Romano Guardini: Technology vs the Human

Alright – I was going to get into Yves Congar today, but I got caught up reading Romano Guardini’s Letters from Lake Como. Guardini was a 20th century German Catholic theologian, and his book, subtitled Explorations in Technology and the Human Race, is a collection of letters from the 1920s, dealing with the rapid changes in technology and society that Guardini was facing. It’s about the increasing industrialisation of Europe, and – well, some bits are better than others.

So here’s the thing about nature vs technology arguments, right – they often build up around a pretty arbitrary distinction between what’s ‘natural’, so-called, and what’s ‘technology’. In his second letter, ‘Artificiality of Existence’, Guardini draws up two different types of culture, which we might call nature-culture and technology-culture. Those aren’t his terms, but it’s a tidy way to think about what he’s saying. He says that a sailing boat, for instance, is part of nature-culture, because it molds itself against the curve of the natural world. “Do you not see what a remarkable fact of culture is present when human beings become masters of wind and wave by fashioning wood and fitting it together and spanning linen sails? In my very blood I have a sense of creation here, of a primal work of human creativity.” Boats aren’t pure nature, but they in some way have a primal connection with the earth, with the natural world. They are part of nature-culture. They use all these features of the natural world – wood floats on water, and the wind catches at the sail and moves the boat around. “The lines and proportions of the ship are still in profound harmony with the pressure of the wind and the waves and the vital human measure. Those who control this ship are still very closely related to the wind and the waves. They are breast to breast with their force.”

Technology-culture, on the other hand, is too far removed from the natural world and its natural forces. It’s the steamboat, the gasoline engine, the ocean liner, where “people on board eat and drink and sleep and dance.” In such instances, you’re not dependent on natural forces like the wind – you just tootle along on coal or whatever. It’s not molded to nature, it’s just a big artificial machine. “In the sailing ship we had a natural existence … in the modern steamer, however, we are in an artificial situation.” And – you know – again, the problem with this stuff is that the distinction ends up being pretty arbitrary. Coal is a product of nature, and sails are a form of technology. You might as well call the two sides ‘things Guardini is scared of’ and ‘things that he’s not’. The stuff he likes is construed as natural and organic in order to whitewash it, while bad things are described as artificial and mechanical. For example – and this is such a perfect example – in the final letter (‘The Task’), Guardini says that society is “no longer the older organically hierarchical form.” That’s exactly what we’re talking about. It’s passing off a particular thing – in this instance, social hierarchy – as organic and natural in order to lend it legitimacy. But is hierarchy actually organic and natural? Not really – it’s just old, and Guardini doesn’t feel threatened by it.

But alright – even though the idea doesn’t seem very rigorous, let’s give it a bit of leash and see where it takes us. In the third letter, ‘Abstraction’, Guardini describes technology or machines as being like a mental abstraction: “Machines are steel concepts.” That’s… certainly a turn of phrase. In Guardini’s view, you have your concrete immediate experience, which comes in through your senses, and then you have your concepts or ideas, which are how you comprehend and interpret that experience in your mind. Thus a boat is not just a jumble of colours and textures – you know which bit’s the front, and you know what it does, and maybe you have a general idea of how it operates – you have a whole bunch of ideas and knowledge allowing you to make sense of this otherwise random object. And that’s all good and normal, Guardini says. That’s how we get around in the world – we abstract experiences into categories and ideas so that we can reuse information. We create an idea of a boat and all its component parts, so that when we see a second boat we can apply our learning from the first time round. You can hop on board and know roughly what you’re doing with the anchor and the rudder and – you know, the other boat stuff.

Crucially, Guardini says, ideas aren’t just straight reproductions of our experiences. We capture the things that we think are most important, in some way reducing or simplifying reality in order to use our ideas in different circumstances. The idea “does not fit any individual case fully. It presents only certain features, as many as are needed to show what is meant, still leaving our gaze and our hands free for other things that are similar but not the same.” In that sense, ideas are really just shortcuts, “abbreviations of thought,” ways of reducing things to make them simpler. And, Guardini says, machines operate in a similar way. “They lay hold of many things in such a way as to disregard their individual features and to treat them as though they were all the same. Mechanical processes have the same character as conceptual thinking. Both control things by taking them out of a special living relation to what is individual and creating an artificial order into which they all, more or less, fit.”

I actually kinda agree with that sentiment. When you think about, for instance, the classic Ford production line – the idea is that each person puts together one part of the car, right. Each person carries out one task repeatedly. But in order to make that work, you have to have a steady stream of identical parts. The machine demands consistent form, demands parts without unique distinguishing features. The same could be said about any other machine-made product. In Guardini’s view, then, in an age of machines we risk becoming detached from the world around us – becoming abstracted from material conditions, from complexity and nuance. We arguably see that process in how our internet footprint is tracked, collated and sold to marketers and advertisers, or in how kids in school are heavily tested – and maybe in some sense reduced to their scores. We are conscious of ourselves as numbers in systems, as bank accounts and credit ratings. We are abbreviated; our humanity is quantified and codified under a collection of statistics and rankings – and there is a sense that it is inhumane, that it strips us of our dignity. The connection between machines and concepts comes through most strongly in the computer, which is really the key driver of much of this change. As someone who works in online education – I mean, yeah, I’ve seen too many spreadsheets with marks and user details not to appreciate Guardini’s point. As much as the nature vs technology stuff is a little clumsy, you know, a hundred years later, he’s not that far wrong. He describes the mechanistic and abstract life as, “for all its practicality, barbaric.” It’s hard to disagree.

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