The Focal and the Flask

Vignettes of a philosophy of technology

First published in Dark Mountain: Issue 6 (Autumn 2014)
has edited and contributed to numerous Dark Mountain books. In 2013, he co-founded An Teach Saor, a land-based community in the west of Ireland. He currently researches economic alternatives in the Department of Environmental Studies at Masaryk University.

I

As we sat around the time-worn table at the start of winter, cradling our cups of tea, conversation turned to the so-called ‘turf wars’ which had recently been stirring controversy near us in County Galway, just west of Ireland’s longest river, the Shannon. Defying European Union directives to protect fifty-three areas of bogland, designated as Special Areas of Conservation, some locals have refused compensation packages and, in the face of a considerable police presence, continued to cut peat from the bogs for fuel. They hold this to be a traditional right, being impinged on by distant bureaucrats.

The emerald isle has a strange relationship with its peat bogs and the turf wars are a somewhat telling case. This is one of the few countries to burn them by the train load in peat-fired power stations, a means of energy production dirtier than oil, natural gas or coal. After decades of industrial exploitation, only one percent of Ireland’s original raised bog remains intact. While romanticised in the Irish psyche as being part of a centuries-old traditional culture, veneration of bogs is juxtaposed with the fact that conservation of these rich habitats was brought to life not by someone born on the island, but by a Dutch researcher, Matthijs Schouten, now Professor of Restoration Ecology at Wageningen University. In 1981, Schouten was horrified to find that Ireland’s ecologically crucial bogs were going in the direction of the exploited peatlands of his own country. So lax was Irish care for the sensitive ecology of the bog that Schouten founded the Dutch Foundation for the Conservation of Irish Bogs in 1983, which fundraised successfully for the protection of key tracts of threatened land.

Claims by turf-cutters of supposed infringement on traditional practices are dubious, moreover, as the increasing mechanisation of cutting in Ireland’s raised bogs puts some of this unique, protected habitat under an especially modern threat. Contemporary mechanised cutting shows very little resemblance to the laborious yet deliciously satisfying hand-slicing by sleán or slane, a tool traditionally used and famously described by Seamus Heaney in Digging:


My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.


Of course, a hint of truth exists in local scepticism of top-down initiatives for environmental protection. The turf wars are taking place in Galway just a decade after permission was controversially granted for the 850-acre development of massive concrete pads and access roads in what was then one of Europe’s most vast and controversial onshore windfarms. The seventy-one imposing skyscrapers of metal are located on a wooded hilltop near the village of Derrybrien, 600 acres of which had to be deforested to facilitate construction. Derrybrien itself has been decimated by decades of rural depopulation, its only foray into public awareness being an enormous landslide which made the news throughout 2003, found to be directly caused by the development of the wind farm. Half a million tonnes of peat were dislodged over a 32-kilometre area, polluting widely and killing more than 50,000 fish in local rivers. Courts ruled that inadequate environmental impact assessments had been carried out.

This wind farm is itself located in the midst of thousands of acres of state-run tree farms, a vast and sterile monoculture of soil-acidifying conifers, interspersed with a patchwork of devastated clearcuts. Derrybrien, rather wistfully, is a transliteration of the Irish Daraidh Braoin, the oak wood of Brian. The Irish high king Brian Boru is said to have used the oak forests of Derrybrien to shelter his guerrilla bands around the year 1000, harassing Scandinavian invaders along the Shannon by turning their own technique of surprise raids against them. These guerrilla fighters were to form the heart of the Dál gCais army which would finally defeat the king of Leinster and a Viking army at the battle of Clontarf, just north of Dublin, Boru himself perishing in the process. Boru’s oak woods have been replaced with low-biodiversity tree farms, mostly of wood which is structurally too poor for building and thus destined to be pulped. It’s a perplexing matryoshka doll of attempted sustainability (bog protection), pseudo-sustainability (industrial wind farms) and utter degradation for profit (monocultural tree farms), all run by distant institutions while the inhabitants of the land look on.

The neighbour who had joined us for tea moves the conversation on, to reminisce about cutting his farming family’s turbary, or customary plot of bog, with his father forty years ago. Laughing, he reminisces about the pranks neighbours used to play on each other – the mischievous hiding of wheelbarrows in bog holes, resulting in exasperated searching; the clever ones mitigating this boisterousness, hiding their own tools in trenches before cycling home for the evening. Stopping the conversation with a single statement he said, ‘It was pretty much one thing that destroyed that spirit.’ We waited. ‘Flasks.’ Our eyebrows furrowed in confusion.

 

II

Somewhat paradoxically, German philosopher Martin Heidegger opens his treatise The Question Concerning Technology with the statement that ‘the essence of technology is by no means anything technological.’ This is one among many profound insights in that classic essay, insinuating that technology is not really comprised of the artefacts we think of when we consider the modern world– the planes, cars and electronic gadgets – but is rather a way of relating to and framing the world. In Heidegger’s words, ‘technology is…no mere means. Technology is a way of revealing.’ This way of relating, or in Heidegger’s terminology, ‘mode of revealing’, he characterised as Ge-stell, an objectifying, challenging Enframing of nature which converts the world around us into dead resources or ‘standing-reserve.’ Humanity itself could eventually be taken up as standing-reserve, Heidegger warned, as indicated by increasing use of cold, technical terms such as Human Resources.

Given this view, of course, technology will never be neutral, but is always, in its contemporary form, an expression of a modern Ge-stell, a phenomenon which expands to engulf other cultural activities such as art and writing into the same dead utilitarianism and technological nihilism. Heidegger has thus been labelled an essentialist, a proponent of the idea that there is a basic essence, or trans-historical core, to technology.

Contrasting with this are the social constructivists, no doubt constituting the dominant story of technological modernity, who maintain that technology is neutral, by definition, and under the thumb of humanity. After all, asks the constructivist, do humans not design, produce and choose to use technological artefacts from start to finish? For Heidegger, while he admits that this common view ‘fixes upon something pertinent’ and reflects reality on some level, it largely misses the point. So long as we represent technology as a mere instrument, he avers, ‘we remain held fast in the will to master it. We press on past the essence of technology.’ Indeed, no single person, ‘no commission of prominent statesmen, scientists, and technicians, no conference of leaders of commerce and industry, can brake or direct the progress of history in the atomic age.’

The social constructivists have hit upon something correct, in other words, but ‘the correct is not yet the true.’ By saying, in characteristically cryptic terms, that the correct is not necessarily true, the German thinker is drawing a distinction between a surface reality, and a deeper, essential, and more hidden one. The surface reality is of course correct, and thus also, to a point, are the social constructionists. As I write this, for example, I am choosing to engage with a certain technology (a battered, dying old laptop), which I choose to use over other technological alternatives, (a pencil, a pen, mushroom ink and quill or a shiny tablet computer).

However, while correct, this insight is not yet true for it ignores a deeper, non-artefactual process which is occurring, and this is the danger of the one-sided social constructivism of our day. Otto Ullrich, an associate of Ivan Illich, puts it thus:


The alleged tools of progress are not tools at all, but technical systems that worm their way into every aspect of life and tolerate no alternatives…In their exterior aspect industrial machines and products are isolated objects that can be freely and everywhere employed like tools, according to the decision of the user. With them, however, there typically comes an infrastructural network of technical, social and psychological conditions, without which the machines and products do not work.

Take genetic engineering, as one ever-controversial example, and one falling within the purview of industrialised agriculture, a topic which interested Heidegger as a further symptom of Ge-stell. No doubt there is considerable hyperbole in what for decades has been framed as a polarised, binary debate, but a detailed look at the relevant literature shows that in certain situations genetically engineered crops will be bred to produce a greater yield per area of a given crop. This is correct, as much as anti-GE campaigners may drag their feet in admitting it. Yet it’s not a true insight into the technology. The essence of genetic engineering is of course much more than debates about yield, comprising a furtherance to the genetic level of civilisation’s project of domestication and anthropocentric domination, a challenging of nature which stretches back millennia, at least to the origins of agriculture. Such issues fail to be adequately examined in the often-superficial conventional discussions stemming from both the pro- and anti- extremes.

Though Heidegger held some sympathy for small-scale windmills, the industrial-scale turbines which tower on the hills in Derrybrien, adjacent to the smallholding on which I live, demonstrate further the thrust of his interpretation of technology. For what such wind farming has done, apart from worldly development of the destructive physical infrastructure needed to keep civilisation’s cogs turning – the destruction of hen harrier habitat, the release of massive CO2 emissions as the bog dries out, the 50,000 dead fish – is to do what all farming does. That is, convert another element of an immeasurably complex and wild earth to quantifiable standing reserve.

No longer is a gust of wind simply a gust of wind, something to be listened to, feared, ignored, or to stand in awe of. It is now, unless embroiling itself in a rotating copper coil, a waste, a missed opportunity, an unharnessed resource. Ireland, it is now regularly heard from politicians, has some of the best wind energy resources in Europe. Our hills and coasts are increasingly transformed from some of the last bastions of unusable, self-perpetuating spaces, to productive technological ones. ‘Nature,’ as Heidegger observed, becomes ‘the chief storehouse of the standing energy reserve’ or ‘a gigantic gasoline station, an energy source for modern technology and industry.’

 

III

Albert Borgmann’s 1984 magnum opus, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, built on Heidegger’s insights and gave us two crucial concepts for understanding the workings of contemporary civilisation – the device paradigm and focal things.

The device paradigm dominates modern life, concretising Heidegger’s Ge-stell and describing that class of technologies which deliver us services in an instant, ‘conveniently,’ while hiding the often-ugly processes which lie behind them. Borgmann’s most prominent example is the modern central heating system. With timing switches and thermostats we no longer even need to press a button to heat our homes, remaining utterly disconnected from the intricate chains of people, geography and machines which get our fuel sources to us.

In contrast we have focal things or practices, which involve real connection with other people, species and landscapes. The heating for my current home, for example, couldn’t be more different to the device of fossil-powered central heating. Wood is the sole fuel source, locally gathered with other people, and cut with a two-person saw. At first, the two people sawing are out of sync and utterly arhythmic, yet syncronicity, low physical exertion, and a teamwork bordering on telepathy soon become the norm. The wood is stored collectively, appropriately seasoned, and fed into a wood-burner that needs cleaning out, lighting and regular tending. No mere pushing of a button here. While the heat emanates from radiators in various rooms, by means of a back-boiler, the main attraction in the house on frosty winter evenings is the large glass-fronted stove which provides a social focus, as the hearth would have done since humans first harnessed the power of fire. Indeed, the etymological root of focus, as the Latin for ‘hearth’ or ‘fireplace’, lies worlds away from the modern convention of having the social space of a house centred around a single device of distraction, the television.

Focal things, of course, often entail greater involvement and practice, greater work and knowledge, greater negotiation with others, all often seen as inconveniences in the narrative of modernity. Examples highlighted by Borgmann of activities which display such focal traits are music making, gardening, the culture of the table, or running. As Ullrich says, scientistic technology is a ‘dream of happiness without sacrifice,’ an illusion, of course, which holds many sacrifices of its own, such as lesser social interaction, bodily dis-ease, ability without practice, and ecological separation.

Heidegger, recounts philosopher Hubert Dreyfus, saw in these marginal practices ‘the only possibility of resistance to technology.’ He continues:

Greek practices such as friendship and the cultivation of the erotic are not efficient. When friendship becomes efficient networking, it is no longer the mutual trust and respect the Greeks admired…Similarly, Greek respect for the irrational in the form of music and Dyonisian frenzy do not fit into an efficiently ordered technological world. Indeed, such ‘pagan’ practices did not even fit into the Christian understanding of being and were marginalized in the name of disinterested, agapé love, and peace. These Christian practices in turn were seen as trivial or dangerous given the Enlightenment’s emphasis on individual maturity, self-control, and autonomy.

While not a perfectly neat distinction, this clarification of the focal and device paradigms allows us to begin to pick apart our cultural relationship with technology on a very tangible level. The interface between devices and focal things can be seen wherever we look, though it’s clear which is in the ascendancy. A plethora of evidence demonstrates individual ready-meals replacing the provision of home-prepared meals for family or friends; Ipods and laptops replacing guitars, bodhráns and tin whistles; driving and flying replacing the smells, sounds and human-scale speed of cycling or walking. The list is long, and the search for those practices lost has barely begun.

 

IV

Chado, the way of tea, is a Japanese tea ceremony rooted in the Zen Buddhist tradition and originating in the ninth century. It’s a transformative practice with four key principles – Harmony, Respect, Purity and Tranquility – involving the preparation and ceremonial presentation of green tea, or Matcha, for seated guests. Chado is a highly complex social practice which entails deep and prolonged study for a potential host. For example, changing seasons and connection to the landscape is important in chado, with the ceremony, art and flower arrangements changing according to time of year and time of day. The interpersonal etiquette is complex too, with guests and hosts bowing to each other and retiring to specified rooms between particular courses of tea. New students learn how to enter and exit the tea room in a certain way, how to maintain and clean the relevant utensils, the manner in which to serve guests, who to bow to and when to bow. It’s only at this stage that students may learn, for example, how to actually prepare Matcha to the correct consistency.

The use of a kettle, how tea is transferred into a cup and whisked, even the examination of vessels is performed according to almost innumerable variables and ceremonial schools. To see a tea ceremony in progress is to see total focus, presence and integration of being. It is, therefore, a very focal practice, along with Zen’s other famous methods of cultivating enlightenment – archery, calligraphy, flower arrangement, even cooking and cleaning. Each cup is a unique work of art in itself, far from the standardised merchandise of modernity. Indeed, the respect and veneration for material objects displayed in such practices, a form of enlightened materialism, emphasises the important blurring of distinction in much Zen thought between the animate and inanimate, the human and non-human, the object and the subject, and even sentient and insentient. Dreyfus contrasts this practice with the contemporary ubiquity of the styrofoam cup:


When we want a hot or cold drink it does its job, and when we are through with it we throw it away. How different this understanding of an object is from what we can suppose to be the Japanese understanding of a delicate, painted tea cup, which does not do as good a job of maintaining temperature and which has to be washed and protected, but which is preserved from generation to generation for its beauty and its social meaning. Or, at the other extreme, an old earthenware mug, admired for its simplicity and its ability to evoke memories of ancient crafts, such as is used in a Japanese tea ceremony. It is hard to picture a tea ceremony around a styrofoam cup.

Topi Heikerro of the University of Helsinki notes that, in accordance with Borgmann’s description of focal practices, zen practices too entail ‘exertion, skill, self-transcendence, perseverance, endurance, patience, commitment and attention,’ all of which wither and decay under the device paradigm. In this sense, Heikerro continues, ‘focal practices can re-center our lives and provide contexts in which we can strive for virtue and excellence.’

 

V

And so we return, through tea, full-circle to my neighbour’s tale of bogs and flasks. ‘How could flasks have destroyed the spirit of the bog?’ I asked. Flasks, he suggested, signalled the beginning of the end for community spirit while cutting turf. They were, to use Borgmann’s terminology, the device that did away with the focal activity. Previously, there would have been six or seven small fires going throughout the day, with gossip, laughter and tea flowing from each. It may not be the neatly practiced, precise ritual of Chado, but it certainly had its own tradition, with people moving from one fire to the next, meeting, visiting neighbours and sharing stories. With the arrival of the flask, the fires began to disappear. Breaks shortened, turf cutting became less social, and tea-making became confined to the home, individualised.

Whether it’s true that this signalled the end of the spirit of community in turf cutting, it is no doubt at least a part of the story. At best, it’s a great ethnographic insight by a local farmer; at worst, an allegory which we all know holds lessons going to the core of our experience, as beings whose reality is mediated more than ever by the enframing of a deadening technological paradigm.

The Question Concerning Technology closes with the assertion that because ‘the essence of technology is nothing technological,’ if we are to stand any hope of avoiding its peril, ‘essential reflection upon technology and decisive confrontation with it must happen in a realm that is, on the one hand, akin to the essence of technology and, on the other, fundamentally different from it.’ This realm, Heidegger states, is art.

Reclaiming the ambiguous ancient Greek root of the word for technology, technē, is important for Heidegger, as technē signified craft, skill or art, rather than cold technological advance. This is not art confined to commercial aesthetics and cultural activity, but art as a poetic existence, as a way of life, art in every action. Borgmann reminds us that ‘the peril of technology lies not in this or that of its manifestations but in the pervasiveness and consistency of its pattern.’ Hence, perhaps as Zen practitioners have known for centuries, in artful expression and engagement with focal practices lies at least a respite from what he refers to as the ‘debilitating character of technology.’

The nature of art, for Heidegger, is ‘the truth of being setting itself to work.’ Not merely reduced to symbol or representation, art in this form produces a shared understanding different from the paradigm of technological monotony. For Dreyfus, this new paradigm ‘would have to take up practices which are now on the margin of our culture and make them central, while de-emphasising practices now central to our cultural self-understanding.’

Results are never guaranteed, and indeed we may have already arrived at an analysis of technology too late, at a time when all other modes of existence have been driven to the brink extinction by the technological. But Heidegger held close the possibility that as the darkness of technological civilisation befell the world so equally the light of its escape might become more visible on the horizon. Quoting the poet Friedrich Hölderlin, we hear:

But where danger is, grows
The saving power also.

 

Bibliography

Borgmann, A. (1984) Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Dreyfus, H. (1993) Heidegger on the connection between nihilism, art, technology, and politics, in: Guignon, C. (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Heidegger, M. (1977) The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, New York: Harper & Row
Heikkero, T. (2005) The good life in a technological world: Focal things and practices in the West and in Japan, Technology in Society, No. 27, pp. 251-259
Ullrich, O. (1992) Technology, in: Sachs, W. (ed.) The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as Power, London: Zed Books

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 4 (PDF)

The Summer 2013 issue is a collection of writing and artwork telling 'post-cautionary tales'.

Read more
Reply

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *