I resist change – especially the computer-related variety. I was just about the last person I know to get a cell phone, and the one I have now still isn’t the kind with a camera. For the past few years, as more and more people around me got – and learned how to use – iPods, I continued to buy and listen to my music the old-fashioned way: Go to the store, buy the CD, and put it in your CD player.
CDs themselves took a long enough time for me to get used to, back in the 80s. There was, I thought, something sinister about the way you couldn’t actually see the evidence of the songs on the CD surface. Not like records where the grooves in the vinyl were right there, plain as day – the long songs wider, the shorter ones skinnier. Now, with iPods (I finally broke down and got one) even those disks are gone. Day by day, in a thousand different ways, my world is revealing itself to be one of information, of data: Data that can be caught and preserved with ever less help from the material world.
Of course, the material world is still necessary for all this to happen. The songs in my iPod, the family photos I've scanned and transferred to my computer: all this stuff is still every bit as anchored to the physical as it was before. But the effect – the illusion – is that it isn't.
That's why, I suspect, I'm always so suspicious of each new technological innovation that comes along offering to take away yet another part of my familiar, three-dimensional world and store it digitally for me. Where are you taking this? some part of me asks. Am I really safe in entrusting it to you?
It isn’t like I don't want the good things in my life – the songs, the pictures – to be saved. After all, the desire to rescue the things we love down here on earth from the clutches of decay and destruction is one of the oldest – perhaps the oldest – of human desires. And if all this technology were really doing that – if it were really taking the flawed, grubby details of my life and translating them to a world of spirit – I wouldn't suffer so much ambiguity about the whole business.
But the fact is technology isn't doing that at all. Technology – even at its most rarefied, magical moments – only pretends to save our world for us.
So does that mean I can't enjoy this technology? That I can't appreciate the magic of having a thousand songs crammed into a little white cube that’s smaller than a cigarette pack, or marvel at some old family photo that arrives – miraculously – via email from some far away relative?
Not at all. All I have to do is remember to keep in mind the story of Jacob, and his ladder of angels.
Jacob, as everyone knows, saw that ladder in a dream one night when he lay down to sleep with his head on a stone.
The ladder, tower, or staircase that connects the human world with the divine is one of the oldest and most important mythic images. "The earth we live on," writes the literary critic Northrop Frye, "has always been thought of mythologically as 'middle earth,' with a world above it and a world below it." In placing his head upon a rock and dreaming of a staircase crowded with angels, Jacob places himself precisely at that mid-point on the ladder of creation that we clever-yet-mortal humans still occupy today. We live in the world of matter, of birth and change and decay and death. Yet at the same time we sense – and at our better moments know – that above this changing and mortal world, another one exists: One in which the best and most precious aspects of our life down here really can be rescued, brought up...saved.
In the days before technology came to rule the world in the undisputed way it does now, all true progress was vertical. To aspire, in the deepest sense, was always to aspire upward. Nowadays, those upward aspirations are as strong as ever, but there's a sense in which the ladder leading from matter to spirit has been turned on its side. As we hurtle into an ever more technologically sophisticated future, we’ve come to suspect that those higher worlds we so long for are reachable via all the technological devices that we’ve created. The marvelous machines that save our world.
Do I want to rescue the details of my world? Of course I do. But I have to be wary of the ways in which I try to do so. That, precisely, is the meaning of the fact that the angels Jacob sees in his vision are moving in not one but two directions.
"The ladder," writes Frye in that same essay on Jacob, "is the symbol of a connection between earth and heaven, but the story emphasizes that the real connection is made only by God, and the human response to it is a correspondingly modest one."
Jacob's ladder is, of course, not the only structure joining, or attempting to join, earth and heaven in Genesis. The other one – the tower of Babel – differs from Jacob's ladder precisely in the direction of the traffic that flows upon it. All technology, the Bible suggests, is a tower built from earth up to heaven, without God’s help. And as such, it is destined to be limited. The only link between earth and heaven that isn’t limited, that can truly get us to heaven, is that quintessentially old-fashioned one: faith. The one in which we move up toward God, and humbly allow God – and his angels -- to move down toward us as well.
Suspicious as I am of all the technology that offers to rescue the data of my life down here on earth for me, I'm ultimately grateful for it all the same. When I take an old family photo – its edges frayed, its surface marred by creases or smudges from years of handling – and scan it into my computer, I have rescued it – but only to a degree. As the image of Jacob's ladder so timelessly suggests, truly rescuing the details of my world and translating them to a higher, better one is a job that’s best left to the angels.
'Saved' by Ptolemy Tompkins reprinted with permission from Angelsonearth.com to download. Copyright © 2007 by Guideposts, Carmel, New York 10512. All rights reserved.
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