To Tech or Not to Tech:  That Is An Important Question

First, before we get to the topic at hand, my apologies for the misuse of language…turning  a “slangy” noun into a “slangy” verb….just can’t help myself!  Secondly, a prefatory word about the so-called contemplative life.  In Catholic culture, especially pre-Vatican II, but even afterwards to this very day, contemplative life is too often seen as simply another “layer” of life on top of all the other layers as it were.  It was something “you did” in addition to all the other things you do.  So you had all these articles, pamphlets, books on the topic of “contemplation and ……..”  There is no “and” in true contemplation.  It is Life lived in a particularly deep way, with a certain vision of the whole of Reality, and an awareness that transcends what’s in front of your nose!  Merton and Abhishiktananda, among others, pointed this out time and again.  Abhishiktananda once wrote to a housewife who had written to him that she could be more of a contemplative than a “professional monk.”  It was a matter of a certain state of heart and mind.

Now for two interesting stories:

First, very recently there appeared a piece in SF Gate with the following title:

“How saying ‘yes’ to tech devices saved one Bay Area family’s Yosemite vacation”

Written by Matt Villano, it describes how he as a father observed his young daughters enjoying their yearly stay at Yosemite in a new way.  Here is the link to the full story:

Villano takes his family camping to Yosemite every year.  He is obviously a good father, an intelligent and sensitive man, and someone who has some appreciation for the wilderness.  On this trip he senses a new problem.  His youngsters have, during the pandemic, become very attached and proficient in smart phones, social media, and the whole internet thing.  Now they want to bring this to the wilderness.  He writes, referencing John Muir:

“How else would the conservation icon, travel writer, and poster child for the Sierra have reacted to the way my three daughters leaned into technology during our most recent visit to Yosemite National Park? What would he have said about my kiddos making TikTok-style videos amid the big trees?

Muir, a Scottish immigrant,…. wrote his wife that at Yosemite, ‘only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness.’ My kids — ages 12, 9 and 5 — took a markedly different approach, bringing an iPad, a Kindle Fire and an iPod Touch to document, and more deeply engage with, every waking moment of their journey.”

He relents, as long as they promise to use the gadgetry to “enhance” their experience of Yosemite, not to shield them from it.  As you read this you see that everyone is truly enjoying the experience.  Villano concludes:

“I couldn’t help but marvel at how a more liberal use of technology had empowered my girls to connect with a familiar park in thrilling new ways. Weeks later, they’re still chortling at their dance videos and still talking about how much fun they had. They’ve even started asking if we can go back again before the first snow of the season.  Maybe Muir wouldn’t have minded after all.”

Ok, I get it.  But I wonder if our author is missing something in his reflection, making a serious mistake.  (It could be that I’m just an old “fuddy-duddy.”)   Yes, for his young girls that was probably a good thing, enjoyable, and maybe it might lure them someday into a deeper encounter with the wilderness.  Very often, however, tech gadgets and the social media world proves to be very addictive and in fact begins to substitute for the Real. 

Villano uses the word “connect.”  A very important word in the techy world.  Certainly there is all this tech gadgetry that facilitates communication and connection at a certain level, a real benefit in modern living.   What is amazing is how much felt need there seems to be for this “connection,” how isolated many people feel.  But no tech can engender true communion, a sense of oneness—it very often simply enables people to bond with similar minded people and this sharing of your “one world” is just a more advanced form of “tribalism”; you encounter only the world of your tribe or you project the world of your tribe everywhere.  

 The encounter with Yosemite that Villano celebrates is not the encounter that Muir invites us to.  That would be more like something from the previous posting: the Romantic vision and the Chinese Taoist; or, to put it more simply, it is a call to a contemplative vision.  And a sense of communion.

Secondly,  there appeared in the Washington Post a story about a British farmer that really intrigued me.  The title was:

“He is Britain’s famous shepherd-author-influencer. He wants to transform farming to save the planet.”

Here is the link to the whole story:

The story is about James Rebanks, Oxford grad, a very smart guy who inherited a 600-year-old family farm and has become a “rock-star” farmer in England.  Here’s how the story starts:

“Britain’s rock-star shepherd and best-selling author, James Rebanks, is out at the family farm, giving the tour, waxing rhapsodic about his manure. The glory of it — of the crumbly, muffin-top consistency of a well-made plop from a grass-fed cow.

‘Has anyone in your life ever truly explained grasses to you?’ he asks. And we think, not really.

It’s not just ruminant digestion. Don’t get the man started on soil health. Rebanks is a soil geek, with the zeal of the convert. We’re soon on our knees, grubbing in the dirt. Sniffing. He’s distracted by a red-tailed bumblebee, then by the surround-sound of birdsong. ‘I don’t trust a quiet farm,’ he says. ‘It should be noisy with life.’

This is a man with a very different vision of what farming should be like.  He doesn’t believe it is healthy for us or the planet to have these giant industrial farms.  He has created something different on his little patch of land.   In his words:

“The shepherd riffs on the circle of life, the frenzy of lambing season, the deliciousness of grilled mutton and the wisdom of sheepdogs — speckled with rants against the alleged ruinous stupidity of industrial farming ‘where the field has become the factory floor.’”

He is not into the Amish/fundamentalist thing of being anti-technology or science; in fact he uses it but quite wisely.  The root of his farming, the foundation of his kind of farming is a wholly different vision of nature and our relationship to it.  The “other way” is not simply another choice; it is a kind of suicide on a planetary scale, social, natural, cultural, psychological, even spiritual suicide.  He wrote a book about that.  From the article:

“On one level, the book is about how cheap food culture, globalization and super-efficient, hyper-mechanized, highly productive modern farms (giant monocultures of beets, wheat, corn) are terrible for nature (insects, rivers, climate) and our health (obesity, diabetes) and our farmers (indebted, pesticide-dependent, stressed).”

The German philosopher, Heidegger, proposed that now technology “enframes” our vision of reality.  We have become creatures who seem to be only able to see reality through the optic of technology.  And this distorts not only our relationship to it but also our own self-understanding.  Again, this is not being anti-science or a call to some silly “return” to a world that never existed in the first place.  Rather, it is a proposal to see ourselves and our world in a different and deeper way.