Monday, May 27, 2013

Fear of Technology

I've just read a book with the portentous title The End of Ethics in a Technological Society by Lawrence Schmidt, "with Scott Marrotto" (I wonder what "with" means here; usually we see this with books by athletes and celebrities who have problems writing, don't we?).  It's a worthy book I believe, but I think it representative of a school of thought I find disturbing, in that it portrays technology as something apart from humanity and in some sense controlling it, resulting in...."the end of ethics."

This is not to say that the authors think we have no part in creating technology, of course.  However, they seem to think that technology, once created, effects us in ways which diminish us as ethical creatures, leading us to engage in conduct driven by the technology itself and the desire to create more technology.  They claim that the liberal ethical tradition of rights and duties is not adequate to combat the nihilism which has resulted from technology.  They seem to advocate a return to transcendental, steady, uniform values, possibly of a supernatural nature although they also appear to acknowledge that the idea of natural law, which was abandoned in the Enlightenment, need not have a supernatural basis.

I say they "seem" to advocate this because they claim they are not making any proposal of any kind, but are merely pointing out that other ways of combating this nihilism don't work.  This is one of the annoying aspects of the book, the employment of the "I'm not saying what I believe is right is, in fact, right, but everything else is wrong" approach to critical study. 

To me, the book is far more persuasive than the criticism of technology one sees in Heidegger, which seems sentimental and romantic.  Schmidt (with Scott Marrotto!) doesn't invoke joyous peasants placing seeds in the bosom of nature, or chalices, or monstrous hydro-electric plants, which I think is fortunate for us all.  But like Heidegger they take a passive approach to the "problem" of technology.   Heidegger thought only a god can save us (unsurprising I think for someone who thought that Hitler was the "future of Germany and its law"), and they evidently believe a return to a God-sanctioned morality is required to "stop" technology and its effects. 

The Enlightenment no doubt fostered an unrealistic belief in the perfection of humanity, although I think the excitement generated when thought slipped the surly bonds of ancient and medieval conceptions of "science" was understandable.  And I think it's quite correct that technology can and does present a danger.  But I think it's a mistake to think that technology does so as something unnatural to humanity, that turns us away from the spiritual or the higher concerns which should guide us.  Technology is entirely natural in humans and is something we do quite naturally.  As a result, we do it sometimes without thought.  But it is a result of our desire to make life more comfortable and less of a challenge to us, and is used for the satisfaction of other desires as well.  Those desires have always been with us.

Technology has not ended ethics of any kind, as ethics itself is a kind of technology; it is a way of resolving problems, a guide for better living.   What it can do, though, is to eliminate what has stood in the way of the satisfaction of certain desires in the past, and provided reasons for not indulging those desires.  A large portion of the book is devoted to a discussion of the ways in which technology has facilitated warfare.  The authors point out that drones, for example, leave us detached from the harm they cause.  That may well be, but the reasons for war are the same as they have even been, e.g., a desire to dominate other peoples, a need for resources of one kind or another, fear, hatred, etc. 

When we are less likely to suffer harm, when we risk less, we're more inclined to do things, good or bad.  In that sense, technology can impact our moral conduct.  But this doesn't make technology bad in itself (if it can even be thought of as distinct from us). 

If this has a rather Deweyian sound to it, it should (also it should sound like Dewey's interpreter as to technology, Larry Hickman).  Dewey of course would be (and was) subject to criticism as a proponent of Enlightenment thinking, a "progressive" who believed nature should be dominated by humanity.  But I think this is incorrect because Dewey, unlike his critics, didn't distinguish humanity and nature, technology and ethics or spirituality, philosophical problems and the problems of day to day life as they did.  Nor did he think of technology as an end in itself, as he thought means and ends formed a continuum.

The problem of technology must be addressed actively, by requiring the intelligent use of technology--not use in a short-sited fashion, or in the satisfaction of short-term desires.  Intelligence establishes our resources are limited, and that certain technologies destroy our environment.  Intelligence should tell us that we are parts of nature, not superior to it or that our true life is waiting for us beyond it.

There will be no god to save us, nor need there be.  Waiting for that god or any god is a good way of either achieving nothing or sanctioning absolutism and fanaticism when someone appearing to be that god or a precursor to that god comes on the scene, as one would think Heidegger should have known by the time he allowed himself to be interviewed by Der Spiegel.  Either we will save ourselves or we won't.

But we won't save ourselves by becoming Luddites, or ascetics, or monks, or peasants, or little Buddhas, or nature-loving neo-pagans and Wiccans, though--simply because we won't become them.  We will always be technological.


  1. Good post, but I don't think you do justice to Heidegger's nuanced position.

    The rural nostalgia is there, but his view of modern technology technology as a particularly narrow mode of revealing beings (as distinct from specific examples of technology) is prescient despite his personal biases. This is an age of human resources, information resources, etc.

    There's a huge distinction to be made in Heidegger between modern technology and pre-modern technology. This is a vital point to understanding him. He would agree, I think, that technology is part of our essence, but there's something uncanny about modern technology's 'challenging forth' instead of 'working with' nature.

    The examples he uses may be ridiculous to us, but there does seem to be a massive difference between the windmill of previous eras and the hydro-electric dam, between the family farm and the huge corporate operations of today. One works with the environment while the other pillages it. He may overstate the point, but I don't think his observations are completely groundless.

    No collective human calculation can 'control' this revealing or keep it in check. The idea that we could get it under control is simply another manifestation of modern technology's pull on our thinking, a thinking based on the endless expansion of power, speed, efficiency, productivity, control, etc.

    At best, for Heidegger, certain individuals can gain release from this ensnarement and live with a 'free relationship' to technology -- able to use particular technological devices, but without them affecting the core of our being or the way we're attuned to the world.

    Romantic? Possibly, but only in this day and age would wanting to preserve some semblance of human dignity and/or a sense of the holy be mocked and ridiculed.

    Anyhow very good piece. As always, very balanced and well thought out.

  2. Thank you.

    But, I don't see how you differentiate between technonogy "working with" the environment and "pillaging" it, unless you do so on the basis on efficiency, for example, or perhaps the amount of resources used, or waste generated. These are measurable, and the latter two should be of great concern. And they can be controlled, but for our stupidity and greed.

    If it's maintained that the more efficient our technology, the more we are inclined to indulge our adverse characteristics, that's something I can understand--and acknowledge. But I think Heidegger is saying more than that, and I think Schmidt and the person he wrote this book "with" are doing the same. What they seem to do is separate modern technology, at least, from us, particularly in the sense they seem to think it beyond our control. If it is, though, it is no more beyond our control than any other of our characteristics or abilities.