To inform, confuse, and enlighten; in economic matters as well as philosophical ones. Jørund Aarsnes and Stephan Jensen write on economics and the human condition.
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The Evolution of Technology and the Devolution of Man

The Future State of Humanity? Photo by Aaron Haussman

Friedrich Georg Jünger, translator of the Iliad to the German and expert on Pre-Socratic philosophy has written one of the most powerful critiques of technology named “Failure of Technology: Perfection without Purpose.” I will present some of his most important criticisms of technological progress in general and their relevance for the technological development we are seeing today.

For better or worse, it is certain that technological development is truly changing our society and the way we live. The general view of technology is often very utopian, it sees technology as changing our lives for the better; helping us live more comfortable and easy. Technology relieves us of work through the automatization of processes that were formerly done manually.  Jünger asserts that this is an illusion. Leisure is only fruitful if one has a “spiritual and mental life from which on draws meaning and worth.” To Jünger the real value of life comes from seeking spiritual wisdom. Other kinds of leisure are hollow and without dignity. Empty time will, according to Jünger, in fact harm the uneducated worker who loses heart and feels degraded; as without a function in life.

Moreover, technology is inherently collectivistic and forces society and the state to organize according to it. Think only of how the emergence of computers and the internet has completely transformed both the organizational and operational structures of almost any organization. The German Conservative Philosopher Arnold Gehlen has described it as a “complete spillover from technology into the social sphere.”

Hieronymus Bosch -The Garden of Earthly Delights: Are we heading towards a such a serene state of being?

As we adopt a new technology, say the GPS, it promises to make our lives simpler. It is easy to use, but learning to live life with it, we forget how it was without and rapidly grow dependent upon in. If you are a regular user of GPS; try only to navigate in a city without it and you will soon realize just how much harder it is than it was before you started using it. What will we do if we lose access to these accessories that have become so important to us – just for functioning in the modern world? Jünger puts it nicely: “First we use technology, then technology uses us.”

Even as technology is making life more functional it has certain implications for lives we lead that are not necessarily so pretty. Like the workers in the pin factory of Adam Smith, increasing proportions of humans are becoming technicians, specialized in performing a certain technical task. This specialization is also a narrowing of what knowledge we have, rather than becoming well-rounded educated individuals we are moving towards a society where everyone has a Ph.D in a very narrow subject-field. We are moving away from the classical university, where the goal was a well-rounded education and formation in philosophy, art and culture, in essence learning about what it really means to be human. Understanding of philosophical matters and reflections upon them was the core; and through this trying to teach students how to think and reason.

According to Jünger, modern technical training is very different from such an idealized state. It focuses merely on the accumulation of facts, like multiple-choice tests, and the university is turning into merely a technical training center and a laboratory. Wisdom as such is vanishing and knowledge is not perceived to be equal to power anymore. Many would beg to differ with this assertion and probably with good reason, but still the increasing presence of technical subjects in academia is non-deniable. Even if we look at a subject like philosophy which in ancient Greece, concerned itself with the act of living a good and responsible life is nowadays more concerned with moral technicalities than spiritual exercises.

Jünger goes further in his criticism of the technician himself: “[His] preoccupation with facts not only prevents him from thinking about himself; it also blocks his approach to that more spiritual wisdom which cannot be reduced to mechanics.” It is definitely true that spiritual wisdom can hardly be attained inductively and as living a good and just life is what we should be preoccupied with, only caring about technological development becomes absurd. Of course, there is the Aristotelian ideal of “bios theoretikos”, the contemplative life, which is devoted to the activity of the intellect, but such an ideal state presupposes understanding of both deductive and inductive reasoning. To learn about the human condition, one truly needs to look within. Jünger appropriately says of the narrow-minded technician: “[he] is crippled in his mind also. He is one-eyed like all Cyclopes. His empiricism alone indicates this. He is not bothered by the question where ultimately his efforts lead.” One is merely following technological progress for technological progress’ sake, not able to understand that there is a larger interrelated whole.

What are the consequences of a hollow fact-obsessed mind, devoid of true understanding and spiritual enlightenment? Naturally, such a person that doesn’t understand his own humanity will have trouble feeling or to the least appreciate real human feelings.  One ends up experiencing true and intolerable emptiness; “a void in their lives which they cannot endure and from which they try to escape by intensified motion.” (Jünger)

To compensate for the lack of real feelings, we will have to seek synthetic amusements that can give us synthetic emotions. Seeking such stimuli has become increasingly simple in our convenient modern world.  50 years ago one would have the cinema or maybe the radio, and then came television, but with the internet and the emergence of web 2.0 it increasingly easy to get access and to such stimuli and spend vast amounts of time one them, for example the Skinner-box that is Facebook; without doing anything productive at all. Still, we experience a small feeling of pleasure or reward every time something new happens, as status update or we receive an SMS or an e-mail. ICT technology resembles Pavlov, and we, the users, are all his dogs wagging the tale in euphoria at every new happening or motion.

The modern scientist at large

“Motion has a narcotic attraction to [the technician] . . . He needs this stimulant as an addict needs his drug to feel alive. He must always feel that something is going on, that he is participating in some action. Hence, his insatiable thirst for news, a thirst that no rotary press can quench,” is what Jünger, very appropriately, has to say on the subject. We have “lost the faculty of amusing and entertaining [ourselves] and that for [our] enjoyment some apparatus is indispensable.”

Rather than valuing the far fewer but more intensely rewarding experiences and stimuli we received in earlier times, we are increasingly going with quantity and comfort. It permeates all of our activities. Whereas nobody complained about the length of Clarissa by Samuel Richardson when it was published in 1748 – people where just happy they could be entertained for such a long time – today most people would find it far too long to justify using their short attention spans on reading it. Everything is numbered and quantified; one is more concerned with the number of books one has read than the content of the actual books, i.e. if one reads books at all. We clearly value the easy and accessible over the more rewarding. Many living today, would be wise to heed the advice of the Spanish Jesuit Baltasar Gracián in his “the Art of Worldly Wisdom: “Prize intensity more than extent. Excellence resides in quality not in quantity. The best is always few and rare: much lowers value.”

All this activity, this focus on quantity and continual entertainment hinders us from doing what is truly important: thinking and reflecting upon ourselves. Thinking according to Aristotle, means to suffer, hardly what people in the western world are doing today.

Increasingly, our lives and our vision of ourselves are based on how other people perceive us.  We update our status on Facebook or upload pictures from our latest travels, hoping that people will comment; believing that this will somehow make our experience more “real”. Uneducated and unreflected as we are, we have an inherent need for an audience and Web 2.0 is an excellent platform for providing it. We become more dependent on social approval without noticing it; riding along the path technological development takes us.

But Jünger doesn’t believe this to be everything, he says that: “Technology spells the mobilization of everything which was heretofore. Man too has become mobilized. He not only follows automatic motion without resistance; he even wants to accelerate it still more.” Man is as such a catalyst for further technological development and increasing hive-mind like behavior.

In his monumental work, Termitologia on termites, the French biologist Pierre-Paul Grassé (1895 – 1985) introduced the term stigmergy which is a mechanism of spontaneous, indirect coordination between agents, where the trace left in the environment by an action stimulates the performance of a subsequent action, by the same or a different agent without any coherent overall plan. Web 2.0 and the open source movements can be seen as such where we are nudged into participating even more deeply, developing or technician mind and forgetting about the real spiritual life we might once have been quaintly familiar with.“The masses are running berserk, now in  blind, furious enthusiasm then again in a stampede of terrified panic that dives them irresistibly to hurl themselves blindly and madly  in to the abyss, just like cattle or lemmings,” is how Jünger goes on to describe our herd behavior.

The final stage of human evolution. Photo from Emmitsburg.net

We are now witnessing a convergence between the real and virtual world. Whereas formerly playing outside was deemed superior to playing video games, it is now often, to the children, the other way around. Some will rather talk to each other on an online chat program than meeting up in the real world. It is not impossible to imagine a world where the virtual world is thought more “real” and where most humans prefer that way of interaction. Given time it will surely be technologically feasible and we might very well be moving towards a Matrix-esque world where the human bodies are put in liquid tanks to ensure our longevity and we “live” online in some World of Warcraft universe of our choice. Developing the notion further, one can think of a world where the quantity of positive stimuli is all that counts and all our brains are just connected to an electrical apparatus that jolts us constantly; enabling us to feel the greatest physical pleasure continuously for the entire duration of our lives. Meanwhile, automated machines will be enabling us this “leisure,” because we have mechanized all tasks that are needed for our physical human existence. Dostoevsky talked of civilization, but insert technology in the following quote and one might see where we have been heading: “The only gain of civilization for mankind is the greater capacity for variety of sensations – and absolutely nothing more. “

Is this really a world we want to be living in? The dismal predictions aside, the movement towards greater appreciation of “synthetic” pleasures looks quite probable and factual, and with it comes an increasing focus on the physical and the opinions of others – we become less self-reliant.

The classical Greek practice of philosophy, especially the Stoic, was practiced at three levels , physics, logic and ethics. Technology will never be able to satisfy anything more than our physical needs. It fools our logic: “the act of not letting ourselves be deceived in our everyday lives by false representations” and it will definitely not help us act in an ethical way. The exhaustive focus on the physical and on technical progress and materialism inherit in our modern world is a break with the Stoic and Epicurean belief in controlling the senses and temperance.  Epictetus notes that “people are not troubled by things, but by their judgments about things” We must be aware of our place in and relation to the world, but still remember the Kantian Autonomous Individual: saying that anything that limits the autonomy of man must be seen as negative. Technological development and its brother materialism definitely has its negative sides and if we are not careful, we might very easily end up a lot poorer than we were initially. As Palahniuk states in Fight Club “I am helpless. I am stupid, and all I do is want and need things.  My tiny life… This is how bad your life can get. Kill me.”

8 comments

1 Aaron Posehn { 03.08.10 at 05:40 }

This is simply one of the best posts that I have seen. I completely agree with your train of thought here. I myself have also been looking at the “distractions” in life and how they greatly entertain but do less to enrich, and have been trying to come up with ideas about how I can live a life with minimum impact (to myself).

Dostoevsky’s quote definitely rings true, and I sincerely hope our world does not become Matrix-esque, in any form. I think the only way to go about changing it is through personal ambition and discipline. Even if most people use technology in this increasingly negative fashion, at least the individual might be able to continue having some of that “old-style happiness.”

2 Jørund Holterud Aarsnes { 03.09.10 at 20:21 }

Thanks for the nice words Aaron. I definitely agree that discipline in the Stoic tradition is need if one agrees that this is a problem. I’ll also be writing a post about Schopenauer and his view of ‘the good life’ soon.

3 Aaron Posehn { 03.10.10 at 00:25 }

Great Jørund! Looking forward to it!

4 Veselin { 03.13.10 at 00:50 }

I am for the first time on this site and I must say I came across one of the best essays I’ve read. The best part, or should I say the most sobering part, is how precisely it depicts the trends. I think that more and more people are realizing this.
Thanks again and all the best,
New reader

5 Sanchir { 04.10.10 at 07:02 }

Hello, I’ve enjoyed your essay very much. You’ve touched a fundamental issue concerning humanity and its future. In past 3,4 hundred years we’ve witnessed an unimaginable development of science in both scope and pace. What about the other normative side: social institutions, ethics, moral codes, philosophies, which should direct science to meet essential human needs. Unfortunately, this other side considerably lags behind the science, which lies in a very primitive state. To put it simply, I can differentiate two fundamental archetypes of human capabilities, knowledge, or psychology. First is “intelligence” and second – “wisdom”. I think that dynamics of these two forces defines human development. In first aspect we define human beings as a final and highest embodiment of development in evolutionary process. Yes, we can see fruits of science in our everyday lives and its huge scope and dynamics shaped our world beyond recognition. We can call it a technocratic state. In second archetype we can define human species as part of nature, as a part of huge live system. Maintaining balance of these two motions is of paramount importance as wisdom(what ought we do) controls the development of science not for its only own sakes, but for one integrated system of thought. Undirected science can easily produce nuclear weapons as well as simple antibiotics, and with its own totally unpredictable consequences. This dis balance between spiritual and technological development threatens our whole existence in near future.
Best regards.

6 Daria { 05.16.10 at 10:43 }

A gret article indeed.
I would like, however, to note that the humanity is not homogenous. Those who have an ability and the need for “quality” and not the “quantity” in their lives, can do so with or without the technology. Those who prefer the opposite, I assume, would have been simply bored to a greater extent without the technology they have now to make their live experience more varied. In other words, those with low moral needs have always been and will be there, otherwise we would have had a world full of philosophers. I believe in genetics.

7 Jørund Holterud Aarsnes { 05.19.10 at 00:43 }

I am the first to agree that humanity is not homogenous, assuming that is what has been the trouble with economics for many years. Goethe said that he didn’t write for the common man, only those with a particular outlook on life would find his works interesting. Still, I find it dangerous to assume that we can so easily divide humanity into different strata. In a modern developed society, technology is improving life for all of us, but I think also making some aspects worse. I believe in genetics, but also in education.

8 Brett { 07.15.10 at 20:09 }

Good points brought up here, for sure, and a lot of hard truths faced. However, does anyone else see the irony that most of us found this article because someone tweeted it or posted it on facebook? Hell, directly below the article is a link to share it via a varitety of web 2.0 applications. Not a criticism, mind you; only an observation.

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