Recently I had the distinct honor of having an essay published with a certain esteemed journal. This particular essay reflected upon the thought of Romano Guardini as it pertains to modernity as espoused in his masterpiece The End of the Modern World. In the comment section, a reader left a series of questions. While I try not to reply to comments on my work, in this instance the commentator in question raised several interesting questions that I have encountered when discussing the issues touched upon in that essay, questions that I have asked myself on many an occasion. I thought it would be perhaps instructive, then, to reply to his questions in this forgotten space. I will take his questions verbatim and offer my rejoinder as succinctly and cogently as I may, which is not to suggest that my responses will be in the least way succinct or cogent.
I should point out that I will proceed henceforth under the assumption that the original essay has been. If not, I urge you to do so, as it is a quick read, and this will make much more sense afterwards.
I. What are we to do, not develop new technology that makes our lives easier and actually extends our lives?
This is a common critique, that we who are skeptical of our increasingly technologically reliant existence are at the same time contra all technology. This is not the case. Certainly, there are a great many technologies that have sprung up in the last 50-, 20-, 10-, or even 5-years that have made life objectively better for countless souls. I am thinking here primarily about modern medical technology and the immeasurable good that has come therefrom. No one is going to suggest, for instance, that the invention of the defibrillator was a net evil.
It is, however, important to distinguish between technologies. Until relatively recently, technology existed for no other reason than to supplement human endeavor. For centuries untold, technology was nothing more than innovations around the farm, e.g., hitching a plow to a mule. Technology was pursued and advanced to aid man in his pursuits, but this was in a time human endeavor was still connected to the natural world. To quote Guardini at length:
“Man’s relations with nature have been altered radically, have become indirect. The old immediateness has been lost, for now his relations are transmitted by mathematics or by instruments. Abstract and formalized, nature has lost all concreteness; having become inorganic and technical, it has lost the quality of real experience.
“As a result man’s experience of his own work has changed. It too has become distant, indirect, abstract, dead. Man can no longer experience the work he does; he can only calculate its possibilities and control its effects from a distance. This condition raises graver problems. Basically man becomes himself, is himself through what he experiences. What can he be, however, if he can no longer involve himself “sensibly” in the work he does? Human responsibility means simply that man must give an account of what he does. Responsibility involves growth, growth from an immature process of executing material acts to a mature process of squaring them with ethical standards. But how can ethical standards be applied to areas of work which have become lost in abstract formulae and distant machines?”[i]
II. Could it be that the technology is not the issue, but man’s loss of faith is the issue?
I have never subscribed to the notion that man loses faith, because I have always believed that inherent to man is the impulse to believe in something. What that something is varies not based on truth, but based on man’s ability to accept the truth, to understand what it is he is seeing when he encounters it. At the bottom of it all, however, every man and woman is made to believe. Saint Augustine gets it perfectly right when he writes to begin his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” Just as a man needs food, water, and shelter for survival, so too does he need belief.
There is more to it than that, though. Every man needs belief, so why doesn’t every man believe in the One True God? There is a lot to this particular answer. Man has the free will to believe whatever he chooses. Man is also a fallen thing, and is therefore intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally fragile. As such, he may choose not to believe in the One who has given him his desire for belief out of fear; out of fear that if the One is real, then what He says may also be authoritative, and if it is – even just in part – it will require radical changes in his life, sacrifice even. It may also force an encounter with himself that goes something akin to the following: all my life I have lived in this way, and it was a grand time. However, according to this God fellow, so many of the ways I have been living are actually harmful for me in the long run. But they were so much fun. They felt so good. If I do subscribe to this Christian program, not only will I have to give up, but I will have to acknowledge that I was wrong; and not just wrong, but monstrously so. But, ah and this is the clever bit, if I do not sign on the dotted line, perhaps these tenets will not apply to me. Perhaps I may even get so close to the line as to acknowledge that this God is real, but that much of what has been written about His thought was written by imperfect men, and so is liable to misinterpretation. If so, how can anyone really know the truth? All that would then be left is this one bit here: “God is love.” Love is great! So if I just treat everyone in a nice, polite, loving way – live and let live, after all – then perhaps that will be good enough.
This lowest common denominator approach to our religious impulse thus allows for all manner of belief, so long as one is nice.
But where does technology come into this all? Precisely here: individualism. Contrary to popular belief, Christians are actually quite capable of the highest intelligence. If one studies the history of the faith, he will find that many of histories greatest minds hail from the Church and hearken back to the endless glory of the ever-after. Yes, Christians are quite intelligent, and contrary to further belief, some of us even believe in viewing things from a scientific perspective. As such, let us combine the empirical with the anecdotal. Since the year 2000, there has been nothing short of a Big Bang in the expansion of consumer technology. Walk down a busy street and try to keep count of how many people are focused on their personal devices. Attend a large family get together, and see how many cell phones are out at the dinner table. Or, just look at what cutting edge technology was capable of in the year 2000 compared to what it can do now. It is no exaggeration to say that one may run his life almost entirely through his cell phone. That is, in fact, the problem (but we will come back to that). That is the empirical; now for the anecdotal. Go back to that large family gathering – how would you rate the conversation? It is flowing like fine wine, or is it stunted like a stagnant mud pit? How is the eye contact at this gathering? How is the body language? How is everyone’s posture? Is it quite or loud? Do people seem engaged, or distracted? Would you say those gathered are more at ease, or more anxious? Can you even tell? Can you sense the energy in the room, or have you yourself been so blunted by the stifling effect that technology has had on your spiritual imagination, not to mention your neurochemistry, that you can no longer feel the energy of a room?
This is just one example, but certainly one of many, of the reasons of concern for the overabundance of technology in our lives. It reduces our awareness of our own nature – not just as individuals, but as individual parts of the larger whole that is the natural order.
I said that the problem with technology was individualism. Why? Simply put, our reliance on technology has, unbeknownst to most of us, caused us to believe the lie that we are the center and the focus of the world, entirely because technology has become so individually focused that we are able to custom tailor the appearance of our lives. Everything is focused on me – social media and online shopping are the obvious culprits, but also the more mundane such as, say, online banking. All of this enforces the idea that everything I want, or need, should be readily available, and if it isn’t then there must be something wrong with them. Technology has blunted our sense of hunting and gathering for our needs, so to speak, thereby taking away a critical element of what it means to be human, namely that we interact with the world around us.
There is one question remaining, which is, “Could it be that man, staring at his reflection, would have come to the same narcissistic conclusion without modern technology?” I will pick up here in the next entry, as it will require more space than I can give it here.
[i] Guardini, p.71. Note, also, that an essay on the ends and means of work will be near in the off.
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