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?