Power and its Impact on Human Experience

Let us clarify what we mean in these reflections by the term power. "Power" is the capacity to manipulate physical reality; to bend it to the will and purposes of the human being. What is distinctive about our time is not that such power exists, nor even simply that it exists on a scale never before imagined. It is, rather, the crucial place of power in the human being's understanding of his/herself and his/her world (and, as we will discuss more later, the conflicting and ambivalent perceptions of control and anxiety that shape this human world of power). 

What marks in a particular way human persons and human societies today is the consciousness of possessing an "extensive" power--characterized by instruments and "technique." These instruments and techniques of shaping reality have become a pervasive factor in ordinary life; capabilities that in other periods of history would have been considered extraordinary--indeed impossible, or perhaps miraculous (or demonic)--are now considered to be normal aspects of a dignified human existence. They are integrated into the environment of the "ordinary human being," who experiences them within his or her normal sphere of life. 

The simple, average human being today is immersed in a context in which his or her senses, awareness, capacity for movement, and capacity for communication (to name only a few points) are extended by devices that he or she has "at hand" and is able to use almost "instinctively," as though the human personality and dignity encompassed and permeated these devices. The human being "possesses" and indeed depends upon these powers as though they are really "parts" of the human self; human consciousness measures self-esteem, personal capability, and even disability in a way that presupposes and instinctively expects these powers. Their absence distinguishes a person as "poor"--as lacking something essential to human dignity.

Who am I? I am a human being who eats, drinks, talks, sleeps, thinks, prays, laughs, desires and wills things: in this respect we note perennial characteristics of human nature and human experience. But I am a human being who, when I eat, take packaged food from a refrigerator and cook it with a gas or electric stove or oven (or microwave). I also flick the kitchen and dining room light switches, fully expecting that this simple gesture will fill the room with artificial light. I talk, not only to my wife, children, and members of my household, but also--via the telephone--to persons who are not physically present to me. I move about by walking, but also by driving an automobile that propels my body through my environment at speeds unimaginable to natural human mobility. Several times a year, I place myself in a metallic aerodynamic, jet-propelled entity which moves my body at hundreds of miles an hour at a distance of 35,000 feet from the earth's surface. A hundred and fifty years ago (during the height of the "modern age") it took months of dangerous travel using a variety of vehicles to cross the North American continent. Now, I can do it on an airplane in five hours. Europe was once a perilous sea voyage away. Now I can "fly" from Washington to Rome in about eight hours.

It is interesting to examine the above expressions, because they are in themselves an example of how technological power has been incorporated into my personal sphere (i.e. my "self-consciousness"). It seems "artificial" and certainly requires a kind of analytical "distance" for me to describe air travel in terms of "placing myself in a metallic aerodynamic, jet-propelled entity which moves my body, etc." No one describes an airplane trip in these terms. In common speech, I simply say, "I'm flying to Rome next week" or "my flight to San Francisco leaves in an hour." The entity that transports me is something that I possess--via an increasingly simple yet itself technologically complex economic transaction--as a means by which I move. It is a form of motion that I experience as "within my capacity"--I am flying. 

Now it is true that this kind of conscious appropriation has always characterized the use of transportation aids, but our epoch adds a new dimension: a combination of the enormous, almost "trans-natural" power to move that is within my reach; the complexity of human, technical, and mechanical relationships that are interwoven with my particular circumstances and the circumstances of millions of other people as the foundation of this "power" we possess; and--simultaneously--an almost "organic" experience of having such power "at hand" as a normal feature of life. Indeed, we must recognize that something more than semantic convenience is indicated when we speak this way; i.e. when we encompass global technology within active verbal predicates which we attribute to ourselves as subjects. "I flew, I drove, I telephoned (and 'left a message'), I showered, I 'turned the light on,' I 'saw' such and such (on television), I emailed, I blogged, I downloaded, I printed (on the computer printer), I copied (on the copy machine), I photographed, I videotaped, I 'burned' a DVD, etc. etc. etc." This list could go on for pages. 

So much of what I "do" involves the assistance of artificial technological devices or else at least presupposes an environment generated by them and the use of things produced by means of them. Take, for example, the following--a particularly intimate and personal kind of human act, the act of prayer (which, notwithstanding the claims of rationalism, remains a vital act for billions of human beings). Let us say that I am praying the Psalms in the privacy of my room, lifting up my own human voice and my own human heart to God. Even here, however, I may well be using a technologically mass-produced printed Bible or prayer book, while kneeling on a manufactured carpet in a room in which a measure of comfort is secured by the central heating/air conditioning of my house. Then, of course, there is the structure of the house itself. The degree to which technology has integrated itself into the very fabric of our lives is remarkable. It enters directly into so many activities and--it would appear--affects the context or "background" of nearly all of life. 

Someone might respond to the "prayer" example by saying, "Supposing I am standing alone on a mountain praying the Psalms from memory?" If one thinks about this apparently "natural" example, however, questions will arise. How did you get to the mountain? "I hiked." How did you get to the beginning of the trail? Somewhere along the line we will find that this activity leads back to the use of a motor vehicle. Even if such were not the case, however, other questions would still remain, such as, "what were you wearing up on that mountain?" How did you acquire your clothing and your shoes? Who made them? Did you bring any water on this long hike? Where did you get the water and what kind of container did you put it in? etc. etc. 

An interesting point for subsequent consideration is the fact that technological power and the society it has created has vastly increased our access to and capacity to experience a variety of "natural" environments in the world of plants and animals, mountains and valleys, earth and sea and sky (even as, in other ways, it poses new dangers for these environments).

Let me stress that my purpose here is analytical. I do not intend to pass judgment (for or against) the technologically structured context in which the human being lives in the present time. I think, however, that it is vital to our understanding of our lives today that we recognize this "context" and acknowledge that its unprecedented scope--both extensively and intensively--is one of the key indicators that a new epoch, with distinct criteria for living and distinctive sociocultural traits, is emerging in human history.