Borgmann, Albert (2003): Power Failure. Christianity in the Culture of Technology. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.

This book offers a rich harvest of insights into its subject, but one can summarise its message in a very few theses as follows.

There is a vacuity at the heart of our contemporary technological culture. While promising apparent liberty and affluence, modern technology makes us, in a sense, poor and oppressed. By eliminating the fertile ground on which religion thrives, modern technology is most hostile to it. At the same time, it is religion, and especially Christianity, as a counterforce that has the resource and potential for a reform of modern technological culture.

One of the great strengths of this book is its competence to put technology in a wider perspective, extending beyond Christianity or religion to activities that the author calls “focal” and “communal” practices. Such practices include, first of all (see Chapter 8 et passim), what he terms “the culture of the word” and “the culture of the table”, and also various kinds of sport, and the effort and ability to play musical instruments. A similar practice takes shape when one attends and rides a horse, a practice which, in Chapter 1, comes to be in contrast with a technological example, a paradigmatic product called “Cool Whip”. The Cool Whip is an artificial whipped cream, which, in fact, has nothing to do with milk. Whipped cream is “woven into the texture and depth of our world in a way in which Cool Whip can never be”. Cool Whip embodies the paradigm and structure of a device, consisting of a product, a commodity, on the surface, and an invisible machinery that produces it. Cool Whip, like all technological products and commodities, carries a certain “opaqueness”, in contrast to a “focal” reality and practice like riding a horse and attending a horse. A “focal” practice involves, in Heideggerian terms, “gathering the world around it”, and “radiance” towards the world.

A stereo equipment and a musical instrument are the chosen examples to clarify what the author calls “disposable reality” and “commanding reality” (Chapter 2). To listen to music through a stereo equipment is an act of consumption without any engagement so that music becomes a commodity at our disposal. By contrast, learning to play a musical instrument requires active engagement with the material reality of the instrument, posing the challenge of a “commanding reality”.

The author claims that our distinction between “public” and “private”, so typical of advanced industrial societies, is of technological origin. The private sphere is the realm of consumption, while the public sphere is that of production, labour, and administration – a sphere where there is no longer any place for genuine communal celebration, and where indifference and disengagement are the rule. Nevertheless there is hope for public renewal, in the form of “active and focused celebrations” (p. 49), like street-corner music or sport events like tennis. What is more, religious celebrations are especially powerful in this regard, as they are not only “engaging”, but also “reflective”.

In Chapter 4, the author regards the presence of contingency in our culture as ultimately linked with faith in grace and the divine. But the growing explanation of the world by laws and lawfulness is a powerful counterforce. “Where explanation ends, God begins to appear. Conversely, where contingency is reduced or eliminated, theophany dissolves.” (p. 67) While the scope of contingency and thereby grace is constantly shrinking in modern technological society, the commanding presence of contingency still permeates our experience of nature’s and art’s beauty.

Chapter 6 follows the trajectory of the theologian Harvey Cox’s career, from claiming that liberty and secularisation in the modern technological city is a fulfilment of Christianity’s quest, to acknowledging that the need of authentic festivities (“the feast of the fool”) and the presence of the poor represent genuine forces for a Christian renewal in the city. The author makes an illuminating distinction between the hidden, “advanced poverty” in wealthy technological societies and the “brute poverty” in poor, third-world countries, pointing out that, turning towards the blessings of the technological machinery rather than grace, neither of them corresponds to biblical poverty.

All in all, acknowledging this excellent book’s numerous merits, it is important to note that it does not do full justice to its call for a “reform of technology”. What it presents as a recipe for such an outcome, as an antidote to the hidden miseries of a technological age, is the formula “less technology, more religion”. Clearly, this is not useful enough for a real reform. What is also missing in this book is the undeniable overlapping between the realms of technology and religion, for instance, an account on how the Christian tradition contributed to the evolution of the contemporary technological mindset, or on the degree to which a technological mentality looms behind religious spirituality. (There is, however, a reference in the book to how the Catholic Catechism’s focus on the operation of sacraments makes them similar to technological devices, see p.126)