Finding Meaning in a Throw-away World

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A long-time friend of mine, Kate Gilpin, posted this on Facebook recently:

Today’s PBS Newshour finished with a piece on nationwide workshops designed to teach consumers to repair appliances that have quit working. Part of the explanation for the rise of these workshops was that “all the repairmen are gone.”

I’ve been thinking about this issue for decades, myself. Mass assembly-line production and the rise of cheap materials have produced a culture in which practically nobody expects their possessions to last very long, and in which it has become the default to assume that your gadgets will, after a brief life, just get tossed.

This is terrible on any number of levels. It discourages care and pride in craftsmanship, encouraging instead shoddy workmanship; it teaches people that possessions aren’t worth caring for; it assumes that people will view their tools as easily replaced; it discourages owners from taking good care of their things; and it teaches people to view what they have and use as being of very little value–to mention only a few of the respect-corrupting results of our modern perspective on possessions.

Probably worst is that teaching people not to respect their possessions inevitably spills over into other areas, including human relationships, skills, and the regard for everything our consciousness is aware of.

The Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki taught his American students not to slide chairs roughly across the floor when moving them. This was partly to avoid making discordant noise; and it was also to demonstrate respect for inanimate objects. The wisdom of this is deep–to practice respect for all things is a way of practicing self-respect. And to practice self-respect is a way of reinforcing the truth that we are all profoundly connected.

Kate’s post resonated with me for a number of reasons. First, my father was one of those repairman put out of business by mass production. As a teenager, he taught himself how to build and repair radios and then televisions. He eventually owned and operated a television repair shop. He made a living by replacing faulty vacuum tubes, fixing tuners and switches, and swapping out burned out cathode ray tubes (“picture tubes,” he called them) for new ones. He even adapted when vacuum tubes were replaced with solid-state circuit boards. But by the late 1980s, there wasn’t much left to be fixed and repaired in a television, and people were increasingly tempted by new and better TV technology. In a sense, it wasn’t that the repairmen were gone; the customers were gone. They would rather buy something new than to repair it.

I was also reminded, possibly because of Kate’s last paragraph, of Albert Borgmann’s idea of focal things and practices, which he discusses in his 1984 book, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry. Like Heidegger, whom he references, Borgmann laments how modern technology has tended to distance us from nature, traditions, and our essential selves. He describes how the ritual of the family meal has been disrupted by the mass production of food, frantic work schedules, and the omnipresence of technological devices:

Once food has become freely available, it is only consistent that the gathering of the meal is shattered and disintegrates into snacks, T.V. dinners, bites that are grabbed to be eaten; and eating itself is scattered around television shows, late and early meetings, activities, overtime work, and other business. This is increasingly the normal condition of technological eating. (p. 65)

Borgmann isn’t quite the technophobe as Heidegger, but he does stress the importance of reclaiming a deeper meaning in life through what he calls focal things and focal practices. To explain, he returns to the discussing the traditional family meal. The meal becomes a focal thing that serves to connect people to things and to one another. The practices of cooking, serving, and eating of the meal create a “context of activities” that are embodied within people, and the meal becomes a physical, social, and cultural meditation. (p. 65). It’s hard to find that when eating a Big Mac, he says.

A second example is the Japanese tea ceremony, described by Hubert Dreyfus in “Heidegger on Gaining a Free Relation to Technology.” He states:

Normally we deal with things, and even sometimes people, as resources to be used until no longer needed and then put aside. A Styrofoam cup is a perfect example. 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 everyday Japanese understanding of a delicate teacup. The teacup does not preserve temperature as well as its plastic replacement, and it has to be washed and protected, but it is preserved from generation to generation for its beauty and its social meaning. It is hard to picture a tea ceremony around a Styrofoam cup. (p. 27)

The teacup becomes a focal thing, the ceremony a focal practice. As Finnish scholar Topi Heikkero puts it, “The idea behind the tea ceremony is to make, share, and drink tea observing the principles of harmony, respect, purity, and tranquility.” (p. 255).

At the moment, I’m drinking a Starbucks iced tea, no ceremony involved. When I’m finished, I’ll throw away the plastic cup. What principles am I expressing?

References

(1) Albert Borgmann, “Focal Things and Practices,” reprinted in Readings in the Philosophy of Technology, edited byDavid M. Kaplan, 56-75. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2009.

(2 Hubert Dreyfus, “Heidegger on Gaining a Free Relation to Technology,” in Readings in the Philosophy of Technology, edited by David M. Kaplan, 25-33. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2009.

(3) Topi Heikkero, “The Good Life in a Technological World: Focal Things and Practices in the West and in Japan,” Technology in  Society 27 (2005): 251-259.