Martin Buber on Beautiful Girls vs. Sexy Gadgets

Beyoncé vs Beyoncé

Have you noticed the trend in TV ads recently that show a man deciding between an impossibly beautiful women and a fancy new gadget? If not, here’s probably the most obvious one where we see whether a man on a couch will choose the onscreen Beyoncé or the real Beyoncé:

And here’s another commercial with a slightly different take in which a man confuses his girlfriend, his favorite football player, and his phone.

In these ads we can point out the obvious trend of men beginning to prefer women on screens to a woman in the flesh. It seems that even poor supermodels and singers are beginning to lose out to digitally enhanced versions of themselves. But I’d like to suggest that something more fundamental than the battle between screen and flesh is going on with our gadgets today, and to help us understand what’s going on I’d like to introduce a twentieth century philosopher named Martin Buber.

Introducing Martin Buber

In his book I and Thou, Martin Buber wrote that we always exist in one of two relationships, I-Thou or I-It. Even though we talk about being “individuals,” Buber would say that no one exists in isolation as just an “I“, but instead “I” only exists in relationship to “the other.”  The relationship of “I” to “the other” can take the posture of either I-Thou in which both individuals are full persons or I-It in which “I” treat “the other” as an object or a thing.

It is, of course, valid for us to exist in I-It relationships with things like desks, phones, and LEGOs, because those are not persons, and they exist for us. On the other hand, we should not treat human beings created in the image of God as objects that exist for us to use and exploit, because when we exist in an I-It relationship with another person, we damage both parties. “I” cannot objectify “the other” without also distorting myself.

Augustine Christianized Plato’s concept of the “chain of being” which says that things should be ordered from the highest down to the lowest. God is at the top, then humans come after him, then animals, then plant life, and then inanimate creation. Augustine would say that we need to “order our love” according to the chain of being, and Buber would say that when we mix up I-It and I-Thou relationships, our loves and therefore our souls become disordered and toxic.

Beyoncé vs Beyoncé: I-It or I-Thou?

So what does this all mean for poor Beyoncé?

It is not uncommon to hear someone say that sexual deviations like pornography “objectify” women. The word “objectify” is related to Buber’s terminology, because men in these cases are treating women like objects (I-It) rather than persons (I-Thou) which damages both of them.

But here is where those commercials get really strange. The point of them is not to objectify women – it is to personify devices. They are not urging us to give up I-Thou relationships with our spouses and go find some I-It pleasure in a brothel. They are instead asking us to stop treating our poor machines as I-It, and begin posturing ourselves toward them as I-Thou.

Extend, Converge, Replace

We’ve talked before about McLuhan’s idea that all tools extend a natural human function (cameras extend the eye, microphones extend the tongue, etc.). What is beginning to happen with today’s devices is that all of these “extensions of man” are converging into a single tool. An iPhone for example represents that convergence of the telegraph, telephone, photograph, camera,  computer, and dozens of other technologies.

This convergence of human extensions means that our devices are becoming more and more human-like every day, and that is precisely the reason people find it so easy to slip between interacting with them from an I-It posture to I-Thou. The smarter the smartphone, the more powerful the illusion that It has become Thou. As our phones gain more and more functions, even fun and useful ones like depositing checks and paying for Starbucks coffee, the stronger our connection with and dependence upon that device becomes.

Yet just as Buber warned that taking an I-It posture toward another human being damages our souls, we must also recognize that taking the posture of I-Thou toward a device also harms our being. The more humanity and personhood we attribute to our devices the less we in turn retain. As our loves become more disordered so also our souls.

So my recommendation is to turn of the machine for a bit, go find a friend and tell him or her what you just learned about Martin Buber. Not only will you sound smart, your loves might just find themselves realigned.

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John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

11 thoughts on “Martin Buber on Beautiful Girls vs. Sexy Gadgets”

  1. John, thanks for the post and for all your work in this area. A great example of Borgmann’s hyper-reality. Did you see the article in the Jan 21 WSJ about the book Reality Is Broken? Have been a subscriber to your website for some time now but don’t find much time to respond; am planting an Anglican church in Franklin TN.

    I will be at Laity Lodge for the Borgmann/Peterson Consultation and I think I saw that you will be there. I look forward to meeting.

  2. “taking the posture of I-Thou toward a device also harms our being. The more humanity and personhood we attribute to our devices the less we in turn retain.”

    Good advice for today. Perhaps a different story for future generations. Theologian Anne Foerst argues that, as AI increases in complexity, it will become difficult to make such “personhood” distinctions. She suggests that our perception of spiritual value should not be grounded in ability (language, logic, reason, etc.) but in God’s promise of relationship.

    Foerst says God’s promise allows us to see this issue not in qualitative differences between us and machines (which will grow increasingly fuzzy, ultimately to the point where machine ability will surpass human beings – shredding our qualitative arguments ) but in considering the conditions in which sufficiently advanced AI can still be treated as a non-sentient “IT”.

    I think Anne’s work will be foundational to future theologians and ethicists. Kenny mentions Borgmann. If the philosophy of technology is of interest to you, you might consider the SPT conference at UNT in May (https://spt2011.unt.edu/tracks). see you there.

  3. I had never thought about reversing the “I-Thou”/”I-It” concept — I knew about the trouble with objectifying people, but haven’t given thought to how we personify our technological devices. I appreciate your thoughts and will be mulling over this for a while… ~Stan

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