Talking About Technology

I am engaged in a noble battle to convince an esteemed friend/mentor/pastor/boss-type figure that lots of the very brightest people in the Christian world and in the Academy are wrong about technology. I should by the way, just be thankful this guy is willing to listen to me, nevermind support my know-it-allism by buying me books by the likes of Marva Dawn and Albert Borgman.

In Power Failure, Borgman, an acclaimed philosopher who happens to be a Christian, writes a sociology book for a theological readership! It’s a series of essays about how all pervasive technology is far from a neutral presence in our world. It’s a compelling argument that he and Dawn make, and the grand-daddy of Christian thinking today, Eugene Peterson to a lesser extent. Yet as great and fascinating as these ideas are, I can’t help but think they are mis-directed. It’s just you know, I have neither the beard, sandals nor intellect to make a case strong enough to counter them. Instead I’ll just have to resort to rabid generalisations.

Borgman quotes Dorothy Hartley,

A modern woman sees a piece of linen, but the medieval woman saw through it to the flax fields, she smelt the reek of the retting ponds, she felt the hard rasp of the hackling, and she saw the soft sheen of the glossy flax. Man did not just see “leather”, he saw the beast- perhaps one of his own- and knew the effort of slaughtering, liming and curing.

I feel like I have to respond:

The medieval woman saw the plant, but the woman of today sees through it to the genus and the genes and the eco-system and she sees by it the poetry she read by dickinson and Shakespeare and her lover. The man of today sees not just “sand” but he sees silicon and doping and processors and ultimately ekg machines, Roland keyboards, satellite telescopes and he knows the toil of maths and engineering, craft and logistics involved.

I agree that the powers and principalities need to be challenged but I am far from sure that technology is our Omaha beach. In the section I quote above, Borgman through Hartley argues for a time when we knew how things were made and put together. This “technological universe of opaque surfaces” is contrasted with “an older time when things disclosed a deeper world”.

But today, maybe through “tech” maybe through a more complex process, we are more concerned with how things can be put together than how they were put together.

You’d have to convince me that this isn’t an improvement.

In fact, I think they are at base, the same descriptions: every human culture has had technology and every human society has been widely familiar with the workings of its own most relevant technologies. That linen production is now a luxury, not required by the many for daily life is all we learn from our unfamiliarity with its processes. We all know, in broad brushstrokes I grant you, how an internal combustion engine works, what a computer does with 0s and 1s and how a stapler pushes staples into our paper. To imagine that the expert knowledge of growing flax and turning it into a dress of linen was every widely conquered by just one woman is a mythic fantasy. But the presence of widespread understanding of the relevant technology in any given era is, I think, a concrete issue we could hope to demonstrate through history.

The medieval woman might just have worried that the printing press’ opaque surface was a step back from a simpler time when things disclosed a deeper world as Dawn is concerned about the web.

Your Correspondent, he’s not old, God is old.

4 Responses to “Talking About Technology”

  1. Pretentious Neighbour says:

    Hartley’s quote makes me go *huurrrk*. Harking back to some pre-technological age where people were more intimately involved in gutting animals is … well … I don’t know. Unnecessary, for one thing. For example, I doubt that the average noble of that medieval fantasy did much curing: in our modern world, you can think of that ‘nobility’ as a larger subset of humanity. There are still plenty of poor people around who are familiar only with the basic things in life – and I know which group I’d rather belong to.

    Also, I find the breakdown of gender roles amusing. Couldn’t the man have been mending a net, or the woman slaughtering something for dinner? ;o)

    With regards to computers (one of the few things I actually know a thing or two about): when you can see through the slick interface or poorly-implemented programs to the stream of instructions driving that microscopic machine to do things we could only have imagined twenty years ago, it’s breathtaking and weird and profound.

  2. jimlad says:

    Ah, I understand. I believe the correct response to this post is not the above comment, but rather, “Happy Birthday”. I didn’t realise what it was really about until I got to the conclusion.

  3. Amy says:

    I read a very interesting article about the demise of the english language the other day
    & the underlying message was – when we over simplify matters of modernity, we
    risk people not thinking at all about deeper matters of meaning. Technology in itself
    is not the root problem, the fact that we are breeding a generation of non thinkers is.
    Technology can tend to be the enabler… maybe?
    Besides, been to the third world lately, last time I checked there was still much flaxing
    hide curing as ever, where do you think our gucci wallets & 1000 thread count linen
    comes from! ;-p
    Okay I might have missed the point… I’ll stop now.

  4. zoomtard says:

    I see where you’re coming from and totally agree about the 3rd world. Tech is changing how we communicate but there’s nothing new in that. What was the catalyst for ye olde english becoming the english we speak today? Movable type…. maybe?