A Brief Critique Of Tech Values

Often enough it’s said that technology is nothing but a tool. As such, it has no value built into it. Hence, it’s up to us whether and how we use the tool.

This is a version of the fact/value split, and it’s plainly wrong.

According to this view, technology supplies us with facts and humans merely drape values overtop the technological tool or device. But such a view is not actually squareable with our experience.

Take a simple example. When you go to start a new YouTube channel, the first question you get asked is what you’re going to do to grow your audience. Likes, comments, shares, SEO-friendly titles, and more are du jour: all these illustrate how a tech platform actually embeds (there’s another tech concept!) within itself a set of values for optimal (another one!) use (a third!).

You don’t just wish to think hard about something. You’re supposed to want a lot of subscribers or users! Why? No one knows except that scale has become a sacred value even though it couldn’t possibly be an end in itself. More: you don’t just want to say something in the hopes of becoming clear about it. You want likes–meaning you want your ego to be confirmed: “I’m not alone”; “I’m not invisible”; “I’m not unworthy.”

“But these are our values that we superimpose on platforms like Twitter or Instagram.” No, each platform, tool, or device actually helps to teach you not just how to use it but also how to adopt the values it holds dear. Never has technology been a purely technical matter. Medium, for instance, uses an algorithm to come up with how much the story you wrote there is worth. I kid you not. While the algorithm is not available to users (here we go again!), it’s clear that the number of views, (presumed) number of readers, overall engagement on the platform, and so on are what count in the resultant calculation. See how absurd this is? A viral article about cats doing flips would be, on this view, more valuable than an exquisitely beautiful poem read by only a few people. Technology can do away with hard questions of taste–just like that! Obviously, in the Age of Technology, quantity trumps quality and, in turn, quality returns in pale form: namely, as a product of quantity.

I’ll take a stand here. I’m a firm believer in “appropriate technology,” which, in practice, requires being very clear about how–against the grain–I’ll use Skype, Zoom, and so on. Even so, I can see how easy it is to default to the lowest common denominator. Of course, I’m not the first person to critique mainstream tech values, but I don’t hear enough philosophical talk about fundamentals. At the heart of a critique of technology in our time, then, needs to be a reconsideration of the fact/value split.

When people, as they do today, point to the sophisticated ways in which the Amish deliberate upon which technological inventions they’ll accept into their communities, we do well to follow their fingers to see that at which they’re pointing. Unfortunately, given that we’re not living at present in small scale communities governed by shared values and bound by a common way of life, it’s just not clear how helpful the Amish will be to those of us who are thrown into an atomistic world where globalization reigns supreme.

Philosophy Will Never Be Popular

1. Recent stories about philosophy in Silicon Valley imply that philosophy is becoming more popular. The mainstream media too implies that philosophy ought to be popular. Yet, I want to show, it can never be.

2. Let it be said at the outset that philosophy, insofar as it is the loving pursuit of living a vibrantly wise life, is in principle available to everyone, yet let it also be said here that philosophy has rarely been practiced save by a select few. We must ask ourselves why.

3. The reason, by my lights, can’t be that philosophy is “just plain hard” because it involves “thinking hard about thinking.” The explanation leaning on supreme effort is a red herring: many things are hard and that fact alone is what draws people to these activities.

4. A far better reason would be that philosophy as a way of life–that is, philosophy with teeth–begins only with an existential opening. Something has sundered me and has shattered my life. I’m splayed out. This sounds graphic, I know, but see whether it’s actually true.

5. After all, let’s accept, here and now, the fact that consensus reality is what most people believe in. What would be forceful enough, shocking enough to cause some intrepid soul to potentially lift the veil? I suggest that an existential opening is that jolt or shock.

6. For you have, don’t you?, to be rather mad, at least from the vantage point of consensus reality, to ask with such earnestness: “Is any of this really real? Does time exist? Who, ultimately, am I? Why bother living in the first place? Was I born? Is death something for me?” And so on.

7. To call such questions “a bit weird” is a grand understatement. Consider what it would actually take for someone to devote himself or herself to asking, to seeking to live such questions, and to thereby be transformed by them. It would have to take someone eccentric indeed!

8. If this line of reasoning is on the right track, then we have every reason to drop the “philosophy is or should be popular” slogan. Only then might we ask, “Is there something shocking enough to peel people off of consensus reality? Does that something ‘hurt so good'”?

9. For those who have stepped onto the path, paradoxes soon ensue. Such as: the way of suffering is the way of liberation. The greatest darkness is the greatest light. What I think and feel I am I am not. What is said to be real is unreal; only what is not spoken of is truly real. And so on.

10. For philosophers and seekers, the strange truth is that these paradoxes actually make perfectly good sense. And life, finally, is bathed in lightheartedness. Like the enlightened figure in the tenth Zen ox herding picture: a fat, bald man laughing among schoolchildren.

11. In short, we don’t need popular philosophy (for philosophy is not a “set of tools” for “critical thinking”). And we don’t need insight. What we need is incite. 

And We Last Men Are Stuck Here In Unreality; Or, How We Forgot How To Celebrate

Everything is a matter of course. This should be shocking to us but it isn’t.

No holiday is a holy day. Labor Day, Martin Luther King Day, Veteran’s Day, Thanksgiving, all sanctioned by the state, are all purely days off and, as such, are nothing but business as usual draped in a slightly different garb. We replace work schedules with children’s schedules, swap personal phones for work phones, and pretend that any of this means anything.

It means nothing.

This is what it’s like when everything is a matter of course: the sun rises and sets on us here in Flatland; every day resembles the last with minor details changed, those we use to light up our little psychodramas; nothing–no event, no hierophany, no miracle–stands out in its luminosity, numinousness, or heterogeneity. Meanwhile, we shuffle about in our self-important busynesses, pretending that we’re actually alive.

We’re not and we don’t know what being alive is. When the cosmos was burned and the divine hanged, we forgot how to celebrate. For note this well: to celebrate is to sing the praise of Reality.

And we Last Men are stuck here, without knowing it, in unreality. Welcome to the dollhouse.

Beware Of People Who Say They Have No Problems

Among twentieth century Advaita Vedanta teachers, Atmananda stood beside Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta. These were the “three tenors” of their time.

Thus, when Atmananda states,

Some people say that they have no problems in life. This is meaningless talk. It only means that they are mere cowards, who stubbornly refuse to think in the light of evident facts. (Notes on Spiritual Discourses of Shri Atmananda: Volume I–Notes 1 to 472, no. 333, p. 165)

we have every reason to listen to him.

We should careful with ourselves whenever we think or say, “Oh, I have no problems; everything is fine.” Similarly, we should beware of others who say that they have “no problems in life,” for blindness is likely mixing with cowardice, with cowardice leading the way.

Is someone just too cheery? Does it seem as if everything is just so good for him? Watch out! This is someone not to be trusted! Trust your intuition: if you feel that you can’t be real with him, you’re probably right.

Let’s begin, then, with the “evident facts,” which are that, so long as we’re not enlightened, we do find ourselves suffering. (*) See that the mere idea of your own death, provided that you allow yourself to go into the matter fully, is scary. Hence, we must start here if we do not want to be governed by shadows and subject to spiritual bypass. Besides, being courageous truth-seekers absolutely demands this much of us.

Endnote

(*) Acknowledging, while beginning from, our own suffering does not entail complaining, kvetching, or excusing. We should likewise be careful with those hellbent on kvetching.