Cosmotechnics

My essay in the just-out edition of The New Atlantis — if you want to read it now, please subscribe to this excellent journal, and even if you don’t want to read it at all, please subscribe to this excellent journal anyway — begins with a description of what I call the Standard Critique of Technology, or SCT. That critique has been articulated, in varying terms but with a significant conceptual unity, by a group of thinkers I very much admire, including Albert Borgmann, Ursula Franklin, Ivan Illich, and Neil Postman. An excerpt:

The basic argument of the SCT goes like this. We live in a technopoly, a society in which powerful technologies come to dominate the people they are supposed to serve, to reshape us in their image. These technologies, therefore, might be called prescriptive (to use Franklin’s term) or manipulatory (to use Illich’s). For example, social networks promise to forge connections — but also encourage mob rule. Facial-recognition software helps to identify suspects — and to keep tabs on whole populations. Collectively, these technologies constitute the device paradigm (Borgmann), which in turn produces a culture of compliance (Franklin).

The proper response to this situation is not to shun technology itself, for human beings are intrinsically and necessarily users of tools. Rather, it is to find and use technologies that, instead of manipulating us, serve sound human ends and the focal practices (Borgmann) that embody those ends. A table becomes a center for family life; a musical instrument skillfully played enlivens those around it. Those healthier technologies might be referred to as holistic (Franklin) or convivial (Illich), because they fit within the human lifeworld and enhance our relations with one another. Our task, then, is to discern these tendencies or affordances of our technologies and, on both social and personal levels, choose the holistic, convivial ones.

The problem with the SCT isn’t that it’s wrong — it’s admirably incisive and acute — but that it has, so far anyway, been powerless. In this essay I suggest an alternative approach — a kind of alternative to critique itself — that draws on, of all things, Daoism, approached by way of the work on “cosmotechnics” by the philosopher Yuk Hui. It’s not a definitive treatise that I have written but rather an exploration, an attempt to trace some new paths for thinking about technology and technopoly.