Saturday, February 05, 2011

Wait, I have to update my status

I feel some guilt over what I will admit here. I hope I am not alone in feeling thus cursed, and hope also that this mini-review can function as a sort of exorcism and restorative cure. I am not unaware of the irony of blogging about it.

Okay, so, it happens at least a few times a day that I think to myself, "I really need to put [fill in the blank] as my status update on Facebook," [fill in the blank] being an event that just happened, something someone just said, a profound or not so profound thought that entered my mind, etc. Sometimes the need to post [fill in the blank] verges on a compulsion. Where's the computer? Can I type this in on my mobile quick at the end of the movie? What if I forget it before I can type it in?!

I have to remind myself that two years ago I wasn't even on Facebook, and status updates simply weren't on my radar. Now, as I have been reading Albert Borgmann's stunning slim little volume on Christianity and the culture of technology, Power Failure, I feel like I am being offered better language for how to think about these compulsions and the culture of technology I'm clearly under the sway of.

Borgmann argues that technology has the tendency "to dissolve the depth of a genuinely public and celebratory life into a sophisticated machinery that yields an easily and safely consumable commodity" (45). That's exactly what a status update is! It makes use of sophisticated machinery to easily and safely commodify our daily experiences. To be even a bit more clear, you as a reader of my status update don't have to undergo the full details of how I came to the point of having such a thought. You don't have to be with me throughout the day. You can simply read a small little snippet of information or whatever from Clint Schnekloth, and then move on to reading another small snippet from somebody else.

This is what I, and 500 million other users, like about Facebook. It lets us browse each others' lives.

Borgman's book is helpful because it is written not "to demolish technology nor run away from it," but to "restrain it and redeem it" (8). That seems about right. I just don't think I'm going to get rid of my blog or stop using Facebook, but I do need to engage in practices that restrain my use, and redeem both for faithful purposes.

Here is a good summary of the purpose of Borgman's book:

'Philosophy of technology' is, I believe, an appropriate title and directive for a crucial part of [the cooperative ventures in the critique of contemporary culture]. 'Technology' properly directs us to those concrete quotidian structures in which we act out our hopes and frustrations both inconspicuously and decisively. This level of contemporary existence is too often overlooked; and as long as it is, we will have a distorted or incomplete view of the character of today's common order.
Borgmann believes that although scientific discourse has strong claims on our assent, and political discourse on our attention, less than adequate attention is given to the technological, and especially the weakening of our common faith as a corollary of the rise of technology. Although this is almost everywhere and always overlooked, it is nevertheless true: "The factor that most decisively channels the daily course of life is not moral theory but material culture" (24). What does this mean? Well, Borgmann offers an excellent concrete example: "Just as the skill of reading animal tracks will not flourish in a metropolitan setting, so calls for the virtues of courage and care will remain inconsequential in a material culture designed to procure a comfortable and individualist life" (34).

Excursus on funding of public sites for communal celebration: One of the most puzzling arguments Borgmann makes in the book is for the public funding of communal celebrations. As far as I can tell, by this he means something like the NEA, but with an openness for an organization like the NEA to fund religious communal celebrations as well, as long as they are completely open to all participants. He believes this is important because it is the best way to address the problem introduced by the rise of technology of an over-development of the distinction between public and private. He does not want public funding to completely replace funding of communal celebrations by voluntary means, but to augment it in order to keep communal celebrations in a technologized era from being marginalized. It is a communitarian proposal, of which his favorite example is the kind of inter-religious worship on offer at St. John the Divine in New York. This is one of those suggestions you read in a book that is so important to the author, but so ek-centric to the reader, that I need to hold off on commenting until I've pondered it for a while. I will say, however, just as a starting point, that I find St. John's tag line inspiring, "A house of prayer for all people." 

And now we return to our regularly scheduled programming. Borgmann, in the second half of his book, calls for a graceful and indirect approach to bringing Christianity into conversation with contemporary culture. He seems to think (and I tend to agree) that the frontal assault on the culture has been tried and found wanting. The mission statement of many in the Christian world seems to be, "Engage the culture and change it!" Borgmann believes something less direct and more reflective is called for, "examining and readying the conditions for the reception of grace" (67). Although I don't know whether Borgmann would agree with me, I tend to think this sounds a lot like the "passive righteousness" that is central to much of Lutheran theology.

Borgmann offers in the first chapter of this section a reply to scientists who do not believe in contingency--trust in contingency being, for Borgmann, an important part of readying the conditions for the reception of grace. He offers some reflections on how grace can be habitual in order to be prepared for the reception of actual grace. I found this section intriguing, even if I might articulate particulars of it differently.

In the next chapter, he discusses the Christian as those empowered by Christ to exercise his care-ful (rather than regard-less) power in the world. For reason's he believes integral to his argument, he decides to write the chapter in ways that are "obscure and ambiguous" (91). I experienced the chapter as such, and so have difficulty summarizing it here. However, one sentence in the chapter was very clear and worth quoting:

Technology ought to be revoked as the dominant way of taking up with the world and relegated to securing the margins and underpinnings of our lives. Within that environment we must make a clearing for the celebration of the Word of God. But since technology as a way of life is so pervasive, so well entrenched, and so concealed in its quotidianity, Christians must meet the rule of technology with a deliberate and regular counterpractice.
I agree. It is simply the "how" that seems so elusive. The remainder of his book is devoted to describing the counter-practices (the how). I will offer commentary on these counter-practices in a post tomorrow.

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