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“Response Ability” by Frank Fisher

A few years back, someone introduced me to the writing of the late Frank Fisher and while this can be fairly academic compared with most of the texts I’ll be dipping into here, its rigorous and lively thinking strives to connect with the challenges of modern life in such an important way.

“Response Ability” explores various issues (environment, energy, transport, illness) alongside the process of “social construction” as a way we can come to understand the structures we create together; the essence of “response ability” then being for the individual to begin an active, intelligent engagement with living.

The section on “Technology and the loss of self” raises some interesting concerns that may be worth getting our head around. As its starting point, technology is taken as “an expression of purpose which may or may not be clear to its users”. Fisher then goes on to outline the ways design and social context exclude us from “the meanings (workings) purposefully, i.e. known to be, built into devices”.

Here we are talking about the way technology is created, marketed, maintained and how the face presented to us is one we cannot fully understand but one we relate to in a way somewhat distanced from the realities and meanings nested there. For example, the differences between the control and understanding of a manual car, versus the ease of an automatic; or the reliance on specialists as technology becomes increasingly inaccessible to everyday comprehension.

Using technology without seeing all it entails has the “capacity to trivialise both our understanding of nature and the meaning of the relationships we have with it”. Through a discussion of the nature of self, language and the construction of meaning Fisher then draws us to an understanding of how “meaning arises in recursive interaction between people in language” and “self and selfhood arise in the development of meaning in an individual”, so “where our access to meaning is restricted, our access to self determination, the means to construct our selves, diminishes.”

As I said, this is quite academic, quite deep. But for me, the essence of what’s being said here is that meaning and self arise out of a process of communication within society, so by technology mediating certain relationships we risk losing that feedback, and therefore our capacity to personally understand and respond in an informed way.

It seems Fisher isn’t so much critical of technology itself, but concerned over the degree of understanding of the subtle ways it distances us from nature/reality: “In addition to knowing ‘how it works’, we must know conceptually how it ‘fits’.” These tools arise out of a culture, and in using them we must understand them otherwise we risk being limited by their design. We must understand what we are doing, how we are doing it, and why.

This has clearly been a heavy post, and it’s been challenging to write, but that’s why I’ve stuck with it – if the realities behind technology and our relationships with it and with the world around us are that complicated to grasp, should we abandon the effort? If what’s really at stake is an understanding of self and our relationship to reality, then it seems troubling to shrug such concerns off.

Rather than being swept along somewhat unthinkingly with the tide of progress, we need to be aware of what we risk – to do so more consciously, more intentionally. To assert our selves, our humanity and insist on more transparency, meaning, and social context in what technology helps us to do.

Reference: ‘Technology and the loss of self’ from Chapter One of “Response Ability: Environment, Health and Everyday Transcendence” by Frank Fisher, (Vista Publications, Melbourne), 2006.

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