Technology as a Way of Knowing Computers

Computer_thumbTechnology as a Way of Knowing: The Computer as Fate:

Inquiry question: By using technology as a WOK we will question the statement “The computer does not impose on us the ways it should be used.”

The instrumental view of technology that we have been discussing in our writings sees technology as a tool like any other and that it can be used by human beings for good or ill.  As we have gone along our path to thinking about technology as a WOK, we have seen that technology is more of a “fate”; it is a mode (way) of being in the world that has arisen from particular historical conditions and social circumstances (contexts) that determine what we have come to call “mindsets”. This “what” of technology has determined our “how” of being-in-the-world and “how” we understand our being-in-the-world. It is what we call our “shared knowledge”, and these “mindsets” have been established over hundreds of years.

One finds this understanding and interpretation of technology in the writings of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. The view of computers examined here arrives from the view of reason and nature that brought forth and came from the mastering sciences of European thinking. Such a view of reason and of nature cuts human beings off from any notion of a transcendent good (the Sun in Plato’s allegory of the Cave) and from any notion of a transcendent justice or a standard of justice other than that of our own making. It is a deficient view that sees human beings in control of determining how technology will be applied in praxis and it determines the ethics of human actions outside of the mechanical, instrumental view of technology.

The situation in which we find ourselves currently seems obvious: we are faced with calamities concerning the climate, environment, population, resources, and pollution if we continue to pursue the policies that we have pursued over the last few centuries. Our attempts to deal with these interlocking practical emergencies will require a vast array of skills and knowledge; and that is what most of you are being educated towards. Technological mastery will need to be used to solve the problems that technology itself has created. The focus of this future mastery will be in the human sciences: as the German philosopher Heidegger has pointed out, the governing and determining science of the future is inevitably going to be cybernetics. Cybernetics sees human beings as resources and disposables. Cybernetics is the ground of the aspiration for AI, artificial intelligence.

The realization of this cybernetic future will find its place most securely in the medical profession, particularly the bio-medical field. Here in Singapore we see a realization of this through the Singapore government’s focus on bio-medicinal research as one of its core industries of the future. What has been called “late stage capitalism” increasingly attempts to establish itself as “the mental health state” with the necessary array of dependent arts and sciences, the example of cosmetic surgery being one of them. What we have done to nature, we first had to do to our own bodies and this relation to our bodies was determined a long time ago. Both Hamlet and Descartes refer to their bodies as ‘a machine’.

Plato called the practical wisdom of politics the royal techne—that art which is higher than all particular arts because it is called to put the other arts in a proper order of least important to most important. It established a hierarchy. We have noticed in the questioning of the TOK program that the hierarchy established is “our self” as knower along with “ourselves” or “a community of knowers” that is called our “shared knowledge”. Our living in communities is “politics”, both in the ancient and modern sense and our “shared knowledge” is determined by our communities on what is best, or the highest, to be known. Anyone who is awake in any part of the IB Diploma program knows that the paradigm of knowledge (the principle of reason realized in the algebraic calculations that are identical with “logic”) stamps the institutions and curriculum so that what students are required to know and be able to do to be ‘qualified’ is determined by this destiny of knowing.

What had been called “politics” by the ancients, our living in communities, has been replaced by “social psychology” for the moderns. This “social psychology” is “cybernetics”—the mastery of humans by other humans. From within this perspective, we get our terms “human resources” and “human capital” and the corporations, human organizations and bureaucracies that are driven to utilize these “resources” and “capital” most efficiently and effectively. Efficiency and effectiveness are the raison d’etre of these organizations and the sometimes banal, anal managers within them.

In most of the TOK discussions that occur (and will occur), the difficult choices which will be necessary in the future are discussed within the assumptions of the ‘values’ and ‘ideals’ which shall direct our creating of history through our wills and desires, the determination of the social contexts in which we exist.  If we are to deal with the future “humanely” (that is, in a “human” fashion), our acts of ‘free’ mastery in creating history must be decided within the light of certain ‘ideals’ so that we can preserve certain human ‘values’ and see that ‘quality of life’ and quantity (economic prosperity) is safeguarded and extended. Clearly, the problem of dealing with these future crises involves great possibilities of tyranny[1] and we must be careful that in meeting these decisions we maintain the ‘values’ of free government. In his Republic, Plato places democracy next to tyranny as among the lowest orders of political organization because both are based on the lowest aspirations of the satisfaction of the human appetites and disregard virtue.

NietzscheIn our TOK discussions, the way we put the questions/themes that relate to the tasks of the future, the future of our students (your futures) as the leaders of that future, involves the use of concepts such as ‘values’, ‘ideals’, ‘persons’ or ‘our creating of history’. These concepts were first brought to centre stage by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. The use of these concepts obscures the fact that these very concepts have come forth from within the ‘technological world-view’ or ‘mindset’ that gives us an image of ourselves and what we are from within that within. These terms are used “unthinkingly” from within this “world-view” and do not allow us to gain the openness necessary to be able to discuss the questions in any meaningful way and, thus, we have the circularity of many of the discussions that take place in TOK. The Greeks understood these outcomes as aporia. Aporia are the ‘dead ends’ that many discussions lead to.

The task in TOK is thus a negative one: to allow the concepts to come to light in their essence so that we may be free for something positive beyond them.

To do this we will look at “the computer as a fate” or a destining of human beings. This discussion arises from a radio show that occurred some years back, in which our two guests, experts in computers, both held the instrumental view of technology: that the computer does not impose on us the ways that it should be used. They believed that human beings have the command and are empowered to determine whether computers will be used for good or ill. They viewed computers as both instruments and tools that are under and at human beings’ disposal. This is the commonly held view and it dominates many discussions of what technology is and will be in the future. It ignores the fact that computers are one of the end products or flowerings of that essence which is the destiny of technology. To elaborate the analogy: technology is the acorn; the computer is the oak.

In the assertion “the computer does not impose the ways it should be used”, the use of the word “should” implies a choice. The statements made by these men who were our talk show guests came from their intimate knowledge of computers. But such a statement transcends the intimacy of that knowledge in the sense that the statement is more than a description of any given computer or what is technically common to them as machines. Because they wished to make statements about the possible good or evil purposes for which computers can be used, they expressed what computers are in a way which is more than a technical description. According to our guests, they are instruments made by human skill for the purpose of achieving certain human goals. They are “neutral” instruments in the sense that the morality of the goals for which they are or can be used is determined outside of them; that is, the ethics of their use exists in a separate realm from their creation as instruments.

In expressing this instrumental view of technology, we can see that computers are obviously instruments because their capacities have been built into them by human beings; and it is human beings who must set up the operating of those capacities for the purposes that they have determined. All instruments can potentially be used for wicked purposes and the more complex the instrument, the more complex the possible evils. But if we apprehend computers for what they are, as neutral instruments, (according to these gentlemen) we are better able to determine rationally their potential dangers. That is clearly the first step in coping with the potential dangers that they may be used for evil purposes. We can see that these dangers lie in the potential decisions human beings make about how to use computers, and not to the inherent capacities of the machines themselves.

This view is the instrumental view of most of us regarding technology and it is so strongly given to us that it seems common sense itself. It is the box. We are given an historical situation which includes certain objective technological facts. It is up to us as human beings in our freedom to meet that situation and to shape it with our ‘values’ and ‘ideals’. But the values and ideals come from the same crucible, the same ontology, that allowed the computer to come into existence in the first place.

Despite the decency and common sense of the statement “Computers do not impose on us the ways they should be used”, when we try to think about what is being said in it, it becomes clear that computers are not being allowed to appear before us for what they are.

The “not” or the negation in the statement “the computer does not impose” concerns the computer’s capacities or capabilities, not its existence. Yet, clearly, computers are more than their capacities or capabilities. They are put together from a variety of materials, beautifully fashioned by a vast apparatus of fashioners. Their existence has required generations of sustained efforts by chemists, metallurgists, and workers in mines and factories. They require a highly developed electronics industry and what lies behind that industry in the history of science and technique and their reciprocal relations. They have required that human beings wanted to understand nature, and thought the best way to do so was by putting it to the question as object so that it could reveal itself (see units on Reason as a WOK and Technology as a WOK). They have required the discovery of modern algebra and the development of complex institutions for developing and applying algebra. Nor should this be seen as a one-sided relationship in which the institutions necessary to the development of the machines were left unchanged by the discovery of algebra (here I am speaking of the universities and the recent colleges of applied arts and technology). These post-secondary institutions determine what will be important to know for those who intend to enter them i.e. they will determine what it means to be ‘qualified’.

To understand our educational system is to know that the desire for these machines and other similar tools shapes our institutions at their heart and determines our curriculum, in what the young (you) are encouraged to know and do (any view of student choices in Group subjects in the IB Diploma indicates this, but the overall structure and intent of the requirements of the Diploma reveals this, also). The computer’s existence has required that the clever of our society be trained within the massive assumptions about knowing and being and making which have made algebra actual. Learning within such assumptions is not directed towards a “leading out” but towards an “organizing within”. This means and entails that those who rule any modern society will take the purposes of ruling increasingly to be congruent with this account of knowing. The requirements for the existence of computers is but part of the total historical situation (the word ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’ might be too ambiguous to be used here) which is given to us as modern human beings. The conditions of that historical situation are never to be conceived as static determinants (as something which cannot be changed), but as a dynamic interrelation of tightening determinations (the box gets smaller in terms of choices once the most efficient results have been established).

Computers are obviously, within modern common sense, instruments, and instruments are always things which are made to be at human disposal. However, when the capacities or capabilities of these machines are abstracted from their historical existence, and when their capacities or capabilities are morally neutralized in the negative ‘do not impose’, we shut ourselves off from what ‘instrumentality’ has come to mean.

Computers are one kind of technology, one example of the flowering of its essence. But “technology” is a very recently arrived word. Two Greek words, techne and logos are brought together in a combination that would have been unthinkable until recently. The new word ‘technology’ is able to stand because it brings forth to us the new situation: a quite novel dependence of science upon art and a quite novel dependence of art upon science—in fact, a quite novel reciprocal relation between ‘knowing’ and ‘making’. Look at the Mac Book Pros or PCs or the devices which you are using to view this writing and one can see the flowering of this reciprocal relationship.

This novel relationship of making and knowing stands at the heart of the modern era (by the “modern era” I mean since Newton’s science and Descartes’ philosophy). The simple characterization of the computer as a neutral instrument makes it sound as if instruments are now what instruments have always been and so hides from us what is completely novel, unique and new about modern instrumentality. The gulf in our understanding was made explicit by our guests’ use of the discovery of fire as an example of technology’s neutrality. In comparing the discovery of fire to the making of computers, our guests hid from us (not in any malevolent way) what we have to understand if we are to understand technology, as if the instrumentality of modern technologies could be morally neutral.  This account of the computer as neutral raises up in the statement, in opposition to that neutrality, an account of human freedom which is just as novel as our new instruments.

Human freedom is conceived in the strong sense of human beings as autonomous—the makers of our own laws and our own selves (this, again, is revealed in the TOK diagram). This is also a quite new conception. It is first thought systematically in the writings of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant who was critiquing the philosophy of Rousseau. It is also a conception without which the coming to be of our modern civilization would not and could not have been. But it is a conception the truth of which needs to be thought because it was not considered true by the wise men of many civilizations before our own. The statement ‘the computer does not impose’ holds a view of the world with neutral instruments on one side and human autonomy on the other. But it is just this view that needs to be thought if we are concerned with understanding the essence of technology and of understanding the essence of modern instrumentality, and if we are to see these as being a ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’.

How widely are we being asked to take the word ‘ways’ in the assertion that the computer does not impose the ways? Even if the purposes for which a computer’s capabilities should be used are determined outside of itself, are not its inherent capabilities determinative of the ‘ways’ it can be used? We use computers to record students’ skills and ‘behaviours’. We use the data to control or assist teacher training in our PYP, MYP, and DP programs. The facts of our day-to-day instruction are abstracted so that they may be classified. Where classification rules, identities and differences can only appear in its terms (results). Classification is used by us both in our desire to know but also because of the convenience of organization. As our institutions of education grow larger, this ‘convenience of organization’ will come to dominate and will eliminate the heterogeneity of what those institutions were in the past: uni-versities become multi-versities. The point being made here is simply that the statement about computers tends to hide the fact that their very capabilities entail that the ways they can be used are never neutral. They can only be used in homogenizing ways. And the questions about the goodness of homogenization or decentralization is excluded from thinking about the essence of technology.

A clearer example might be in using the automobile: “the automobile does not impose the ways it will be used”. All of us have experienced the inconvenience in this part of the world of societies in which the automobile has not, as of yet, come to dominate. Societies where automobiles dominate tend to be much the same as each other and we find these societies much more efficient and convenient for ourselves.  Yet, we cannot represent the automobile to ourselves as a ‘neutral instrument’. Here in Singapore, 20% of land use is given over to the infrastructure required for the automobile. But also, if we represent the automobile as a neutral instrument, we have abstracted the productive functions of Honda, Toyota and General Motors or Standard Oil and the other major oil conglomerates from their political and social functions, just as their public relations people would want. Moreover, we would have abstracted the automobile from the relations between such corporations and the public and private corporations of other countries. After all, to any sane person, the Iraq War was over oil; and the subsequent loss of lives, according to the British Medical Journal, The Lancet, was one and a half million Iraqi citizens. When one thinks of ‘values’ and ‘ideals’ from within technology, one cannot ignore the continued homogenization of the central corporations in our everyday lives and the tremendous growth in their power over our lives, including the ability of driving us into wars.

Aristotle has pointed out that human beings are the ‘religious animal’, and the religion for most human beings who have lost any kind of transcendental faith in a god is the ‘belief in progress’. This belief can be described as the good progress of the race in the direction of the universal society of free and equal human beings, that is, towards the universal and homogeneous state, what is dubbed “international mindedness” in the IB curriculum. They assert that the technology, which comes out of the account of reason given in the modern European sciences, what we have called the principle of reason, is Kantthe necessary and good means to that end. That account of reason assumes that there is something which we call ‘history’ over against nature, and that it is in that ‘history’ that human beings have acquired their rationality. In the thought of the French philosopher Rousseau about the origins of human beings, the concept of reason as historical makes its extraordinary public arrival. Darwin’s Origin of Species is not possible without, first, the thought of Rousseau. Kant’s great intellectual achievement was not (as many of the British seem to think) the attempt to overcome David Hume’s arguments regarding causality, but the attempt to overcome the thinking of Rousseau and his position of the historicality of human reason. There are far more references to Rousseau in Kant’s work than to Hume who, Kant stated, had ‘awoken him from his dogmatic slumber’.

The German philosopher Heidegger has said that capitalism and communism are simply predicates of the subject technology: the Presidents of the USA and China float down the same river (technology) in different boats (political ends). To put this in the context of our discussion, the same apprehension of what it is to be ‘reasonable’ (Reason as a WOK) leads human beings to build computers and to conceive of the universal, homogeneous society as the highest political goal. The ‘ways’ such machines can be used must be at one with certain conceptions of political purposes, because the same kind of ‘reasoning’ made the machines and formulated the purposes or the ends. To put the matter extremely simply: the modern ‘physical’ sciences (the group 4 subjects) and the modern ‘human sciences’ (the group 3 subjects) have developed in mutual interpenetration, and we can only begin to understand that mutual interpenetration in terms of some common source from which both sciences found their grounding. That common source is the principle of reason and that principle continues to determine our understanding of the arts and the sciences today.

To think ‘reasonably’ about the modern account of reason is of such difficulty because that account has structured our very thinking over the last centuries. (See the discussions on Descartes, Leibniz and Kant). Because we are trying to understand reason in the very form of how we understand reason is what makes it so difficult. The very idea that ‘reason’ is that reason which allows us to conquer objective human and non-human nature controls our thinking about everything. This is the box that we are required to try to somehow think out of. It is our Cave.

The root of modern history lies in our experience of ‘reason’ and the interpenetration of the human and non-human sciences that grew from that root. It is an occurrence that has not yet been understood, and it is an event that must come to be thought here in TOK. The statement ‘the computer does not impose on us the ways it should be used’ hides that interpenetration. To repeat: the instrumental understanding of technology simply presents us with neutral instruments that we in our freedom can shape to our ‘values’ and ‘ideals’. But the very concepts of ‘values’ and ‘ideals’ come from the same form of reasoning that built the computers. ‘Computers’ and ‘values’ both come from that stance which summoned the world before it to show its reasons and bestowed ‘values’ on that world. Those ‘values’ are supposed to be the creations of human beings and have, linguistically, taken the place of the traditional concept of ‘good’ which was not created by human beings but which human beings recognized. Computers do not present us with neutral means for building any kind of society. All their alternative ‘ways’ lead towards the universal, homogeneous state, “globalization” to use our modern understanding of this, although the term “globalization” is becoming somewhat passé these days. Our use of these alternative ways is exercised within that mysterious modern participation in what we call ‘reason’, and it is this participation that is most difficult to think in its origins and what is so poorly being attempted here in these writings.

The strongest ambiguity in the statement ‘the computer does not impose on us the ways it should be used’ is presented to us as if human beings ‘should’ use these machines for some purposes and not for others. But what does the word ‘should’ mean in advanced technological societies? Is not the essence of our difficulty contained in that this ‘shouldness’, as it was once understood and affirmed, can no longer hold us in its claiming?

‘Should’ was originally the past tense of ‘shall’. It is still sometimes used in a conditional sense to express greater uncertainty about the future than the word ‘shall’: (‘I shall get a raise this year’ is more certain than ‘I should get a raise this year’.) ‘Should’ has gradually taken over the sense of ‘owing’ from ‘shall’. (In its origins, ‘owing’ was given in the word ‘shall’ when used as a transitive verb. See the concepts of ‘indebtedness’ and ‘responsibility’ in the discussion of technology in that writing.) In the sentence ‘the computer does not impose on us the ways it should be used’, we are speaking about human actions that express ‘owing’. If we change the statement to a positive form ‘the computer does impose on us the ways it should be used’, the debt would probably be understood as from human beings to the machine. We can say of a good car that we ‘owe’ it to the car to lubricate it properly and maintain it properly if we want the car to do what it is fitted for—which is, in the traditional usage, its good—then we must look after it. But the ‘should’ in the statement about the computer is clearly not being used about what is owed from human beings to the machine. What is, then, the nature of the debt spoken? To what or to whom do we human beings owe it? Is the debt conditional? For example, if human beings ‘should’ use computers only in ways that are compatible with constitutional government and never as instruments of tyranny, to what or to whom is this required support of constitutional government owed? To ourselves? To other human beings? To evolution? To nature? To history? To reasonableness? To God?

To characterize the great change that has taken place among those who consider themselves to be ‘modern people’ that ‘goodness’ is apprehended in a much different way from previous societies. ‘Goodness’ is now apprehended in a way which excludes from it all sense of ‘owingness’. What was the traditional Western view of ‘goodness’ is that which meets us with an excluding claim and persuades us that in obedience to that claim we will find what we are fitted for as human beings. The modern view of ‘goodness’ is that which is advantageous to our creating ‘richness of life’ or ‘quality of life’.

What is true of the modern conception of goodness (which appears in advanced technological societies and distinguishes them from older conceptions of goodness) is that it does not include the assertion of an ‘owed’ claim which is intrinsic to our desiring. ‘Owing’ is always provisory on what we desire to create. Obviously, we come upon the claims of others and our creating may be limited particularly by the state because of what is currently permitted to be done to others. However, such claims whether within states or internationally, are seen as contractual, that is, provisional. This exclusion of non-provisional owing from our interpretation of desire means that what is summoned up by the word ‘should’ is now no longer what was summoned up among our ancestors.  It always includes an ‘if’. This has led to the confusion in our AOK Ethics where morals, laws, etc. are considered “ethics” where ethics becomes the questioning of principles of action (phronesis) rather than the actions themselves as these actions were understood by Aristotle from whom the word ‘ethics’ derives, for instance. “Ethics” comes to be seen as a principle because of the vacuum that has been created through the obliteration of the concept of virtue and its relation to the good. The arrival in the world of the changed interpretation of goodness is interrelated to the arrival of technological civilization. The liberation of human desiring from any supposed excluding claim, so that it is believed that we freely create ‘values’, is a face of the same liberation in which human beings overcame chance by technology—the liberty to make happen what we want to make happen; to change the world through mastery.

‘The computer does not impose on us the ways it should be used’ asserts the very essence of the modern view (the human ability to freely determine what happens) and then puts that freedom in the service of the very ‘should’ that the same modern apprehension has denied. The resolute mastery to which we are summoned in ‘does not impose’ is the very source of difficulty in apprehending goodness as ‘should’. Therefore, the ‘should’ has only a masquerading resonance when it is asked to provide moral content to the actions we are summoned to concerning computers. It is a word carried over from the past to be used in a present that is only ours because the assumptions of that past were criticized out of existence. The statement therefore cushions us from the full impact of the uniqueness it asks us to consider. It makes us forgetful against wondering and questioning about the disappearance of ‘should’ in its ancient resonance, and what this disappearance might portend for the future.

The commonality of statements in our modern world and in our education such as ‘the computer does not impose on us the ways it should be used’ are needed to buttress the morality of ourselves in our daily decisions, our ethics. The more it becomes possible to conceive that we might not be able to control the immensity of the technological apparatus and the constant emergencies it presents us with, the more intense become the calls for moral ‘values’ and ‘ideals’. Technological society is presented to us as a neutral means, something outside ourselves, and human beings are presented as in touch with some constant, from out of which constancy they are called upon to deal with the new external crises. But obviously, all that is given us in the technological sciences denies that constancy, that standard, that eternality. What happens is that constancy is appealed to in practical life and denied in intellectual life. The language of ‘eternality’ or ‘standards’ is removed from all serious public realms. The residual and unresonant constant appealed to in the statement about the computer is ‘should’, but the intellectual life that allowed the coming into being of the computer has also made this ‘should’ unthinkable.

When we speak of ‘values’ and ‘ideals’ in education as a way of approaching technological situations, we must realize that ‘values’, ‘ideals’, ‘persons’, and ‘the creating of history’ are at the very heart of what our technological civilization is.

Ontology refers to our way of being in the world. Every scientific discovery or application comes from an ontology which so engrosses us that it can be called our Western destiny. Technology is not something over against ontology; it is the ontology of the age, the metaphysic of the age. It is for us an almost inescapable destiny. The question is: what is the ontology which is declared in technology? Technological civilization, our shared knowledge, enfolds us as our destiny.

Coming to meet us out of the very substance of our past, that destiny, that legacy, has now become not only our own but that of the species as a whole, and it is the destiny which drives the IB curriculum forward. “The future comes to meet us from behind”, as the Greeks would have it. Moreover, this destiny is not alone concerned with such obvious problems that we can blow ourselves up or can cure diabetes or have widespread freedom from labour or watch our distant wars on television or over the Internet. It is a destiny that presents us with what we think of the whole, with what we think is good, with what we think the good is, with how we conceive insanity and madness, beauty and ugliness. It is a destiny which enfolds us in our most immediate experiences: what we perceive when we encounter a bird or a tree, a child, or a road. This destiny is not one in which we can pick and choose. Like all destinies, it is a package deal, and like all destinies it ‘imposes’.

[1] Martin Heidegger in 1935 defined the political movement of National Socialism in Nazi Germany as “the meeting of modern man with a global technology”. Today, we define this coming together of man and technology as ‘globalization’. Having an opportunity to change this definition of National Socialism in 1953 with the publication of An Introduction to Metaphysics, Heidegger chose not to do so.

Author: theoryofknowledgeanalternativeapproach


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