I began some time ago to write up a tentative theology of books, bookish theonerd that I am. I hit a rut, however, because things weren’t satisfactorily coming together for me. The post was sparked by a debate I had with someone over whether real books were superior to e-books, but I realised that my dislike of e-books had less to do with e-books themselves, than with the broader question of the place of technology in the lives of human beings, and my intensely realist philosophical outlook. Hence, it is these thoughts that I will present to you today, before I narrow in on books specifically.
The first thing I’d like to do is return briefly to the hierarchy of being I mentioned in a post recently. Essentially, God is existence itself, then the spiritual realm exists as the next highest form of being, with the physical world coming in a distant third, which translates to meaning that material stuff is the “least real” of the three. (Although it certainly is real.)
Where does technology fit into this hierarchy? I contend that it comes in at the bottom of the physical hierarchy, where human persons are top, then animals, plants, inanimate things, and finally, virtual “realities”. Obviously the physical aspects of technology, the parts of which it is made, fall into the inanimate object category, but the virtual projections they create are even more shadowy than they are. The physical parts of a computer for example each have their own substance, while the images on the screen do not have a substance of their own. They are basically just the clever manipulation of electrons, made to look like things which do actually exist on their own. Thus, virtual things are insubstantial.
When we operate in the world through these technologies, viewing reality through a virtual lens, we essentially remove ourselves from reality by one degree. Hopefully I will be able to make this a bit clearer by getting you to consider some examples:
The following progressions represent what I would consider a move away from the tangible towards the insubstantial:
- Lovingly crafted and handwritten books, each one unique, to the mass-production of the printing press, to e-books
Theatre, performed in real time, by actors in front of an audience, to films
- Face-to-face interaction with a real human being, to disembodied conversations by telephone
- Handwritten letters, with choice of paper and handwriting expressive of the person, tangible things that one can keep and cherish, irreplaceable, and which force us to write differently than in emails, which are quite impersonal, to typewritten letters, to emails
- A beautiful painting of a landscape, a work of art that draws on the skills of the painter and is a unique thing of beauty that is capable of bringing joy to many people, to a photograph of the same landscape, which can be taken by just about anyone with a camera, and which may never actually be developed, and thus exist only as a digital image
- Living real life, where each person is “a breathtaking reality; a new, unrepeatable, unprecedented adventure” (if you haven’t seen The Human Experience, do it), to living vicariously through the virtual “second life”-type computer games
- Beautifully crafted watches to a wristband with a digital screen
- Hymn-books that we hold and read individually, to a projector screen up near the sanctuary [more on this another time]
Hopefully, you get the gist. Essentially, in each of these, we move from using things as tangible as we are, dealing with reality itself, away from reality, towards the insubstantial.
And so, I would say that technology distances us from reality. And in so doing it dehumanises us, for we are fundamentally body and soul, material united with the immaterial. By distancing us from the physical world that we live in, as embodied souls, we cease to live the most authentically human life possible, a life grounded in the world in which we find ourselves, rather than a technologically-driven, -controlled, and -managed one.
Now, does this mean that I think all of the above inventions are evil and bad and it’s all part of Skynet’s big plan to take over the world?
In a word, no.
In a few more words, I don’t think the technologies in themselves are bad. It is in the very fact that they distance us from reality that they become so useful. In doing so they allow us to overcome some of our limitations, in speed of thought and action, in physical distance, and in accuracy of observation. And in very small doses, the positives (the achievements they allow for) far outweigh the negatives (distancing us from reality in a small way).
If we do anything habitually it will change us. This idea is fundamental to virtue ethics. What we do actually matters, and this applies not only to morality. As Bishop Anthony Fisher put it at Notre Dame’s Tradition Conference last year, we should be discerning about which traditions we choose to adopt.
Therefore, I think it follows that repeated distancing leads to practical severance from reality. Change is not inherently good or bad, but I think we have embraced it to such a degree, unthinkingly. All in the name of “Progress”, which assumes that change is always good.
I think I will do a separate post to finish my thoughts on some of the ways technology is changing us, this is quite long enough.
Do let me know thoughts!! I’m expecting a lot of disagreement, which would be good because this theory is still being refined. 🙂