Nihilism and Technology

Nihilism and Technology

by Nolen Gertz

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Heidegger, Marcuse, and Ellul warned against the rise of a technological mass culture. Philosophy of technology has since turned away from such dystopic views, promoting instead the view that we shape technologies just as technologies shape us. Yet the rise of Big Data has exceeded our worst fears about Big Brother, leading us to again question whether technologies are empowering us or enslaving us.

Rather than engage in endless debates about whether technologies are making us better or making us worse, Nolen Gertz investigates what we think "better" and "worse" mean, and what role this thinking has played in the creation of our technological world. This investigation is carried out by using Nietzsche's philosophy of nihilism in order to explore the ways in which our values mediate how we design technologies and how we use technologies. Examining our technological practices-practices ranging from Netflix and Chill to Fitbit and Move to Twitter and Rage-reveals how our nihilism and our technologies have become intertwined, creating a world of techno-hypnosis, data-driven activity, pleasure economics, herd networking, and orgies of clicking.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781786607034
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 06/20/2018
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 242
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Nolen Gertz is Assistant Professor of Applied Philosophy at the University of Twente, and a Senior Researcher at the 4TU.Centre for Ethics and Technology. He is the author of The Philosophy of War and Exile (Palgrave-Macmillan 2014). His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and ABC Australia.

Read an Excerpt




A family is playing together in their living room. Mom and daughter are inside a couch cushion fort, a fort that dad is moments away from invading. The daughter is happily watching the family dog, who is too busy with a chew toy to guard the perimeter. Alongside this happy family in their happy home happily playing on their happy carpet is a large hockey-puck-like machine sitting on the floor. The black machine appears in stark contrast to the bright sunny situation surrounding it. The machine's function is not made obvious, but its purpose is clear as we can see that this machine is what enables this family to be so happy, and thus we can further conclude that without this machine, the happiness would be gone.

What I am describing is not only an ad for a Roomba but an ad for a trend in the design of technologies, a trend that has become so pervasive, so dominant, so ubiquitous, that advertisers need only hint at it for us to immediately understand that what is being sold to us is not the technology but a way of life, a way of life that only the advertised technology can make possible. The Roomba ad needs no text as the image tells us everything we need to know. The large black hockey puck in the corner works so we do not have to, so we can instead play, so we can instead be happy, so we can instead be human.

I call this the leisure-as-liberation trend in technological design. The idea behind this trend is very simple: the role of technologies is to liberate us from the chores that prevent us from having the leisure time we need to be human. This is the idea we see at work not only in the Roomba but also in online shopping, in voice-activated assistants, in predictive algorithms, and in the development of autonomous cars, autonomous robots, and autonomous drones. Technologies can clean for us, they can buy and sell for us, they can check the weather for us, they can write texts for us, they can drive for us, they can do manual labor for us, and they can even kill for us.

Technologies can do so much for us that we are beginning to wonder which of life's tasks, if any, will be left for us to do. In other words, while it is clear that technologies are advancing at an incredible rate, that technologies are becoming more and more capable of performing tasks previously assigned to humans, it is not as clear that humans are necessarily advancing, that humans are becoming more capable rather than merely more dependent on the capabilities of technologies. Yet as technologies become more capable, they also become more entrenched in our everyday lives, for which reason it is increasingly difficult to even determine where technologies end and we begin. Hence it is perhaps a mistake to think that technologies could advance independently of humans, or that humans could become dependent on technologies, as it could instead be argued that the human/technology distinction is merely a leftover from our more traditional dualistic ways of thinking.

Contemporary thinking about technology — both in design and in philosophy — suggests that rather than distinguish humans and technologies we should instead recognize that technologies have always played a formative role in human life. Rather than worry that technologies are turning us into the helpless blobs depicted in Wall-E, we should realize that we would not be who we are without technologies, that, as was shown in 2001: A Space Odyssey, we can draw a straight line from our prehuman ancestors' discovery of tools to our present-day exploration of outer space. As technologies have always been part of human development, we should not fear what they are doing to us but strive to learn more about them and to take a more active role in their design, as technologies have been and will continue to be part of human development whether we like it or not.

Such contemporary thinking about technology is not meant to champion technophilia but instead to move us away from what is seen as the counterproductive concerns of technophobia. These contemporary thinkers — thinkers such as Peter-Paul Verbeek, Shannon Vallor, Luciano Floridi, and Bruno Latour — would likely argue that they are simply technorealists, that either loving or hating technologies is less useful than studying technologies, than engaging with developers and actively participating in the design process. Yet such study, engagement, and participation would necessarily require that we invest a lot of time and energy into thinking about technology. In other words, it appears that we must develop technologies that can liberate us, in order to have leisure, in order to think about technologies, in order to develop technologies that can liberate us, in order to have leisure, etc., etc., etc.

However, for the technophobic thinkers of the past — thinkers such as Jacques Ellul, Martin Heidegger, Herbert Marcuse, and Lewis Mumford — what was at issue was not the question of whether technologies had a role in human development but rather the question of whether the in-order-to mindset of modern technological thinking was perverting human development. Modern technologies appear to function not by helping us achieve our ends but instead by determining ends for us, by providing us with ends that we must help technologies achieve. Thus the Roomba owner must organize their home in accordance with the maneuvering needs of the Roomba, just as the smartphone owner must organize their activities in accordance with the power and data consumption needs of the smartphone. Surely we buy such devices to serve our needs but, once bought, we become so fascinated with the devices that we develop new needs, such as the need to keep the device working so that the device can keep us fascinated.

Technologies go beyond providing us with goals and shaping our activities, they can also influence our values and shape our judgments. The values of efficiency and of objectivity lead us to necessarily judge technologies to be superior to humans, for which reason we not only prefer technological solutions to our problems but we increasingly see humans as inefficient, as biased, as problems — problems to be replaced by more trustworthy and dependable technologies. Likewise our use of social media leads us to constantly redefine the values of privacy and of friendship so that we see Facebook as just another form of communication, with pluses and minuses like any other, rather than seeing it as intrusive and alienating in ways that were unimaginable before its presence.

Just as contemporary thinkers would not see themselves as technophiliacs but as technorealists, so too these thinkers of the past would not have seen themselves as technophobes but as technorealists. Indeed these earlier thinkers would have probably suggested that the label of technophobia is itself symptomatic of the effect modern technologies have on us, as to challenge the perceived positive benefits of technologies is to be seen as either a Luddite, an ingrate, or a paranoid conspiracy theorist. In other words, contemporary thinkers accuse thinkers of the past of not understanding what it means to be technological whereas thinkers of the past would accuse contemporary thinkers of not understanding what it means to be human.

It is important to realize that the opposition between these two perspectives is not merely an esoteric theoretical argument. If we can indeed take an active role in determining how technologies influence us, then to treat tech companies as our enemy is to risk letting tech companies determine these influences for us rather than with us. Alternatively, if technologies are warping our goals, our values, and our judgments in ways that we do not realize, then the more we try to work with tech companies, the more we will be at risk of becoming entrenched in a technological mindset, consequently making us less and less able to take a critical stance toward technologies. Working out which of these perspectives is correct is thus vital for ensuring that technologies are providing us leisure as a form of liberation rather than providing us leisure as a form of dehumanization.


The question of whether our practices are leading us to become liberated or dehumanized, to become freer or more deluded, is a question that has arisen not only due to practices concerning technology. In the nineteenth century, Karl Marx attempted to answer this question with regard to Capitalism, and Friedrich Nietzsche attempted to answer this question with regard to Christianity. For Marx, Capitalist ideology convinces workers that anyone could become wealthy if they only work hard enough when, in reality, workers are exploited by the wealthy and alienated from themselves, from other workers, and from their humanity. Yet because the wealthy not only seek to keep profits from their workers but also from each other, Marx argued that the wealthy would inevitably fight each other, train the workers to fight their battles against their rivals, and consequently destroy themselves by having inadvertently revolutionized the working class. In other words, the more that brands advertise that their competitors are lying to us, the more we should learn to distrust advertising, to distrust brands, and to distrust Capitalist ideology.

For Nietzsche, it would come as no surprise that Marx's predicted revolution has not taken place, that we have not become distrusting of Capitalism, nor even of brands, but have instead developed brand loyalty, identifying with brands, taking sides in brand wars, choosing to destroy ourselves rather than Capitalism. Whereas Marx thought that we are distracted and deluded by ideology, by external influences preventing us from learning the truth of our situation, a truth that, once learned, would immediately lead us to unite and revolt, Nietzsche thought that we are distracted and deluded because we want to be. According to Nietzsche, we should be concerned less with dangerous external influences than with dangerous internal influences, internal influences such as our tendency to view life as a source of suffering rather than as a source of challenges that force us to adapt and grow. This tendency leads us to turn against life, to embrace both opportunities to be distracted from life and ideologies — no matter how delusional — that promise us a way to a better life, even if such a life is to be found only through death.

From a Nietzschean perspective, what we need to learn to recognize and fight against is not exploitation but nihilism. For we will never revolt against our exploitation so long as our nihilism — our tendency to turn against life — leads us to prefer being exploited to being free, to being responsible, to being human. In other words, Marx took for granted that we want to be our own boss instead of being bossed around, and he did not appreciate the degree to which we might like having a boss, having a boss whom we could blame for our suffering, a boss who could tell us what to do, a boss who could prevent us from having to face the burden of making decisions for ourselves.

In his philosophical writings, Nietzsche diagnoses various ways that we turn against life, various ways that we distract and delude ourselves, various ways that we seek leisure, not as a way to become more human but as a way to avoid being human. What is important for Nietzsche is that we live a life of contradictions since we do not recognize our everyday practices as being contrary to life but have instead developed a moral framework that valorizes our anti-life practices, defining such practices as means to the sole end that life should have: being good. It is for this reason that Nietzsche focuses on Christianity as he traces the genealogy of our paradoxical value system — a value system that defines someone who is bad at being human as good at being moral — back to the victory of Christianity over paganism. Using his philological expertise, Nietzsche reveals that our moral values are not based on universal human experience or on pure concepts discovered by reason but are the product of a struggle between competing value systems, a struggle that took place so long ago, and that ended so decisively, that we no longer realize that alternative value systems are even possible.

If "good" could have multiple competing meanings, then so too could "progress," for which reason Nietzsche does not ask whether humans have achieved progress since the dawn of Christianity; he asks how we define "progress" and whether this definition accords with what it means to be human. It is for this reason that I believe Nietzsche — though he did not write much specifically about technology — can still help us to address the question of whether technological progress accords with human progress. Nietzsche in particular can help us to avoid the simple reduction of this inquiry to a question of whether technologies are making us more moral as we can see, thanks to Nietzsche, that the relationship between moral progress and human progress must be interrogated rather than taken for granted. By turning to Nietzsche, we can, for example, investigate not just whether technologies that monitor and report shifts in moods might help save lives but also what sort of "life" is being saved by using such surveillance technologies, technologies which could motivate the very mood shifts that they are designed to monitor and report.


The aim of this book is to investigate how our nihilism became technological and how technologies become nihilistic. The goal of this investigation is to move us away from the endless debates between technooptimists and techno-pessimists about whether technological progress is making us better or making us worse, to move us instead toward interrogating how we define concepts like "progress," "better," and "worse," toward interrogating how technologies both shape and are the result of such ideological definitions.

In chapter 2 I begin this project by clarifying what nihilism is, what nihilism means, and why we should not underestimate nihilism by thinking of it as merely an affliction of overprivileged teenagers. For existential philosophers like Sartre, nihilism has become so normalized in everyday life that we take for granted that nihilism is only experienced by those who claim not to care about life, and thus we do not recognize how even what we think of as "caring about life" can be nihilistic. By recognizing the pervasiveness of nihilism in everyday life, we can better understand Nietzsche's arguments about the role of nihilism in the history of Europe, and in particular in the history of Christian morality. For Nietzsche, nihilism and morality are intertwined historically, for which reason Nietzsche challenges us to question the value of our values so that we can see that our values of self-sacrifice and self-denial are nihilistic and self-destructive. Though we might think that Nietzsche's arguments no longer apply to the technological world we live in today, by investigating transhumanism we can see how vital an understanding of nihilism is for appreciating the nihilistic underpinnings of the "posthuman" that this movement is championing.

In chapter 3 I turn from developing a philosophy of nihilism to developing a philosophy of technology. As Heidegger's "The Question Concerning Technology" has become a rite of passage for contemporary philosophers of technology — a text that one must criticize in order to establish trust that one is not a technophobic determinist — I begin with this text as well. My aim is not to attack Heidegger in order to assuage fears about my own views but instead to show how Heidegger's philosophy of technology both points toward and breaks from Nietzsche's philosophy of nihilism. Heidegger's concerns about modern technology ushering in a conformist society can be read as an argument about the relationship between nihilism and technology. Yet, like Marx and unlike Nietzsche, Heidegger ends up blaming the external influence of technology for humanity not achieving its destiny. For this reason I move from Heidegger to Don Ihde, as Ihde's philosophy of technology is based on trying to separate Heidegger's helpful insights into the use of technologies from his philosophically problematic and politically dangerous views about human destiny. Ihde's analyses of what he calls human-technology relations show how we can combine Nietzsche's philosophy of nihilism and Ihde's philosophy of technology and investigate what I call nihilism-technology relations.


Excerpted from "Nihilism and Technology"
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Copyright © 2018 Nolen Gertz.
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Table of Contents

1. Nietzsche and Chill / 2. The Will to ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ / 3. The Hammer of the Gods / 4. Ecce Hulu / 5. Amor Fitbit / 6. The Uber Mensch / 7. Thus Spake Zuckerberg / 8. The Trolling of the Idols / 9. Google is Dead

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