“…A crucial turning point comes when one is able to acknowledge that modern technics, much more than politics as conventionally understood, now legislates the conditions of human existence. New technologies are institutionalized structures within an existing constitution that gives shape to a new polity, the technopolis in which we do increasingly live. For the most part, this constitution still evolves with little public scrutiny or debate. Shielded by the conviction that technology is neutral and tool-like, a whole new order is built — piecemeal, step by step, with the parts and pieces linked together in novel ways, without the slightest public awareness or opportunity to dispute the character of the changes underway. It is somnambulism (rather than determinism) that characterizes technological politics — on the left, right, and center equally.”
~ Langdon Winner, Autonomous Technology
Are we awake to the world we’re building, or are we, as an old Sufi saying goes, merely asleep in life’s waiting room?
The petroleum economy, nuclear power, biotechnology, artificial intelligence, lasers, organ transplants, telephone and television and personal computer networks — today’s technologies have put staggering amounts of power into the hands of billions of people. More power is on its way in the next several decades, as present scientific knowledge drives future technological capability. Do we know what to do with the powers over matter, mind, and life that tomorrow’s technologies will grant us?
If we don’t already know the answers to these questions, what do we need to know to design, deploy, control, and live humanely with the tools we are creating?
Like millions of other baby-boomers, the evolution of technology isn’t just something I study, it’s the backdrop of my life. The importance of technology in the daily life of most human beings has multiplied more within my lifetime than in any previous era in history. Interstate highways and the transformation of American life by the automobile were just getting into high gear when I was born in 1947. When I was an infant, television and nuclear power were also in their infancy. I can remember using propeller-driven aircraft and vinyl record albums. I can remember black and white TV. Like most Americans, the foundation of my beliefs about the future was a strong faith in “progress” — the assurance that tomorrow will be different and better than today because of new technologies.
I’m still immersed in technologies. I’m fascinated by them. I make a good living using computers and networks to write about computers and networks. In the process, I’ve became quasi-famous, and learned more than I ever imagined I would know about the mass media’s love-hate affair with technology. Somewhere along the way, I started spending hours of my day in front of a computer screen. But I’ve been paying more attention to the cracks in my worldview lately, especially the place where progress and somnambulism meet.
I am compelled to begin with a confession of not just my complicity in the creation of today’s digital culture, but my outright seduction by high-tech tools. I must describe my love for mind-extending technologies before I can describe how I started to think more critically about tools, minds, and civilizations.
I speak now directly to others like myself who are admitted, even enthusiastic, technophiles. For that reason, I don’t want anyone to mistake this for an orthodox neoLuddite rant. I lack the certainty of the true believers — both the orthodox technophiles and the convinced technophobes. I confess up front that I know of no theology or ideology that will answer the questions I can no longer avoid asking.
Where are we going? Do we want to go there? Is there anything we can do about it? I have written this because I hope we can think together about where these questions lead. Perhaps there are solutions that can only be found by many of us, working together.
Thinking critically about the technosphere we inhabit, which defines who we are and dictates how we live and die, is scary — like thinking about performing surgery on yourself. Your internal denial alarms are going off already, I know. But I urge you to repress the urge to rise to the defense of penicillin and civilization, and consider how I came to rethink my attitudes.
You’re reading this on the web, after all. I do all the HTML myself. I upload it to the server. I do a little PhotoShop, a little Unix. I’m not an archgeek, but neither am I totally unaware of how this new stuff works. It is possible to think critically about technology without running off to the woods — although, I must warn you, it is possible that you will never be quite so comfortable again about the moral dimensions of progress and the part we all play in it. I know that I’m not.
We are all partaking in, and many of us are helping to build, something that none of us understands. There are taboos against looking too critically at the real politics of technology. Marx was just as deluded as Adam Smith when it came to understanding the real invisible hand that has influenced how humans work, live, and think for the past several centuries. Although a few people understand the urgency and relevance of the history of technologies, most people aren’t even aware that progress wasn’t always our most important product.
One of the things that makes technology dangerous is the way people forget where tools come from, and what they were designed to do.
We have forgotten, and have been encouraged to forget, about the origins and provenance of fundamental thinking tools we all benefit from — rationality, progress, democratic self-governance, universal acceptance of the superiority of the scientific method to other ways of knowing. A specific manner of systematically examining the world, extracting knowledge, and applying that knowledge to extend power, a system that was developed only a few centuries ago, has been so extraordinarily successful that it has totally sucked our attention. Our technologized culture shapes and fascinates us to the extent we don’t even see other ways of knowing and interacting with the world and each other. As Langdon Winner claims above, people in industrial, megatechnological civilization seem to sleepwalk through the world we’ve created, oblivious to the worlds that have been destroyed, never really thinking about the worlds technology will engender in years to come.
One crashes into a fundamental paradox when one tries to determine whether one is sleepwalking, so I ask you to stipulate only that most people in the world are unaware of the true dimensions of the revolution that has taken place since the time of Descartes and Bacon. We know we live in a world of 747s and heart transplants and perpetual change, but we don’t know — aren’t taught — how we got here. Knowing how we got here is particularly important now because civilization is facing a crisis about thinking about tools that was caused, in part, because we learned how to create tools for thinking.
People didn’t know how to think systematically about the material world until 17th and 18th centuries, despite millennia of attempts by philosophers to understand the nature of the energy and matter. In the 16th and 17th centuries, in an unpleasant era of plagues, witch-burnings, Inquisitions, devastating religious wars and civil conflicts, a small number of European philosophers proposed that if we could discover a better method of thinking about the world — a systematic means of discovering truth — we could govern ourselves in a more equitable manner, we could relieve the suffering of disease and hunger and improve the living conditions of many, if not all.
These thinkers postulated, not too many centuries ago, that the human condition could be improved by way of a magical mental operation that had yet to be discovered. In their search for this mind-magic, the founders of modern science drew their hints from the alchemic, hermetic, cabalist magical traditions of the past. The search for meaning in the stars or in the manipulation of magical symbols turned to the search for meaning in matter and the manipulation of mathematical symbols.
Newton’s astrological speculations are forgotten, but every school child learns what Newton discovered about gravity and motion. Science and technology seem to have trumped metaphysics, but it’s important to know that metaphysical inquiry is what triggered the quest that led to science and technology. We take it for granted now, but the premise of this quest was a radically new view of human nature when it emerged, four hundred years ago: Humans are perfectible, are capable of discovering the means of our own perfection, and human institutions thereafter can be improved by perfected people: This was the blueprint for the modern idea of progress, in its original form.
Rooted in Platonic transcendental idealism and Christian eschatology, the notion that history has a direction prepared the way for the “new method” of recent centuries. Egyptians, Greeks, Hebrews, and Christians all contributed components to the foundations of science, but the idea of scientific progress emerged as something wholly new.
One of the reasons technology’s shadow side is more or less invisible is because progress has been such a winner. The seekers found their grail, and it proved to be as potent as the alchemic philosopher’s stone had promised to be. Introducing rationalism into human affairs and scientific enterprise was a noble vision, with many successes. A great deal of human misery has been relieved because those European thinkers began concocting this notion of perpetual discovery, perpetual change, perpetual improvement — and inventing tools for bringing about this transformation of the human condition.
In response to that call for what came to be known as “the Enlightenment Project,” thinkers including Descartes, Bacon, Newton, and Galileo applied themselves to the task of thinking in a wholly new manner. Between their individual insights, this small number of European intellectual adventurers came up with a “new method” that was extraordinarily successful. First, doubt everything. Then, gather evidence by examining the world and performing systematic experiments. Then formulate theories, preferably with mathematical formulae, that allow you to explain the evidence and predict the outcome of further experiments. In the beginning, few foresaw the limitations of the wondrous discovery. We can see now, however, how this successful transformation of human thought caused side-effects that were not visible for centuries.
At the end of the twentieth century, it is easy to see that technological progress based on systematically gathered scientific knowledge, coupled with industrial capitalism (or socialism, for that matter), requires continuous growth, damages the environment that supports life, diminishes both biological and social diversity, and everywhere seems to move us toward societies in which humans learn how to be components in larger social machines. No matter how convenient it makes life for billions, this process of extracting resources, expanding power, and stimulating perpetual growth in energy consumption seems to be headed for ecological, political, economic catastrophe within the next few decades, at most.
Although our present crisis is so threatening precisely because it plays out on the physical plane, where our bodies and other creatures live, it is a crisis of knowledge. We lack a crucial mental skill. I contend that our position today regarding the way we make decisions about technologies is similar to the dilemma that pre-Enlightenment scientists faced in the sixteenth century. We simply don’t have a good method for thinking and making decisions about how to apply (and not apply) the powerful tools of rationality, the scientific method, reductionism, the combination of logic and efficiency embodied by technology.
That we don’t now know how to think and make decisions about technology doesn’t mean we are incapable of discovering a “new method” for thinking about technology. If ever our species needed thinkers of the caliber of Descartes and Newton, it is now. But first we need to think about a new way to think about technology.
I don’t hope to discover that method by myself. But I would like to help encourage a more widespread public discourse about the problem, in the hope that our process of thinking together can help lead to this future mindset. And I hope that the people who will be designing and distributing tomorrow’s technologies can do so with a thorough knowledge of the systemic effects of their enterprise.
We must be careful that we don’t destroy what we set out to save. The assumption that there is a rational solution to every problem is at the heart of Enlightenment rationalism. Relentless and successful problem-solving is what brought us from Mesopotamia to Metropolis in five thousand years. Let’s begin by not mistaking “thinking together” for “rushing for a solution.”
Perhaps the answer is not in the realm of “problem —> solution.” Perhaps we need to think/feel outside that frame.
Without claiming I have an answer to the problems of technology, I’d like to tell other technology-lovers, technology-designers, technology users, about a few of the things I’ve learned.
I have to start with my own fascination with technologies, especially those that amplify intellectual functions. I know that many people have fallen in love with the virtual life, as I have, and you and I are the people — the ones who are designing tomorrow’s technologies — who most actively need to know about what I’ve been learning. For those who are not technophiles, I want you to recognize the beauty in digital technology as a creation of the human mind, on a par with music or painting or architecture.
Our compulsion and talent for changing our world and ourselves is hardwired in our frontal lobes and opposable thumbs; our extremities evolved to walk upon and grasp the world, to roam it and use it. If the Devil is in the details, so is God, or at least the Demiurge. The seduction of digital technology in particular is not demonic, but Faustian. Faust didn’t sell his soul for ordinary wealth or power, but for the transformative development of progress, his and society’s. Faust’s problem was not in the nature of his goal, but in the coin he paid.
All our stories these days are Faustian.
Originally published in 1998 as the start to a five-part series on his own blog, Howard’s piece was republished on Hybrid Pedagogy in 2014, because it productively considers so many of the issues explored elsewhere on the journal (and in this collection).