Imagination and technology

By Martin Spura, May 2012

Imagination and technology are two elemental forces which clash in the modern world in an unprecedented way. The cultural philosopher Martin Spura shows what happens when the world of the imagination is coupled with technology.

In 3D films such as Avatar we can see particularly well how these imaginative worlds are not just simulated in moving images but are given real depth. The special effects of the technology project a false world directly into the space in front of us. We are positively encouraged to slip into a virtual cosmos which can exert a strong physical stimulus on us and produce changes deep in our psyche. Every computer game and film already commandeers us in this way. The 3D effect merely opens up another depth dimension through which we can be technologically influenced. The question arises in this context as to the extent to which such a technically generated imaginative world still supports the creative forces in human beings. Does technology stimulate our spiritual and imaginative abilities, no matter how dictatorially it aims for the entertaining spectacle? Do the visibility and effect of the technical worlds of adventure reveal the profound effect they produce in us? What happens when the worlds of the imagination are coupled with technology? Does that not create an unconscious split in us which can only be overcome with difficulty?

Goethe in Maxims and Reflections refers to the wish to directly combine the imagination and technology as an “error of dilettantes”. He was speaking about the field of the arts but today we have to broaden our perspective and ask ourselves what happens in us when the fantastical is made spectacularly visible by means of technological equipment. The imagination supplements reality through a hidden associated depth layer whereas the fantastical has no interest in such harmony.

Imagination expands...

In the foreword to their collection of fairy tales, the Brothers Grimm write that it is “above all the untarnished imagination” which has protected fairy tales from being forgotten. Fairy tales are the stuff of the imagination in which it is both reflected and through which it is stimulated. Yet it also requires the power of the imagination in us in order not to forget whence the fantastical originates. To this extent the imagination represents a fundamental power of memory which in the things we perceive as in a dream reminds us of something which relates to us in our nature as human beings.

Such an awakening and illumination of a world always threatened by oblivion reveals the essence of the imagination. It does not (in accordance with its original meaning) think up things arbitrarily, it does not imagine a lie, it does not fall prey to appearances but it shows us what is constantly eluding us in the background. It leads to what is open and allows us to perceive what we have lost through a surfeit of intellectuality and sense of reality. The imagination allows something to appear which without it would remain hidden and unrecognised. The mystic Friedrich Weinreb, highly respected by the great story-teller Michael Ende, says that we are connected with the other side – eternity – through the imagination. Through the imagination human beings establish a relationship with a spiritual reality which belongs to our home as much as material reality. Human beings inhabit both these worlds and the imagination builds the bridge across into the hidden spiritual realm. It is, as the philosopher Martin Heidegger aptly emphasised, “truly and simply what is revealed in the way it reveals itself” in the sense of the original Greek word phantasia.

Imagination does not, however, show us the mere external side of things but what we normally fail to observe in them. It does not, for example, show us the moon in the form in which we can perceive it with the external senses but it shows us the moon in its true essence, in everything that makes it the moon and which is part of its nature. The imagination shows us the dreamy yearning of the moon, its fluctuating moods and emotions, its mythical female force as well as it magical power to illuminate the deepest night of soul. Equally the imagination does not show us something purely externally perceivable in the image of the dragon, a witch or the old wise man but archetypal soul images which touch our innermost being and speak to us there as realities. Art behaves in an analogue way. An artist uses his or her imagination and thus a true work of art will not depict simply a copy of the moon but it will show and aesthetically highlight the nature of the moon in its essence. The work of art shows the moon in the way it intuitively reveals itself, it displays what we can perceive about its nature. The same thing applies to the imagination: it is the artistic side of our ideas. Plato writes in Theaetetus: “Appearance (Gk.: phantasia) and perception (Gk.: aisthesis) is the same” – or in other  words: imagination and aesthetics are the same. The aesthetics of art do not serve a superficially attractive beauty but aesthetics attempt to perceive what appears from the other world and give it form. Only the imaginative is beautiful. Just reality lacks beauty. limits

If, then, the imaginative can be made visible by means of technology, the imagination does come to appearance but frequently in a way which is much too crude. Mostly we then no longer perceive the soul images it contains, the beauty and essence, but often all that remains is the external image. Technology threatens aesthetics and destroys it if technology is only used because of the effect. Technology can only preserve imagination and aesthetics and give them the space to unfold if it is used as a subsidiary, finely dosed resource.

A child to whom we read a fairy tale is brought into contact with the soul and spirit through the imagination – which leaves space for the child’s own creative processes; the child perceives an otherworldly sphere through his or her own inner feelings and images. If, however, the child sees the fairy tale merely as a film, in which the technical effects take centre stage, then there is a danger that the imagination is overwhelmed by this world of images and effects, thus preventing any delicate strings in the soul from sounding.

As a consequence the danger of technology consists in the might of the fantastical drowning out the delicate imagination within us. In that event nothing comes to appearance other than the external shell. What is revealed remains without spirit and soul which means that it does not truly reveal itself. The assistance of the imagination in the cognitive act is absent. Cognition remains without the living imagination as a purely technical reflection without heart and warmth. The imagination becomes dried out, it freezes and the stimulating movement now comes solely from the dominant technically produced images and stimuli. That sidelines a person’s immanent power of imagination and replaces it with a greed for continuous external input.

No wonder, then, that increasing numbers of children (and adults) are suffering from ADHD, a stimulus allergy which is fed above all through external replacement fantasy. The concentration on our own inner life is absent and it is no longer firmly grounded within itself. Our innermost being bounces back and forth like a ping-pong ball pursuing the technical, animated image with nervous agitation, always searching for an impulse which continuously drives us forward to new stimuli and impressions.

Temptations of the imagination – dangers of technology

It is not only technology, of course, which poses a risk, the imagination is also a double-edged sword. Who has not experienced their imagination running away with them, leaving them lost in an attractive dream world which removes them far from reality? In extreme cases that can leave us alienated from life unable to cope with our daily tasks.

In that event the imagination does not reveal anything but paralyses and puts a spell on us, drags us down, just as is at risk of happening to Bastian in The Neverending Story.

He is threatened by never being able to leave the land of the imagination. Imagination, too, can lead to excess which binds us and deprives us of our freedom. It is by no means something that is only good, just as technology is not something that is only bad. We have to differentiate in a subtle and value-free way if we want to master these two forces. The fact is, nevertheless, that the technologisation of the world has reached an unprecedented level today. Yet the world does not function like a rationally explicable machine but lives originally out of the mystery of the irrational. So how can we give irrationality its due place when the domination of science demands proof of everything? Educators and therapists acknowledge the importance of the free play of the imagination for the development of the child, but rarely is that truly taken to heart. Successful learning quickly turns into pressure to perform and blind perfectionism. Human beings should function as smoothly and perfectly as possible, like machines. There is no room left for divergence from the norm. No space remains for growth and free development in accordance with the timetable of our own, individual destiny.

As soon as the standards of technical progress are transferred directly to education, education becomes subject to the diktat of technology and the space for the imagination is grossly constricted. Having a space for the imagination does not, after all, simply mean being able to imagine a fantasy world full of magicians like Harry Potter, but using the imagination also means having the space to be allowed to learn and play freely without any technical requirement to perform and make progress; to learn and play freely not just with bricks and computers but also with thoughts and ideas, with dreams, art, music, theatre, with science and, finally, also with our fellow human beings.

If we were to allow the imagination such a colourful playground, we would have something with which to counter the growing alienation from the world. If Michael Ende’s Bastian had been given more space to express his imagination through play he would not have almost been lost in the Neverending Story. His fantasies only became something that threatened to swallow him up because reality constricted his existential space and as a result he searched for the replacement space which was denied him in outer life.

A life in freedom outside any standardisation is only possible if the imagination can blossom and technology is its servant. Let us therefore remember that the fresh water of life is not channelled to us by means of the defined paths of technology but that it has its wellspring within ourselves. The one thing to remember is that we must not forget firmly to ground the treasures from our wellspring of the imagination also in outer life. If we succeed in doing that, then we can bring our yearning for the eternal into balance with the demands of the encroaching tide of reality.

Technology can help in this labour, but we should not turn it into an idol whom we worship. A machine will never be able to soften and bring to life what has become sclerotised and desiccated in our soul life; only the creative forces in us can heal that.

About the author: Martin Spura is a cultural philosopher and lives as a freelance writer in Ulm. He has published the book Das verweigerte Opfer des Prometheus.