A belated thanks to all those who took part in our second Socrates Café a couple weekends ago. This time we had a smaller group and a somewhat more intimate discussion that centered on the effects technology is having on our everyday lives and innermost minds. Our conversation ranged over a swath of issues: the positives and negatives of social media, the incentives for children to approach relationships transactionally, digital reflexes, boredom, distraction, online dating, and more.
We also got a couple suggestions for how to improve the event:
-Distribute a short reading to the group beforehand that touches on the topic at hand, so that everyone has a common base to launch from
-Tilt more toward divisive or at least controversial issues in order to spark more spirited debate and avoid a bland consensus
-Recommend some additional philosophical literature on the subject
I will keep these in mind in planning for the next event, but per the last suggestion, I want to post a few readings for those who’d like to learn more:
1) Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology”. Heidegger’s classic essay on technology is noteworthy for his (at first) strange thesis that the question concerning technology is not technological. That is, technology is not really “the stuff”–the computers, iPhones, planes, trains, and automobiles–but rather a way of seeing, knowing, disclosing the world: it is a way the world is presented to us. It is not a purely human artifice, but one-dimension of the world that, in the modern age, has been blown out of proportion such that it crowds out and obscures other modes of appearance. While not intrinsically an evil or a negative force in our lives, the danger with technology is that we will come to see ourselves in terms of it; that, as Emerson put it, “things are in the saddle, and ride us,” such that we forfeit our freedom and humanity in our attempt to gain control over our lives.
2) C.S. Lewis, “The Abolition of Man”. Following up on the last point, Lewis questions the long-term goal of modern secular humanism and the modern scientific research project–which, he argues, is to gain total control not just over nature, but over human nature. The danger is that, in such a world, our only polestars for what counts as progress are our desires–our instincts–rather than some transcendent moral order, such as the Tao, Natural Law, God. As such, Lewis concludes that, in our attempt to use technology as, in Freud’s phrase, a “prosthetic God,” our victories over nature are really nature’s victories over us.
3) Ray Kurzweil, “The Singularity is Near”. Kurzweil is the intellectual prophet of Silicon Valley. A distinguished and brilliant scientist, his radical views on the telos of technology can be roughly distilled into the following equation: Hegel + evolution + technology + the Matrix = the cosmos. Put differently, technology is the continuation of evolution by other means, and technology is developing at an accelerating rate. Soon, with the birth of AI, evolution will reach a new stage, and the changes that will be wrought not just in human life but in the universe are so disruptive and unimaginable that this singularity is like an eschaton, a point of no return, the edge of a black hole–what lies on the other side is inconceivable from our present standpoint. But Kurzweil insists it is good.
4) Jaron Lanier, “You Are Not a Gadget”. A scion of Silicon Valley , Lanier, plays the puckish trickster to the pantheon of Gates, Jobs, and Zuck. In this polemical text, he argues that the internet and digital technology is gradually corroding the human spirit and dealing away our dignity, one click at a time. Like Heidegger, he fears the ways that technology warps our minds and constricts our engagement with others and the world around us, offering up a form of false consciousness in which he imagine we are free and following our heart’s desire, a state he calls “digital Maoism.”
Finally, I encourage everyone to visit TED.com (Technology, Entertainment, and Design), which contains a cornucopia of short talks on tech.
If you have any recommendations, please post them here and/or on MeetUp!
I will be in touch soon about our next MeetUp, which will be in late February. I plan to lock down a more commodious venue.