The Enlightenment led to a new human capability to understand and harness scientific processes and then to re-configure, engineer and apply them in technology. This was a huge acceleration in a very long term process. Without some technology, we would simply never have been able to survive in most environments. Only in the myth of the Garden of Eden could humans survive naked in a benign climate, eating from an abundance of fruit. Outside such a mythical garden, we need to work and we need technology, the fruit of the tree of ‘know-how’. With a few exceptions like singing, no aspect of our human experience is technology free. We are quintessentially cyborgs, techno-humans. This is our ontology, who we are. Science and technology have hugely changed our human life. Contraceptive and fertility technologies determine how many human beings are born, medical technology determines how long and how well they live.
So as well as harnessing science and implementing technology, we find ourselves subject to the phenomenon of technology we have ourselves created. Humanity and technology interact in some simultaneous equation. Science is objective – we discover it rather than invent it. But technology both depends on us – we invent, fund, and implement the reconfigurations of scientific processes and raw materials we call technology – and determines us. Technology even determines our social structures, as Karl Marx said in his 1847 ‘The Poverty of Philosophy’, ‘The hand mill gives you society with the feudal lord ; the steam mill society with the industrial capitalist’.
Are we deluded? Are we really also discovering rather than inventing technology? Is it an objective process that is autonomous and leading us down its development path whether we like it or not?
There are some ways in which we have little or no technology choice. Could we really have decided not to have the Industrial Revolution? If a new enzyme technology reduces production cost for some chemical, won’t a competitive market force all producers to adopt it? Groups like the Amish may partially resist technology, but it always seems to find other adopters.
In summary, we cannot change the science, we can decide not to develop the technology, but we face the high likelihood that someone else will, ie humanity as a whole will develop most technological potential. Our only choice then is whether to use it. And that choice itself might be highly constrained. Without technology, life is ‘nasty, brutish and short’. In alluring us to a better life, technology has become as much our master as our servant.
The German philosopher Martin Heidegger in his 1954 ‘The Question Concerning Technology’ wrote,
‘we should like to prepare a free relationship to (technology)
‘the relationship will be free if it opens our human existence to the essence of technology
‘when we can respond to this essence, we shall be able to experience the technological within its own bounds’.
Perhaps he was suggesting that if we become more aware of the nature and process of technology, then this awareness will make us free of its potential threat to control us?
More of this in my book ‘A Managerial Philosophy of Technology : Technology and Humanity in Symbiosis’ (Palgrave Macmillan 2012)