“The paradox, and the wonder are that the clock was invented by men who wanted to devote themselves more rigorously to God; it ended as the technology of greatest use to men who wished to devote themselves to the accumulation of money” Neil Postman, Technopoly
Technology has seamlessly integrated itself into the fabric of our lives, revolutionizing our interactions, communication, and perception of the world. Yet, like any tool, it carries a dualistic nature, offering both advantages and disadvantages. This concept is not new, as evidenced by Plato’s Phaedrus, where the king Thamus rejected the invention of writing, foreseeing that the introduction of such invention would diminish human memory and ultimately debase human beings. Throughout history, we have witnessed that even the most essential inventions come at a price: the perfection of objects and the imperfection of humanity. Unfortunately, in our pursuit of perfection, we seem to have overlooked this fundamental truth, as the more advanced our creations become, the more imperfect we, as human beings, appear to be.
Contemporary thinkers like Neil Postman, an American educator and cultural critic had tried to warn us about the nefarious consequences that come from an exclusively positive view of technology, pointing out that the unreserved adoration of technology would inevitably bring us to a point where we would not even be able to remember what all this technological advancement is all for. And indeed, when we hear Vitalik Buterin talking about solving the problem of depopulation with the introduction of synthetic wombs it seems that we have completely lost sight of what real human needs and purpose are.
The use of tools, a distinctively human trait, has long served as a means for our species to navigate the perils of nature and ensure its survival. However, it would be erroneous to view technology as a mere progression of human tools. In his “Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology,” Postman delves into a pivotal distinction between tools and technology, one that strikes at the very heart of this matter:
“But the main characteristic of all too-using cultures is that tools were largely invented to do two things: to solve specific and urgent problems of physical life, such as in the use of waterpower, windmills, and the heavy-wheel plow; or to serve the symbolic world of art, politics, myth, ritual, and religion, as in the construction of castles and cathedrals and the development of the mechanical clock. In either case, tools did not attack (or, more precisely, were not intended to attack) the dignity and integrity of the culture into which they were introduced.”
Postman juxtaposes the intrinsic historical significance of tools, which were once intertwined with the material, cultural, and spiritual aspects of human existence, with the emergence of technocracy — wherein tools are reduced to mere instruments of domination. Throughout history, tools were subject to the influence of various social dimensions, enriching the fabric of society, being developed to serve the holistic needs and worldview of society. However, progressively, and then with the advent of the Enlightenment era, a new attitude towards tools began to arise, wherein progress and technique became independent of the moral, spiritual and cultural fabric of society, gradually leaving individuals marginalized and disconnected.
With the decoupling of tools from the broader social fabric, and the divorce of morality from the intellect, we have the rise of what Postman describes technopoly, “a state where technology becomes the dominant force shaping culture and society”. In the realm of technological development, customs and morality no longer serve as guiding forces. It is technology itself that has become the sole master of its own destiny. As ethics and values are marginalized in the pursuit of progress, humans find themselves increasingly disconnected from their own surroundings, becoming strangers in their own home.
What Freedom does technology give us?
Today, this attitude is so pervasive to go completely unchallenged. Every new technological advancement — apart from those that are posing a threat to the establishment — is welcomed and introduced without second thought. In the past thirty years we have introduced more technological innovations than probably ever before, and although we are beginning to come to terms with some of the effects that this change in lifestyle has caused, we are still largely unaware of its extent.
Someone born in the 2000 cannot comprehend life without a phone, a life where they need to be able to read a map to get where they need to, and chances are that they will never be able to read a map. The convenience and comfort of modern life have shielded us from the need to learn fundamental human abilities, ranging from critical thinking and problem-solving to social and practical skills. With everything readily accessible through our phones, we can find food, seek assistance, obtain answers to our questions, and even engage in intimate relationships and social interactions. What will be left to do? Tech enthusiasts argue that the convenience of technology will grant us more freedom, yet, it increasingly looks like in the attempt to take any occupations and labor off our shoulders, even the most fundamentally human, technology is increasingly freeing us from life itself.
We have become defenseless in the face of technology since technology has engulfed every aspect of our lives to an extent that life without technology would seem like a terribly hard life. Indeed, it is so embedded in our lives that most of us would not even be able to survive without it, making us closer to a cyborg than an animal.
Our institutions, including education and governance, have not escaped this trend either. They have either become subservient to the demands of technology or, in some cases, exploit technology and science to exert control over a population that unquestioningly believes in the omnipotence of these forces.
Human needs, desires, and even the essence of human nature have now become subjects of engineering, stripped of their inherent significance leaving humanity adrift without purpose or significance. Sacredness has been eroded, intrinsic worth has been discarded, and everything is now viewed as malleable matter to be shaped at will. Whose will, one may ask? It is the will of those who propel technological and scientific innovation forward, those who conceive and possess the tools upon which we rely. Let us not deceive ourselves: the technology we employ has a master, and that master is not the user but the creator, the sole entity with a genuine opportunity to resist its dominion. But even the creator of new tools himself will only have marginal control over them as a key characteristic of technology, and tools in general, is that they always have a multiplicity of applications that go well beyond what they are originally intended for.
Rediscovering Human Values
Technology should not be perceived as an adversary to humanity. However, it is crucial to recognize that when we detach technology from human values, it ceases to serve us and may even unintentionally shape our values and alter our nature. As material beings, we cannot consider ourselves immune to the influence of the objects and environment surrounding us. The tools we utilize have a profound impact on shaping our identity. Hence, when developing and embracing new technologies, it is essential to continually question the trade-offs involved and evaluate whether these innovations will genuinely benefit humanity or further estrange us from it.
These inquiries are undoubtedly challenging for a society that has blindly embraced positivism and materialism as a new religion. Nevertheless, the consequences of this mindset are evident. As a species, we are experiencing suffering as we gradually become redundant and devoid of purpose. The time has come for us to contemplate whether we should solely devote our energies to creating more objects or if we are prepared to acknowledge that our existence cannot rely solely on material pursuits.
About Cypherpunk Guild
The Cypherpunk Guild is a group of privacy-minded developers, marketers, and entrepreneurs, jointly collaborating to pioneer a future built around private transactions on NEAR Protocol and the larger crypto-verse. Led by two second-generation Cypherpunks, the Cypherpunk Guild supports the development of private applications on the Open Web, as a means of safeguarding user privacy and freedom.