I admit it. I’m a technophile. I love technology. My computer counts as a “significant other.” I spend at least eight hours a day in front of it, and I truly love working and playing with it. As a software engineer, I have had the experience of creating something out of virtually nothing, which is pretty amazing. I love well crafted, elegant computer code. And I love to see people’s faces light up when they learn how to do something on the computer that previously mystified them.
But like many people, I have a love-hate relationship with technology. I run my life from the computer, so I can’t live without it, but sometimes I feel enslaved to it. I get exhausted trying to keep up with the complexity of it all. I suffer from information overload. I have too many “e-correspondents” to connect meaningfully with them all. I use my computer to procrastinate, and it sometimes borders on an addiction that leads to impoverished “real life” relationships. I worry about our overdependence on technology and about how we’re losing the ability to do things the “old fashioned” way when the technology fails.
Some people today believe that technology is the answer to all the world’s problems. Others fear that it is an autonomous, pernicious force and should be shunned. Neil Postman says that the downsides of technology often outweigh the benefits, so he calls on people to be “loving resistance fighters” toward it. How do we find a balance between these two extremes of “techno-utopianism” and “neo-luddism?” I think two keys are awareness of technology’s impact on us and a periodic rest from it.
In his essay, “The Question Concerning Technology,” German philosopher Martin Heidegger sets about helping us develop a free relationship to technology. He says we can be in bondage to technology whether we champion it or vehemently resist it. But we are most enslaved when we take the view that technology is simply a neutral tool and thus don’t think about it at all.
Heidegger writes that humans are so immersed in technology that we are rarely even aware that we have a relationship to it that affects us. He calls this relationship Gestell (“Enframing”). The key to freedom from Enframing is to think about the essence of technology and become aware of our relationship to it. Heidegger suggests that the best realm in which reflection on technology and confrontation with it can be pursued is a realm paradoxically like technology itself (they both are translations of the Greek word technê): art. Through artistic expression, we can become appropriately aware of our relationship to technology and critique it. Another way toward freedom lies in what Heidegger calls releasement toward technology, which is a way of saying at the same time both “yes” and “no” to its use — the freedom to take it or leave it.
Erazim Kohák, the Czech philosopher, wrote, in The Embers and the Stars, that we have surrounded ourselves with technological artifacts that obscure the moral sense of our existence. We cannot see the starry night sky because of our artificial lights. In itself, technology is not bad. It has brought us much good and is authentic to human existence. But in the midst of it, we have forgotten who we are. Kohák invites us to “bracket” technology, to step away from it periodically so that we can recover the natural rhythms of life and discern the “moral sense of nature” and of the very technology we use. This is important since, in Kohák’s words, humans are uniquely privileged to “dwell at the intersection of time and eternity.”
I suggest that taking time away from technology on a regular basis can help transform the way we relate to it and can bring life back into focus. It will help us become aware of the impact of technology on our lives, the way it colors how we construe everything. I have practiced the spiritual discipline of giving up nonessential use of the Internet during the period of Lent for the past three years. It has profoundly affected my awareness of how deeply enmeshed I am in it. It has also renewed my appreciation for creation, and for being present in it. Taking a technology Sabbath allows me to re-enter the world of technology with a newfound freedom from the compulsion of it.
Rosie Perera is a writer, teacher,
photographer, and computer consultant
with 20+ years of experience in software engineering.
She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.