Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Approaches to Technology

Ode to Things - Pablo Neruda

I have a crazy,
crazy love of things.
I like pliers,
and scissors.
I love
and bowls –
not to speak, of course,
of hats.

I love all things,
not just the grandest,
also the infinite-
small –
and flower vases.

Oh yes,
the planet
is sublime!
It’s full of
through tobacco smoke,
and keys
and salt shakers –
I mean,
that is made
by the hand of man, every little thing:
shapely shoes,
and fabric,
and each new
bloodless birth
of gold,
carpenter’s nails,
clocks, compasses,
coins, and the so-soft
softness of chairs.

Mankind has
oh so many
Built them of wool
and of wood,
of glass and
of rope:
ships, and stairways.

I love
not because they are
or sweet-smelling
but because,
I don’t know,
this ocean is yours,
and mine:
these buttons
and wheels
and little
fans upon
whose feathers
love has scattered
its blossoms,
glasses, knives and
scissors –
all bear
the trace
of someone’s fingers
on their handle or surface,
the trace of a distant hand
in the depths of forgetfulness.

I pause in houses,
streets and
touching things,
identifying objects
that I secretly covet:
this one because it rings,
that one because
it’s as soft
as the softness of a woman’s hip,
that one there for its deep-sea color,
and that one for its velvet feel.

O irrevocable
of things:
no one can say
that I loved
or the plants of the jungle and the field,
that I loved
those things that leap and climb, desire, and survive.
It’s not true:
many things conspired
to tell me the whole story.
Not only did they touch me,
or my hand touched them:
they were
so close
that they were a part
of my being,
they were so alive with me
that they lived half my life
and will die half my death.


The next two units in the independent study are an engagement with questions concerning humanity and technology. The question "What does it mean to be human in a technologically-driven age?" is an important one for us now more than ever with our reliance on computers. However, humanity has always relied on its creations, its tools for example, to achieve what would not be possible otherwise. A variety of thinkers have dealt with the question of technology, including the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. In the above poem, Neruda suggests that humanity is intimately intertwined with the things that humanity has made. He seems to emphasize things that are hand-made and made out of organic materials - cloth, glass, and wood for example. Although I wonder whether Neruda would have the same love for factory-made "things," his approach is one example of thinking that says that, to some extent, technology is essential to understanding modern human being and becoming.

There are other approaches to technology, however.

Barry Lyndon - Stanley Kubrick (1975)

Anecdote of the Jar by Wallace Stevens.

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.


As Philip Hefner sees it, Stevens' poem represents the other pole in approaches to technology: extreme skepticism. The jar is out of place in nature (as is the coin in the still from Barry Lyndon). Hefner interprets the poem:

"As a symbol of humans - of us - in our process of becoming, the jar says something about our spirituality. In fact, it places us before a fork in the road, a choice that will determine how our spiritual journey proceeds. If we affirm technology, which the jar symbolizes, then we believe that our spiritual task, our religious calling, is to dominate and manipulate the natural world around us. The poet interprets this as perversity; he believes that our spiritual calling is to destroy the technology and support nature."1

In Neruda's poem, certain kinds of technology are internal to understanding what it means to be human. In Stevens' poem, technology is an external and potentially harmful thing. Hefner lays out a process of becoming reconciled with our technologized world and self from a beginning approach of feeling alienated. The end point is embracing the techno-self. Thus, Hefner acknowledges a variety of moderate approaches to technology as well, though these are intermediate stages in the movement towards reconciliation. My response to Hefner is that a healthy dose of skepticism towards technology can be helpful in discovering what it means to be human. Although I think it's naive to think that we are called to destroy technology as a way of getting back to nature, I am convinced that there is something essentially human that can be found in unplugging and escaping into the wilderness for periods of time.

I am concerned when Hefner says, "Many of us are now so intimately connected to our computers that our creativity - whether it is writing or graphic art, or interpersonal communication, mathematical modeling, or other research procedures - is integrated with the machine, and the computer scarcely qualifies as an entity that exists "outside" our spirits."2. I am scared of the idea that creativity is somehow dependent upon computers. Certainly different technologies are helpful in expressing human creativity; that does not mean that we equate creativity with those technologies. A certain amount of caution is helpful so that we CAN once in a while separate ourselves from our machines.

Therefore, I understand by the phrasing of the question, "How should we relate to our technologies?" that I am taking a side on the issue. I am in a sense suggesting that our technologies are indeed somewhat external to what it means to be human, even as I admit that they are extremely helpful tools for accomplishing what humans want to accomplish. I agree with Hefner that technology is essential to modern and future human becomings. However, it is not the only factor. Hopefully, humans do not lose their yearning for wilderness adventure, face-to-face human interaction, and other unplugged experiences.

I would guess that some of the sci-fi films I watch in the course of this study will also express a level of ambiguity towards technology. This is not a black and white issue. It is, rather, an integral discussion that is and will be on-going for humanity.

1Philip Hefner, Technology and Human Becoming (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), p. 7.
2Ibid., pp. 21-22.


  1. You write "I am scared that our creativity is somehow dependent on our computers." Can you say more about precisely what scares you? When I read that, I couldn't help thinking about how my creativity is so often dependent on whether or not I'm hungry, or tired, or am feeling cold. All of which are states of being that, in our highly interdependent intrastructure, are dependent on technology. But I think you're getting at something else? So.. a little more clarity...?

  2. Thanks for the nudge Mary. I think what scares me is the idea that because of my reliance on computers, I would need to go on a computer to be creative; that my creativity would somehow be so intricately tied to a computer that if I was asked to be creative off of a computer, I would hardly know where to begin.

    I have a couple of different images that might help. One is of a person who connects into a computer with wires. Before the connection is established, the person is a sad, empty, lifeless sack of potatoes. After the person becomes plugged into the computer, the person is suddenly vibrantly creative! The creativity comes from the computer, not the person.

    Another image I have sometimes is the reverse: of a person who is vibrantly creative but is forced to plug in to a computer by the Man to do work because that is the only work that is worth anything to the Man. The computer then sucks the creativity out of the person, who becomes a sad sack of potatoes for the person's non-computer related activities. Once in a while after a long day on the computer, I feel this way.

    I don't want to be either of these persons! Of course, these are exaggerations, but this is the fear. I DO feel in many ways that I am forced to be creative online by education, friends, etc. I even choose it sometimes (ie: this blog) because of the possibilities being online offers. For example, I cannot so easily blend videos, art, and writing apart from computers.

    Computers are an important tool, but the fear is that they have power over us in some way: that they control our creativity.

    And I don't want to live my life on a computer. I've found it exhilarating to be almost completely separated from computers during the week out at camp in Montana five out of the last six summers.

    Does this help clarify a little?

  3. Slight addition to the "computers are an important tool" paragraph/sentence. The fear is that they have power over us in some way: that they control our creativity or the they SAP it from us so that we are unable to be creative outside of a computer.

  4. I'm intrigued by your two concrete examples. In the first one, it seems like the computer helps to give the person "voice" -- I wonder if the plugging in, is plugging into community of some sort? And the second is a clear example of oppression (the "Man") suppressing creativity. But either of those things - -being isolated or depressed, and being oppressed, can come regardless of the computer or not. In other words, I think you're granting agency to technology in ways that I'm not sure it has agency? I DO agree that various media offer us constraints to our creativity -- but then again, many artists point out that constraint is an essential element of creativity!

  5. Regarding Hefner’s poem, where should we draw the line on what is or is not technology? Where is the line of too much technology? Should the line be at: atomic energy, the iPhone, automobiles, disease-resistant wheat, penicillin, the boat, pottery, cooking with fire, the plow, the lever, or the inclined plane?
    You write: “I am in a sense suggesting that our technologies are indeed somewhat external to what it means to be human, even as I admit that they are extremely helpful tools for accomplishing what humans want to accomplish.” I don’t agree. I see humans as tool makers, technologists. Since the birth of civilizations, humans have used tools (which are technology in my mind) to shape their environments. Be it ancient aqueducts to modern homes with copper pipe tied to municipal water systems, our civilizations are based on tools. Even to go camping for a weekend relies on technologies for clothing, fabric, safe-food preparation, and clean water mechanisms.
    Would it be more helpful to frame this not as which technologies are essentially good or bad but rather, how shall humans ethically use and engage technologies?
    Certainly there has been significant debate about technologies for millenia as well and societies, religious communities, families, and individuals make decisions about which technologies to use or not use.
    As a 21st Century person, you encounter the need to make these types of decisions, so how do you do it? On what criteria do you accept or reject a technology?

  6. Thank you for this stimulating discussion Mary and Ryan! I think I agree Mary that I am giving technology agency it doesn't have in some sense - but this is the exaggeration that comes with the fear. It is expressed in popular culture in sci-fi films that have horror elements in them - films like Videodrome which I will talk about in an upcoming post.

    I don't really have this fear in how I operate in my daily life - I use the computer and other technologies without hesitation as tools that help me live the kind of life I want to live (I also would have a hard time being a grad student without them). However, when it comes to thinking philosophically about technology, I still don't want to equate humanity with its technology.

    I agree with you Ryan that humans are tool makers and technologists, but this is not all they are. There are relational definitions for humans as mothers, brothers, lovers, and friends that do not inherently assume technology in the enacting of these roles, correct? Does technology have to be included or assumed in a definition of what it means to be human? Am I naive to ask this question in our modern technologized context?

    Certainly this is not a question of whether technology is good or bad - too simple of a dichotomy. I would probably argue that it's not a question of accepting or rejecting technologies on the basis of whether they are good or bad either. Perhaps one answer to your question of criteria for accepting or rejecting a technology could be whether or not the technology more efficiently (or imaginatively) allows a person to perform a task the person sees as necessary for helping that person be who they want to be (or do what they want to do). Another criterion for use could be that the technology does not have negative side effects on the user or others involved. Making decisions would be a matter of weighing pros and cons based on any number of categories: spiritual, social, ethical, vocational, practical, etc. I admit that this approach seems largely consequentialist, based on ends. Is there another approach I'm missing altogether?

    The ethical question that is an extension of what you're asking Ryan is how do we use our technology? What constitutes a positive or negative misuse of the computer for example? Once we decide that a technology is useful, how do we use it?

    The fears I've mentioned above have to do with feeling a lack of autonomy. It seems like this is exactly the opposite of what our technologies normally intend in giving us options for the performing of tasks. Technologies become more prolific and widespread as they demonstrate imaginative possibilities that did not seem possible before. However, technologies can also tap into the worst of what it means to be human and aid those sinful possibilities as well. When we are affected by or get wrapped up in technology that realizes sinful possibilities, we sometimes fear the technology itself. We can feel a loss of autonomy in confronting technologies that have been used in this way (perhaps especially when we are the ones who have misused them!)