Monday, June 25, 2012

Human Scale and Human Pace: Thinking about Everyday Technology

Gary Larson is probably my favourite cartoonist. He appeals to me because of his eye for the bizarre and the off-beat: from cows conscious that they are “without opposable thumbs” watching helplessly as their telephone(!) rings, to the Lone Ranger discovering in retirement that when Tonto referred to him as “Kemosabe” for all those years, he was actually calling him “horse’s rear end”. Occasionally, as philosopher Albert Borgmann notes on the same cartoon I am about to describe, the cartoonist is able to make explicit in an absurd way our tacit, faulty assumptions about cultural commonplaces. The Far Side cartoon by Larson I have in mind features, from memory, two parents sitting on a couch with their two children lying on their stomachs on the floor with their chins propped up on their hands, all of them facing an empty lounge room corner. The caption reads: “The family in the days before television.”

The scenario is clearly and deliciously absurd and yet it captures to a large degree the na├»ve way we often think about the presence or absence of ‘everyday technology’. We tend to treat technologies, particularly the new electronic devices we buy—personal computers, DVD players, VCRs, mobile telephones—as mere items that fill the empty spaces in our lives. Many of us tend to think that a new technology merely adds new capacities to our lives, improves sound or picture quality, promotes ease of communication, increases speed of tasks, enables access to information and entertainment, and so forth. That may well be the case. But there is a whole lot more happening when modern technology is introduced into our lives, even when it is done so with our full consent.

As I ‘write’ this on my computer—yes, yes, I know, I’m using a computer—I sense already the sceptical reader wondering where this is going: and perhaps guessing as to whether I am a ‘technophobe’ who in conclusion is going to insist on unplugging, disconnecting, or whatever; perhaps raving that the best way to go in the technological society is actually out of it; to take the nearest information superhighway off-ramp one can find. Perhaps I am some kind of neo-Luddite, ready to smash the army of digital cameras held by parents at school plays. (I won’t deny the thought has occurred to me.) But let it be said that the original ‘Luddites’ of the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s smashed the textile machines manned by unskilled workers because of the moral dimension: the uncaring introduction of the machines which threatened the livelihood of craftsmen and the extinction of a craft. They were not simply against the ‘new and improved’. The introduction of new technologies on this kind of scale has consequences. My wife, as she seeks to re-enter the office workforce after a decade and a half, must rapidly overcome her lack of easy familiarity with what is now the taken-for-granted role of computers and desktop publishing and all things Microsoft.™ Skills are not simply supplemented by new technology: often they are supplanted. A particular technology gives with one hand; but it will take with another. Knowing what that trade-off might be is a task for the discerning community.

In his book Technopoly, Neil Postman recounts a pertinent story from Plato's Phaedrus in which Socrates discusses the invention of writing via a story of Theuth, an Egyptian god and King Thamus. Theuth brought his inventions before King Thamus for his evaluation before handing them on to his people. Theuth is particularly enthusiastic about writing, claiming it would make the Egyptians wiser and improve their memory. Thamus, the ‘philosopher king’ is less enthusiastic; and he warns that the inventor of something is unlikely to be the best evaluator of his creation. Thamus replies to the god Theuth thus:
O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

Socrates is particularly concerned to highlight the importance of conversation, of dialogue, and the art of the question, of adaptation and response in ‘real time’.

One of the seminal thinkers of the modern world, Sigmund Freud, observed the effects of technology in Civilization and Its Discontents:

One would like to ask: is there, then, no positive gain in pleasure, no unequivocal increase in my feeling of happiness, if I can, as often as I please, hear the voice of a child of mine who is living hundreds of miles away or if I can learn in the shortest possible time after a friend has reached his destination that he has come through the long and difficult voyage unharmed? Does it mean nothing that medicine has succeeded in enormously reducing infant mortality and the danger of infection for women in childbirth, and, indeed, in considerably lengthening the average life of civilized man? ... If there had been no railway to conquer distances, my child would never have left his native town and I should need no telephone to hear his voice; if traveling across the ocean by ship had not been introduced, my friend would not have embarked on his sea-voyage and I should not need a cable to relieve my anxiety about him. What is the use of reducing infantile mortality when it is precisely that reduction which imposes the greatest restraint on us in the begetting of children, so that, taken all round, we nevertheless rear no more children than in the days before the reign of hygiene, while at the same time we have created difficult conditions for our sexual life in marriage… And, finally, what good to us is a long life if it is difficult and barren of joys, and if it is so full of misery that we can only welcome death as a deliverer?

You may not like all his examples, but Freud surely had a point. A technology does not simply create possibilities but creates and pushes actualities upon a society. It catches us up in a certain logic, a certain way of seeing things and other people. It recreates our habits. It reshapes our notions of time, space and of place. It changes the nature of our relationships. In fact, it is quite inadequate to talk about technology as having ‘effects’. Rather, technologies involve us. As philosopher Langdon Winner puts it, technologies are “forms of life”.

Watching My Television
The introduction of a new technology does not merely fill empty space. As Borgmann says, life is “already always full” and the introduction of a new device requires a reweaving of the fabric of life around it. Let’s return to our well-known and perhaps well-worn television example. Is a television simply another piece of equipment that exists alongside a piano or a bookshelf? After a day at work, is watching a couple of hours of lightweight television merely ‘just another option’ alongside reading a demanding book or generating a conversation… or prayer? It is possible that devoted readers or classical music lovers may be exceptions, but in most cases the answer is simple and it is ‘No’: television has a prominent place. Chances are it is reflected in the arrangement of your home’s living area and the question, “Shall I watch television?” (if it is at all a conscious question) is hard to avoid. What’s more, should you decide to limit your television viewing, there’s a good chance you’ll be on the outer as you listen to people at work discuss their latest viewing habits: “How is he going to break his brother out of prison?” “Are the ‘survivors’ of Oceanic flight 815 in purgatory?” etc, etc. You may not be privy to what people are talking about when they say, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that…” Missing out on the banter of everyday discourse may be a minor thing (to you) but it illustrates yet another one of the levels on which media and  technology is interweaved with social and cultural reality.

Television as a medium is impatient with words, or, as the visually-biased may say (tellingly), “talking heads”. It favours the visual, the spectacular, and the rapid changing of images and camera angles rather than continuity and development of thought. It is, overall, a feast for the eyes and ears but not a genuine exercise of imagination. The exercise of imagination has largely been done for us by others and the results are on view. Television thus encourages passivity rather than activity and consumption rather than conversation. Its connection to a system of programming is likely to make constraints on our plans, VCRs notwithstanding when the ‘best’ shows are on. It demands our full attention in a room unlike music in the background. Neil Postman asks, “What do Americans do?” To sum up: “Americans… watch… TV.” Australians aren’t all that different. I’m not going to deny my own love affair with television. Along with my favourite dramas and comedies, I watch my fair share of SBS documentaries and current affairs on the ABC. I try to be ‘informed’ though I seem to have more information than I know what to do with. (Am I supposed to act on this stuff? I dunno… Maybe I should ‘blog’ on it… that’ll help…) As Marva Dawn has noted, the constant flow of information widens the gap between ‘knowing about’ and meaningful response.

But returning to the Far Side cartoon, what has been lost? Is there space for conversation in the home that is being needlessly consumed? Can we really join in a pining for ‘community’ if we surrender our time to luxury and private preference? Are we less likely to visit or receive visits? Will we be as likely to learn new skills and crafts? Is our ability to question and think through issues—like technology—enhanced or lessened? We at least need to ask the questions.

Answering My Phones
Being ‘connected’ is part of our contemporary jargon. We need to connect and communicate with each other. It is part of our search for ‘community’. But ‘connection’ in the technological society is partly ideological. To refrain from being connected is to ‘miss out’. Perhaps it is even a sign of irresponsibility in the eyes of some. This is the age of access. Not only do you have access to information, you have access to others; but they must have access to you. Now.

I can hardly remember what it was like not to have a mobile phone. I can certainly remember how helpful it was organising our move from Perth to Melbourne when so many decisions had to be made very quickly and on the move. I value being able to organise something spontaneously. I appreciate knowing that my daughter can ring from her mobile phone if she misses a bus or is lost or needs my urgent help.

But again (and hopefully without sounding like I am moaning) I must wonder about how life is being re-formed around the possession of the mobile phone. With my mobile phone, people know I can be contacted in an emergency. They now also know they can contact me in other cases. And actually, they now expect they can contact me at any time. They are probably annoyed if I don’t respond or, worse, if I do not carry my phone with me at all times and places. It is no longer a mere tool which I can pick up or put down. It is expected that I will have it standing by just as it is expected I will check my email several times per day and respond quickly. It is a cultural commonplace. It is ‘irresponsible’ for me not to have it ready. Sure, you don’t have to use the technology that way; but you’re not using it on your own. You are part of a network. It is embedded in the way we relate now. There are expectations which come out of the values of the technology.

I remember some years ago, (and many students will relate to this experience!), when my home phone was disconnected when I didn’t pay my bill on time. It was a nuisance: though, frankly, not as much of one as I would have expected. A phone call at the local phone booth required some more deliberation: Do I really need to make this call? How urgent is it? Can this question wait until I see that person next? I was also pleasantly surprised by the extra number of visitors we received at home. Was I crazy to get it reconnected?

Being Human in the Human-Built World
The age of access, of information technology, of readily available ‘multimedia’ entertainment (though not nearly as ‘multi’ as it claims) is predicated on the value of immediacy. Our sense of time and space is compressed. E. F. Schumacher spoke of “human scale” and suggested that “small is beautiful.” Reflecting on our relationship to everyday technology will certainly help us re-evaluate our connection to the spaces we inhabit, both the human-built and the natural; and to connect more deeply with the human and non-human creatures which inhabit it. But we may only be able to do that if we can recover a human pace. Carl Honore’s book In Praise of Slow celebrates a reassessment of the way we inhabit our day. Alongside of Schumacher’s suggestion, we may want to add the idea that “slow is beautiful.” What would it mean to recapture a more human rhythm to life? Surely that’s a genuinely Christian concern.

As Christians in a technological society dedicated to immediacy, access and connection, how do we respond? Is there a conformity to the world to be avoided? If so, how should we be “transformed by the renewing of our minds”? What virtues are being confronted by the culture of technopoly? The first that spring to my mind are patience and longsuffering. How can I learn patience with people when everything around me says “hurry up”. This fax is processing the pages too slowly, that web page is taking ‘forever’ to download, and this program is running too slowly! Now will you hurry up and answer my email? Can I learn to anticipate something good and accept the waiting without being frustrated by an inability to turn it on now? Can I be satisfied by what I have rather than be in a rush to ‘upgrade’? Is a ‘better’ technology actually solving real problems I have? Or is it providing an answer to that for which I don’t have a question? Can my children continue to hand in work that is handwritten and not face prejudice? Is ‘Google-ing’ the same as researching?

A recovery of human scale and human pace may require a reassertion of the primacy of our being made in the image of God rather than the image of our own creations. I am more than a fleshy second-rate computer. I am a body with a wondrous array of actions and senses and not just a mind, eyes and ears mounted on a deskchair or lounge chair. The people that God has placed around about me in real space and real time deserve my attention and conversation moreso than the monologue of television.

Recovering a biblical sense of time on the macroscale through the church year may be important as would the smaller scale of ‘sabbath-ing’ regularly. Take off your wristwatch (and make someone in your family or Christian community the designated timekeeper if need be). Any of these scales helps us for some time at least to lift our eyes beyond the immediate (and not just to the business planner either).

Living in the technological society as a faithful Christian may not mean getting unplugged, but it does mean we ought to see our ‘material culture’ as a place of necessary moral and theological reflection and deliberation. But it is not only the devices which inhabit our homes, but the very design of our homes—and our suburbs and cities—which need attention and, at times, resistance and transformation. Perhaps that is a subject to which we should turn in the near future?

Is your living room a place of conversation and shared activity or a 6-7 day per week mini-theatre? Perhaps that’s something worth thinking about for a bit. Just make sure you have your mobile turned off…

“'All things are lawful for me,' but not all things are beneficial. 'All things are lawful for me,' but I will not be dominated by anything.” (1 Cor 6:12)

First published in Zadok Perspectives No. 94 (Autumn 2007), pp. 7-9.

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