Book review by David Lorimer


David Skrbina
Routledge 2016, 311 pp.
ISBN: 978-1138240025


I met David Skribina at the 80th birthday celebrations for Henryk Skolimowski in Poland – they had been colleagues together in the philosophy department at the University of Michigan, and Henryk’s influence is apparent in this bold and philosophically revolutionary study. Amazingly, this is almost the first book on the metaphysics of technology rather than other philosophical aspects. It has direct relevance for the various technological books that I review in the books in brief under science below, as they relate to the singularity and the development of genetic and nanotechnology – here called GNR (genetics, nanotechnology, robotics). David points out that much thinking about technology is itself technological and relatively uncritical. However, he reminds readers that we cannot in fact escape metaphysics. As far back as 1973, Henryk was writing that ‘technology is a historical phenomenon born of a certain idea of nature, of a certain idea of progress…. and also related to specific social ideals and specific ends of human life. By these facts alone, it is laden with elements of traditional metaphysics.’


The first part of the book provides an extensive historical and philosophical background, going back to the Greek concepts of techne, logos and theos, observing that the word itself is an amalgam of the first two. An important overriding concept is that of the pantechnikon – the Greeks already saw technology as a world force present in both humans and nature. In this context, the pantechnikon is a universal process driving evolution forward, creating higher levels of order, complexity and intelligence along the way (p. 202) and operating as a fundamental law of nature – both autonomous and inexorable. It seems to have an intrinsic intentionality, expanding and evolving, pressing forward relentlessly and imposing itself ever more powerfully. At first we have automation, then autonomy. Here lies an alarming aspect of David’s thesis. He postulates two phases of technological development and determinism, the first anthropogenic – dependence without control – and the second autogenic, when technology will become self making and self evolving. This is what exponents of the singularity expect.


There is a great deal of discussion of leading philosophers and other thinkers who have been proponents for or opponents of technology, notably German thinkers including Heidegger, Jaspers and Borgmann. David covers classical critiques from Athens to Rousseau, Kant, Goethe, Carlisle, Thoreau, Nietzsche and more recent critiques since 1900 including Veblen, Whitehead, Spengler, Ellul and Orwell (interestingly there is no mention of Aldous Huxley). The 60s bring Mumford and Illich and the 70s Skolimowski with his ecological critique. Interestingly, there are very few systematic critiques from the mid-1980s, and David speculates that this may be due to people thinking there is no philosophical problem of technology. This leads on to a more extensive discussion of technological determinism and its implications, especially in the work of Ellul and Roszak. David recalls that the technological system is not only composed of tools, machines and devices, but also procedures, rules and organisational principles. A further chapter discusses replies to and refutations of the deterministic thesis.


The following chapter addresses the consequences of technological development. David sees technology as first having sacrificed human well-being for the sake of its own development, with little regard for humanity or nature (this also reflects mechanistic thinking): technological advance becomes a self-serving end (p. 236). Man-made damage to the environment is technical damage, which we can see all around us and which is based on our conviction that we can improve on nature. What we have in fact done is disrupt the organic wholeness of the planet for our own short-term benefit. The second case considers the effects of educational technology, which has had no effect on improving literacy and numeracy. Finally, the risks to human health, including cancer, obesity and rising rates of depression. The impact of information technology on health is examined in a separate section, as is the psychological of too much time in front of screens correlated with attention deficit, addiction and sleep disorders. Then we have new forms of crime in terms of cyberwarfare, as well as almost universal surveillance. David goes as far as arguing that technology functions as a virus attacking the moral and psychological basis of our humanity and eroding our critical thinking processes and moral autonomy. This does not mean that technology is evil, but rather powerful and indifferent, hence dangerous.


The final chapter discusses technology and human destiny. Earlier in the book, David wonders if it is inevitable that technological societies will destroy themselves – various threats have been present over the past few decades and are highlighted, among others, by Lord Rees in his book Our Final Century. Some people go so far as to speculate that previous civilisations such as Atlantis have in fact destroyed themselves when their technology outstripped their wisdom. David sees signs of decay all around in terms of environmental destruction, declining health and exploding populations. A fundamental question is the extent to which technology improves our quality of life. When one looks back 30 years, one had a great deal more time. The post arrived once a day, and one responded to the odd telephone call. Now, we all carry a technological, psychological and time burden of constant information overload and the expectation that replies will be immediate. It takes an hour or two a day to service this information throughput, and we dare not go off-line on holiday in case we can’t catch up again.


So do we have to accept an inexorable technological future? David proposes an act of creative reconstruction with a dramatic retrenchment of the contemporary technosphere, a substantial global population reduction, and the restoration of a majority of the Earth’s land to true wilderness. He sees this as the only path to a long-term sustainable future, although he is not optimistic that we will follow through on his proposal. Against this, we are assured that technology is not the problem, it is the solution, and that we must relentlessly continue to advance our technical capabilities. In David’s view, this will expose us and the entire planet to increasing peril: rapidly advancing technology will be combined with rapidly declining quality of life. This radical outlook certainly gives pause for thought and encourages readers to take a more critical stance towards technology and its alluring promises.


Buy The Metaphysics of Technology here.