Revealing, Building And Emerging: We Need To Take A More Biological View Of Technology
It’s no accident that Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, was published in the early 19th century, at roughly the same time as the Luddite movement was gaining momentum. It was in that moment that people first began to take stock of the technological advances that brought about the first Industrial Revolution.
Since then we have seemed to oscillate between techno-utopianism and dystopian visions of machines gone mad. For every “space odyssey” promising an automated, enlightened future, there seems to be a “Terminator” series warning of our impending destruction. Neither scenario has ever come to pass and it is unlikely that either ever will.
What both the optimists and the Cassandras miss is that technology is not something that exists independently from us. It is, in fact, intensely human. We don’t merely build it, but continue to nurture it through how we develop and shape ecosystems. We need to go beyond a simple engineering mindset and focus on a process of revealing, building and emergence.
World War II brought the destructive potential of technology to the fore of human consciousness. As deadly machines ravaged Europe and bombs of unimaginable power exploded in Asia, the whole planet was engulfed in a maelstrom of human design. It seemed that the technology we had built had become a modern version of Frankenstein’s monster, destined from the start to turn on its master.
Yet the German philosopher Martin Heidegger saw things differently. In his 1954 essay, The Question Concerning Technology, he described technology as akin to art, in that it reveals truths about the nature of the world, brings them forth and puts them to some specific use. In the process, human nature and its capacity for good and evil are also revealed.
He offers the example of a hydroelectric dam, which uncovers a river’s energy and puts it to use making electricity. In much the same sense, Mark Zuckerberg did not so much “build” a social network at Facebook, but took natural human tendencies and channeled them in a particular way. That process of channeling, in turn, reveals even more.