Technology !

Apologies for lack of posting lately. I'm approaching the lockdown phase of my Master's thesis writing.
Chances are, if you've come here, you've already been to the much more popular Mind Hacks and noticed the piece on "neurasthenia" -- but just in case you haven't, I'm linking to it here. It's a fascinating review of some early neurological literature in which the authors expressed concern over the possible mind-numbing effects of some of the newer technologies of the time, most specifically with regards to effects of the quickening of the pace of life that these technologies afforded. This same sort of worry isn't foreign to our generation. The internet is the latest technology to induce nightmares of a future earth populated with flabby, inert cyborgs whose virtual reality has eclipsed the allure of reality itself. Something like that, I guess.

It reminds me of Heidegger's critique of technology. Some folks use Heidegger as an argument against modern technology (i.e. technological devices and their ill effects upon us). Critically, Heidegger's notion of technology is much broader than just the devices that we commonly call technological. When we say "technology" we usually mean "something that makes practical use of advances in our scientific understanding of the world." Heidegger, on the other hand, is referring to a way of living where things appear to us as resources. And if the thing we see resists being seen as a resource, we see it as an obstacle of sorts and set out to find ways to convert it into a resource.

Take file-sharing as an example. Certain advances have made it possible to own an artist's music without paying for it.* And we jumped at the opportunity, didn't we? How did we get here? We can explain it by the lack of moral urgency facilitated by the internet's gift/curse of anonymity. Really, there may be any number of psychological explanations for it. Choose your theory. However you cash it out, I think it is at least reflective of an underlying refusal to see artists as little more than resources (at least while we're involved in stealing their music). Ripping a copy of my favorite band's latest song may feel like I'm giving them a compliment (I could be spending my precious time downloading someone else's music for free, right?), but if it is a compliment, it is backhanded one.

The great danger that Heidegger sees in this is that while in the past cultures may have had different, evolving ways of seeing and understanding the things we encounter in the world, the technological framework is one in which things are gradually divested of meaning altogether. The difference is that in these other, non-technological ways of seeing the world, we got caught up in a hermeneutic circle with things. We developed certain practices toward things based on what they were (and what they were was revealed to us on the basis of fundamental things like our deities, the capabilities of our bodies, the layout of the land, etc.), and these very practices changed the meaning of the things, which again altered our practices toward them. On the other hand, the entire thrust of the technological way of seeing the world is too erase those aspects of things that force us to adopt certain practices (e.g. we erase the aspect of the musician that would make us want to trade something valuable for her artistic work). We need them to be "flexible-shifty", in the words of a great teacher. It's like the hermeneutic circle between us and things loses momentum and falls flat. We're drawn to see things in a way that puts them totally in our power -- as our resources -- and if you're thinking that this sounds like Nietzsche (i.e. will to power) speaking through Heidegger, I think you're right on point.

I'm not too worried about neurasthenia, but I admit that I sometimes do worry that things become more meaningless the better I get at making things mean what I want them to mean. If that last part doesn't sound like a tautology to you, good. If it does, better.

* To be fair, I'm a fence-sitter on this topic. I've been a working musician before, so I know how important it is to get material in the ears of people, even if it means giving it out for free (or happily letting them steal it).

No comments: