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My Signature Contribution to the Conversation
The author comes close to swearing by certain classic critiques of technology as relevant today. But all he has read is missing something important: and he tries to provide that something.
Introduction to this work
My own signature contribution to the conversation has been to look at classic critiques of e.g. television and phones, and be grounded in history and Orthodox Christian ascesis, and offer not only critiques but strategies and solutions for our troubled technological times.
This only amounts to 20% of my best writing (for a broader collection, see The Best of Jonathan’s Corner). However, if I contribute anything lasting to the conversation, it is probably in that 20%.
I invite you to read this as a roadmap before exploring some of my other writing.
A history teacher as a broken record…
“Every major historical event has political, economic, and psycho-social factors.”
One roommate, a military history student, commented that military historians tend to be the most balanced. The reason he gave is that military historians represent a minority camp, and furthermore one that many people believe glorifies war, and they really can’t afford to be chauvinists who present their specialty as the one that matters most or even the only one that matters. My high school history teacher kept saying, like a broken record, “Every major historical event has political, economic, and psycho-social factors,” and my suspicion is that if I were to remember that single sentence and nothing else he taught, he would chalk it up to victory. And Dr. Victory was a veteran and a military historian; he was not shy of complaining of the phenomenon (for instance) in the far too gory Iran-Iraq war as 20th century military technology combined with 12th or 13th century tactics, which is a recipe for far higher casualties on both sides than fighting where the weapons and tactics are in sync with each other. However, in fact the bulk of his teaching of history was not military in nature.
…unlike certain critiques of technology…
Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business
Jerry Mander, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television
Marie Winn, The Plug-in Drug: Technology, Computers, and Family Life
Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains
Nicholas Carr, The Glass Cage: How Our Computers are Changing Us
Jean-Claude Larchet, The New Media Epidemic: The Undermining of Society, Family, and our Own Soul
Jerry Mander, in what is probably the most book-like and least journalistic of the titles, shows an openness to considering psycho-social factors. That book notwithstanding, critiques of technology do treat a historical dimension to some degree, but the history is always one-sided: they explore technology’s effects on us and the effects of differences in technology over time, but not one that I have read treats even one historical development as having political, economic, and psycho-social factors.
Possibly there are good reasons for this. Among computer programmers there is a maxim, “The design is complete, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away.” Simplicity can be a virtue, and Nicholas Carr’s popular, journalistic writing would almost necessarily be much longer and much less accessible if it were to give balanced coverage of historical developments as having political, economic, and psycho-social factors. Nonetheless, the strong one-dimensionality of the treatments of history remind me of an historical theologian’s complaint that when systematic theologians read treatments of an historical figure, they almost inevitably read systematic theologians’ treatments, not historical theologians.
My own A Pack of Cigarettes for the Mind has, perhaps, one more dimension than the books treated above. Like them, it analyzes a problem. Unlike them, it deals with strategies and solutions. Furthermore, these strategies and solutions are grounded in the live mystical theology and ascesis of the Orthodox Church.
When I was at Fordham, I switched from historical theology to systematic theology (“the kind of theology we don’t have,” one priest said; a fellow student said I had “gone over to the dark side”), because between the orientation of historians and the problem-solving orientation of systematic theologians, I wanted a historically grounded problem-solving interest. Though neither historical nor systematic theology subdisciplines conceived of that as a goal, under Fordham’s division of labor that interest fell under systematic theology. I did not then, and do not now, wish to endow the Orthodox Church with its first systematic theology, and there is fundamental confusion in asking for such. Nonetheless, I intended a systematic theology degree until Fordham happened, and my intended thesis is what is informally written up in “Religion and Science” is not Just Intelligent Design vs. Evolution. The basic interest in historically grounded problem-solving is still my intent, and it motivates my writing in A Pack of Cigarettes for the Mind and other titles.
There is little explicit history in A Pack of Cigarettes for the Mind and other titles, but the problem-solving is grounded in a mystical theology that has been historically sensitized and does not suffer the syndrome of citing as authorities only sources which had been written in the past perhaps thirty years or less, such as I have been taught at other schools. One of my works, Plato: The Allegory of the… Flickering Screen?, is an example of how I occasionally take a given text, and then by modifying a word here and maybe a sentence there, orient the text towards a different reading. It has been called the deepest of “my” choice works, but that I believe is quite directly due to the fact that I was standing on a giant’s shoulders. The two (or three) dimensions in my texts are normally:
Critiques of technology.
Strategies and solutions for how to live a vibrant human life in troubled technological times (or to say the same thing in other words, historically grounded problem solving), and perhaps,
A tacit dimension in a willingness to learn from history and freely draw on old books as well as oral tradition in the Orthodox Church.
It is the moral, economic, and political choices we make, not the machines we use, Mumford argues, that have produced a capitalist industrialized machine-oriented economy, whose imperfect fruits serve the majority so imperfectly.
G.K. Chesterton said, “The reformer is always right about what is wrong. He is generally wrong about what is right.” Or, in this case, more often than not, silent about what is right.
There is precious little in the titles I cited above that speak about how to live a human life in troubled technological times where technology use is socially mandated.
I have a phone, displaying in black and white so as to be less engaging, I do not check my phone compulsively, and I aim for checking email once per day. My strategies and solutions are general limits for abstention in some cases and disciplined moderation in others, and I flesh it out in great detail and give things that have worked in my own life. This is really my signature contribution to the conversation.
Very Cordially Yours,
Questions for discussion
Do you spend too much time on (anti-)social media?
Do you check your phone compulsively?
Have you read any of the previous critiques of technology cited in this article?
How far do you think the valid critique goes?
What do you see as your ideal engagement (and non-engagement) with technology?
How interested would you be in concrete tools and techniques to serve technology less?
Do you see a special value in books as such?