Sunday, January 15, 2012

Externalizing Virtue

James KA Smith's recent blog post touches on one of the characteristics of relational prosthetics I am most fascinated by: the externalization/objectification of internal dispositions.  Musing on the irony (and Augustinian aptness) of a software program that restricts internet access and calls itself Freedom, Smith writes:
The development of such software is, technically speaking (I'm not here to judge), the confirmation of the absence of virtue--that is, the absence of adequate internal dispositions to pursue the good and resist temptations away from that. In short, again technically speaking, such software is a corrective for the vice of sloth--but a wholly external corrective. Aquinas notes that law and virtue are sort of in inverse proportional relation to each other: the more virtuous I am (having goodhabits), the less the external constraint of law is necessary. Conversely, the more vicious I am, the more the force of law is necessary. 
In this particular case, what has happened is that we have unwittingly imbibed habits of distraction: the material rhythms of an "online" life have inculcated in us patterns of behavior--and hence internal dispositions--to seek distraction. It's not that we lack habits; it's that we have acquired habits ofdistraction. 
I'd argue that it's not the absence of virtue that is signaled, at least not the total absence.  It is the front-loading of virtue.  We choose at the beginning our path of action, knowing, as Smith is saying, that perhaps our discipline is not up to the level of temptation afforded by our environment.  This is not so different from a sex addict avoiding the brothel or the alcoholic throwing away his liquor.  Or what if rather than throwing away his liquor he buys a safe and has a friend lock it all away.  This is a wholly external corrective but he still chose it.  It seems silly to say he is lacking virtue for doing so.  It is the beginning of virtue.  As Dr. Marvin says, "baby steps."


While most of my relational prosthetics enable the participants to do something they couldn't otherwise do, Helmets is particularly absurd because it doesn't really offer any new possibilities.  It merely suggests by its form that two people do something they could, physically speaking, easily have done by moving their legs--facing each other and moving closer together--but it relocates the action to an external mechanism, a crank.  The existence of the object somehow legitimizes and encourages the attendant action.

When two people encounter one another they must tacitly define the situation together, and even before that there is a tacit process of establishing the division of definitional labor (Goffman). Relational prosthetics intervene in these processes, bearing the lion's share of the definitional labor.  Well designed, single purpose relational prosthetics make it so obviously apparent what their attendant action is, that to engage another person in them is largely to submit to the initial definition of the situation embodied by the apparatus.

And by relieving participants of some of the burden of definitional labor, which is so colored by automatic behaviors, it frees them up to have a new (hopefully positive) playful experience.

Katya Mandoki writes, ""...the opposite to play is not seriousness but the automatic."

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