Dr. Jeremy Horne writes about the importance of theoretical research and ‘thinking’ in a world driven by technology and ‘making’. Consult him for a research or writing project here.
Obsession with technology appears to dominate our world. Publishers, the schools, media, and venues where worker meets employer, focus on gadgets, “features”, and glitz. Rare is the call for theoretical research, disparagingly often called “blue sky” exploration. Philosophy is conspicuously absent in most school curriculums as a requirement. Requests for proposals and research grants are more common in creating objects than thinking about them. On a larger scale, we hear protests about what environmental regulations designed to help the planet will do to “the economy”. Never mind that without an environment this holy “economy” would never exist.
Technology is the response to the human call to make life easier, but without a decent educational background, one is handicapped in appreciating the why of technology. While upscale “back-to-the-landers”, and those upset with “loose morals” may pine for the “good old days”, the hard worker knows what it is like to wash clothes by the river, walk behind a plow horse, or chop wood for the fireplace. Rather than the Pony Express, we have the smartphone. Supercomputers literally have quantum leapfrogged over the adding machine. Horses don’t fly to space stations.
Humanity (especially the youth with poor communications skills), tritely applies the word “awesome” and “cool” to describe these developments, but the underpinning may just be at best a vacuum, one that is characterized by increasing complexity and driven by Rene Descartes. This 17th century philosopher stated in Discourse on Method that to understanding anything, we need “….to divide each of the difficulties under examination into as many parts as possible, and as might be necessary for its adequate solution. …by showing that we cannot conceive body unless as divisible.” (Descartes, 1641, p. 122).
Repeated subdivision results in a world requiring management beyond the capacity of single individuals, and, arguably even groups of them [Homer-Dixon, 2006; Tainter, 2003.]. One faces mere detail without any framework for that management. Cleverness, as opposed to smartness, in creating that detail is not equated to human needs assessment or humanity’s effect on the environment.
The symptoms of obsessing over technology are evidence of a deeper issue of our not reflecting on ourselves and, as it turns out, is leading to species suicide [Holocene Extinction, 2019]. A radical conclusion? Yes. A way of avoiding it? Yes. First, let us inspect a few main salient facts.
- Knowledge and technological responses to it have been compressing such that we ultimately will arrive at a “technological singularity” [Eden and Moor, 2012], where our inability to manage it will cause civilization to collapse.
- Environmental degradation has been increasing at an ever-increasing rate, evidenced by global warming, resource depletion, and radical income stratification, evidence of which can be gleaned easily from peer-reviewed sources by the less lazy and more astute of our species. Only the brain-dead, uneducated, political reactionary ideologues, and those profiting from such degradation will deny this.
- This degradation is threatening the very existence of the human species, as a search for “Sixth Great Extinction”, or “Holocene Extinction” will show.
- Increasing focus on technology is partly responsible for the decline in the quality education necessary to solve world problems, as well as the deterioration of quality peer review [Education quality, 2019)]. Half of US adults cannot read past the 8th grade [Adult literacy, 2019]!
- Overpopulation has resulted primarily (aside from poverty) from medical advances and agricultural technology [Bavel, 2013].
- A quick perusal of news sources will reveal worldwide dissatisfaction with governments failing to address basic human needs and their incompetence, lack of will, or just plain greed in the face of mounting social and environmental problems. Such results in a more fractious world fraught with the enhanced (through technology) human capacity to destroy itself.
We are at the proverbial crossroads, where scientists are telling us that if we fail to respond adequately to these challenges now, points of no return will be reached [UN, 2019] and we will no longer exist as a species. How would such a solution appear?
As with other problem-solving situations, there are three parts to the solution.
1) We must recognize that there is a problem.
2) Those affected have to muster the will to a solution.
3) They also must be able to formulate an effective one.
Yet, there is a vital missing component. Instead of a child’s tricycle, we have a tank. Four wheels are required, not three, and the fourth is ethos. We have to think beyond Descartes’ particulars and reflect upon our value environment and how it comes to be. There is no “silver bullet” or yet another technological fix. More explicitly, this species will have to look long and deep into that mirror and ask “what is it all about?” Is it about narcissism and ingratiating ourselves? Animals are quite capable of that. What is it that distinguishes us from the rest of the species? What about the “sapiens” part of the homo sapiens sapiens?
Failing introspection, all the obsessing about the gadgets will be in a vacuum, as we no longer will be around. The increasing detail of technological development causes a corresponding disintegration of focus. Persistently looking at a smartphone or “following” others on social media is just noise and no signal. The whole is compromised by the parts, rather than being balanced.
Why is all this true? Technology exists because of what generates it: science. Technology is practice of the theory generated by science. Training is for those wanting to learn about technology. Education is for the scientist. Technology concerns application; science is about theory. Yet these two poles often are confabulated or used interchangeably, like those in training being “educated”.
Distinguishing the two extends back to Classical Greek times, where etymology provides a clue. Let’s look closely at:
…etymologically derived from the Ancient Greek word ἐπιστήμη for knowledge or science, which comes from the verb ἐπίσταμαι, “to know”. In Plato’s terminology episteme means knowledge, as in “justified true belief”, in contrast to doxa, common belief or opinion. The word epistemology, meaning the study of knowledge, is derived from episteme. 
“…etymologically derived from the Greek word τέχνη (Ancient Greek: [tékʰnɛː], Modern Greek: [ˈtexni] ( listen)), that is often translated as “craftsmanship”, “craft”, or “art”.” [Techne, 2019]
Each exists because of the other. Life, itself, is like this, and our realizing it will enable us to save this species. Consider simple relationships like:
- up – down
- hot – cold
- left – right
- yes – no
- for – against
- negative – positive,
and so forth.
Conceptually, each of these describes boundaries for the gradients in-between, as in tepid, with hot on one end, and cold on the other. Most importantly, one would not exist without the other. The only way we can see the markings on the chalkboard is by the background. Such apprehension is through the unity of opposites, or dialectic. Techne exists because of episteme and vice versa. Techne by itself has no content. Neither does episteme have any content without that which expresses it, techne. On a more abstract level, an individual cannot exist without society, and society needs individuals. Each thing has a context, a history, and a becoming. One is in terms of the other, is dynamic, and forms the basis of organicity, each organ contributing to the life of the organism. Like the organs not competing with each other but cooperating, so individuals can survive only if they work together as a whole that can preserve their individuality.
We need to realize the co-equality of the episteme with the techne, but this lesson extends to human enablement of the two. I propose the following. For every article, news item, or discussion about the latest technological advance, there should be a corresponding treatment of the non-material reason underscoring it. How is the latest “upgrade” to computer software an enhancement of understanding ourselves? Or, is mere commercial interest the reason? If the latter, we had better pay attention to the consequences, as in strain on the environment, income stratification (as in how to produce these “novelties” humanely, as well as economically), and who really benefits and why.
If there is to be cheering for technology, there also must be hand-clapping for science. For such to happen, reflection on ourselves and a high-road ethos emanating from it must be light the context.
(All websites accessed 22 November 2019)
1. Adult literacy (2019). Literacy Project Foundation (2019). http://literacyprojectfoundation.org/community/statistics/
2. Van Bavel J. (2013). The world population explosion: causes, backgrounds and -projections for the future. Facts, views & vision in ObGyn, 5(4), 281–291. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3987379/
3. Eden, Amnon H.; Moor, James H. (2012). Singularity hypotheses: A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment. Dordrecht: Springer. pp. 1–2. ISBN
4. Education quality (2019). eg:
- National Geographic Society (2002). “National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs 2006 Geographic Literacy Survey” https://www.thestudentroom.co.uk/attachment.php?attachmentid=301605&d. ; https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2002/11/geography-survey-illiteracy/
- National Geographic Society (2006). “National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs 2006 Geographic Literacy Study” The National Geographic Education Foundation National Geographic Society May 2006 May 2006 http://www.nationalgeographic.com/roper2006/pdf/FINALReport2006GeogLitsurvey.pdf
- National Science Foundation (2014). “Science and Engineering Indicators 2014” Chapter 7 Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding P. 7-23 http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind14/content/chapter-7/chapter-7.pdf
- National Survey (2017). “Epidemic: Responding To America’s Prescription Drug Abuse Crisis” Executive Office of the President of the United States. https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ondcp/rx_abuse_plan.pdf National Criminal Justice Referral Service (https://www.ncjrs.gov/ )
- NCES, (2009). Basic Reading Skills and the Literacy of America’s Least Literate Adults. National Center for Educational Statistics. https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2009/2009481.pdf
5. Episteme (2019). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Episteme
6. Holocene Extinction (2019). A tiny sampling of literature: Ripple WJ, Wolf C, Newsome TM, Galetti M, Alamgir M, Crist E, Mahmoud MI, Laurance WF (13 November 2017). “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice” (PDF). BioScience. 67 (12): 1026–1028. doi:10.1093/biosci/bix125; Ceballos, Gerardo; Ehrlich, Paul R. (8 June 2018). “The misunderstood sixth mass extinction”. Science. 360 (6393): 1080–1081. doi:10.1126/science.aau0191. OCLC 7673137938. PMID 29880679; Dirzo, Rodolfo; Young, Hillary S.; Galetti, Mauro; Ceballos, Gerardo; Isaac, Nick J. B.; Collen, Ben (2014). “Defaunation in the Anthropocene” (PDF). Science. 345 (6195): 401–406. Bibcode:2014Sci…345..401D. doi:10.1126/science.1251817. PMID 25061202; Pimm, S. L.; Jenkins, C. N.; Abell, R.; Brooks, T. M.; Gittleman, J. L.; Joppa, L. N.; Raven, P. H.; Roberts, C. M.; Sexton, J. O. (30 May 2014). “The biodiversity of species and their rates of extinction, distribution, and protection” (PDF). Science. 344 (6187): 1246752. doi:10.1126/science.1246752
7. Homer-Dixon, Thomas (2007). The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization. Washington, DC: Island.
8. Tainter, J. A. (2003). The Collapse Of Complex Societies. New York & Cambridge, UK.
9. Techne (2019). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Techne
10. UN (2019). World ‘Nearing Critical Point of No Return’ on Climate Change, Delegate Warns, as Second Committee Debates Sustainable Development.. General Assembly Second Committee, Seventy-third Session, 12th & 13th Meetings (AM & PM) https://www.un.org/press/en/2018/gaef3500.doc.htm