by David Naugle
"I agree Technology is per se neutral: but a race devoted to the increase of its own power by technology with complete indifference to ethics does seem to me a cancer in the Universe. Certainly if he goes on his present course much further man can not be trusted with knowledge." - C. S. Lewis, responding to a letter from Arthur C. Clarke
My back was turned completely to the classroom. I sat atop a stool behind the lectern, with trademark white wires fashionably dangling from each ear-bud in route to my iPod. I was also scanning a book, obviously multi-tasking!
Outwardly absorbed in the music and the text before me, I pretended not to notice as about thirty-five students shuffled incrementally into to my introduction to philosophy class on the first day of a new spring semester. Though I knew the lecture hall had filled up, I turned around on my seat and pretended to be surprised by a classroom full of students. I was too electronically pre-occupied to notice!
With a newfound presence of mind, I proceeded with regular, first-day formalities: a cordial welcome, a Scripture reading and prayer (I teach at a Christian university), then the class roll, followed by an overview of the syllabus… only to be interrupted by a planned call and a bogus text message on my cell phone, the advent of both signaled by appropriate electronic sounds. My wife was texting me to remind me about the delinquent electric bill, and a friend phoned me up to talk about Tiger’s miraculous triumph at a PGA event the day before. At least that’s what I told the class, fingers crossed behind my back!
In my effort to stimulate interest and get students’ attention, I was trying to demonstrate how technology affects our lives and impacts our relationships, often without our awareness. They began to catch on to my antics, slowly but surely. At a propitious moment, I passed out a one-page handout on a philosophy of technology with a succinct definition and few themes briefly summarized, as I explained that a chief goal of our class was to move from a state of pre-reflectivity to reflectivity, from unexamined to examined lives! The response, I must say, was gratifying!
Perhaps it’s megalomania, but I think C. S. Lewis would have appreciated this pedagogical gimmick of mine and here’s why: he believed that the most significant line of division in Western history occurred between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the reason was because of the rising prevalence of science and the application of technology to everyday life!
This was a main point Lewis made in his Cambridge Inaugural Lecture titled De Descriptione Temporum (Latin: “A Description of the Times”) when he was installed as Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University in 1954. Lewis was suspicious of dividing history into time periods, even though he saw them as useful historical tools. Quoting Cambridge historian G. M. Trevelyan, Lewis declared: “Unlike dates, periods are not facts” (DDT, p. 2). Thus, Lewis disputed with those who wanted to draw the thickest line of demarcation in occidental culture in the seventeenth century “with the general acceptance of Copernicanism, the dominance of Descartes, and (in England) the foundation of the Royal Society” (DDT, p. 6-7). To be sure, science and its technological offspring were making great strides during that transitional century, but had yet to become socially pervasive. Science, Lewis stated, was “like a lion-cub whose gambols delighted its master in private; it had not yet tasted man’s blood” (DDT, p. 7). Up to this point, science dealt mostly with lifeless nature and slung out a few technologies. However, it was not yet the business of humanity because humanity was not yet the business of science (DDT, p. 7, paraphrased). But when human persons became the scientific target — between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries — everything changed: “When Watt makes his engine, when Darwin starts monkeying around with the ancestry of Man, and Freud with his soul, and the economists with all that is his, then indeed the lion will have got out of his cage. Its liberated presence in our midst will become one of the most important factors in everyone’s daily life” (DDT, p. 7).
Point well taken! But is this progress?
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