Technology makes anything possible; it doesn’t make everything good. One of the many reasons I like Wall-E, more and more each time I see it (three so far), is that it doesn’t picture technology as good or technology as bad; it pictures technology as a means to an end, made good or bad by the goodness or badness of that end. It was Huxley I believe who observed that the “triumph of science” has merely been to “improve the means for achieving unimproved or actually deteriorated ends.”
In the last credits of Wall-E, after the plot has run its course, we see an optimistic vision of the future played out via still images (or simple animations). It is a sort of art history spin on the re-construction of society after humans return to earth. One of the striking images we see is robots serving man while man works. The awesomeness of this image cannot be overstated. The Pixar people could have said, “Look, no more robots! We learned our lesson, technology is bad,” and put in only people re-constructing society. They could have said, “Look, we learned our lesson, technology is supposed to do X instead of Y,” and had the robots all re-constructing society with the help of man. Instead they chose the middle way, the right path, the intelligent and humanizing path, where man is using even the most sophisticated technology as a tool to accomplish things worth accomplishing.
In one brief featurette, they are building a brick building, and the men are laying the morter. The robots deliver the bricks, and the men lay them. Notice that laying bricks takes work! The men are sweating! They are losing the considerable weight they had gained in space, but at the expense of blood, sweat, and tears! Their bones ache! They can only work for part of the day, and then must rest! All of this mess is completely unnecessary if we let the robots do the work for us.
But the men who return from earth in Wall-E have learned the lost value of restraint. “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you ought.” Restraint is the ability to be able to do something, and refrain from doing it, because it is better not to. It may not even be bad to allow robots to build our buildings, or type our blog posts, or calculate our algebra problems, but is there a better good?
If you have a choice between a good and a better good, then take the better good. If writing an email is good, and if writing a letter, which is relatively long, and relatively unpleasant, is better, then forgo the electronic shortcut, and do it yourself.
Merely suggesting this will probably make me sound like a backwards anti-technology advocate. No! I love technology and I think it has improved humanity especially in the areas of medicine, food production/distribution, and communication. It has made us more human, more capable to fulfill our God-given design. It has the potential (in the hands of the wise) to make us more so. But I am afraid of the simple human tendency to choose the path of least resistance, and so damn ourselves. Technology does not put this tendency into us, nor does it really exacerbate it; it makes giving into it more and more dangerous.
In many dozens of hours of conversation with friends and students on the question, “How ought technology be used well?” there are four practical suggestions that come up time and time again to help us develop the virtue of restraint:
1. Do what’s worth doing. If you wouldn’t do it if it were hard, why are you doing it because it’s easy? Many times I have surfed the internet to “learn about some topic” only because doing so is convenient and mildly interesting. But if you stopped me and asked, “What is the point of that knowledge?” I would say, “I don’t know.” If you asked me, “Why do you care? What else could you be learning about that is more important, meaningful, everlasting, and good?” I would say, “there is plenty I could be learning that is more important, but that would be harder.” I had gotten the ends mixed up with the means. I thought, “Learn this easily” meant “learning something worth learning.” It’s the other way around: “Learning something worth learning” means “do whatever it takes, hard or easy.”
2. Use your “No muscle” at least once a day. The trick is that the virtue of restraint requires not that we give up bad things for the sake of good ones, but that we give up good things for the sake of better ones. Rather than saying, “Calling my family is bad,” say, “Calling my family is good, and seeing my family in person is better. This week I am going to decline to call them, but will visit in person those that I want to see.” And for those we cannot see because they are so far away, spend a week just missing them. The pain of missing somebody is not evil, maybe it’s even healthy. Then call them and tell them about your experiment.
3. Ask Who am I? not What do I do? Another trick is to realize that just because I am accomplishing a lot does not mean I am becoming a good person. Just because I have multi-vitamins, organic foods, and exercise daily does not mean I have the knowledge and self-discipline of a doctor. Rather I am relying deeply on the ease of access of these things, which meet me at my present level of virtue. If easy health products became scarce, would I be disciplined enough to stay as healthy as I am now? If the gym closed, would I still find a way to exercise? The point here is to focus on developing one’s own virtues (restraint, courage, speed, clarity) in acting rather than on the end product of one’s actions, which may have been assisted by many outside forces.
4. Imagine that electronic technology didn’t exist; would you still be able to do what you want to? When I realized that my handwriting was slipping because I do so much typing I did this exercise. I realized that I still want to be able to write (on paper). If keyboards stopped existing, I imagined not being able to write anymore, and it was terrible. So now I practice my written handwriting in proportion to my typing, to keep both vital and fresh. If the grocery store stopped selling fresh produce, would you know how to pick up the slack? Could you grow your own vegetables, for a week, a month, a year? If not, are you OK with how deeply dependent you are on semi-trucks and super-markets?