Technology as Tragedy

Here is something I wrote in 2010 and thought worth editing a little and reposting.

But what if the difficulties attending technology are both integral to its very being and inseparable from its benefits–like the other side of a coin? This would make technology more like a tragedy that begs for understanding and endurance, than like a problem that calls for a solution. To put the point starkly: to formulate the question about technology as the problem of technology is itself a manifestation of technological thinking–of the desire to knock down all obstacles, even if only in mind. To ask about the problem of technology in fact exemplifies it. (38)

In tragedy the failure is imbedded in the hero’s success, the defeats in his victories, the miseries in his glory. The technological way, deeply rooted in the human soul and spurred on by utopian promises of modern thought, seems to be inevitable, heroic, and doomed. (49)
– Leon Kass, Life, Liberty and the Defense of Dignity

The idea of technology as tragedy is one of the most interesting insights into the nature and politics of technology that I’ve read. In the context of biomedical technology, about which Kass is writing, the idea of tragedy becomes even more significant. What was it in the Greek plays and even in Herodotus’s The Histories that led to tragedy? The attempt to cheat the prophecy of death. What is largely the purpose of the biomedical industry? To cheat death. We could probably extend this to many types of technology, if not technology as a whole. Framed as tragedy, it becomes impossible to see technological change as progress itself or even as the bearer of progress.

But is the “technological way” inevitable, as Kass asserts? I don’t think so. As so many, including Ellul, Junger, Spengler, and Heidegger, have pointed out, there was a transformation in our relationship to technics or technology during the Enlightenment. So perhaps the “technological way” is more historically specific than Kass believes. Regardless, I agree that the “technological way” is doomed. More technology and technological thinking is not a solution. But what is the goal?

Answers depend not on science or even on ethics but on a proper anthropology, one that richly understands what it means to be a human animal, in our bodily, psychic, social, cultural, political, and spiritual dimensions. For we cannot even begin to discuss the possible dignity of human embodiment, human procreation or human finitude if we do not seek to grasp their being and meaning. (19)

Despite this statement, I think Kass is often confused about his own anthropology. He doesn’t seem to be sure if he believes in the equality of people and the supremacy of reason (the anthropology of the Enlightenment) or if he holds to an anthropology that emphasizes man as a fallen being who requires humility in order to avoid trying to become like the gods (perhaps a mix of Christian and pagan anthropologies).

We liberal democrats may not be able to stem the technological tide, but we do have the wherewithal to keep from going under. Everything depends on rejecting the rationalist and utopian dream of perfecting human beings by re-creating them, and on remembering that richer vision of human liberty and human dignity that informs the founding of our polity. (50)

I am enthusiastic about his questioning of reason. But if we reject the supremacy of reason, we need to replace it with the supremacy of something else.  What is to be the supreme way of knowing or deciding things?  How about an unmediated and direct experience of reality?

Zen teaches us to accept reality as it is, not to wish it were otherwise.   This offers us some new ways to think about technology.

  1. Abandoning an avoidance of death should reframe the purpose of technology. Do we want technology to be a means of artificially extending life and avoiding death?
  2. Accepting the “suchness” of things and their inherent dignity pushes away from viewing plants, animals, other people, or any thing else as a mere resources to be incorporated into the creeping “perfection of technology” described by Junger.
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