Friday, February 5, 2010

Luxury & Technology (Part II)

We saw yesterday that it is not uncommon in history for the beneficiaries of new technology and luxury to be uneasy with this new technology and luxury. Just when life could never get any better, somebody poses that annoying question: Is it really good to live with all this technology and luxury?

It is certainly tempting to dismiss all these would-be reformers as a bunch of hypocrites with strange qualms about enjoying a good life. After all, they usually do not give up the benefits of technology and luxury. They are just a bunch of jet-set celebrities telling us to stop flying, bloggers telling us to give up blogging, and city-slickers telling us to leave the cities.

And yet, it seems unfair to label all these people hypocrites. Some of them no doubt are, but many seem to be acting in good faith, posing legitimate questions about the effects of technology and the luxury. They seem honestly perplexed about how best to come to terms with technology and luxury in their own lives.

What, then, is at the root of this perplexity, this uneasiness with luxury and technology?

There is a German word, Zerstreuung, which I find illuminating. A standard dictionary tells us that the word literally means “dispersion or scattering” (the English cognate is “strew”). However, Zerstreuung also has a figurative meaning: diversion or distraction. The idea behind this figurative meaning is that we must not allow ourselves to be “scattered”; instead, we must concentrate, that is we must "maintain our center," and not be "torn apart" by distractions. When we seek out distractions, we are choosing not to focus our energy on something more important. The ability to distract is the hidden danger of both luxury and technology.

Modern technology’s ability to distract is well known. YouTube, Hulu, and all the other video-sharing websites out there are easy ways to waste time. And, of course, before there was YouTube there was the boob tube. But even when we try to read a serious article on the Internet, something about the web makes it difficult to concentrate on the article for very long.

And, luxury—the ability to spend money and to indulge our desires—is famously distracting and enervating. To mention one more ancient example, public opinion in Rome turned against Mark Antony after he took up with Cleopatra, since she was renowned for her Oriental dissipation. The Romans felt that Antony was forgetting his destiny and losing his manhood. Luxury destroyed the very ground of Antony’s existence.

But, Zerstreuung, as I said, means we are not concentrating on something more important. What is it that is more important? The first things and the last things; right and wrong; the true, the good, the beautiful.

But for those of us who flatter ourselves that we are intellectuals and are above such vulgar Zerstreuung (and I’ll admit I’m one of them sometimes), there is another, much more subtle danger: we often become proud of our own intellectual ability. In other words, because of our self-regard, we can turn our interest in the things that are supposed to lead us to ask and answer the most important questions in life—about theology and philosophy, art and literature, mathematics and science—into a reason to feel superior to everybody else.

And that is truly perverse. The old maxim holds true: Corruptio optimi pessima. These intellectual pursuits are not important because they allow us to puff up our pride, or even necessarily for their own sake. They are important because they teach us about reality and give us the courage to face reality honestly:

A truthful, austere intellectual life grabs out of our hands art, literature, and the sciences, in order to prepare us to confront fate all alone. (Nicolás Gómez Dávila)
This confrontation with fate, which is supposed to be the goal of our intellectual life, is also the goal of all asceticism. The life of the intellect must be lived within the larger context of the life of asceticism.

Why, then, are so many people uneasy with luxury and technology? Luxury and technology make it easier to distract ourselves from the asceticism essential to a good life. Whether consciously or not, we know that we use luxury and technology to avoid our destiny.

In the end, though, living a good life does not come down, strictly speaking, to getting rid of all luxury and technology. Getting rid of luxury and technology will not get rid of all distractions. What matters most is the pursuit of the ascetic life, no matter what conditions we live under.
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