Technology and the Loss of Poiesis (Or, Discipleship in a Nihilistic World)
I’ve recently been thumbing around in All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age (Free Press, 2011). It is a middlebrow book written by two eminent philosophy professors, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly. It is essentially an interpretation of contemporary society inspired by the works of existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger, with an attendant Heideggerean prescription for overcoming “our contemporary nihilism.” So though you will not find it in any Christian bookstore, I think that Christians in general and ministers especially should give it a thoughtful read. I’ll try to explain why.
One of the key contentions of the book is that modern, instrumental reason has led to a dehumanizing technological age in which many peoples’ lives are marked by sheer boredom and meaninglessness. (The authors are not new in noting this; a discourse on the empty nature of life in modern society has been going along steadily since the beginning of the 20th century at least.) Technology has the danger of nihilism because it tends to obliterate the conditions in which we experience the world as a thick place, full of complexity and wonder. The way technology does this is by removing us from deep and skillful interaction with our environment. Technology has been progressively stripping away poiesis.
Poiesis is a term whose history extends at least to Aristotle and refers to the human cultivation of that which is given raw in nature. Poiesis manifests itself in the skills of the craftsman. The authors give the example of the nineteenth century wheelwright, whose understanding of skill goes far beyond technical proficiency. The wheelwright’s skill led him to a rich, intimate relationship with timber. Through practical, hands-on experience, he learned to “see” distinctions in different pieces of wood that are not available to those who analyze the wood in a detached, scientific manner. Each piece of wood this craftsman worked with had a distinct personality and individuality and the wheelwright would alter his project to meet the challenges presented. Thus, far from just rote repetition, the wheelwright’s craftsmanship required a skillful vision, as well as intelligence and flexibility. This relation to the wood he worked with produced a certain reverence for the wood and the forest where it came from, while the uniqueness of the wood made every job an opportunity for him to display his skill. So poiesis is not just the cultivation of a craft—it is the continual cultivation of the craftsman, too.
It should not be hard to see that technological innovations—in industry and in the home—have largely removed the opportunity for us to engage both our world and ourselves in this rich way. Many jobs are essentially structured to require the least possible amount of skill and the skill that they do require is merely the ability to do the same thing over and over again consistently. (Think of the worker in the modern factory or, depressingly, even the role of the teacher in the modern schoolroom.) In the home, we are more than ever saturated with technology that is essentially passive. One of the everyday examples the authors give is the ubiquity of the GPS device.
To navigate by GPS requires no sense of where you are, no sense of where you’re going, and no sense whatsoever for how to get there. Indeed, the whole point of the GPS is to spare you the trouble of navigating….But to lose the sense of struggle is to lose the sensitivities—to landmarks, street signs, wind direction, the height of the sun, the stars—all the meaningful distinctions that navigational skill reveals. To navigate by GPS is to endure a series of meaningful pauses at the end of which you do precisely what you are told….Indeed, in an important sense this experience turns you into an automated device the GPS can use to arrive at its destination.
Another example of this tendency of modern technology can be seen in a study, released last month in the journal Science, that indicates the effects of Google on human memory. Researchers found that the use of Google to find information leads people to remember less factual content about whatever it is that they are after in their internet search. Now, instead of internalizing the information, the subject is likely to remember only where online this information is to be found. The internet is becoming an extension of human memory. Many people will not find this problematic: “As long as they know how to find the information they need, what is the problem?” This sentiment reveals a total capitulation to instrumental understandings of everything, including the human mind. I, for one, want to know and be shaped by meaningful things—not merely be able to use them when necessary.
So what is the significance of this analysis for Christian discipleship? We should not think that Christians, experiencing true transcendence and meaning in Jesus Christ and in the fellowship of his church, are immune to the effects of our modern age. Though the gospel itself commissions poiesis—the skillful following of Jesus Christ, loving God and neighbor through all we do, most Christians’ lives are still absorbed in this essentially nihilistic system. Their jobs require no skill, they are passively entertained and absorbed in online worlds, and even their experience at church is designed to involve little struggle or acquisition of skill. In most cases, ministers are guilty of falling victim to this same soulless modern world. In this situation, the church needs to become a place of instruction in poiesis— we need to learn how to cultivate the life of the city of God within this nihilistic modern city. The poiesis commended by Heidegger will always be one that is arbitrarily chosen and thus can never escape the sting of nihilism. But the revelation of Jesus Christ is the revelation of a way of life that has an ultimate ground. This life will not be a spiritual abstraction from the world around us, but a constructive engagement with the elements of this world. It will affect everything we do—the jobs we choose and the way we go about them, the way we live at home, and how we worship. It will also certainly affect our approach to technology.