Origins and Structure of Anxiety Culture about Technology
This is part of our special feature on Anxiety Culture.
In order to understand the nature of today’s pervading anxiety culture and how it relates to our relationship with technology, we need to remind ourselves that techné (meaning, in Greek, an efficient action carried out through the use of specific tools or (and) methods) was originally associated with a culture of optimism. For millennia, human beings have been fascinated by their own tools; and they still are. The question that preoccupies us now, is why anxiety has replaced the original optimism attached to technical objects and activities.
Techné and the human condition
Making and using tools are activities associated with the very definition of humanity. Paleoanthropologists working on what is called the process of “hominization,” so to say, and on the multiple conditions that have allowed humans to become humans, are affirming that the development and the sophistication of techné is one of the main cultural conditions, along with the development of a sophisticated language, rituals, attitudes towards death (burying corpses), as well as environmental conditions, such as desertification, and physiological conditions, such as being a biped or the complexification of the nervous system.
Therefore, from an anthropological standpoint technical development is one of the main conditions of the emergence of humanity. The main feature to define, what is often seen as the Neolithic Revolution, is actually a leap in the development of techné, which becomes increasingly present in the everyday life of human communities. We often talk about the discovery of fire as a development that gave human beings the capacity to fight with more efficiency against dangerous animals, to cook food (thus avoiding bacteria transmitted by raw meat), to diversify their sources of food, and to protect themselves against cold weather. The invention of the wheel changed the way human beings conceived distances. The use of animal skins and wool, agriculture, farming, the invention of the boat, and weapons such as bows and arrows, also had a significant impact. Taken together, these achievements gave birth to a new way of living and of thinking.
Later on, the great civilizations that emerged from these achievements held these objects in high regard, going so far as to consider them sacred. They built a positive narrative out of technical prowess, even when they were thought to come from a magical power. Such was the case in ancient China, in the Persian and Arabic antiquity, and, of course in ancient Greece, where the concept of techné was at the center of positive speculations, even if the idea of progress was not yet clearly understood with its consequences. Crafts evolved out of an effort to unveil an ancient secret coming from the gods. That is the reason why guilds where keeping and transmitting this secret knowledge in order to maintain it unchanged, like a traditional recipe whose purity must be preserved. The more we respect the origin the more accurate our knowledge will be. Nevertheless, some thinkers, like the materialist and epicurean philosopher Lucrecius, started to think about the notion of progress. Writing in the first century BC, Lucretius makes uncanny remarks about sailing boats that were faster and more stable in his old age than during his childhood.
The invention of technological progress
We must realize that even in the eighteenth century science was still conceived separately from technology On one side stood cumulative knowledge, which built more and more sophisticated theories, and on another side stood crafts that relied on the transmission of skills from a remote past. Even in the famous Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers edited by the enlightened rationalist philosophers Diderot and D’Alembert, from 1751 to 1772, sciences were not considered in their practical potential, just as technology and crafts were not thought to be part of scientific progress.
The two domains were not officially linked until the Priestley and Lavoisier chemical discoveries, at the end of the eighteenth century. These breakthroughs had a direct impact on industrialization, as they enabled the lighting of streets and factories, thus lengthening labor hours. This was the beginning of technoscience, so to say of techno-logy. Technoscience refers to the idea that scientific progress (new theories) can help to create new and more efficient technologies (for example, the laws of gas reactions enable more efficient light production), but conversely, it also refers to the idea that technical progress can help develop new scientific theories (for example, steam machines that made the discovery of the laws of thermodynamics possible).
This idea of progress, according to which the future adds something to the past, did not make its way until nineteenth century Europe. This idea culminated in Hegel’s philosophy in the beginning of the nineteenth century. For Hegel, there is within nature a creative dynamic that allows the mind to know itself better and better through the advance of time. The mind acts more and more powerfully on the material world, the more it realizes its own existence through scientific progress. The process that unified the sciences, technology, as well as legal, social, and political knowledge, is called Dialectics. Unlike Plato who thought of dialectics as a mere logical demonstration of the truth, Hegel saw dialectics as the expression of progress, an historical transformative process, where humanity is the highest and ultimate moment. Human beings are the ultimate expression of the mind becoming aware of itself through its own technical realization: perceiving itself outside itself as the progressive proof that it really exists as mind, through progress in architecture, road building, machines, even increasingly sophisticated political institutions. These forms of progress impose themselves to nature, and in so doing, impose the will, the free determination of the human mind, its very form, its idea, over the undetermined unaware material world.
Positivism: the cult of science and technology
The beginning of the nineteenth century was marked by a new enthusiasm for the alliance of science and technical know-how, in other words, for technology. Technology is understood, here, as the discourses, rules, and methods that allow theoretical science to be transposed practically into technical actions. A new profession appears, a new expert of this transposition from science into technical achievement, who is neither a simple craftsman nor a mere scientist: the Engineer. People dreamed about transforming human condition, society, and the world through technology. We could even say that trough the discovery of this new power of transformation, which is the deep meaning of progress, the marriage of science and technical know-how gave birth to a kind of cult: positivism. This positivist narrative proposed a technological redemption. We found it in France with one of its founding fathers, Auguste Comte, who even wrote a Catéchisme positiviste. He dreamed of a society that would be ruled by the best scientists, and he even gave a name to this new regime that would unify scientific and political progress: the positive order. Positivism tells us, in its most extreme perspectives, that science can save the world and humanity from disease, inequality, suffering, frustration, aging, violence, and even, somehow, from death. Medicine could save us from physiological (somatology) and psychical (psychology) illness, and even from decay. Industry could save us from social discontent, fulfilling every person’s needs. The power of the mind-soul relation could be disclosed rationally throw hypnosis (mesmerism). Even life after death could be described scientifically trough spiritism, which was presented by the famous Allan Kardec, as a rational and empirical science. Renowned scientists like Camille Flammarion and writers like Honoré de Balzac were most seriously interested in this “science.” The novelist Jules Verne might have been one of the most enthusiastic authors writing about technological artifacts, making scientific hope into extraordinary narratives. He showed human heroes exploring the depth of the oceans, of the atmosphere, discovering new realities thanks to the extraordinary power of submarines, flying machines, etc.
The three orientations of Anxiety Culture over technology
Simultaneously, while this enthusiasm and fascination reached their climax, the very power of technology, seemingly infinite, started to generate a form of anxiety that expresses itself in three sets of questions:
1) Could this power be destructive, if put in the hands of bad people? This is the social argument against technology. We still find this argument today, not only in social criticism but also in literature, in a novel like Brave New World by Aldous Huxley or 1984 by Georges Orwell. Recently, this anxiety became more closely associated with corporations like Google or Facebook, as they appear to control human beings, depriving them of their free will, without even wielding any democratic or political legitimacy in general. In a more theoretical perspective, Michel Foucault criticized the legitimacy of science and its effective power of control through his notion of “knowledge-power” (“savoir-pouvoir”), with its most dreadful manifestation, the “bio-power” (“bio-pouvoir”), the medical power over individual human bodies.
2) Could this power be disproportionate in itself, making human beings like gods or like God? Technology would be the expression of a Promethean hubris burning humanity within its own pride. Technology feeds the human desire to fly so high as to reach the gods themselves, a hubris that could only end in a catastrophic and final fall, like Icarus who flew too close to the sun. This is the same theological argument against technology that is invoked today to defend the sacred human identity when it is attacked by scientific advances such as cloning or genetic manipulation. This argument could already be found in the nineteenth century in popular literature, such as Mary Shelly’s novel Frankenstein, aptly subtitled The Modern Prometheus.
3) Could this technological power replace (or steal!) human activities, in particular professional activities? This anxious question was asked at the very beginning of the industrial revolution. This deep anxiety among workers provoked multiple uprisings against the first industrial machines. The first social movement of the Industrial Revolution was also the most massive, the bloodiest and the longest: it was called luddism (after the worker Ned Ludd) and it generated an unprecedented wave of violence. From 1811 to 1812 organized groups in England, mostly crafters and workers, carried out a series of violent attacks against wool and cotton factories. Repression was harsh. The movement spread across continental Europe. In Lyon, for example, the famous insurrection of the silk sheet workers in 1831 provoked the intervention of the military and caused the death of around one hundred people.
How can this collective anxiety over technology, at the very beginning of the industrial revolution, be explained? First, the new bourgeois society that emerged out of the industrial revolution did not fulfill its promises of greater peace, fairness and equality. Instead of seeing their social and economic conditions improved, workers feared losing their jobs to machines, without any social protection. Moreover, at a time where religion still formed an important part of cultural identity, religious institutions like the Roman Catholic Church were trying to defend their legitimacy against positivism and rationalism.
Totalitarianism and technology: a new level of anxiety
The three dimensions of anxiety culture reached a new level after the Second World War, more precisely, after the rise of totalitarianisms that: 1) exhibited scientific justifications to control, torture and kill masses of people, and 2) made an extensive use of technology to implement their oppressive control and mass murder.
The German philosopher Martin Heidegger, is one of the first thinkers to have associated technology with the devastation of humanity. For him, technology uproots human beings. It destroys their being there (Dasein) and deprives them of their home. Heidegger’s disciples, including Hannah Arendt, deepened his criticism of scientific and technical progress. But Hans Jonas was unique in basing his entire philosophy on the necessity to cultivate anxiety about technology. As the father of techno-catastrophism, contemporary bioethics and the most revered “Precaution Principle,” Hans Jonas argued that we should learn to fear the future. He called this the “heuristic of fear.” Being scared of technology was, for him, a moral requirement, a new and most important categorical imperative. Only then will we avoid the worst possible future – the annihilation of human time itself, so to say, the annihilation of any future, if humanity itself were annihilated. For Jonas, annihilation comes in two forms: physical (i.e. an atomic war); and existential (humanity could be annihilated in its identity, its Dasein, through genetic manipulations).
Another critic of technology is Karl Popper. He emphasized the limits of the legitimacy of science by showing that it does not fall upon science or scientists to edict universal laws. The principle of falsifiability reminds us that in order to be scientific a law has to have a limited field of applicability. This prevents the translation of “scientific totalism” into political totalitarianism. In other words, a scientific law like natural selection, cannot legitimately be applied to the political realm to justify the selection of individuals on the basis of race, for example.
This anxiety, build on the fear that technoscience could lead to ideological and practical totalitarianism, was progressively directed to capitalist society itself, through the critique of consumer society. The critical theory of the Frankfurt School considers that post-war capitalist societies could become a kind of invisible totalitarianism founded on the domination of consumerism, where people will be less and less free, and increasingly controlled rationally through the use and manipulation of their desires. In this vein, Jürgen Habermas explains that technology imposes its own finality, destroying human liberty. Technology constitutes its own logic, independent of the human will, and threatens to destroy not only politics, culture and human life, but also the entire ecosystem and earth itself. This is where technology-fuelled Anxiety Culture intersects with anxiety about the destruction of environment.
Gunther Anders, another disciple of Heidegger, goes even further in nurturing anxiety about technology. He assimilates the development of technology to the progressive and inescapable destruction of humanity, in the three following steps: a) during what he called the first industrial revolution, the repetitive rhythm of machines was imposed onto men; b) during the second industrial revolution machines start making machines and human beings are reduced to overseeing their functioning and consuming their products; c) during the third industrial revolution human beings themselves become objects of genetic, political, and economic manipulation. They soon become obsolescent and disposable.
It is the exact feeling, that a human could be thrown away by technology that will develope in the twenty-first century with the advent of de-reconstructive technology.
De-reconstructive technoscience and Anxiety Culture
The evolution of current technology manifests itself in three interconnected trends that contribute to exacerbate Anxiety Culture:
1) The permanent and global collecting, circulating, sharing and use of indefinite amounts of information through the internet. This trend exacerbates specifically the first dimension of Anxiety Culture in the face of technology. Technology enables the capture and use of information for purposes that individuals cannot control – from making money to winning elections. That is the reason why big tech companies, more or less related to the internet, are sometimes referred to as the “fearful five.”
2) The development of machines that accomplish tasks like predicting, piloting, archiving, and selecting. This new trend in technoscience is usually called Artificial Intelligence (AI). I call it decisional technology. The expression AI reflects the profound human fear that the most precious part of human beings – the seat of intelligence, the mind, human consciousness or even the soul – could one day be replaced. This anxiety exacerbates the fear of losing one’s identity, as well as losing one’s job and, even more radically, one’s sense of purpose. This fear remains despite the fact that most studies show that changes brought by technology will not reduce human activity – in fact, new activities will be generated, which will be more creative and more purposeful..
3) The technological convergence between nanotechnology, biology, information technology and cognitive sciences changes considerably the way science is developed. I call this new trend de-reconstructive technology, because it does not only improve the knowledge of things as they are and optimize the use of things as they are, but it deconstructs and reconstructs over and over again the inner structures of things, and therefore it changes the very nature of the relation between humans and the world. De-reconstructive technology is illustrated by increasingly complex hybridizations between human beings and machines (the creation of an artificial hand plugged onto the nervous system is an example), which changes our definition of the human body.
A 2014 survey by the Centre de Recherche pour l’Etude et l’Observation Des Conditions de vie (Research Center on the Study and Observation of the Conditions of Existence) confirms that people’s attitudes about technology oscillate between fear and enthusiasm. Let us point out a few of their conclusions here, as they relate to Anxiety Culture and technology.
First, it is clear that a majority of people seem to have a very positive perception of technological progress. 62 percent of people surveyed say they believe that the improvement of human capacities will never reach any limit. 58 percent say they believe that medicine must not only cure people but improve human capacities of people in good health. Opinion here reflects generational differences: 72 percent of young people say they believe their body is a perfectible tool, and don’t feel bad about it, while only 50 percent of the oldest say they believe so.
Simultaneously, they are three factors that limit this enthusiasm:
anxiety about brain enhancement: 85 percent of the people surveyed say they would refuse to have electronic devices in their brain to enhance its performance
- anxiety about private life: 76 percent say they will refuse to have a subcutaneous device to check and transmit permanently their biological data; 79 percent think that tech companies are a threat to private life ; 90 percent are against the use of private data for commercial purposes
- anxiety about microscopic, unseen effects of technology: 48 percent say they are worried about the use of nanotechnology in medicine, and 68 percent say they are worried about the use of nanotechnology in the food industry
The Anxiety Culture that is fueled by technology has strong and long-term origins. Its original dimensions have remained, but have been exacerbated in two phases, one that took place after WWII, and one that is playing out now, with the development of the internet, de-reconstructive technology and decisional technology. Anxiety is now more focused on the question of the autonomy of self (the mind) than before and on the threats brought about by the circulation of personal data on the internet and by “intelligent” ever more powerful and invasive machines.
Professor at Sciences Po Aix-en-Provence and Visiting Scholar at Columbia University, Raphaël Liogier is a sociologist (specializing in belief systems, shifts in values resulting from globalization, and the impact of the internet) and philosopher (theory of knowledge, epistemology, ethics and new technologies, artificial intelligence, transhumanism). He is the author of over a hundred scholarly articles and several books, among which Sans emploi. Condition de l’homme postindustriel, 2016 (Unemployed. The Condition of Postindustrial Man), and La guerre des civilisations n’aura pas lieu. Coexistence et violence au XXie siècle, The War of Civilization will not take place. Coexistence and violence in the XXIst Century (2016, revised paperback edition 2018)
 Cf. Mckinsey global institute, “Skill Shift, Automation and the Future of The Workforce”, Discussion Paper, May 2018
Published on July 2, 2018.