“Nature Vs. Technology” is a False Dichotomy

I am not a fan of dichotomies; I much prefer continua, Venn diagrams, and big, messy, organic tangles. Our world is a world not of black and white, but of a series of gray areas and vibrant colors. Sure, having a nice, neat “either/or” perspective makes it easier to think. You can set yourself up as the good guy, and the other perspective is the bad guy, and life is ever so simple!

It’s also intellectually lazy. And it’s irritating. One of the many reasons I am no longer Christian is because I got tired of the right/wrong, good/evil, wonderful Christians/nasty ol’ everybody else dichotomies. While I didn’t choose to go to paganism because of a lack of dichotomies, I must admit the greater proliferation of the “gray areas” mindset among the pagans I met was a nice perk.

However, there are a few dichotomies I’ve seen crop up every so often in discussions in the pagan realm that set my teeth on edge. One of them has to do with the false dichotomy of “nature/spirituality/magic vs. technology”. The Wild Hunt recently featured discussion on a proclamation by a well-known occult publisher about their exodus from Facebook. It’s not their leaving Facebook that I take issue with; after all, I was pretty annoyed that the media giant wants businesses to pay for their statuses to show up in people’s feeds along with everything else. I don’t blame them for their decision, and I wish them well.

What got me was the snarky sour grapes attitude toward all technology in the publisher’s original statement, with such choice phrases as “We are fortunate to say that many of the best practitioners we know have no online profile, and would suggest that those who are most vocal online should perhaps have their claims taken with a pinch of salt” and “The internet is making you stupider, stupid”. Some of the comments in the Wild Hunt discussion were of a similar us vs. them (and we’re better) bent. This sets up that dichotomy of “real serious occult practitioners who are too busy being real serious occult practitioners to have a Facebook account” vs. “wannabe practitioners who spend too much time online and are just in it for the image and trappings and ruining their magic by posting altar pictures to Pinterest”. All this assumes that the more time a person spends online, the worse a practitioner they must be, because obviously “real practitioners” don’t have time for Facebook and other distractions. (One might wonder whether they also don’t have time for television, or reading novels and other fiction, and other frivolous pleasures.)

But I’ve seen it go the other way, too. I’ve seen people swear up and down that nature doesn’t need to be preserved because we don’t need it, that all we need to do is plug ourselves into a virtual reality and all our psychological and spiritual needs will be cared for, and eventually we won’t even need the physical world. I’ve seen paganism and other nature-based spiritualities degraded as “backwards” and “primitive” and “not in touch with the modern world”, while “cutting edge” occultists play dick-fencing by seeing who can quote the most obscure countercultural figures on internet forums, and how many occult symbols they can create while on some manmade hallucinogen or another.

Neither of these extremes is the norm, of course, though they’re fodder for convenient straw men for each side of the nature/tech divide to attack and thereby feel superior. In reality, most people, whether esotericists or not, have their own comfortable balance between old tech and new tech. The pagan Luddites, and the internet addicts, are extreme minorities that make for good worst-case-scenarios but do not typify all/most pagans or all/most social media users.

I have found great value in both the physical and the virtual. I was primarily raised in a small town and was the weird kid who grubbed around in the woods catching garter snakes. I still love being outdoors, and my spirituality centers around the wilderness and the wild world we live in. But I also am a big geek, and have been ever since I met my first band o’ gaming, cosplaying, anime-watching computer nerd friends as a teen in the 90s. I’m not as heavily embedded in the newest tech as some, but I’m still pretty well plugged into the internet on a variety of levels.

I needed both of those to become the practitioner I am today. All my experiences outdoors have been formative, from my first forays in the bushes in the front yard, to my most recent hike. Being in the wild helped me to not only appreciate myself as a human animal, but to see why people do things like greet the directions and believe there are spirits in waters and trees and birds. When I first was able to do ritual outdoors instead of in my room, it made sense in the same way the first time I did cutting drills with a real sword instead of a practice waster—I experienced what the tools and movements were actually created for, whether live steel or wild setting. For me, personally, practicing outdoors was (and is) what my paganism was all about.

But I also can never express how much the internet also formed me. Before I really found people in everyday life who grokked the things I did, I had the internet to discover that I wasn’t alone in being pagan, queer, progressive, and otherwise “weird’. In a time and place where I was largely socially isolated, the chat rooms and websites I visited were lifelines. And I was able to access a lot more information on paganism than was available in the few old books on witchcraft in the local library, and the New Age fluff at the health food store. Over the years the internet opened me up to more and more concepts and practices that I never would have discovered otherwise.

Today, both are still crucial to my life and practice; the balance shifts over time, but both remain. I am able to work from home, completely self-employed as an author and artist, because of the internet. Between my website, my Etsy shop, and my various social media accounts (to include, yes, that terror that is Facebook), I can support myself and my household, and I can afford the time and gas money to go hiking on a weekly basis. I’m also able to keep in touch with people in the various places I’ve lived over the years as I’ve moved from city to city, and I’m able to talk with other practitioners of various arts and spiritualities around the world, people I might not otherwise have talked to. But my practice is hollow and empty if I don’t get outside and interact with the animals, plants, and other natural phenomena, urban and wild alike. It isn’t enough to talk about nature; I need to be in nature (and as we’ve found, I suffer if I am separated from it too long).

Everyone has to find their own balance, to be sure. Some people are miserable even in a city as small and close-in as Portland, and need more wilderness than I do; others work with the spirits of advanced technology, and can’t practice without at least a laptop and a solid internet connection. But to degrade someone else’s balance as wrong, and to make broad, negative assumptions about it because it’s not the same as your balance, I feel is short-sighted. It also suggests a fundamental insecurity in one’s practice, needing to attack the differences in others’ paths to bolster one’s confidence in one’s own practice. (And really, where do such serious practitioners find the time to worry so much about other people’s practices, anyway?)

Okay, yes, it is good to keep tabs on what others are doing, just for curiosity’s sake if nothing else. But we are not so divided as some may claim. There is not a dichotomy between nature/spirit and technology; there is only each person finding their personal balance among a wide variety of factors and influences in a world that, even as it relies more on technology, still maintains its fundamental physical, biological, chemical nature.


14 thoughts on ““Nature Vs. Technology” is a False Dichotomy

  1. Yes, this. It’s all part and parcel of the silly dichotomy between humanity and nature that is what we decided existed instead of it being real. We interact with nature and are part of it. Beavers build dams and change the space around them, but nobody would call a beaver dam artificial and therefore lesser. We are more capable than other animals of making extremely sweeping changes, so we have a large responsibility to stop acting like it’s never going to lash back at us. Especially since it already is (hi, Sandy, how’s things?).

    • Well, some would argue that the degree of difference between the beaver’s dam and our many buildings is the crucial issue. However, you’re right in that we never detach ourselves from the world around us, and we ARE nature. If we saw our technology as natural, perhaps we would be more likely to be responsible with it instead of seeing it as a separate entity.

  2. This is a great post. Technology, like anything, is a matter of moderation and finding the appropriate place for it in our lives. The same is true for occult practice. (This isn’t to say “spirituality” – I don’t think spiritual practice can ever be overdone). Technology has opened many doors that were closed. Not everyone lives in proximity to book shops or other life-minded people. I don’t have the money to purchase Scarlett Imprint books. My practice isn’t perfect, but I think it’s been enriched by the internet – in moderation.

    • The internet has the capability of being a great equalizer. especially when we make it available to everyone, through schools and libraries and even subsidies (as well as catching up on the necessary literacies to use it), then everyone has the ability to get in there and learn. But we also can use it to develop valuable critical thinking skills; not everyone carefully evaluates the veracity of info on the internet, but that may be partly because we’re not in the habit of doing so. We’ve been used to all written material being edited–books and magazines and newspapers. So the huge glut of unedited writing online is still a new thing, and we haven’t gotten used to the additional layer of critical thinking needed to sift through it. All in time, though.

  3. Yeah, I definitely got a hit of snarky sour grapes from that post, as well. Why can’t we have a balance of online interaction and hands on practice? What’s wrong with it? And why snark at people who make different decisions when they don’t affect your own practice at all?

    • I think a lot just comes down to usefulness. There’s a lot of criticism of “mindless” internet usage. Yes, there are people who dive into the internet for 5-8 hours a day even after work the same way others zone out with TV. But in moderation, “not serious” internet time can be a stress-reliever (among many other types of stress relief), and it’s also a really useful tool when applied professionally, too. I think in this case it’s a matter of people taking the very extremes of internet addiction and the apparent “emptiness” of a lot of internet pop culture, and assuming that this means people are getting dumber because of the ‘net. Really, though, people who plug in and just never leave will use whatever tech is available; the rest of us can glean good things from a variety of sources, tech and otherwise.

      • I think some people also consider ANY internet usage to be ‘mindless’. I spend an incredible amount of time online and have since I first was able to use a computer. But my activity is rarely mindless (it certainly is at times, when I just want to lay back and watch shows or post silly pictures) – I usually have a specific purpose that requires I engage myself and my brain.

        SI’s statement left a foul taste in my mouth, for sure, but I’m glad to see people calling out the statement for the problems it has.

      • Me too. Nor would I have met a bunch of people who I now count as friends. The Internet, like any other aspect of technology, doesn’t have to be “the enemy,” especially when it connects people who might otherwise never have heard of each other or each other’s ideas.

  4. Insofar as one’s personal balance goes, what you say is right on. In general though, there is a key differences between nature and human technology., regarding the question of origin. Nature is the creation of the Great Mystery, shaped and influenced by all beings in the vast web of life, collectively, while technology is a creation of one species only. I’m not saying that our creations don’t have spirit, from the materials that come from nature and the energy we put into them, thus they are not separate from the Oneness. But the difference in origin has a major effect when we live lives surrounded by human creations, to the extent that that technology is all that we experience and interact with – at that point, the technology itself acts to separate us from the rest of nature. I just had a dream last night that conveyed that message, my soul feeling trapped in a prison cell when I am inside buildings, and needing to get out into the real world in order for my soul to be free.

    The other crucial difference, regarding origin, is the very real consequences of our technology to both Earth and Spirit. Nothing that we receive from nature is “free”, and we must always be conscious of the costs, particularly if we wish to live a way of life based on reciprocity. What matters is not only what people do with technology, but also what it costs to make it, and in that regard our modern high technology is certainly not neutral – the mining, industrial infrastructure, pollution, exploitation, etc that is required to produce it is creating vast suffering and death for our brothers and sisters, whole communities of life, and future generations.

    • I agree that our technology has been created in a very self-centered fashion, and there are a lot of things that we need to retrofit about it if we’re going to keep from destroying the world as we know it. This needs to be balanced with the advances that technology has helped us to gain, ranging from better medical technology to social improvements (such as equal rights for women, the LGBT community, and other minorities).

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