The Trial of Tools

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When technologically illiterate types speak about computers, tablets, and smartphones, the results can be hilarious. Definite articles are interspersed liberally (The Google, The Facebook, etc.), virtual realities are given locative characteristics (“The files are inside the computer.”), and jokes fall flat (Note: Memes are not universally appreciated). With the candid admission that I can probably be grouped among such a caricatured class of old souls, here are some thoughts on why computers may be unintelligible.

Most artifacts come with a stated aim. A house key is a clear example. The key is made for a single task: It opens your front door. Now it may happen that other uses arise accidentally (opening boxes, scratching lottery tickets [today will be the day . . . ], or defacing public property), but the tool itself is manufactured and purchased to open your front door, and we evaluate it based on how expediently it achieves that goal.

Now, in the case of a computer, tablet, or smartphone, there are a potentially infinite number of tasks you can perform, touching on practically every aspect of life: work, leisure, finances, friendship, networking, etc. With such a vast array of possible uses, the prospect of implementing and upgrading can be overwhelming for an older generation. These devices stand no more readily disposed to one task than to another. To use words which Aristotle applied to the mind, they are potentially all things. But, unlike our minds, which have a set goal (the contemplation of truth) inscribed in their nature, computers, tablets, and smartphones do not have a set goal. They have no inbuilt trajectory except in the vaguest of terms. Rather, they are whatever you desire them to be based on your current needs.

And so, when dealing with computers, tablets, and smartphones, the tools at hand defy the limited scope of our material analogues. These devices are not like the house key. Whereas we might describe more concrete tools as having a “pro-existence” (an existence geared to some end, that is, “for” something), the tools listed above might more aptly be described as having a “per-existence.” They exist only that other services can exist “through” them.

Thus, for the individual accustomed to comprehending an object in terms of its purpose, the task of learning all the different aspects of a new phone, for instance, is frustrating. What’s more, the array of uses is constantly expanding. Just when you think you’ve mastered one medium, the technology has shifted, and the principles you learned in one program have been supplanted by those of another.

The website has undergone a redesign. What happened to my highly functional and helpful toolbar?

This new picture-sharing app makes the photos disappear. Wait. But I really liked that one . . . are they saved somewhere?

The video can only be six seconds long? Seriously? But what if it takes at least that long to introduce my quip?

And so, while it may be frustrating to explain to grandma how all of this works, it should come as no surprise that the concept can be difficult to grasp. The need to repeat the same instructions doesn’t necessarily signal the obduracy of a superannuated mind, but may in fact be the adequate response to an unintelligible tool. If we’re made for the contemplation of truth which is had from things, and if things are contemplate-able insofar as they have an intelligible nature, perhaps there is just a touch of incomprehensibility in these new technological gadgets themselves.

That’s not to say that computers, tablets, and smartphones are brain-rotters and should be excised from personal usage for the salvation of your mind. (General Ludd and Captain Swing had no part in the writing of this piece.) Rather, it is only to say that in these devices there is a lot of what Aristotle would refer to as matter, a principle impenetrable to the human mind. And for that reason, there is little there to contemplate, to understand, but rather things that exist merely to be used. It remains to be seen whether use-driven cognition (rather than meditative, or delight-based cognition) is not found to be at some level destructive for the long-term cultivation of contemplation.

Image: Marcin Wichary, Engage! (CC BY 2.0)

By | 2017-03-10T10:50:20+00:00 September 3, 2014|Culture|

About this Brother:

Br. Gregory Maria Pine, O.P.
Br. Gregory Pine entered the Order of Preachers in 2010. He is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville where he studied humanities and mathematics. On