THE BLOG
04/20/2016 03:50 pm ET

Fresh Insights from Kierkegaard on Technology

A considerable number of key thinkers are addressing the positive and negative effects of technology. The number is so considerable that I can only mention a few in this post. And, in order to limit myself further, I'll start with the those who want us to stop racing after techie toys. (Next time I'll be positive.)

Philosopher Albert Borgmann calls us to a life lived with "focal practices" and away from the "device paradigm." "Focal" comes from the Latin word focus, which meant "hearth," and which was the center of Roman life. The device paradigm is right around us and literally at our fingertips. Borgmann describes contemporary life separated by technology--everyone watching their own show, or updating their Facebook and Twitter on their separate smart phones or iPads. In contrast, focal practices draw us together. For example, the "culture of table"--i.e., having a meal together--creates community. We slow down. We bond. We come back to others.

Similarly, MIT professor of science and technology Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (2015) emphasizes (by my reading) how technology invades and prevents true human community and gets in the way of true conversation and empathy. "Just turn off your cell and talk" might be one easy takeaway from Turkle. (Although certainly there are plenty more.)

But there's one writer that I haven't yet heard mentioned. (And, by the way, this next section is excerpted from my book Say Yes to No.) An unusually gifted storyteller, the 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, illustrates the fight between affluence and its accompanying technology against the ability to "view the stars." Most philosophers can't produce really winning parables like this, one that still resonates almost two hundred years after he told it. But Kierkegaard can, and that's why he's worth quoting at length.

"When the prosperous man on a dark but starlit night drives comfortably in his carriage and has the lanterns lighted, aye, then he is safe, he fears no difficulty, he carries his light with him and it is not dark close around him; but precisely because he has the lanterns lighted, and has a strong light close to him, precisely for this reason he cannot see the stars, for his lights obscure the starts, which the poor peasant driving without the lights can see gloriously in the dark but starry night. So those deceived ones live in the temporal existence: either, occupied with the necessities of life, they are too busy to avail themselves of the view, or in the prosperity and good days they have--as it were lanterns lighted and close about them--everything is so satisfactory, so pleasant, so comfortable, but the view is lacking, the prospect, the view of the stars." Soren Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard leads me to some fairly piercing self-reflection. We--or at least I--have become enamored with brilliant, halogen lanterns, which too often obscure my view of the stars. I so often find myself in a thicket of technological devices multiplying around me, entertaining me, connecting me. Yet they're also beginning to strangle me.

And I wonder: What cricket sounds have I missed when I take a walk with and iPod strapped to me? Has my vision for the crow or the owl become diminished by the hours I stare into a computer screen? Underneath the electric lamps, have I lost my view of the stars?

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