Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Does Technology Induce Nihilism?

Image via Tim Gouw

Modern life is suffused by technology. We humans do not live in the natural world. We live in the technological world. From dawn to dusk, our activities are facilitated and mediated through a variety of technological aids. These technologies change how we relate to the world and how the world relates to us. Some of them are bright and prominent in our lives. Others have become part of the background furniture (literally) of life — hiding in plain sight.

Digital technologies are just the latest additions to our technological ecology. Their novelty means that they induce the most excitement and the most hand-wringing. People worry about the power of these technologies over our lives. Are they being used to surveil us against our wills? To control us and manipulate us to nefarious ends? Do they impair our cognitive capacities? Would we be better off without them?

But here’s a question that I suspect few people ask: is digital technology making us more nihilistic? Indeed, most people might think it is an odd question. It is, nevertheless, the question that lies at the heart of Nolen Gertz’s book Nihilism and Technology. The book is a short, polemic about the impact of technology on modern life. Using Nietzsche’s thoughts on nihilism, Gertz argues that digital technologies are provoking and accentuating a form of ‘passive nihilism’ and once this has been identified it should prompt greater critical scrutiny of the role technology is playing in the modern era.

Hewing to the nihilistic perspective, Gertz tries to avoid presenting a standard moral critique of technology, and tries to transcend the simple binary (pro/anti) thinking about technology that has become pervasive. He tells us that his goal is, instead, to get us to interrogate the process through which we evaluate technology and progress (Gertz 2017, Ch 1). For me, this makes the book somewhat confusing to read since it means that, at times, Gertz says he is doing one thing when it really seems like in practice he is doing another (other aspects of the book have been critiqued by other reviewers). Nevertheless, the book is entertaining and informative. In what follows, I want to try to reconstruct its main argument, as I understand it. This may not be the one that Gertz himself intends, but it is the one that makes the most sense to me.

Gertz’s book is divided into two main segments, each consisting of several chapters. The first is an introduction to nihilism and human-technology relations. The second is a series of five case studies on how technology induces and perpetuates a form of passive nihilism. For me, a lot of the interpretive problems with the book stem from the theoretical portion so I will spend a bit of time trying to make sense of that. Then, I will look at one of the five case studies.

1. Metaphysical versus Practical Nihilism
Since nihilism is the central concept in Gertz’s book, it is important for him to define it, preferably somewhere near the beginning, so that we have a clear sense of what it is that he trying to argue. He does this in the second chapter, starting with a definition that he thinks tracks the everyday usage of the term:

[I]n everyday usage [nihilism] is taken to mean something roughly equivalent to the expression “who cares?” In other words, when we say that someone is a “nihilist” we mean that this person is someone who does not care and someone who believes that, in general, no one else cares either. 
(Gertz 2017, Ch 2)

Gertz proceeds to elaborate and refine this colloquial definition, using a dash of Nietzsche and a pinch Sartre to help him out. Ultimately, however, he does not stray too far from this colloquial definition. In some ways, this is an acceptable stance. The term “nihilism” is multiply ambiguous in philosophy. Although it is primarily used in relation to evaluative and moral phenomena, people do also use the term when arguing that something lacks and overall purpose or utility (hence why people talk about ‘medical nihilism’ and why I talk about ‘conference nihilism’). Given this, it is fine to stipulate a preferred definition and work with it. Nevertheless, I find Gertz’s definition confusing because I think it ignores an important conceptual distinction between different forms of nihilism. This distinction is particularly important when it comes to understanding Gertz’s central thesis.

The distinction I have in mind is the one between metaphysical and practical nihilism. Metaphysical nihilism has to do with the structure of reality. It is the claim that there are no evaluative or normative facts about the world around us. Nothing is truly valuable or morally obligatory. We may project these moral properties onto reality; but they are always an illusion. To put it another way, any claims we might make such as ‘charity is good’ or ‘torture is forbidden’ are necessarily false. Metaphysical nihilism comes in different flavours, depending on the normative or evaluative properties that are thought not to exist. One can be an evaluative nihilist (i.e. believe that nothing is good or bad) or a normative nihilist (i.e. believe that nothing is forbidden, permitted, or obligatory) or an existential nihilist (i.e. believe that life has no meaning or purpose). One can be all three of these things or only one or two. When I think about nihilism, it is the metaphysical kind of nihilism that first springs to mind (this may, admittedly, be a personal quirk).

Practical nihilism has to do with how one behaves. Do you act as if there are no evaluative or normative facts? Do you assume your life has no purpose and that nothing you do really matters? If so, you are a practical nihilist. Practical nihilism often goes hand-in-hand with metaphysical nihilism. Thus, if there are no evaluative or normative facts about reality it is natural to assume that this will have some knock-on implications for how people will behave (though see this article by Guy Kahane for a contrasting view). But they do not have to go hand-in-hand. One can be a metaphysical nihilist without being a practical nihilist. In other words, you can accept that there are no evaluative or normative facts but still remain committed to a strong personal code of ethics or values. Indeed, some famous nihilists have argued, arguably paradoxically, that this is what one ought to do in response to the truth of metaphysical nihilism. For example, Albert Camus, in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, argues that we have to embrace the absurdity of existence and play the game as best we can.

Gertz’s book is about practical nihilism, not metaphysical nihilism. He is not arguing that technology somehow reveals that evaluative or normative facts do not exist. He seems take that as a given (or, at least, doesn’t question it all that much). He is, instead, arguing that technology impacts on our behaviour in nihilistic ways. To be more precise, taking his cue primarily from Nietzsche but also from Sartre, he argues that technology is facilitating a form of passive nihilism and not an active nihilism. Here’s how I would characterise this distinction:

Passive Nihilism: Individuals do not take responsibility for determining their own value system and instead just accept whatever value system is foisted upon them by the society in which they live. They do this with an air of futility because they accept that nothing really matters and so there is no point in fighting back against this system. In Sartrean terms they are guilty of ‘bad faith’: an apathetic disavowal of existential responsibility.

Active Nihilism: Individuals do take responsibility for determining their own value system and critically engage with and scrutinise the values imposed on them by society. They do this while accepting the deeper truth of metaphysical nihilism.

Like Nietzsche, Gertz seems to favour the latter kind of nihilism over the former. Indeed, the whole point of his book appears to be to argue that we should shift from being passive nihilists to being active nihilists. I find this odd because it looks to me like this is an implicitly normative agenda that is inconsistent with metaphysical nihilism. On what grounds can one favour active nihilism if there are no deeper normative or evaluative truths? Is it just mere preference? If so, why bother arguing for that preference? The charge of self-contradiction is, admittedly, one that is commonly made against self-confessed nihilists — one could criticise Nietzsche on similar grounds — but it seems unavoidable in the present context.

To put it more bluntly, I wonder if there is anything truly nihilistic about Gertz’s critique of technology. When it comes to nihilism, I tend to be a ‘metaphysics first’ kind-of-guy: if the underlying metaphysical stance is not nihilistic, and if there is an obvious normative agenda, then I don’t see it as nihilistic. That said, I fully accept that there is an important distinction between passively accepting a system of values and actively questioning and creating a system of values. If Gertz’s critique is just that technology encourages the former and not the latter, then I am happy to accept it for what it is. It’s just that then it is a lot less novel and a lot less ‘sexy’. There are, after all, many books that present a similar critique of technology (e.g. Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger’s book Re-engineering Humanity or Shannon Vallor’s Technology and the Virtues).

2. How Technology Fosters Passive Nihilism
There is a bit more to Gertz’s theoretical framework. In addition to clarifying what he means by nihilism he also presents a theory for understanding how humans relate to technology and the world around them. This theory is an updated version of Don Ihde’s phenomenological theory of human-technology relations (which I covered previously). I might address this on another occasion because it is interesting in its own right but it isn’t absolutely essential for understanding the rest of Gertz’s thesis. So, for now, I am going to skip over it and proceed to Gertz’s main argument about the nihilism-inducing power of technology.

Following Nietzsche, Gertz argues that there exists an ‘ascetic priesthood’ (the term is Nietzsche’s) that helps to foster and inculcate passive nihilism. This ascetic priesthood uses five ‘tactics’ to achieve this end: self-hypnosis, mechanical activity, petty pleasures, herd instinct, and orgies of feeling. Gertz’s twist on Nietzsche is that in our present day and age this ascetic priesthood is present in the technology industry (and the culture associated with it) and exerts its power through technology. The latter half of his book is a series of case studies of how modern technology uses the five tactics to induce passive nihilism.

As mentioned at the outset, I am only going to focus on one of the five case studies: how technology induces self-hypnosis. ‘Self-hypnosis’ is the phenomenon whereby we dull our emotional engagement with the world. Nietzsche described it as the the attempt to “reduce the feeling of life in general to the lowest”. If you were ever successfully hypnotised, you’ll know that it largely cuts off you sensory awareness of yourself and your surroundings. At most, you get a very narrow channel of sensory information. Your sense of pleasure, pain, selfhood, anger, excitement, desire and so on is significantly reduced. Achieving such a state of being is, obviously, one way to foster passive nihilism. When in the hypnotic state we become passive receptacles of whatever information or experience is fed to us through the narrow channel. We lose the larger sense of ourselves.

Nietzsche saw the growing fad for Buddhism and meditation as an example of this tactic for self-hypnosis. In meditative states we try to reduce our connection to ourselves and our world: we detach and distance ourselves from reality. Gertz argues that nowadays we do this with technological assistance, particularly through entertainment technology. We bombard ourselves with streams of entertainment (videos, audiobooks, newsfeeds, podcasts etc) in order to stop ourselves from being alone with our own thoughts. The TV, for Gertz, is the classic technological facilitator of self-hypnosis, one that has been perfected by the ubiquity of the screen in modern life:

Wake up, turn on the TV, and instantly become surrounded with sound, something, anything, to occupy what might otherwise be a space filled with nothing but silence and your own thoughts. Turn off the TV, leave. Return, turn the TV back on. In between, watch TV on the bus, on the train, on the plane, in the mall, on the billboard, on your computer, on your phone, or even on your watch. 
(Gertz 2017, ch 4)

In addition to the ubiquity of the screen, the entertainment companies have got wise to the ways in which they can make their entertainment maximally addictive. Instead of tuning in periodically to watch your favourite shows, you can binge watch entire series on Netflix and other streaming services. If you get bored of that, you can switch to some other form of equally addictive entertainment (news media, videogames etc). All of these forms of entertainment are mass produced, by committees and teams, in an increasingly formulaic way (think of the endless sequels of hit comic book movies). This breeds great conformity and groupthink.

The result is that we are sucked out of reality and taught to find meaning and purpose in imaginary worlds. What’s more, we are all fully aware of this (we agitate nervously about the zombifying effects of entertainment technology) but do it anyway because we enjoy it. We are thus complicit in our own self-hypnosis.

Gertz goes into far more detail on each of these points, providing some interesting statistics of how much time is now spent watching video and examples of how companies perfect the addictive qualities of their entertainment. Hopefully, I have provided enough to give you the gist of the argument. The subsequent case studies build upon this by showing how self-tracking, crowdfunding, and social media deploy the other tactics for inducing passive nihilism.

What do I think of all this? Well, I once wrote a paper called the ’Rise of the Robots and the Crisis of Moral Patiency’ that defends a similar view. I argued that automating technologies (in particular) have the tendency to induce more passive engagement with the world, which undermines a number of important human goods. And, as mentioned above, other people defend similar views. But as society grows gradually more pessimistic about technology I have — perhaps out of sheer contrariness — become more optimistic. So, for instance, I now think that the retreat from reality that Gertz laments in his discussion of self-hypnosis is less of a problem than he implies. There are two reasons for this. The first is that ‘reality’ is poorly defined and I am not sure it is possible to fully escape it. For example, even in a ‘virtual’ environment real things happen to you. The second is that as long as the environment to which we escape doesn’t foster or encourage genuine passivity then we can avoid the worst problems associated with ’tuning out’. Simply watching or consuming TV might be bad (if it’s the only thing we do) but certain forms of virtual reality or videogames might not be since they can help us to develop skilled (moral) agency. These are themes I explore in much greater detail in my book Automation and Utopia.

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