act generously or selflessly.

Our wills are divided. Certain philosophers have talked about this reality in terms of desires and second order desires. Second order desires are understood to be desires about our desires. Applied to the present case, we may find ourselves desiring to momentarily ignore the person we are with in order to check our smartphone for no good reason. But our better self wishes that we didn’t feel that desire. Our better self knows better and it rues that urge to do otherwise. That better self expresses the second order desire that we would not desire to fiddle with our smartphone at all. But alas we do, and our better self does not always win the battle of our divided wills.

This is not a new problem. St. Paul complains in one of his letters, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate … I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.”

The most famous illustration is typically drawn from Homer’s Odyssey in which Odysseus both knows that he should not heed the Siren’s song and that, when the moment comes, he most likely will. So he takes precautions: he plugs the ears of his crew, and then he has them tie him to the mast of his ship. In other words, while his better, wiser self is in charge he makes provisions to bind his weaker self.

A more recent illustration was supplied offhandedly by tech critic Evgeny Morozov in an interview. Here is how he describes the lengths to which he must go in order to moderate his use of the Internet:

“I have bought myself a type of laptop from which it was very easy to remove the Wi-Fi card – so when I go to a coffee shop or the library I have no way to get online. However, at home I have cable connection. So I bought a safe with a timed combination lock. It is basically the most useful artefact in my life. I lock my phone and my router cable in my safe so I’m completely free from any interruption and I can spend the entire day, weekend or week reading and writing. … To circumvent my safe I have to open a panel with a screwdriver, so I have to hide all my screwdrivers in the safe as well. So I would have to leave home to buy a screwdriver – the time and cost of doing this is what stops me.”

Morozov’s safe is another instance of Odysseus’ mast. Other examples could be easily supplied. Perhaps you have a few of your own. We wish that we had the strength of will to simply act how we know we ought to act, but alas we do not (and this for a whole host of reasons). The whole notion of a sense of duty, now rather regrettably out of fashion, was premised on the honest recognition that, apart from a sense of duty, we would not always spontaneously act in the most morally appropriate fashion.

Without digressing too much further, though, it would seem that if the choice is between, on the one hand, acting decently with the help of some extension of our will or ethical prosthetic, or, on the other, not acting decently at all, then let us embrace the extension of our will. Buy yourself a Blokket and slip your phone inside straightaway.

Yet … I can’t quite still that little voice inside of me that says, “Wouldn’t it be better still if you would just become the sort of person that didn’t need such extensions of the will?”

I think the answer to that question is, probably, yes. The question arises from that nagging sense that extensions of the will, well-intentioned and effective though they may be, feel as if they are a waving of the white-flag of moral surrender. But it need not be that at all, and this is where the write-up I cited earlier registers an important point. It appears that when the design company field tested Blokket, they found that, in the article’s words, “using the pouch actually helped to create new habits; users found themselves comfortably making the decision to keep interactions face to face and in the flesh.”

This warms my Aristotelian heart.

Simplistically stated, Aristotle’s theory of virtue is premised on the cultivation of habits that then become inner dispositions. In other words, if you know what the right thing to do is, but you don’t always act on that knowledge, then figure out a way of making that action habitual – by an extension of the will for example – and when that habit is internalized, you will then act on it instinctively as a matter of character.

Within this framework then, extensions of the will are not so much white flags of moral surrender as they are training wheels that will eventually be discarded.

That is all very neat and tidy. In the trenches of our moral lives, it is admittedly quite a bit messier than that. But all in all, it is not a bad way (even if it is incomplete) to think about our moral formation. If nothing else, something like Blokket is a step in the direction of mindfulness. That silly little pouch will at least make us conscious of the stakes. It is a token to remind us of what we know is the better way to be with others. We may not always choose that way – how hard is it to slip the phone out of the pouch anyway – but at the very least we will have a small obstacle to arrest the automatic and unthinking selfishness that is, for many of us, our habitual default.

[UPDATE: The video I refer to above has apparently been taken due to copyright issues. Here is a link to the audio of commencement address on which the video was based.]

Love and the Beauty of Our Lowly Bodies

“They want to get out of themselves and escape from the man. That is madness: instead of changing into angels, they change into beasts; instead of raising themselves, they lower themselves.”
— Michel de Montaigne 

Wim Wenders’ beautifully wrought Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin, 1987) depicts a world populated by human beings and angels.  We cannot ordinarily see or hear them, although children seem to be more attuned to their presence.  They see us and hear our thoughts.  They were here before us and they awaited our coming.  Now they watch and bear witness.  They, however, cannot touch or feel, taste or smell.  They have no weight.  In a particularly touching scene, Cassiel (Otto Sander), one of two angels through whose eyes we experience the film, is unable to prevent a suicide.  Driven by curiosity or empathy or more likely both, Cassiel imitates the fall but his weightless plummet can do him no harm.

Cassiel along with Damiel (Bruno Ganz) watch over East Berlin in the 1980’s, and through their witness to the lives of the human beings they are tasked to watch we are invited to pay lavish attention to the details of embodied life with all its attendant joys and sorrows.  Jeffrey Overstreet describes what he calls the “movie’s leisurely, telepathic stroll” which “takes us out of our pell-mell experience of life and all its worries, and it restores to us the balanced view of each moment, reacquainting us with the childlike joy of physical sensation and the holy contemplation of meaning in each tactile detail.”

The theme of childhood runs throughout the film which opens with a voiceover of Peter Handke’s “Song of Childhood”:

“When the child was a child
It walked with its arms swinging,
wanted the brook to be a river,
the river to be a torrent,
and this puddle to be the sea.”

And so on it goes. At first thought, the theme suggests, perhaps, an innocence shared by children and angels. On second, wonderment. Wonder that leads to desire. Damiel expresses the correlation between desire and the body when he longs “to be excited not only by the mind but, at last, by a meal, by the line of a neck.” Earlier when comparing notes, as it were, with Cassiel, he reports:

“A woman on the street folded her umbrella while it rained and let herself get drenched. A schoolboy who described to his teacher how a fern grows out of the earth, and the astonished teacher. A blind woman who groped for her watch, feeling my presence…. It’s great to live only by the spirit, to testify day by day, for eternity, to the spiritual side of people.”

But this patient observation, this wonder yields desire:

“But sometimes I get fed up with my spiritual existence. Instead of forever hovering above I’d like to feel there’s some weight to me. To end my eternity, and bind me to earth. At each step, at each gust of wind, I’d like to be able to say: ‘Now! Now! and Now!’ And no longer say: ‘Since always’ and ‘Forever.’ To sit in the empty seat at a card table, and be greeted, if only by a nod…. Whenever we did participate, it was only a pretence. Wrestling with one of them, we allowed a hip to be dislocated, in pretence only. We pretended to catch a fish. We pretended to be seated at the tables. And to drink and eat…. Not that I want to plant a tree or give birth to a child right away. But it would be quite something to come home after a long day, like Philip Marlowe, and feed the cat. To have a fever. To have blackened fingers from the newspaper…. To feel your skeleton moving along as you walk. Finally to “suspect”, instead of forever knowing all. To be able to say ‘Ah!’ and ‘Oh!’ and ‘Hey!’ instead of ‘Yes’ and ‘Amen’.”

Damiel desires the desires that can only be realized in the body. Again Overstreet:  “There is a woman, a trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin) in a traveling circus, who captures his attention. But this infatuation is more than most you’ll see in onscreen romances. Damiel is truly moved by her entire person: her innermost thoughts, doubts, struggles, and courage. But it’s not merely platonic appeal: she’s a beauty, no doubt about it.”  And so Damiel, with the unlikely help of Peter Falk (playing himself) falls. But his is not the usual sort of angelic fall. It is not a Luciferian fall away from God in rebellion, it is a fall into embodiment (quite literally depicted in the film).  It is not a fall occasioned by resistance to limits, but one that seeks to embrace them. Eric Mader-Lin’s reflections on the theme of falling in Wings of Desire is worth quoting at length:

In this dialogue, in its contrast between the two kinds of yearning, human and angelic, the film affirms a new kind of spirituality, one that is paradoxically both material and spiritual, an affirmation of the necessary and permanent tension between the two: the meaninglessness of the one without the other.

One of the motifs through which Wenders develops this tension is that of falling. We’ve always imagined that transcending the limits of our earthbound lives meant rising up: all that is banal or merely mortal would be left behind if we could only take flight ….

The angel Damiel, in his growing desire to fall into humanity, becomes more and more fascinated with Marion. We see her through his eyes and hear her thoughts through his ears. Eventually Damiel truly falls from his angelic state and comes together with Marion. What does it mean that the film’s last scene shows Marion again practicing trapeze while Damiel, erstwhile angel, holds the rope that anchors her to earth? She didn’t need to renounce her art after all. A new balance between heaven and earth has been established, a balance which, this time, is effected through the love between man and woman.”

Damiel’s fall into enbodiment prompted by desire is an evocative reminder of the beauty and love proper to the life of body. And from time to time we do good to remind ourselves of such things, particularly in an age that in its rhetoric and practice too often disparages the humble body and its limitations.