Technology promised us liberty and prosperity, but in significant ways this has not come to pass. In the industrialized nations we are free from hunger, disease, and illiteracy, but increasingly, commodities overflow in the center of our lives and we have become shallow people. We take pride in our technological means without caring much about what they are for. We have created genuinely amazing technological devices, but being human is about more than that. We must go beyond freedom from disease (the negative freedom that technology has provided) to engaging with life.
Within the technological paradigm, the kind of life we have embarked on instead is trivial, bored, over-entertained, over-stimulated and under-engaged, surly, unimpressed, and routinized. The reform we want to see takes technology and gives it back a supporting role in the human drama. Engagement with focal things and practices, and the manifold ways such engagement graces us, is what should occupy our center. We’re not talking about returning to pre-technological life, or convincing others to be anti-technological, but rather living a life that understands the place of technology and consciously limits it for the sake of something better.
In this arrangement, focal concerns are even more beautiful than we could see in pre-technological areas, and technology attains a new nobility by supporting these concerns rather than usurping their place. What’s the fate of this imagined reform of technology? What’s the fate of technology itself? Well, we can measure the success of the reform by the degree to which focal concerns grow and flourish in our society. And of course technology itself is not going to disappear. On the potential of reform, Borgmann is not anxious, and I’ll end this series by quoting the final words from his book:
One would rightly be nervous about the possibility that a great thing may fail accidentally, that the kingdom may be lost for want of a nail. But our focal concern will languish or prosper for essential reasons. I hope it will prevail, and it sustains my hope.
[Photo: Death Valley bloom, by the author]