Monday, September 23, 2013

Encircled Ever More Tightly

But technological advance will move faster and faster and can never be stopped. In all areas of his existence, man will be encircled ever more tightly by the forces of technology. These forces, which everywhere and every minute claim, enchain, drag along, press and impose upon man under the forms of some technical contrivance or other - these forces, since man has not made them, have moved long since beyond his will and have outgrown his capacity for decision. 
Give the Pope-crush so many of us have had in recent weeks, it may surprise you to know that the above quote does not come from the Holy Father. Nor does it come from Karl Rahner, another go-to staple on this blog. Instead, it comes from a somewhat unlikely source: the philosopher Martin Heidegger and his 1955 "Memorial Address."

Imagine his context, writing in the 1950's, and reflect for a moment on how fresh his words are:
...nowadays we take in everything in the quickest and cheapest way, only to forget it just as quickly, instantly. 
Heidegger did not consider growth in technology an evil, something to be avoided, but he did worry over, "our being unprepared for this transformation, our inability to confront meditatively what is really dawning in this age."

What he saw then was an excessive, if not obsessive, focus on "calculative thinking." That may sound intimidating, but click through the web and note articles such as "Don't Bother Earning These Five Degrees." The criteria of a good degree, for the author, rests apparently in how much your degree will be worth to a future employer. It makes no difference if you love poetry, can draw connections between current events and major occurrences in history, or appreciate art, music, literature, or philosophy. The logic seems to be: one earns a degree, not in order to develop passion and find a sense of internal freedom to dedicate one's life to a goal, but rather to earn a degree so one can plug oneself into the corporate machine.

As a counter to this "calculative thinking," Heidegger suggests cultivating an attitude of indifference toward technology (my take on Gelassenheit). In a rather Ignatian key, Heidegger writes, "we let technical divides enter our daily life, and at the same time leave them outside, that is, let them alone, as things which are nothing absolute but remain dependent upon something higher...".

Today, we call this form of indifference toward technology "unplugging." It can be disorienting to go out for an evening without a cell phone or to give up Facebook or Twitter for evenings at a time. By unplugging, by taking a stance of indifference to technology that uses it so far as it helps us and avoids it to the extent it hinders our flourishing, we can gain a better sense of perspective on our increasingly tech-saturated culture.

Heidegger's warning sends a chill (Thanks Howes - don't want a violation on that one) down my spine. He asserts:
...the approaching tide of technological revolution in the atomic age could so captivate, bewitch, dazzle, and beguile man that calculative thinking may someday come to be accepted and practiced as the only way of thinking. 
The counter-measure to this trajectory, he continues, is to become once again mindful of our own special nature: we are meditative beings. We meditate on the sense of mystery surrounding us as we calm and quiet ourselves, as we unplug from our workaday world, and let ourselves ponder the meaning of our lives. The meaning of our lives is hardly a calculation or formula. Instead, it is a hard-to-isolate mystery pervading the world in which we dwell.

If "calculative thinking" desires to reduce our world to a series of mathematical or chemical equations, "meditative thinking" resists this as it reacquaints us with the mystery at the heart of being. As a spiritual practice, we don't pray or meditate in order to escape reality. Instead, we pray or meditate in order to allow reality to appear in all of its glorious mystery.

We, all of us, face the temptation to focus exclusively on "calculative thinking." Whether it be in a few moments watching the sunrise while enjoying a cup of coffee, navigating traffic with the radio turned off, slipping into  a chapel or shutting off the office lights for ten minutes, or examining one's day just before bed: such meditative mindfulness counteracts the temptation to reduce our world to mathematical formulas and reintroduces us to the mystery present at the heart of reality.

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