Tuesday, June 3

The automobile and disintegration

The technology we use impacts how we see the world, just as our philosophical outlook guides the development of human technology. This basic insight, found in modern thinkers from Marx to McLuhan, has been expressed well by Neil Postman in his book Technopoly,

Technology must never be accepted as part of the natural order of things, and every technology - from an IQ test to an automobile to a television set to a computer - is a product of a particular economic and political context and carries with it a program, an agenda, and a philosophy that may or may not be life-enhancing and that therefore require scrutiny, criticism, and control.”

But Postman is no Luddite. This is not a call to reject all technology out of hand but rather to evaluate whether the various messages conveyed fit well with the overall moral direction one is moving toward. It is a matter of using the tools we create, rather than being used by them. I plan on writing a few posts will contain some personal reflections on how I see the automobile, in particular, impact the way I view the world and live my life.


The modern West has long been characterized by disintegration of the various spheres of life, perhaps finding its origins back in the late medieval period when William of Ockham replaced Aristotelian metaphysics with strict nominalism. By the time of Immanuel Kant, who could still be considered the quintessential architect of modernity, this line of thinking had reached its culmination. Kant famously stood at the intersection of the various strains of modern thought and essentially drove a wedge between them, dividing facts from values, science from art, faith from reason, public from private. Although, at the time, this division was taking place mostly just in theory, on paper, and in discussions it would soon play itself out in the wider culture in some tangible ways.

Development in technology, as well as political and economic institutions, facilitated the ideological fragmentation evident in modernity. The incredible advances in the ability to transport ourselves ensured that the division especially between a private home and a public vocation would become physically manifest, with the birth of the commute as a measure of this distance. Early forms of transportation only allowed individuals a two-dimensional, linear division. Streetcars and rail lines had fixed origins and destinations, and easy access was limited to the particular line. Only a binary opposition could be spatially accounted for with public transportation.

However, with the invention and wide-spread adoption of the automobile, this linear movement in space was expanded into a three-dimensional range. A completely privatized and flexible mode of transportation allowed our society to further fragment into countless different pieces, from personal to social to professional to commercial to educational to political to spiritual. Some philosophers have carried on the impulse of fragmentation to radical new levels, even claiming an "incommensurability," or an utter inability to transmit meaning, between these different spheres and communities. Spatially, some metropolitan areas have been dubbed "edge cities" with no centers from which the parts can be integrated as a whole. Finally, many of us feel as if these divisions sometimes even cut to the heart of who we are as persons.

As a Christian, I've been to church and heard a number of sermons about how my relationship with God ought to effect every area of my life. The pastor wisely points to the temptation I have to compartmentalize the religious portion of my life into a church experience at a particular time and place, while letting my work life and home life on the other six and a half days of the week be untouched by the faith I profess to hold. An uncomfortable light is shone on the duplicity that lies in my own heart and mind, and I become resolved to change the way I live.

Then we all walk out of church and get into our cars. Does not the drive home preach a completely opposite message? That was one discrete place, and now you will insulate yourself from the world until you arrive at another discrete place, your home. The place of the church, with all of its associated memories and imputed meanings, will not be a part of your experience until next week. The perception of the world in between is strictly instrumental. There is that divided life being spatially realized as my tires roll down the street.

Walking home from church tells a different story. Every place I travel through does not feel discrete, but rather physically connected in a seamless way. I can look around and perceive my surroundings. I walk over the Clark Fork river into downtown, passing the coffee shops and bars where I spend time with friends. I'll pass the courthouse where I turned in my vote last week and the various shops where I exercise my important role as a consumer. Finally, I'll arrive at home. Home is certainly a different place than church, but it just doesn't seem quite as far away.


LH said...

I resonate with what you're saying here. In addition to breaking up our lives into discrete places, driving disconnects us from 1) the reality that we are beholden to nature (since we can control our climate and be shielded from weather); 2) having to have contact with anyone we choose not to have contact with (vs. walk or transit, you're literally rubbing elbows with strangers); 3) the chance to have chance encounters (can't tell you how many useful and unplanned interactions I've had when bumping into someone on foot or on the subway; I've never had a chance encounter while driving). Thanks for the insight.

Daniel Nairn said...

Thanks LH.

I'd like to do a post on each of the points you just brought up. I completely agree with you.

J.W. said...

On Christianity as total worldview, see Abraham Kuyper's Lectures on Calvinism and Joel Garver's paper, "The Gospel as Politics," at www.joelgarver.com/writ/phil/politics.htm (though I can't get the link to work right now for some reason).

Daniel Nairn said...

You know. I've never read anything by Kuyper. I've just read about him. I think I'll have to take a look at the Lectures on Calvinism.