Blogging Borgmann: TCCL Chapter 22, “The Challenge of Nature”

Note: This entry is part of a series where I am blogging chapter-by-chapter through the book Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (TCCL) by Albert Borgmann. If you’re new, you may want to start at the Overview.

This chapter is a sort of case study or example of something we might start deictic discourse (the subject of the last chapter) about in a fruitful way. Borgmann thinks that, in North America, nature (specifically as “wilderness”) is possibly the most obvious place to start looking for focal concerns to discourse deictically about. We’ll first start with a brief history of attitudes towards North American wilderness, then discuss previous attempts by conservationists to involve the wilderness in public discourse, and finally explore a new understanding of wilderness from within the context of our technological society.

The initial view of wilderness was that, being wild, it was a terrifying place. It was something that was not good until it could be tamed into a garden. And early European settlers (or invaders, however you see them), after a brief flirtation with the idea of the New World as a beautiful Eden, eventually saw it as an empty land, waiting to be wrought into shape. Of course, the land wasn’t “empty” by any stretch, nor was it unsettled or uncultivated; civilizations and centuries-long relationships with land already existed, in the form of the Native Americans.

Anyway, while this view of wilderness as a chaotic void waiting to be tamed was pre-technological, it was certainly amenable to the technological approach once that came on the scene. The technological paradigm sees nature as something to be shaped, something to be used as a mere means, as a raw material. And this indeed became the mission, not so much of the pioneers, but of early American industry: to subdue the wilderness and turn it into something that could become part of the production of goods that benefit humankind. Whereas in the Old World there were much more long-lasting ties between humans and the lands they dwelled in, this more instrumental view of nature in the New World did not encourage such ties.

On the other hand, in the Old World, nature was much more often cultivated than not; relatively speaking, there was much less true “wilderness” left in Europe. Thus the American wilderness can be seen as providing a unique challenge to the technological paradigm, in two senses: first, it can be a challenge within the framework. In this sense, wilderness is something to be overcome by technology. It might prove at first unyielding to technology; for a long time we lacked the ability to blast holes through mountains, for example. Technology overcomes this challenge through the outworking of the paradigm, applying scientific insight with the aim of deconstructing natural resources for us. Second, wilderness can be a challenge to the framework of technology itself, for example by highlighting necessary conversations about domination vs respect and conservation. If the technological paradigm in and of itself must take a dominating stance to nature, then the existence of the wilderness could be seen as a counterexample to that paradigm.

Technology does have within itself some resources to meet this kind of challenge, however. Recreation and human enjoyment is one of the avowed ends of technology, and it could be argued (from within that framework) that we should therefore preserve some wilderness so that humans have access to that particular kind of pleasure. Borgmann points out that this kind of argumentation is not what he means by deictic discourse, and thus ultimately not the kind of talk that brings the real issues to the fore. When conservationists use these kinds of arguments (arguments according to practical rationality), they give up the possibility of speaking movingly and eloquently about this thing (the wilderness) that has so deeply affected them.

In other words, feeling the need to give a justification for conservation gives the game away before it starts, because it is then always an open move to rank the wilderness against some other supposed human benefit (like safety, or convenience). It fails to disclose nature to us as something other, something that has value in its own right outside of human instrumentality. As Borgmann says, “Discourse of nature can hope finally to be successful only if it abandons the conceptual outposts and bulwarks and allows nature to speak directly and fully in one’s words” (187).

Early analyses of technology vis a vis nature talked a lot about the intrusiveness of technology. The loud and brash steam locomotive, for example. There was a sense that technology was constructing a “machine in the garden”, so to speak. More recently, as Borgmann’s book is trying to show, technology has been shaping our lives more concretely precisely when it is less intrusive, precisely when it is the hidden backdrop of all our actions. A city suburb, for example, is a technological device through and through: a conglomeration of commodities procured by hidden machinery. Thus, “the advanced technology setting is characterized not by the violence of machinery but by the disengagement and distraction of commodities” (189). The balance has shifted. Now nature is the island, the garden in the machine, not the other way around.

On one hand, this feels defeating. Has nature been fully conquered? Borgmann wants us to take a more positive view: these islands can be sources of challenge for the technological paradigm, sacred spaces where technological distractions can be (in virtue of their conspicuous absence) be seen for what they are, viscerally. Borgmann’s not saying that we should turn nature into religion or that it’s the only way of accessing the divine, but it is a clear starting point for this kind of thing.

How does this work, exactly? How does nature have the possibility of bringing these issues up for us in this “sacred” way? We could look at some oppositions between life in technology and life in the wilderness.

  • Technology annihilates time and space (in bringing everything and everyone closer in both dimensions, until space has no more meaning). Wilderness restores it to us. The sun is our compass, the land delineates clear boundaries with its physical features. A day in the wilderness is marked by the rhythm of the various activities necessary for survival.
  • Technology bespeaks human creation; nature speaks to us as an another, outside the human world. It speaks as something in its own right, which devices never do.
  • Technology takes a shallow view of objects, and turns them into commodities. Nature is eminently deep. An animal in the eyes of technology is a machine that produces such-and-such amount of meat and other materials that are worthless and must be discarded. In the wilderness, the animal is a focus of nature, a distillation of the land itself and the bounty that it can support. In the wilderness, we are not consumers or conquerors, but engaged guests. We can, in a different way even than the animal, gather and focus (like a prism) the beauty and meaning around us.

Of course, these days the wilderness is always bounded by or mediated by technology. We drive to the mountains. We see jet contrails while backpacking. These slight intrusions remind us of the troubled relationship between nature and technology. They call us to be less egotistical, less anthropocentric in our treatment of the world. We also recognize that in our wilderness expeditions nowadays, it is the blessings of technology that keep us warm, well-fed, and safe. Our technical clothing, footgear, lightweight tents, dried food, and so on. But wait a minute! Is it not contradictory with the spirit of Borgmann’s analysis to want to enter the wild in safety and ease? Maybe it is to some extent, but Borgmann acquiesces that it would be foolish to court death in the wilderness. We have to have a mature recognition that the need to risk our lives in nature has been done away with. Still, this doesn’t mean that we can simply let the wilderness vanish; in fact the opposite is even more true. Our position of technological safety in the wilderness highlights nature’s fragility and need for protection. In a way, we as the children of nature have grown up, and are now “old” enough (technologically advanced enough) to see the frailty and complexity of our parents. This situation should move us to compassion and care, not extortion or abandonment.

In other words, the wilderness can help us acknowledge our need for technology, the fact that we fundamentally rely on it now, and there’s no going back. At the same time, nature helps us acknowledge our need to limit technology. On its own, technology neither needs nor wants limits, but engagement with focal things (or practices) like nature can help us outline that more mature and humble engagement with technology. Focal things are not just forlorn, pre-technological bygones; they can have a new and deep splendor, even in the technological world, so long as we heed their call to a mature and appropriately limited technology.

In the next chapter, we’ll dig even more deeply into the concept of “focal things and practices”, and move from nature to a number of other examples and how they might be patterns for us to move forward and find yet more in our own lives, about which we can speak deictically and effectively.

[Header photo by the author; Joshua Tree in 2009]

Photos from the Sierras

My community spent a week in the wilderness recently, trekking from Mammoth to Tuolumne in California’s Sierras. It was an incredible journey, filled with fun, rest, and even a few challenges along the way (including some adrenalin-pumping encounters with bears). Sadly, my camera broke on day 2, but I did manage to capture a few shots, and the last ones these lenses did see were, quite frankly, astounding. The colors involved in alpine sunsets are fantastic!

Just click on the picture to access the photo set.

Backpacking in the Sierras

Back from Whitney / Into Spareroom Studios

You should all be relieved to hear that Dan and I did not die on Mt Whitney. Though the summit attempt was a good deal more difficult than it was supposed to be, due to weather. In fact, on our way up the last 1,000 ft or so, our group kicked off a couple small avalanches, causing the team leader to declare emphatically that conditions were very unsafe. Things were so bad, we descended immediately, packed up camp (at 12,000 ft) as quickly as possible, and rushed all the way down the mountain. So unfortunately, we did not summit Mt Whitney. I did get this great picture of it during a short lull in the rogue winter storm that hit us:

It should be said also that we did have an excellent time, were in great physical condition (we rocked the climb and the altitude) and health for the duration, and got back a day early, safe and sound. These are all good things, and the whole experience was overwhelmingly positive. I’m sure Dan and I will be writing a full trip report to post at Summit Whitney, so I’ll post here when that happens. At that time we should have a number of awesome pictures, too.

About a day after I got back from Whitney, I left for Florida to be at work and with family for a week and a half or so. Since my brother David has gotten in to Duke law school and will be moving to Durham pretty shortly, we decided that Splendour Hyaline (which consists of the two of us) needed to make a new record, and fast. So apart from work, we’re pretty much in the studio (Spareroom Studios, that is). So far things are going great–we’re planning on releasing a 5 or 6 song EP. The recording quality we’re getting, both mechanically and in terms of performance, is light years beyond our previous attempts, so definitely stay tuned; we might post some unofficial mixes here or at our myspace page.

On another music-related note, you’ll notice a new sidebar on my blog, which consists of recently-played tracks from iTunes. All e4 blogs now have the ability to get data from last.fm if you have a last.fm username and some implementation of AudioScrobbler (downloads here for all platforms). If you’ve never heard of last.fm, you should check it out–it’s a cool web application that tracks your music listening and gives you cool statistics about it, suggests new artists, and connects you with people with similar taste. All that is to say, if I’ve been listening to iTunes recently (and had an internet connection), you should now be able to see that info on my blog! (If you also have an e4 blog, just go to the weblog config page and put in your last.fm username to take advantage of this feature too).

Greece / Prague Travelogue, Part IV

(this is part IV of my recent European trip journal. If you haven’t seen them yet, you should read part I, part II, and part III)

4-4, 6:05 PM, Fira, Santorini

The last few days have been incredible. The long ferry ride to Santorini was peaceful, and productive. I thought, wandered the boat, stared at the myriad passing islands, read Greek, and watched Howl’s Moving Castle. Like all Hayao Miyazaki’s films, it was excellent. Like the others, there was a story, but it refused to let you see any character as totally good or bad, or totally on one side or another.

When we got to Santorini, Victor, Deana, and Lisa (new friends from the Athens hostel and tour, respectively) joined us in the ride from the new port up the windy hill road to our hotel at Φίρα (Fira). The accomodations are good–2 beds, couch, bathroom, kitchenette, patio for 20 euros a night per person (Loizos apartments). That first night 4 of us booked an island-hopping boat tour for the next day, then wandered around Fira to find a place to eat. We were persuaded to sit down at a cafe/bar overlooking the sunset-ready sea, where the management ordered some cheap and good gyros from another place, and furnished us with a steady supply of ouzo and beer. We had a downright beautiful show of a sunset, and stayed for hours talking, drinking, laughing, and hanging out with our Albanian waiter, Roland. We got back home after 11, buzzed and ready to fall asleep.

The next morning (Monday, the 3rd), Rachel and I were awake early to buy food supplies at the supermarket with which to avoid paying lots for lunch and breakfast. We readied for the day, which promised to be warm, donning swimsuits and making sandwiches. We took the 600 long steps down to the old port, where we arrived in plenty of time for our 10:30 tour boat departure. The boat took us and the roughly 40 other tourists first to the volcanic island in the middle of what used to be the Santorini atoll [or caldera]. We disembarked and hiked around for an hour and a half, following our tour guide as she pointed out random craters and shared local myths. There was a continuous stream of mumbling from everyone about how difficult the hike was, about which I had many an internal smug smile, since I wasn’t breaking a sweat. Rachel was doing equally awesome, too.

Next came one of the more memorable parts of the trip so far. Our boat took us around the volcano (which, incidentally, was the site of the most violent volcanic eruption in recorded history–weighing in at 20 times the power of Hiroshima, the shock wave was heard 3 times by all the earth’s inhabitants, as the force of the eruption rippled through the air, around the earth again and again) to a smaller island, where there were reportedly some hot springs. The boat had to stay a ways out from the island because of the rocks, so all those interested in visiting the hot springs were asked to dive into the ocean and swim to shore, where the spring was supposedly just offshore, amidst a patch of brown, sediment-filled water. Everyone who went was required to be a strong swimmer, because it was probably 125-150 meters from where we dropped anchor to the spring. It being by that time a very hot day, I was glad to be the first to dive off the side of the boat and let my muscles pull my smoothly to the springs. I have no real swimming training, though, and so by the time I reached the brown patch, my form was much less than smooth, and I was exhausted. Moreover, there was not a noticeable difference between the ocean’s temperature and these “hot” springs, with the result that after I stopped moving, I was cold. [Incidentally, between the springs at last year’s dude’s camping trip at Big Sur, and now these Greek ones, I have officially sworn off any “hot” springs boasting a temperature of less than 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s just not worth it.] I was shivering uncontrollably and having a very unpleasant time, so I made my way back to the boat, which was harder due to the current at that location. Nevertheless, moving was much better than sitting still, and when I climbed the boat ladder, my muscles full of lactic acid, I felt refreshed and alive. But even in the hot sun, with my black jacket on, my teeth were chattering for almost the next hour.

The third stop on our tour was the island of Θιράσσια (Thirassia), a gorgeous, rocky-coastlined island with only 300 inhabitants. There we had lunch and I took some time by myself to run up the cliff path and explore the town up there. when I reached the top and wandered alone through the empty streets and through flower-strewn fields, I felt an astounding sense of peace. It seemed that in that place, life and time moved together at the correct speed. I wanted to stay for hours, but our boat was scheduled to leave, so I ran back down the stone path to the dock and we were off.

The fourth and last stop of the day was at the port of Ωια (Ia), and there the 4 of us (me, Rachel, Deana, Lisa) decided to leave the tour and walk up the cliff path to the town, which is one of the most picturesque in all the Greek isles. It was then only mid-afternoon, and we wanted to see the sunset, so we killed time for a while by wandering, sitting in the shade, reading, and napping. Everywhere I looked, beauty attended my glance, and I wore out my camera with photos of houses, churches, the sea, other islands, etc… As sunset neared, we got gyros at a stand and walked to an old tower on a point, from which was supposed to be the best view. Unfortunately, a swift-moving cold front decided to bring many clouds, which blocked the sun and spoiled (we thought) our hope for a beautiful scene. Sadly, we made our way to the bust stop, where we arrived just in time to see the sun dip in between two cloud layers, and light the entire sky with absolutely unreal shades of pink and purple. Had there not been power lines and ugly houses in the way from that spot, it might have been the most beautiful (albeit short) sunset I’ve seen. Oh well–that’s the result of lack of faith!

[Then it was time to leave for dinner…to be continued…]

Inspiration from Game Design

The list of bloggable topics on my mind is currently very long, and (I am thinking) very good. Prominent on said list are (a) a long discourse on spiritual discipline and its effects, and (b) an explication of a home-brewed, possibly-heretical theology of creation that Nick and I have been kicking around for a little while and are pretty enchanted by, which seeks to resolve intuitions of a good pre-fall state with what evolutionary history says about nature being “red in tooth and claw”–i.e., vicious and cruel–long before humans arrived on the scene. However, something I saw last night on digg inspired me to push these topics yet further back, and that was a demo for an upcoming game by Maxis (creators of all the Sim games–of which the early SimCity and SimCity 2000 were the most groundbreaking, in my opinion–incidentally, you can play SimCity Classic online here if you have a PC).

Now, I want to preface this whole entry with a bit of history, since to many of you it may come as a shock that for most of my life I have considered myself and been considered by others a “gamer”. If you want to skip the history and get to the point, scroll down to “The Reason for this Entry” below.

Continue reading “Inspiration from Game Design”

Adventures in Driving to Tahoe

After looking at Friday’s forecast for new snow in Lake Tahoe, my friends Kyle and Dan convinced me to leave at 5am on Friday to get in a good day of skiing/snowboarding at Kirkwood before driving back that evening. It was a good plan, and we were confident that it would lead to a full day of great snowboarding conditions with relatively few people on the slopes. Unfortunately, Nature had several other ideas for how we were to spend our time.

We left reasonably close to the 5am goal and made record time to the central valley, but after making our way up into the hills, things got interesting: a regular blizzard was in session, and the roads were soon quite treacherous after the snow was compacted by tires in the sub-freezing temperatures. At one point we were stopped on a slight incline behind traffic, and when it was time to go, the Civic refused to move forward–traction had disappeared. Luckily, the car behind us happened to be a police officer and so he held traffic while I mustered all my clutch ability and eased into first gear and then to the side of the road where we put chains on the tires for the rest of the climb.

It soon became apparent, as the snow kept piling up, that we were going to have serious problems, and it was indeed so: the pass to Kirkwood was closed for avalanche control, and so we were out of luck. Determined to get on some mountain, we went all the way back down and took another road, intending to find Bear Valley, a lesser resort. The pass was not quite as high on that road, so there was a good chance it wouldn’t be closed, and it wasn’t!

Of course, though open, the road was still dangerous and the going was slow. Even with chains, the car would slide and fishtail with anything but minor changes in velocity or minor turns of the wheel, making it exhausting to drive many miles at such a slow pace. Eventually, though, we made it through the whiteout (parts of which were so white that it was impossible to make out where the road was and where the snowbanks to the sides of it were) and to Bear Valley, where we were able to get 2 hours of snowboarding in before the slopes closed.

I was exhausted from 7+ hours of driving, and I hadn’t been on a board since 2004, so I had quite a few amazing spills–none of which were very dangerous, given the multiple feet of fresh powder there to break my fall! So we had a crazy fun time careening down the mountain and trying to make the most of our short time. Here you can see the snow that accumulated on my car after just that short time (and this was just the residual, post-storm effect):

Another 5 hours of driving (not including the horrendous chain installation/removal events which definitely tried our collective patience), and we were back–a very long, very intense, not-too-snowboarding-filled day! But you have to love these little adventures.

Life in the Ocean

Some random experiences from a few days in the Bahamas (from which I am now in the process of returning) spawned this poem, which spilled edit-free from my pen yesterday:

Shapes in clear water when moving
are blurred and the fuzz provides fear
For unknown says death's always seeking
and will in the end become near

So sun and life soon are forgotten
if only for a space of seconds
Heart and mind illusion-smitten
propel the soul back to the sands

From the shore heartbeats are slower
Embarrassment looks like the heat of the day
The water is clear, it seems fear need not tower
O'er a reckless rejoining the fray

But horizon reveals, dark symbols appear
Omens or fins? both blacker than sky
Recklessness checked, the imagined is here
It seems a more rational soul would have died

An Omen-ous New Year

I have a tradition (since 2000, I think) where, sometime in the first week of the new year, I drive to see the sunrise at Cocoa beach. I like to spend a few hours watching the beautiful scene, giving myself time and space to pray, meditate, wander around, and generally get centered for the upcoming year.

This year, T-Bone accompanied me to Cocoa, where we were greeted by an absolutely amazing sunrise, replete with a flock of gulls that would zoom and flutter about, putting on an amazing show:

But then, a few minutes later, we saw this:

Look at the middle-left of the image: that’s right! A shark was cruising through the water, not 30 feet off the beach (notice the pigeon for scale). Actually, there were two sharks, though I only got a shot of one. The fins were only above water as the waves would break over them, so it was hard to get a good view. Was this shark a sign of some kind? Was God warning us about something?

Later on, not realizing that if two sharks were a sign of anything, they would surely import “DON’T GO IN THE WATER!”, T-Bone and I took a swim in the ocean. What could be more relishing than being able to go in the water on January 2nd? It was a bit cold, but quite bearable and refreshing. And, as we have now proven, shark infested. Unless, of course, one of you is a marine biologist and believes the picture is actually of a dolphin.