A Proper Education

Wendell Berry, writing not long after September 11, 2001:

The complexity of our present trouble suggests as never before that we need to change our present concept of education. Education is not properly an industry, and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. It’s proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible. This cannot be done by gathering or “accessing” what we now call “information” – which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority. A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting first things first.

Quantify Thyself

A thought in passing this morning. Here’s a screen shot that purports to be from an ad for Microsoft’s new wearable device called Band:


I say “purports” because I’ve not been able to find this particular shot and caption on any official Microsoft sites. I first encountered it in this story about Band from October of last year, and I also found it posted to a Reddit thread around the same time. You can watch the official ad here.

It may be that this image is hoax or that Microsoft decided it was a bit too disconcerting and pulled it. A more persistent sleuth should be able to determine which. Whether authentic or not, however, it is instructive.

In tweeting a link to the story in which I first saw the image, I commented: “Define ‘know,’ ‘self,’ and ‘human.'” Nick Seaver astutely replied: “that’s exactly what they’re doing, eh?”

Again, the “they” in this case appears to be a bit ambiguous. That said, the picture is instructive because it reminds us, as Seaver’s reply suggests, that more than our physical fitness is at stake in the emerging regime of quantification. If I were to expand my list of 41 questions about technology’s ethical dimensions, I would include this one: How will the use of this technology redefine my moral vocabulary? or What about myself will the use of this technology encourage me to value?

Consider all that is accepted when someone buys into the idea, even if tacitly so, that Microsoft Band will in fact deepen their knowledge of themselves. What assumptions are accepted about the nature of what it means to know and what there is to know and what can be known? What is implied about the nature of the self when we accept that a device like Band can help us understand it more effectively? We are, needless to say, rather far removed from the Delphic injunction, “Know thyself.”

It is not, of course, that I necessarily think users of Band will be so naive that they will consciously believe there is nothing more to their identity than what Band can measure. Rather, it’s that most of us do have a propensity to pay more attention to what we can measure, particularly when an element of competitiveness is introduced.

I’ll go a step further. Not only do we tend to pay more attention to what we can measure, we begin to care more about what can measure. Perhaps that is because measurement affords us a degree of ostensible control over whatever it is that we are able to measure. It makes self-improvement tangible and manageable, but it does so, in part, by a reduction of the self to those dimensions that register on whatever tool or device we happen to be using to take our measure.

I find myself frequently coming back to one line in a poem by Wendell Berry: “We live the given life, not the planned.” Indeed, and we might also say, “We live the given life, not the quantified.”

A certain vigilance is required to remember that our often marvelous tools of measurement always achieve their precision by narrowing, sometimes radically, what they take into consideration. To reveal one dimension of the whole, they must obscure the others. The danger lies in confusing the partial representation for the whole.

Silencing the Heretics: How the Faithful Respond to Criticism of Technology

I started to write a post about a few unhinged reactions to an essay published by Nicholas Carr in this weekend’s WSJ, “Automation Makes Us Dumb.”  Then I realized that I already wrote that post back in 2010. I’m republishing “A God that Limps” below, with slight revisions, and adding a discussion of the reactions to Carr. 

Our technologies are like our children: we react with reflexive and sometimes intense defensiveness if either is criticized. Several years ago, while teaching at a small private high school, I forwarded an article to my colleagues that raised some questions about the efficacy of computers in education. This was a mistake. The article appeared in a respectable journal, was judicious in its tone, and cautious in its conclusions. I didn’t think then, nor do I now, that it was at all controversial. In fact, I imagined that given the setting it would be of at least passing interest. However, within a handful of minutes (minutes!)—hardly enough time to skim, much less read, the article—I was receiving rather pointed, even angry replies.

I was mystified, and not a little amused, by the responses. Mostly though, I began to think about why this measured and cautious article evoked such a passionate response. Around the same time I stumbled upon Wendell Berry’s essay titled, somewhat provocatively, “Why I am Not Going to Buy a Computer.” More arresting than the essay itself, however, were the letters that came in to Harper’s. These letters, which now typically appear alongside the essay whenever it is anthologized, were caustic and condescending. In response, Berry wrote,

The foregoing letters surprised me with the intensity of the feelings they expressed. According to the writers’ testimony, there is nothing wrong with their computers; they are utterly satisfied with them and all that they stand for. My correspondents are certain that I am wrong and that I am, moreover, on the losing side, a side already relegated to the dustbin of history. And yet they grow huffy and condescending over my tiny dissent. What are they so anxious about?

Precisely my question. Whence the hostility, defensiveness, agitation, and indignant, self-righteous anxiety?

I’m typing these words on a laptop, and they will appear on a blog that exists on the Internet.  Clearly I am not, strictly speaking, a Luddite. (Although, in light of Thomas Pynchon’s analysis of the Luddite as Badass, there may be a certain appeal.) Yet, I do believe an uncritical embrace of technology may prove fateful, if not Faustian.

The stakes are high. We can hardly exaggerate the revolutionary character of certain technologies throughout history:  the wheel, writing, the gun, the printing press, the steam engine, the automobile, the radio, the television, the Internet. And that is a very partial list. Katherine Hayles has gone so far as to suggest that, as a species, we have “codeveloped with technologies; indeed, it is no exaggeration,” she writes in Electronic Literature, “to say modern humans literally would not have come into existence without technology.”

We are, perhaps because of the pace of technological innovation, quite conscious of the place and power of technology in our society and in our own lives. We joke about our technological addictions, but it is sometimes a rather nervous punchline. It makes sense to ask questions. Technology, it has been said, is a god that limps. It dazzles and performs wonders, but it can frustrate and wreak havoc. Good sense seems to suggest that we avoid, as Thoreau put it, becoming tools of our tools. This doesn’t entail burning the machine; it may only require a little moderation. At a minimum, it means creating, as far as we are able, a critical distance from our toys and tools, and that requires searching criticism.

And we are back where we began. We appear to be allergic to just that kind of searching criticism. So here is my question again:  Why do we react so defensively when we hear someone criticize our technologies?

And so ended my earlier post. Now consider a handful of responses to Carr’s article, “Automation Makes Us Dumb.” Better yet, read the article, if you haven’t already, and then come back for the responses.

Let’s start with a couple of tweets by Joshua Gans, a professor of management at the University of Toronto.

Then there was this from entrepreneur, Marc Andreessen:

Even better are some of the replies attached to Andreessen’s tweet. I’ll transcribe a few of those here for your amusement.

“Why does he want to be stuck doing repetitive mind-numbing tasks?”

“‘These automatic jobs are horrible!’ ‘Stop killing these horrible jobs with automation!'” [Sarcasm implied.]

“by his reasoning the steam engine makes us weaklings, yet we’ve seen the opposite. so maybe the best intel is ahead”

“Let’s forget him, he’s done so much damage to our industry, he is just interested in profiting from his provocations”

“Nick clearly hasn’t understood the true essence of being ‘human’. Tech is an ‘enabler’ and aids to assist in that process.”

“This op-ed is just a Luddite screed dressed in drag. It follows the dystopian view of ‘Wall-E’.”

There you have it. I’ll let you tally up the logical fallacies.

Honestly, I’m stunned by the degree of apparently willful ignorance exhibited by these comments. The best I can say for them is that they are based on a glance at the title of Carr’s article and nothing more. It would be much more worrisome if these individuals had actually read the article and still managed to make these comments that betray no awareness of what Carr actually wrote.

More than once, Carr makes clear that he is not opposed to automation in principle. The last several paragraphs of the article describe how we might go forward with automation in a way that avoids some serious pitfalls. In other words, Carr is saying, “Automate, but do it wisely.” What a Luddite!

When I wrote in 2010, I had not yet formulated the idea of a Borg Complex, but this inability to rationally or calmly abide any criticism of technology is surely pure, undistilled Borg Complex, complete with Luddite slurs!

I’ll continue to insist that we are in desperate need of serious thinking about the powers that we are gaining through our technologies. It seems, however, that there is a class of people who are hell-bent on shutting down any and all criticism of technology. If the criticism is misguided or unsubstantiated, then it should be refuted. Dismissing criticism while giving absolutely no evidence of having understood it, on the other hand, helps no one at all.

I come back to David Noble’s description of the religion of technology often, but only because of how useful it is as a way of understanding techno-scientific culture. When technology is a religion, when we embrace it with blind faith, when we anchor our hope in it, when we love it as ourselves–then any criticism of technology will be understood as either heresy or sacrilege. And that seems to be a pretty good way of characterizing the responses to tech criticism I’ve been discussing: the impassioned reactions of the faithful to sacrilegious heresy.

A Thought About Thinking

Several posts in the last few months have touched on the idea of thinking, mostly with reference to the work of Hannah Arendt. “Thinking what we are doing” was a recurring theme in her writing, and it could very easily serve as a slogan, along with the line from McLuhan below the blog’s title, for what I am trying to do here.

Thinking, though, is one of those things that we do naturally, or so we believe, so it is therefore one of those things for which we have a hard time imagining an alternative mode. Let me try putting that another way. The more “natural” a fact about the world seems to us, the harder it is for us to imagine that it could be otherwise. What’s more, thinking about our own thinking is a dynamic best captured by trying to imagine jumping over our own shadow, although, finally, not impossible in the same way.

We all think, if by “thinking” we simply mean our stream of consciousness, our unending internal monologue. But, having thoughts does not necessarily equal thinking. That’s neither a terribly profound observation nor a controversial one. But what, then, does constitute thinking?

Here’s one line of thought in partial response. It’s tempting to associate thinking with “problem solving.” Thinking in these cases takes as its point of departure some problem that needs to be solved. Our thinking then sets out to understand the problem, perhaps by identifying its causes, before proceeding to propose solutions, solutions which usually involve the weighing of pros and cons.

This is the sort of thinking that we tend to prize, and for obvious reasons. When there are problems, we want solutions. We might call this sort of thinking technocratic thinking, or thinking on the model of engineering. By calling it this I don’t intend to disparage it. We need this sort of thinking, no doubt. But if this is the only sort of thinking we do, then we’ve impoverished the category.

But what’s the alternative?

The technocratic mode of thinking makes the assumption that all problems have solutions and all questions have answers. Or, what’s worse, that the only problems worth thinking about are those we can solve and the only questions worth asking are those that we can definitively answer. The corollary temptation is that we begin to look at life merely as a series of problems in search of a solution. We might call this the engineered life.

All of this further assumes that thinking itself is not inherently valuable; it is valuable only as a means to an end: in this case, either the solution or the answer.

We need, instead, to insist on the value of thinking as an end in itself. We might make a start by distinguishing between questions we answer and questions we live with–that is, questions we may never fully answer, but whose contemplation enriches our lives. We may further distinguish between problems we solve and problems we simply inhabit as a condition of being human.

This needs to be further elaborated, but I’ll leave that to your own thinking. I’ll also leave you with another line that has meant a lot to me over the years. It’s taken from a poem by Wendell Berry:

“We live the given life, not the planned.”

The Miracle of Gravity

You have likely already heard two things about the space-epic, Gravity. You have heard that it is a visually stunning, anxiety-inducing thriller that immediately absorbs you into its world and does not release you until the credits roll. That is largely correct. You have also heard that Gravity is not really about space. It is really about the inner struggles of the main character, Dr. Ryan Stone played by Sandra Bullock. This is also true enough. But what exactly is Gravity trying to tell us about this inner human struggle being played out against sublimely rendered vistas of earth and space?

As Matt Thomas astutely noted, Gravity trades in both the natural sublime and the technological sublime. The first of these is a common enough notion: it is the sense of awe, wonder, and fear that certain natural realities can inspire in us. Gravity gives us plenty of opportunities to experience the natural sublime as our gaze alternates from the meticulously wrought surface of the earth to the starry, cavernous darkness of the space which envelops it.

The technological sublime is a concept developed by the historian David Nye to describe the analogous feelings of awe, wonder, and fear that we experience in the presence of certain man-made realities. Nye documented a series of human technologies that inspired this kind of response when they were first developed. These included the Hoover Dam, skyscrapers, the electrified city-scape, the atomic bomb, and the Saturn V rockets. In Gravity, depictions of the space shuttle, the International Space Station, and the Hubble telescope — even after they have been pummeled and shredded by space debris — also manage to evoke this experience of the technological sublime.

Against this double sublime, Gravity unfolds its plot of disaster and survival. [Yes, spoilers ahead.] Within minutes, Dr. Stone and Matt Kowalski (played by George Clooney) find themselves adrift after a field of space debris strikes the shuttle and kills the rest of the crew. Kowalski is preternaturally calm in the face of this unthinkable catastrophe. After he recovers Dr. Stone, the pair begin making their way to the ISS in hopes of using the station’s Soyuz capsule to return to earth. Had that initial plan worked, of course, it would have been a very short film.

Upon arriving at the ISS, Kowalski is lost in an act of heroic self-sacrifice and the capsule turns out to be too damaged to survive re-entry. Before he is lost, Kowalski lays out a plan of action for Dr. Stone. She is to take the battered capsule to the Chinese space station and then use their emergency capsule for the journey home. Stone manages to follow this plan, but one near catastrophe after another ensues maintaining a feverish pitch of suspense, or, as some critics have noted, threatening to steer the film into melodrama.

It is in the midst of one of these crisis that Stone is tempted to give up altogether. She finds that the Soyuz capsule does not have enough fuel to get to the Chinese station and so she opts to turn off the capsule’s life support systems and float off into that other dark abyss. This scene is pivotal. We have already learned that Stone lost a daughter in a painfully random playground accident. Ever since, she has lost herself in her work and driven aimlessly at night to assuage her sorrow. She is alone in space now, but she realizes that she is alone on earth as well. No one would mourn her loss, she realizes.

As she begins to doze into unconsciousness, however, Kowalski reappears, chatty and calm as always. He acknowledges that there is something appealing about the escape she is about to make, but he encourages her to reconsider and suggests a strategy that she had not yet considered. And then he disappears. We realize that she had been hallucinating, but she rallies nonetheless and determines to not give up on the hope of return quite yet.

If Kant and Nye help us to describe the sublime scenery against which Stone’s struggle is set, I’d like to suggest that Wendell Berry and G.K. Chesterton can help us make sense of the struggle itself.

Stone must learn to see life on earth — with both its heartache and tragedy, its joys and delights — as a gift, and it is through a kind of death that her perception begins to be realigned. Wendell Berry has beautifully captured this dynamic in his reflections on a wonderfully poignant scene in Shakespeare’s King Lear involving the blinded Earl of Gloucester and his son, Edgar. Gloucester is in despair, and seeks to take his life. The life he thought himself the master of has unraveled, and he has compounded this troubles by falsely accusing Edgar and driving him into exile. But Edgar, disguised as a beggar, has returned to his father to lead him out of despair so that the old man may die in the proper human position, “Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief …”

As Berry puts it, “Edgar does not want his father to give up on life. To give up on life is to pass beyond the possibility of change or redemption.” So when Gloucester asks to be taken to the cliffs of Dover so that by a leap he may end his life, his disguised son only pretends to do so. The stage directions then indicate that Gloucester, “Falls forward and swoons.” When he awakes, his son now pretends to be a man who has seen Gloucester survive the great fall. Gloucester is dismayed. “Away, and let me die,” he says. But Edgar, narrates what he has “seen” and proclaims, “Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.”

It is that line, that realization that brings Gloucester back from despair. Having passed through a kind of fictive death, he has been brought once more to see his life as a gift. And so it was with Stone. Kowalski plays Edgar to her Gloucester and having flirted with death, she is recalled to life. No longer does she long for the escape into death that the dark, harshness of space represents in this film. She now determines to find her place again on earth, with all of its attendant sorrows and joys.

So much for Berry, what of Chesterton? Chesterton famously came to faith through an experience of profound gratitude for the sheer gratuity of being. While she ponders the possibility of death and laments that there will be no one to mourn her, Stone also says that there will be no one to pray for her. She confesses that she cannot pray for herself. She was never taught. When, finally, she has reentered the earth’s atmosphere and her capsule splashes down in a murky lake, Stone must make one more fight for her life. The capsule is inundated and she must swim out for air, but she is forced to struggle with her space suit, which threatens to sink her. Once she has fought free of this last obstacle, she makes her way to a muddy shore and, cheek to clay, she exhales the words, “Thank you.” She has, I take it, learned to pray. 

This film about space ends on earth as Stone struggles to her feet under the pull of gravity. But by the composure of her posture and the joy of her expression, we are encouraged to conclude that now, finally, Stone is not only on earth, but she is also at home on earth. She no longer seeks an escape. She is prepared to live with both grief and joy. She knows too that for all of the sublime splendor of space, it is her life that is the most profound miracle for which the instinctive response can only be gratitude.