Welcome to the Convivial Society, a newsletter about technology and culture. Last time around, I offered some thoughts related to the still-unfolding Twitter saga. I also mentioned in passing that I had been working on a piece about the proliferation of AI-generated images. That piece is still forthcoming I’m afraid, but as Thanksgiving approaches here in the United States, I’ve decided to post a brief (and revised) reflection I first published on my old blog four years ago today. I’m certain it will be new to most of you, since only a fraction of you were reading along then (if you’re in that fraction, cheers!).
In the spirit of thanksgiving, thank you for reading and supporting my work. I’m deeply grateful. May this find you all well.
Technology is a critical component of what I like to call the material infrastructure of our moral lives. I’m perhaps overly fond of that line, but I do think it does a decent job of capturing an important reality: we become who we are in relation to our material environment. This is true, in part, because we make our way in the world with a body. With our bodies we think and feel our way through life. Our perception of the world is inextricably bound up with our bodies, and our character is similarly bound up with the habits that write themselves on our bodies. The built environment we daily navigate and the tools we take in hand are drawn into this circuit of moral formation. They enter into the loop of mind, body, and world, shaping and being shaped by each in turn.
Those claims deserve further elaboration and consideration, but I offer them chiefly to get on to another point. What matters about our technology is not only the effect of this or that particular artifact or system. It also matters how the distinctive shape of our material environment conditions us in deep and broad ways, ways that may often be imperceptible precisely because they are not objects of perception but rather shape our perception.
One way of thinking about this is to explore how the total effect of our techno-material milieu positions us vis-á-vis the world. How does our technological milieu encourage us to perceive and relate to the world and those who share it with us? What stance are we encouraged to assume in relation to world?
I am generally convinced by those who, in trying to describe the modern mode of relating to the world, find that it is best characterized as a relation of mastery and control, which is to say a relation of power. Positioned in this way, we are tempted to see the world, including ourselves, as a field of objects to be endlessly manipulated, optimized, and exploited. The world appears to us chiefly as raw material for our own projects. It is there primarily to be used and transformed to serve our purposes.
It would be hard to overestimate how productive this positioning has been by certain measures: it has yielded valuable fruit that we should not lightly discount. But it has not come without costs. The costs are material, social, psychic, and, if we still entertain such notions, spiritual.
What alternative or complement do we have to this stance toward the world that is characterized by a relation of mastery and whose consequences are various degrees of alienation, anxiety, and apprehension?
We have a hint of it in Hannah Arendt’s warning against a “future man,” who is “possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself.” We hear it, too, in Wendell Berry’s poetic reminder: “We live the given life, not the planned.” It is, I would say, a capacity to receive the world as gift, as something given and with an integrity of its own that we do best to honor. It is to refuse a relation of “regardless power,” in Albert Borgmann’s apt phrase, and to entertain the possibility of inhabiting a relation of gratitude, wonder, and care grounded in a fundamental humility. In one way or another, all that I have to say about technology is rooted in this possibility.
Some of these themes are elaborated, with the help of Iris Murdoch and Abraham Heschel, in my recent essay in Comment magazine, “The Virtue of Noticing: Refusing numbness and recovering wonder.” If you’re at all curious about the old blog, when I shut it down I complied a “best of,” which you can download here.
Thanks for this intro; Arendt as always of course and an aspect of Murdoch's thought which I did not know, and the other philosophers.
Just a couple of experiences that might complement the thesis.
One, Microsoft photographs .... I am something of a technophobe and don't know how to get rid of them. Sometimes I am curious about where they are taken, but otherwise they leave me flat. However,microsoft have occasionally been interspersing the photos with 'real paintings'. These instantly jump out and start talking as it were. Spot the difference? smile.
Two, CS Lewis, 'in The Discarded Image' suggests a walk under the stars in order to try to grasp the sensibility of the mediaeval mind informed by their cosmological 'model'. He suggests seeing the 'fixed stars' as a very high ceiling, as in the terrific height of an immense cathedral. I saw them once like that under sky clarified by an earlier storm on a very dark Cretan coast. There were so many of them and they seemed very alert. But... as a child I had had a different experience after dark, lying down rather than standing up in the fields near our house. Suddenly my back was braced against a cliff and I was looking down into an immense depth. I suppose we know this intellectually as the void. Double quick I was on my feet and running for the warmth of the house. Does the latter speak of my early modernity, even though there was no TV back then?