Alien Technology

Things are pretty strange, it’s got to be said. But are they actually alien? (image credit Kim Hunter)

The question of technology and our relationship to it is one that has preoccupied me for some time now. It is separate from us as a concept – technology is not, so to speak, human – and yet it is deeply intimate in so many ways, so much as to make us think that our existence is dependent on it, as is our identity; Winner’s formulation of technology as a Wittgensteinian form of life (as I wrote about in my recent thesis) appears to me to be an appropriate joining of the human being and our technology, like Kevin Kelly’s ‘technium’, a kind of skin. But just as it becomes more deeply insinuated into our lives, there is something discomfiting about it, something unnatural, something foreign. Something alien, perhaps.

Karl Marx’ Theory of Alienation, in essence a development of Feuerbach, significantly informed much of his later political work. Formulated in 1844, having digested Feuerbach’s 1841 The Essence of Christianity, the work was developed further with Engels in 1845 in The German Ideology. In essence, Marx (with Engels and previously Feuerbach) argued that man was alienated from the world, isolated, estranged. While Feurerbach argued that this alienation stemmed from the concept of a supernatural god (perhaps the first class divide – between god and man), Marx took it further and described various forms of alienation, in particular man’s alienation from labour in the capitalist mode of production, and, as a result, from his species-essence, given Marx’ attachment to labour as a form of life. With the division of labour, and industrialised production, men now laboured to produce nails, wheels and hinges instead of carriages, and were distanced from the value-commodity. Industrialisation too distanced men from the labour process itself, rendering labour a mere money-generating process. The class structure further established the parameters of alienation.

Fast forward to today, and we can see evidence of alienation all around: the debate on income and wealth inequality alienates the rich from the poor as documented by people like Thomas Piketty and Robert Reich; arguments about democratic deficits in various western liberal democracies show how citizens are disenfranchised from the political process and the political class; inequitable human rights regimes alienating whole peoples from the rest of the world. Within communities, the sense of alienation causes fear and anxiety, both for people themselves and for their children. Biddy Martin, president of Amhurst College, talked in a Freakonomics podcast about how her family was wary of her getting a college education: ‘They had a fear of loss, that is, the loss of children who go off to college and begin to think differently, and as they used to say to me, talk differently. “We didn’t raise you to talk like that,”’ she said. In other words, she would become different, alien, strange. Martin talked about a ‘fear of loss,’ just as we hear people talk about a loss of an old way of life. At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who would see alienation and change increase. In a recent article for The Guardian, Andy Beckett talked about the British Accelerationists, who were anxious to make change happen faster, arguing that ‘technology, particularly computer technology, and capitalism, particularly the most aggressive, global variety, should be massively sped up and intensified.’

It can be argued that the process of alienation has been accelerated by modern liberalism. The elevation of the individual, of individual liberty, to become the primary object of modern politics may be a direct consequence of the Enlightenment, but it has resulted in increased isolation. Just as our societies have striven to maximise the opportunities of the individual, there has been a proportionate dismantling of the scaffolding of family, community and society as Bob Putnam discussed in Bowling Alone. It’s difficult to argue in 2017, given the extraordinary adoption of smartphone and communications technologies, that those tools have not been instrumental in the process of alienation. The elimination of physical distance as an obstacle of scale or significance in creating associations in the world, the destruction of the need for proximity in group and personal communications, and the enabling of personal broadcast communications have each established new mechanisms for expression and social (perhaps anti-social) relations.

György Lukács‘ interpretations of Marx in the early twentieth century, in particular History and Class Consciousness, stressed alienation amongst other things, and while his politics have been challenged and questioned following his support for Stalinism, his interpretations of Marx heavily influenced his literary criticism. He famously preferred Thomas Mann over Franz Kafka, being in favour of literary realism over modernist surrealism. Yet Lukács’ critique helped in its opposition, ironically perhaps, to locate the sense of alienation in Kafka, Beckett, Joyce and others in a historical context, in a social and political context. Waking up one morning as a giant insect may seem alien, as Gregor Samsa has the misfortune to so do, yet Lukács helps us to bridge from Metamorphosis to The Trial; that Samsa’s sanguine approach to his extraordinary condition is directly connected to the predicament of Josef K., accused of a crime of which he knew nothing, not even its name. For the alienation with which Samsa was gripped may have been from his life, his routine as a salesman, from the physical structure of the apartment in which he had awoken; for Josef K., his alienation was from the bureaucracy which suddenly made no sense, an abstract, distant power with a viscerally real, immediate and lethal potential.

None of this alienation business is generally viewed with any optimism or as a good thing. Yet there is an inevitability about the technology which we wholeheartedly embrace, and an attractiveness, a seductiveness that isolates us still further. Our humanity needs to be rediscovered, reasserted, if we are to progress as a species – so what do we do with technology? That is an important question.

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