“In this new state of things, the simplicity and solitariness of man’s life, the limitedness of his wants, and the instruments which he had invented to satisfy them, leaving him a great deal of leisure, he employed it to supply himself with several conveniences unknown to his ancestors; and this was the first yoke he inadvertently imposed upon himself, and the first source of mischief which he prepared for his children; for besides continuing in this manner to soften both body and mind, these conveniences having through use lost almost all their aptness to please, and even degenerated into real wants, the privation of them became far more intolerable than the possession of them had been agreeable; to lose them was a misfortune, to possess them no happiness.”
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origins and Foundations of Inequality among Men.
When we last left off our discussion of the origins of the technological disposition we found its roots deep in the basic features of the human psyche. Yet this account cannot be the whole story. Certainly, not all human societies would be rightly described as technological, even though all of them practice at least some sort of craft-making, or some of the arts. In place of the disposition to rational control, in these societies, we see something different. The ancient Hebrew or the Native American tribes were not technological the way Western society is. In place of the disposition to rational mastery of man and nature, these societies are ruled by the spirit of reverence, or national pride, or the passion of righteousness or holiness or nobility. The emphasis is on some intense devotion to something outside of man, even, transcendent. This technological phenomenon, undoubtedly, had its inception in Western society. Yet it seems that modern technology also differs from ancient techne, not only in scale, but, decisively, in nature.
Ancient science sought knowledge of what things are, to be contemplated as and end in itself satisfying to the knower. In contrast modern science seeks knowledge of how things work, to be used as a means for the mastery and control of nature, man, and for the pursuit of comfortable self-preservation of all humanity. This was and has been the practical intention at the heart of modern science from inception.
If up to this point we have grasped somewhat the meaning of “technology,” and if we are to address the tragic condition of technology, which is essentially the problem of technology, we must have an understanding of what one means by a “problem.” The word problem comes from the Greek word problema, meaning literally “something thrown out before” us. A problem is any challenging obstacle, from a task set before someone to be done to the task of finding a cure for cancer. When we encounter a challenging obstacle we formulate them into question that become articulated tasks that challenge us to solve them, i.e. to do away with them. Now when a problem is solved, it disappears as a problem. The solution is usually is something we make, human convention, assembled from elements into which the problem is broken up. We formulate the problems into questions convenient for analysis and construction—we figure it out. Moreover, a solution to a problem never goes beyond the original problem as given, the solution must answer the problem in its own terms.
With this in mind, we may ask what then does it mean to treat technology as a problem, to ask about the problem of technology? Before whom is technology a problem, an obstacle? What desiderata does technology obstruct? Does technology pose a threat to human happiness or to justice or to self-knowledge? Could technology, understood as the disposition and activity of mastery, turn out to be the stone that crushed the master in his path? If technology is a problem, an obstacle, an imminent threat, could there be a solution? Is there a solution? These are the question this project aims to elucidate.
Finally, as noted before (and will be expanded in further detail in later essays), technology seeks man’s liberation from chance and necessity, both without and within. Technology, as the disposition of mastery, seeks freedom from a life of toil and lack, freedom from misery and sickness, freedom from the threats of death. We can positively formulate these goals by calling them, comfortable sustenance, health (physical or/and psychic), and longevity or the preservation of the self. In short, it seeks comfortable self-preservation. Yet, we may ask, are these wonderful things human flourishing? Do they provide the conditions for human happiness? Is there a clear notion of human happiness that guides and informs the technological disposition? And in what are these goals grounded, i.e. what is their foundation? Does freedom from chance and natural necessity liberate man from nature’s necessities? Does not man remain within the grip of nature, even qua master of nature? Are not the desires for survival and pleasure, for example, given to man by his own nature? If so, then mastery over nature seems to be more like service to nature. Subjugation to the dictates of nature spontaneamente working within and finally beyond human control. Mastery becomes enslavement to instincts, drives, impulsions, passions(1).
On the other hand, perhaps technology can enable man to liberate himself completely from the clutches of nature, even his own nature. If so, then conquest of nature would simply mean the complete liberation of man from nature’s control. Modern science would not only be a tool, but would also create. This would enable man to freely and fully exert himself towards goals and ends he freely sets for himself. Man’s end and goals, like the means he use to attain them, would be of his own making.
But, then, what would make these goals and projects good, even good for us. Would not the setting of these projects by the unrestricted human will be anything but arbitrary? If history is any indication, we already know what to expect from the arbitrary positing of human will, not only on a political scale and social scale, but on a personal scale. That to live under one’s own arbitrary will with no guidance for what is genuinely good for oneself is really liberating, is hardly a self-evident proposition. On the contrary it would seem slavishly nihilistic.
See more here: Technology I
- Lewis, The Abolition of Man, pp. 77-80.