Monday, 31 March 2014

The Desert of the Last Man: Or, on Anxieties About Technology

There are some good things to say about walking. Not many, but some. Walking takes longer, for example, than any other known form of locomotion except crawling. Thus it stretches time and prolongs life. Life is already too short to waste on speed. I have a friend who's always in a hurry; he never gets anywhere. Walking makes the world much bigger and therefore more interesting. You have time to observe the details. The utopian technologists foresee a future for us in which distance is annihilated and anyone can transport himself anywhere, instantly. Big deal, Buckminster. To be everywhere at once is to be nowhere forever, if you ask me. That's God's job. not ours; that's what we pay Him for. Her For. 
Edward Abbey, "Walking", p. 205
Ethics is surely nothing other than the attempt to do justice to the obligations which the experience of this entangled world presents us with. Yet this obligation can equally take the form of adjustment and subordination [...] and also the form which I would emphasise more, namely, that the attempt to take this obligation seriously consists exactly in changing what stops human beings in contemporary conditions – and I mean stops all human beings – from living out their possibilities and thus realising the potential contained in them [...] I do not know positively what this potential is, but I know from all sorts of findings [...] that the adjustment processes, which human beings are subjected to nowadays, lead to an unprecedented extent [...] to the crippling of human beings [... W]hat I do know, is that today there are uncounted human beings, whose relationship to technology is, if I may use a clinical term, neurotic, that is, they are tied non-reflectively to technology, to all sorts of means to control life, because [their] purposes – namely, a fulfilment of their own lives and of their own vital needs – is largely denied to them. And I would also say that just the psychological observation of all those uncounted, defective human beings – and defectiveness has become, I might also say, the norm today – that this [observation along] justifies us in saying that the potential of human beings is being wasted and suppressed to an unprecedented extent by institutions.
Theodor W. Adorno, quoted in Freyenhagen’s Adorno’s Practical Philosophy

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, Leviathan, Ch. 13). We should hope for the continued advances in this liberating sort of technology. We should hope for the continued advances in this liberating sort of technology, perhaps in technologies that allow for advancement 'new work'.

There is, however, another sort of technology, or, more accurately, there is another face of technology. I would like to look at anxieties some have harboured about technology, and why. By exploring the side of technology that causes these anxieties, we will be able to look at the phenomenon with clear, realistic eyes. Or at least that is my hope.

Just by reading the technology sections of major news publications we are able to see the Janus-face of technology: on the one side the liberating, and on the other the anxiety-inducing face. Let us focus on a recent article in The Telegraph called “Everything Connected” by Matt Warmann. This brief article simply monitors the way in which smartphones and tablets are connected to different parts of our lives and how they are being integrated into our homes. For example, how convenient would it be to have your smartphone connected to your smoke alarm?

However, we can see clearly in this article some alarming and anxiety inducing trends. For one, the emptiness and hollowness of technology for our spiritual well-being is completely evident:
[C]onsumers admit to already being impatient for the next big thing. The honeymoon period for a new gadget is four months, with users confessing that boredom sets in beyond that. But never mind four months, according to mobile operator O2 a quarter of consumers claimed they were bored within just four weeks, eager to upgrade as their friends and colleagues got newer phones.
It seems to me that this boredom is really "congealed amusement", as Horkheimer and Adorno once put it, which "must cost no effort and therefore moves strictly along the well-worn grooves of association" (Dialectic of Enlightenment p. 109; Cf A.N. Whitehead Science and the Modern World p. 196f where he connects 'minds in a groove' with professionalization), and that it is very much part of the emptiness and aggression we see in so many people today. Let us see why this might be.

In a very interesting article for the Frankfurter Allgemeine called “Ein gefährlicher Pakt”, Ranga Yogeshwar discusses the problematic power of technology. The power of technology, according to Yogeshwar, lies in the fact that it is so convenient and powerful that it inhibits us from thinking for ourselves. Technology, in other words, 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 in these grooves. This can lead to absent-mindedness and thoughtlessness (Cf. John Dewey's Human Nature and Conduct, Ch. 14). Yet, this is certainly not a new anxiety. We can trace it back, at least, to Socrates's anxieties about writing in the Phaedrus. Recounting Thamos's, the king of Egypt, 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 (and Dewey), Socrates seems to be worried about the lack of thought that technologies, through their convenience, can create in us. Being truly thoughtful is hard work, as well as dangerous. It is easier to stick to the grooves of thought already burrowed for us by technological invention. I want to claim that these well-worn grooves, which technology allows us to operate in are the root of the anxiety many have expressed about technology. But what is the connection between this thoughtlessness and spiritual emptiness and aggression?


The “mechanics of conformity” spread from the technological to the social order; they govern performance not only in the factories and shops, but also in the offices, schools, assemblies and, finally, in the realm of relaxation and entertainment. 
Herbert Marcuse, "Some Social Implications of Modern Technology" p.145
I think we can locate at least two sources for this. First, there is the aggression engendered by a lack of control. This may seem counter-intuitive since it is normally thought that technology is what helps us be more in control of our lives. Of course it does. However, while on the one hand technology is freeing and allows us to not have to labour in order to do basic things and meet basic needs, it also reduces our individuality, hence our freedom and control over our own lives. Horkheimer and Adorno see this dialectic clearly:
Technology has changed human beings from children into persons. But all such progress of individuation has been at the expense of the individuality in whose name it took place, leaving behind nothing except individuals' determination to pursue their own purposes alone (Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 125; Cf. Paul Feyerbend "Thesis on Anarchism").
We are so overtaken by technology's ability to free us from basic things that we no longer possess the abilities needed to create ourselves in a spiritually fulfilling way. With the world becoming smoother and smoother, we as humans no longer have the opportunity to struggle for creative expression; it is simply there for us. Creative expression now exists for us in a tamed, ready-to-use state. We click the boxes on Facebook profiles to determine who we are and who we are friends with (Is this really an act of self-creation? Are Facebook friends really friends?). Or, another example: MIDI devices that are now available even on smartphones (Are smartphones really smart?) allow us to easily and simply 'create' music – though the creation of this music can hardly be compared to the creation of music with or for actual instruments.

In both Facebook and MIDI we see cases of 'lock-in' (Cf. Jaron Lanier's You Are Not A Gadget Ch. 1 & 2): We no longer have to struggle to learn an instrument properly or learn the different capabilities of instruments, and we are stuck with the discrete mathemitized notes (in the case of MIDI). We no longer need to work to express our individuality in new and creative ways and put in the hard work of building genuine friendships (in the case of Facebook). Self-creation is no long a process of Selbsttätigkeit, or self-activity (Cf Wilhelm von Humboldt's The Limit of State Action, Ch. 2. and J.S. Mill's On Liberty Ch. 3) We no longer have to develop our own powers or own capabilities through our deeds and actions, but instead simply purchase them or click a box. This is not to say that there are no useful and helpful aspects of MIDI and Facebook. Again, there certainly are. The issue is, rather, the real potential these devices have to conceal other possibilities because they represent the easier, more convenient way to attain a goal.

Second, having pre-made paths through which to differentiate ourselves leads to a sense of self-alienation and alienation from others. In turn, we become aggressive towards ourselves and each other. We start to feel the need to compete rather than individuate ourselves through creative acts. We are bored of our phones after four months because we need to keep up and out do others in order to feel like individuals. We do all this through a savage control of ourselves rather than through spending our time and energy for the betterment of ourselves and others. We simply purpose our own 'self-interest'.

Marcuse put it this way:
The technological rationality inculcated in those who attend to this apparatus has transformed numerous modes of external compulsion and authority into modes of self-discipline and self-control [...] The crowd is an association of individuals who have been stripped of all 'natural' and personal distinctions and reduced to the standardized expression of their abstract individuality, namely, the pursuit of self-interest. As member of a crowd, man has become the standardized subject of brute self-preservation [...] The crowd is thus the antithesis of 'community,' and the perverted realization of individuality. (Marcuse, "Some Social Implications of Modern Technology" pp. 148-150; Cf. Hurbert Dreyfus, On the Internet Ch. 4)
The connection here to Hegel's struggle for recognition is obvious (Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit; Cf. Rousseau's Discourse on Inequality). We can individuate ourselves in to order gain recognition from the other through the competitive and self-disciplinary mode that is exemplified in the trend of people changing their phones after only four weeks. This 'keeping up with the Joneses' mentality, manifests itself in shame, envy, vanity and contempt.

What Marcuse seems to be claiming is that this way of trying to gain recognition from a crowd, das Man, simply alienates us from others. This is because we do not see each other as equals in a community. Rather, we simply see the other as someone to outdo, to be better than, or to catch up to. We do what everyone else is doing, simply to keep up or out do. It is not that we really want that new phone due to mimetic desire – a desire based on a third term, viz., what the crowd does.

Again, we can see this in the standardization of expression that is caused by lock-in, as discussed above. It is not that these things can't be self-expressive but rather that it is much harder for one to break out the standardization these technologies implement. Take the simple shift from Myspace to Facebook as an example. Myspace allowed everyone to customize their own page, add music, et cetera. Facebook is different. Facebook forces everyone to use the same layout, the same colours and systematically limits how and what individuals use to express themselves. Twitter seems even worse in this respect. It forces us to be part of the crowd and the pressure intensives once everyone you know is using it – we become afraid that, by taking a break from it, we end up missing something important.

The other possibility for recognition – the non-alienating possibility – takes place in a real community through genuine acts of self-creation. The recognition of the other as other, as the individual that they are/create. In this way we can achieve identity in difference. This is only done through each person developing themselves through experiencing unique and difficult situations.

The anxiety here, again, has a lot to do with how our 'laziness and cowardliness' will lead us to take the path of least resistance. The taking of these well-worn paths reduces self-activity and creativity and increases aggressiveness towards ourselves and others. Such increasingly numerous paths create a valueless desert landscape. So how are we supposed to really value anything if everything is increasingly the same, e.g., the eternal return of the same computer generated pop song. Nietzsche warned: Die Wüste wächst: weh dem, der Wüsten birgt! (“The desert grows: woe to him who harbors deserts!” Also Sprach Zarathustra, “Unter Töchtern Der Wüste” §2)

But lo! men have become the tools of their tools. 
Henry David Thoreau,Walden p. 37

The other problem which might cause anxiety is exemplified by the following quote from Warmann's Telegraph piece: "But the question is not who needs red light bulbs in their home, it's what does the house of the future look like when it has one single remote control for light, heat, television and Security."

Again, we can see echoes of Kant's warning. We are so enamoured with and stupidified by the future and technology – created by the feedback loop between scientific progress and technological advance (Cf. Hans Jonas, “Toward a Philosophy of Technology” §1) – we are not even able to think about its point any more, no longer able to think 'do we really need this?', 'is this really going to improve the our lives?'. We know that technology is going to develop further and further and we feel that it is our fate to deal with it. The anxiety here is that we are unable to face or think about how technology is going to change who we are: “[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” (Jonas, “Toward a Philosophy of Technology" p. 41). Unless and until we can change our picture of the world (Weltbild) we will not be able to really think about technology nor the fate of humankind in the face of technology. Again, this has to do with the convenience and hence laziness and cowardliness that allows technology to be our guardian.

The question before us in this regard might be: Why we can no longer be with nature without technologizing it, controlling it, dominating it? Heidegger saw this clearly when he responded to interviews at Der Spiegel in the following way:

SPIEGEL: But someone might object very naively: what must be mastered in this case? Everything is functioning. More and more electric power companies are being built. Production is up. In highly technologized parts of the earth, people are well cared for. We are living in a state of prosperity. What really is lacking to us?

Heidegger: 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, Only the Gods Can Save Us" p. 59)
Heidegger – as well as his student Hans Jonas quoted above – saw clearly how the increase in technology feeds back upon itself and its effect is no longer in the control of human agency. Technology takes on a life of its own. This causes the anxiety which Heidgger mentions above, viz., the dislodging and uprooting humankind from the earth. This connects directly with the alienating affect of technology. It is on the earth, together, that we dwell. The anxiety that is manifest here is what Heidegger calls elsewhere “enframing” and “standing reserve” (“The Question Concerning Technology” pp. 225ff), what we fear is that the earth reveals itself as just another thing to be used. It is nothing to us, it has no meaning or significance, outside of its usefulness – this does not only include nature but humans as well.

Perhaps an example that is familiar to our everyday lives will be our inability to experience anything without it being mediated by technology. Anyone who has gone to a concert or other public display of art will be familiar with this. People will constantly taking pictures or filming with their phones. Don Delillo captures this mode of being in his novel White Noise. Jack Gladney and Murray Jay Siskind go to see a tourist attraction. Let me quote at length:
We drove twenty-two miles into the county around Farmington. There were meadows and apples orchard. White fences trailed through the rolling fields. Soon the signs started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA.We counted five signs before we reached the site. There were forty cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot. e walked along a cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides - pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. e stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.
     "No one sees the barn," he said finally.
     A long silence followed.
     "Once you've seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn. He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced at once by others.
     "We're not here to capture an image, we're here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies."
     There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.
     "Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We've agreed to be part of a collective perception. This is literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism."
     Another silence ensued.
     "They are taking pictures of taking pictures," he said.
     He did not speak for a while. We listened to the incessant clicking of shutter release buttons, the rustling crank of levers that advanced the film.
     "What was the bar like before it was photographed?" he said. "What did it look like, how was it different from other barns, how was it similar to other barns? We can't answer these questions because we've read the signs, seen the people snapping the pictures. We can't get outside the aura. We're part of the aura. We're here, we're now."
     He seemed immensely pleased by this. (pp.12-13)
Notice how the barn has become obscured by our technological relationship to it. It is no longer there as a bar but rather as a think to take pictures of. Obviously a barn is a thing to be used to begin with. However, as Dellilo shows us, even this relationship can be changed through the alienation of technology. We do not have a relationship the barn itself but rather with the illusion we have created through our collective use of technology. The same holds true when everyone is taking pictures and filming a musician while they play on stage. We are no longer in a direct relationship, absorbed in, the aesthetic experience but rather alienated from the experience. Needing to capture it on our electronic devices to ensure that we have proof we were there.

There are also straight forward political aspects to this enframing. Think of the way many see the earth as something to simply be exploited. An 'all of the above' energy plan, including Fracking and Tar Sands. In that mindset, the earth only matters if it provides us with useful energy – the earth as something to be exploited. The same might be said of the way the private prisons see people as mere objects to make money off: the more people we can lock-up the more money we can make.


We have seen two potential anxieties about technology. First, is the alienating effect of technology that leads to problematic forms of individuation and recognition. Second, is the enframing effected which, with the inevitable crease of technology, can lead to an inability to see the world except in the terms of use. These two are certainly deeply related and play off each other. If we see everything in terms of use, we will certainly see others and ourselves in these terms as well. This then leads to the pathologies mentioned above about the spiritual emptiness of technology and our inability to differentiate ourselves in ways other than through aggressive means. This is partly because technology makes it more difficult for us – due to our laziness and cowardice – to think and create for ourselves. We can be easily lulled into using pre-established means to 'express' ourselves. The spiritual emptiness of these well-worn groves leads to our inability to recognize others in their individuality – which we ourselves our unable to create. Hence, we see everything in terms of their usefulness. Others become a means to make us feel less alone (“I have hundred of 'friends' and 'likes' on Facebook”) and a way to enhance our own vanity (the 'selfie') and narcissism through the echo of 'the daily me' (Cf. Cass Sunstein, 2.0 Ch. 1).

I am not sure how to guard against this other, possibly sinister, face of technology. I am not sure how to mitigate the lock-in, how to ensure that we are able to maintain our creative activities which allow us to become spiritually fulfilled individuals. Nor am I sure how we can stop the enframing engendered by technological reason. Perhaps one might say that these really aren't problems for us, that humans will always find new ways to be creative and individuate themselves in fulfilling and non-violent ways.

The point is, however, not necessarily that these problems have over-come us but rather that the potential is always there. I do think that we always need to be vigilant and critical of technology, to realise that there is always a risk that individuality through self-activity (Selbsttätigkeit), as well as being-with (Mitsein) others in a true community (Gemeinschaft), may be hampered by technology when it breaks free from our thoughtful control. There is a risk that we may end up in purely instrumental relationships characterized only by numerical differences in a technologized and rationalized society (Gesellschaft). We need to realise that there is the risk of enframing and that we risk losing our spontaneity in the enframing of our technologized culture. I do hope that we have not done so yet, and that we do not fall into a dogmatic slumber induced by a technologized intoxication. Though I fear sometimes that the only hope might be within small communities which maybe too little and too late for our fragile earth and our fragile humanity (Cf. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue p. 263).

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