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The seductions and betrayals of technology

We live in a time of unmitigated technophilia, or love of technology. It was not always so. Since the earliest of times people have shown their intuitive awareness of the ambivalence of technology. In ancient Greek myths, for instance, one encounters the awareness that technology as a kind of prosthetic empowers humans to do what they would otherwise not be able to achieve, but that, at the same time, it could have monstrous, unforeseen consequences.

The myth of King Minos of Crete’s monster, the Minotaur (literally, Minos’s bull), which most people know from the myth of Theseus and Ariadne (who gave Theseus a cotton reel that enabled him to escape from the labyrinth where the monster was kept after killing it), involves a grasp of technology as such a “pharmakon” – simultaneously poison and cure. Or as Leonard Shlain reminds one (in The Alphabet versus The Goddess) – referring to the invention of the alphabet – every great invention “casts a shadow”.

In the Greek myth concerned, the Minotaur did not materialise from thin air. Because of Minos’s hubris, when he failed to sacrifice the magnificent bull that Poseidon sent him (in response to his invocation of the god) from the sea, his wife, Queen Pasiphae, was cursed by the gods (Poseidon and Aphrodite) by instilling in her an insatiable desire to copulate with the imposing creature. Needless to stress, this poses some technical problems for a human woman, and in her desperation the queen approached the craftsman (or technician, if you will), Daedalus, and his son, Icarus, for technical assistance.

Daedalus designed and constructed a hollow wooden cow with a harness inside for her, covered it with cowhide, put it on wheels and put the queen inside it in a sexually advantageous position, before putting the whole contraption in the field where the bovine object of her passion was grazing. The bull copulated with Pasiphae, and the result of the unnatural, technically mediated sexual union, was a monstrosity with the head and torso of a bull and the lower body of a man, which had to be incarcerated in a labyrinth built by Daedalus and Icarus. In maturity, it started devouring human beings.

What this myth reveals as clearly as Mary Shelley’s “gothic” novel, Frankenstein (which is really a fine example of medical science fiction), is, as in the case of the Pasiphae/Minotaur myth, the ambivalent consequences of technology. While it harbours immeasurable power, it is also capable of creating monsters. Add to this the sci-fi work of Jules Verne (think of The Nautilus), H.G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, Phillip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Ursula Le Guin, and William Gibson, and it will be apparent that, although it cannot be called technophobia or technophilia, sci-fi embodies human awareness that technology (like sex) should be treated with great care, lest it should lead to your downfall.

Where do we stand on the question of technology today? Until the appearance of serious reflections on the “irreversible” immersion of human beings in a pervasively technological society, which homed in on the social consequences of technology – including the work of so-called “posthumanist” thinkers such as Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway (and more recently Ray Kurzweil), who seem ready for a future society of “cyborgs” (cybernetic organisms) – 20th-century thought on society and technology, from Max Weber to Martin Heidegger and Herbert Marcuse was predominantly of a techno-pessimistic kind (see the essay Looking backward, looking forward, by Andrew Feenberg, in Globalisation, Technology and Philosophy.

In fact, to gauge the influence of such dystopian thought, one just has to recall the technophobia of the 1960s, which was further exacerbated by the Vietnam war and what was perceived as the hubris of technocracy. The gap was bridged between the theoretical critique of technology as a symptom of modernity and the social domain when these sentiments gave rise to a populist movement where technology became a political issue. People of my generation can still recall vividly the anti-technocratic tenor of the alliance between French workers and students during the “rebellion” of May 1968, for example.

However, all of this changed when the anti-technocratic mood of the 1960s gave way to a kind of technocratic utopian speculation concerning the bio-technical construction of “superhumans” – in itself not very convincing, until the more serious work of Latour and Haraway appeared, which concentrated on technology’s benign development. However, Feenberg points out that the decisive event promoting a change of attitude towards technology was the emergence of the internet, given the personal experience of socially mediating technology that it made possible for millions of people.

It is entirely understandable that the technologically-mediated social interaction provided by the internet and its concomitant technologies has all but annihilated dystopian feelings. After all, as many commentators have pointed out, for all intents and purposes its apparent non-hierarchical and liberating interactivity runs counter to the loss of individuality that characterised the phenomenon of urbanisation, where individuals felt lost and alienated in large cities (captured by Emile Durkheim in his theory of “anomie”) and which still accompanied the earlier, “passive” mass media of the 20th century.

But in spite of this Feenberg warns against the too-easy conclusion that the future promises a McLuhanesque world-village utopia in which everyone will be socially interconnected and work from home in a world constituted by benign technologies, because in a sense this would be just a more refined version of the dystopia imagined by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, where humans are thoroughly assimilated to machines.

For Feenberg the political potential of the internet lies in its capacity to contribute to the creation of a “technical public sphere” (which could function unhindered), although the actualisation of such an objective in authentically democratic terms would be met with severe resistance by the reigning global powers (as is already the case in countries like China, for example, and arguably even in the US, given the powers of the National Security Agency).

Significantly, though, internet activity cannot be conclusively controlled by those in power (except by shutting down all the servers that enable internet exchanges). In contrast, while it is up and running, it provides ample opportunity for subverting and resisting strategic control. According to Feenberg, this gestures beyond dystopianism, and even beyond “posthumanist technophilia”: “But the dystopians did not anticipate that, once inside the machine, human beings would gain new powers they would use to change the system that dominates them. We can observe the faint beginnings of such a politics of technology today.”

His meaning is clear: one should not act as if the internet is only a medium for the largely vacuous social networking interaction on Facebook and MySpace. It is a space where autonomous political action may be initiated, as has already been seen in the Arab Spring.

Unfortunately, in my estimation, we are a long way from a “politics of technology”. Technology today, as manifested in smartphones, tablets and iPads, as well as the rapidly emerging generation of sophisticated (including sex-) robots, has only marginally been employed for politically emancipatory purposes; the bulk of its use is in the service of egocentric, self-adulating, narcissism-promoting, unreflective, technophiliac behaviour.

Tellingly, Sherry Turkle sees this behaviour as being symptomatic of a decline in authentically social behaviour – hence the title of her recent book, Alone Together: you end up being alone with your technical device, and tend to lose the ability to, and interest in, communicating face to face with fellow human beings. Most people seem to be blind to this aspect of technology. And then I have not even touched on the kind of technology that is destructive of our planetary home, the earth.