THE NEW GOD ON THE BLOCK
What is our era not the end of? The End of History, the End of Civilization, the End of Education and more have been declared, but apparently, someone forgot to inform Time, for all keeps moving along. There is one thing, though, whose end has not been proclaimed, namely the End of Technology. In fact, if anything, it has become stronger than ever; it plays an increasingly central role in our lives. Hard to believe but nevertheless true. Yes, if anything is alive and well, it is Technology.
We describe it most often in terms of power, but what I suspect many would like to say but do not is that it is "omnipotent". We blithely call it "smart", but for many, the better word would be "omniscient". We say it is "pervasive", but we should probably say it is "omnipresent". Omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. Sound familiar? Not too long ago, these three words – used together, just as they are here – were perhaps the shortest, most poignant description of what many called God. But Zarathustra has told us, and now we know: God is dead.
God was once the King. But, the King is dead. Long live the King! for another takes his place. One could think we are reverting to polytheism, or perhaps the kingdom is only being subdivided amongst the heirs. For some, the new god on the block is Money (and they are known as Capitalists); for others, the new god is Technology. Or is this simply a re-enactment of an older, almost forgotten story. The Once-living God sent his Son to save us. Has now the new god sent its offspring to save us again (or finally)? There are many who maintain that it is Technology which will save us. It would seem the more things change, the more they stay the same.
A response to a previous diary got me thinking of Technology again. I had made an oblique and terse reference to a modern German philosopher, Günther Anders, which had in turn led to a bit of confusion. I thought it would be a good idea to clear the air about what I meant and why I had made the reference in the first place. Given that Anders is unavailable in English, simply pointing the responder to the source would not achieve the desired results, I decided to put together a series of diaries to make clear what was meant, but also to outline the consequences of the thought I expressed.
All our thoughts have consequences. That is why we need to think them through ... to the end, if possible, so over the course of the next few diaries, I am going to explore our relationship to technology and its effects on us. Like all boons, it brings a number of banes with it. Not everything is as it appears, and not everything is as optimistic as the powers-that-be would have us believe.
For those of you who are reluctant to follow links, let me repeat here what I said there that elicited the response referred to last time. All is wrote was, "The philosopher Günther Anders once noted, 'Human beings are ashamed to have been born instead of made'." My kind responder was not sure he agreed with Anders, and I really can't blame him. It is a poignant point to swallow, and we tend to shy away from sharp objects.
Our starting point then is Anders' notion of "Promethean Shame", which he develops in volume 1 of his Antiquiertheit des Menschen [lit.: Obsolescence of Humanity]. It is Anders' contention that we have come to view our technology as superior to ourselves and therefore feel shame in its presence. You see, it is a bit much to take at point blank range. So allow me to take a step back and provide a bit of context, a bit of background, and lead more gently toward this rather jolting climax. Just who was this Prometheus fellow and what was he ashamed of?
According to the narrative, Prometheus was a Titan, a giant figure of pre-mythological times, an immortal son of Gaia (Earth) and Uranos (Heaven), who along with his fellow Titans was one of the rulers of the legendary Golden Age. His name, according to one line of thinking, means "Forethought". He was, quite literally, the possessor of a key abstract virtue of the Ancient World, of providentia, the ability to foresee and make provision, which along with memoria (memory) and intelligentia (understanding) constituted the all-important prudentia (that is, the knowledge of good and evil). Prometheus was always a bit ahead of his time, so to speak, but he was a great friend of humanity. In fact, according to one version of the story, it was Prometheus himself who formed humankind out of clay. In another version of the story, he was the one who stole the fire of the gods and made a gift of it to us humans. Zeus, the God-in-Chief of the newly reigning Olympians, was not amused, so as eternal punishment for his "crime", Prometheus was chained to rock and every day an eagle came and devoured his liver; each night it would regenerate and his torture would begin anew with the coming day.
It is not a great leap of deduction to recognize that molding humans out of clay is an act of production. And fire, or more specifically the ability to deal with it, is the beginning of technology per se. In Aeschylus' play about Prometheus it is claimed that he also taught humanity the arts of civilization, such as writing, mathematics, agriculture, medicine, and science. It is no stretch to see that over time Prometheus has become the symbol of human striving, the quest for knowledge, and in the Romantic era became the poster child for the noble rebel against all forms of tyranny, be it church, state, or the family patriarch.
The link between the figure and technology should now be clear, so next time, we can turn to the actual shame itself.