Alien Technology (2)

Feuerbach, like Marx, also had a hipster beard.

(…continued from Alien Technology)

Marx’ extension of Feuerbach was accompanied by one of his more famous quotations. Writing in the Theses on Feuerbach, ‘the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways,’ Marx said. ‘[T]he point is to change it.’ Feuerbach concerned himself with the spiritual and theological, while Marx was more revolutionary. How then could one take an abstract concept of alienation and explain how it meant something tangible, more actionable?

The tension between two conflicting intuitions then is where we find ourselves. On the one hand, it appears intuitively positive that my personal sovereignty be respected, my personal freedoms and choices be my own, that my life is mine, and belonging to no one else. The State should have no control over me; my parents should not dictate who I marry; my future will be determined by a combination of my personal dedication to my own life, and perhaps some luck. This respectful narcisism, this selfishness, so long as it does not interfere with or somehow undermine the interests of others, represents the ultimate end of human ambition. On the other hand, it appears intuitively negative that isolation, loneliness and alienation should increase. Alienation denies people the opportunity to express themselves, to realise their potential, to flourish in the world. Our humanity is expressive, relative. There is no purely internalised realisation of human potential; it can only be realised in relative terms: relative to the environment, to the external physical world, and to other people. Therefore, we should seek to reach out, to include, to mitigate alienation in so far as we can. We should attempt to reduce the democratic deficit; we just try to minimise perceptions of inequality, and maybe also actual inequality.

Technology creates distance, both physical and emotional, between the subject and the object. Like bows and arrows before them, many thoughtful people consider drone warfare to be immoral, because of the distance between the subject and the object, or even the subject-action and object-action. There is a diminution of association with the object-action, a denial of the visceral nature of the object-action, of its realism. This is because of the time (I loosed the arrow, then walked away, then the arrow struck) and intervening technology (the mouse-click, the silicon gates open, the binary signals in the spectrum in the air, the drone electronics, the physical bomb, the wall that fell on the passer-by) that separate the human action from the moral consequences. In more mundane communications, hanging up the phone can be deeply upsetting and physically disconnecting, unlike the gradual end of a human to human interaction brought about by simply walking away. There is a chance of recovery (‘don’t you walk away from me!’), and a conscious amount of time during which the end of the interaction occurs, during which realisation dawns, rather than the abrupt and undeniable click of the phone line from a thousand miles away.

The positive is of course entirely arguable as well. Distance in warfare means a strong defence. If I am not in proximity to my enemy, he cannot strike me. Allowing for distance between subject and object protects the subject, while giving effect to the subjective ambition: if I wish to break up with my girlfriend, or fire my employee, then a text message is infinitely preferable to having to put up with the tears. The discrete ambition presumes a narrow subjective position – that the interaction is purely one way, that the communication is broadcast only, that it doesn’t matter what the other person says, or how they react, the communications is very simple, and very clear. This, of course, results in a positive outcome for the subject, an avoidance of consequence, of the unpleasantness, and allows a psychologically constructed plausible deniability, that they were not mean, or cold, or simply wrong to do what they did. For the object, however, the other person, the result is increased isolation, increased distance, increased alienation. For the object, it is a negative alienation. For the subject, perhaps, it is a positive alienation, one in which guilt and shame can be avoided. Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, after all, murdered his victims with an axe; it’s difficult to conceive of a less physical, involved action.

Our technologies amplify the sense of alienation. They increase the distance, distort the voices on the other side (if there are other voices), and separate us from our environment. The technology is alien, certainly. It’s not human, it’s not natural, and yes, it’s a form of human expression, even a form of life. But the technologies we choose – our communications, our cities, and by extension our politics – tend to be not just alien, but alienating.


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