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First Principles of Technogesis

These are the numbers of the men armed for battle who came to David at Hebron to turn Saul’s kingdom over to him, as the Lord had said. . . . from Issachar, men who understood the times and knew what Israel should do—200 chiefs, with all their relatives under their command (2 Chronicles 12:23, 32).

 

My computer did not recognize the word technogesis in the title. As a term of art, it escapes ordinary dictionaries. In fact, I may have invented it! Technology plus exegesis (or interpretation) forms the heady neologism. I define it thus:

Technogesis: the skill of understanding the nature and effects of technological artifacts and technological systems in relation to humans, culture, and nature.

Humans are tool-using creatures. Of course, other species also use tools; crab-eating macaques, Capuchin monkeys, and crows are just three examples. Yet, humans have no peers in the created order. And their capacity to develop tools is accelerating at an alarming pace. With the ascent of electronic technologies (electronic lights, telegrams, radio), human tools crossed a threshold, especially as they were electrified and mass-produced.

Before the telegraph, information traveled no faster than a steam-powered train. Before then, smoke signals could be seen over a broad distance, but they said little and vanished in a puff of smoke. The radio and telephone isolated the human voice (and other sounds) from a full-orbed environment even as they extended the reach of the voice far beyond its unaided ability. To invoke Neil Postman, these changes are not additive, but ecological: they alter the systems of culture. A few televisions are a novelty. Most people do fine without them. But when television becomes an integral part of life, with TVs displacing pianos and radios in the living room, television become a phenomenon, a taken-for-granted element of life, which becomes and remains unquestioned. Thinking technogetically helps us grasp the effects that technology has on human culture and provides insight here. Consider television briefly

People tend to watch more than they read. National and international news must be shaped to fit the limits of television. Politicians must be presentable on television to be elected. Abraham Lincoln—great in spirit, but ugly in face—would have won no primaries. He was not photographic, but that mattered little at the time since images were not widely distributed. But today, being telegenic is highly valuable for presidential candidates. Read the luminous and pellucid prose of Neal Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death on the ecological effects of television in education, politics, religion, and more. Groucho Marx said he found television quite educational. When he walked into a room with the television on he left and read a book. One could go on about the boob tube, but take another example: the Polaroid camera.

The novelty of this camera was that it took and developed photographs by itself. It delivered its image instantly. There was no need to send film in the mail to be developed and have it sent back, a process that took several weeks (as I remember). The image quality was inferior to many other cameras, but its immediacy made if popular for several decades. The advertising slogan captured its allure: “The camera does the rest”—the title of a new book about its fame and digital defeat. Because my mother (who lived far-away in Anchorage, Alaska, and never owned a computer) wanted more photographs of her son and daughter-in-law, she sent us a Polaroid camera. Her logic was impeccable. Polaroid photographs are easier to take than the non-instant alternatives. Sadly, this didn’t improve our picture-taking habits appreciably; but I kept the little-used camera in its original box. It still works. Today I took three shots, two for a friend and one for myself. But why bring this up?

How we create and share images forms us, usually unconsciously, but decisively. Technogesis asks how this works out in our minds and culture. When I took a photo of Morgan recently in a breakfast restaurant, I had to haul out a rather large object (compared with a smart phone) depress a real button (not touch a screen), and wait for the film to appear amidst the fanfare of that distinctive Polaroid sound (one of its most endearing qualities). Then we waited about fifteen minutes for the film to develop while in a black pouch. Because these actions are slow and deliberate—because things can go wrong because of the steps involved—they add weight to the event of producing an image of someone. Today, the novelty of the event secures it in our minds. When images are instantly produced and available through smartphones, their value plummets and their mark on reality recedes or disappears. The things and people whose images they are may evaporate as well. A million selfies erodes the self.

Having mused a bit on television and photography, here are some first principles of technogesis. They are suggestive, not exhaustive.

First, in any situation you find yourself, look and ask how long the technologies you find have been around. In my writing room, where I now sit, I have a computer, a printer, a stereo, a sleep apnea machine, an electric humidifier, and electric lights. Now ask how the removal of any of these technologies would affect your life. If you are old enough (as I am), you remember days before computers and printers. I wrote all my undergraduate papers on a typewriter. There was no spell-check or delete function (beside white-out or a correcting ribbon). Thus, I thought much more before committing ideas to the page (not screen). I did not send files to my professors electronically. I handed in stapled papers to the professor and got them back with comments (usually). I could expand on this, but it is obvious that the medium of creation affected the matter created. Similarly, when I hand write a card, I slow down to think more before I write, since errors must be crossed out in ink. Putting a pen to paper literally gives a different feel to writing. I do not chose a ready-made font, but print (I forgot how to write in cursive) in my own way.

Second, bring what is in the background of your daily life into the foreground. Almost everyone drives a car, so our engagement is as automatic as the transmission. Technogesis asks how the car affects our sense of self and others. By simply not listening to any audio while driving will reveal much about our attitudes toward driving and our perception of other drivers and people. I often drive in silence, which gives me more space to pray and observe, not merely cars, but the people in them. Your conversation with a passenger improves when it does not have to compete with the radio. Further, by ignoring the controls for car audio (which are getting more complicated), you will drive more safely.

Third, ask those from other countries to reflect on the American way with technology. Outsiders have insights, since they are not habituated to our ways. Years ago, Os Guinness spoke of a visitor to America from a tribal culture who claimed that Americans had “gods on their wrists,” since they looked at their watches so often. When people wear watches, this changes their sense of time and place. Those without time-keepers, keep time differently. No one in the Bible wore a watch, nor did Martin Luther.

Fourth, develop the skills of technogesis by reading astute critics of technology. Pondering the insights of writers such as Lewis Mumford, Neil Postman, Malcolm Muggeridge, Jacques Ellul, Marshall McLuhan, and, more recently, Sherry Turkle gives one new perspectives on what we take for granted. I read Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman in 1987 and have never viewed television—or any image-based communication—the same since.

Fifth, use old technologies to get their feel. I have alluded to the delights of the Polaroid, but consider another example. I bought a working IBM selectric typewriter in 2014 at a garage sale. From 1979-84, I wrote many lecture outlines, articles, and half of my first book on one these proud machines. They were the top of the line typewriters in their day, mostly because of the correction key and the light touch. While carrying my old friend to my car, I was surprised at how heavy it was. Moving such a device required strength and forethought. It was moving a piece of furniture. This material anchorage in space gave typing a more physical and visceral feel. While my computer is a black box to me, I can see how the letters strike the paper on a selectric. I am inscribing, not putting pixels on a screen.

My selectric was a hit at a recent Christmas party at my home. I set it up on a table and encouraged guests to type something to record the event on paper. Some adults were curious and pecked out a few lines. But the children delighted in it, savoring its strange sounds and exposed workings. A six-year-old carefully typed out Mississippi. Her older brother said, “Dad, can we get one?” I leave it to my reader to explore the significance of this vignette, but it illustrates how fascinating it may be to use an outdated technology.

Technogesis is both enjoyable and commendable for reading the signs of the times. Those who simply go with the technological flow may drown without knowing it. This is because the use of their devices unconsciously become part of their way of life, a taken for granted habit. But unconscious habits may become bad habits. Technologies might rob us of well-being even as they increase efficiency.

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