Sunday, February 06, 2011

Meeting the rule of technology with a deliberate and regular counter-practice

In a previous post, I offered extensive reflections on Albert Borgmann's book Power Failure. In this second blog post, I outline some of his proposals for meeting the rule of technology with a deliberate and regular counter-practice.

The most important thing to realize about Borgmann's proposal in Power Failure is that it arises out of some philosophical categories he develops in an earlier book, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life. In that book, he especially offers the "device paradigm," essentially the notion that technological devices so impugn on our daily lives that we cannot even fully discern their influence. This has become an incredibly influential philosophical way of thinking about technology--see, for example, an article just this Sunday in the New York Times.

Borgmann's counter-proposal to the device paradigm is to restore "focal things and practices" to daily life. He believes the device paradigm is "inhospitable to grace and sacrament" (126), and only practices that counter it can help. For example, a focal thing might be a guitar in your house. You may spend more time listening to the stereo (a device) but you could play the guitar instead. The focal thing (a guitar) would have a restorative effect, and the practicing of it would be a clear and deliberate counter-practice.

Similarly, if your family is in the habit of sitting on the computer in the evening rather than interacting one-on-one, consider reading poetry together.

And the most central focal practice Borgmann encourages is eating at table together. If Christians believe in the Eucharist being central to the life of faith, then they ought to practice little tables on a daily basis of fellowship and meal preparation. "If the sacrament of the Eucharist is not reenacted in the sacramental (the sacrament's little sibling) of the dinner table, the Breaking of the Bread has a precarious place in contemporary culture" (128).

I might add that from my own perspective, it is the loss of the sacramental and the centrality of the sacraments that is one of the largest concerns I have as a pastor and Christian. If the sacraments are what they are, they should inform our entire imagination and daily practices. That they often do not is a tragedy. Similarly, the public reading of Scripture ought to be echoed by the "little sibling" of public and private out-loud reading of books and poetry, because such practices help prepare space for our hearts and minds to receive the public reading of Scripture in public worship.

I conclude this post with an extensive quotation from his book. I found his description compelling and worth quoting in full. I hope you find it helpful.

Our morally crucial circumstances are the exact mirror image of those that made for martyrs. Where theirs were overt, ours are concealed; where theirs were mortal to their bodies, ours are lethal to the soul; and where theirs tore them out of their normal life. ours channel our lives within the unquestioned banks of the technological culture: You come home from work, frazzled and spent. You walk into the kitchen and are not surprised that the children have left already and your spouse is not yet home. You find yourself walking the refrigerator; you take what you like most and put it in the microwave. You stare at the paper on the kitchen table; it's Wednesday, your favorite TV show is on, followed by a game of the home team. Your pulse quickens a little. The show is good, your spouse comes home, you exchange a few words, the game is boring, you move to the den to do an overdue memo on the computer. But first you check your e-mail, the latest news, you happen on the ESPN web site. They offer you a video game, you play it for a while, your spouse is going to bed. You decide to call it a day.

Has this been an un-Christian evening? You have not coveted your neighbor's spouse, you have not stolen anything, you have not ordered anyone around. What you have done seems unexceptional. There were moments of a pleasant sort of freedom when you were able to eat what you liked at the time you liked, while watching the program you liked... This sort of retreat to a cocoon of autonomy has been spreading enormously in the last generation... yet a life without grace and gratitude is un-Christian, not in this failing or that, but from the ground up. 

Amazingly, the world of personal engagements and engaging things is still right around us, as a close possibility if not as an actual practice. Here on the shelf is the poetry we could read to one another, there in the corner are the flute and the guitar we could play together. Right next to the kitchen is the dining-room table we could gather around. And not far from our home are the playing fields where we could teach our daughter tennis or join a softball league with our beloved. There is the museum where local painters are showing their work and the concert hall where the citizens' symphony plays. 

These are the places where patience is tried and generosity rewarded, where disappointments can't be escaped and grace descends in what Virginia Woolf calls moments of being. Those places are the precincts of faith where redemption comes into view again as the perfection the world cries out for.

To social critics the devotion to focal things at home and to communal celebrations abroad may seem like pretty weak tea, bland and retrograde goals, better perhaps than consumption at home and shopping in public, but not exactly the stuff of bold designs and revolutionary politics... and yet, all we would have to do to become 'courageous' again is cross the threshold from the TV den to the dining room or from the home to realm of communal celebrations... the decision to cross the thresholds must be made again and must be made daily. Steadiness in crossing them can come only from an arduously acquired and faithfully maintained habit... fortitude [in crossing this threshold] needs to become the defining virtue of the post-modern era.

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