It’s not the machines we’re really afraid of. So what are we afraid of?
Quick — why do we have such a complicated relationship with tech? One that’s not easily summed up— but conflicted, torn, fraught, unsure? After all, we love it—while we loathe it. We mock people who use Ubers — but grudgingly call them ourselves. We don’t want to be reduced to objects, numbers, lines of code—perish the thought — but we’re happy if our friends, lovers, and colleagues are. We’re scared that the robots will take our jobs, that we worry that the algorithms will log our every keystroke, that we’re afraid that the machines will police our every carefully guarded thought. But who’s programming the algorithms, being served by the drones, and tapping the screens? We’re not just techno-anxious: we are also vertiginously tantalized, seduced, thrilled, and tempted by the very world of endless easy pleasure the code, the machinery, the mechanism promises.
There is more to our deeply conflicted, uneasy, fragile relationship with technology than fear. It’s not accurate to call it “technophobia”. In this little essay, I’m going to describe it as “technophrenia”. I think we’re not just afraid of what the machines might cost us — we’re also afraid of what they might not cost us. There is a paradox in what technology has become, does, and offers — and it is that paradox that leaves us uneasy, unsure, uncomfortable.
I’m going to advance a simple thesis: the definition of technology has been diluted, diminished, and lessened almost to the point of meaninglessness — and certainly to the point of triviality, pointlessness, and superficiality. And that paradox is what is truly underlies our schizophrenic, conflicted, ambiguous relationship with meta-modern machinery: that we love them as uncertainly as we loathe them. But what about us?
Allow me to explain.
Let me use the example of my glasses. They are the simplest piece of technology I own — and yet they are the most transformative. Why?
Techne, the Greek root of the word “technology”, means “skill”. Technology, the enlargement and extension of man’s skillfulness, is a miraculous, magical thing because it alone gives mankind the power to transfigure the very world. When I put on my glasses, something almost magical happens — just as every poorly-sighted child discovers in wonder. I’m able to see clearly. Techne. As a simple example, my glasses help me to see better. They enhance my skill, my techne. It is in that sense that they are “technological”.
The greatest breakthroughs of the twentieth century were in part technological. Once, technology meant stuff that went to the moon…cured fatal diseases…extended the human lifespan. Salk’s polio vaccine, the moon landings, antibiotics…all these were what technology once referred to. They were miraculous breakthroughs that altered lives, vast explosions of techne that enhanced human skillfulness.
Now, “tech” means something very different: apps that…hails taxis…summon butlers…automatically call dog walkers…gadgets that remind you have a meeting…turn on your thermostat for you…let you stream your favorite show…and so on.
It’s not that the latter is bad. But it is a fact that the latter is trivial. In no reasonable way is an app that calls a taxi or a butler or a thermostat comparable to a moon landing or a vaccine. Such devices may yield us small morsels of convenience, ease, and luxury — but they are not breakthroughs that alter lives and redraw the boundaries of human potential.
So how did technology get demeaned to “tech”? I’m going to draw a line between technology — the real thing — and “tech”: its modern-day imitation. In the same that we now eat “food-like products”, and watch “news-like programming”, so too we are presented with “technology-like” things: stuff that isn’t really technological, but merely pretends to be. This is what is popularly called “tech”. But tech is to technology what Doritos are to food: an empty, hollow simulation of the real thing.
Technology is transformative because it explodes the limits of techne — of human skill. Read that last sentence again. The little story of my glasses contains in it what is familiar to us all: the magical, enchanted power of technology.
Transformation is why technology is so magical, so miraculous. Through it, man can ascend beyond his natural birthright, and give himself rebirth — from a stinking, starving, cunning beast, to a civilized, enlightened, powerful being. All that is contained in the magic of techne. Techne, skill, endows man with the shining opportunity, to face his greatest necessity: to become his best. Not merely a slave, a predator, or a king. But something smaller still, and infinitely greater: fully himself. A being who lives a life seared, brimming over, overwhelmed, with meaning, happiness, purpose. And if you think about it for a moment, all that is what glasses give me, and countless others.
And so the question we must ask is this: does the stuff of the “tech” industry enhance skill…at anything…especially anything worthy? In what sense does it transform not just merely our stuff — but ourselves? I may be able to summon a butler or a taxi or a private jet or a dog-walker with unimaginable ease. But the simple face is that my skill at anything truly meaningful has not increased one bit. If anything, it has probably declined — for I am something like a king without an empire.
“Tech” is a paradox. For tech itself has demeaned, denigrated, and diluted the very idea of technology — from miracles of skill that alter human destiny, to trivialities that trap us in self-indulgence. But that is not skill — it is merely gratification and vanity. Apps that limit people full of limitless potential…to be…walking apps, libraries of selfies, carefully performed “lifestyle choices”. All those are “tech” — but they’re not techne. They do not expand or enlarge human skilfullness in any way. You may be laden down with all the latest “tech”. But will it help you become that great novelist..doctor…musician…artist…programmer…anything?
Technology, techne, is transformative, fundamental, magical — because it is the sudden joyous explosion of skill at mastering one’s best self. “Tech”, on the other hand, seems to be mastering us.
That, I think, is why so many are so afraid of “tech” — but embrace technology. Tech threatens us with a kind of split, between who one could be — and who one is reduced to. Not merely because it might take their jobs, or their careers, or their time. But because it might, with efficiency’s kind smile, erase their dreams and their destinies. And imprison their truest, best selves, in irresistible, glittering cages made of indolence, vanity, and convenience. Cages of which they themselves are the most enthusiastic jailers.
Nope. There’s no Matrix, no confederation of the robots, no Skynet. There doesn’t need to be. It’s not the machines that we truly fear. But what the machines might turn us into. Something even less than machines. People who can’t be ourselves without them.
The true fear, I think, in technopanic, is this. Not merely that we will become servants of machines. But masters of machines — who, imprisoned in glowing kingdoms of pleasure, as helpless as children, can never cross the desert, climb the mountain, ford the river — and discover their true destiny. Beings who never discover that freedom is not merely supremacy; for the ruler still depends on the ruled. It means independence. Sovereignty. The right to choose to suffer, struggle, dream, imagine, rebel, defy, love, wonder, dare. For the true self cannot be born otherwise.