So you think you can tell?: Perception and the Postmodern Condition
So, so you think you can tell heaven from hell, blue skies from pain?
-Wish You Were Here, Pink Floyd, 1975
The classic Pink Floyd song addressed former band member Syd Barrett’s breakdown, and writer Roger Walters’ feelings of alienation. The song’s symbolism has also been aligned with perceptions of a narcotic trip. The Easter speech by Pope Benedict XVI suggests that in our postmodern moment, we have all become lost in perceptions, and can no longer tell heaven from hell. A primary cause for this confusion: technology.
The postmodern condition, first outlined by Jean-François Lyotard in 1979, suggested the end of meta-narratives and universal claims for existence like Christianity. In the past three decades, technology increased and the diversity of human stories and assertion of identity politics have been showcased on the internet and social media. We now consider our postmodern moment one of unprecedented advancements and freedom of expression.
One hundred years before Lyotard however, in Germany in 1879, a relatively unknown writer described his time: “The present novelty of facts and the need for diversions has become so decisive that the people’s opinion is deprived of the support of a firm historical tradition…the complacent and intellectually lazy mass I have supplied with pretext for avoiding the labour of thinking for themselves.” People were so consumed with new information that they lacked both historic tradition and independent thinking. This is contrary to what most believe, that if we are “free” from historic or traditional dogma then we will obviously think ourselves. But in knowing history, one can truly recognize independent thought. Today, technology constantly supplies an abundance of information and we often have a false perception of knowing everything. Without any true traditional value as a basis, we allow media to become the authority of “the right view of the day,” and technology is the god that supplies it.
Pope Benedict XVI observes spiritual complacency that makes humanity more subject to the beacon of technology. One of the central themes of his pontificate is that humankind is too often in awe of technology instead of God. The Apple brand is one example, presented to us as the brightest spot to be, even if it is only an illuminated screen in a dark room. The interaction with technology is perceived as light, but often generates qualities of spiritual darkness: solitude, confusion, fear, despair.
When we engage with digital technology we enter a sea of indeterminate perceptions. Pope Benedict XVI explained, “The darkness that poses a real threat to mankind, after all, is the fact that he can see and investigate tangible material things, but cannot see where the world is going or whence it comes, where our own life is going, what is good and what is evil…If God and moral values, and the difference between good and evil, remain in darkness, then all other ’lights’, that put such incredible technical feats within our reach, are not only progress but also dangers that put us and the world at risk.” This is contrary to the common perspective that techno-science is advancing us away from danger. Technology appears to offer almost every solution, from medical advancement to a more efficient daily life. It appears to brighten our day and lighten our load, qualities previously attributed to God. But unlike God, technology takes us away from tangible hands-on care of others and from contemplation of the natural world.
Dismissing technology is the radical answer for the Mennonites. They reject labor-saving devices in favor of community sharing of work and many believe that new technology fuels perceptions of status and vanity. A recent Canadian study found that Facebook users rate high for narcissism and the site encourages the trait in normal individuals. When technology enters our personal space, through hand-held devices and intimate social media, we focus more on the self and lose sight of larger concerns. “Our knowledge and our technical accomplishments are legion, but what reaches beyond, the things of God and the question of good, we can no longer identify,” Pope Benedict XVI said. While we are all eager to participate in the arbitrations of the public sphere through our comments and opinions, many are forgetting both an individual and collective view of the horizon of eternity.
The next time you are at an Apple store that looks like the future, think about technology and perception. The two cannot be separated. Internal codes of technology generate surface images, but the images still represent values that we must discern. So you think you can tell? “For we are not fighting against people made of flesh and blood, but against the evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against those mighty powers of darkness who rule this world, and against wicked spirits in the heavenly realms.” Ephesians 6:12
F. von Holtzendorff, Wesen und Wert der öffentlichen Meinung. München, 1879, 91f see Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1989, p. 240.