Monthly Archives: May 2009

The Abstraction Of Modern Man

Two weeks ago, I visited a new doctor. Figuring that I’d have to fill out numerous forms, I decided to arrive early to my appointment. After checking in at the front desk, I was surprised to find that, rather than a clipboard and pen, a keyboard and stylus were waiting for me.

I immediately had mixed feelings. Of course, this computer may help me finish my task faster, I thought, but my newfound efficiency may come at the expense of my privacy.

What if this machine gathered my personal data and the people processing it were intent on using it against me? It’s a fact that privacy is illusionary, an archaic ideal to which many of us cling, but my use of this mini computer in a doctor’s waiting room perturbed me anyway.

I mean, why wouldn’t a clipboard and pen work just as well? And what would become of my digital records after I hit the fateful “enter” button?

Then, making a connection to something I’d read a few days earlier, I realized this: My experience here was a prime example of the abstraction of modern man. What led me to this conclusion is the passage that follows from one of my favorite books, Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy by William Barrett (pp. 30-1):

We are so used to the fact that we forget it or fail to perceive that the man of the present day lives on a level of abstraction altogether beyond the man of the past. When the contemporary man in the street with only an ordinary education quickly solves an elementary problem in arithmetic, he is doing something which for a medieval mathematician–an expert–would have required hours.

Barrett wrote those words over fifty years ago, but he may as well have been sitting next to me as I typed and touch-screened my way through my electronic intake forms. Modern man has the capacity to accomplish numerous feats of wonder (many of which occur in his head) that would have made pre-modern man flip out.

As far as “progress” is concerned, this is great but Barrett (on page 31) continues with a cautionary note:

“This capacity for living easily and familiarly at an extraordinary level of abstraction is the source of modern man’s power. With it he has transformed the planet, annihilated space, and trebled the world’s population. But it is also a power which has, like everything human, its negative side, in the desolating sense of rootlessness, vacuity, and the lack of concrete feeling that assails modern man in his moments of real anxiety.”

Technology has made life easier by calculating many abstractions for us, but we have, in the process, lost touch with reality. Hence my worries about privacy. Deep down, this was an expression of the inner tensions we all feel today. We get things done faster but quickly have lost the sacred quality of being in the moment. Now we often exist beside the moment, in a state of abstraction, a strange and alieniating place from which there is no escape. At this rate, modern man, leaping forward at warp speed, is bound to get further away from himself.

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