7.1. The Loss of Significance

I don't think modern technology necessarily alienates us from the world it mediates. But a lot depends on our recognizing how it can do so. And the first thing to say here is that the problem is not and never was one of scale. It is badly mistaken to think: "The telescope reveals the earth as a mere flyspeck in the cosmic infinitudes, so of course we can no longer consider ourselves significant in the old religious sense." That's as confused a bit of thinking as any nonsense for which we ridicule the ancients. As C. S. Lewis reminded us, "Ptolemy knew just as well as Eddington that the earth was infinitesimal in comparison with the whole content of space." Nor, Lewis adds, do we really believe that a six-foot man is more important than a five-foot man, or that a tree is more important than a human, or a leg more important than a brain.

Spatial dimension has never been a measure of significance. When we argue today that big is significant and small is insignificant, we merely testify to our loss of any sense for what is significant.

So if telescopes and other instruments of modern science express our alienation from the world, it is not because of the dimensional scales they introduce, but because we have tended, with their encouragement, to substitute dimension for the things that count. Employing such tools, we are invited to ignore our own significant connections to the world, which are never merely quantitative.

But it is not only the moon and planets and stars that have come to seem remote from us. The historical psychologist J. H. van den Berg, in tracing the alienation of Westerners from their own physical landscape, has written:

Many of the people who, on their traditional trip to the Alps, ecstatically gaze at the snow on the mountain tops and at the azure of the transparent distance, do so out of a sense of duty. . . . They are simulating an emotion which they do not actually feel. It is simply not permissible to sigh at the vision of the great views and to wonder, for everyone to hear, whether it was really worth the trouble. And yet the question would be fully justified; all one has to do is see the sweating and sunburned crowd, after it has streamed out of the train or the bus, plunge with resignation into the recommended beauty of the landscape to know that for a great many the trouble is greater than the enjoyment. (1961, p. 233)

The spirit of simulation, moreover, extends to the feverish effort to capture the experience on film. "I've seen people in the Everglades come onto the walkway with their video equipment, take a picture, and go away," says Massachusetts naturalist John Hanson Mitchell. They scarcely noticed whatever it was that made the scene worth capturing.

We take much the same approach toward births, graduations, marriages, and the like. It's as if, not trusting our vague, subjective experience of the event, we need to freeze and objectify it in the hope that we can come up with a more fitting appreciation later. But what the stored image will enable us to recall and appreciate most vividly is the experience of picture-taking.



Devices of the Soul. Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines
Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines
ISBN: 0596526806
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2007
Pages: 122
Authors: Steve Talbott

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