Progress and Technology

Martin Heidegger: We talk as if humans are actually in charge of things, but we’re not.

Do you know what progress means? Do you know what technology is? Many elements of cultural structure have been so consistent and unchallenged now for so many years that we may have landed in a kind of intellectual stupor. Our self-awareness has dissipated, and our alienation has become so complete that we have almost become meta-brands, brands of brands, images of images, pictures of pictures. Our pandemic mimesis denies innovation and inspiration, and only increases the penalty for deviance, or perversion. Self-knowledge has become a curse, something denies us membership of society, leading us to post-truth, and ‘fake news’.

Take the concept of progress. Francis Fukuyama, in an epic fit of hubris, declared the end of history in 1989, with the triumph of Liberal Democracy as the apotheosis of human civilisation, the ultimate vessel of human freedom and expression. He was wrong in two key ways. First, liberal democracy such as it was remained weak and pervious, isolating minorities and, as became evident over the following decades, and as had been predicted by Marx, leading to rampant inequality and broken resource distribution. The second was that it presupposed a progression of history, with intellectual and technological innovations built one on top of the other, leading to a kind of advancement of civilisation itself.

Immanuel Kant saw progress as a move from barbarism to civilization, and the elimination of war (perpetual peace). Voltaire too saw progress as a rational thing, that advancement and learning were natural. Progress as an idea was deeply buried in the French and American revolutions, and tightly connected to the ambition for human liberty, to individual liberty. Larry Siedentop tracked the emergence of the individual actor in his Inventing the Individual (Penguin, 2015) alongside the emergence of secularism and legalism, both essential components of an order that allowed for what later became known as ‘development’ in human rights terms.

Progress, however, is mired in hubris. Nietzsche, and Heidegger both warned against it. Many argue that ever advancing technology is evidence of progress,  but as Michael Zimmerman put it, ‘[w]hat is concealed only becomes clear when we ask such questions as: Progress for whom? At whose expense? Moreover, when we talk of “human progress”, Heidegger maintained, we talk as if humans were actually in charge of things – but, he believed, they are not.’ (Zimmerman, M., Heidegger’s Confrontation with Modernity: Technology, Politics, and Art, Indiana UP, 1990)

Theodor Adorno goes to Kant in his defence of progress, but is only half-hearted in his efforts. He believes that progress is possible in the future, though this is different from saying that progress has occurred in the past. Foucault believed in progress but was also skeptical, insofar as progress was exclusive: much as Zizek joyously embraces the pervert (see for example The Perverts Guide to Cinema, 2006), Foucault was troubled by progress’ rejection of madmen, and other social deviants, bringing us back to Zimmerman’s questions. (see further Allen, Amy, Adorno, Foucault, and the End of Progress: Critical Theory in Postcolonial Times in Critical Theory in Critical Times, Penelope Deutscher and Cristina Lafont eds., 2017, Columbia UP)

I’ve written before about Hayek’s idea of spontaneous order, where Hayek certainly believes in progress, though not at the hand of man. His is a more evolutionary, biological-scientific conception of the human condition. The immediate postmodern response to questions of progress is one of technology: we have the Internet, therefore progress. And yet – so many people do not. So many people remained trapped in poverty and war and unfreedom. There have always been in history people with greater resources than others, and just because invention broadens the distribution somewhat is not necessarily evidence of progress.

Progress is a contemplation on history itself. Within critical theory, progress is an essential component, as is its antecedent philosophy of time. The extent to which technology can be separated from the human is crucial in our understanding of each of these three – history, progress and time. What does it mean, either as a human being or as a race, to be better? Just as we separate the technology from the human, can we divorce the personal (I grow, I become stronger; I learn, I become smarter) from the general? Each of us as we are born emerges from the womb more or less endowed with the same characteristics as those emerging from the womb a thousand, or ten thousand years before. And each of us too dies, and rots in the ground in much the same way as we did before. Will that ever change? Can it?


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