03 Jul

Technology and Humanity: a philosophical approach

Recently, I attended a presentation by Hans Schnitzeller at Utrecht University of Applied Sciences. He is recognized as a Dutch philosopher and publicist, presenting himself as a staunch advocate for digital consciousness. He is also known in the Netherlands for his critical approach to the impact of technology on society. He has written several books that delve deeply into the philosophical and ethical aspects of digitalization and technological developments.

According to Schnitzler, digital awareness is of great importance, especially since technology continuously influences us. This critical awareness can also be interpreted more broadly as critical technological consciousness. Ethics plays a crucial role in this, and according to him, it ultimately revolves around our relationship with technology.

During the presentation, Hans Schnitzler, hereinafter referred to as “the speaker,” presented a philosophical overview where he explored the relationship between humans and technology, discussed their interaction, and explained why we use technology in the first place. Below is a summary of the topics discussed.

I will describe my own opinion and vision on the subject extensively in my other blog articles that will be published soon.

Critical Digital Awareness

The speaker began with a philosophical one-liner from Günther Anders: “Humans are like antique furniture in a modern room.” He said this in the 1970s, meaning that the pace of technological innovation is so high that our evolutionary, biological, and psychological makeup can barely keep up. Consider, for example, social media stress or what many now experience as ‘X-itis’ (formerly known as Twitteritis).

An illustrative example was given in a short video by documentary filmmaker Frans Bromet from 1998. He asked random people in Amsterdam if they wanted to have a mobile phone. The reactions were largely negative, and people did not see the need for it. Fast forward to now: everyone has a mobile phone, and we spend an average of four to five hours per day on it. This shows how quickly technologies are embraced because they meet our social needs.

With the advancement of technology, such staple items as implants and smart lenses, according to the speaker, technology is integrating deeper into our bodies. This leads us to a future where we are half-human, half-machine – cyborgs. This raises important questions: what does it mean to be human if we outsource a large part of our mental capacities to technology? What defines human dignity? And where exactly is the boundary between human and machine?

Philosophical Perspectives on Humanity

These questions, according to the speaker, bring us into the domain of philosophy. Different philosophers have different answers to what makes humans unique:

  • Some say it is our rationality.
  • Others argue that it is our awareness of mortality.
  • Yet others emphasize our moral nature.

But what if we primarily regard humans as technological beings, the speaker wondered? This is beautifully illustrated, according to him, by the myth of Prometheus.

Myth of Prometheus

Prometheus was tasked by Zeus to create the world of man and animal. His brother, Epimetheus, distributed all traits and qualities among the animals but forgot man. To rectify this, Prometheus stole the fire from the gods and gave it to humanity. This brought both problems and many opportunities. This fire symbolizes technological ingenuity and innovation.

The moral of this story is that technology is an upward, creative force that offers us much but also carries risks. It can lead to hubris and unforeseen consequences, as humanity witnessed during the Industrial Revolution.

Prosthetic Condition

The speaker also cited French techno-philosopher Bernard Stiegler, who often discusses the prosthetic condition of humanity. According to him, humans need technologies to compensate for our innate shortcomings. This means that the human condition is intrinsically technological. Technologies are extensions of our capacities but can also undermine capabilities and have undesirable effects.

Technology and Humanity: A Philosophical Approach

If we assume that technology is a creative, upward force that makes us into sorcerer’s apprentices in various ways, what consequences do we then see? According to the speaker, technology enables us to do things previously deemed impossible. This is both wonderful and threatening. Technology brings much good, but it is also the ingredient for hubris. We can thus conclude that with all the technologies around us, we have essentially received “divine powers,” yet we are also playing with fire. We are not always aware of the forces we unleash with technology. Consider the Industrial Revolution: at that time, smoking chimneys were seen as a sign of progress, without foreseeing the long-term effects.

Technology as a Divine Force

Technology is undoubtedly a divine force that brings us much, but we must be careful not to expect too much from it, as per the speaker. At the same time, we can say that we humans essentially come into the world ‘handicapped.’ We possess no innate, natural qualities to survive. Technologies mask and compensate for this lack. Bernard Stiegler, a French techno-philosopher, calls this our ‘prosthetic condition.’ We need technologies to compensate for the fact that we have no innate natural qualities.

Technology as an Existential Necessity

Technologies are not only convenient but also of existential necessity, stressed the speaker. He argued that humans and technology are inseparably connected, like two sides of the same coin. The speaker even asserted that the human condition can be considered a technological condition. This means that all our achievements and accomplishments are essentially technological in nature. It is important to understand that technologies always reflect human values and choices; they are never neutral.

Marcel McLuhan’s Perspective

The speaker discussed the viewpoint of Marshall McLuhan. Were McLuhan living today, he might assert: “We are not ‘handicapped’ beings incapable of surviving naturally without technologies. Technologies serve to amplify, strengthen, and intensify our existing capabilities. The wheel accelerates our mobility, the knife sharpens our dexterity with the fingers, the radio expands our capacity to listen, and the computer acts as an extension of our cognitive abilities. In essence, technologies build upon our innate capabilities, accelerating and enhancing them.”

The Ambivalence of Technology

Technologies can also exceed our capabilities and perform tasks that we may not have anticipated and might not desire, the speaker noted. Consider the smartphone: originally intended to facilitate communication, it has also become a source of stress and distraction. This raises a critical issue: how do we handle the increasingly rapid technological advancements and their effects on our humanity?

The importance of a critical technological consciousness was underscored. It is crucial, he believes, not just to embrace the benefits of technology, but also to critically reflect on its ethical implications and impact on our humanity. This awareness aids us in steering through a world where technology plays an ever more dominant role. The deployment of technologies has transformed our lives in many ways. As McLuhan, the Canadian media scholar, observed, new technologies alter our interactions, our perception of space and time, and even the way we view ourselves and others. Technologies such as the smartphone, in many regards, have turned us into ‘zombies,’ perpetually focused on our screens rather than the actual world around us.

Unexpected Side Effects of Technology

The speaker delved into the unexpected effects technology can have: “An exemplar of unintended side effects of technology is the introduction of the vacuum cleaner. Previously, people would beat rugs together, a communal activity. With the vacuum cleaner’s arrival, wall-to-wall carpeting became more popular, but this now required regular and individual cleaning. Technologies often introduce changes we do not anticipate that profoundly shift our social interactions and habits.”

Historical Technological Transformations and Dataism

The speaker also emphasized: “Historically, new technologies have continually reshaped our view of humanity and the world. The Greeks and Romans utilized hydraulic technologies and conceived of human emotions as bodily fluids. In the Renaissance, with the advent of clocks and precision timekeeping, humans were viewed as refined mechanisms. Today, in the digital age, we see humans as data-producing machines. This concept, known as dataism, suggests that we can be reduced to the data we generate. Dataism extends so far that some believe we can upload ourselves into the cloud by collecting enough data. But can we genuinely reduce our reality to data? Regardless of the response, we are constructing a world predicated on this notion. The Internet of Things, with its network of interconnected smart devices, is restructuring our world based on data and information.”

Critical Digital Awareness and Conclusion

“The developments mentioned earlier raise important questions about the values embedded in technologies. Technology is never neutral; it always reflects certain values, whether implicitly or explicitly. Currently, many technologies prioritize efficiency, speed, convenience, optimization, and autonomy. While these values are often seen as progressive, we need to think about the circumstances in which we apply them,” the speaker explained. “For example, placing too much emphasis on convenience in an educational setting can reduce engagement and the constructive friction necessary for meaningful learning experiences. Technologies should enhance rather than undermine the specific values of the contexts in which they are used. Therefore, it is crucial to consistently consider the values involved when introducing new technological innovations.”

According to the speaker, using technology involves practicing ethics through different methods. It’s crucial to develop a critical digital awareness, where we think about the values that technologies embody and how they change our understanding of humanity and the world. Values are essential for how we understand and use technology, and they should be at the heart of how we think about new technological developments.

The speaker’s conclusion was clear: “Always think deeply about the values involved in new technological advancements. Consider how these technologies could strengthen or weaken these values, and be aware of the ethical impacts of using technology. This is what I mean by critical digital awareness. In the end, it’s all about values, values, values. Everything else matters less.”

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