Thursday, December 14, 2006

Kierkegaard, Technology, and the Stars

An unusually gifted storyteller, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, illustrates the fight between affluence and its accompanying technology against the ability to “view the stars.” Most philosophers can’t produce really winning parables like this, one that still resonates almost two hundred years after he told it. But Kierkegaard can, and that’s why he’s worth quoting at length.

"When the prosperous man on a dark but starlit night drives comfortably in his carriage and has the lanterns lighted, aye, then he is safe, he fears no difficulty, he carries his light with him and it is not dark close around him; but precisely because he has the lanterns lighted, and has a strong light close to him, precisely for this reason he cannot see the stars, for his lights obscure the starts, which the poor peasant driving without the lights can see gloriously in the dark but starry night. So those deceived ones live in the temporal existence: either, occupied with the necessities of life, they are too busy to avail themselves of the view, or in the prosperity and good days they have—as it were lanterns lighted and close about them—everything is so satisfactory, so pleasant, so comfortable, but the view is lacking, the prospect, the view of the stars."

We, or at least I, have become a person of brilliant, halogen lanterns, which too often obscure my view of the stars. I find myself in a thicket of technological devices multiplying around me, entertaining me, connecting me. And yet I wonder: What cricket sounds have I missed when I take a walk with and iPod strapped to me? Has my vision for the crow or the owl become diminished by the hours I stare into a computer screen? Underneath the neon lights, have I lost my view of the stars?

2 comments:

john said...

hey, greg, don't tell me you're turning jacques ellul on me.

as a fan of kierkegaard, i do understand what you're saying. the topic is also addressed in modernity; neil postman's technopoly comes to mind.

it also raises the question as to the role of technology as a mutative source. heisenberg's uncertainty principal asserts that simply observing a situation alters its reality.

but i have to defend technology for a moment. many years ago, i gave a talk at CIVA on christianity and cyberspace. i worked off of 1 cor 5:3: "Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit."

doesn't this sound a lot like modern day email?

the sound of crickets on a summer night is truly amazing. can they compete with brian eno? or more importantly, must it perceived as a competition? why can't the crickets be your soundtrack one night, and brian eno another? are you and kierkegaard creating a false dichotomy?

arthur clarke is oft quoted for saying "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." is man's ability to create magic-like technology something that deserves our sense of awe and wonder, or is it a decoy for the real thing?

i would argue that life with technology, life with "kierkegaard's lantern," is not necessarily more or less "real" than life without it. i think ultimately it depends on the orientation of the heart, and one's view of the world.

GCootsona said...

Well, you, who are an internet exec, better believe in the importance of tech! And you have a point: technology does not equal Satan with silicon chips. In my manuscript for "The Power of No" (from which this comes), I'm able to nuance my assertions. Nevertheless, I'm still convinced that we have enthusiastically embraced technology to our peril: Consider this, the New York Times reported today that the average American spent 1548 hours last year watching TV (which we may have forgotten was new technology at one point). When sleep is factoring in, that's 97 days per year! With that statistic and others in mind, I think we need a firm No to technology in our culture because techie toys are stiffing spiritual life.