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.
Johannes Choo says
While technology does indeed lead to such situations wherein one person, utilizing conveniences that technology had given that person, fails to see the possibility of another person living a life that does not utilize these conveniences, I find it too much of an inductive leap to say that “technology causes laziness in imagining alternate possibilities.”
A more careful examination, I think, will lead to the observation that technology changes the ways in which we lead our lives. A good deal of our lives today are composed of interacting with modern technology; this comment that I type out using my laptop, that will be transmitted through electric signals to remote computer servers, is no exception. I do not hand-write and send letters to potential readers of this comment, as one without a laptop would do to achieve a similar degree of publication. The entire experience is fundamentally different.
A second premise I would like to establish: it is easily observed that people who lead a certain manner of life have difficulty comprehending alternative ways of lives. This is well-illustrated by the culture shock travelers might receive upon being exposed to the mores of another people. In this case, it is not what you might describe as technology that causes this difference, but a lack of imagination of culture a human being might possess. But this is to be expected. After all, the realm of possibility is far greater than the realized lives that we observe being lived.
We can also consider the contrapositive of your observation. While we are surprised by a way of life that does not utilize the conveniences of technology, we are nevertheless able to imagine it. On the other hand, it is a bit of a stretch to say that one living at an earlier period in time would be able to imagine the convenience-afforded lives that we live now. With this in mind, would it not be more accurate to say that technology, by providing us with a way of life greatly different from a life without these conveniences, on the other hand expands our imagination, since we are now able to more easily imagine vastly different modes of life (one with the conveniences, one without)?
Therefore, I contend that “technology causes lazy ignorance towards alternative conceptions of ways of life” is a lazy statement itself. The statement may not be wrong, but it unfairly singles out technology as the source of such ignorance. A fairer explanation of the phenomenon would be that “technology changes the way some people lead their lives. People have difficulty imagining alternative ways of life. This leads to the observation that people who utilize the convenience of technology have difficulty imagining a a lifestyle that does not utilize such conveniences, and therefore the contributes to the perception that technology, with the convenience it provides, leads people to be lazy.”
This is an issue I’ve been interested in for quite some time. I think it would be fruitful to explore the issue in the depth of a full podcast episode.
The image has become less memorable to people via the emergence of Instagram and hi-definition cameras in the pockets of most.
There is no need to remember and absorb the images when we have it ‘backed up’ elsewhere, externally.
Thinking itself no longer had to take place internally. We operate more like Plug-ins between questions and our external brain (ie Wikipedia and Google).
Our memory and recollective abilities have been replaced by their contemporaries in the form of an EXTERNAL hard-drive.
[yes, I’m milking the mind-as-computer metaphor right now.. Shamelessly]
It reminds me of what I learned in anthropology classes about great ape intelligence.
Gorillas were long seen as unintelligent because of a lack of tool-use. But they did not need to invent tools because there was no environmental pressure to necessitate it. Their food is all around them all the time.
Similarly, the act of thinking is becoming less and less ‘required’ in the technologically saturated environments we inhabit today.
Just some thoughts.
If you’ve never read Whitehead’s essay/lecture/chapter “The function of reason” or seen his simple def of ‘technology,’ you are not getting a 20th or 21st Century take on the matter.
We eat a lot of stuff raised on farms (and way too many animals suffer for this + the consequent greenhouse effect of methane overproduction if self-interest controls your compassion in weighty matters of personal choice), but modernity is not agrarian, and we choose to live, move, and have being in cities and suburbs more than bucolic fields like the Windows XP homescreen ‘Bliss’.
Seems all the creative novelty that now allows machines to plant and harvest evolved while its operator is lost in hours of semi-conscious enjoyment of Led Zeppelin classics streamed from satellite to his or her rural smartphone is preferable to endless repetitive activity like. say, picking okra.
A Wordsworth-style jaunt out in the modern urban landscape might be just the affordance one person needs to feel connected, while another would prefer to schedule a lunch break of gym at Curvesm followed be a martini and steak.
Tech opens us to more options. What others opt to do is their choice.
I see I gave wrong keyword for a google when I found it…
Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them.
I can’t agree with the response of technology providing more free, as it provides more choice, more options that did not exist beforehand.
I won’t argue this premise, due to time and laziness, but I think freedom exists on a sliding scale where no choice is truly free yet no choice is fully coerced. With that premise, I think it’s dishonest to state that technology gives us more freedom as now there is more choice: now we can decide if we want to be farmers or office workers in a metropolis, we can drive to work or walk, we can use an ipad or write long form letters.
As an absolute statement, we can say that now we have the choice to engage in all these activities and technology has freed us from the burdens of the past. But we’d be neglecting the coercion involved in engaging in these modern activities. Did we truly decide that working in an office streaming music is preferable to working a farm or was that choice made for us? Can a teenager decide not to engage in social media? Surly. Is there a strong social force that compels them to do this? Yes.
I think we have to be clear about who or what we’re talking about when we refer to the consequences of technology. I don’t think the original argument is that technology hinders everyone due to taking over mundane tasks etc etc. I believe you can and people surly do use technology to improve their lives and expand their capabilities as human beings. That said if we are looking at the effects on a societal level, the drawbacks of technology coercing people to live their lives a certain way, without thought, seems valid to me.
The opening of this article is enough evidence needed to abandon reading it in its entirety. The assertion that no one could argue that technology has been one of the great liberators of any being is tremendously flawed for more than one reason.
As mentioned above it isn’t a matter of liberation, but rather reformation of activity that is the consequence of technological expansion. Mapping out systems of grids and networks allows for more fluid forms of control and power distribution through allowing the subject to objectify and sublimate their own creative capacities and desires to external objects and construct and maintain corresponding forms of social relations.
Technology has limited freedom precisely by removing being from ourselves and submitting it to the whims of external machineries. That technology allows for me to connect with vaster quantities of avatars corresponds with its production and reproduction of misery and alienation. It is precisely through this desire to consume that technology finds its justification for manufactured ‘liberation’.
Despite the blatant hypocrisy, Heidegger’s writings on technology are still very relevant to this matter. Furthermore, Fredy perlman’s essay ‘the reproduction of daily life’ is another such example of the logical conclusions which are derived from technology.
Matthew M. says
I truly believe that technology does make us is lazier. The microwave is making foods cook is easier, tv makes you more likely not to go out, Facebook is not making us go out and really socialize. These things are starting to make us have a lack of true human contact. How can you be intelligent is your in a lazy state of mind? a lazy mind can never be intelligent. If you lay in a corner and let your mind vegetate then you become dumb. Because intelligent critical thinking takes a lot of mental energy and effort.
The main question is : Is technology making us progress intellectually or is it making us dumber? With the television and the computer we are less likely to experience the world that’s really in front of are eyes because we have the TV or Computer then we are less likely to go outside and experience the world. Thus it make us dumber.