2005-05-25

coffee and writing detour

This does and doesn't fit in the direction I'm going with the cofee and writing posts. Hence the detour title.

Another quote from The Noonday Demon:

"...we live in an era of dazzling, bewildering technologies, and we have no concrete grasp of how most of the things around us work. How does a microwave function? What is a silicon chip? How do you genetically engineer corn? How does my voice travel when I use a cell phone as opposed to a regular phone? Is it real money that a bank machine in Kuwait deducts from my account in New York? One can research any of these particular questions, but to learn the answers to all the small science questions of our lives is an overwhelming task. Even for someone who understands how the motor of a car works and where electricity comes from, the actual mechanics of daily life have become increasingly obscure."
This reminded me of Cool Whip. Why? Because I recently read Power Failure: Christianity In the Culture of Technology. In the initial essay in this collection, Albert Borgmann serves up Cool-Whip as an example of "opaque" technology. He lists the ingredients of Cool Whip...
Water, hydrogenated coconut and palm kernel oils, corn syrup, sugar, sodium caseinate, dextrose, polysorbate 60, natural and artificial flavors, sorbitan monostearate, xanthan gum and guar gum. Artificial color.
this food technology offers to us the convenience of whipped cream without having to procure the cream and the other ingredients and then go to the trouble of whipping the stuff ourselves. This, Borgmann says, is the nature of technology...

"All of these attractive features can be gathered under the notion of availability. … Nearly everything that surrounds a citizen of [advanced industrial society] exhibits the opaque and commodious availability of Cool Whip and rests on a sophisticated and unintelligible machinery."

(The concatenated quote is someting I found cited in this article by Andy Crouch in which he formulates a connection between Borgmann's book and a book by Robert Farrar Capon called The Supper of the Lamb. Supper is something about which I will certainly have something to say in a future post. One could say in fact that this whole coffee and writing series is heading home for supper, after a fashion.)

It isn't that Bormann, or Solomon is anti-technology. Decidedly not. In fact, both admit their dependence on it to do their work. Solomon even implies that his work as a writer would be incomprehensibly difficult apart from certain forms of technology.

The point is that technology's role in the life of our society can be and often is as an inhibitor of connection. In Crouch's article, he says it succintly, "So disburdenment comes at a price, that of 'disengagement.' "

It is disengagement that concerns me, not technology. There are obvious ways in which technology encourages engagment. Take for example, what I am doing right now. One of the reasons I have taken up blogging is the possibility for engagement with people I would never otherwise meet.

Of course, as Solomon and Crouch note, everyday technologies exact a price proportional to their opacity; putting ordinary schmoes in a position of dependence, almost obeisance. I could offer examples of this, but if you regularly deal with any kind of recognized common technologies (like computers), you probably have many of your own. The dizzying array of technologies in suprisingly common places, like our food, exacerbates the consequences of choice. As Solomon writes...

"You are in the realm of uncertainty even when you select your own dinner. This kind of escalation of choices in not convenient, it is dizzying. When similar choices present themselves in every area...the result is a collective uneasiness that explains much, in my view, about the rising rates of dpression in the industrialized world."

Of course, my interst lies less in the area of depression--notwithstanding my own experience of it--than in the idea of connection, in other words, community: how is it cultivated, and sustained, what is its origin (or perhaps I should say Who), and most importantly, what exactly is it? But I'll have more to say on this later--not that you really want to hear it, but I really need to write it down.

My apolgies in advance for future ennervating posts.

Jannotti tag: psyche

2 comments:

Eric said...

OTOH, you could just subscribe to the philosophy embodied in this well-worn quote: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Having thus placed technology into the category of Things Not Meant To Be Understood, you are free of its "burdens." When it's present and it works, fine. When it's absent or it doesn't work, well, that's fine, too.

I really don't know how to relate to people who shutdown mentally or emotionally in the presences of "too many choices" due to technological advances.

Now that I've typed this, I'm not sure that it relates at all to what you've posted, but I really enjoyed the little click-clacking of my keyboard!

Jim said...

"I really don't know how to relate to people who shutdown mentally or emotionally in the presences of "too many choices" due to technological advances."

I don't think I know how to relate to people like that either to tell you the truth, despite the fact that I may be one of them. And I've taken Solomon a bit out of context too, there were many other factors that contributed to his depressive episodes. And in my own case, 'too many technological choices' had no effect that I am aware of.

Your point about choosing to adopt technology that is helpful to us is well taken. This is why I have made a willful choice to not have a cell phone, palm pilot, or any of those other nifty things. At the same time I have a laptop, a wireless card, a tiny digital camera the size of a maglite, etc... I love the idea of technology, I even like the execution of many (but certainly not all) of its more noticeable forms.

I do think Borgmann and Solomon are onto something though, something about a diminished capacity to connect meaningfully with other human beings (I'm generalizing obviously) that is occurring despite (and maybe in some sense because of) the incredible technological advances in recent decades.

"Technology" has become a convenient whipping-boy for this kind of argument, and I admittedly am guilty of using it as such. I don't think it invalidates the observation about community though.

And you're right about another thing: the keyboard does make a lovely sound!