No-one could argue that technology does not make our lives easier, or that technology has not been one of the great liberators in the history of humankind; it certainly has been. Our lives would be more solitary, poorer, nastier, more brutish and shorter without technology, to steal a line from Hobbes. We should hope for continued advances in this liberating sort of technology, particularly in technologies that allow for advances in 'new work'. At the same time we should explore the impact of technological advances on thought.
In an article for the Frankfurter Allgemeine entitled “Ein gefährlicher Pakt”, Ranga Yogeshwar discusses the problematic power of technology. According to Yogeshwar technology is so convenient and powerful that it inhibits us from thinking for ourselves. Technology keeps us immature. Yogeshwar connects this to the famous opening of Immanuel Kant's essay “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?”:
Immanuel Kant hatte in seiner Definition der Aufklärung auf das eigene Denken hingewiesen - das „sapere aude“. Der Großmeister hatte in einem Atemzug vor dem Gift unserer Bequemlichkeit gewarnt: „Faulheit und Feigheit sind die Ursachen, warum ein so großer Teil der Menschen. . . es anderen so leicht macht, sich zu deren Vormündern aufzuwerfen. Es ist so bequem, unmündig zu sein.“ Seine Gedanken hallen nach, doch im aufbrechenden digitalen Zeitalter droht aus der Unmündigkeit eine vollständige selbstgewählte Entmündigung zu werden.
[Immanuel Kant in his definition of the Enlightenment pointed to one's own thinking - the "sapere aude" [dare to know]. The Grand Master had warned in one breath of the poison of convenience: "Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a great part of mankind … made it so comfortable for others to set themselves up as their guardians. It is so easy to be immature." His thoughts resonate, but in the emerging digital age this [immaturity] threatens to become a total self-imposed incapacitation.]
I think Yogeshwar is right to point to Kant here. Our laziness and cowardice can certainly lead us to feel too comfortable which in turn leads to absent-mindedness and thoughtlessness. I would suggest that technology leads us to operate in grooves that are dug by technological routine. We become so comfortable in these paths of least resistance that we fail to think through other possibilities. Our thought and action become trapped in routine.
A simple, somewhat trivial example will illustrate this. I walk just about everywhere. My office is about a 45 minute walk from my house. When many people find out that I walk this distance they react with amazement. "You really walk that far?" They simply do not see walking as a possibility. They are too comfortable in their cars or on the bus. Technology feeds into our laziness and craving for convenience. It is easier to sleep in. It is more comfortable to be in a warm vehicle.
This is certainly not a new anxiety. We can trace it back to Socrates's anxieties about writing in the Phaedrus. Recounting the Egyptian king Thamos's reply to Theuth's discovery of writing:
And now you, being the father of written letters, have on account of good will said the opposite of what they will do. For this will provide forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it, through the neglect of memory, seeing that, through trust in writing, they recollect from outside with alien markings, not reminding themselves from inside, by themselves. You have therefore found a drug not for memory, but for reminding. You are supplying the opinion of wisdom to students, not truth. For you'll see that, having become hearers of much without teaching, they will seem to be sensible judges in much, while being for the most part senseless, and hard to be with, since they've become wise in their opinion instead of wise. (274e-275b)
Like Kant, Socrates seems to be worried about the lack of thought that technologies, through their convenience, can create in us. We need to think for ourselves rather than let others be our guardians of thought. In just the same way as the walking/driving example above, we can be superficial readers and accept thoughtlessly whatever is up in front of us (driving) or we can be thoughtful, suspicious, deep readers (walking). We need to cultivate in ourselves the second, more aware, more diligent type of reading and being. We need to guard against thoughtless technological optimism by facing the realities of the Janus-face of technology.