Technology And Its Discontents
“The difference between technology and slavery is that slaves are fully aware that they are not free”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Technology: The narrative that describes the essence of the existence of our essence.
Technology is no longer ‘it,’ it is the new ‘Ka’. It no longer is the means or the end, it just is.
Technology is not only the medium and the message; it is the consciousness that articulates the language that in turn helps us conceptualize the medium and the message. Technology defines technology itself.
Unlike Humans, Technology doesn’t need psychoanalysts who help it recognize its unknowns. The psychoanalysis of technology is automated, self-analyzing; self-replicating and self-improving. The result is not the realization of the unconscious; it is the realization that there is no unconscious.
The end of technology is not the salvation of its ‘self’; it is the end of salvation as we know it.
Technology is the new super being.
The Story of Technology
The story of technology, from its initial conception as the study of art to its present self (the being), is an interesting one. The word ‘technology’ joins the Greek word for art: ‘techne’ with the word for the systematic study of it: ‘logos.’ Before the twentieth century, the term technology was uncommon in English and was mostly used to refer to the study of useful arts. In the twentieth century, the word technology was used to describe the means of making things happen and not the study of these means. Technology evolved from the realm of knowing to knowing-making. And the knowing and making of things, events and opinions meant that the very concept of knowing connected to the making of something. Without the ability to ‘make’ something of the knowledge acquired through the study of art, the knowledge (the knowing) itself was considered meaningless. The application of knowledge towards the making of something transformed the concept of knowledge itself. In modern times, this concept of knowledge became so instrumental that without the interventionist aspect knowledge, knowing has no meaning. Knowing means intervening, and all interventions are a means to an end. The end is presented as the end of the mastery of ourselves; not our ‘self’ but for other ‘selves.’
This concept of knowing and of knowledge itself became the genesis of the use of technology as a tool for social control in the modern and postmodern period.
Technology and Postmodern Life
In the post-modern world, technology remains the principal prism through which we refract and translate life. A form of self-control socialized through the ubiquity of technology in our daily lives. Outside of the context of technology, the meaning of life is constantly shrinking; and we are ever more enthusiastic to cede more space to technology.
Our interactions with others are not only mediated by technology; technology increasingly defines them. Whats App, Skype, and Email are no longer the medium; they are the interaction. Email already categorizes our interactions as either personal, promotional or transactional (purchase). Texts are already spell checked, and pre-formatted responses are available. Advanced algorithms are capable of answering your emails on your behalf. Consider this: two email ID’s representing two humans responding to each other; a dance of thought and language; performed by algorithms. Code responding to code through code. Not a human responding to another human through language. While this sounds exciting to most of us; it has a downside that brings to light our identity as humans. The elements of error, serendipity, and creativity; all hallmarks of human enterprise and ingenuity are rapidly disappearing. The human will soon be a proxy for his own technologically created placeholder in the world.
Apart from consumption, transactions, and interactions; technology is also fundamentally transforming the language we use to interact with each other. The hyper-interactivity of the neo-social world has condensed language into acronyms and emojis. Emotions have transitioned from affect to keystrokes to a single tap on the touchscreen. From an efficiency perspective, this makes sense. But one may ask; efficiency for what? And at the cost of what? Efficiency for the sake of saving time; which seems to be less and less available the more our lives become dependent on technology. The cost is the increasing poverty of imagination to express individual emotions. The interconnection between imagination and realization is reduced to code now. To use an analogy from photography, we’re all photographers now except; the only mode we use to capture our existence is the automatic mode. The automatic mode is a set of predetermined algorithms that calculate the best combination of exposure, shutter speed and depth of field but not the perspective, the frame. The mode redefines photography, for it reduces the aesthetics of the form into a mathematical conception of the world; leaving out the part which is human. A photograph is no longer the expression of a felt emotion; it is the expression of technical sophistry. In photography, emotion is quickly becoming a by-product of technology; not its anchor, but its fishing net. A net cast far and wide to capture something that can be given an aesthetic meaning later. Not the anchor that gives roots for technology to enable the articulation of one’s own aesthetics; unmediated and authentic.
Another example of technology reducing our perspectives to mathematical certainties is the way we consume the news. Algorithms increasingly determine the kind of news we get exposed to; the content of the news, and the frequency of our exposure to the news. The advent of technology and its impact on news reportage has meant that we now have news that is about the news. In the never-ending news cycle of the neo-information world, real events are quickly reduced to footnotes; while responses to the event and the responses to those responses become more magnified and commonplace. The news is no longer about what happened; it is more about how what happened, itself got transformed by responses about it.
Technology is supposedly making life easier, and we are celebrating the fact that it supposedly is; not knowing that the ease lies in us transitioning from thinking-feeling beings to merely responding beings.
Technology and the Market
Human beings are increasingly struggling to cope with a dialectical existence. The culture of individuality promoted through the instruments of capitalism and; the need to belong and connect propagated through technology aggravate a new kind of existential crisis. We now have the sharing economy, driven by the engines of the marketplace. Sharing, a collective act of co-operation, is driven by the competitive apparatus of the market; which itself is the antithesis of co-operation.
In the postmodern world, work is no longer an expression of individuality. We are constantly categorized into groups based on our skills, educational institutions and organizations we represent. The categories of classification imposed on us by the society determine the ways in which we try to distinguish our individual identity. How individual can you be, if the description on your LinkedIn profile is determined by your professional affiliations, your certifications, and your job title; all of whom are an expression of membership to a group?
Outside of work, the expression of individuality is confined only to the realm of consumption. Our consumption defines our individuality. The cars we drive, the clothes we wear, the food we eat and the media we consume; all are supposed to define who we are. Most of these products and services are mass produced and through the structural dexterity of free markets; commonly available and increasingly affordable through mechanisms such as EMI’s. Their ubiquitous consumption has progressively diluted individuality to the extent that the individual has disappeared.
The paradox of our times is that the ideology of free market capitalism glorifies individuality; while it reinforces economic structures that undermine individuality itself.
It is in this context that technology emerges as a possible means as well as the end product of individuality. However; technology itself is increasingly dependent on the economic patronage of free market structures. The free market wants perpetually consuming consumers. Technology provides the free market the vehicle to advance its theology. Technology becomes the metaphorical sermon that acts both as a promotional tool as well as an informant for the market. Technology provides the ability to the market to translate and to transform humans into a data point, embedded in some data warehouse in a data farm somewhere; a dehumanized speck of potentially monetizable coded dust.
In the process of enabling the free market, technology itself loses its individuality. It no longer remains the project of human ingenuity; it becomes a progeny of the free market. An orphan that has no parent till it can demonstrate the ability to generate profits.
The individuality of technology gets subsumed by the enterprise of the free market. It is at this stage that technology; eager to break out and assert its identity starts to develop totalitarian tendencies.
Technology and Totalitarianism
The narrative of technology acquiring totalitarian tendencies begins with technology replacing what Herbert Marcuse called ‘Individualistic rationality’ with ‘technological rationality.’ Individualistic rationality was based on the search for the truth of the social and individual existence of the human. The individual, through his thinking, was capable of finding the truth once he or she acquired the freedom of thought. The society’s role was to remove all obstacles in this endeavor. The principle of individualistic rationality was based on the belief that self-interest was rational; guided by autonomous thinking.
Technological rationality, on the other hand, posits that rational decisions to incorporate technological solutions in the society can, once the technology is ubiquitous, change what is considered rational within that society.While individualism was based on self-interest, technology makes self-interest achievable only through compliance towards standards imposed by the apparatuses of technology. As technology becomes more commonplace, the new rationality demands that individuals become increasingly compliant towards standards set by technology to achieve their individualistic goals. In Marcuse’s words: “ In the social reality, despite all change, the domination of man by man is still the historical continuum that links pre-technological and technological reason.” Technological rationality, therefore, does not extinguish social domination, it perpetuates social domination.
Lewis Mumford has characterized man in the machine age as an ‘objective personality.’ According to Mumford, an objective personality is one who “ has learned to transfer all subjective spontaneity to the machinery which he serves, to subordinate his life to the “matter-of- factness” of a world in which the machine is the factor and he the factum.”
In our times, the man in the machine age has no personality; he is, after all, a data point. His subordination is absolute because the machine is both the factor and the factum. The machine is both a statement of fact and the fact itself.
Technology thus becomes totalitarian, for it interprets, develops and potentates our lives; creating increasingly passive consumers. While we may feel that constant engagement with technology is evidence of our participation in various human projects, the evidence itself is manufactured to provide us a sense of fulfillment in the banality of our existence. Take the case of online activism; people feel a sense of satisfaction participating in myriad polls and petitions. The sense of satisfaction comes from clicking and signing on a link; because it denotes the contribution of one’s time towards a cause. Time is important because, in all our work lives, we are implicitly and explicitly informed that time equals money. We fill out time sheets at work to prove our economic worth; post-modern resumes are full of achievements which brazenly represent the monetary value of time spent with an employer. Technology defines the only objective value of our time, and as an extension; us. And that value is only monetary. By devoting our time signing online petitions and engaging in online activism, we implicitly assume that the value of our engagement is monetary in nature. A paradoxical form of non-financial charity that can only be conceived in its financial form. And as long as that value justifies our self-worth, we don’t even care to ‘circle back’ to check on the impact of the petitions we have signed. We never bother to ask why most of them have no policy impact and; why they never graduate from being benign forms of protest to organized mass movements that can operate with sustained effectiveness. That we rarely demonstrate the activism of the petitions outside of the medium of technology shows how technology has reduced civic participation to a farce. This farce of clickable civic engagement provides a veneer of a functioning civil society, but in reality, the rot in democratic processes continues unabated, and technology becomes the vehicle for hiding reality and sustaining the illusion of democracy.
Another way technology acts like a totalitarian form of power is through standardizing forms of emotional expressions and connections. The smiley face may be an effective way of expressing pleasure, but through its repeated use, it becomes a masked screen tap for all forms of emotions. One where the sender standardizes the instrumentality of his or her expression, and by doing so repeatedly, instrumentalizes emotion as well. Emotions no longer remain complex state of feelings which influence thought and behavior. They become standardized forms of expressions, influenced by repeated behavior and technological rationality. A rationality that promotes social domination by extinguishing some forms of emotions altogether to promote a form of social order that promotes the sustained oppression of humans. Take the example of the emotion of ‘despair’; you would be hard pressed to find an emoji that represents that emotion. As emojis become commonplace as expressions of emotion in our interconnected world, very soon we will stop recognizing despair as an emotion altogether. This is a form of totalitarianism that prohibits even the recognition of emotion. Absolute in its programmed suppression of the human condition.
In the guise of convenience, technology will transform democracy completely. Very soon, we will end up voting in our elections from the comfort of our smartphones, electing governments through online polls and fulfilling our civic duties through a tap or a voice command. The very concept of civic duties will be reduced to instruments like Right to Information, which through technology will be given the hue that they promote transparency. But in reality, the government will still have the right to refuse or to present information that is patently false. Information audits, employed as a fail-safe for such contingencies will be structured such that the auditing agency will itself be compromised in its dependency on the government for patronage and revenues. Technology will provide the illusion of reality, and behind that illusion, the loot of public resources will continue unabated. Technology’s totalitarianism will ensure that outside of technological contexts, the government, as a representative of the people, will become increasingly opaque. Elected representatives will transform into sanitized social media celebrities whose engagement with citizens will increasingly become confined to the online world. These developments will create a new form of proto-democracy; the new ‘Maya’ which will function in a parallel technological universe, removed from all the realities of the actual human existence. The forms of human life outside the context of technology will slowly recede to a tiny minority, governed by the savage rules of the hunter-gatherer era; outside of the walls of our technologically gated universe.
What Lies Ahead
As technology’s totalitarianism becomes absolute in its scope, forms of resistance will emerge. Unlike popular belief, these forms of resistance will not be the disconnected human. The Facebook hermit or the twitter cave man; for these are only transitive coping strategies of cognitive dissonance. The need to connect and the need to dominate will not go away. Instead, humans will resort to the oldest form of sustained resistance to totalitarianism known to them: Religion.
The need to go back to religion and develop it as a form of resistance will be generated by the inability to recognize suffering, despair, and anxiety. Humans will go back to religion to understand and articulate their condition and seek solutions in both dogma and philosophy. They will find that religion will mostly be able to diagnose their cognitive dissonance and their anxieties correctly; helping them rediscover emotions and the ability to articulate these emotions. Humans will find that the space between them and God will also be the only domain where technology will be unable to interfere.
There is, however, a problem that humans will have to solve: The need to harmonize religious philosophies to become all inclusive and liberal. This process of harmonization will be the next big evolutionary project for the human mind. This harmonization will result in the reorganization, articulation and vocalization of new forms of universal human values.
These new universal values will then help humans control and eventually deactivate technology as a totalitarian force.
The tyranny of technology will prove to be its own undoing, and the process of its undoing will also lay the foundations of the new human.
Technology will not make the human extinct; it will force the human to evolve into something neither the human nor technology can predict yet.
The story of the human race is about to get more interesting.