The Art of Living in Questionable Times



One of the oldest and most central questions of philosophy is, how should we live? What is the good life for human beings? Another has to do with understanding the times: what is the spirit of the times today? How do things stand, how did we get here, and where might or should we be going? Friedrich Nietzsche, writing in the second part of the nineteenth century, gave a somewhat pessimistic diagnosis of the state of Western culture, and it was a view that was repeated and refined by many philosophers of existence of the early-mid twentieth century. Why the pessimism? A good part of it had to do with the death of the absolute in its various forms, and another sizeable part of it had to do with technology. I want to focus on this second point.

What were the existentialists saying about technology and how it relates to the art of living? They said a lot of things, but a couple of the main ideas were that how we live is rather closely related to how we think and that how we think in the twentieth century has a lot to do with technology. Fundamental to the modern period is the gradual disappearance of the absolutes of the past. Nietzsche famously called this “the death of God.” He was speaking metaphorically. What had died, as he saw it, was a great many of the ideals of old, not just religious but metaphysical, moral, political, and some other ideas that had been passed down through the ages but that, as it seemed to him, no longer stood up to serious philosophical and scientific scrutiny. Ideas aren’t just things that we have in our head but are what we live by, and the death of these old absolutes, for Nietzsche, meant that a profound confusion had set in, a state of disillusionment which in time might lead to what he called a “revaluation of all values” and the creation of new ideals, but in the meantime a kind of spiritual enervation had become the norm. We no longer know what to believe and are without any deep convictions—which can withstand scrutiny anyway—about how we should be living. The twentieth-century existentialists mainly concurred and tried to carry Nietzsche’s line of thinking about this somewhat further.

They were also writing a lot about technology. Martin Heidegger, for one, was writing that modern technology isn’t what we think it is. Technology as we know it today is no longer just the set of tools that human beings have created to serve our purposes but has become something like an all-encompassing view of the world, and one that now lacks an alternative. To “be” at all now means to be located in the system of “science-technology.” We think within this system, perceive, act, evaluate, and have experiences within it. It’s a box that has us all, and any thinking outside it seems pointless or impossible. This is a dangerous development, he believed, and he wasn’t alone. Another German philosopher of existence, Karl Jaspers, was also warning that the signs of the times are not auspicious. The prevailing mood, as he wrote back in 1931, is one of pessimism and confusion: “Beyond question there is a widespread conviction that human activities are unavailing; everything has become questionable; nothing in human life holds good; that existence is nothing more than an unceasing maelstrom of reciprocal deception and self-deception by ideologies.” It wasn’t a happy diagnosis. How did we get to this point, and what’s to be done about it?

Their answers are long and complex, but one of Jaspers’ specific recommendations is that the individual should strive for what he called “technical sovereignty.” By this he meant one should try to achieve a kind of freedom over our technology, and a freedom that by the twentieth century had become very hard to achieve. One ought to ensure that the technology is serving us rather than that we are serving it, which had become the norm as he saw it. Increasingly, he was observing nearly a century ago, we act and we think as the technology requires us to. We do what it requires, or become a part of the technical apparatus ourselves rather than make it an instrument of our own purposes. We need to reverse this, he believed, and it’s far from easy. We need not to get rid of technology but to realize what it’s doing to us and achieve a kind of sovereignty over it. We have no choice but to continue to develop our technology; the whole world now is a world of techniques, so we had better be sure that we are the masters of these techniques and that we don’t allow ourselves to be overly dazzled and controlled by them. Technology isn’t going to tell us how to live, although increasingly we look to it to fill the void left by the death of God.

Technology today isn’t a tool, not anymore. It has become something like an absolute, an order of things, a way of life, a way of thinking, of perceiving and preferring. You don’t question it and there’s little escaping from it. Try asking someone why they need their smartphone; there’s no questioning this. Technology now is totalizing in a similar way that religion throughout the Middle Ages wasn’t just a practice of faith—something that people believed or did—but a way of life that was encompassing and that reached into all aspects of human existence. Technology isn’t a religion, but the role it plays in our lives isn’t so different than one. We continue to speak of it as a tool, or a set of these, but a tool is exactly what it’s not, not anymore. A tool is something that you pick up and use when you have a particular purpose, and once the purpose is achieved, you set it down. Think of an axe. Suppose my goal is to take down a tree. I pick up the axe and swing it in a certain way until the tree falls. I then put it down. That’s what technology was throughout human history, until the modern period—objects created to serve our pre-existing purposes. What it’s become is a way of experiencing the world in general. Increasingly, our goals themselves don’t pre-exist the technology but are formed by it and become difficult to question because of this. Asking someone today what’s the value of a smartphone isn’t much different than asking someone in the thirteenth century why they go to church. It’s just what you do. Only an atheist would ask the question, or (the contemporary equivalent) a luddite.

Modern technology isn’t the machines and gadgets that surround us, and which are still spoken of as tools, but an order of things that today surrounds us and is increasingly without an alternative. This isn’t all bad, but nor is it all good. The popular idea that all technology is good technology provided only that it’s new is a prejudice that needs to be challenged, and on the grounds that as technology becomes a worldview and a way of life it impoverishes a good deal of our experience and reduces more or less everything within it to a system of utility and a means to an end. We don’t live by utility alone but by meanings. A good life, it seems to me, is one spent in the pursuit not just of utility but of humanly significant meaning, those self-chosen values, convictions, and undertakings that a life is organized around, or might be.

If it makes sense to speak of an art of living, one way to think about this is as a clear-sighted pursuit not of the absolute but of what holds meaning for us—some goals or aspirations that we’ve thought about, chosen, and can justify to others who may or may not see the value of them. It means living by your own lights, your own decisions, and as Jaspers said, ensuring that the technology that surrounds us is serving us rather than the reverse. I’m not at all sure that what he called “technical sovereignty” is an attainable goal anymore. We may well have reached a point where it isn’t and where there’s also no going back. That’s my worry, and many of the existentialists of a couple of generations ago worried about it too. You be the judge, but my view of what’s happening today is that we have, without quite realizing it, adopted a worldview that is technological, utilitarian, and existentially vacuous, and that achieving any kind of freedom over our technology is becoming a diminishing possibility. Living well at any time and under any circumstances is the opposite of easy, but my sense of the present is that technology now presents a new and special difficulty: living in any way but the way that technology gives rise to and seems to demand of us has become less and less possible. There is an existential vacuity to a life that is lived through the medium of a screen, but as the illusion sweeps over us that technology is but a value-neutral tool that serves human happiness, and that only luddites think otherwise, the possibility of living, thinking, and being outside of the new order of things disappears.

I don’t want to overdo the pessimism here. I’m not calling on anyone to throw away the machines and the gadgets that we now so thoroughly rely on. I do think it’s best not to rely on them quite so much, but my point is Jaspers’ point: achieving sovereignty or freedom over our technology is important if we’re not to become a mere appendage of the apparatus, and this freedom is unattainable when technology is a worldview and a way of life. Freedom is always something we have to fight for and it has always been difficult. Today, looking at the kind and extent of technology that now surrounds us, it’s even more difficult. For people who are positively glued to their devices, it’s become impossible. Can you live your whole life through that screen? Is this where we’re going? Are we already there? My worry is that Jaspers’ plea, and my own, may have come too late. The horse may have left the barn, but it’s not too late to think about what’s happened.

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