Technology is Not a Tool (Principles of Technoskepticism — Part One)
By David A.J. Reynolds
“A life can be said to be decadent when it loses its grasp on the innermost nerve of its functioning,” wrote the great Czech philosopher, Jan Patočka, “when it is disrupted at its inmost core so that while thinking itself full it is actually draining and laming itself with every step and act.” Therefore, he continued, “a society can be said to be decadent if it so functions as to encourage a decadent life, a life addicted to what is inhuman by its very nature.”
Like many of his fellow dissident philosophers in Prague, Patočka understood that the Czechoslovak communist regime — which he would die defying in March of 1977 — was not an outlier in the Western world, but an extreme symptom of a broad civilizational malady. He wrote the above in an essay entitled, “Is Technological Society Decadent, and Why?” and Patočka was concerned about technology precisely because of his commitment to understanding and preserving what was vital and precious in humankind. Discussing the intellectual engagement of philosophers Edmund Husserl and Heidegger — both of whom he had studied under — with the same intersection, Patočka commented that they “focus on a central point in which the essential core of technology touches upon the essential core of man, and for both this point is the relation of the human being to truth.”
There is, in other words, something at the very core of technology and the technological world we inhabit which presses hard against the moral, epistemological, and ontological heart of humanity, constricting and endangering our ability to love, know, and be what is real and true. But this danger, central to technoskepticism’s sense of urgency, is easy to ignore because the way technology is perceived persistently misses the forest for the trees. As the contemporary philosopher Albert Borgmann points out, “the peril of technology lies not in this or that of its manifestations but in the pervasiveness and consistency of its pattern.” Certainly there are particular points at which the leading edge of our technological age draws us to specific exposés and rebuttals, but as long as such statements of resistance are isolated from each other with no defining horizontal coherence, they will be easier to dismiss as the mere raging of the discontented.
We must, in Borgmann’s words, “take the measure of technological life in its normal totality” because it is the only accurate way of confronting it. Since technology is “a radically fundamental and comprehensive phenomenon,” it must be addressed in a way commensurate to its nature, breadth, and impact. Instead, we are wont to treat technology as a tool-box presenting us with a range of solutions. Even much putative skepticism repeats this mistake, assuming that only the careful selectiveness and judicious wielding of technological innovation is required. But as the American philosopher Don Ihde explains, one of Heidegger’s insights was that technology “is not just the collection of things and activities, but also a mode of truth or a field within which things and activities may appear as they do.”
Heidegger’s own words, at least in English translation, can be hard to explicate, but on this central point, he resounds with the clarity of a church bell. “The essence of technology is by no means anything technological. Thus we shall never experience our relationship to the essence of technology so long as we merely conceive and push forward the technological, put up with it, or evade it. Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this conception of it, to which today we particularly like to do homage, make us utterly blind to the essence of technology.”
Living in a technological age, we see the world through a technological lens to which we are often oblivious. We navigate according to the tips of technology’s icebergs while, fathoms below, its core escapes our attention. Drawing on the observations of Heidegger and others, what follows will suggest three fundamental ways in which the essence of technology is pushing hard against the essence of humankind. In each way, the power of technology is defined by the totality with which its ethos grounds the assumptions and orients the instincts within modern Western civilization, while the alienations in its wake define the cost.
Firstly and most critically, we live within and according to technology as a way of thinking, which alienates us from nature. Secondly and consequently, technology is a way of doing, which alienates us from ethics. And thirdly and most fatally, technology is a way of being that alienates us from ourselves. In sum, technology functions like a totalitarian ideology. But, unlike an ideology, it mostly operates unperceived and unarticulated.
The Technological Mind (Technology as a Way of Thinking)
In his 1984 essay, “Politics and Conscience,” Václav Havel recalled his childhood reaction to coming across a factory in the countryside which “spewed dense brown smoke and scattered it across the sky.” There are a number of possible reactions to this incongruous sight, even among those who would find it distasteful. A man might object “to the smoke from the smokestack only if the stench penetrates his apartment,” while not taking “offense at it metaphysically since he knows that the factory to which the smokestack belongs manufactures things that he needs.” Furthermore, people “of the technological era…conceive of a remedy only within the limits of technology.” In this spirit, many would find the situation “a regrettable lapse of a technology that failed to include ‘the ecological factor’ in its calculation, one which can be easily corrected with the appropriate filter.”
These responses assume, in keeping with the popular “tool” analogy applied to modern technology, that there is nothing fundamentally wrong — despoliation is merely a kink to be straightened out. For Havel, however, the rural smokestack illustrated a central fault in the way our civilization relates to the natural world. There is a problem in the “spiritual framework of modern civilization” which is at the root of its “present crisis.” That smokestack is “the symbol of an age which seeks to transcend the boundaries of the natural world and its norms,” rejecting a stewardship of that world which accepts it on its own basis.
“Modern rationalism and modern science, though the work of people that, as all human works, developed within our natural world,” Havel continued, “now systematically leave [the natural world] behind, deny it, degrade and defame it — and, of course, at the same time colonize it.” Reflecting on the ruination of Czech agriculture under the guidance of supposed rationalization, Havel concluded, with broad applicability, that “people in the age of science and technology live in the conviction that they can improve their lives because they are able to grasp and exploit the complexity of nature and the general laws of its functioning. Yet it is precisely these laws which, in the end, tragically catch up with them and get the better of them.” Forsaking a view of nature grounded in the way we experience it, we have learned to regard it with an inhuman objectivity, isolating it from its context and reducing it to a functional existence.
This conviction that modern technology’s essence lies in a technological mind-set, which cognitively precedes and frames our modern ways of acting technologically, is key to Heidegger’s claims about the danger that technology poses to man. This technological way of thinking is a re-conceptualization of the natural world and its constituent parts. “When man, investigating [and] observing, ensnares nature as an area of his own conceiving,” Heidegger posited in “The Question Concerning Technology” (1954), “he has already been claimed by a way of revealing that challenges him to approach nature as an object of research, until even the object disappears into the objectlessness of standing-reserve.” There are two words key to Heidegger’s thinking here: 1) technology at its essence is a way of revealing things and, in this sense, is a new type of attempt to disclose and use the truth about something material; 2) standing-reserve (gestell in German) is how Heidegger classifies what this technological way of thinking re-conceptualizes the natural world as: “Everywhere everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately at hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for a further ordering.” As political philosophy professor Mark Blitz explains, “technological conscriptions of things occur in a sense prior to our actual technical use of them, because things must be (and be seen as) already available resources in order for them to be used in this fashion.”
Such thinking emerges with clarity in modern science. “Man’s ordering attitude and behavior display themselves first in the rise of modern physics as an exact science. Modern science’s way of representing pursues and entraps nature as a calculable coherence of forces.” The image of a conceptual trap is helpful, giving us the idea of a process in which what exists is isolated from its organic connections before being moved and repurposed. Nature is perceived as a calculable coherence of forces through the imposition of abstract forms of calculation — understanding nature in way that separates it from itself — while seeing its use in a way that is similarly unrelated to its pre-existing state and context.
In Patočka’s assessment, this is an inheritance of the Enlightenment, whose intellectual products were “animated by a spirit and a mode of knowing wholly different from its predecessors.” Above all in modern science and mathematics, the Enlightenment marks “a spirit of technological dominance emerging,” which, as a broadly applicable way of perceiving the world, replaced its predecessors: “a formalizing universality imperceptibly shifting to an emphasis on product over content, on mastery rather than understanding.” Max Weber called this “disenchantment” (entzauberung), an insistence that “there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation.”
Therefore, Blitz summarizes, “it was technological thinking that first understood nature in such a way that nature could be challenged to unlock its forces and energy. The challenge preceded the unlocking.” It is hard to define or convey why this is problematic because our responses tend to be dependent on the way of thinking that is being criticized, acknowledging content only in objectively observable product and interpreting a dearth of distributive functionality as a lack of meaning. In his book, Landmarks, Robert MacFarlane describes outsiders’ perception of the great moorland of the Isle of Lewis (off the northwest coast of Scotland) as emptiness — a great stretch of nothing. “We’re flying over nothing,” exclaims a downward-looking passenger, as his plane wings its way over the moors to Stornoway.
It was precisely this manner of thinking about the moorland that encouraged a 2004 proposal to cover it with 234 towering wind-turbines serviced by 210 pylons and 104 miles of road. “The crux of the [ensuing] debate,” MacFarlane relates, “concerned the perceived nature and worth of the moor itself, and the language that was used — and available — to describe it.” As this implies, one of the ways that a relationship between man and land independent of a technological way of thinking could be restored was by protecting and revivifying the words that had been used to describe the moor since time out of mind. The naming of things is a role in tune with the ethic of stewardship that long precedes modern conceptions. The biblical account of creation declares that God himself named the heavens, the Earth, and the oceans, but then delegated to his steward, Adam — placed “in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15) as a priest would a temple — to name the animals. “What is required,” in the words of Lewis native Finlay Macleod, “is a new [old] nomenclature of landscape and how we relate to it, so that conservation becomes a natural form of human awareness, and so that it ceases to be…under-appreciated and thus readily vulnerable to desecration.” There is a mutual relationship between conservation and conversation, and part of the liberating of nature from the conceptual status of standing-reserve, which orders it to await repurposing, is rediscovering the language that conveys a more defiantly subjective, phenomenological view of the world. “What is needed,” Macleod concludes, “is a counter-desecration phrasebook.”
The distinction between, on the one hand, a sky-high and abstracted view of the land that aids its repurposing and re-ordering, and, on the other, an accrued, lived, local, and grounded perspective is informative to understanding the technological way of thinking that the former represents. The technological mind places itself artificially above and beyond man’s lived experience, radically changing the way he relates to his surroundings, as Hannah Arendt also noted in her concepts of Earth alienation and world alienation. “The increase in the power of man over the things of this world,” she argued, “spring…from the distance which man puts between himself and the world.” For example, whatever humans do within modern physics, “we always handle nature from a point of view in the universe outside the Earth.” Though “still bound to the Earth through the human condition, we have found a way to act on the Earth and within terrestrial nature as though we dispose of it from outside, from the Archimedean point.” We have been conditioned to understand “subjective” as a synonym for unreliable, but it is the so-called objective view that is the illusory one because it is a method of alienation from our own surroundings that has “left us a universe of whose qualities we know no more than the way they affect our measuring instruments.” We have placed an elaborate series of techniques, quantifications, and systems of thought and representation between us and reality and have regarded those intermediaries as reality.
Once the natural world has been conceptually transformed into a mere object which we observe from a scientific distance, the way is opened, before anything has actually been done, for the material revolutions of the technological age. The natural world has been exposed to a demanding urge in which all is quantified, calculable, exposed, available, changeable, movable, and replaceable. All of nature is open to requisitioning and enlistment, like the conditions of a state undergoing total mobilization and total war. Just as total mobilization turns a citizen into a soldier, whether the citizen wishes to be or not, the technological way of thinking turns the elements of nature into pieces and units. “One piece of standing reserve is replaceable by another,” according to Heidegger. “The piece as piece is already imposed upon for replaceability.” In a technological world, according to philosopher Andrew Mitchell, “there is no end to replacement…only this unending slippage and dispersal.” This ethos of availability, transformation, and replaceability, he continues, “cracks the very discreteness of the [natural] object,” alienating us from the natural world, hiding its varied existence from our conceptions behind a wall of abstraction.
The Technological Life (Technology as a Way of Doing)
Based on this pervasive technological way of thinking, a technological way of doing has naturally become the norm wherever the technological mind rules. Since it is based on a way of perceiving reality, the technological life escapes our attention in its totality, with skeptics focusing their criticism on dependent ideas and ideologies — such as Marxism or the bundle of contemporary practices we call capitalism — that are merely offshoots of the wider technological and materialist perspective. As a way of doing, the technological life is also an imperial force that does not require any conscious promotion (even besides the fact that major political philosophies on each side of the spectrum operate according to its assumptions) because it is both an endless process and self-perpetuating.
Since the technological mind-set does not allow what it beholds to remain what it is, but structures a conceptual and then actual repurposing, cycles of perpetual action are set in motion. Firstly, as in one of Heidegger’s examples, “a tract of land is challenged into the putting out of coal and ore. The earth now reveals itself as a coal mining district, the soil as a mineral deposit.” The coal is then mined not merely that it may be somewhere else. Instead, “it is stockpiled; that is, it is on call, ready to deliver the sun’s warmth that is stored in it. The sun’s warmth is challenged forth for heat, which in turn is ordered to deliver steam whose pressure turns the wheels that keep a factory running.” Therefore, “what is unlocked is transformed, what is transformed is stored up, what is stored up is, in turn, distributed, and what is distributed is switched about ever anew.” This is the momentum of the technological life: “unlocking, transforming, storing, distributing, and switching about are ways of revealing,” which “never simply comes to an end. Neither does it run off into the indeterminate.” In Mitchell’s paraphrase, “the standing reserve is not simply put to use or applied toward a particular end, but instead is surrendered to endless repurposing.”
Since it is in the nature of technology as a way of doing to repurpose, it has no logical conclusion. But once its logic has been accepted and then unleashed, the technological life is, furthermore, self-perpetuating. As Mitchell also cautions, it would be a mistake to imagine that nature is turned into a standing-reserve ready for repurposing in response to specific demand. Instead, “the imposed demand actually constitutes the standing reserve.” Technical functionality is a frame which has to be seen through before functionality is what is required. In other words, the artificially objective, detached view of the world determines its natural objects to be resources and, therefore, imposes an ‘on demand’ or ‘on call’ status on all of it. That status logically precedes the time when anything is literally demanded to be repurposed. In Mitchell’s explanation, “one thing enlists another into the standing-reserve.” Each enlistment into actual standing-reserve, leads to a further requisitioning, whether it is a new substance being produced for a similar purpose or a new stage of repurposing of a substance already in use.
Energy, as Heidegger understood, is the archetypal example, with “the earth to yield ore, ore to yield uranium…[and] uranium is set upon to yield atomic energy.” Each step is pregnant with the next. Each use, within the logic of the technological mind and life, opens up a new challenge on the natural world. If that can and should be done, then why not this? The damming of the great river Rhine to produce energy means that “the Rhine itself appears as something at our command” and “what the river is now, namely a water power supplier, derives from out of the essence of the power station.” Of course there have been water mills churning by rivers since long before the modern age, but, by contrast, they took the river as it was, conforming the human process to the nature of the experienced river. The power station that feeds off the dammed river does the opposite. And without it ever needing to be said, the pursuit of energy and its extraction becomes a matter of how not if, extending into new methods and locations.
In this way, the technological life produces a counter-ethics in which human ethics, developed within a sense of stewardship and responsibility, can be dismissed while preserving the appearance of moral reasoning. Examine for yourself how often arguments are now given and received as ethical without ever moving beyond the production and relative distribution of commodities, relegating human ethics to being just another subservient branch of scientific materialism. The same familiar, religious sense of urgency accrues to our supposedly ethical demands, even as we alienate ourselves from actual ethics or even the possibility of ethical judgements. It is the consequence of first theoretically and then actually replacing, in Patočka’s formulation, the “care of the soul, the care to be” with “the care to have.”
Therefore, despite the increasing dominance of the technological life based on the technological mind, its essence and its nature (and therefore its existence as a phenomenon) recedes further from view. The technological life, Patočka further observed, “closes itself up against all that claims to transcend its sphere. For nothing but just the calculable resources that are ‘on order’ can penetrate the unitary network of technically uncovered reality.” It becomes impossible for technological minds acting within a technological life to perceive that which approaches from outside of its assumptions as anything other than an irrelevance, a distraction, or, indeed, immorality. Technological life, in this context, appears to us as nothing more than logically applied reason and morality. “The standing reserve is the mode of presence for all that exists under the dominance of contemporary technology,” Mitchell argues, “and it is the only permissible mode.” Any ethically-derived constraints and alternative conceptions appear as the attempt to rob people of the material resources which they are entitled to have.
Even the shape of resistance often conforms to the dominant logic, as all dependent exceptions do. For example, with tracks of territory repurposed as national parks, the act of preservation requires the natural world to become a ward of state, as if it were an abandoned orphan, and a destination for the tourism industry.
The technological life is also obscured from conscious understanding because, just as the technological mind distances man from nature, the increasing complexity of the technological life further distances most people from the technological processes of unlocking, transforming, storing, and distributing on which it depends. There even seems to be an inverse relationship between our decreasing awareness of what we depend on and our increasing dependence on it, since it is only our dependent demand, rather than our understanding of the causes, that conditions our approval.
Until relatively recently, most of the processes by which “natural resources” were technologically repurposed into what people used were readily observable and easily understood. For example, until the 1980s, coal not only fueled the power stations which enabled Britain’s work and entertainment, it was also the source of energy that heated its homes. And the journey from mine to commodity was no mystery, with large sections of the country given over to the coal industry. But how many of today’s two billion smartphone users — including 80% of Britain’s adult population — have any idea about either the way in which that ubiquitous product rests upon a complex and varied use of “natural resources” or the way in which these resources are obtained and repurposed? Our world relies no less on the ceaseless intrusive destructiveness of the technological life than its modern predecessors, but most of us are far less conscious of it.
“Lithium-ion batteries were supposed to be different from the dirty, toxic technologies of the past,” the Washington Post reflected in a September 2016 piece. In reality, the cost of this particular technological sleight of hand — and there is always a cost — has merely been moved further away from most users. “Smartphones would not fit in pockets without” these batteries. “Laptops would not fit on laps. Electric vehicles would be impractical.” But they rely, among many other things, on cobalt, which must be mined from the earth. Sixty percent of the world’s current cobalt supply comes from Congo, where an estimated 100,000 people “use hand tools to dig hundreds of feet underground.” The demand for cobalt has tripled over the last five years along with soaring smartphone sales, but demand is expected to double again before 2020 partly due to electric cars, each one of which requires up to 33 pounds of cobalt. Meanwhile, two-thirds of the graphite, which must also be mined and then refined for use in lithium-ion batteries, comes from China, where the process causes a predictable trail of pollution and despoliation. In the Atacama region of Chile and Argentina, companies are clamoring for its lithium, a further key component, which can be extracted there with the use of large quantities of water. There is one ounce of lithium in a laptop, but the battery powering a normal electric car contains 44 pounds of the substance.
“Green technology” is a useful myth for those who believe that the essence of technology can be turned in on itself. Yet the sequence of exploitation and pollution that the Washington Post uncovered amid the extraction of these three substances has been an ever-present, centuries-long companion to the realization of the technological mind through the technological life. The three places of extraction boast widely varied political and governmental contexts, but what binds them together is that the damage caused to land and people has had no effect on the inexorable continuation of the process. Technology as a way of doing things has alienated us from human ethics because it has pushed its concerns to the periphery. Whatever regulations are passed in a particular location or time, the technological life never ceases to press into the place where man understands his responsibility, perverting and restricting it.
The Technological Self (Technology as a Way of Being)
When reflecting on his early encounter with the smokestacks and their noxious output, Havel imagined the similarly horrified reaction of a medieval peasant to the same intrusion. Like a medieval person, he mused, children “are far more intensely rooted in what some philosophers call ‘the natural world,’ or Lebenswelt, than most modern adults. They have not yet grown alienated from the world of their actual personal experience.” For those in this frame of mind, he continued, “Our ‘I’ primordially attests to that world and personally certifies it…a world not yet indifferent since we are personally bound to it.” This is “a world in which, through which, and for which we are somehow answerable, a world of personal responsibility.” It is this sensibility — along with “the absolute horizon of [man’s] relations” in which we rightly recognize what is beyond our moral purview and capability — that has been destroyed, in Havel’s view, by the impersonal, supra-human, objective, and distant view of reality in the technological age. The most fundamental resulting casualty of man’s alienation from both nature and ethics, in his “attempt to abolish God and to play at being God,” is humankind itself. “Man rejected his responsibility as a ‘subjective illusion’” — something that only sentimentality and superstition placed in his consciousness — “and in place of it installed what is now proving to be the most dangerous illusion of all: the fiction of objectivity stripped of all that is concretely human.” Technology is a way of being and it is ourselves that we ultimately alienate in the technological age.
If technology is a way of thinking about reality, then our understanding and perception of our own humanity could not escape unscathed. Since the elements of the natural world primarily interest the modern homo sapien not as self-defining objects, but as standing-reserve, as resources for repurposing, then “man…is nothing but the orderer of the standing-reserve,” Heidegger maintained. Once this is so, “he comes to the very brink of a precipitous fall; that is, he comes to the point where he himself will have to be taken as standing-reserve.” People, in other words, become in their own eyes exactly what they have turned the rest of the world into, pieces and units to be repurposed. And it is hard to delve into either recent history or current affairs and fail to conclude that this is exactly the scenario in which we find ourselves.
The totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century are useful to consider not as flippant analogies to the present, but, as Havel understood, having lived under one, as “a grotesquely magnified image of,” modern civilization’s “own deep tendencies.” For example, one of the things that made the Holocaust such an extraordinarily modern example of genocide was that the Nazi regime established and rationalized the Final Solution by dehumanizing the Jewish people of Europe not only through rhetorical and legal methods familiar for centuries, but also by relentlessly and methodically commodifying them. The processes and procedures that operated within the Final Solution were predicated upon, and carried out according to, the idea that the people within its grip were units and pieces — isolated and ripped out of their human contexts of meaning — that needed to be processed according to certain supposedly objective criteria. This way of thinking about humans as units to be isolated and transported and used — congruent with a technological way of thinking and doing — aided perpetrators, in parallel with anti-Semitic ideology, in repeatedly transcending instinctive human repugnance at extreme cruelty. The Marxist states of the twentieth century were likewise adept at the commodification of their people, both smoothing the path to and justifying a systemic and murderous disregard for human lives. If you and I can think of numerous more benign ways in which people today are defined and treated as “human resources” to be quantified, calculated, exposed, available, changeable, movable, and replaceable, it is not because these ways are synonymous with Nazism or Communism but because, whether we like it or not, our societies belong to the same modern technological civilization as those systems did. The same urge to look upon human affairs from a false objectivity and the same tendency to methodically separate the way we live from the imperatives of the care of the soul, condition our rhythms and patterns of life.
But if we only think about humankind’s alienation from itself in terms of the way we view others, then we have missed the heart of it. Technology as a way of being means that the technological self is alienated from his and her own fundamental humanity: as a technological human, I become alienated from myself. Remember that it was Patočka’s contention, derived from Heidegger and Husserl, that it was “not technology as such” which posed the danger, “but technology in its relation to that in man which is capable of truth” (italics added). He was not saying that a man or woman is some independent source of truth, but that there is something within our species that is uniquely equipped, as well as eager, to know the truth. That is, after all, what the technological life, in Heidegger’s framework, is a tragic attempt to do — reveal. But since the technological, abstracted perception of reality brooks no contradiction from the subjective self, all other forms of revelation are shut off from the mind and the heart. “The uncovering that prevails at the essential core of technology necessarily loses sight of uncovering itself,” Patočka explained, “concealing the essential core of truth in an unfamiliar way and so closing man’s access to what he himself is — a being capable of standing in an original relation to the truth.” Amidst all his restless productivity and inventiveness, “man henceforth knows only individual, practical truths, not the truth.”
This is why Heidegger himself focused all his energy on the essence of technology, rather than specific technological examples — at the level of assumption, perception, and priority, “the actual threat has already affected man in his essence.” The technological way of perceiving, uncovering, and using reality in which our age and society is encapsulated and enmeshed, “threatens man with the possibility that it could be denied to him to enter into a more original revealing and hence to experience the call of a more primal truth.” What shall it profit a man if he should gather all the information and lose the truth? Once I have declared the world to be at my feet, in, to use Patočka’s phrase, “its quantifiable meaninglessness,” then I have left behind the role of a man and all its potential for authentic perception and adopted a new identity of my own invention, capable of ruling the world but not of being at home and happy in it.