I wrote the following piece for a course I am taking called Ethical Living in a Technological Society. I was asked to reflect on my current views on technology and tried to do so with as much clarity and self criticism as I could. I thought this piece would be a good edition to the blog for a few reasons. It develops a lot of the themes I have been thinking about on Coffee with Kierkegaard and gives my views on technology in a more systematic way than any of my other blog pieces. The piece also has a personal, none academic tone that makes it read very similar to a blog post. Undoubtedly my views will evolve as the course continues, and I might have a future piece to add to this blog that will reflect the deepening of my thinking.
I remember once, when I was young, I took the short way underneath the telescopic boom of a forklift. My father told me never to do that again: who knows what could happen, “never trust a machine,” he told me. This little motto, “never trust a machine”, captures three things about my stance towards technology. First and closest to what my father probably meant: machines can’t be ‘trusted’ in that they behave according to internal laws, with no regard for human particularities. Second, technology is not the proper object of ‘trust’ or ‘faith’ to secure our hope for a better world, or for better ways of being together with humans and nature. Finally, ‘trust’ is properly reserved for human persons within the context of friendship and community. These warrant a seriousness, fidelity, and reverence over and against what should be given to abstract systems and bureaucracies.
I was born in a Hutterite community. Hutterites have traditionally not accepted certain forms of technology. I am aware of communities in the past or present placing bans on mass media technologies such as radio, television, or cell phones, as well as bans on cameras, fridges, and artificial insemination for livestock. Despite this historical reticence towards technology, my experience growing up was that my community was uncritically embracing technology. Indeed, it often feels as if living in a Hutterite community gives me a ‘front row seat’ on the clash between traditional forms of life and the unstoppable logic of capitalism and technology.
My own awareness of some of these dynamics came in high school when I was introduced to critics of technology such as Wendel Berry, Nicholas Carr, and Niel Postman. What I learned from these thinkers motivated me to delete my social media accounts and to start thinking about how social media was changing us. In recent years I have tried switching from my smart phone to a ‘dumb phone’ but found it too frustrating for a variety of reasons. These days, I find myself thinking a lot more about how communities can discern proper limits for technology. I wonder if Hutterites can recover the political dimension that traditional bans of technology represented—without regressing back into blind adherence to tradition.
It might be helpful at this point to attempt to put forward a working definition of technology. Some quick notes before I proceed: Some of the readings we have already done in Ethical Living Technological in a Technological Society make me wonder about the usefulness of my naïve definition of technology. Carl Mitchem alerted us to the way our concept of ‘technology’ is historically conditioned; and that any good definition must consider how our attitudes, practices, and beliefs around ‘techne’ or ‘technology’ have shifted over time. Ludwig Wittgenstein points out that words find their meaning within particular contexts, communities and practices: with this in mind, is it not the case than our definition of technology will contain an implicit ‘politics’? In other words, the way someone from Silicon Valley would define ‘technology’, might be importantly different from the definitions Ivan Illich or Wendel Berry would put forward. What we think ‘technology’ is, implies something about how humans should interact with it.
Now for my current definition. My current understanding is that technology is the use of human ingenuity (logic, science, mathematics etc.) in human making for the purpose of extending our innate abilities, giving us increased power to act upon the world. This definition helps us see how ‘technology’ mediates reality for us, thus changing how we see and interact with the world. Technologies, it is important to note, are not neutral ‘tools’ which depend on the user for wise or foolish use. Rather, technologies contain within themselves an implicit ‘story’, new possibilities, new ways of looking at the world, and new ways of organizing society. This can be seen by considering a few different examples. Think about how modern computing technology has given us a whole host of new metaphors for the human mind: we now ‘process’ and ‘store’ ‘information’; we talk about brain ‘capacity’ or brain ‘power’; the language of ‘inputs’ and ‘outputs’ has become part of our imaginative repertoire. This technology contains within itself a whole new way of thinking about ourselves and the world. Another example is the automobile. Is the automobile only the automobile? Or is it also highways, traffic regulations, gas stations, autonomous freedom, nuclear families and car accidents? The automobile contains within itself the possibility of an entire society restructured around this new technology. New technologies bring with them new possibilities for individuals and society, new ways of thinking or seeing reality, while also displacing older practices, ways of seeing, and organizing society.
In the Modern West, older ways of organizing society have given way to our ‘technological society’. The technological apparatus we live within forms a coherent system with its own internal logic, ‘values’, and telos. This technological system seems to be developing autonomously, unfolding its internal logic of maximum efficiency, unchecked by human or natural costs or by ethical considerations. This technology system is propped up and maintained by a ‘story’ that equates technological change with ‘progress’, Science with the ultimate truth, ‘ethics’ with cost/benefit analysis, and ‘value’ with what makes money. This technological system is the totalizing environment in which most of us live our lives. It exerts pressure on us to make decisions according to its logic, to work towards its ends and to mold our conception of the good life to fit its internal values. Rather than relying on the guidance of nature, cultural, communal, or spiritual authorities, human beings in our technological society are guided by ‘science’ and ‘experts’ down pre-planned routes in bureaucratic structures. The way to see the logic of the technological system is to see what it excludes, pushes to the margins or actively destroys. Different cultures or communities are subsumed into a global monoculture, the natural world is endlessly exploited as a ‘resource’, the elderly or the disabled do not fit its ideal of the statistical average human being, and the spiritual dimensions of life go unacknowledged in its essentially godless outlook.
So how are we to think about the impact of technology? Does technology in-itself do more harm than good? I would like to answer this question in two different ways. First, it seems to me that attempting to chalk up technology as either a net ‘positive’ or net ‘negative’ feeds into unhelpful narratives of progress. Instead, the move Charles Taylor makes in A Secular Age strikes me as helpful: rather than speaking of ‘progress’ or ‘decline’, we should speak of ‘gains’ and ‘losses.’ Technological change opesn new possibilities and closes others. We live in a world with tremendous medical technology, efficient transportation, broad scientific understanding and more. However, these ‘gains’ also come with ‘losses’: cultural fragmentation, individualism, loss of traditional ways of knowing and so on. Rather than seeing technological change as a simple story of ‘progress’, we should be attentive to what has been ‘gained’, what has been ‘lost’ and what different paths we could have taken (or still can take!).
On the other hand—while technology is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’—the technological system within which we find ourselves, with its logic of endless growth and efficiency, is frankly a threat to our humanity and the created world. Our current path does not seem at all sustainable, reasonable or desirable, and yet we continue down it unabated. The destruction to the natural world, human communities and cultures is frightening. But when considering the prospect of living in a society that is increasingly technologically complex, what worries me more than anything is what such conditions do to our humanity and the human spirit. I think our technological society is making us dumber, shallower, more reflexive in our judgements, more hurried and distracted, more part of the herd, less attentive, less articulate, and less spiritually attuned: this horrifies me and fills me with self-loathing
As the reader might have discerned at this point, my thinking about technology has a pessimistic and negative bias. I am skeptical not only of ‘technology’, but of the whole scientific outlook that characterizes our society, the ‘plastic’ language we use to motivate the public, and our technocratic way of framing and ‘solving’ problems. I am skeptical for example, about large scale, technocratic, global-political, ‘solutions’ to climate change. I wonder if we can manipulate ourselves out of a mess using the same methods, tools and stance towards the natural world that got us into the mess in the first place. I am skeptical of science’s claim to ‘total knowledge’, comprehensive grasp of the situation in all its contingencies, and the assumption that this can translate into a political program for ‘fixing’ the problem. Part of the lesson for me in the COVID pandemic was that science does not have a compressive grasp of the situation, that science does not equal politics, and that our attempts to address a problem will have a myriad of unforeseen consequences.
At the same time, I am skeptical of my skepticism. I notice the way in which my ‘skepticism’ of large-scale political solutions flows directly from my Hutterite/Anabaptist ‘two kingdoms’ political theology. I also notice how my ‘skepticism’ lulls me into inaction, despair, hopelessness, and submission to the status quo. I also have doubts about my pessimism regarding technology: Maybe this too is simply a reflection of my anti-technology Hutterite roots. Perhaps my Christian convictions gives me the idea that there is such a thing as human nature, makes me biased against ‘science’, and makes me skeptical about the human ability to improve the human condition. I have noticed that my squeamishness with the idea of ‘progress’ through the growth of science and technology is the implicit assumption that people of past ages were stupid, miserable, or had lives not worth living. Perhaps human beings are more plastic than I am willing to admit, and they can be molded to fit any technological regime. Who would have thought for example, that humans would learn to communicate by moving their thumbs to spell out individual letters on a tiny sheet of glass? If technologies bring ‘gains’ as well as ‘losses’, why are they uniformly adopted by all except the heroic few in our society? Are there sociological forces that make us conform? Or do these technologies simply make our lives ‘better’ as the innovators at Silicon Valley would have us think?
While I am ‘cross pressured’ by these doubts, I continue to think that our current path is reckless and unsustainable. We need communities to break free from the ethos of efficiency to find ways of limiting technology to accord with what is good. We need to find ways of being human in an increasingly anti-human world. We need to make cow-trails across the straight sidewalks of our technocratic order. In these endeavours, I can think of no more appropriate watchword than the words first uttered by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: “You cannot serve God and Mammon.
The featured image is called “Just another Cog in the Wheel” by Barbara O’Toole