I know this post is a little longer than usual--but I am confident that you will find it worth the effort. At the center of Albert Borgmann's analysis of technology is a constructive proposal on how to live well with technology. He focuses us on the quality of our engagements and something he calls focal things and focal practices....again, let's join the conversation....
My focus is less on setting limits than it is on creating the positive conditions in which technology becomes less compelling and different kinds of engagements thrive and flourish. How we situate technological devices in our homes is morally significant.
Placing the television in an inconvenient location in one’s home removes it from a position of constant availability and makes room for other engagements to flourish. With this kind of physical rearrangement must come a reengagement with what I call focal things and practices.
What would be a good illustration of a focal thing or a focal practice?
A focal thing is something that has a commanding presence, engages your body and mind, and engages you with others. Focal things and the kinds of engagements they foster have the power to center your life, and to arrange all other things around this center in an orderly way because you know what’s important and what’s not. A focal practice results from committed engagement with the focal thing. For example, a guitar is a focal thing—it commands from me a certain kind of engagement of my body and mind. As I learn to play it (a focal practice), it engages me with the larger tradition of music and the community of musicians. The meal is a focal thing and its preparation is a focal practice. The wilderness is a focal thing and hiking a focal practice. The stream, or the trout, is a focal thing—fly fishing the focal practice. In the life of the Christian community, the bread and the cup are focal things and the Eucharist the focal practice.
Focal things and our engagement with them orient us and center us in time and space in ways that technological devices do not. A focal thing is not at the mercy of how you feel at the moment, whether the time is convenient or whatever; you commit yourself to it come hell or high water. It helps, of course, if it’s a shared commitment, because when one person weakens, the other person can make up for that weakness. Two weak persons, each expecting the other to be strong, will be strong together. Preparing and sharing a meal together constitutes a focal practice that has the power to reorient the life of a family. To establish the conditions for such a practice to flourish, there must exist a firm agreement among those in the household—especially between parents.
If you were to take an inventory, how do focal things fare in your home? What focal practices are thriving in your life?