The Philosophy of Technology

Where does the human end, and the technology begin?

What do we think about when we think about technology? What are we really talking about? The philosophical consideration of technology begins with the relationship between technology and the human subject. From there, it extends to the relationship between the human subject and her environment. The very word between directly implies separation – two distinct entities – and therein lies our first dangerous assumption: is technology an extension of the human subject, as we in practice assume it to be? Is it somehow separate from her?

Thus Andrew Feenburg’s consideration is labelled a Critical Theory of Technology, critical theory referring to the study of the human subject. For any study of technology needs to first establish a baseline for the nature of the human student. Heidegger’s is a question concerning technology (albeit in translation) recognising an inseparability of subject and object in the process. ‘Everywhere,’ Heidegger says, ‘we remain unfree and chained to technology whether we passionately affirm or deny it.’ Heidegger here is undoubtedly referencing Jean-Jacques Rousseau – ‘man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.’ This is an existential tether, but it should not necessarily be read as a pejorative one, at least in the case of Heidegger.

Spinoza’s monism sees no distinction between man and nature. In his brilliant analysis of the miracle in the Tractatus (chapter 6), his essential argument is that if God is everywhere, there can only be God; and that the miracle – something that would otherwise be impossible in the natural or rational order of things – is impossible because it persists within our ontology, our one massive existence. Technology, if it is in some sense apart from human beings, must be a part of nature; the stick, or the sling, or the flint are all rudimentary technologies indistinguishable from natural occurrence save in their application. If we too are a part of nature (think Tim Morton’s Ecology Without Nature) then technology must be considered a part of us.

Which brings us back to the fundamental question: if we are to understand what is technology, we need to understand what we are relative to technology. And in order to answer that question, we need to understand – physically, at least – what we are. If we consider the essence of who we are, we know that we are not changed by having a haircut, or an exfoliation treatment at a spa; yes each process removes substance from our person. Similarly, if we lose a leg or an arm, we may be less agile or dextrous, but we remain essentially the same person. On a life support machine, we can remove multiple organs and persist vitality. There are various technologies available now that can reproduce the functions of our bodies – dialysis machines, ventilators, pacemakers – and assuming the technologies will continue to improve, it is not impossible that we will see in the not to distant future a potential to replace all of our bodies, except the brain.

In neuroscience, this is the study of consciousness. Antonio Damasio has analysed multiple types of brain injury and concluded that consciousness, the sense of self, is only really compromised with damage to a specific part of the brain stem at the back of the head. All other functions are motor, electrical, control, sensory and memory. In other words, they are what we would call mechanical (computers have memory too!). At this point, we begin to build back up the human being from that core unfathomable ‘consciousness’, and with technology reconstruct a human. But if we can do that, why stop at recreating the human form as it emerges and grows naturally? Why only two legs? Why not wheels, or tank tracks – they may be more useful! Recognising at this stage the essential nature of our physical selves, the line between what is us, and what is technology, becomes less clear. Indeed, the line between what is us and what is nature is hard to tell.

What’s more, the line between animal and human is similarly difficult to distinguish, when we recognise that cows and dogs and all similar animals have the same fundamental structure in their brains, with a consciousness element at the top of their brain stem – and it is the other parts of their brains and bodies (in particular the cerebral cortex) that makes them physically different from human beings.

Marx said in the Communist Manifesto that ‘in bourgeois society, the past dominates the present’. Our sense of our world is dominated by what we see, and what we have been told. Our contemporary ontology, in turn, appears to be a vast exercise in suppressing two obvious and inconvenient truths. First, that at least since the development of quantum physics in the 1920s, and in particular Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, the very basis for rational thought is unsound. And second, that human beings have no special place on this earth, let alone the universe, nor do we have any real control over developments, or its ‘history’. Power is an illusion, manufactured by history and perpetuated by theology, in the face of existential dread.

To end on a lighter note, John Cleese in a 2008 assault on science and scientific hubris noted this apparent contradiction in a short video detailing the various genes that caused, amongst other things, ‘such a weak sense of self that you hang onto anything that makes you feel more secure emotionally, whether it’s fundamentalist religion or a reductionist view of the universe.’ So it’s not just us then!

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