Technofear – what is it good for?

Fear – Graffiti (CC Jimee, Jackie, Tom & Asha on flickr)

In Thinking Through Technology from 1994, Carl Mitcham outlines the historical basis for questioning technology. The assumption among technologists has always been that technological theories work and that the work is good and useful. But why take that for granted? From Plato to Descartes, the dominating attitude has been an idealistic one: technology grows out of science. But if a materialistic one, that science grows out of technology, was more readily accepted, this would mean that technology influences not just the natural world, but our self-understanding as well as historical reality. Aristotle mentioned the unity between mind and its object, Francis Bacon pursued ‘the relief of man’s estate’ through technology, Ernst Kapp proposed a ‘projection mystique’ where technics are conceived as extensions of the human organism, and Marshall McLuhan stated that media is an extension of the self. Then along comes Friedrich Kittler and claims that man is the extension of technology.

The obligation of the medical doctor has always been to patients, and of the engineer to employers. But with increased technological powers in the hands of physicians and engineers, primary responsibilities are now to society as a whole. According to Hans Jonas, this enlarged ethical responsibility calls for a new kind of humility. To correlate our power to act and our ability to judge Jonas proposed a ‘heuristics of fear’ that always considers worst-case scenarios before acting. Walter Zimmerli on his part mentioned ‘the paradox of information technology,’ that more information leads to less control. What if the computers take over? How powerful should we make them?

The question at hand is if a certain technological action is right because of its inherent character or if it should be judged by its consequences. If we undertake technological actions not for the good of our descendants but for the benefit they bring us right now, we risk holding ourselves, as well as our progeny, hostage to the risks of our technical deeds. Technology is no longer pliable as it once was, embodied in other social institutions. In many instances, claimed Jacques Ellul, technology appears to have taken on an institutional character of its own.

Besides ethical and political issues there are also religious and metaphysical ones: technology has been identified as an absence of the sacred, but some see technological invention and transformation as a participation in divine creation, and the question of technological progress becomes one of theodicy. Will technology alter, rather than extend, human sensory perception and redesign and reconstruct the human body as well as the world? What are the differences in being that distinguish natural objects from articrafts? What is real and unalterable about technology, and what is accidental and therefore changeable and controllable?

You would be excused in feeling just a little bit intimidated by all this, so perhaps it’s no wonder that many are sceptical about bringing even more technology to our schools than there already is. And as if this wasn’t enough, there is also ‘The Substitution Principle’ which states that if a satisfactory answer to a hard question is not found quickly enough, your brain will find a related one that is easier and answer it instead. The question ‘How happy are you with your life these days?’ becomes ‘What is my mood right now?’ The question ‘What are the risks involved in bringing more computers to classrooms?’ will most likely be interpreted as ‘How afraid am I of a completely digitalized society?’

But, as Mitcham concludes, to question technology is not to serve technology. It is a way to take a first small step beyond technology. But to question the questioning of technology is to remain with and to immerse oneself in philosophy. And to take that first step beyond technology is probably no longer possible, if it ever was.

No Fear (CC


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