Wednesday, February 4, 2009


The central thing to know about technology, I guess, is that technology should aid us in living a traditional life, rather than fundamentally remaking our life. That principle, however, needs a lot of working out. For now, I will just discuss one corner of the technological revolution, ubiquitous but not quite world-shaping the way cars, television, or the Pill are: that is, plastics.

Plastic was a word, of course, long before there were plastics. Plastic is an adjective, meaning moldable (from the Greek plassein, to mold or shape). The plastic arts, for example, are things like sculpture or pottery. One modern dictionary defines plastics as "any of a group of synthetic or natural organic materials that may be shaped when soft and then hardened." Ironically, this part of the definition also covers metal and glass.

But, by a common linguistic device, the word plastics has come to refer exclusively to the subset of substances synthesized entirely for their plasticity; metal and glass may be "plastic," but they retain too much of their own nature to be properly "plastics." And that, I think, nicely sets out a corner of the technology question: it is one thing to use naturally occurring substances, and even to refine or synthesize them (as metals are smelted for purity and combined for strength, and we imitate the natural processes by which heat makes glass from sand), but it is quite another thing to create something totally new, purely for its moldability to our purposes. It is akin to the difference between hiring a free man to work for us on his terms, on the one hand, and cloning slaves, on the other. Plastics are designed to have no nature of their own, but to do as we tell them.

That is a little apocalyptic, so let me take a moment to sing the praises of plastics. It is hard for me to miss a central instance in the life of our family. My first son was born with what amounts to a catastrophic plumbing problem in his head. The day after his birth, a surgeon installed a plastic hose that allows fluid to drain from his cervical ventricles into the rest of his body the way it drains from yours and mine. Without this little hose his head would swell until his brain collapsed under the pressure. With the hose, his brain is fine. A little plastic can do a lot of good. My son's ventricular shunt is not the only reason I say this, but it is the most dramatic: technology is a fabulous servant of life, and I do not think we can rail against technology without expressing a callousness about human life itself.

Nor is the role of plastics in medicine confined to limit cases. My third child was recently born, at home, with midwives, in the most traditional way imaginable, and one of the easiest, healthiest births imaginable (literally forty-five minutes of labor). There came a moment not long after birth, however, when little William was having trouble breathing. Our midwives, who mostly wield herbs and common sense, quickly grabbed their oxygen tank and revived our precious child. The hose and mask, of course, were plastic. (And the synthetic process by which oxygen is isolated and compressed in a metal tank is analogous to the production of plastics.) I do not know what would have become of William without the oxygen; I do know that our midwives are quite radical in their preference for traditional methods. It seems to me that that makes two of my three children who owe their life to plastic medical equipment deployed within twenty-four hours of their birth.

Other deployments of plastic are less urgent, but nonetheless salutary. I think computers, televisions, and the like are dangerous -- they run the risk of defining our lives, rather than helping them. Nonetheless, they can help us get information and stay in touch in ways we otherwise could not. I type, of course, upon a keyboard made of plastic, as I look at a plastic screen.

The wires that carry my signal are all covered in plastic -- and, let it be noted, some of the first ground-breaking discoveries in plastics were made in trying to find a way to insulate wires for more humdrum concerns like heat and lighting. Proclaim that you hate computers, and even electric lights, those banes of traditional living, but on a Minnesota day that has dipped well below zero Fahrenheit, I cannot help being thankful for the electricity that keeps us warm. (Actually, our house is heated with natural gas -- but the process by which the gas comes to us is analogous to the ultra-synthesis of plastics; the spark that lights the gas is electric; our thermostat uses plastic-insulated wires; and my mother's new gas furnace delivers steam to the radiators using pvc piping, which is far more efficient than the eighty-year-old insulated pipes in our old house -- and thus lets her devote far less of her life to earning money for heating. About two days of my Ph.D. income this month will go entirely to heating our tiny apartment.)

To appreciate the goodness of plastics, let's imagine life without them. I, an intellectual, could throw out not only my computer, but even my plastic pens, and work with ink and quill, as indeed did my forefathers in the intellectual life. Perhaps I would only read books similarly printed. My intellectual master, Thomas Aquinas, did as much -- though he had to tramp all over Europe to find even the monuments of his own tradition. The point I would like to make about such a life is that it revolves around "technology" -- or rather, it's lack -- more than mine does. The intellectual life must keep contact with the world of flesh-and-blood. But to be constrained by one's ability to hunt down a quill, and keep it sharpened and inked, to be constrained to only the books that are so written and delivered, is to make the intellectual life the slave of the material -- which, it seems to me, is precisely what we want to avoid. We should be careful not to let technology rule us. But rejecting technology takes us deeper into the same problem.

The same goes for family life. Surely family life is much destroyed when it revolves around a plastic screen. (I am pretty sure televisions no longer have glass screens, but in any case, the thing is mostly plastic, and all technology.) But the opposite is just as true. To let our children die so we can oppose plastics, technology, and the over-complicated modern life, is insanity. To give up heat, or the synthetic blankets that wrap our newborn infant, is to become the servant of technology. To never call Grandma because we would have to use a plastic phone: insanity.

This is not to encourage insouciance. The danger of plastics is that the over-synthesized life comes to be denatured. I recall countless times lying on the floor, or the couch, of my grandparents' living room, pondering the wooden ceiling (stained and preserved, of course, with utterly synthetic materials). Wood is alive. It is something to work with, more a partner than a slave. Even the cheap Ikea desk at which I now sit has its knots and its grain. Glued together and mass-produced it may be, but the thickness of the shelves, the very construction of the glued joints, is determined by the material, not by the human creator.

There is, I believe, no more important lesson in life than this: we are not our own makers; we do not make our own world; we are coworkers, working with natures, whether material, personal, or social, that are given to us, and that will assert their own character if we fight against it. A beautiful wooden ceiling is alive with its own life, a dance between the carpenter and his materials. So too our own life, and our communal life, is about working with creation, entering in, indeed, to the very work of God who made it. A too-thin wooden shelf will snap under the weight -- as will a psyche or a community.

The danger of plastics is that we come to think we alone are the creators. Plastics are our slaves. They still have their own natures, to be sure -- any engineer will tell you that you have to work with them, and accept their limits. Nonetheless, my wife and I are cautious about surrounding our children with too many plastic toys. The world of Mickey Mouse -- and now far beyond -- is a world defined by our whimsies. Wile E. Coyote can fall off a cliff and suffer no ill effects, of body or soul. The plastic world is too much like that. A wooden train, tin soldiers: these maintain a character of themselves. Our plastic Thomas the Tank Engine is ready-made, a personality dreamed up by Central Marketing and mass-produced so that our children can plug into that man-made fantasy world.

Which is all to say, a world without nature is dangerous. I am glad for something that can be shaped into a ventricular shunt, or an oxygen mask, or even a computer, a pen, or a wire insulator. These things serve our life (or at least, the computer can serve our life), and they can only be at all if we have materials that bend to our will. But life itself does not bend to our will. It is given. And a life that makes use of plastics for its own ends should not become a plastic life, in which all seems to be merely our own creation.