Saturday, May 26, 2007

Better Off ?

Better Off
  • Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology

  • I wanted to blog about this book before I sent it off to the library. I am still thinking about the book, and haven't yet decided if or where I agree or disagree with the author's thesis. I am still in "receiving mode".

    Overall, though, it was a worthwhile book to read -- reminded me a bit of Crunchy Cons, for some reason. Both young, basically urban and highly educated Catholics, who are trying to reclaim (in different ways) some kind of more organic, traditional rhythm of life, more related to the sacramentality of the nature of the material world.

    This quote was interesting because he is talking about a book called The Education of Henry Adams -- as he says "it broached the subject of technological infatuation in our nation's past". He particularly refers to the chapter on The Dynamo and the Virgin -- which is interesting because I first read about this dichotomy in John Senior's book Restoration of Christian Culture. This is where I, personally, give a major hat tip to technology in the form of Google, because when I looked it up, I found an interview with Eric Brende (author of Better Off) where he explicitly acknowledges an intellectual and spiritual debt to John Senior:

    I had a tremendous intellectual conversion experience when I took a couple of years off and studied at the Integrated Humanities Program at University of Kansas—which has since been dismantled, tragically. It was led by the famous professor John Seniorwho served as my sponsor when I became a Catholic. He provided insights into the pitfalls of the machine society which had never dawned on me before. Most centrally, realization that if machines do everything for us, then what's left for us to do? What meaning do we have left? If we have machines to live life for us, then we don't have to live. Life eventually seems not worth the trouble of living. Have a machine do it—or spend life skimming off the frosting of experience, without including any of the substance. The social problems, the plague of depression, social disarray in our societyit's all related directly or indirectly to this takeover by technology. Ironically, our lives become less convenient as a result of our conveniences, since we're always trying to recover what technology took away from us.

    Oh dear! I've written all this and not gotten to the quote yet. Brende writes about how the book had "long daunted me....."
    The autobiography of John QUincy Adam's grandson and a man of letters, it had set the tone for a whole era of Americans.... and I had never been able to get past the first two pages.
    Tonight, to the flicker of a kerosene lamp, I made inexplicable, rapid progress. When I got to the twenty-fifth chapter, "The Dynamo and the Virgin," I found Adams falling prostrate before the dynamo at the Great Exposition held in Paris in 1900, a huge electric generaator with a giant cranking arm. To him the slowly undulating device symbolized a new and unprecedented Force that supplanted once and for all the animate energies of nature. A narrow and inhuman power at last had vanquished Fecundity, or Reproduction, which Adams personified in the Virgin and portrayed as the source of natural bounty. But even as he wrote wistfully about her passing, he bowed before what had replaced her.

    Adam's poignant shift in allegiances haunted me.....

    Here are Adams' words, which John Senior quotes in his book:

    Then he showed his scholar the great hall of dynamos, and explained how little he knew about electricity or force of any kind, even of his own special sun, which spouted heat in inconceivable volume, but which, as far as he knew, might spout less or more, at any time, for all the certainty he felt in it. To him, the dynamo itself was but an ingenious channel for conveying somewhere the heat latent in a few tons of poor coal hidden in a dirty engine-house carefully kept out of sight; but to Adams the dynamo became a symbol of infinity. As he grew accustomed to the great gallery of machines, he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross. The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm's length at some vertiginous speed, and barely murmuring -- scarcely humming an audible warning to stand a hair's-breadth further for respect of power -- while it would not wake the baby lying close against its frame. Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force. Among the thousand symbols of ultimate energy the dynamo was not so human as some, but it was the most expressive.

    1 comment:

    lissla lissar said...

    Very interesting!

    My Philosophy professor said that pre-Pascal non-living matter tended to be understood as 'stupid', if that can be applied, because of its inert unchangingness. No matter what you do, how much you exhort, a rock placed on a slope will still roll downhill, in obedience to blind force.

    Pascal was the first one (I believe) to use that unthinking force for a thinking-related task: he invented the calculator.

    Now, prehaps, we admire the blind force and the complexity of machines much more than the willful complexity of life.