An existential philosophy of technology

Ours is a technological culture, at least in the quarter of the countries in the world that enjoy a high degree of economic affluence. Cell phones, computers, autonomous vehicles, CT scan machines, communications satellites, nuclear power reactors, artificial DNA, artificial intelligence bots, drone swarms, fiber optic data networks — we live in an environment that depends unavoidably upon complex, scientifically advanced, and mostly reliable artifacts that go well beyond the comprehension of most consumers and citizens. We often do not understand how they work. But more than that, we do not understand how they affect us in our social, personal, and philosophical lives. We are different kinds of persons than those who came before us, it often seems, because of the sea of technological capabilities in which we swim. We think about our lives differently, and we relate to the social world around us differently.

How can we begin investigating the question of how technology affects the conduct of a “good life”? Is there such a thing as an “existential” philosophy of technology — that is, having to do with the meaning of the lives of human beings in the concrete historical and technological circumstances in which we now find ourselves? This suggests that we need to consider a particularly deep question: in what ways does advanced technology facilitate the good human life, and in what ways does it frustrate and block the good human life? Does advanced technology facilitate and encourage the development of full human beings, and lives that are lived well, or does it interfere with these outcomes?

We are immediately drawn to a familiar philosophical question, What is a good life, lived well? This has been a central question for philosophers since Aristotle and Epicurus, Kant and Kierkegaard, Sartre and Camus. But let’s try to answer it in a paragraph. Let’s postulate that there are a handful of characteristics that are associated with a genuinely valuable human life. These might include the individual’s realization of a capacity for self-rule, creativity, compassion for others, reflectiveness, and an ability to grow and develop. This suggests that we start from the conception of a full life of freedom and development offered by Amartya Sen in Development as Freedom and the list of capabilities offered by Martha Nussbaum in Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach — capacities for life, health, imagination, emotions, practical reason, affiliation with others, and self-respect. And we might say that a “life lived well” is one in which the person has lived with integrity, justice, and compassion in developing and fulfilling his or her fundamental capacities. Finally, we might say that a society that enables the development of each of these capabilities in all its citizens is a good society.

Now look at the other end of the issue — what are some of the enhancements to human living that are enabled by modern technologies? There are several obvious candidates. One might say that technology facilitates learning and the acquisition of knowledge; technology can facilitate health (by finding cures and preventions of disease; and by enhancing nutrition, shelter, and other necessities of daily life); technology can facilitate human interaction (through the forms of communication and transportation enabled by modern technology); technology can enhance compassion by acquainting us with the vivid life experiences of others. So technology is sometimes life-enhancing and fulfilling of some of our most fundamental needs and capabilities.

How might Dostoevsky, Dos Passos, Baldwin, or Whitman have adjusted their life plans if confronted by our technological culture? We would hope they would not have been overwhelmed in their imagination and passion for discovering the human in the ordinary by an iPhone, a Twitter feed, and a web browser. We would like to suppose that their insights and talents would have survived and flourished, that poetry, philosophy, and literature would still have emerged, and that compassion and commitment would have found its place even in this alternative world.

But the negative side of technology for human wellbeing is also easy to find. We might say that technology encourages excessive materialism; it draws us away from real interactions with other human beings; it promotes a life consisting of a series of entertaining moments rather than meaningful interactions; and it squelches independence, creativity, and moral focus. So the omnipresence of technologies does not ensure that human beings will live well and fully, by the standards of Aristotle, Epicurus, or Montaigne.

In fact, there is a particularly bleak possibility concerning the lives that advanced everyday technology perhaps encourages: our technological culture encourages us to pursue lives that are primarily oriented towards material satisfaction, entertainment, and toys. This sounds a bit like a form of addiction or substance abuse. We might say that the ambient cultural imperatives of acquiring the latest iPhone, the fastest internet streaming connection, or a Tesla are created by the technological culture that we inhabit, and that these motivations are ultimately unworthy of a fully developed human life. Lucretius, Socrates, and Montaigne would scoff.

It is clear that technology has the power to distort our motives, goals and values. But perhaps with equal justice one might say that this is a life world created by capitalism rather than technology — a culture that encourages and elicits personal motivations that are “consumerist” and ultimately empty of real human value, a culture that depersonalizes social ties and trivializes human relationships based on trust, loyalty, love, or compassion. This is indeed the critique offered by theorists of the philosophers of the Frankfurt School — that capitalism depends upon a life world of crass materialism and impoverished social and personal values. And we can say with some exactness how capitalism distorts humanity and culture in its own image: through the machinations of advertising, strategic corporate communications, and the honoring of acquisitiveness and material wealth (link). It is good business to create an environment where people want more and more of the gadgets that technological capitalism can provide.

So what is a solution for people who worry about the shallowness and vapidity of this kind of technological materialism? We might say that an antidote to excessive materialism and technology fetishism is a fairly simple maxim that each person can strive to embrace: aim to identify and pursue the things that genuinely matter in life, not the glittering objects of short-term entertainment and satisfaction. Be temperate, reflective, and purposive in one’s life pursuits. Decide what values are of the greatest importance, and make use of technology to further those values, rather than as an end in itself. Let technology be a tool for creativity and commitment, not an end in itself. Be selective and deliberate in one’s use of technology, rather than being the hapless consumer of the latest and shiniest. Create a life that matters.

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