Technology pervades our world more than ever and conditions us and our existence ever more. But I believe it is not well-understood at a philosophical level, nor are its impacts at an existential level. Two great thinkers about technology and its impact on man, society and civilisation in the 20thC were Oswald Spengler and Jacques Ellul. The whole panoply of problems we face now from depression to global governance would not have surprised these gentlemen in the slightest. Indeed despite writing about technology – and its parent technique – in 1931 and 1954 respectively – their analysis and projections have proved spot on. Neither, I believe, would be in the slightest bit surprised by the world in 2022 and all its challenges for humanity. Indeed I believe they would perhaps been more surprised if we were not experiencing many of the damaging phenomena we are seeing now.
How could they have been so prescient writing 91 and 68 years ago, well before any of our “modern” technologies had been invented? Simply put, apart from having plenty of history of society and technology to examine in their day, I believe they penetrated to the very essence of what technology is – notably the embodiment of technique. Technique sounds so bland, so neutral, so essential. And from one perspective it is, after all, as Ellul writes, a lion uses technique to catch its prey. Technique is very necessary for all animals seeking safety, food, shelter and offspring.
Human technique may be embedded in regulations (which are vast in FS and all economic sectors right now), laws, codes, culture as well as physical or virtual objects where we call it technology – the etymological roots are identical.
It is due to their depths of insight that Messrs Spengler and Ellul went from these apparently simple insights into foreseeing how the human usage and importantly creation of technique and technology can have such manifold consequences.
To take one simple example. Technology is often described as being value-neutral – you know the old cliche about a knife being able to kill or butter bread or in the hands of a surgeon cure. Indeed before researching and writing this episode this is a belief I would have cleaved to.
However it is not. To pick out some key elements of why it is not technology always ends up putting enhanced human powers in the hands of a few who inevitably throughout history have, until restrained by society, used it for personal gain and greed and power over their fellow man.
Secondly technology has always moved power away from local communities to more distant folk – globalism is simply the reductio ad absurdum of this process.
Thirdly technique and technology condition man to being, to existing, in a particularly diminished way. Put simply the more man is surrounded by technique and technology the more robotic he has to behave, be, think and feel and the less (poetically put) he can be fully human and live in a world of values other than rational efficiency. Technique and technology leads us into a world well described by Max Weber as a polar darkness of disenchantment and bureaucratisation and control, a world ripe to be plucked by tyrants (a motif we saw in Star Wars I where the rule by bureaucrats was perfectly set-up to be controlled by Palpatine, you might be able to think of an example of similar from the past two years). Iain McGilcrhists huge works – his recent “The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World” came in two volumes and amounts to a phenomenal 3000pp in the Kindle version – have notably situated this as being a left-hemispheric mode of being – utterly invaluable for existence but utterly constraining and crushing of the way-more human sensibility of the right-hemisphere.
But this is to give but one important example of what comes from understanding technology better. It turns out that understanding the philosophy of the nature of technology is not just some words but important to our daily lives living in the most technological society ever, Rampant technophilia (“this latest gadget will solve many of your problems”) is historically and philosophically bankrupt. Man must be a tool-user. He is notably these days used by his tools (think for example the business model of social media – attention-mining and monetisating a human being).
Having dived into what technology and technique really are and how they inevitably lead society and man in one direction and one direction only I wrap up this monumental (in both senses of the word) milestone episode with a consideration of how we might best live in our world beset with technology – some of it useful, an excess of it harmful but the amount of it increasing by the day. How do we become once again masters of our tools not slaves to them? How do we counterbalance technologies ever-more robotising effect upon us and techniques ever-increasing bureaucratising impact upon our lives?