There is a current television show that close friends recently drew our attention to called The Carbonaro Effect. The main character of the show is a young illusionist named Michael Carbonaro who, with the aid of spy-cameras in everyday settings, is able to perform some rather incredible magic tricks. In one scene, he acts as a teller at a local bank, and is helping a woman to deposit a check and withdraw cash. Carbonaro takes the check, shows it to the woman, and then places his iphone over the barcode of the check. With a clever slight of hand, he places the hoped-for cash into the woman’s hands. The woman is utterly stunned and wonders how such a device could literally, right before her own eyes, transform a check into cash.
The reason I mention this story is because of the philosophy behind Carbonaro’s magic, particularly his inclusion of technology in the majority of his tricks. He says that people are surrounded and inundated by technology in such a way that it aids him in his trickery. More than this is his claim that people have little clue what technology is or how it works, “but they know that it works.” This is a remarkable insight. The fact that technology works, in a way that is akin to modern medicine, is a presupposition that is accepted with little examination. In other words, since we are frequently convinced of technology’s power, that it “works,” this tends to make us neglect more fundamental questions. In particular, I am thinking of the question, “what is it?” The “what is it” question of contemporary technology in general, or related to some device more specifically, is not utilitarian and solely concerned with use. Rather, the question is more philosophical and, in this light, intrinsically tied to culture and the way human beings understand themselves and our place in this world.
In his classic work, The Disappearance of Childhood, Neil Postman articulated three effects that must always be acknowledged when considering technology, especially communicative technology. For Postman, communication technology fundamentally “alters the structure of our interests, the character of symbols, and the very nature of community.” What is key for Postman, and which traverses all three listed effects, is that the creation of a technological device is an idea in a two-fold way. Not only is it an idea of the particular inventor, but also contains ideas unforeseen by the inventor himself. This is what Postman calls the Frankenstein Syndrome:
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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One creates a machine for a particular limited purpose. But once the machine is built, we discover—sometimes to our horror, usually to our discomfort, always to our surprise—that it has ideas of its own; that it is quite capable of not only changing our habits but, as Innis tried to show, of changing our habits of mind.
In saying that technology is an idea, what is meant is that a technological device carries with it a certain kind of worldview. By means of this fact, such a device can foster inclinations and desires within us that are the result of a certain metaphysical perspective. This is why it is correct to understand modern and contemporary technology in terms of ontology, precisely because it seeks to provide an interpretive lens through which human beings come to understand themselves.
At the same time, there is something of an irony in making this claim. Modern and contemporary technological devices have been constructed in such a way that their potency to change our desires (or even create new ones) is perhaps better achieved in a democratic age. The irony here is that such an age could be accurately described as one that is often neglectful of ideas and philosophy. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville observed that Americans were aptly cataloged as children of Descartes, even though his precepts were little known. Along with this, Tocqueville sensed that Americans had an almost insatiable lust for what was new, and that they were in a precarious position of being willing to “give up thinking.” And so, it seems to be the case that conditions in America have been ripe (and continue to be so) for a technological understanding of human beings.
In his encyclical, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis expressed concern over what he called “the technocratic paradigm.” This worldview is one in which forms are lost; no longer do we ask “what is this thing,” but instead want to know how we can use or manipulate it. Essences in nature have been replaced with a disordered drive to transform the void of formless creation. The only form left, after such an assault, would be that of human activity. This, in fact, is precisely how Francis Bacon begins the final section of his New Organon:
This then will have to be our declaration on the true and perfect precept of operation: it should be certain, free and favorable to, or tending towards, action. And this is the same as the discovery of true Form.
Bacon goes on to conclude the work with the following revolutionary position: “These two pronouncements, the active and the contemplative, are one and the same; what is most useful in operating is truest in knowing.” The ancient and medieval primacy of the contemplative to the practical, of thought to action, is challenged. That many Americans have given up thinking, and are adamantly enthralled with changing the world, is only further exacerbated by the neglect of a metaphysical outlook rooted in the primacy of being, truth, and contemplation. And it is precisely this reversal of the just-mentioned order that should be a sort of context for how we understand contemporary technology, and its capacity for fundamentally altering “the structure of our interests, the character of symbols, and the very nature of community.” Without a healthy understanding of technology, American democracy may only be capable of producing what concerned Tocqueville, namely, mere opinion and soft despotism.
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