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Home > Blog - In All Things > Brendan McManus SJ > It’s not about the gear!

It’s not about the gear!

People are often surprised to find out that my best photos are taken on my 3-year-old smartphone, like the above photo which was taken without any filters! They expect a top end DSLR supported by expensive photo editing software. Obviously, photography, from the Greek word phôs, is essentially about the study of light. You don’t need a lot of technology to take good photos – the principles of photography can be learned by anyone and make much more difference that the actual technology. A good camera can take bad photos. What often happens nowadays is that we get huge investment in equipment and very little in skill or technique being used, except for professionals. The technology is seen as everything, fuelled by fashion and consumerism.

I remember when I worked in IT in the 80’s and my job was testing how computer products helped people to be more productive. We often found that designers tended to believe naively that technology was always a good thing and were surprised how much work it took to fit it to people’s real needs. My job was bringing in real customers to use software prototypes and invariably the engineers would be shocked to realise how many assumptions they had made about the end users and how difficult these people actually found using it. It was a question of redesigning something that fitted people’s needs and making it user friendly and accessible.

Pope Francis in his ground breaking encyclical Laudato Si’, similarly observes that there is a tendency to believe that every increase in power means “an increase of ‘progress’ itself” but however “contemporary man has not been trained to use power well.” Pope Francis argues, “our immense technological development has not been accompanied by a development in human responsibility, values and conscience.” Technology alone will not save us, the ethical questions remain.

In terms of hill walking and hiking a lot of people get into trouble because they assume that their mobile phone will get them out of trouble. But that’s just naive really, as often the mobile network doesn’t work out in the mountains, coverage is patchy and it doesn’t substitute for basic hiking skills. As a result, people don’t take the precautions that are necessary in terms of map reading/navigation, keeping dry, keeping warm, having enough food, taking rest, etc. A mobile phone is not going to do these things for you; it can help sometimes as an aid but there is no shortcut for basic skills about being in the mountains knowing where you are and knowing how to get yourself out of difficulty. Search and rescue teams don’t appreciate getting called out to remedy easily solvable inexperience, thoughtlessness and lack of planning.

The other example is the Camino, often people think it’s about the gear: the shoes, the breathable shirts, the hydration system, the apps for information on accommodation, distances and route. The fact is that the gear is not going to walk the Camino for you. In fact, the Camino is all about the experience of being on the road, walking long distances, finding your limits and surpassing them. The real magic is disconnecting from all but the most basic technology (boots and blister pads), getting back into your body and finding some priceless inner peace. The central process is the deeply humanising one of being a pilgrim and realising how little ‘stuff’ you need. Learning to see clearly or contemplating reality is that which happens over time with walking, simple living and being in nature. Again the technology is incidental, it helps and facilitates but it’s not the central thing at all.

Even the great Artificial Intelligence project which promises so much – and will undoubtedly help human endeavour – has to be subject to ethical considerations to avoid what is likely to happen. That is, it will be driven by commercial interests and controlled by select interest groups. Pixar’s 2008 animated film WALL·E serves as a warning, both ecological and technological, that humans are being seduced by Matrix-like artificial realities. In the film humans are shapeless blobs, reclining passively on a spaceship in front of huge screens, oblivious to the external dystopian reality. Technology pretends to meet all their needs, while the planet is an arid, inhospitable rubbish dump. Quite prophetic really.

The big questions are always: are these advancements genuinely good? is it in the interests of the common good (not the few)? will it help people to become more human and support the fullness of life for all? The human project of personal and communal development, the creation of political and social structures will undoubtedly still need hard thinking, effort and process, albeit with better technological tools.