Friday, March 23, 2012

Technology, uncertainty and the human condition

In the previous post, I noted that, when we reflect on the nature of our relationship to future generations, it becomes apparent that we need to be careful not to view the unfamiliar too readily through the lens of the familiar. Employing familiar concepts analogically or metaphorically to map an unfamiliar territory may, of course, be helpful in some circumstances. But sometimes tension between the content of the metaphor and important features of the target domain is simply too obvious. This, I’ve suggested, is evident when we employ concepts of justice and parental care to get a handle on what is ethically significant about future generations.
What is missing, in both instances, is an appropriate understanding of how our actions, here and now, produce the future our successors will inhabit, and the limitations on how far we can understand the connection between what we do and how the future turns out. In other words, this is the problem of uncertainty. As I mentioned in the previous post, the link between present and future people is not direct. Between us stand the products of our efforts to transform the social and extra-social worlds. However we imagine our relationship to our successors, it requires us to also imagine the means by which this will be actualised: technologies to provide renewable energy, a sustainable welfare state, new medical techniques, more democratic forms of governance, more inclusive educational systems, and so on. Nonetheless, our grasp of what the consequences of our efforts are likely to be is clouded by uncertainty.

Hannah Arendt
In recent decades, some sociologists (e.g. Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens) have suggested that an appreciation of this uncertainty, in the shape of a concern with “risk”, marks a new epoch in human history. An understanding that the future is uncertain is, and an abiding concern with uncertainty, “with the precarious and perilous character of existence”, is hardly novel, however: indeed, it has the credentials for being considered a universal aspect of the human condition.1Hannah Arendt described the human condition as being the inescapable root of our finitude – yet at the same time, as not being the same as a fixed “human nature”, defined by e.g. particular biological and cognitive capacities or psychological traits (like “self-interest”). Instead, she suggests that our capacity for transforming the world, for innovation, is also the source of our finitude. Whatever we create through subjective effort becomes an objective condition of our lives and the lives of others. Marx pointed out, human beings make history, but not under conditions they themselves have created; Arendt adds that even those conditions they do create will escape, as time goes on, their control, and change the form of their lives in unanticipated ways.

The uncertainty of the future is, therefore, a basic element of what it is to be human. Not primarily because we are vulnerable, like other living creatures, to contingencies within the natural environment we inhabit (though this is also true – the fox in the rabbit’s future becomes the drought in the Sumerian farmer’s). It is more because there is a mismatch between our efforts to condition the world in which we live and how we end up being conditioned by their products. Technology provides one of the best examples of this effect, one of which Ulrich Beck, in particular, makes much. Advanced technologies, specifically, can amplify this mismatch between conditioning and being conditioned.
We might define an advanced technology as one which is either internally highly complex (integrated circuits, nuclear power stations) and/or one which is capable of unleashing processes which enter “intimately” into other ones, either natural or technological (e.g. industrial chemistry, nuclear power stations, biotechnology). This latter characteristic is particularly important, because it amplifies the spatial and temporal reach of the effects produced by technologies “[w]hereas at the time of ploughs we could only scratch the surface of the soil, we can now begin to fold ourselves into the molecular machinery of soil bacteria”3 In both these senses, we can represent advanced technologies as naturalised, to use a term employed by the philosopher Alfred Nordmann.4 Internally complex technologies are hard for their users to understand (how my PC translates keypresses into these words is a process beyond my ability to describe). How technologies which unleash “intimate” causal processes create their effects may also often be difficult to understand (even for scientists who understand how the technologies themselves work in a lab situation). In either case, the internal workings of the technology in question, or its interactions with the wider world, are “black-boxed”. As a result, it takes on a somewhat uncanny, quasi-natural aspect: endocrine-disrupting synthetic chemicals (found in organisms from the equator to the Poles), greenhouse gases, genetically-modified plants all appear to possess a kind of autonomy. Similarly, the workings of computers, power stations and other complex devices are hard to imagine without attributing a kind of semi-wild agency to them, which can be unpredictable and hard to contain.
What does this mean for our central theme? Advanced technologies intensify the “human condition”: they increase the gap between our efforts to condition the world, to transform it into a form which is dependent on our intentions, and the ways in which the products of our efforts condition us, and create a world in which we do not recognise our intentions. To understand our relationship with future people, then (and our responsibilities to them), it is essential we start with the ways in which our efforts to transform the world mediate between us and them – and this brings requires that we investigate the themes of uncertainty and finitude that Arendt and Nordmann’s analyses open up.

1Jackson, M. 1989. Paths toward a clearing: Radical empiricism and ethnographic inquiry. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. pp. 15-17.
2 Arendt, H. 1998. The human condition. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
3 Bruno Latour, 2008 "« It’s development, stupid ! » or How to Modernize Modernization?",,  29 may,
4 Nordmann, A. 2005. Noumenal technology: reflections on the incredible tininess of Nano Techne 8(3), pp. 3-23.

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