Thursday, 8 May 2014

Polemical Thoughts on 'Look Up'

It is an assumption in some quarters that one must either be fully supportive or completely condemnatory of technology, with very little room left for the middle ground. One either hears the incessant songs of individuals and corporations lauding technology in a quasi-messianic form, or one hears the equally incessant songs of those who condemn technology as demonic. Why must we only deal with absolutes and extremes? Is there room for a critique that falls between condemnation and celebration?

My motivation for writing this piece comes from the video Look Up, and thus will focus on social media.

Now this is, ultimately, a harmless triviality (we shan’t dwell on the obvious irony of a video that condemns social media out-of-hand becoming widely watched due to that very technology), but it is emblematic of a deeper and far more worrying trend: it often seems that the only people willing to engage in critiques of technology and modernity are fools or, perhaps worse, outright reactionaries.
‘All distances in time and space are shrinking. Places that a person previously reached after weeks and months on the road are now reached by airplane overnight. What a person previously received news of only after years, if at all, is now experienced hourly over the radio in no time. The germination and flourishing of plants that remained concealed through the seasons, film now exhibits in a single minute. Film shows the distant cities of the most ancient civilisations as if they stood as this very moment amidst today’s street traffic.’ –Martin Heidegger
         We might add to this: ‘And now information technology allows for people with whom we would never speak ready access to our lives, to retain connections that would be otherwise sundered, and to engage with and experience cultures on the far side of the world.’

            At a first glance, the above might seem to be an unambiguous praise of the miracles of technology, but we must not let ourselves be deceived: Heidegger’s relationship with technology is most certainly not one of ready praise, it is one of suspicion…but not outright hostility either. In his own words: ‘Technology is not demonic, but its essence is mysterious.’ [own emphasis] The spirit of this expression may, perhaps, be expounded as follows: we are as mistaken in assuming that technology is out-right evil as we are that it will save the world. There are, of course, subtleties to this statement that are lost by my literalising paraphrase (to borrow an expression from Graham Harman), and I advise the reader to find a copy of Heidegger’s essay The Question Concerning Technology to appreciate what is meant by both ‘technology’ and ‘essence,’ but for our immediate purposes, we can read the above loosely.
            Before we continue with the more abstract points, let us first discuss the video itself. Questions of its quality aside (personally, I found it laughably trite and obvious), what are the main points to extract here? That social media technology has forced us apart under the guise of bringing us together, that we have lost the simple relationship of the face-to-face and the spontaneity of meeting new people. Now, as is often the case, there is partial truth to all these points (there’s partial truth to most points).

            We should not disguise the problems that social media (or any form of technology) creates, this much is obvious. But, neither must we try and hide from the benefits it provides. I will here direct the reader to this excellent article for a similar discussion of ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ of modernity.

            Of course, social media now means that instead of going out and speaking with one’s friends it is now an option to simply send them a Facebook message. It is also an option to use Facebook to arrange to meet them face-to-face. Both of these options are always available to us. Facebook hasn’t killed personal relationships, though I would not say that it has necessarily enhanced them either. Rather, it has given us access to new forms of relationships which were previously impossible. I can, do, and hope to continue to maintain relationships with people I care about using social media. I have had friendships begin thanks to this new form of technology. You might respond: ‘Well, you could always write letters to your friends, or phone them, if you want to continue these relationships afar!’

           It is, of course, not a case of saying that all the ‘net has done is allow for a more efficient form of communication than the post, as no form of technology is ‘neutral’ in that way. But the fact of the matter is, as put very well in the article mentioned above, thanks to social media relationships that would have been impossible beforehand are now readily available to be explored. No, having a friend you’ve never met in person, who you know from a forum or a Facebook group, is not the same thing as having a pen-pal you’ve never met, but that is not to say that it is therefore of less worth. It is of different worth, of different value.

            The real problem, and this is what the video is touching on but fails to properly engage with (drowning its point in sentiment and bad poetry), is that we might lose forms of relationship that we had previously, forms of relationship that we ought to protect. The danger that technology poses for Heidegger, and I am inclined to agree with him here, is that the mind-set that technology (here understood to include also science- again, I recommend you read his essay on the subject) conceals from us other potential ways of revealing the world and other people. It shuts off old forms of relationship even as it opens the way to new ones.

            We must, however, remember that Heidegger tells us that the essence of technology is not demonic but mysterious. The last words on what technology means for us are still yet to be uttered.

            And a viral video on YouTube most certainly won’t help us venture closer to them. 


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