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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.

Author

  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.

11 Comments

  1. Rory Short Rory Short 4 November 2014

    Great that you should be raising this issue @bert. I for example feel driven on a daily basis by the contents of my email in box. As a consequence I haven’t the anticipatory feeling towards my mail that I used to have when it was all snail mail.

  2. Shimon Israel Shimon Israel 5 November 2014

    Before tut-tutting about the inclination of many people to be buried in their devices, rather than engaging the people around them, it might be useful to try to understand what drives people to be that way.

    Is it fear of being left out (that instant message, that Facebook post – all demanding to be received immediately); is it an uneasiness about people in general; is it that engaging the people around you requires much more mental effort; is it easier to deal with electronic communications because of the absence of nuances that require interpretation?

    Younger people have grown up with and are continuing to live with the feeling that electronic communications require urgent responses. The majority of consumer technology (and much non-consumer technology) is geared towards more/faster/better. There are bound to be practical limits ahead. One can only read/thumb/type/speak so fast and no faster. If we can only BE through and with other people, many of those growing up now will have to learn how to conduct relationships at a human speed. Or will it be that relationships themselves will change?

  3. Khotso Moabi Khotso Moabi 6 November 2014

    Last week I was in one of the shops where they sell clothes on credit. They asked me to update my particulars including my contact numbers. To my surprise, my home phone number was out of my mind, I had to check it on my cell phone! Before the arrival of the cell phones, I was not lazy to memorize many phone numbers. Like you say, Prof. Bert, technology ‘shadows’ people’s minds. I guess, if people would be asked how many contact numbers they remember without referring to their smartphones, tablets and iPads, a few of them could easily remember.

    I suppose you can relate this ‘shadow’ of technology how it ‘strengthens some neuronal pathways and weaken others’, referring to Leonard Shlain, where the alphabets (names) displace numeric contacts storage in our minds, and by so doing it weakens right hemisphere.

  4. Khotso Moabi Khotso Moabi 6 November 2014

    Oop! (the ommission of words occurred) … of the brain.

  5. Richard Richard 7 November 2014

    Don’t you think the issue is in many ways one of visibility? Remember when television sets were large, CRT devices? They sat heavily in a corner, their shiny screens waiting to be switched on? Once they became thinner, and with larger screens, we could hang them on the wall like a mirror, or a painting, and not even realise they were there. Radiators became underfloor heaters, air-conditioning units small vents in the ceiling, hi-fi systems small devices to hang on the inside of a cupboard, speakers things to be hidden under furniture. In other words, we assimilate them unthinkingly into our lives and don’t really have them intrude into our consciousness. That of course means we are really unaware of them, and live among them, rather than for them or even with them. The distance between advanced and primitive people thus seems insignificant, because of the seeming effortlessness of modern technology. The truth of the matter, of course, is that given our massive populations today, many of whom are either unproductive or unable to be productive for various reasons, we would struggle to feed everybody without technology, or combat global problems. That makes the problem self-perpetuating, of course: Africa’s population is actually unsustainable excepting through technology, for example, that allows donor countries to produce massive quantities of food. We at once live in denial because of effortlessness, and on the other hand are in thrall of these conjured devices.

  6. Richard Richard 7 November 2014

    @Bert, I used to contribute to your blog, but the thought police at this newspaper keep deciding, Soviet-style, that what I write doesn’t quite fit with their ideology. Consequently, I’ve had to stop. Reminds me so much of the apartheid days. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

  7. Bert Bert 12 November 2014

    Richard – Forgive me, I only saw your responses now. You are right about technology (as usual) – its increasing invisibility coincides with its assimilation to what Husserl called the human ‘lifeworld’ – that sphere of mostly unquestioned, taken-for-granted things and meanings which are in a sense ontologically ‘closest’ to us. I’m not so sure about technology being indispensable for feeding the world’s people. In Naomi Klein’s latest book, This Changes Everything (The Climate versus Capitalism) she points out that during the war years the vegetables that people in the West grew in their backyards amounted to more than 40%, if I recall, of total production. There is a movement towards permaculture in many countries today – this seems to me to be going in the right direction, especially because large-scale commercial, technology-(including GM-)dependent agriculture is detrimental to natural topsoil.
    About the thought-police at TL deciding not to print what you write – I am baffled. Although your contributions are always thought-provoking, I don’t recall them ever being offensive to anyone. I am truly sorry to have missed those contributions.

  8. Michael Michael 12 November 2014

    Thanks for the read Bert. I feel a bit awkward replying though because to do so is spending time practicing ‘inauthentic social behaviour’. On that note, there is some social and intellectual value in replying but it is rather difficult to weight the value of such ‘inauthentic social behaviour’ against the worth of potential ‘authentic social behaviour’.

  9. Richard Richard 12 November 2014

    @Bert, quite a bit of time went into them. I am sure the people who censored them didn’t even understand what I was saying. This contribution didn’t appear until I wrote about the censorship, as if an attempt to disprove what I claimed. Which it doesn’t, of course.

  10. Richard Richard 12 November 2014

    @Bert, perhaps something like Shostakovich and the authorities. Imagined slights and anti-Soviet agitation where none necessarily existed.

  11. Paul Paul 28 November 2014

    The ultimate goal of technology is for it to work so well that you do not notice that it is there. What you have written here reminds me of a class you gave us, when you taught us about the de-distancing effect of technology, how we do not have a true concept of a journey as we skip from place to place instead of walking. How we look through the lens of a camera and not at what is going on right in front of us.

    I do think technology will try to be less noticeable, such as the attempts by Google glass to create an augmented reality. They want to slip into our lives without us even realising it is there, just born with it. Whether it is a good or a bad thing, I can’t say for sure. What I do know is that Google has invested a lot of money into magic leap http://www.magicleap.com/. I would be curious to know if you find this an exciting or a scary prospect.

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