I’m lucky to have philosopher of technology Albert Borgmann as a friend and conversational partner here in Montana. He has already made a number of appearances on this blog with observations about Facebook, the iPhone, and the role of land as unifier in politics. Today this respected cultural commentator offers some thoughts that are bound to provoke. Here he is on the end of technology.
Modern technology began when hunger, illness, and early death were no longer accepted as the dispensations of providence, but came to be seen as intolerable scandals, and when the Industrial Revolution began to install the machinery that greatly alleviated the burdens of life. Technology in this sense has been the gigantic enterprise of conquering nature and easing the human condition.
It has been spectacularly successful over the last two hundred years. Will its progress continue or will technology end? One way of trying to get a grip on the question is to realize that technology needs a source and a sink. The source is raw materials and energy. The sink is the Earth’s capacity to absorb waste.
In the second half of the last century, there were observers who predicted that the source, if not running dry, would at least diminish and imperil the advancement of technology. M. King Hubbert predicted in 1956 that oil production would peak in the year 2000 and decline steeply thereafter. Today oil production is greater than Hubbert’s predicted peak of 2000. In 1980, Paul Ehrlich bet that five crucial metals would become scarcer within ten years and more expensive. He lost the bet on each of them to Julian Simon. So much for the source of technology drying up.
The sink of technology seems to constitute a greater danger to the future of technology. The Earth’s atmosphere cannot absorb much more carbon dioxide without trapping so much heat on Earth as to lead to catastrophic threats to the welfare of nature and of humans. Why so little has been done to slow and stop the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is a vexing question for philosophers and social scientists. There now seems to be a rising awareness of global warming and some willingness to curb carbon dioxide emissions. But if climate change is slowed, it will be less because of humans deciding to reduce their consumption and more because of technological innovations and installations. The problems of technology will require more or at least a different kind of technology. Is there any hope of reform?
I began, however, with a different and distinctive sense of technology, as the name for what has animated the modern transformation of the world. Technology needs not only a source and a sink but also a propulsive force. We can think of modern technology as the animating force of our era. I’ll call it the ethos of technology. The American ethos is perhaps the most characteristic on the planet. As John Locke has it, “in the beginning all the world was America.” This continent seemed to be the pristine setting for the conquest of nature.
That notion was a terrible misconception, of course, and led to the destruction of the indigenous peoples who had inhabited the land for thousands of years. Still, this vision drew millions of people from Europe who saw America as a place where the struggle with nature would lead to freedom and prosperity. Although we have to look with profound sorrow on the effects this vision of America has had on the Native Americans, we should also understand the incredible power it had on immigrants. To think you could own your own piece of land and freely build a life on it was to behold the Promised Land. The promise loosened incredible energy in the new arrivals and an amazing willingness to do back-breaking work and suffer terrible hardships. Immigrants to this day show this kind of enthusiasm and endurance.
I don’t think it’s possible to see both sides of the European invasion without being deeply conflicted. In any event, we’re the beneficiaries of this process. It has given us the food, the shelter, the information, and the pleasures we now take for granted. By the middle of the twentieth century all these comforts were in place, conjoined, as we now must see, with prejudice, injustice, and worse. These social and moral ailments are being exposed and are at least beginning to be cured.
What is far less visible than the calamities of injustice is the waning of the traditional ethos of technology, the determination to ease the burdens of life. The transformational energy of technology has run out of territory to plow up and to settle. Consider food. Is there a need for more food and for more delectable food? On the contrary, there is too much food, and it is too hard to resist. Take information. Are we barred from access to news and entertainment by a lack of media? On the contrary, we are flooded with junk information just as we are flooded with junk food, and the distention of our bodies through obesity is now paralleled by the distention of our minds through distraction.
But technology has to advance, so says everyone who is anyone of influence and power. So where can technology turn? It’s the Internet of Things. And what’s that? It’s the residue of the burdens that are left in our lives—having to drive our cars, open the door or the trunk of our cars, open the door to our home, turn on the light, decide what music to play, check the milk supply in the refrigerator, determine the best setting of the thermostat, . . . Enormous amounts of brainpower and money are being spent on spying out where remnants of responsibility and physical engagement can be found and eliminated technologically.
So is there nothing constructive for technology to do? The Internet of Things will be helpful in reducing pollution, energy needs, and the demand of raw materials. But technology as the ethos that gives meaning to our lives is spent. That’s evident in the sense of emptiness and depression that’s haunting us. But it’s evident as well in the beginnings of a new ethos, inconspicuous and unsupported by investments and publicity. It’s truly new and refreshing, however. You can see it wherever people are turning, within what’s indispensable and beneficial in technology, to skillful engagements with the tangible world and to the profound communal relations that come naturally with them. I hope to write more on this for the Plastocene.
And then, I hope you will see that here’s hope for human and environmental health to jointly return and prosper.
Burger image courtesy of Unsplash