During a recent group conversation about contemporary technology, a friend mentioned what he considered to be the elephant in the room, namely, that we live in a technological age. “To be anti-technological,” my friend concluded, “seems to be rather extreme and dangerous.” Typically, when criticisms are made about technology, it is not uncommon for some people to wonder if you are some kind of Luddite or (even worse, apparently) Amish. They envision you out in the countryside, devoid of any and all technology, tending cows, churning butter, cut off from others and, perhaps most importantly, being more than a little strange.
I think it is necessary to respond to such claims, for while they are intelligible, they seem to be symptomatic of the wrong questions and ideas. When we think about technology, we often do so simply in terms of “use.” In other words, it is typical to consider technology primarily in terms of what we should not do with it. Looking at pornography or fostering vitriol towards others using social media would be considered bad uses of the internet and digital technology. By not engaging in these activities, and many others that one could think of, suggests that we are using technology as it was meant to be.
Such a position is not misguided. To use technology in a virtuous way is part of the correct way to see and understand such things. However, it is only a part. What is often neglected are considerations pertaining to more fundamental questions about what technology is. And this is where conversations can get a bit awkward and messy. To take seriously the question “What is it?” is not to be anti-technology. Rather, it is the natural human inclination to know what things are; it is the spring of philosophy and, might I add, human happiness.
Before further examining the ontology questions related to contemporary technology, it is important to see that technology is fundamentally connected to the notion of culture itself. The ancient account of techne viewed the human person as having an integral union with nature or the cosmos. This union between nature and human, nevertheless, did not obscure the fact that human beings also transcended nature. And one of the unique ways this could be seen was in the cultivation of man’s use of the created order to build up and nurture a moral and civilized culture. In building things with the use of reason, mankind demonstrated its original dominion over the created order.
However, this dominion was not to be understood as a master-slave relationship, whereby people seek to tie up nature and force it to give in to our demands. Rather, dominion is rooted in gratitude, and the recognition we are indebted to the goods of the earth, which are given in order to help us fulfill the inclinations of our human nature. Speaking to this same idea, Pope Francis, in Laudato Si, called attention this once fruitful relation between nature, technology, and human beings:
Men and women have constantly intervened in nature, but for a long time this meant being in tune with and respecting the possibilities offered by the things themselves. It was a matter of receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand (106).
Technology can never be divorced from culture and a fuller understanding of the human being. However, there is something new about contemporary technology, and specifically its relationship to culture. In describing the “technocratic paradigm,” Pope Francis displays the tone of our present time:
Now, by contrast, we are the ones to lay our hands on things, attempting to extract everything possible from them while frequently ignoring or forgetting the reality in front of us. Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational (Laudato Si, 106).
This brings us back to the “what is it” questions that began this essay. To know what a technological device is can help us better discern if it is something we actually need, or even whether there is a need that it could satisfy at all.
Neil Postman puts this point in the form of a question: What is the problem to which this device is the answer? This question, and its implications, may also show there is no problem at all, such that the need for the device seems rather useless. Postman has a humorous example in this regard when talking about the creation of cruise control in automobiles. While searching for a car to buy years ago, Postman was told by the car salesman that a number of the cars he seemed to need all had cruise control. In a sort of half-jest, Postman asked the man: what is the problem to which cruise control is the answer? Since Postman already asked a similar question earlier about automatic windows, the man was ready. “Cruise control helps us so that we do not have to always keep our foot on the gas.”
A second point of emphasis here concerns that supposed pejorative claim about being a Luddite or Amish. Perhaps, after further examination of their history in England, we should be grateful for being considered a Luddite, although it is clearly not asserted as such. And, while the Amish certainly have their own particular problems and issues, they have perhaps figured out certain facets of human life that Americans particularly long for. Wendell Berry draws attention to some of these in Home Economics: Fourteen Essays:
They have preserved their families and communities. They have maintained the practices of neighborhood. They have maintained the domestic arts of kitchen and garden, household and homestead. They have limited their use of technology so as not to displace or alienate available human labor or available free sources of power… By the practices and limits already mentioned, they have limited their costs. They have educated their children to live at home and serve their communities.
Berry’s point here should be understood within the greater context of his notion of health. Berry, in The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, says a richer notion of health “is rooted in the concept of wholeness. To be healthy is to be whole. The word health belongs to a family of words, a listing of which will suggest how are the consideration of health must carry us: heal, whole, wholesome, hale, hallow, holy.” What brings about, or restores, true healing and health is connection, for “connection is health.”. Berry is articulating a real set of connections that Amish communities have actualized; connections between family, husband and wife, community, neighborhood, work, land, education, and technology. Devices must be at the service of genuine connections, and if they are not, they will inevitably seek to undermine those connections.
Another friend recently shared the story about a woman who lives in a remote village in Africa. When this woman wakes up each morning, the first thing she does is make coffee. Typically, due to a lack of technological devices, it takes this woman about two hours in order to have a cup of coffee ready to drink. And she also makes extra coffee with the hope of inviting a neighbor inside, or to share a cup with a stranger she encounters while on the front porch. When this woman was asked why she has never moved to the West, particularly the United States, she quipped that she would never trade what she has for the loneliness of Americans.
Increasingly, what characterizes contemporary Americans is how we are disintegrated, disconnected, unhealthy, and alone in a way that is crippling and even crushing. Surely, this can not be a basis for anything resembling true culture or its right relation to the ancient conception of techne. What is just as clear is that we long for humane connections that give delight, replenish our souls, and reaffirm the goodness of being relational, social creatures. Therefore, our approaches and reasoning about contemporary technology should be seen in the context of health, wholeness, and holiness. Without this line of thinking about technology, we may be incapable of preventing a social and cultural phenomena, as Postman stated in Amusing Ourselves to Death, where “people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”
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