Christian Existence and Modern Existence 4. ‘The medium is the message – Technology and the changed human’

Modern Existence and Christian Existence
4. ‘The Medium is the Message’
How our lives are shaped by the tools we use – and yes, I did say that . . .
Community, Economy, Technology, and Creation

‘He [Adam] moved contrary to his nature, madly (ανοητ0ς) and of his own initiative, making a bad use of the natural faculty which had been entrusted to him in his constitution with an eye to the unification of what was separated, so as rather to separate things united’ Maximos the Confessor. Quoted in ‘Therapy of Spiritual Illnesses’ Jean-Claud Larchet Volume I, p65

In today’s talk I’m going to examine the significance of Technology for this question of human existence, especially with respect to the role it plays in our ‘Modern’ existence. In particular I shall consider five technologies most of which are so embedded in our everyday existence that we barely give them a moment’s thought. Indeed if I asked about our relationship with technology. they are the sort of things we might not even label as technologies, but technologies they are . . . So in due course we shall consider the technologies of ‘Money’, of the ‘Light bulb’, the ‘Clock’, the ‘Motor Car’, and ‘the cell phone’ (so at least one there which we might use the label technology for)

But in saying that we might not call them ‘technologies’ I suggest that we have become blind to the nature of the reality of our existence. In keeping with the tone of our previous talks on Community and The Economy, I am not here to praise these things in our lives, but to try if not bury them, at least help us to understand that there is no such thing as a neutral technology, and that all these seemingly innocuous aspects of our everyday existence carry deeply inhuman implications.

Now in speaking this way, I am opening myself up to the charge of ‘being a Luddite’ and of course to be a ‘Luddite’ in today’s world is to render oneself either the object of ridicule, or, perhaps worse, to suggest that anything one has to say can instantly be dismissed. (Of course this is one of the ways we use, or are used by one of our primary technologies, language – and language and technology are closely related . . . but perhaps another time.)

Actually if you wish to label me a Luddite, then I gladly accept what you may perceive to be an insult – for the Luddites are people who would speak to us and cal into question our blind acquiescence with regard to Technology, and their critique would I suggest speak directly to our primary concern, this matter of Christian Existence.

Let us rehearse this again – Christian Existence which is I suggest the Truth of our Human Existence is revealed in The Great Commandments – to in our condition of ‘of the earth’ to love God with all of our heart and soul and mind and strength, and our neighbour as ourself. To know that our life can only be known with respect to the Creation, in all its Wonder, our neighbours – people with whom we share in Life, and God. And that that existence is perfectly Manifested in the World in the Crucified Man-God, Jesus Christ.

Well, The Luddites I suggest got this. The Story of the Luddites opens up to us significant evidence of the way in which our Life Together, this Koinonia which is the Goal of all things in Christ Jesus, is radically subverted if not completely destroyed.

The Luddites so named were a loose affiliation of ‘machine wreckers’, specifically knitting machines. People who found that their skills were no longer required for the particular task of knitting stockings. As before wealthy and powerful people found ways to increase their profits by removing at least in part the human from the picture. The introduction of such machines left those with the human skills and crafts to knit stockings without work, in the same way that in the rural context the turning over of land first to sheep, but later following the development of tractors etc. turned people off the land, and disconnected us from a direct and mutual relationship with the Creation. Of course many of those who turned to various crafts as knitting and weaving were the descendants of those who had once lived on the land.
So as a protest against what was happening – gangs of ‘machine wreckers’ would break in to factories at dead of night to do violence to the direct cause of their unemployment. There was no violence against the person until the powers that be stepped in and opened fire in 1812 on a group of wreckers, it having become a capital offence to destroy a machine (and we may well ask what understanding of the human is operative in that decision) By hanging and various punishments the movement was after a period of years quelled.
What was really was at stake here is disputed. The movement was dispersed with no recognisable leader, named after the first machine wrecker, Nedd Ludd.
Were ‘they’ against Technology per se? This is unclear they had no voice as such. Certainly part of the complaint of the Luddites was that the stockings so produced by the new machines were of an inferior quality. And of course we might say that they were not against technology in and of itself, after all, did they not use tools??
Here there is a very significant point to be made about the difference between tools and machines – and more particularly how human beings relate to them, and the language of relationship is not inappropriate. For to follow an argument by Hannah Arendt in xxxxx (See Nick Cage) ‘tools serve humans, extending their capabilities, but humans serve machines’, and we Might say that machines Also extend human capabilities – but we Must note that Alienation has crept into the picture. That same Alienation which is implicit in the division of our Existence into Public and private PSheres, or The Economy. Certainly machines largely do not serve the particular humans who for want of employment must serve them – and become radically deskilled in the process. The dignity of a machine operator who ‘pushed buttons’ on a machine which makes a table is a very much lesser thing than the engagement of a craftsman who wield his tools to make the same table. The human as Agent in the world, as Actor is radically diminished – and with the loss of Agency comes also the lack of ‘Responsibility’. Also implicit is the theory that the ends justify the means – within a machine economy. If the end is to produce a million identical tables, then machines are the most effective, cheapest way to do so – and the consequent loss of meaningful work, or unemployment, or loss of trades and skills built up often over millennia is a loss we are told we must bear.
It is worthy of note that at the same time as the Luddites, in France, in the name of ‘Freedom, Equality, and kinship’ the Terror was unleashed. Ends justifying means, in an increasingly abstract milieu.

Also briefly worthy of note are a community who have successfully withstood the technological determinism of our age, namely the Amish community of Pennsylvania in the United States. They too this day ask a key question of any technology before they permit its use, namely – ‘what will this do to our community?’ It is a think a Good question. If the goal is Koinonia – mutual flourishing in community, then perhaps the story implicit in the technology might work against that. So as we consider the use of all the technologies we shall consider is highly limited in Amish society, if not outright banned.

How we might ask do the Amish get away with this, where the Luddites did not? Simply this. Living on the land they can and do feed themselves . . . living in English cities, all manufacturing workers could always be, and often were, starved into submission . . . for the good of course of ‘The Economy’. Separated out from the Land which is given to sustain the Human, the human becomes a slave (this is one way certainly of reading the Egypt narrative) But what is more, being still of the land, their perception of things is I suggest deeper – they see more clearly what is going on around them – so they would not be prone to say ‘it’s not the technology that is the issue, it is the use we put it to . . .’ as so many are prone to do, for they see technologies in the whole – Actually in reality it is nearer to the truth to say that technologies use us . . .
[See Michael Leunig Cartoon]

Much as our lives are largely controlled by the narratives of ‘The Economy’, so too all technologies come with an implicit agenda, an account of what it means to be a human being – they shape and define our existence . . . It is a neurological necessity to at least have a sense that we are in control of our existence – the truth of the matter is far more troubling, at least to a Modern disconnected person

The Catholic philosopher and writer Albert Borgmann who has a particular interest in this area writes about what he calls ‘The Device Paradigm’ – that is the set of ideas which are embodied in technologies and helpfully uses the example of something dear to the heart of New Zealanders . . . (the unfortunately named) Central heating 🙂 Well it IS a case of ‘be careful of what you wish for’ . . .
So consider a house which is centrally heated – the first this we might notice of course is that is it ALL warm, or can be – but we may find it difficult to find a place where people gather. Rather like the story of how the Manor House became a place of non-shared space – so if everyone’s room is warm, then no one has to be, or indeed IS in the same space . . .

Some years ago I took a short course and we had ‘ice-breaker’ questions [it is interesting to note how frosty our relating is suggested to be by this ‘arbitrary’ choice of words  . . .] One of which was – what image does ‘warm place’ conjour up for you? Most people spoke about gathering around the family fire or Aga – Certainly in the house we lived in before coming to New Zealand the kitchen was the warm centre of the room because we had an Aga there . . . the heating was truly Central . . . Central heating, so called does suggest that it is a matter of indifference whether or not people gather together . . . but as Borgmann also says, this is not all

In the days when wood had to be cut etc. it was one of a number of shared household chores – and cutting wood was one which might fall to the boys of the family, but only after an apprenticeship in ‘the ways of the axe’ from their father. This is one significant expression of ‘true economy’ to pick up on the comments form our talk last week. Intergenerationality was built into a more embodied way of being in the world (something which is a topic worth much further consideration – that dis-embodied existence is profoundly non-intergenerational – but another time) And also labour was a form of engagement with the world. Think now how we speak of ‘exercise’ as a thing amongst many things – the Modern World, rather than ‘Work’ which found its place as inseparable from Existence.

And so to our five technologies

And a reminder about Technologies. No Technologies are neutral – they all come with a story of what it means to be human – but if we pay no attention to that – which as I suggest we cannot as we have lost our sense of what it is to be human, then indeed we may use them far too readily . . .

Money if a profound form of Alienating Abstraction. It reduces people and other aspects of the Creation to often highly arbitrary ‘values’. It is also a tool used for the diminishment of our human specificity.

Money gets between. This is one of the hallmarks of all technologies from the simplest tools, and it is worth noting that there is a critique of tools in the Scriptures, to the most complex of machines or computer systems, (or their humanoid equivalent, bureaucracies) , Tools intervene creating space between the humankind and the creation. So too, money and where force of circumstance, say people being cleared from the land on which they might grow food, creates separation, money readily fills the gap, and with it an impersonalisation. The Price is the Price. It is you might say radically disinterested, for it is oblivious to your need or your ability to pay the price.

it is also alienating for it disconnects you from your labour. Your work in a money economy becomes something separate from you, in that you might sell it, in effect give it away or perhaps even more truthfully give yourself away, for money.
This point perhaps needs a slight qualification, that it assumes a degree of choice on the part of the one who so offers their labour. If one has no choice because the circumstances of the money economy demand you need money to eat, then of course the association of the person and their work becomes tighter, or better, more apparent – ‘Wage slavery’

Money only has any import where Koinonia is unknown. In the realm of shared life, a shared economy in the sense of ‘The Way of the House’, our lives are bound together in mutual provision and reception – Life in its fulness we may perhaps say

which is why, Jesus ‘in whom al things hold together’, apart from whom we cannot know what it is to be human or to be part of the Creation notoriously wouldn’t touch it, a fact lost on man of Money’s disciples. ‘You cannot serve . . .’ note again that theme of serving which is intimately associate with worship. Jesus wouldn’t touch Money – he touched people.

Well there is a lot more we might say about money – about how it denies human difference – it is no respecter of persons. If your labour can be exchanged for the same amount of money as that person’s labour, then you are reduced to identical units of Economic production . . . in this regard, to take perhaps a slightly contentious note it is worth considering the question of ‘Equality’ That men and women should be paid the same for the same work is in a sense utterly inarguable – yet note what has happened. Any note of difference has disappeared – Male/Female distinctions are irrelevant to The Economy – which may be perhaps why more and more people start talking about Gender as if in reality it doesn’t exist?? But also note that That way of looking at equality, A) Serves Money – it takes Money as the God which must determine our worth, and B) has taken both men and Women away from the oikos, the Home, which used to be a place of shared existence and labour. It is no longer just the prodigal Son who has demanded his right to leave home, he has been joined by his sister, and both are equally liberated to eat the scraps which feed the pigs . . .

The Motor Car
I have already alluded to the way in which Wendell Berry saw the arrival of the motor car into Rural community. Now all of a sudden ‘you could go where you liked’ Or so the story goes. A few years ago I had a peculiar sensation sat in what is now ‘Copper’ by the mAori Hill roundabout. The strangest thought went through my head – as hundreds of cars wen through the interchange over a period of an hour, every single one went down one of three routes off the roundabout – with a car you cannot go where you want to go, you can only go where someone else has built a road . . .

now this rather odd thought I think illustrates something which I should perhaps have touched on last time, that is the demonic myth of ‘economic independence’ – the sense that we are ‘Kings and Queens of all we survey’. This I suggest is a double blind. Firstly as the example of the roads illustrate we do not have absolute freedom of choice – rather we are corralled into ways of being in the world – which may well explain to a level why there is so much dissatisfaction and mental illness – we are supposed to ‘have it all’ yet if this is IT?? IT doesn’t seem worth the candle, so to speak 🙂

But secondly  – our (mythical) independence comes at a huge cost to so many others. As people use their cars to go where they want, from of association based on Shared life collapsed. People no longer constrained to ‘make their own entertainment amongst themselves’ are now drawn away to the movies – a largely passive experience which next to no shared content. How infrequently for example will a crowd at the cinema even stand to applaud? (Or sing the National anthem 🙂 ) Those who had no cars were left behind – and note how ‘public transport’ is always for the poor . . . those who cannot afford to participate in The Economy.

But also that our ‘independence’ comes at a huge cost to others, the people who live by the Aluminum smelter, the ludicrous energy costs of producing Aluminium, the rivers and air polluted by the oil products that coat and fuel the car, the people cleared off land that was theirs for generations by corporations ‘for the Common Good . . .’ by common laws, as St Thomas More told us last week.

The biggest cause of pedestrian deaths . . . the motor car
The creation of a space which is all may own – away from the world, as cars are made ever more quiet – more and more disengagement. You don’t even have to shovel coal into the boiler . . . This is a good illustration of how technologies shape the way in which we encounter the world and this how we begin to ‘see’ the world, and finally how we begin to create the world. So now we have our own personalised musical experience brought to us, at a price, by Spotify . . .

The Light bulb –

There is lovely story I believe to be true, told about the introduction of electric light – something I doubt many if any of us remember. In the late 1950’s the electric supply companies finally reached the remote upper Yorkshire Dales. Up there on the moors, not far from Bronte Country in the Pennines, there are a number of very remote dwellings, in which lived an old country woman, all alone, tending her few animals.

A few months after the installation of the supply and the obligatory electric lights, she was visited by someone sent to read her meter – who noted she had used but a couple of units. Somewhat puzzled he asked if she had been using her new lights, ‘Oh yes’ she replied,’ I find them most useful. Now when it gets dark I can switch a light on for a couple of moments which makes finding my matches much more easy!’ 🙂

Well this amusing tale of course features someone who isn’t against technology per se, but only in so far as it makes a meaningful difference to her existence. A solitary Amish we might say 🙂

Recently on retreat I studied and slept in a cabin which had no electric light – I relied on candles at night and I can tell you, you need a lot of tea lights to provide enough light to read by! The Electric light bulb radically altered human existence and more, human consciousness. Before that there were candles which were limited in their capacity to provide light, and which thereby provided a rhythm to the day – there were times for labour and study, and times for other activities which it might be said better engaged aspects of our being not accessed in the full glare of the sun – for example prayer and contemplation. [Jesus had a habit of rising to pray whilst it was yet dark – we take this to mean that ‘he had a busy day ahead of him, yet might it rather be that the dark is more conducive to prayer??]

If your evenings are perhaps given to knitting or quiet contemplation, then electric light isn’t of significnace. But if as we have repeatedly said, you do not have an account of human existing, a defining story, and a shared story at that, then of course technologies lead us into paths which perhaps may well not be to our benefit. Certainly if this old lady were typical then electrical supply would not be the big business it is today!

And again we come upon the theme of Alienation – in a sense the heart of ‘The Fall’ – Cutting us off from the Creation. Let us consider shift work, for example, Now it is not the Church unceasing as the world turns which rests not day nor night, it is the economic machine, with only deleterious effects on the people who work through the night. Various studies about such massive disruption to our inbuilt rhythms only show negative outcomes for health and well being. On the one hand this is good news though, of it shows that actually the human IS limited, IS at some level a creature of Creation, given to Evening and morning, but at what cost?

The Clock

One lament which may go up in response to these talks is, ‘well you cannot turn the clock back’ One understanding of our existence which the clock brings with it is an implication that Time is somehow going somewhere – the myth of human progress. Yet it is a myth which ironically misses out ‘the Human’ – for let us suggest for a moment that there was a catastrophic collapse in the water supply system? We would surely find the clock going back very rapidly indeed. As one of my former mentors would put it – you think human beings are civislied and advanced beyond ‘cave men’? Cut of the water supply and in three days people will be killing one another for a bottle of water’ [Another example of the madness of ‘The Economy’]

As we started this survey regarding the modern World, I made it clear that it was changes in the Church which triggered this – and so to with regard to time and its accurate measurement. As the disconnection of Rome from the East, of the Sacramental Unity of bread and Wine with the body and blood of Christ was ruptured, so too everything was broken into smaller and smaller divisions, and along with that there was a growing development of Law, of imposing the will upon nature and our fellow man which had a direct impact on the church.
Clocks after all are incredibly useful for getting monks out of bread for their prayers. How can you ‘Regulate’ (lay down the law about) prayer ‘better’, but by the clock . . . yet this technology itself had a deleterious effect on the wider world, most especially under the press of the Industrial revolution, for in the Machine, Time found a perfect partner in the business of dehumanisation. The measurement of time became one of the prime ways of determining the value of work.

In the early days, where workers had been used to producing a set number of units in a day. the introduction of the clock had a beneficial effect -[Kallenberg] for having speeded up their work and produced the daily units, the workers went off to fish or read, or generally recreate 🙂 But factory managers thought this a travesty! So work came by the hour, so workers then completed their work and then idled in the factories until home time – so then of course the number of units required was increased – more bricks, and this time without straw . . . The mechanisation of labour led increasingly to the mechanisation of the person as labour was increasingly measured and determined by the clock.

And of course the clock, as with the light bulb further disconnected the human form the Creation – for after all, as with money where a dollar is a dollar is a dollar, so too the clock, an hour is an hour be it first thing in the morning, or indeed he middle of the light.

Nothing has turned us more into machines than the clock – until now –

Cell (smart) phones
Every other form of technology we have considered has come in relatively slowly, yet from out of nowhere, Cell phones are almost universally present. We cannot be with other people and not either have our conversation interrupted, or indeed largely ignore each other because of the cell phone – which is now, only a little over a decade a reality, a ubiquity.

Just the other day I walked down George Street and out of interest checked out smart phone use – between 35 and 40 percent of the people I counted were visibly carrying smart phones

And they are changing the way we relate to one another at an extraordinary rate. It is not uncommon for me for example to receive a text containing information which should be relayed face to face, for example – but it is affecting us bodily – we all now know that a human being looks like this {cell phone pose} and several years ago now I was informed by one of our local undertakers that people’s bodies had a new crease, under the chin. So our post mortem appearance tells a story. A story which is true of all technologies from the simplest tools to the most complex devices – that we at some level become one with the device – we lose our sense of otherness with regard to it. So a master craftsman whilst attending to the care of his tools, will in the act of crafting something lose conscious perception of the tool, rather knowing his material in and through a fusion of himself with the tool, so too we become unaware of our fusing with our smart phones. How many of us for example have food ourselves looking at the screen without consciously thinking ‘I ought to get out my phone’? And its highly impersonal way of communicating becomes our way of communicating. Words are the least personal form of communicating, arising as they do in the Left hemisphere of our brains, the one which deals in abstractions. As a word is not the thing to which is refers but our reaching towards the thing, perhaps with regard to having power over ‘it’, so text cannot convey a person.

What we know of language and its development is that the more complex a spoken language, the more abstract and disconnected from the reality of our existence it becomes. Our deep dependence on the technology of language reveals in a sense our deep discomfort with one another. In Truth it is only those who sit in companionable silence without the need to speak who might be said to be approaching an understanding of one another.

This is revealed in neurological research. Our for want of a better word, and it is a poor word, ‘primitive’ brain structures, are those best attuned to the presence of another, even to the point of recognising the presence of someone without seeing hearing or touching them. The natural response to the presence of another, measurable by electrical means, diminishes by 70% in response to the voice of another apart from their physical presence. It disappears completely if all we ‘see’ is text. (hence it is pure conceit to say that you can Know another person through their writing, for all you have access to is an abstraction.)

Of course earlier generations knew this well. The use of the word ‘know’ for sexual relations was not a euphemism. it pointed to the depth of engagement. Something which has disappeared in our word obsessed culture as ‘sex’ becomes pure ‘thing’ in a world of things – made entirely explicit as is we could ‘see it all’ we are blind to one another and to true Knowledge. As we are aware this is happening around us all the time in so many ways. The shift to a smart phone existence has already led to dramatic losses in empathy, the ability to truly acknowledge that which is not you – and of course a corresponding increase in narcissism. The Objectification of others in their words and in pictures of them has radically depersonned us

What is more the cell phone is so ubiquitous that we can see the rapid change in people’s lives as the lat few places globally out of their reach is conquered. So a friend who ministers in The Solomon Islands is watching with horror as people’s lives change overnight with the adoption of cel phones – he is watching deep attentiveness disappearing as people become fixated on screens, he is seeing how the Community collapses and ‘private space takes over’ as for example pornography, previously unknown becomes a Live issue out of nowhere as people can access it with their phones . . .

Also education – and the Apple approved school – despite a) no account of what a human is b) no account of what ‘education’ is or is for, based of course on no account of what a human being is as they take over and transform education from a form of apprenticeship and learning, to an accumulation of facts, as if people came themselves with ‘pre-installed’ software which enabled them to choose – of course they are also being educated in reading texts for ‘sterotypes and gender issues . . .

The Luddites
Something deeper, not picked up in any accounts but I think a human/Christian perspective – we become like that which we serve – or worship . . . Jesus directs us to the service of God and our fellow, that we might grow more and more into HIs Likeness through mutual love and praise – machines call for our service, worship either enforced or freely given. Is it not possible that somewhere deep in the heart of the Luddites was the apprehension that the technological age was an inappropriate arena of service for the human?

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