Sunday, April 13, 2008

It's the Spiritual, Stupid!

Half a bee, philosophically,
Must ipso facto half not be.
But can a bee be said to be,
Or not to be... Do you see?"
--Monty Python, "Eric the Half-a-Bee"

"A thousand plastic flowers
won't make a desert bloom."
--Fritz Perls
The topic of my sermon today doesn't exactly fit the "It's the X, Stupid!" prototype but close enough. Also, the term "spiritual" may be a stretch for some; in fact I'm thinking of something closer to "Existential" myself.

A lot of the qualms people have about future technologies or their effects, don't have much to do with the technologies themselves, but rather, underlying issues in people's lives that thinking about new possibilities stir up. Often someone writing about the future will express a qualm in general terms that seems embarrassingly close to an admission of the author's own rug-swept angst.

I mean issues in a person's life like: what's the meaning of it? Or, what to do with it?

The example I'm really thinking of is longevity. "But what in the world," conservatives ask, "will people do with all that time in their lives?" I can't reproduce the horror, rebuke and utter puzzlement with which this question is asked, but that's the mix.

Deciding what life means and what to do with it is a tough one. The Existentialists came up with descriptions of the human condition that sound like horror movie scripts, captions for The Scream, or lists of imbalances of the bodily humors. The Void is scary enough that it's possible to understand why, when the prospect of more healthy lifespan is opened up, some people's first focus is on the associated voidspan.

But people horrified in this way probably haven't solved (any more than I have) the problem for life as they previously knew it, either. Technology, change and the future aren't central to the question, they merely disturb the rug. That cloud of dust, it's old dust-- it's the spiritual.

The X in "it's the X" was originally Content. Amidst new things like interactive software, hypertext, web pages, animated GIFs-- no wait-- Flash! and so forth, it's easy for a designer, an author, a company, a culture, to get lost in the technology aisle, shopping for and pasting together bits of glitter. Sometimes communicators need to be reminded that they're supposed to be getting Content across. Lately a mutant ideal says that Web 2.0 is about Community, stupid. This requires a shift from Content gear, but you see the pattern.

So by analogy, technology is only stuff to support, or stuff that distracts from... life, but what is life supposed to be?

This post isn't about answering questions like that, it's to say that existential or spiritual questions belong to us as individuals and belong in our lives. Facing The Void isn't a mistake, an imposition, a fault, or a wrong turn. It's having a seat at the table, being a player in a game whose score isn't settled. Neither technology, nor a lack of technology, nor external restriction on technology answers spiritual questions.

What I'm getting at is that "we," in any collective way, can't make spiritual choices for us, the individuals. If the issue is spiritual, then "we" have no business making decisions for us. Nor are we as people who steer technologies or policies of any sort responsible for including spiritual solution-packs with each new turn. Spiritual questions are real but personal.

The horror at new choices implies that life is a cruise that technologists and policymakers are in charge of, and that it's unfair to change the options available once the cruise is already in progress, since the new situation might not match the passengers' expectations. But life was never for anyone to plan for-- or promise to-- anyone else. The teeth-gnashing reality of spiritual uncertainty should remind us that finding meaning, or creating meaning in life is our right as individuals, one that no one else can give, take away or buffer.

The fact that nonaggressive things you do in your life may open up unexpected possibilities in my life, is part of God's own cruise package for a world with more than one passenger. I don't think the trip would be worthwhile if it weren't so.

No comments: