Monday, May 22, 2017

Philosophy of technology - Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, Heidegger - technology is not a black box

Greek dystopia
The Greeks understood, profoundly, the philosophy of technology. In Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, when Zeus hands Prometheus the power of metallurgy, writing and mathematics, Prometheus gifts it to man, so Zeus punishes him, with eternal torture. This warning is the first dystopian view of technology in Western culture. Mary Shelley called Frankenstein ‘A Modern Prometheus’ and Hollywood has delivered for a nearly a century on that dystopian vision. Art has largely been wary and critical of technology.
God as maker
But there is another more considered view of technology in ancient Greece. Plato articulated the philosophy of technology, seeing the world, in his Timaeus, as the work of an ‘Artisan’, in other words the universe is a created entity, a technology. Aristotle makes the brilliant observation in his Physics, that technology not only mimics nature but continues “what nature cannot bring to a finish”. They set in train an idea that the universe was made and that there was a maker, the universe as a technological creation.
The following two thousand year history of Western culture bought into the myth of the universe as a piece of created technology. Paley, who formulated the modern argument for the existence of God from design, used technological imagery, the watch, to specify and prove the existence of a designed universe and therefore a designer - we call (him) God. In Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, he uses an argument from analogy to compare the workings of a watch with the observed movements of the planets in the solar system to conclude that it shows signs of design and that there must be a designer. Dawkins titled his book The Blind Watchmaker as its counterpoint. God as watchmaker, technologist, has been the dominant, popular, philosophical belief for two millennia. 
Technology, in this sense, helped generate this metaphysical deity. It is this binary separation of the subject from the object that allows us to create new realms, heaven and earth, which gets a moral patina and becomes good and evil, heaven and hell. The machinations of the pastoral heaven and fiery foundry that is hell  revealed the dystopian vision of the Greeks.
Technology is the manifestation of human conceptualization and action, as it creates objects that enhance human powers, first physical then psychological. With the first hand-held axes, we turned natural materials to our own ends. With such tools we could hunt, expand and thrive, then control the energy from felled trees to create metals and forge even more powerful tools. Tools beget tools.
Monotheism rose on the back of cultures in the fertile crescent of the Middle East, who literally lived on the fruits of their tool-aided labour. The spade, the plough and the scythe gave them time to reflect. Interestingly our first records, on that beautifully permanent piece of technology, the clay tablet, are largely the accounts of agricultural produce. The rise of writing and efficient alphabets make writing the technology of control. We are at heart accountants, holding everything to account, even our sins. The great religious books of accounts were the first global best sellers.
Technology slew God
Technology may have suggested, then created God, but in the end it slew him. With Copernicus, who drew upon technology-generated data, we found ourselves at some distance from the centre of the Universe, not even at the centre of our own little whirl of planets. Darwin then destroyed the last conceit, that we were unique and created in the eyes of a God. We were the product of the blind watchmaker, a mechanical, double-helix process, not a maker, reduced to mere accidents of genetic generation, the sons not of Gods but genetic mistakes.
Anchors lost, we were adrift, but we humans are a cunning species. We not only make things up, we make things and make things happen.
We are makers
Once God was dead, in the Nietzschean sense of a conceptual death, we were left with just technology. Radovan Richta’s theory of Technological Evolution posited three stages – tools, machines and automation. We got our solace not from being created forms but by creating forms ourselves. We became little Gods and began to create our own universe. We abandoned the fields for factories and designed machines that could do the work of many men. What we learned was scale. We scaled agricultural production through technology in the agricultural revolution, scaled factory production in the industrial revolution, scaled mass production in the consumer revolution. Then more machines to take us to far-off places – the seaside, another country, the moon. We now scale the very thing that created this technology, ourselves. We alchemists have learned to scale our own brains.
Maker destroy the Little Gods
Eventually we realized that even we, as creators, could make machines that could know and think on our behalf. God had died but now the Little Gods are dying. Gods have a habit of destroying their creators and we will return to that agricultural age, an age of an abundance of time and the death of distance. We, once more, will have to reflect on the folly of work and learn to accept that was never our fate, only an aberration. Technology now literally shapes our conception of place and space. With film, radio, TV and the web. As spiders we got entangled in our own web and it now begins to spin us.
Technology not a black box
Technology is not a ‘black box’, something separate from us. It has shaped our evolution, shaped our progress, shaped out thinking - it will shape our future. It may even be an existential threat. There is a complex dialectic between our species and technology that is far more multifaceted than the simplistic ‘it’s about people not technology’ trope one constantly hears on the subject. That dialectic has suddenly got a lot more complex with AI. As Martin Heidegger said in his famous Spiegel interview, “Only a God can save us”. What I think he meant by this was that technology has become something greater than us, something we now find difficult to even see, as its hand has become ever more invisible. It is vital that we reflect on technology, not as a ‘thing-in-itself’, separate from us, but as part of us. Now that we know there may be no maker God, no omnipotent technologist, we have to face up to our own future as makers. For that we need to turn to philosophy – Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche and Heidegger are a good start….
The postscrip is that AI may, in the end, be the way forward even in philosophy. In the same way that the brain has limits on its ability to play chess or GO, it may also have limits on the application of reason and logic. Philosophical problems themseleves may need the power of AI to find solutions to these intractable problems. AI may be the God that saves us....

1 comment:

shackletonjones said...

Almost all thinking about technology seems to start from the presumption that technology is the tool of people, rather than the other way round. With Heidegger there is an opening onto a sense of technology as an articulation of Being - in other words as part of the way that destiny unfolds. I don't recall Heidegger being explicit about an 'overtaking' of Dasein by technology: but I think that we can define technology precisely by that which misappropriates human nature. In this light, writing seems the best candidate for the first technology - since it uses us to do something which does not come naturally (unlike speech). Plato cites King Thamus' rejection of the gift of writing from the God Thoth, identifying it as a 'poison'. Perhaps he was able to see writing for what it was - something which hijacks humanity for its own ends.