Myodicy, Issue 3, April 1997

The Changing Sensorium:
A Provisional Assessment

by Steven George Baarda

As a former student of Dr. Plantinga, it was interesting to read his recent postings in Myodicy regarding Sven Birkerts and Robert Bly. With this response I hope to force Myodicy to become a dialogue between our professor and his students, both present and former.

After all, if there is one thing that he is known for, it is for his liberal use of the Socratic method. Dr. Plantinga has recently posted (one does not publish on the web, one posts, as one would post something on a telephone pole or construction site wall in a large urban centre) a couple of articles that pick up on themes that have run through his teaching in the classroom. The articles on Birkerts and Bly take up, in my opinion, the theme of the effects of the modern world upon the human subject, an extension of Plantinga's interest in this subject coming out of the writings of Walter Ong, Marshall McLuhan and others. As we all know, Ong and McLuhan deal with the subject of the effects of certain technologies upon our makeup as humans. Ong deals mostly with the effects of writing upon the human subject, and really raises the issue of the effect of technology on humanity in a systematic manner. McLuhan did much the same, focusing upon the technology of television. Neither author, though, anticipated the great impact of the computer upon our lives; nor did they raise the issue of the effects of constant technological innovation upon our lives, upon who we are as humans.

Perhaps one writer who did raise the issue of effects of constant technological innovation upon the human subject was Jacques Ellul, especially in the latest of his books to appear in English, The Technological Bluff. [1] In this work Ellul specifically takes up the question of whether or not the constant application of technical solutions to problems can genuinely be called "progress." That is, he raises the question of whether or not constant technological innovation is genuinely making humanity better. Ellul remains consistent with his previous works in that he attempts to employ a descriptive approach; but unlike the stance he takes in his previous works, he is very pessimistic about the effects of technology upon humanity.

In theme, Ellul seems to be close to the concerns expressed by Birkerts, as raised by Dr. Plantinga, about the effects of the computer upon reading. Ellul, though, is more complete in that he takes the whole technical project into consideration. Much of his recent book is an outworking of the four basic rules of technologies:
1. All technical progress has its price.
2. At each stage it raises more and greater problems than it solves.
3. Its harmful effects are inseparable from its beneficial effects.
4. It has a great number of unforeseen effects. [2]

What Ellul is attempting to capture with these rules of technological innovation is that technology is neither good, bad or neutral. It is ambivalent. Technology does not care; it simply has its effects, both good and bad. [3] Because of this, technology is incapable of generating "culture" in the sense that Birkerts understands it, as outlined by Plantinga. Technology is not even capable of generating a "technical culture," says Ellul: "Culture is necessarily humanistic or it does not exist at all. It is humanistic in the sense that humanity is its central theme and sole preoccupation. It is simply an expression of the human. It has human beings [and not what serves them] at its heart. This includes, of course, all that they put forward in the form of questions about the meaning of life, the possibility of reunion with ultimate being, the attempt to overcome human finitude, and all other questions they have to ask and handle. But technique cannot deal with such things. It functions merely because it functions. It is self-reproductive. Each technical advance serves first to produce new techniques. It is itself the centre of attention and allows of no questioning outside the mechanical sphere. It is not interested in what serves humanity. Its only interest is itself. It is self-justified and self-satisfying. It cannot occupy itself with the human except to subordinate it and to subject it to the demands of its own functioning. Culture exists only if it raises the question of meaning and values. One might say that this is the central object of all culture. But here we have the opposite pole from all technique." [4]

If what Ellul says here is correct, then the question of the effect of a technological society upon the human subject, as it was for Ellul, should be among modern humanity's central questions. (This should be a hot topic of a posting such as Myodicy).

It is in raising this question that a connection with Plantinga's exposition of Bly is found. The phenomenon detailed by Bly and understood by him as our inability to become adults, I think, has its roots in the effects of technology upon humanity. He describes this change in a derogatory fashion by saying that we have become "infantilized." On the one hand I think that he, as quoted by Plantinga, is accurate in discussing the changes in society caused by technology, such as the destruction of the literate society and the interrelatedness of the human community and the break in the connection to land and to what he calls "real work." [5] On the other hand, I think that Bly is mistaken when he attributes to these changes an "infantilizing of men and women." [6] What Bly does here -- and Plantinga seemingly has given his approval -- is to apply a definition of adulthood drawn from the age before the technologized society. What is needed in this discussion is to introduce an element of descriptive philosophy. We need to outline how humanity has been irreversibly changed because of technology. Only then will we be able to answer the question, "What does it mean to be human in a technologized society?" Perhaps we need to go so far as to ask if that question, when asked in the classic philosophical manner, is even appropriate anymore.

Bly is not the first person to sense that something has been happening to us humans in the computer era. Reginald Bibby has long been discussing the problem, ever since he detailed the fragmentation of a coherent religious vision in many people. [7] Coherency becomes difficult when, as Bly rightly says, "We are drowning in uncontrollable floods of information." [8] The answer to the question of whether this is good or bad, seems to me to be premature, or perhaps irrelevant. "Bad" implies that somehow we have dehumanized ourselves in our application of technology. We are eliminating culture, as with Ellul, or we are infantilizing ourselves, as with Bly. As someone who was raised in the technological society, it seems to me that "old" (not "good") definitions and understandings of the human subject are being applied to the new humanity emerging after the introduction of computer technology. It is incumbent upon us to understand where we are before we decide whether this is good or bad. Likewise we must also be responsible in not applying old definitions of humanity that obscure who we are today and what our human objectives must be and become within this context. We cannot naively pine for a prior age by criticizing this age with the prior age's standards of what it means to be human. Less than 50 years ago one might have been able to agree that we all needed to "grow up" or "mature" in the way that Bly talks about; but today such definitions have become inappropriate, if not obsolete, perhaps even dangerous.

I have come to understand deeply the character of the post-modern age not through the writing of a philosopher or social critic, but through the writings of Tom Peters, a management consultant. Peters, in the advice he gives to businessmen about how to make money in the post-modern era, shows a great deal of understanding of the character and overall shape of the age in which we live. One of Peter's early (if 1987 can be called early) descriptive terms was "chaos." We live in a chaotic time. Coherence is diminishing, and constant technological innovation make it impossible to assure oneself that the product one introduces to the market today will not be obsolete tomorrow. In this the computer industry is the model. Everything, though, is going the way of the computer industry. Thus Peters gives this rallying cry: "It is because this scenario is now average -- for every banker, health care administrator, public utility executive, soup maker, let alone computer maker -- that our organizations all require major surgery. Violent and accelerating change, now commonplace, will become the grist of the opportunistic winner's mill. The losers will view such confusion as a `problem' to be `dealt' with." [9]

Peters divides businesses up into winners and losers, based upon their abilities to deal with constant technical innovation, constant changes in the character of markets, increasingly fickle customers, etc. Peters goes into great detail attempting to flesh out for businessmen the general shape of the "winning" business. (In all of Peters' works this process is very revealing of the nature of our time and should be required reading of any serious student of the modern age). It seems, although Peters never makes the leap philosophically, that what he is doing is dividing humanity itself into "winners" and "losers." The winning humans are those who can make chaos the grist of their mill, who can thrive on it. The winner is the one who, while drowning in a chaotic assault of information, news, new products, cyberspace, new technology, etc., does not see himself as drowning, but takes reality for what it is and uses this for his own advantage and advancement as a human, thriving upon what would appear to a previous age to be nothing but chaos and confusion. The new "order" is in fact disorder, and those who attempt to apply "order" as it was understood in a previous age in fact are doing us a disservice. Periods of change and upheaval are not new. What is new is an era where the concept of stability is gradually being abandoned in favour of the concept of chaos and instability. Peters, whether we like it or not, has captured the essence of the new humanity. It the task of the philosopher and theologian to ask the larger questions of meaning, if such questions are even appropriate or possible anymore. (For instance: we might wonder what role the biblical idea of God's creation order vs. the chaos of "the sea" should play in our discussion of this change being wrought upon humanity in the technologized era.)

Peters himself sees a change in the basic nature of business itself. All conventional wisdom about "big is better," long production runs and the economies of scale needs to abandoned in this new chaotic age. This is one of the points that he wishes to outline in a recent book, Liberation Management: Necessary Disorganization for the Nanosecond Nineties: "There are two ways to compete. In stable conditions, you plan and compete on scale. In unstable times --and by the way entrepreneurs create these instabilities -- you live by your wits. Living by your wits, by acts of intellect, means being flexible, innovative, being willing to try and put yourself out of business before someone else does." [10] What does this mean for a business? This means that they need to find ways to process increasingly larger quantities of information as markets continue to fragment (God and religion are not the only things fragmenting, as per Bibby, fragmentation is one of the basic facts of technologized life). Businesses need to make increasingly oddball business connections if they are to survive. Information needs to become less distorted by hierarchies.

We need to learn to deal with large quantities of raw, real-time information. Linear processes and thinking must be abandoned (in a similar vein, perhaps could it be that "maturing" as a person, that linear process of moving from infant to adult, needs to be abandoned as the paradigm of human betterment and development?) in favour of parallel processes and processing of information. That is, we need to learn to deal with everything at once. We need to become more person-to-person and network dependent as opposed to data dependent. First hand experience and contact is more important than statistical research. The very squishy idea of "feel" is more important than that of "hard data." Shorter feedback loops are a necessity. That is, we need to offer a new product or idea and then gain feedback quickly and modify the original as demanded by feedback. Products or ideas introduced with a lot of careful planning with the expectation that they will be viable for a long time is a recipe for failure. We need to adjust faster, toss out useless schemes faster, improve faster. We need to shift to the idea of try, try, try -- versus the idea of plan, plan, plan. "Try it, break it, fix it" is the new mantra. Don't think, just do and fix it later.

"Luck" needs to become a significant word in our vocabulary. Perhaps most importantly, we need to abandon the idea that we "control" anything; rather we must become adept at giving up control in favour of "responsiveness." [11] This is just a flavour of the understanding of the new world that Peters is trying to bring businessmen.

If we interpret Peters, what he is implying is that we have entered a new "world" in which constant technological change is the norm, in which we drown in information, in which there is no cohesive whole, only fragments. No longer are big systems, constancy and enduring ideas the norm; rather, we must deal with an ever expanding number of small systems, constant change, and ideas that become obsolete overnight. The humans that are best able to deal with this new situation will be the humans who will come to call the shots. Just as in previous ages it was those who stood for constancy, for the enduring, who determined what "culture" was, so now the ones who are coming to determine what "culture" is are not wired to think about such things as "the enduring questions of humanity." Instead, the new human is the one adept at picking up, using, modifying and discarding fragments as need demands. The new human will be comfortable drowning in a sea of information without seeing any need to "make sense of it," in the sense that the old humanity would have understood "making sense of it."

Thinkers like Birkerts, Bly, and Ellul see in this change the end of "culture," and perhaps they are right. Just as the writing and the printing press put an end to the oral culture, just as television is putting an end to the literate culture, so too the whole of the technological society (including the television and the computer) is putting an end to "culture" as it has come to be understood since the advent of the printing press. In this Ellul is correct, although I disagree with him in terms of the possibilities of the "technical culture."

The technical culture is here; it just does not resemble anything that the "literate culture" had come to understand as "culture." This is similar to the kinds of changes effected by writing and the printing press upon memory and the corporate personality. What we are seeing is at once the deterioration and end of an old culture, and in its place is rising a new culture that in many respects is incommensurable with the old culture. Thus, to those raised in the end of the old literary culture, those who were also taught to appreciate it, this new technologized culture seems to be the end of humanity. In one respect they are right: it is the end of humanity as they knew it. What is rising in its place is the technical humanity. What was begun in the industrial revolution has been nearly finished in the coming of IBM's Personal Computer and virtually cemented in the advent several years ago of the "World Wide Web."

What is the difference between the new and old man? In this I think we are helped a lot by the writings of Carl Jung and especially one of his followers, Isabel Briggs-Myers, co-inventor of the most popular personality instrument, the MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator). In Jung's thinking, our personalities develop through our showing preference for, and developing, certain personality characteristics arranged on polarities. That is, one shows preference for either introversion or extroversion; sensing or intuition; thinking or feeling; and one added by Briggs-Myers, judging or perceiving. In order to develop one side of the polarity, the opposite must remain primitive and undeveloped. It is the various combinations of preferences that contribute to the distinctive personality type of each of us. While I don't want to get into a lengthy discussion of Jungian psychotherapeutic theory, I do think that the polarity implicit in Jung and developed by Briggs-Myers, that of judging and perceiving, may provide us with a significant clue about the changes that are taking place in society. In a nutshell, I think that the previous "culture" was biased towards the "judger" and away from the "perceiver."

If the old era emphasized big bureaucracy, constancy, sequential, linear development, and so forth, it favoured those personality types which emphasized those qualities. Thus society pushed people toward those characteristics which were valued in the "culture." Those who had a preference for judging were deemed to be good people and thus came to dominate the culture and had the power to shape its values. The situation is now being reversed, in that the technologized society is demanding a perceiving bias, and those who are judgers are finding themselves being displaced and disestablished in their power to set the values. (This is especially true for church culture; it "threatens" the whole "judging" bias inherent in our polity and theology.)

What is the difference between the two? Let us deal with the "Judging Type" as described by Briggs-Myers in her book Gifts Differing: Understanding Personality Type. The judging types:
1. Are more decisive than curious.
2. Live according to plans, standards and customs not easily or lightly set aside, to which the situation of the moment, must, if possible, be made to conform.
3. Make a very definite choice among life's possibilities, but may not appreciate or utilize unplanned, unexpected, and incidental happenings.
4. Being rational, they depend on reasoned judgments, their own or borrowed from someone else, to protect themselves from unnecessary undesirable experiences.
5. Like to have matters settled and decided as promptly as possible, so that they will know what is going to happen and can plan for it and be prepared for it.
6. Think or feel they know what other people ought to do about almost everything, and are not adverse to telling them.
7. Take real pleasure in getting something finished, out of the way, and off their minds.
8. Are inclined to regard the perceptive types as aimless drifters.
9. Aim to be right.
10. Are self-regimented, purposeful, and exacting. [12]

To me this seems to be the person implied by Bly to be the "adult" and he laments the displacement of this personality type. What he does not realize is that in identifying this as the "adult," he is attempting to resurrect the dominant values of a bygone age. This is not to say that there will no longer be any more judging types. Not at all. In fact, half of the population will continue to show a preference for the judging attitude. But they will less and less set the rules of the game, will less and less decide that the above characterization will be reinforced as "good," and its polar opposite, the perceiver, will no longer be villainized in society and be classified as "bad," or immature.

The personality type which best suits the technologized society is that of the perceiver. While it is the perceiver who seems best suited for the new society and culture which has almost completely relegated the former age to a dim memory, there are still attempts to assert the judging attitude as "the good." But we will find more and more that no longer will the perceiver have to falsify his type to gain social acceptance, or risk being classified as a bit of a misfit; the reverse is fast coming to be true. It is the judgers who are finding that they must, if they wish to survive in the new era, take on perceiver traits. Briggs-Myers describes the perceiver in this way:
1. Are more curious than decisive (One only has too look at Peters emphasis on "curious organizations" to see the shift towards, and the call for, a new set of values along perceiver lines).
2. Live according to the situation of the moment and adjust themselves easily to the accidental and the unexpected.
3. Are frequently masterful in their handling of the unplanned, unexpected, and incidental, but may not make effective choices among life's possibilities.
4. Being empirical, they depend on their readiness for anything and everything to bring them a constant flow of new experience -- much more than they can digest or use.
5. Like to keep decisions open as long as possible before doing anything irrevocable, because they don't nearly enough about it yet.
6. Know what other people are doing and are interested to see how it comes out.
7. Take great pleasure in starting something new, until the newness wears off.
8. Are inclined to regard the judging types as only half alive.
9. Aim to miss nothing.
10. Are flexible, adaptable and tolerant. [13]

It is the rise to dominance of this personality preference which Bly laments as the rise of the infantilized person. As showing the perceiving preference myself, I find Bly's assessment insulting, that by being myself I am being a child. This comes out of a paradigm of a different personality type, once dominant, but now finding itself unable to relate to the new age properly, finding itself no longer able to set the agenda of cultural and social values, and finding itself in a world which it no longer understands or can relate to, which it thinks is childish, aimless, and incapable of generating any culture. For perhaps the first time in history the perceiving type has the centre of the stage, and will have it for more than simply a transitional period. The age of the perceiving personality is here. It is the perceiver who is able to do the constant adaptation needed, who thrives on being drowned in a constant sea of information that is novel, new and always rejuvenating, who delights in a world where everything is impermanent, where there are no cohesive wholes, where everything is in fragments, where pluralism versus singularism or exclusivism is the norm, etc. The last holdovers of the old order still lament its demise. As for me, I am willing to say good riddance. For the first time in history we as humans will be allowed to be fully alive (at least from the perceiver perspective) without having to order the world. The new age of chaos is upon us, and those wired to thrive upon it will do so, and they will set the values and they will determine the normative shape new of "the human," what makes up an "adult," what is "culture," and so forth. The winners will be those who take chaos as the opportunistic grist for their mills. The losers will be those, like Bly and Birkerts who still pine for and strive for linear maturity and whole coherent systems, who see constant change and chaos as a "problem." It is time that we turn our philosophical powers towards providing an accurate description of the new humanity emerging in our time in a manner that does not attempt to prop up a set of values that found their potency in a previous age, but which are next to useless today for survival and human betterment. [END]

Editor's note: To respond to this essay via e-mail, send a message to me, and I will forward it to the author:
[email protected]


[1] Jacques Ellul. The Technological Bluff. Tr. Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990.

[2] Ibid., 39.

[3] He outlines this in his chapter on "Ambivalence," ibid., 35-76.

[4] Ibid., 147.

[5] Robert Bly. The Sibling Society (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1996), 169-170, as quoted by Theodore Plantinga in "All Men Are Brothers: A Chilling Prospect." Myodicy 2 (December, 1996), 1

[6] Loc. cit.

[7] Reginald Bibby. Fragmented Gods: The Poverty and Potential of Religion in Canada. Toronto: Irwin Publishing, 1987.

[8] Bly. Sibling Society. 169-170, as quoted by Plantinga. "Brothers." 1

[9] Tom Peters. Thriving on Chaos (New York, Toronto, London, Sydney, Auckland: Random House, 1987), 21

[10] Tom Peters. Liberation Management: Necessary Disorganization for the Nanosecond Nineties. (New York: Fawcett, 1992), 553

[11] Ibid., 566-569

[12] Isabel Briggs-Myers. Gifts Differing: Understanding Personality Type. (Palo-Alto, CA: Davies-Black Publishing, 19801, 19952)

[13] Loc. cit.

Click here to go to the Myodicy home page.