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.