Technology is an integral part of the human cultural “envelope.” Once we used stone implements to kill mammoths and sabretooth tigers; now we have iPads. Marshall McLuhan famously called the media the “extensions of man”; but in a sense, all technology could be described by this phrase. Our tools, as is manifestly evident in the twenty-first century, have become part of us.
The problem, of course, is that like all good things technologies can be misemployed. Instead of helping us become more productive, connected and well-rounded human beings – a task which, it should without saying, many forms of technology certainly accomplish – there are subtle ways in which common tools such as cars, computers and cell phones can impede our experience of the fullness of life. Perhaps most alarmingly, in the contemporary situation our array of electronic devices can make us dangerously busy. The constant flow of information, from Facebook status updates to celebrity gossip to international news stories, and the tyranny of urgent emails, calendar events and phone calls constantly delivered to our wireless devices, can move us away from real engagement with the people and things that matter most. Our automobiles break up our cities into sprawling concrete monstrosities, and local communities fade away. Moreover, churches seem to be built to worship Powerpoint projectors, and those in the pews are just as tired, stressed and overexerted as those outside the church walls.
Arthur Boers’ new book Living into Focus: Choosing What Matters in an Age of Distractions (Brazos, 2012) was, for my wife and I who have been reading it together, of pastoral rather than simply academic significance. I love technology, but it sure eats up a lot of my time… namely, the time for family, community and creativity I always complain I don’t have. Boers, following philosopher Albert Borgmann, invites us to engage in “focal practices” that can help counteract the “disconnected, disembodied, and disoriented” (11) life we often lead even in the highly ‘connected’ world of modern technology. Simple activities like hiking, cooking, gardening, bird-watching, sharing meals together, even playing in a punk band – these everyday practices connect us more deeply to our own desires and selfhood, our communities and our environment, making us more aware of our essential rootedness in time, space and society. In other words, these are anti-Gnostic practices; they draw us away from the pseudo-reality of the “virtual” and the often self-imposed freneticism of our daily lives to the rhythms and cadences of grace.
I first met Dr. Arthur Boers due to our shared interest in the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, a monumental journey which I have read, written and even made a film about but that he has actually walked. The question that Compostela invites is a simple one: why do it at all? What is it about the arduous pilgrimage to Compostela that compels so many people, many of them with little to no religious affiliation, to walk five hundred miles across Western Europe? Is it the promise of seeing the bones of a long-dead saint? The experience of “liminality” and “communitas” with other pilgrims? Or is it simply the desire to walk, hike or bike across a beautiful, historic landscape? Boers’ suggestion, based on his own experience of the Camino (“the Way”), is that part of what drives the pilgrims – and us in our own “pilgrimage” – is a search for something “more” than our busy, distracted, unengaged lives can provide.
Living Into Focus is perhaps best seen as a thematic recapitulation of Boers’ 500-mile hike along the Camino de Santiago, recorded in his earlier book The Way is Made By Walking (2007). For Boers, an avid hiker, walking involves a different way of looking at the world, one that takes control out of our hands, forces us to take stock of our environment and to know ourselves – including our limitations and weaknesses – in a new way. Walking, be it the Camino or the Bruce Trail in Ontario, like other “focal practices” allows us to become more human. It is difficult, but it is precisely the intentionality and struggle of the task which makes it rewarding. However, the point is not just that we should walk more – though this is probably true for a number of reasons! Instead, the pilgrimage he invites us to embark on is closer to home – a simultaneously inward and outward journey to centredness that takes us beyond the cluttered world of email, cell phones and ubiquitous screens to clarity, simplicity and focus.
Focal practices take many forms. They require discipline, skill, and perseverance – and so they are not easy, like so many of the gifts of modern technological convenience. As Boers points out, the ‘old-fashioned’ practice of letter-writing (ie. “snail mail”) is not just a peculiar, antiquated hobby – it may help us connect in a deeper way with friends than is possible via the instant technology of email. Walking somewhere rather than driving, even if it takes things out of our control, may give us a richer experience of the place we are moving through than passing through at 90 mph (or sitting in eight lanes of standstill traffic). Bird-watching, bicycling, gardening, playing music together, eating in good company – these practices allow us to slow down, pay attention, and develop character. Through all of the many examples he gives in the book, Boers calls us to be eccentric – living and moving, as monastic movements have in the past, with a different “center.” Though this may take different shapes for different people, the point is to take the time to enjoy the gift of creation rather than waste our lives staring at tiny LCD screens.
Boers certainly admires Old Order Mennonites for their willingness to part with technology in pursuit of the simple life. Yet he is no Luddite – he owns a cell phone and a computer, and advocates a responsible use of technology rather than a blanket condemnation. In fact, there are certain focal practices – blogging, for example! – which require technologies of one sort or another. Technology is part of human culture, and so it is not to blame for our own misuse of it. The book is a much-needed corrective, however, to our tendency to let technologies set us to “autopilot”… making them not so much useful extensions of ourselves but self-fulfilling ends. For this gentle reminder to walk slowly, breathe deeply and smell the roses we are grateful.