What is the fate of humanity as technology advances? This is a difficult question not least because we cannot anticipate the technological advances of the future. It is a very important philosophical question that Marx—as one example—took seriously. What we need to do is face this question with a realism that doesn't succumb to naive optimism about the power of technology.
We have become stupefied by the future and technology through the feedback loop between scientific progress and technological advancement, argues Hans Jonas in “Toward a Philosophy of Technology." So much so that we can no longer ask the questions "Do we really need this?" and "Is this really going to improve our lives?" It is an unquestioned assumption that technological advances are inevitable and always good.
Jonas, following his teacher Martin Heidegger, expressed an anxiety that we are unable to face how technology is going to change who we are. As Jonas writes, "[T]he despotic dynamics of the technological movement as such, sweeping its captive movers along its breathless momentum, poses its own questions to man's axiological conception of himself." The question before us in this regard might be: Why can we no longer be with nature without technologizing it, controlling it, dominating it? Heidegger expressed this clearly in an interview with Der Spiegel published in 1976:
Everything is functioning. That is precisely what is awesome, that everything functions, that the functioning propels everything more and more toward further functioning, and that technicity increasingly dislodges man and uproots him from the earth. I don't know if you were shocked, but [certainly] I was shocked when a short time ago I saw the pictures of the earth taken from the moon. We do not need atomic bombs at all [to uproot us]—the uprooting of man is already here. All our relationships have become merely technical ones. It is no longer upon an earth that man lives today.
Heidegger, followed by his student Hans Jonas, saw how the increase in technology feeds back upon itself and escapes human agency. Technology takes on a life of its own, dislodging and uprooting humankind from the earth. Elsewhere Heidegger calls this anxiety “enframing” and “standing reserve” (in "The Question Concerning Technology"). The earth reveals itself as just another thing to be used. It is nothing to us, has no meaning or significance outside of its usefulness. This includes humans as well as nature.
Think of exploiting the earth through an "all of the above" energy plan that includes Fracking and Oil Sands. Consider private prisons which count people only insofar as they generate revenue. These may be indicative of the inevitable fate of a technological society. If we are not mindful, we become disconnected from the real struggles that humanity faces when confronted by technology. As with most aspects of our lives, we must be vigilant and thoughtful, which, if Heidegger is right, becomes harder the more functioning everything becomes.
Daniel David says
Thanks for the useful synthesis, Adam. Some thoughts:
Lately I’ve been noticing the way the abstractions and ambiguities of language—some of the seeds of its creative power—put it at a disadvantage vis-a-vis technology. In many cases (privacy, autonomy, the richness and breadth of memory) those who observe something slipping away are constantly put in the position of having to defend abstract and unquantifiable values against measured, concrete gains (data-mined solutions, increases in efficiency).
I’ve been reading Nicolas Carr’s new book on automation, and he spends a good chunk of it discussing research which suggests that deep involvement is crucial for both learning and memory. Again, language makes things tricky. When we release a skill or decision to an algorithm, our understanding and conceptualizing of it begins to drift almost immediately, but the words we describe it in rarely betray this. Transport vs. wayfaring, obeying procedures vs. understanding processes, babysitting computers vs. receiving the tactile feedback that leads to tacit knowledge—these are things we still lump under the same activities (taking a trip, doing a job), but the experiences and their effects on us are quite different. It’s difficult to question the necessity of a technology when it’s designed to make decisions quick and effortless.
Did you see Will Self’s recent piece in The Guardian, “The Fate of Our Literary Culture is Sealed?” I’d be interested in your take on it.
To dovetail the above commenter, even the reformatting of mannerisms to correspond to the sounds of electrical and automated machineries has had astronomical effects on out understanding of what it means to be. The ideological fusion of the organic earth bound being and the artifice of technological advancement has all but obliterated the healthy and meaningful life unmediated by externalities.
Fredy Perlman wrote a text entitled ‘against his-story against leviathan!’ Which tackles the totality of the history of civilization and the techne to which it gave birth.
He documents the entire his-storical narrative of the benevolent civilized society and shows that civilization is itself the driving force of all this alienation and meaninglessness. The whole his-story has been of being subjugated by others, predominantly free and wild, who were forced into perpetual conflict with the progenitors of civility, only to turn around and replicate the same destruction they sought to combat. The formerly oppressed came to impose the limitations of boundaries and borders and that throughout its whole his-story, there have been people who sought to destroy leviathan and who ended up becoming encased within and reproducing it.
Thus modern technology is merely the rapid acceleration of this. The stand by reserve of nature through hydro electric dams, highways and ski resorts. The mediation of real human contact by digitized machinery causing us to feel anxiety when face to face.
Unfortunately, this is modern ‘human’ and it is being hailed in as more and more wonderful despite the overwhelmingly negative repercussions.
David Clark says
On a related note, I’d love to hear an episode on new movements in continental philosophy – especially speculative realism.
Ray Brassier suggests that western philosophical thought is uniquely shaped by our awareness of our upcoming extinction. Alone of all the animals, we’re able to forsee a world emptied of ourselves, in the same way that we have a unique and tragic relationship to dasein itself. This ‘transcendental nihilism’ seems to me to be a genuine step beyond Heidegger’s approach to death and the self, and continental philosophy is making all sorts of these sorts of intriguing moves forward, despite the ‘orgy of online stupidity’ that inevitably accompanies any philosophical discourse.
Anyway, one vote for Brassier and speculative realism. Love the PEL; along with Night Vale, you’re my favourite comedy podcast.