The Recovery of "Focal Practices" 


Ever since Nicholas Carr wrote the celebrated Atlantic Monthly cover story called "Is Google Making us Stupid?" and turned it into his 2011 Pulitzer-finalist book, vigorous debate has not ceased on whether our immersion in the digital world of the Internet and i-gadgetry is having a negative effect on our minds.

Titled The Shallows, Carr's book enlisted a battalion of neurological studies to make the case that unless we become aware of the effects of digital media on our brains and take balancing action, we risk under-developing and even losing certain cognitive capacities. Deep-reading, long-term memory, contemplation and ultimately what we might call wisdom, are all in jeopardy.  The brain's normal plasticity, he argues, can work for us and against us. If we predominantly do cursory speed-reading, online and on our devices, we will become a people adept at scanning but deficient at meaningful reflection. Is this a real risk?

The opinion of professionals in the communications world is divided. In a massive Pew Research Center study released this past February, a thousand communications professionals and philosophers were evenly split on the issue. Half thought today's hyperconnectivity would result, in 2020, with brains that are wired differently from today, but able to multitask well and learn more broadly. The other half agreed about the different wiring, but feared that today's youth would lack deep-thinking capabilities, face-to-face social skills and will depend in unhealthy ways on the Internet and mobile devices to function. In short, the future is anyone's guess.

What we do know is that our technologies transform our lives — often dramatically. For instance, does the average family still play board games? Has letter-writing been totally superseded by email? Does it even matter?

Albert Borgmann, a philosopher at the University of Montana and author of several books on the effects of electronic media on society, is an advocate of deeper discernment before embracing the latest device from the Gates-Jobs industrial juggernaut. He believes that human work is often unfulfilling for many people, that our leisure activities are not ennobling, and that at a deep level, the culture knows this and is profoundly uneasy. We continuously compensate, he argues, by using more and more technologies. He calls this state of increasing reliance device paradigm, which refers to the cluster of technological phenomena that includes "the cultural displacements, the commodification and mechanization, and their embedding in contemporary culture."

To demonstrate life in device paradigm, Borgmann points out that we no longer need to wait until evening and gather in the parlour, pub or town square in order to share stories. Our entertainment is now available from the comfort of our couches or desk chairs, at will, twenty-four hours a day. This convenience is a good example of how device has largely displaced other human activities. The convenience is almost irresistible, for as Borgmann writes, "the promise of technology is one of material and social liberty, the promise of disburdenment from the pains and limits of things and the claims and foibles of humans." It is a process that is in a certain "opposition" to incarnate reality and human sociability, even as it fosters the simulation of greater "connectedness". Relating to others by social networks such as Facebook may, in the long run, be making real-life interaction more strained or superficial.

There are human practices, however, that counter the trend of virtualizing life. Literacy, while in ongoing struggle with its more titillating competitors of the digital audio-visual realm, still remains an important means of experiencing silence, recollection and reflection. According to Borgmann, the art of reading is an essential activity, fulfilling a fundamental human need:

Reading is essentially a contemplative pursuit, which, like prayer, embodies an "active receptivity" to the world, while engaging the deeper dimensions of the intellect and soul.

The answer is that literacy on the part of the reader generates the wealth of information a viewer receives without charge. Literacy is a many-storied skill, rising from word-recognition via parsing to comprehension. To read comprehendingly is to follow the author's instruction in the construction of an imaginary world. The author gives us the blueprint, but we must supply the materials and situate the structure. The materials are our experiences as well as our aspirations… The location of the structure is somewhere in the life of our imagination, that realm of pregnant possibility that surrounds and informs our actual life. Thus to read is to gather our past and illuminate our present. It is a focal activity that collects our world as a convex lens does and radiates back into our world as does a concave mirror.

Reading is essentially a contemplative pursuit, which, like prayer, embodies an "active receptivity" to the world, while engaging the deeper dimensions of the intellect and soul. It has a certain pride of place, perhaps, but nonetheless reading is just one of a multitude of activities he calls focal practices — habits that can help us resist becoming pell-mell denizens of device paradigm.

Focal practices are activities that make life meaningful. Focal things include books, musical instruments, fishing tackle, good art, and the treasures of nature. They correlate to focal practices such as reciting poetry, playing instruments, dining, sports, painting, sculpting, fishing, rock collecting, gardening, and so on. They engage our better sides: our creativity, ingenuity and sociability, and are recreative even as they require self-investment. Focal activities are also the basis of all group celebration: "Community," wrote Borgmann in another book, "gathers around reality." While device paradigm has become dominant in recent decades, it is by no means the exclusive force; virtual reality has a strong competitor in reality.

Device paradigm vs. focal practices is, in any case, a useful way of perceiving and measuring the effects of technologies in our lives. Borgmann is not anti-technology, but he believes that as the major benefits are largely recognized, the job of the philosopher of technology is to pay attention to its cultural and human liabilities and losses. He reminds us that not all conveniences are healthy, just as not all inconveniences are unhealthy, and that certain practices should not be blithely abandoned without reflection. 

Over the last twenty-five years, for example, certain customs have been in serious decline by many families:

Consider, for instance, the burden of preparing a meal and getting everyone to show up at the table and sit down. Or the burden of reading poetry to one another or going for a walk after dinner. Or the burden of letter-writing — gathering our thoughts, setting them down in a way that will be remembered and cherished and perhaps passed on to our grandchildren.

Once we are writing the letter, cooking the meal, walking outdoors, playing the piano, or doing one's morning prayer, the apparent burden lifts and the deeper satisfaction usually arises. Only with some investment comes reward.

It is true that it is usually easier to engage in electronic diversions. Every parent knows it is far more effortless to let children turn on the television or gaming console, than try to settle them into a book, art activity, or play acting. The obscene amount of time spent in the virtual world is also noticeable by anyone who has engaged it, as well as the resulting phenomenon of listlessness, boredom and irritability that often follows. It contrasts with the consolation and vitality that generally result from focal practices. The initial investment of effort — the "getting into" a book, acquiring the materials for the tree fort — is often a deterrent, yet that extra exertion to organize and enter into such activities is proportionate to the payoff.

Yet "the burdensome part of these activities is actually just the task of getting across a threshold of effort," writes Borgmann. "As soon as you have crossed the threshold, the burden disappears." Once we are writing the letter, cooking the meal, walking outdoors, playing the piano, or doing one's morning prayer, the apparent burden lifts and the deeper satisfaction usually arises. Only with some investment comes reward.

Plato once said that we become what we contemplate. Brain scientists continue to verify this observation, underlining that how we learn is just as important as what we learn. The same goes for our daily work and leisure activities. Our technologies should be our tools, not our masters, putting the lie to McLuhan's dictum "we make our tools and then our tools make us" — or at least minimizing that effect. In the end, the question should be, do our gadgets assist or detract from our primary vocation in life — do they help us be people who love and serve. That, in the final analysis, is the ultimate criterion. 




John D. O'Brien. "The Recovery of 'Focal Practices'" Catholic Education Resource Center (June 15, 2012).

This article is printed with permission from the author.


John D. O'Brien is a member of the Society of Jesus and teaches at Corpus Christi College in Vancouver. He blogs at "Veritas Liberabit".

Copyright © 2012 John O'Brien

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