catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 12 :: 2009.06.05 — 2009.06.19


Technology as the mediator of experience

God gave people hands for a simple and obvious reason: to do things with them. God created humans to interact with the created world. Hands, being the most dexterous body part, are clear evidence of that fact. The cultivation and care of the earth commanded by God in Genesis 1:28 requires the use of effective limbs:

And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

Imagine human beings trying to catch fish without hands, or arms, or legs. Such an attempt would be utterly futile. Humans must have bodies to act.

To make tasks easier, humanity has used its creative gifts to build a working mediator; namely, technology. In many ways, technology simply aims to supplement, such as how a hammer and nail function to hold wood together, but still require a person to exert much of the effort. In other ways, technology almost completely removes humans from the task altogether, such as in many mechanized industries or calculators, which only require pushing a few buttons. The difference between these examples is one of an ambiguous gradation, but the difference remains nonetheless.

Technology can present a screen through which a person acts upon the world. In acting through the screen, one remains distant from the world, which becomes something out there to be controlled or analyzed, not necessarily cared for or desired. This truth is perhaps illustrated best by the classic literary cliché of a city slicker who meets a farmer. The country man, a backwards hick from the city-dweller’s perspective, is unable to understand the workings of technology and the abstract forms that electronic functions take because he is used to dealing with a very immediate and concrete world. The farmer sees the city slicker as pathetic and useless, unable to handle the concrete world or survive on his own.

The two characters struggle to communicate not just because of their respective abilities, but because the very structure of their thoughts differ. The city slicker, because he normally interacts with nature exclusively through technology, does not engage nature himself. Nature is there, to be sure, but he rarely interacts with it directly, certainly not to the same degree as a farmer. Looking at the world through technology, the world becomes subdued as technology filters and reduces its uniqueness, presenting a limited perspective as only technology can do.

Think of how different it is to communicate with someone through the telephone or e-mail rather than face-to-face. The phone, and e-mail even more so, abstracts the words from the speaker and leaves one with “communication” in the most reductionistic sense possible. Lovers never desire mediated over unmediated communication because there is a far greater richness in the immediacy of presence (although the value of that presence is increased only by absence). Likewise there is also a greater richness to the world when we encounter it without a mediator. Anyone who has viewed the mountains or the open sky of the prairie himself knows that no picture or television program can begin to capture the true beauty. I am far more elated when I receive hand-written letters from my girlfriend than an email because the letter carries her beautiful handwriting, which e-mail replaces with Times New Roman.

Television filters out the full picture, only able to give a small portion of the true reality. E-mail and typeset print effaces the traces of originality, setting words in a universalized font and pretending to deliver all the meaning and emotion expressed by the author that can really only begin to be understood by seeing a facial expression, hearing the vocal tones and pitch, being held in an embrace, and spending time in the writer’s presence. Meaning, which is found in individuality, is in part swallowed by a system of technological abstractions that produces things in uniform order.

Human hands, however, lack the strength and degree of more mechanized technologies to reduce phenomena and abstract objects from their natural contexts. Acting with one’s own hands rather than always leaving work to a machine makes the situation more personable, meaningful and thus memorable. I think of the many excellent pieces of furniture that my dad enjoys making. I often sit and study the table, searching for its nuances and simply absorbing its beauty. I have never taken the time to study the mass-produced tables bought at Wal-Mart or the local furniture store except to perhaps erase a pencil mark or scrub a sticky beverage spill. The human hand always introduces nuance and foibles that mark the trace of the author, giving the object a distinctiveness even when it may appear identical to the copies. Working by hand introduces a vitality to action that is in many ways lost through the static abstractions of technology. A connection is born between oneself and the tool used or the thing created. Is the connection between the essence of substances? Hardly, but there is a feeling or emotional connection. To do something by hand contributes and places a metaphorical piece of the self into a process or object. Working with one’s hands creates a memory, a memory unique to the self.

Just as manual work leaves a unique mark on that which it creates, the worker receives the mark of the unique situation in that memory. People do not remember things that they encounter all the time. People remember situations because of a situation’s uniqueness. Uniqueness gives meaning to the situation and thus asks to be remembered. The memory remains absolutely unique in the mind of the one who performed the action because no experience or memory can be adequately described by language; to presume to describe all the facets of sight, sound, touch, emotion and thoughts taking place at that time in the mind of the one who remembers. The memories together integrate themselves into the character of the knower, helping shape a true individual who will react to new and unique experiences based on old unique experiences.

But what makes something “unique?” Well, anything can be unique. Individuality is marked by difference from others. Uniqueness can be found at every level of technological use, but it will be stronger at some levels than at others. The search for individuality should not lead one to reject all technology in favor of a primitive rocks-and-sticks caveman lifestyle (even rocks and sticks are forms of technology). The struggle between the uniform and unique occurs at every level. In fact, technology can facilitate creativity where it could not otherwise occur. Many handicapped people, such as arm amputees, could not express certain kinds of creativity without prosthetic limbs. Graffiti artists can be incredibly unique using mass-produced aerosol cans of paint. In many cases, technology helps facilitate beauty and thus should not be entirely rejected. However, technology is more often abused than utilized for creativity in many areas.

Valuing what’s unique should lead to doing things not necessarily the hard way, but differently. Pleasure, amusement, and joy are almost never efficient like technology. Sacrifice is a necessary component of finding meaning, whether in sadness and misfortune or happiness. Things that come at no cost have no value, almost tautologically.  So write a hand-written letter rather than type. Stop texting and actually call someone. Put the effort into making a piece of furniture rather than buying it. The possibilities are endless. Try to contribute by putting personal effort into something rather than allowing something or someone else to do it.

Truly, it is often hard to give up technology. Why? Because technology provides control. Just as a machined assembly line regulates its product with great precision, so communication technologies like Facebook and texting allow people to regulate their relationships. I often do not feel as obligated to respond to people through Facebook, e-mail or texting than when face-to-face. Many times I put off responding to a person until it’s pointless to write them anymore because the distance inherent in the system does not require me to give an immediate response. A friend’s immediate presence would demand a response — I wouldn’t dare not answer him and walk away — but the distance that technology covers gives me control over discourse and whether or not to engage in it. Just as power corrupts, this control often leads down the slippery slope to assuming that I have the right to ignore others and avoid responsibility.

Using one’s hands requires being involved in the context in which the action performed takes place, embracing the complexities of each situation rather than attempting to control them with technology. Technology can be very good but also is easily abused. Do not become caught up in striving to keep the world at a distance, seeking greater control over one’s life by avoiding obligations to others. Worship the Creator by using the gift of creative hands to engage the world and do something unique, for the other.

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