“Those who try to control,
who use force to protect their power,
go against the direction of the Tao.”
~ Stephen Mitchell (trans.), Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (New York: Harper Perennial), 2006.
Contained in this sentence is the essence of a psychology, a politics, an economics, an ecology, and an ethics—a complete cosmology. The Chinese philosopher Yuk Hui has recently advanced what he calls “cosmotechnics,” a holistic way of thinking about technology—holistic in the sense that whenever we think about or talk about or use technology, we are always already assuming and enacting a worldview and a set of values. Technology is always about more than tools.
Hui is offering a contemporary and comparative update of Martin Heidegger’s seminal 1954 essay, “The Question Concerning Technology,” where Heidegger argued that the essence of technology is not, strictly speaking, technological. It is primarily a way of knowing that he characterized as “enframing.” Enframing reduces the mystery of the world to a reservoir of energy and turns nature into a “gigantic gasoline station.” Nature is there to be controlled, a stock of resources to be used, and used up, in service of our human ends—whatever those happen to be.
Heidegger’s concern was that way of knowing was nihilistic in the sense that it is, literally, endless. As C.S. Lewis puts it in the Abolition of Man, most pre-modern civilizations were premised on something like “the Tao”: an absolute morality anchored not in the desires and whims of human culture and psychology, but in the order of things. Humanity’s ends are somehow set, fixed, limited by the basic architecture of reality, and human lives and societies go well when they more or less adhere to them.
But the enframing mindset decouples humanity from nature, “freeing” us to posit whatever ends we happen to have. That means that there is nothing to stop the logic of regarding nature as a stock of expendable resources from being turned back on humanity itself, e.g., “human capital,” “human resources.” The great irony of this, Heidegger points out, is that just at the moment where we think we have become gods and triumphed over nature, we are mired in a deeply dehumanizing way of being. Or as Lewis put it, man’s conquest of nature turns out to be nature’s conquest of man: severed from the Tao, man has nothing but his instincts and impulses—supplied by nature—to guide him. He has abandoned not only his rationality, but his home: the very idea of living in a cosmos.
Daoism embraces a less dualistic view of the humanity/nature relationship than the Western tradition that is perhaps best captured by James Joyce’s formulation “chaosmos.” Hui offers us a potential path toward thinking about, designing, and using technology in a way that is more mindful of, and integrated with, our ecology. Perhaps Daoism can offer a way for both the East and the West—effectively, the Yin and Yang on the geopolitical stage of the 21st century—to build a sustainable future—a human world that doesn’t go against the direction of the Dao?
New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”