We Can Make Anything: Should We?

We Can Make Anything: Should We?

Chris Bateman (University of Bolton, UK)
Copyright: © 2015 |Pages: 15
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-8592-5.ch002


What limitations are we willing to accept on our development of new technologies? The shared sense among a great many of the idealistic supporters of our ever-growing range of tools and abilities is that the acquisition of knowledge is always a positive gain for the entirety of humanity, and that therefore there should be no (or few) restrictions on continued technology research. This mythology, which descends from the arrival of exclusive Humanism from the Enlightenment onwards, has become one of the greatest moral and prudential threats to human existence because it removes the possibility of accurately assessing the moral implications of our technology. Against this prevailing ethos of unbounded technological incrementalism, this essay uses the pejorative term cyberfetish to mark our dependence upon, and inability to accurately assess, our technology.
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Cyberfetish And The World Of Tomorrow

When Immanuel Kant and the other philosophers of the Enlightenment began their project, they set out to commence an Age of Reason, such that humanity might gain a degree of autonomy that was unthinkable when that period of history began. The motto that Kant suggested for this transformative age was “Have courage to use your own reason!” (Kant, 1996: 17). In many respects the movement that began in the eighteenth century bore spectacular fruit over the centuries that followed – producing an unprecedented degree of individual freedom in those nations where its ideals took root. But regrettably, the mode of seeing the world that helped this individualism to prosper also had terrible unseen consequences. This problematic perspective is rooted in Kant’s division of the world into thinking subjects and inanimate objects (Kant, 1998), as brought to philosophical attention by Bruno Latour (1993) and others. By granting human minds a special moral status, and denying that ‘objects’ could attain or affect that situation, the children of the Enlightenment learned to ignore all their tools as ‘mere means’.

Actually, this picture – well discussed within the field of Science and Technology Studies – itself overlooks a rather worrying aspect of our contemporary technological world. Questioning the division into clear subjects and objects draws attention to the moral implications of technology that have thus far been brushed under the philosophical carpet, which has definite benefits – but there is another aspect here worthy of attention. For although it is the case that we have mistaken technology as ‘inanimate’ and ‘neutral’ means to ends, despite significant and rather worrying effects on our ethical worlds (Latour, 1994, 2002; Verbeek, 2006, 2009), we have not entirely followed Kant’s suggestion of treating ‘objects’ as non-participants in our moral perspective. On the contrary, for a great many people today – I am tempted to say a vast majority in those places that descended from European nations – technology is not merely a neutral tool, it is actually also the focus of something close to a religious (or rather non-religious) devotion. The extent of this trend is marked by the prevailing belief that when we encounter a problem, of whatever kind, an almost unquestioned assumption is that we can develop a technology to solve that problem, irrespective of the nature of the challenge.

I have called this hallowing of the power of technology cyberfetish (Bateman, 2014). This term connects this phenomena with two quite distinct traditions. On the one hand, it alludes to the failure of the cyberpunk literary movement within science fiction to provoke an effective resistance to the domination of corporate-produced technology, as its authors once hoped was possible. On the other, it references Auguste Comte, who first drew attention to the description of ‘fetishism’ as a ‘first stage’ of human religion, the last of which was ‘positivism’ i.e. the elevation of the sciences above religion (Comte, 1830). Karl Marx famously used the term ‘commodity fetishism’ to compare these ancient religious practices to the strange importance being placed upon goods and money (Marx, 1887), and there has recently been a revival of interest in viewing capitalism as a form of animism (e.g. Holert, 2012). ‘Cyberfetish’ implies both the exaltation of technology (cyberfetishism, in a parallel to Marx) and technology as equivalent to an animist’s fetish (the cyberfetish), and I intend the term to be inherently pejorative. It marks a dependence upon technological means that, far from being neutral, have imprisoned as much as they have liberated. Our inability to clearly perceive this is precisely why I invoke such an obviously polemic term – our imaginative perspective upon the world is systematically distorted by cyberfetish, in ways that should trouble us far more than they usually do.

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