The Tech-Wise Family

In his previous books — Culture Making, Playing God, and Strong and WeakAndy Crouch has shown a remarkable facility for translating theological and philosophical ideas into the language of Christian practice and action. I haven’t mentioned this to him, but I suspect that when Andy confronts a new idea he asks himself, What would life look like if we acted on the belief that this idea is true?

So Andy is just the right person to give us his new book The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place (click the link above for more details). It’s really first-rate: unashamedly practical but buttressed by theological acuity and some really interesting research from the Barna Group on the technological habits of American families. Andy writes explicitly and straightforwardly as a Christian, and some of his arguments will, I expect, have greater force for Christians, but there’s a great deal of wisdom and sound advice here for every family who wants to make reasonable and health-giving decisions about their engagements with technology.

I’m pretty occupied right now by my Anthropocene Theology project, but don’t be surprised if I have a post or two or three about Andy’s book later.

Building 5: cunning works

Let us reflect further on the call and assignment of Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur in Exodus 31: We are told that he will “devise artistic designs,” “devise plans,” or, in the irresistible formulation of King James’s translators, “devise cunning works.”

Josipovici again:

The Hebrew phrase for ‘to devise cunning works’ is lachshov machashavot, and the word chosev can have both a good and a bad meaning depending on the person involved…. Joseph says to his brothers ve’atem chashavtem ‘alai ra‘ah, ‘But as for you, ye thought evil against me’ (Gen.50:30). However, where craftsmanship is concerned the word clearly has positive overtones. ‘To make makings’ or ‘to encunning cunningnesses’ might catch the sense of ancient craftsmanship, so often conveyed in Greek by the Homeric word poikilos, which means both ‘dappled’ and ‘cunningly wrought’, and in Latin by the Lucretian word daedulus, which means ‘artificial’, ‘adorned’, but also ‘variegated’. (p. 105)

Josipovici wants the verb and object doubled because the same root (look for the ch) appears in both: thus his suggested “to make makings” or, I might say, “to design designs” — preferable, I think, because the word so often denotes planning or devising.

In any event, the really interesting thing here is the strongly opposing valences of such devising. The only other place in the Hebrew Bible where lachshov appears is Proverbs 16:30, where we are told that “One who winks the eyes plans perverse things,” or — and here again is the greater liveliness, though possibly also the lesser accuracy, of the KJV — “He shutteth his eyes to devise froward things.” Things need to be planned out, carefully devised, because they are complicated, and complication suggests, at one and the same time, deviousness and creativity. Thus the widespread feeling that highly elaborated works, baroque or rococo styles, are somehow less honest and trustworthy than simpler, more direct, less meticulously crafted design or utterance (a sense that the current American political situation ought to call into question).

Thus also the gradual pejoration of “cunning,” a word that, being ancestrally related to the German kennen, meaning simply to know, used to have a far wider range of shades and tones. (“Ken” is common in Scots English — Ken ye not that? — and has a bare survival elsewhere in “beyond our ken,” beyond our knowledge.) Bezalel’s commission to “devise cunning works” is not the only example of that earlier range: in his rendering of 1 Corinthians 2:13, Tyndale has Paul refer to “thinges also we speake, not in the connynge wordes of mannes wysdome, but with the connynge wordes of the holy goost.” King James’s translators ditched that phraseology for something that sounds to us more modern — “things also we speak, not in the words which man’s wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth” — but not because the word “cunning” had by then completely altered. Indeed, in Shakespeare it is largely used simply to describe those who possess a certain body of knowledge — in Taming of the Shrew we hear of men “cunning in music and the mathematics” and “cunning in Greek, Latin, and other languages” — but occasionally in a strongly positive sense, as in a lovely moment in Twelfth Night when Viola speaks of Olivia’s face, “whose red and white / Nature’s own sweet and cunning hand laid on.” (Mercy, what a line that is.) And when Prince Hal, playing the role of his father, asks of Falstaff “Wherein [art thou] cunning, but in craft?” the implication is that “cunning” is a more positive, or at least more neutral, term than “craft,” which seems here to mean something like deviousness — and this in turn brings us back to devising. The whole constellation of terms gradually but inexorably falls under darker and darker clouds.

(This would be an excellent moment to tear off on a long digression about the “cunning folk” — Shakespeare’s characters refer to cunning men and cunning women — that would probably lead to an even more fanciful improvised cadenza on Robertson Davies’s last novel, The Cunning Man, which constitutes a partial and ambiguous rehabilitation of the term … but I am going to restrain myself. For now.)

What I want to suggest here is that Jews and Christians may have good theological reasons to suspect such devices. Here again Josipovici comes to our aid, via his clever linkage of choshev and daedulus, the latter of which, of course, provides the name for the legendary first artist, the deviser of, among other things, the labyrinth of the Minotaur on Crete. One could spend some time listing the cunning works attributed to Daedalus, but I am especially interested in the kind of object named for him, the daidala, and especially one subset of the daidalai, the agalmata, statues of the gods with moving limbs and eyes that opened and closed. Socrates refers to these in at least two of Plato’s dialogues, the Meno and the Euthyphro, and while he jokes about them, they seem to have freaked many people out — as did, a couple of millennia later, the automata that so fascinated Europeans from the Middle Ages through the Enlightenment. (As I have mentioned earlier, in a post with strong thematic links to this one, Jessica Riskin writes about those automata in her brilliant book The Restless Clock.)

“Now for the poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth,” says Sir Philip Sidney, but there is the suspicion that Daedalus makes things that lie, for instance, mechanical gods who actually might be gods — you can never tell, given the Olympians’ habit of assuming disguises. And in general the more cleverly designed automata occupy that uncanny valley wherein we lose our ability to navigate the world of appearances so as to distinguish true from false, original from copy. (Cue Platonic concerns about mimesis, which will always haunt discussions of artful making.) Consider also, in this light, the most disturbing of Daedalus’s daidalai, the enormous cow he makes for Pasiphaë to climb into so she can present her vagina to the bull for whom she lusts. Not being a god, Daedalus cannot transform Pasiphaë into a cow — but he can, through cunning, do the next best thing. Surely this is “devising a froward thing.”

What results from this art-enabled union is the Minotaur, which Daedalus then must use yet more cunning to contain, by making the great labyrinth from which even he barely escapes. I am perhaps getting carried away with this whole linguistic/etymological thing — I’ve been spending too much time around Adam Roberts — but I can’t help noting that the Minotaur is a monster, from the Latin monstrum, which means a sign or revelation, something revealed — usually something terrible. And among the revelations here is that of devising/cunning/designing gone awry, gone awry because it has lost sight of legitimate human ends, and of legitimate means to ends.

Thinking of the cow made by Daedalus we should also remember the Golden Calf made by Aaron: each is a human-imagined, human-designed, human-made artifact that when deployed produces monsters. Those who worship and make sacrifices to objects they have made are as bereft of reason as a woman who offers herself sexually to a bull. Pasiphaë’s madness is imposed on her, whereas that of the Israelites seems to be self-imposed, though no adequate explanation is provided: they simply decide to make and worship some new “gods to go before us” when Moses doesn’t come down from the mountain when they think he should. But in any case, Pasiphaë and the Israelites alike have become the helpless thralls of disordered desires. They have in a sense become the mere instruments of their desires, they are what Ruskin called “animate tools.” And what they crave is made objects, technologies, cunningly designed to fulfill those desires, thereby extending and strengthening the chain of instrumentality. Whatever enables the fulfillment of those desires they (either implicitly or explicitly) worship.

building 4: creative fidelity

In Exodus 31 there’s a curious passage in which the Lord describes to Moses the artist, or artisan, or craftsman, whom He has chosen to oversee the building of the Tabernacle: “See, I have called by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: and I have filled him with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft.” That’s the NRSV. The ESV has something very similar: “I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft.”

Here’s Robert Alter: “And I have filled him with the spirit of God in wisdom and in understanding and in knowledge and in every task, to devise plans, to work in gold and in silver and an bronze, and in stone cutting for settings and in wood carving, to do every task.”

And finally, the good old KJV: “And I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, to devise cunning works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, and in cutting of stones, to set them, and in carving of timber, to work in all manner of workmanship.”

I want here to note two points about this passage, and save a third point for another post.

First, as Alter comments, throughout the Pentateuch “‘wisdom’ and its synonyms suggest both mastery of a craft and something like insight” — we might say, both techne and phronesis.

Second, the words translated as “work,” “craft,” “task,” “worksmanship,” and so on are almost always variants of mela’khah, which, says Alter, is one of the two most common Biblical words for work, the other being ‘avodah. Alter says that the latter “usually implies subservience – in political contexts, it means to be subject or vassal to a superior power, in cultic contexts, divine service — and it also often suggests strenuous physical labor.” He notes that after the Fall Adam is cursed to work (‘avodah) the soil, and the same word is used to describe the labor of the Israelite slaves in Egypt. By contrast, mela’khah typically connotes craft and manual skill. Interestingly, and I think importantly, the closely related noun mala’kh is a messenger or agent — an angel is one kind of mala’kh. But isn’t this also “divine service”? It seems that the words mela’khah and ‘avodah are meant to distinguish levels of personal freedom in the exercise of a responsibility: the one who performs ‘avodah has virtually no such freedom, is instead forced to carry out duties mechanically and without initiative or imagination, whereas the one who performs mela’khah can put more of himself or herself into the work. The mala’kh is granted the boon of what we might call creative fidelity in carrying out his or her tasks.

I find myself thinking here of a justly famous passage in Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice about imperfection in work. I’m going to quote a big chunk of it, because it’s profound and wonderful:

But the modern English mind has this much in common with that of the Greek, that it intensely desires, in all things, the utmost completion or perfection compatible with their nature. This is a noble character in the abstract, but becomes ignoble when it causes us to forget the relative dignities of that nature itself, and to prefer the perfectness of the lower nature to the imperfection of the higher; not considering that as, judged by such a rule, all the brute animals would be preferable to man, because more perfect in their functions and kind, and yet are always held inferior to him, so also in the works of man, those which are more perfect in their kind are always inferior to those which are, in their nature, liable to more faults and shortcomings…. And therefore, while in all things that we see, or do, we are to desire perfection, and strive for it, we are nevertheless not to set the meaner thing, in its narrow accomplishment, above the nobler thing, in its mighty progress; not to esteem smooth minuteness above shattered majesty; not to prefer mean victory to honourable defeat; not to lower the level of our aim, that we may the more surely enjoy the complacency of success. But, above all, in our dealings with the souls of other men, we are to take care how we check, by severe requirement or narrow caution, efforts which might otherwise lead to a noble issue; and, still more, how we withhold our admiration from great excellencies, because they are mingled with rough faults. Now, in the make and nature of every man, however rude or simple, whom we employ in manual labour, there are some powers for better things: some tardy imagination, torpid capacity of emotion, tottering steps of thought, there are, even at the worst; and in most cases it is all our own fault that they are tardy or torpid. But they cannot be strengthened, unless we are content to take them in their feebleness, and unless we prize and honour them in their imperfection above the best and most perfect manual skill. And this is what we have to do with all our labourers; to look for the thoughtful part of them, and get that out of them, whatever we lose for it, whatever faults and errors we are obliged to take with it. For the best that is in them cannot manifest itself, but in company with much error. Understand this clearly: You can teach a man to draw a straight line, and to cut one; to strike a curved line, and to carve it ; and to copy and carve any number of given lines or forms, with admirable speed and perfect precision; and you find his work perfect of its kind: but if you ask him to think about any of those forms, to consider if he cannot find any better in his own head, he stops; his execution becomes hesitating; he thinks, and ten to one he thinks wrong; ten to one he makes a mistake in the first touch he gives to his work as a thinking being. But you have made a man of him for all that. He was only a machine before, an animated tool.

Thus Ruskin rejoices when he sees the various small (and sometimes large) flaws in the execution of old Venetian ornament, and grieves when he sees the flawlessness of modern factory work. For the former are the products of mela’khah, the latter products of mere ‘avodah, the work of human beings reduced to the status of “animated tool.”

Equipped with this distinction, I remembered Josipovici’s point about Solomon’s forced labor that I cited in my previous post: “This massive deployment of a labor force to hew and cut stone is more reminiscent of the Israelites in Egypt than of the willing makers of the Tabernacle.” Surely this work is described by the narrator as a kind of ‘avodah?

But no, it turns out; no, it isn’t. What some translations call “forced labor” is hammas, “levy” or “tribute”; and when the actual labor of the workers is mentioned, the words employed are indeed versions of mela’khah, or a third word for work, ha‘ōsim, which is clearly used to refer to skilled labor or craft. The KJV speaks of these people as “those who wrought,” like wheelwrights or cartwrights: highly trained artisans. Which perhaps suggests that even those who were “levied” to work on the Temple were still granted a kind of dignity that differentiates them from those among their ancestors who had been slaves in Egypt: though required by the King to build, they had dignity in their work. They used tools, but they were not themselves mere “animated tools.” There are both kinds and degrees of independence in labor.

One might conclude from this little excursus an important point: what Wendell Berry calls “good work” is often possible in conditions of limited political freedom, perhaps even in certain forms of bondage. Berry:

Good human work honors God’s work. Good work uses no thing without respect, both for what it is in itself and for its origin. It uses neither tool nor material that it does not respect and that it does not love. It honors Nature as a great mystery and power, as an indispensable teacher, and as the inescapable judge of all work of human hands. It does not dissociate life and work, or pleasure and work, or love and work, or usefulness and beauty. To work without pleasure or affection, to make a product that is not both useful and beautiful, is to dishonor God, nature, the thing that is made, and whomever it is made for. This is blasphemy: to make shoddy work of the work of God. And such blasphemy is not possible so long as the entire Creation is understood as holy, and so long as the works of God are understood as embodying and so revealing God’s spirit.

(If you know the amazing story of William and Ellen Craft — and if you don’t you should — you’ll remember that his skill as a carpenter, his good work, earned him a degree of personal freedom which in turn enabled his escape from slavery. And his name is Craft, for heaven’s sake.) It is often possible to work this way in conditions of bondage, but not always: when the human person is but an “animated tool” in the hands of those who dishonor Creation and its Creator, then good work may be out of reach. This is ‘avodah and conditions still worse. In our work we may count our selves blessed when we have the status of the mala’kh, the one privileged, in carrying out an assigned task, to be creative and free in faithfulness.

We might even say that technology is redeemed when, and only when, it enables this status. We should assess our technologies not only by what they do to the world — whatever it is they explicitly direct their powers towards — but also by what they do to those who employ them: Do they force us into the condition of animated tools, or extend and amplify our proper creativity? And what they do to us they will also and necessarily do to our relations with one another. This is a good deal of what Ivan Illich means when he speaks of “tools for conviviality.

building 3: practices of making

In reflecting further on the story of how and why Solomon built the Temple, I want to cite Gabriel Josipovici again, because without being cynical he is very skilled at teasing out some of the oddities of this narrative.

Like most modern readers, including myself, Josipovici is interested in human motives; but as Erich Auerbach famously taught us, this is just the sort of thing about which the narrators of the Hebrew Bible are notoriously reticent. This does not necessarily mean that they are uninterested in motive; they could, perhaps, be very interested in motive and yet aware that, as Rebecca West is said to have commented, there’s no such thing as an unmixed one.

In any case, Josipovici is quite alert to the possible distance between how Solomon describes his actions and what those actions, taken as a whole, actually amount to. I got into some of that in my previous post, when I spoke of the ways in which Solomon seems almost to be manipulating or even coercing the Lord into blessing Israel (and of course its new king).

Well, there’s another variety of coercion here. Let’s return to 1 Kings 5:

King Solomon drafted forced labor out of all Israel, and the draft numbered 30,000 men. And he sent them to Lebanon, 10,000 a month in shifts. They would be a month in Lebanon and two months at home. Adoniram was in charge of the draft. Solomon also had 70,000 burden-bearers and 80,000 stonecutters in the hill country, besides Solomon’s 3,300 chief officers who were over the work, who had charge of the people who carried on the work. At the king’s command they quarried out great, costly stones in order to lay the foundation of the house with dressed stones. So Solomon’s builders and Hiram’s builders and the men of Gebal did the cutting and prepared the timber and the stone to build the house.

As Josipovici notes, “This massive deployment of a labor force to hew and cut stone is more reminiscent of the Israelites in Egypt than of the willing makers of the Tabernacle” (p. 100).

It seems to me that this point relates to one that Josipovici makes a little later:

It is important to note that the [Tabernacle] is a tent and not a stone building. It is made of poles and curtains and is only itself when in action, so to speak, as an animal cannot be adequately understood in terms of bones and skin, but needs to be studied in movement, as a living whole. So the tent is always going to be more than the kit that makes up its parts. Each time it is erected, therefore, the process of making is renewed. (p.104)

That’s a brilliant point, I think: the Tabernacle is always being made, it is new every morning. It is therefore something like the cosmos, which in a sense was constructed in six days after which its Maker rested, but in another sense is constantly undergoing making: as Chesterton famously said, “It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them.”

In any case, if we put those two passages from Josipovici together, we get a fairly comprehensive contrast between the Temple and the Tabernacle: the former made on the initiative of the king, built of stone, built by conscripted labor, built once, fixed and permanent; the former made at the commandment of the Lord, built of woven cloth and carved wood and a bit of metalwork, built by the artisans of the children of Israel, erected repeatedly and moved when the people moved — the people whose relationship to the Lord is repeatedly figured as walking. (Thus, as noted in my previous post, the Lord to Solomon: “If you will walk before me, as David your father walked, with integrity of heart and uprightness, doing according to all that I have commanded you, and keeping my statutes and my rules, then I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever.”)

It is as though in making the Temple Solomon has reversed, if not actively repudiated, the practices of making that God had commanded Moses to pursue. Whether he meant to or not, Solomon in building the Temple has encouraged the people of Israel to place their trust in technological power — technological power as a manifestation of political power. A straight line runs from the demand for a king in 1 Samuel 8 to the construction of this mighty and gorgeous edifice, a building that, God warns Solomon, may well be destroyed, thus making Israel “a proverb and byword among all peoples.” A Tabernacle is a technology that curbs idolatry; a Temple, however well-intentioned its maker and however devout the priests who serve in it, runs the risk of encouraging idolatry.

building 2

The reign of King David of Israel was highly successful, but also ceaselessly beset by conflicts. Whenever he had a break from fighting the surrounding nations, David had to reckon with internal conflict among members of his family and his court. He seems to have lurched from one crisis to another throughout the whole of his forty-year reign.

But the account in the Bible of this eventful period is interrupted, in 2 Samuel 7, by what Robert Alter calls “a major cesura in the David story.” The cesura occurs because David stops to reflect on the (to him) uncomfortable irony that he dwells in a cedar house — cedar being a luxurious import from Lebanon — while the Lord himself has but a small, portable tent. Surely the King should build a more lasting habitation for the Lord? The prophet Nathan, to whom David says this, instantly replies, “Go, do all that is in your heart, for the Lord is with you.”

And indeed Nathan has good reason to believe that the Lord is with David — but then he receives a surprising visitation. It seems that the Lord is not at all happy with David’s plan.

But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan, “Go and tell my servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord: Would you build me a house to dwell in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling. In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”’

Basically: I’ll let you know when I want a house. In the meantime, as Alter notes, “God will grant David a house — that is, a continuing dynasty, and then will have David’s son build Him a house — that is, a temple.” But very uncharacteristically, Alter does not have this quite right. The Lord does not say that He will have Solomon build him a house, he merely says, “He shall build a house for my name.”

I think this point deserves to be stressed. When we first hear about the plans for the Temple, in 1 Kings 5, here’s what Solomon says to Hiram, King of Tyre:

“You know that David my father could not build a house for the name of the Lord his God because of the warfare with which his enemies surrounded him, until the Lord put them under the soles of his feet. But now the Lord my God has given me rest on every side. There is neither adversary nor misfortune. And so I intend to build a house for the name of the Lord my God, as the Lord said to David my father, ‘Your son, whom I will set on your throne in your place, shall build the house for my name.’”

This is noteworthy in several ways. First, the idea that David was unable to build a Temple because of constant warfare may have been David own’s view of the matter, but that’s not what the Lord said to him — indeed, just the opposite: “I have cut off all your enemies from before you…. And I will give you rest from all your enemies.” Second, Solomon clearly believes that the Lord wants him to build the Temple, perhaps because that’s what David told him; but, again, God’s declaration in 2 Samuel 7 says nothing about a commandment to build, and here in 1 Kings 5 he has still not said to Solomon, or to anyone, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” The whole idea is Solomon’s.

And if we keep that in mind we might notice what the Lord says when, in 1 Kings 6, in the midst of the great construction project, he finally gets around to commenting on the whole endeavor:

Now the word of the Lord came to Solomon, “Concerning this house that you are building, if you will walk in my statutes and obey my rules and keep all my commandments and walk in them, then I will establish my word with you, which I spoke to David your father. And I will dwell among the children of Israel and will not forsake my people Israel.”

Maybe I should have said that we might notice what the Lord does not say, because though he introduces his statement by saying that it concerns the house Solomon is building, he doesn’t congratulate Solomon on the achievement or praise the beauty of the building or even express thanks. The force of the statement is to remind Solomon that that house does not matter at all. What matters is Solomon’s obedience.

On one level, Solomon seems to get this. When the Temple is completed and he utters his great prayer of dedication, he indeed emphasizes the necessity of obedience. But he also repeatedly suggests that now that the Temple is built it is time for the Lord to fulfill all his promises to David’s “house” — as though by building the Temple Solomon has asserted some kind of claim upon the God who made the whole cosmos and raised up Israel and put him, Solomon, on his throne.

If so, that claim is not acknowledged. After all the celebratory hoo-ha is over, “the Lord appeared to Solomon a second time, as he had appeared to him at Gibeon.” And while he says, “I have consecrated this house that you have built, by putting my name there forever. My eyes and my heart will be there for all time,” he then continues, at far greater length, on a different theme:

And as for you, if you will walk before me, as David your father walked, with integrity of heart and uprightness, doing according to all that I have commanded you, and keeping my statutes and my rules, then I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised David your father, saying, ‘You shall not lack a man on the throne of Israel.’ But if you turn aside from following me, you or your children, and do not keep my commandments and my statutes that I have set before you, but go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut off Israel from the land that I have given them, and the house that I have consecrated for my name I will cast out of my sight, and Israel will become a proverb and a byword among all peoples. And this house will become a heap of ruins.

So, again: the greatness and the beauty and the glory of the Temple are irrelevant — and indeed, when they come to an end, may even be a mark of shame to Israel. (The exchange between Solomon and the Lord is somewhat reminiscent of the moment when the children of Israel cry out for a king. Okay, says the Lord; but you’re not going to like it.)

And if Solomon were to cry out that he had spent seven years building that Temple (1 Kings 6:38), the Lord might with some justification note that the great and wise king devoted to the building of his own palace thirteen years (1 Kings 7:1). That’s a shrewd point that Gabriel Josipovici makes.

So the building of the Temple is an interesting event, in terms of the typology I laid out in my last post. Clearly Solomon does not build the Temple “in defiance of and rivalry with God,” but neither is its construction commanded by God, and God seems to view it as, at best, something neutral, neither here nor there, and Solomon’s great devotion to it looks like a case of misplaced priorities. Perhaps he should have been focusing on an altogether different project.

It seems likely to me that the Lord consents to dwell in the Temple simply because that is where the Tabernacle — the mishkan or “dwelling-place” which He had commanded to be made — now rests. When He says “My eyes and my heart will be there for all time,” this may have nothing at all to do with what Solomon has made: it could merely be a reaffirmation of the Mosaic covenant. And in that light it may be worthwhile to note that Solomon devotes a good bit of his prayer of consecration of the Temple to what sounds like instruction, not of the children of Israel but of the Lord himself:

when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a far country for your name’s sake (for they shall hear of your great name and your mighty hand, and of your outstretched arm), when he comes and prays toward this house, hear in heaven your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and that they may know that this house that I have built is called by your name.

I don’t mean to bring too much of a hermeneutics of suspicion to this party, but this looks suspiciously like an inversion of the Mosaic law: rather than God giving the law to Israel, Solomon gives the law to God. And the leverage that he hopes to bring is the promise that the Lord will be honored by the nations as God through the magnificence of “this house that I have built.” Look at what I have done for you! Aren’t you grateful?“ The Temple is a magnificent technological achievement, and Solomon insists that its purpose is to glorify God, since “this house … is called by your name”; but it certainly seems that Solomon is hardly indifferent to his own power and glory.

building

A book that I have returned to often over the years is Gabriel Josipovici’s The Book of God. Josipovici is an English (though born in France) novelist and critic who, at some point in the 1980s, learned Hebrew and Greek in order to read the Bible, and The Book of God is an account of what he discovered when he worked his way through that strange text.

The Book of God is a readerly book, a book about the experience of encountering Scripture by someone who did not grow up thinking of the Bible as “the book of God,” and Josipovici is especially interested in exploring those moments when the Bible seems to want to thwart readers, or at least the kind of reader that most people today tend to be. Consider, for instance, the mind-numbing detail of the account of building the Tabernacle (and associated objects) that the book of Exodus provides — twice. First the Lord tells Moses about all the parts of the Tabernacle and what they should be made of, along with similar instructions for the garments of the priests and other related matters. Then — after Moses brings this information down from the mountain only to discover that Aaron has built a golden calf for the people to worship, and after that little disaster has been dealt with — we have described for us the process by which the workmen of Israel did, quite precisely and obediently, just what the Lord instructed them to do.

It’s almost impossible, Josipovici says, to read all this; it cuts against the grain of everything we think reading is. And there’s something else odd about it: several commentators have noticed that, as long and detailed as the instructions recounted in Exodus are, you couldn’t actually build a Tabernacle from them — too much is omitted, so later attempts at reconstruction have necessarily involved a great deal of guesswork. So the whole episode, or set of episodes, is rather odd.

Josipovici therefore wonders if there isn’t some other way to make sense of it, and he decides to approach the interpretative problem in a different way. He notes that in the Tabernacle episode we have detailed accounts of the building or fabricating of complex objects. Where else in the Hebrew Bible do we see the building or fabrication of complex objects?

The answer is: in at least six other places.

  • The building of the Golden Calf itself (Exodus 32), a kind of interpolated scene in the midst of the account of building the Tabernacle;
  • The construction of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11);
  • The construction of the Ark by Noah (Genesis 6);
  • The building of the great Temple in Jerusalem by Solomon (1 Kings 6);
  • Solomon’s building of his own palace (1 Kings 7);
  • The creation of the cosmos and the world by the Lord (Genesis 1-2).

As I read this section of Josipovici’s illuminating book, it occurs to me that one way to subdivide these descriptions is:

  • what the Lord himself builds,
  • what the Lord specifically instructs humans to build,
  • what the Lord does not instruct but permits humans to build, and
  • what humans build in defiance of and rivalry with the Lord.

To see these acts of making in this light is to see that each act of making is an act of glorification: something or someone is glorified, celebrated and raised up, through the making.

Those of you who have read my stuff for a while know that I am interested in thinking theologically about technology, or, to put the task in another way, incorporating reflections on technology into theological accounts of human thought and action. I might describe the recent Pynchon read-through as a subset of my larger inquiry into the technological history of modernity, which is itself a subset of a theology of technology, which is in turn a subset of a general theological anthropology. I keep thinking about these matters, and reading everything I can find that seems related to them, in the hopes that at some point I will figure out the level at which I can make an appropriate contribution. A book just on Pynchon might be a little too narrow; a theological anthropology is almost certainly too broad a project for me and beyond my scholarly competence (I am not, after all, a theologian).

But as I’m feeling my way blindly around this elephant, it occurs to me that pausing to reflect on the implications of these descriptions of building in the Hebrew Bible might be a useful way to isolate some coordinates for a theology of technology. So more on that in subsequent posts.

my year in technology

Last year I wrote a “my year in tech” post, so why not this year also?

It’s been a one-step-forward one-step-back kind of year. Some of the changes I implemented last year have stuck this year, but not all of them.

1) The big difficulty of this past year was Twitter, thanks almost wholly to the Presidential election. As I explained in last year’s post, I had mostly escaped public Twitter, venturing there only on rare occasions — and regretting every such venture: I still sometimes forget just how many responses from strangers are uninformed or belligerent or both. (However, my moments of forgetfulness have become rarer, and maybe at last I have learned my lesson for good.) So I had confined myself to the much calmer sanctuary of a private account — but during and immediately following the election private Twitter was no refuge. Even given the small population of that world (fewer than a hundred people) the anger just pulsed and radiated — 24 hours a day, it seemed. So for a while I escaped altogether, deactivating my private account and thinking I might never return. But soon enough I found myself really missing my friends there, so I re-activated it, though making sure to disable retweets for almost everyone, hoping in that way to minimize the amplifications of wrath. We’ll see how it goes. In March I will have been on Twitter for ten years. Maybe ten years is enough.

But even if I shut down the private account I have to admit that I’m not likely to shut down the public one. In a better world, the great majority of people would learn about interesting posts and articles and sites through RSS readers; but in this world the great majority of people learn about those things on Twitter. If a post falls in the forest of the internet and there’s no one there to tweet it, does it really exist?

2) I took a further step towards owning my turf by (a) downloading the posts from my various Tumblrs, (b) copying the more relevant and significant posts to my personal site, and (c) deleting my Tumblr account. Tumblr had become an increasingly annoying platform to be on, thanks to ads and the various hokey ways they were constantly trying to get me to use more of their “features,” so escaping that crap has been a big plus. Also, as long as I had access to the site I found myself thinking about whether I wanted to use it: deleting my account altogether solves that problem. I had created a tumblr for my forthcoming book How to Think but then bought a proper domain name and now own my thoughts about the book and its themes.

By the way, I did this through Reclaim Hosting, which is an amazing company focusing on people in academe. If you are part of the academic world and are not using Reclaim, you’re really missing out. Their customer service is state-of-the-art, and through the various apps and services they offer you can expand to your heart’s content the elements of your online presence you want to control: from static sites to blogs to galleries of images to email to … well, you name it. Reclaim is the best.

And in case you’re wondering how to download an entire website: If you’re comfortable using the command line, wget is the way to go (just make sure you set the parameters correctly or you could end up trying to download an entire domain, like tumblr.com). But if you have a Mac then you could try the accurate and easy-to-use SiteSucker.

Next step: deleting my Google account. — But I can’t! This site runs on Blogger!

3) This year I have written more and more often by hand — that’s one change I don’t think I’ll ever go back on. When I am writing my thoughts in a notebook I think better — that’s all there is to it. I have a clearer mind and a clearer prose style when I hold a pen in my hand. My preferred notebook: the Leuchtturm 1917, which works wonderfully with the Bullet Journal method of organizing tasks and ideas. My preferred pen: the Pilot Metropolitan. I have a dream, a dream that I could write a book in that notebook with that pen and have some publisher turn it into editable copy…. I mean, come on, it worked for Dickens and Tolstoy.

4) I’m still listening to CDs a good bit, but the flexibility of digital music is hard to resist — right now I’m writing this post on an iPad and listening to music through the truly remarkable Deepblue 2 from Peachtree Audio — I didn’t know a Bluetooth speaker could be this good. Irresistible (for me) convenience.

5) I’m still using a dumbphone — but not as much as I had hoped I would. I go back to an iPhone when I’m traveling, in part because I’m a light-packing fanatic and when I bring that phone I don’t need a camera or maps, or for that matter a computer. But then when I come back home and ought to switch out the SIM card to the dumbphone, somehow I manage to forget. Oh well. Here again my problem is having choices: if I just sold one of the phones, my life would be simplified. But that I struggle to do.

6) If the biggest difficulty of the past year was Twitter, the second-biggest was what seems to me the decline of both software and hardware quality on the Macintosh. And I think the Mac problems are just going to beg bigger, as more and more of Apple’s energies go into the growth and development of iOS.

When I upgraded to Yosemite, I discovered that Bluetooth had ceased to work, so I couldn’t send audio from my Mac to external speakers. (I think that’s when my return to CD listening began.) When I upgraded to El Capitan, Bluetooth worked but wifi was totally borked — and since wifi is more necessary than Bluetooth, I reverted to Yosemite. When Sierra came out, earlier this year, I upgraded with fingers crossed, and discovered that Bluetooth works as well as Bluetooth ever works (which is: inconsistently), and wifi works pretty well, though not as reliably as it did in pre-Yosemite versions — but now switching between apps is chaotic. I can use the Dock or my preferred command-Tab method of changing from one app to another and I have no idea what will happen. Sometimes it switches to the app I want, sometimes it continues to show me the app I was in when I switched, sometimes it goes to a third app I didn’t ask for. No way to know in advance. Similar problems arise with the use of apps in fullscreen mode, so clearly the code that generates windowing behavior has gone awry in Sierra. My chief point: Every new release of MacOS introduces major new bugs.

Apple’s official response to problems of this kind is simply to deny that MacOS has any serious problems, which makes me wonder whether I need to find ways to switch to iOS. After all, that’s clearly where the company’s focus is. So I’ve been writing lately on an iPad using Editorial, a very good app, but one that hasn’t been updated in so long that I’m assuming it’s abandonware — one more iOS update and it could well become unusable, though for now it’s fine. (I’m using it to write this post.)

(And by the way, I am also one of those people who thinks that the MacBook keyboard is really terrible — I can type much faster and more comfortably on my Logitech iPad keyboard, which has enough key-travel to give me significant haptic feedback. It also has backlit keys. It’s the best iPad keyboard I’ve used, by a mile.)

In hopes of finding tips for shifting to iOS, I read this post by Federico Viticci on using the iPad Pro as (more or less) his only computer. Viticci’s claim is that the iPad Pro fits his needs: he loves working with it, and never wants to go back to the Mac. But as I read his post I almost laughed aloud at the endless hoops he has to leap through to make it all work. I mean, to cite just one example among many possible ones, the guy uses at least six different text editors to make his “workflow” work — it seems to me that that’s anything but flow. On the Mac, I almost never have to leave BBEdit, thanks to the ability of pandoc to convert text files into whatever format I need. And given that pandoc is based on underlying UNIX features that deeply embedded in MacOS, and BBEdit has been around for more than twenty years and is still updated regularly, I don’t feel nearly as vulnerable as I do when using Editorial on the iPad.

Riccardo Mori, who uses both iOS and MacOS, has written about the logistical complications of using iOS:

The flip side of iOS’s modularity, of iOS’s model of accomplishing a complex task through a series of simple apps, is… well, it’s that often you have to go through unnecessarily long-winded routes and seek the assistance of multiple apps to get stuff done. It’s that in order to find the ‘perfect’ app to handle a task or a series of tasks, you end up installing a lot of similar apps with overlapping features. A personal example: I’ve been toying with the idea of just using my iPad to work when I’m not at home. I’m a writer and a translator, so I shouldn’t need very complex tools or intricate workflows. And yet my experience with iOS has been surprisingly frustrating due to the unexpected fragmentation of what, on the Mac, is a trivial thing to achieve.

Moreover, some of the most basic elements of computer user interaction are still rough and inconsistent on iOS: for instance, selecting text, which in my experience works about 80% of the time. The other 20% of the time I put my finger on one chunk of text and a different chunk gets selected, or I try but fail to find the right pixel to activate the little handle that, were I to find it, would allow me to extend the selection to the length I desire. And I am by no means the only person to have this complaint.

Yet I feel that the far more mature and efficient Mac platform is vulnerable indeed — vulnerable to further degradation and its own inconsistencies of behavior, especially involving any form of wireless connectivity. Old bugs are not being fixed, and new ones keep cropping up, and Apple as a company shows no signs of giving a rat’s ass about any of it. Mori has written about this too: the possibility, perhaps even the likelihood, that “Mac OS is demoted to ‘hobby status’ inside Apple, and that iOS receives all the attention from now on.” For Mori this will likely mean that iOS will need to develop more “desktop” skills:

When I walk down this hypothetical path, what I see in iOS’s trajectory, more than sheer innovation, is a reinvention of the wheel. iOS was born as a simpler, streamlined version of Mac OS X; its multi-touch interface was ingenious and groundbreaking when applied to a smartphone and (similarly, but less strikingly) to a tablet; to then evolve — through a series of iterations and feature creep — into… Mac OS X?

Sounds like a freakin’ disaster to me.

So here’s what I think is coming for me in 2017: a concerted effort to move towards Linux, where I can readily replicate much of what I do on the Mac. I’ve been spending more time lately in emacs, and especially in org-mode, and I just received a nice Christmas present — this could finally be the year I make the Big Switch.

Mind you, I’m not promising anything. It wouldn’t be easy for me to abandon a platform that I’ve been relying on since the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s second Presidential term. And I’ve had enough experience editing configuration files in Linux that I am filled with dread at the prospect, and praying with some desperation that Ubuntu has addressed many of those old bugs. But that after all these years I’m even considering dropping MacOS … well, that should tell you just how big a mess Apple has created for me.

word games

Ian Bogost reports on what some people think of as a big moment in the history of international capitalism:

At the close of trading this Monday, the top five global companies by market capitalization were all U.S. tech companies: Apple, Alphabet (formerly Google), Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook.

Bloomberg, which reported on the apparent milestone, insisted that this “tech sweep” is unprecedented, even during the dot-com boom. Back in 2011, for example, Exxon and Shell held two of the top spots, and Apple was the only tech company in the top five. In 2006, Microsoft held the only slot—the others were in energy, banking, and manufacture. But things have changed. “Your new tech overlords,” Bloomberg christened the five.

And then Bogost zeroes in on what’s peculiar about this report:

But what makes a company a technology company, anyway? In their discussion of overlords, Bloomberg’s Shira Ovide and Rani Molla explain that “Non-tech titans like Exxon and GE have slipped a bit” in top valuations. Think about that claim for a minute, and reflect on its absurdity: Exxon uses enormous machinery to extract the remains of living creatures from geological antiquity from deep beneath the earth. Then it uses other enormous machinery to refine and distribute that material globally. For its part, GE makes almost everything — from light bulbs to medical imaging devices to wind turbines to locomotives to jet engines.

Isn’t it strange to call Facebook, a company that makes websites and mobile apps a “technology” company, but to deny that moniker to firms that make diesel trains, oil-drilling platforms, and airplane engines?

I’m reminded here of a comment the great mathematician G. H. Hardy once made to C. P. Snow: “Have you noticed how the word ‘intellectual’ is used nowadays? There seems to be a new definition that doesn’t include Rutherford or Eddington or Dirac or Adrian or me. It does seem rather odd.”

As Bogost points out, the financial world uses “technology” to mean “computer technology.” But, he also argues, this is not only nonsensical, it’s misleading. Try depriving yourself of the word “technology” to describe those companies and things start looking a little different. “Almost all of Google’s and Facebook’s revenue, for example, comes from advertising; by that measure, there’s an argument that those firms are really Media industry companies, with a focus on Broadcasting and Entertainment.” Amazon is a retailer. Among those Big Five only Apple and Microsoft are computing companies, and they are so in rather different ways, since Microsoft makes most of its money from software, Apple from hardware.

Here’s a useful habit to cultivate: Notice whenever people are leaning hard on a particular word or phrase, making it do a lot of work. Then try to formulate what they’re saying without using that terminology. The results can be illuminating.

from coal to pixels

This is the Widows Creek power plant on the Tennessee River in Alabama, soon to become a Google data center. Or Google will use the site, anyway — I’m not sure about the future of the buildings. Big chunks of riverfront land are highly desirable to any company that processes a lot of data, because the water can be circulated through the center to help cool the machines that we overheat with photos and videos.

But there are enormous coal plants throughout America that can’t be so readily repurposed, and the creativity devoted to remaking them is quite remarkable: here’s an MIT Technology Review post on the subject.

Paul Goodman and Humane Technology

This is a kind of thematic follow-up to my previous post.

A few weeks ago Nick Carr posted a quotation from this 1969 article by Paul Goodman: “Can Technology Be Humane?” I had never heard of it, but it’s quite fascinating. Here’s an interesting excerpt:

For three hundred years, science and scientific technology had an unblemished and justified reputation as a wonderful adventure, pouring out practical benefits, and liberating the spirit from the errors of superstition and traditional faith. During this century they have finally been the only generally credited system of explanation and problem-solving. Yet in our generation they have come to seem to many, and to very many of the best of the young, as essentially inhuman, abstract, regimenting, hand-in-glove with Power, and even diabolical. Young people say that science is anti-life, it is a Calvinist obsession, it has been a weapon of white Europe to subjugate colored races, and manifestly—in view of recent scientific technology—people who think that way become insane. With science, the other professions are discredited; and the academic “disciplines” are discredited.

The immediate reasons for this shattering reversal of values are fairly obvious. Hitler’s ovens and his other experiments in eugenics, the first atom bombs and their frenzied subsequent developments, the deterioration of the physical environment and the destruction of the biosphere, the catastrophes impending over the cities because of technological failures and psychological stress, the prospect of a brainwashed and drugged 1984. Innovations yield diminishing returns in enhancing life. And instead of rejoicing, there is now widespread conviction that beautiful advances in genetics, surgery, computers, rocketry, or atomic energy will surely only increase human woe.

Goodman’s proposal for remedying this new mistrust and hatred of technology begins thus: “Whether or not it draws on new scientific research, technology is a branch of moral philosophy, not of science,” and requires the virtue of prudence. Since “in spite of the fantasies of hippies, we are certainly going to continue to live in a technological world,” this redefinition of technology — or recollection of it to its proper place — is a social necessity. Goodman spells out some details:

  • “Prudence is foresight, caution, utility. Thus it is up to the technologists, not to regulatory agencies of the government, to provide for safety and to think about remote effects.”
  • “The recent history of technology has consisted largely of a desperate effort to remedy situations caused by previous over-application of technology.”
  • “Currently, perhaps the chief moral criterion of a philosophic technology is modesty, having a sense of the whole and not obtruding more than a particular function warrants.”
  • “Since we are technologically overcommitted, a good general maxim in advanced countries at present is to innovate in order to simplify the technical system, but otherwise to innovate as sparingly as possible.”
  • “A complicated system works most efficiently if its parts readjust themselves decentrally, with a minimum of central intervention or control, except in case of breakdown.”
  • “But with organisms too, this has long been the bias of psychosomatic medicine, the Wisdom of the Body, as Cannon called it. To cite a classical experiment of Ralph Hefferline of Columbia: a subject is wired to suffer an annoying regular buzz, which can be delayed and finally eliminated if he makes a precise but unlikely gesture, say by twisting his ankle in a certain way; then it is found that he adjusts quicker if he is not told the method and it is left to his spontaneous twitching than if he is told and tries deliberately to help himself. He adjusts better without conscious control, his own or the experimenter’s.”
  • “My bias is also pluralistic. Instead of the few national goals of a few decision-makers, I propose that there are many goods of many activities of life, and many professions and other interest groups each with its own criteria and goals that must be taken into account. A society that distributes power widely is superficially conflictful but fundamentally stable.”
  • “The interlocking of technologies and all other institutions makes it almost impossible to reform policy in any part; yet this very interlocking that renders people powerless, including the decision-makers, creates a remarkable resonance and chain-reaction if any determined group, or even determined individual, exerts force. In the face of overwhelmingly collective operations like the space exploration, the average man must feel that local or grassroots efforts are worthless, there is no science but Big Science, and no administration but the State. And yet there is a powerful surge of localism, populism, and community action, as if people were determined to be free even if it makes no sense. A mighty empire is stood off by a band of peasants, and neither can win — this is even more remarkable than if David beats Goliath; it means that neither principle is historically adequate. In my opinion, these dilemmas and impasses show that we are on the eve of a transformation of conscience.”

If only that last sentence had come true. I hope to reflect further on this article in later posts.