The Tourist and the Pilgrim: Essays on Life and Technology in the Digital Age

A few days ago, I noted, thanks to a WordPress reminder, that The Frailest Thing had turned thee. I had little idea what I was doing when I started blogging, and wasn’t even very clear on why I was doing so. I had just started my graduate program in earnest, so I was reading a good bit and, in part at least, I thought it would be useful to process the ideas I was engaging by writing about them. Because I was devoting myself to course work, I was also out of the classroom for the first time in ten years, and the teacher in me wanted to keeping teaching somehow.

So I began blogging and have kept it up these three years and counting.

The best of these three years of writing is, I’m happy to announce, now available in an e-book titled, The Tourist and the Pilgrim: Essays on Life and Technology in the Digital Age.

Forty-six essays are gathered into eight chapters:

1. Technology Criticism
2. Technology Has a History
3. Technology and Memory
4. Technology and the Body
5. Ethics, Religion, and Technology
6. Being Online
7. Our Mediated Lives
8. Miscellany

Not surprisingly, these chapters represent fairly well the major areas of interest that have animated my writing.

Right now, the e-book is only available through Gumroad. Of course, feel free to share the link: https://gumroad.com/l/UQBM. You will receive four file formats (PDF, .epub, .mobi, .azw3). The .mobi file will work best with your Kindle. Some formatting issues are holding up availability through Amazon, but it should also be available there in the next couple of days for those who find that more convenient.

Each of the essays can be found in some form online, but I have revised many of them to correct obvious errors, improve the quality of the prose, and make them read more naturally as stand-alone pieces. Nonetheless, the substance remains freely available through this site.

Convenience and a few improvements aside, those of you who have been reading along with me for some time will not find much you haven’t seen before. You might then consider Gumroad something akin to a tip jar!

Finally, because I would not presume they would see it otherwise, I’d like to share the Acknowledgements section here:

Each of these essays first appeared in some form on The Frailest Thing, a blog that I launched in the summer of 2010. I’m not sure how long the blogging venture would have lasted were it not for the encouragement of readers along the way. I’m especially grateful for those who through their kind words, generous linking, and invitations to write for their publications have given my writing a wider audience than it would’ve had otherwise. On that score, my thanks especially to Adam Thierer, Nathan Jurgenson, Rob Horning, Emily Anne Smith, Alan Jacobs, Nick Carr, Cheri Lucas Rowlands, Matthew Lee Anderson, and Evan Selinger.

But I must also acknowledge a small cadre of friends who read and engaged with my earliest offerings when there was no other audience of which to speak. JT, Kevin, Justin, Mark, David, Randy – Cheers!

And, of course, my thanks and love to my wife, Sarah, who has patiently tolerated and supported my online scribblings these three years.

Deo Gratias

My thanks, of course, are owed to all of you who have stopped by along the way. While it may sound sappy and trite, I have to say there is still something quite humbling about the fact that when I offer up my words, which is to say something of my self, there are those who come around and take the time to read them.

There is a sense in which I’ve written for myself. The writing has helped me in my effort to understand, or, as Hannah Arendt put, “think what we are doing.” It is no small thing to me that in making that process public, some have found a thing or two of some value.

Cheers!

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In the works …

For some time now I’ve entertained the idea of compiling some of what I’ve written here over the last three years and turning it into an e-book. In part, I’m motivated by the desire to give the work I’ve put into this blog a more finished and enduring form – or, at least what would feel like a more finished and enduring form. I’ve also been intrigued by the process of putting together an e-book and thought it might be interesting to experiment with it. And, of course, it would be disingenuous of me if I didn’t also admit that I’ve wondered whether putting together an e-book might not help finance what remains of grad school. My expectations on that count are, I assure you, quite modest. In any case, entertain the idea is pretty much all I had done with it. Until recently that is.

I’ve been inspired by Jeremy Antley to finally undertake the project. Jeremy is a thoughtful and articulate scholar of Russian history, games, and digital culture who blogs at The Peasant Muse and has written for some of the same online venues I’ve contributed to over the last couple of years. His post on the process of putting together an e-book was tremendously helpful and made the whole thing seem easy enough for me to give a it whirl. I picked up his book at Amazon, and you can also find it at gumroad.

So I’ve been working on a collection I’m tentatively titling The Tourist and the Pilgrim: Essays on Life in a Digital Age. I’m hoping to make it available in the next few days. All of what will be gathered therein, at least in its original form, has been and will remain freely available on this site. But those of you who would appreciate a collection of the better work that’s passed through these pages and an opportunity to support that work, stay tuned, it’s forthcoming.

Update:

One more, possibly oddball thought. I imagine this is the sort of thing a publisher would traditionally do, so this might be a little weird, but, whatever, these are weird times: If you’ve been reading The Frailest Thing for awhile and would be interested in giving me a “back cover blurb” sort of endorsement drop me an email at LMSacasas at gmail dot com. Cheers!

What Motivates the Critic of Technology?

Last year I wrote a few posts considering the motives that animate tech critics. I’ve slightly revised and collated three of those posts below.

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Some time ago, I confessed my deeply rooted Arcadian disposition. I added, “The Arcadian is the critic of technology, the one whose first instinct is to mourn what is lost rather than celebrate what is gained.” This phrase prompted a reader to suggest that the critic of technology is preferably neither an Arcadian nor a Utopian. This better sort of critic, he wrote, “doesn’t ‘mourn what is lost’ but rather seeks an understanding of how the present arrived from the past and what it means for the future.” The reader also referenced an essay by the philosopher of technology Don Ihde in which Ihde reflected on the role of the critic of technology by analogy to the literary critic or the art critic. The comment triggered a series of questions in my mind: What exactly makes for a good critic of technology? What stance, if any, is appropriate to the critic of technology toward technology? Can the good critic mourn?

First, let me reiterate what I’ve written elsewhere: Neither unbridled optimism nor thoughtless pessimism regarding technology foster the sort of critical distance required to live wisely with technology. I stand by that.

Secondly, it is worth asking, what exactly does a critic of technology criticize? The objects of criticism are rather straightforward when we think of the food critic, the art critic, the music critic, the film critic, and so on. But what about the critic of technology? The trouble here, of course, stems from the challenge of defining technology. More often than not the word suggests the gadgets with which we surround ourselves. A little more reflection brings to mind a variety of different sorts of technologies: communication, military, transportation, energy, medical, agricultural, etc. The wheel, the factory, the power grid, the pen, the iPhone, the hammer, the space station, the water wheel, the plow, the sword, the ICBM, the film projector – it is a procrustean concept indeed that can accommodate all of this. What does it mean to be a critic of a field that includes such a diverse set of artifacts and systems?

I’m not entirely sure; let’s say, for present purposes, that critics of technology find their niche within certain subsets of the set that includes all of the above. The more interesting question, to me, is this: What does the critic love?*

If we think of all of the other sorts of critics, it seems reasonable to suppose that they are driven by a love for the objects and practices they criticize. The music critic loves music. The film critic loves film. The food critic loves food. (We might also grant that a certain variety of critic probably loves nothing so much as the sound of their own writing.) But does the technology critic love technology? Some of the best critics of technology have seemed to love technology not at all. What do we make of that?

What does the critic of technology love that is analogous to the love of the music critic for music, the food critic for food, etc.? Or does the critic of technology love anything at all in this way. Ihde seems not to think so when he writes that, unlike other sorts of critics, the critic of technology does not become so because they are “passionate” about the object of criticism.

Perhaps there is something about the instrumental character of technology that makes it difficult to complete the analogy. Music, art, literature, food, film – each of these requires technology of some sort. There are exceptions: dance and voice, for example. But for the most part, technology is involved in the creation of the works that are the objects of criticism. The pen, the flute, the camera – these tools are essential, but they are also subordinate to the finished works that they yield. The musician loves the instrument for the sake of the music that it allows them play. It would be odd indeed if a musician were to tell us that he loves his instrument, but is rather indifferent to the music itself. And this is our clue. The critic of technology is a critic of artifacts and systems that are always for the sake of something else. The critic of technology does not love technology because technology rarely exists for its own sake. Ihde is right in saying that the critic of technology is not, in fact, should not be passionate about the object of their criticism. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that no passion at all motivates their work.

So what does the critic of technology love? Perhaps it is the environment. Perhaps it is an ideal of community or friendship. Perhaps it is an ideal civil society. Perhaps it is health and vitality. Perhaps it is sound education. Perhaps liberty. Perhaps joy. Perhaps a particular vision of human flourishing. The critic of technology is animated by a love for something other than the technology itself. Returning to where we began, I would suggest that the critic may indeed mourn just as they may celebrate. They may do either to the degree that their critical work reveals technology’s complicity in either the destruction or promotion of that which they love.

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Criticism of technology, if it moves beyond something like mere description and analysis, implies making what amount to moral and ethical judgments. The critic of technology, if they reach conclusions about the consequences of technology for the lives of individual persons and the health of institutions and communities, will be doing work that rests on ethical principles and carries ethical implications.

In this they are not altogether unlike the music critic or the literary critic who is excepted to make judgments about the merits of a work art given the established standards of their field. These standards take shape within an institutionalized tradition of criticism. Likewise, the critic of technology — if they move beyond questions such as “Does this technology work?” or “How does this technology work?” to questions such as “What are the social consequences of this technology?” — is implicated in judgments of value and worth.

But according to what standards and from within which tradition? Not the standards of “technology,” if such could even be delineated, because these would merely consider efficiency and functionality (although even these are not exactly “value neutral”). It was, for example, a refusal to evaluate technology on its own terms that characterized the vigorous critical work of the late Jacques Ellul. As Ellul saw it, technology had achieved its nearly autonomous position in society because it was shielded from substantive criticism — criticism, that is, which refused to evaluate technology by its own standards. The critic of technology, then, proceeds with an evaluative framework that is independent of the logic of “technoscience,” as philosopher Don Ihde called it, and so they become an outsider to the field.

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“The contrast between art and literary criticism and what I shall call ‘technoscience criticism’ is marked. Few would call art or literary critics ‘anti-art’ or ‘anti-literature’ in the working out, however critically, of their products. And while it may indeed be true that given works of art or given texts are excoriated, demeaned, or severely dealt with, one does not usually think of the critic as generically ‘anti-art’ or ‘anti-literature.’ Rather, it is precisely because the critic is passionate about his or her subject matter that he or she becomes a ‘critic.’ That is simply not the case with science or technoscience criticism …. The critic—as I shall show below—is either regarded as an outsider, or if the criticism arises from the inside, is soon made to be a quasi-outsider.”

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The libertarian critic, the Marxist critic, the Roman Catholic critic, the posthumanist critic, and so on — each advances their criticism of technology informed by their ethical commitments. Their criticism of technology flows from their loves. Each criticizes technology according to the larger moral and ethical framework implied by the movements, philosophies, and institutions that have shaped their identity. And, of course, so it must be. We are limited beings whose knowledge is always situated within particular contexts. There is no avoiding this, and there is nothing particularly undesirable about this state of affairs. The best critics will be self-aware of their commitments and work hard to sympathetically entertain divergent perspectives. They will also work patiently and diligently to understand a given technology before reaching conclusions about its moral and ethical consequences. But I suspect this work of understanding, precisely because it can be demanding, is typically driven by some deeper commitment that lends urgency and passion to the critic’s work.

Such underlying commitments are often veiled within certain rhetorical contexts that demand as much, the academy for example.  But debates about the merits of technology might be more fruitful if the participants acknowledged the tacit ethical frameworks that underlie the positions they stake out. This is because, in such cases, the technology in question is only a proxy for something else — the object of the critic’s love.

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*Ultimately, I mean love in the Augustinian sense: the deep commitments and desires which drive and motivate action.

Writing, Academic and Otherwise

Passing through the process of academic professionalization is, in part, not unlike the process of learning a new language. It is, for example, the sort of process that might lead me to write discourse in place of language to conclude that first sentence. Learning this new language can be both an infuriating and exhilarating experience. At first, the new language mystifies, baffles, and frustrates; later, if one sticks to it and if this new language is not utter nonsense (as it may sometimes be), there is a certain thrill in being able to see and name previously unseen (because unnamed) and poorly understood dimensions of experience.

I suspect the younger one happens to be when this initiating process takes place, the more zealously one may take to this new language, allowing it to become the grid through which all experience is later comprehended. This is, on the whole, an unfortunate tendency. Another unfortunate tendency is that by which, over time, academics forget that theirs is a learned and often obscure language which they acquired only after months and possibly years of training. This is easily forgotten, perhaps because it is only metaphorically a new language. It is, if you are American, still English, but a peculiarly augmented (or deformed, depending on your perspective) form of the language.

This means, usually, that when academics (or academics in training) write, they write in a way that might not be easily assimilated by non-academics. This is, of course, entirely unrelated to intellect or ability (a point that is sometimes missed). A brilliant Spaniard, for instance, is no less brilliant for having never taken the time to learn Swahili. This is also a function of the tribal quality of academic life. One gets used to operating in the language of the tribe and sometimes forgets to adjust to accordingly when operating in other contexts.

Again, I think this is very often simply a matter of habit and forgetfulness, although, it is sometimes a matter of arrogance, self-importance, and other such traits of character.

I mention all of this because, if I were asked to verbalize why I write this blog, I would say that it was in part to translate the work of academics, critics, and theorists into a more accessible form so that their insights regarding the meaning and consequences of media and technology, so far as those insights were useful, might be more widely known. After all, the technologies I usually write about affect so many of us, academics and non-academics alike. Anyone who cares to think about how to navigate these technologies as wisely as possible should be able to encounter the best thinking on such matters in a reasonably accessible form. I don’t know, maybe there is a certain naïveté in that aspiration, but it seems worth pursuing.

I’m fairly certain, though, that I don’t always achieve this goal that I half-consciously maintain for what I do here. I’m writing this post mostly to remind myself of this aspiration and renew my commitment to it.

I should be clear, I’m talking neither about dumbing down what there is to know nor am I suggesting anything like condescension ought to be involved. The challenge is to maintain the depth of insight and to resist the over-simplification of complexity while at the same time avoiding the characteristics of academic language that tend to make it inaccessible. It’s a matter of not ignoring the non-academic reader while also taking them seriously.

I’m reminded of some comments that David Foster Wallace made regarding the purposes of literature. I’ve cited this passage before, quite some time ago, and it has stuck with me. It’s a bit long, but worth reading. Wallace is discussing literature with the interviewer, David Lipsky, and they are debating the relative merits of traditional literature and less traditional, more avant-garde writing:

Huh.  Well you and I just disagree.  Maybe the world just feels differently to us.  This is all going back to something that isn’t really clear:  that avant-garde stuff is hard to read.  I’m not defending it, I’m saying that stuff — this is gonna get very abstract — but there’s a certain set of magical stuff that fiction can do for us.  There’s maybe thirteen things, of which who even knows which ones we can talk about.  But one of them has to do with the sense of, the sense of capturing, capturing what the world feels like to us, in the sort of way that I think that a reader can tell “Another sensibility like mine exists.”  Something else feels this way to someone else.  So that the reader feels less lonely.

There’s really really shitty avant-garde, that’s coy and hard for its own sake.  That I don’t think it’s a big accident that a lot of what, if you look at the history of fiction — sort of, like, if you look at the history of painting after the development of the photograph — that the history of fiction represents this continuing struggle to allow fiction to continue to do that magical stuff.  As the texture, as the cognitive texture, of our lives changes.  And as, um, as the different media by which our lives are represented change.  And it’s the avant-garde or experimental stuff that has the chance to move the stuff along.  And that’s what’s precious about it.

And the reason why I’m angry at how shitty most of it is, and how much it ignores the reader, is that I think it’s very very very very precious.  Because it’s the stuff that’s about what it feels like to live.  Instead of being a relief from what it feels like to live.

Maybe it is ill-advised to make this comparison, but I think what Wallace has to say here, or at least the spirit of what he is saying can apply to academic work as well. It can also be a way of representing what it feels like to be alive. I tend to hold literature in rather high esteem, so I don’t think that non-fiction can really replicate the experience of more literary writing, but it can be useful in its own way. It can help make sense of experience. It can generate self-understanding. It can suggest new possibilities for how to make one’s way in the world.

It’s too late for new year’s resolutions, but I’m hoping to keep this goal more clearly in focus as I continue to write on here. You can tell me, if you’re so inclined, how well I manage. Cheers.

“I Was Born To Stand Outside Myself”

Last summer I posted a few thoughts on Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War which I had then begun reading. As it turned out, I set the book aside for a few months for no particular reason, but I’ve recently returned to it and finished it. I stand by my initial characterization: the novel is a meditation on beauty, and a lovely one at that.

Near the end, the main character, Alessandro, meets up with a talented, intelligent, articulate man named Arturo who is nonetheless thoroughly unsuccessful and unaccomplished. In conversation with Alessandro, Arturo sums up his life thus: “I was born to stand outside myself.”

This struck me as a remarkably evocative line. Now I confess that I’m going to take this in a direction that Helprin neither intended nor imagined. That said, the line immediately suggested to me the manner in which we are made to virtually stand beside ourselves in our (social) media environment.

There are perhaps two senses in which this is true. I’m thinking of the way that our social media profiles stand beside us in a rather apprehensible manner. We can look at them, manipulate them, experience them; they are us but not us. In this sense, I’m still inclined to think of our social media profiles as virtual memory theaters, at least in part.

The other sense is the manner in which the presence of our second self impinges upon our lived experience. We not only stand beside our past self as it is represented online, we also stand beside our potential future self as it will be represented online. This other potential self haunts our present from the future. Several months ago I posted a synopsis of Michel de Certeau’s observations about the way the past layers over certain places and haunts them. Places capture memories and those places cannot be divorced from those memories in lived experience. Perhaps if he were alive today, de Certeau would suggest that the future as well as the past now haunts our present. We live with our virtual memory theaters and we live with future memories as well. We are born to stand beside ourselves, actual and potential. And, perhaps most significantly, the potential self we live with is imagined within the constraints of the platform through which it will represented.

On this latter point, I would also point you to Nathan Jurgenson’s fine essay reprinted in The Atlantic: “The Facebook Eye.”

It does occur to me that this standing beside ourselves did not itself emerge with the advent of social media. One could argue that it is a function of all representation. Certainly it is a feature of writing itself. Walter Ong made much of the way in which literacy alienates. Among the many separations effected by writing Ong includes the separation of the known from the knower, the past from the present, and being from time.

So we might conclude that social media only augments a long standing trajectory. But my sense, as it often is with efforts to situate present phenomena within a historical trajectory, is that this threatens to miss the significance of present developments. Changes of degree may amount to changes in kind. As I’ve heard it put somewhere or other, a hurricane is not merely an unusually strong breeze.

Social media, and the technological ecosystem on which it depends, radically augments the alienation of writing if only by its mere ubiquity. But perhaps more importantly, it does so by making our second self that stands beside us also a public self that presents itself to a myriad of others. It’s the difference between an old-school diary and your Facebook profile. It is no small difference and we are all in the process of sorting out the personal and social consequences.

De Certeau concluded that “haunted places are the only ones people can live in.” Walter Ong was also sanguine about the alienations wrought by writing:

“To say writing is artificial is not to condemn it but to praise it . . . By distancing thought, alienating it from its original habitat in sounded words, writing raises consciousness.  Alienation from a natural milieu can be good for us and indeed is in many ways essential for fuller human life.  To live and to understand fully, we need not only proximity but also distance.  This writing provides for, thereby accelerating the evolution of consciousness as nothing else before it does.”

Now the question is whether the standing beside ourselves effected by social media will carry similarly salubrious consequences. Discuss amongst yourselves. Here’s the prompt to get you going: Has social media continued to accelerate the evolution of consciousness or self-consciousness? Is there a difference?