Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Technology and Nature

In his piece One-Dimensional Man", Herbert Marcuse makes some very broad, powerful statements in regard to the relationship between technology and nature. While Marcuse's thoughts make sense on at least an intrinsic level, the very scope of them makes them disagreeable. Marcuse claims that humans will always find joy at some base level from being able to outdo and subordinate nature. Any time that man is able to accomplish something via technology that at one point was only available to nature, then he or she is happy. However, the relationship between technology and nature exists at a far more contextual level. Thus, due to the situational and subjective nature of the topic, in some instances man's transcendence over nature elicits happiness; in others it accomplishes the very antithesis.

Marcuse sees technology and nature as in conflict with one another. Technology, to his view, is an unnatural tool employed by humans to match or even overpower the capabilities of nature and thus develop unnatural societies. Such unnatural societies, exerting their supreme will over nature, then superficially revere it in order to essentially make themselves seem more natural. Along with technology, Marcuse claims that Reason is also a culprit. Reason is used to justify nature and make it rational so that it can be more easily understood by humans. Through understanding, humans can derive a sort of appreciation or even enjoyment from nature. Reason allows humans to look past the harsh, brutal reality of nature and see an understandable basis for all that transpires.

In this way, Marcuse follows he path of connecting Reason with Art. "Nature is opposed to Art, and natural to artificial." (Mill 374) Art can serve as a representation of nature, but one that is necessarily bounded by the will of the artist. Thus, Art creates a subjugated version of nature, which is the manner in which humans find nature enjoyable. In this fashion, Art and Reason share the same functionality. To Marcuse, man uses technology to rise above nature and through the power of reason joy is derived from the act, no matter the situation. The wills of nature and man, armed with technology and Reason, conflict.

From a very basic perspective, such thoughts are simple to rationalize. Ever since early man began to use clubs and other techniques to hunt prey and improve self-defense, perhaps the very beginning of technology, the benefits of surpassing nature have been increased prosperity in terms of well-being and longevity. However, Marcuse's idea that joy stems purely from transcendent power over nature is simply too wide of a scope to encompass all of the potential scenarios which dictate the opposite or present alternative viewpoints. For instances, Holmes Rolston III presents the idea that the overall goal man has for technology is to not necessarily put nature into submission but to rebuild nature into a more suitable, beneficial form. (Rolston 2)

Of course there is a fine line between what one may consider to be transcending nature and rebuilding it. Rolston provides the example of a Boeing jet. It follows the natural laws of aerodynamics but was developed via technology to allow man to accomplish something Marcuse would see as unnatural. (Rolston 3) Indeed, Marcuse could certainly argue that Rolston's example of rebuilding represents his own concept of transcendence. However, while the true classification is subjective to the point of being impossible to reach a single correct decision, the fact remains that Rolston's view has a significant conflict with that of Marcuse; Rolston claims that man's only joy from rebuilding/transcending nature stems from scenarios in which such actions are of immediate benefit.

Rolston delves into an area sharing something in common with the argument of nature versus nurture. Rolston understand that to a large degree humans are a product of the technology that surrounds them. While correlating technology as a component of culture, Rolston writes:

"In this sense, nature is the given. No culture can ever be independent of nature, not unless some future society learns to produce matter ex nihilo (from nothing). Culture will always have to be constructed out of, superimposed on, nature." (Rolston 4) Parenthetical added for clarity.

Being the given, nature forms the standard against which all else is measured. If man is able to benefit from doing that which nature does, then there will be joy. If man does not benefit, though, he or she will not necessary experience any sense of happiness from the mere fact of being capable of mimicking nature. To exemplify this he writes:

"An artificial leg is inferior to a natural leg, which has been lost in an accident, however much the artificial one is desired in those tragic circumstances. In certain contexts, we seldom want something artificial. [...] There is nothing pejorative about 'synthetic oil'; like synthetic rubber, it is better than the original oil." (Rolston 5)

The word "context" is critical. Should man's ability to transcend nature and create limbs without organic growth result in bliss due solely from the act itself, as Marcuse proposes, then certainly people everywhere would want artificial limbs. This is not the case, though, because at the moment such limbs provide no benefit relative to natural limbs. Perhaps at some point in time artificial limbs will be superior. At that time, the benefits may make such alterations widespread and people will be happy with them. Until then, however, the lack of benefit means that most people are not happy about having to use artificial limbs.

The concept of superiority in nature and outweighing technological benefits appears frequently in literature. One of the most profound examples from both sides of the spectrum is Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Dick presents a world deeply conflicted by technological advancements which have outclassed anything natural and where man-made fill-ins for nature have also become a bane upon society. Dick's brilliance is in presenting both sides of the issue. For example, man's ability to master interplanetary travel and move from an admittedly ruined Earth to live on other worlds is certainly unnatural in every sense of the word as far as Marcuse would be concerned. To most people in the story, though, moving offworld is seen as wildly beneficial, as it allows for them to both move away from a shattered planet and protects them from the effects of the radioactive dust. Advertisements even proclaim, "Emigrate of degenerate! The choice is yours!" (Dick 6)

In this instance, the benefits of transcending nature are obvious and thus celebrated by humanity, or at least by those members able to reap said benefits. Those unable to embark to other worlds for whatever reason are therefor still bound by nature to live out their lives in relative misery. By the same token, the people of Dick's world have also overcome nature in regard to their natural emotions. With the advent of the mood organ, people can forgo whatever they should naturally be feeling and instead feel however they might desire. (Dick 2) Again, this development of emotional creation pars nature. Since it is beneficial, though, humans are happy with it and would rather use it than feel as their life, or even as nature, would dictate. Were there no benefit, nature would remain at the fore and natural emotions would still reign, giving man no joy from its development.

However, Dick also supports the other side of Rolston's concept; if technological advancements in transcendence over nature provide no benefit then man will not still be intrinsically happy over the matter. In fact, one of the basic themes of Dick's work is that natural creation and life are revered while artificial life is devalued to the extreme. The first instance of this is in regard to animals. Owning a real, live animal is a matter of the utmost importance in the society that Dick creates, both for personal welfare and societal norms. Owning an electric animal, which shares a likeness to the real thing in almost every way, is scorned because it provides no benefit relative to real animals. Electric animals meet the owner's need to conform to societal norms only. They do nothing for the owner's well being in the sense of emotional benefit. Throughout the novel, Deckard is tormented by the fact that his sheep is electric. When he reveals this fact to his neighbor, Barbour responds by saying, "You poor guy. Has it always been this way?" (Dick 9) Barbour clearly empathizes with Deckard that owning an electric animal is simply not as good as having a real one. Thus, neither man is going to celebrate the fact that humanity has technologically created life since it does them little good.

Following in line with this, the idea of androids, artificial humans, being less desirable and less of a reason for happiness than authentic, natural humans is unavoidable. Androids were developed mainly to appease colonists leaving Earth. Clearly problems would arise with giving colonists actual human slaves as incentive, so the goal was to use "the android servant as [a] carrot." (Dick 9) It can easily be hypothesized that the only reason for making the androids appear to be human rather than outwardly artificial was to appeal to the more sadistic side of the human masters who would come to the conclusion that having utter domination over a natural human would be better than an artificial emulation created for just such a purpose.

This in turn promotes the idea that androids are substandard lifeforms that do not serve to benefit society in the same manner that a human would. Thus, Deckard develops his own thoughts in regard to androids as sub-lifeforms and killers, making it easier for him to "retire" them and claiming that "[...] the humanoid robot constituted a solitary predator. Rick liked to think of them that way; it made his job palatable." (Dick 29) Indeed the very concept of retiring androids rather than killing them supports this idea. As androids provide less benefit to society than a real human, most people are not directly happy in regard to the fact that man has essentially completed the supreme act of transcending nature by creating human life. Instead, this action is viewed as the generation of slaves sub par relative to natural human slaves and denizens of the world who fall at the very bottom run of the societal ladder.

Later in the novel when Deckard begins to see greater benefits that androids can provide, such as Luba Luft's ability to perform admirably in an opera, his whole outlook changes. Rather than simply being vermin, the solitary predators he needs to retire, Deckard begins to see androids as beings that can have a purpose. He even says:

"'I'm capable of feeling empathy for at least specific, certain androids. Not for all of them but - one or two.' For Luba Luft, as an example, he said to himself." (Dick 140)

As he sees change in his own benefit from androids, or at least particular androids, Deckard shifts from being apathetic in regard to their so-called lives and comes to lament the loss of one, Luba Luft, the actions of which he could derive happiness from.

The matter of what qualifies as nature can even be taken a step further while maintaining the same results in terms of benefit and happiness. One could say that the inherent or natural movements made by a being are also a form of nature. Humans walk the way they do, for example, because it is a natural movement. In The Principles of Scientific Management, Frederick Winslow Taylor attempts to transcend nature in the form of movement by working through the science of technique. Taylor's goal was to substitute highly studied, controlled movement for natural movement, writing of the idea that:

"These kinds of improvements are typical of the ways in which needless motions can be entirely eliminated and quicker types of movements substituted for slow movements when scientific motion study [...] [is] applied in any trade." (Taylor 40)

The question again arises if such a scientific transcendence of nature is truly beneficial. Taylor's work allowed individuals to earn higher wages but also required them to work to the brink of exhaustion every day. To those workers who saw their wages as the supreme benefit, a great deal of happiness was likely to be had from Taylor's developments for them. For those disliking the almost brutal workload or who lost their jobs due to being deemed unfit for the position from the viewpoint of Taylor's methodology, the more likely result would be agreement with Donna Haraway's assessment of the situation as "the nightmare of Taylorism." (Haraway 150) Once again, the context of the situation and the relative benefit for the individual determines whether or not happiness is truly achieved.

Marcuse keys in well upon the seemingly competitive relationship between nature and technology. However,the legitimacy of his argument is hampered by his focus upon the big-picture. The world is far too contextualized for the sweeping generalization Marcuse wants to make. While technological triumph over nature may lead to happiness, there is a correlation rather than causation. Humans look to benefit from any situation rather than being intrinsically happy regardless of the outcome.

Works Cited

Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, 1968

Haraway, Donna. "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century." Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. 1991, pp. 149-181.

Mill, John Stuart. "Nature." Three Essays on Religion. 1874, p. 374.

Rolston III, Holmes. Technology Versus Nature: What is Natural?.

Taylor, Frederick Winslow. The Principles of Scientific Management. 1911.

1 comment:

Adam Johns said...

There's some awkward language in your introduction, and I would have liked a clearer thesis. What I like here, though, is that you're already engaging in depth with Marcuse's thought.

Marcuse is very tough, obviously, but you have a great handle on him at some points, especially in the third paragraph on art and subjugation.

I don't think that Marcuse and Rolston are actually in disagreement, although apparent disagreement may be a result of the quotes I picked. Anyway, you're making an interesting distinction.

Up through your discussion of artificial limbs, this is an able unpacking of the difference (or not) between Ralston and Marcuse. I'm not sure if I buy artificial limbs as an example, though - in far more ways, we replace (in a sense) our limbs with tools, and we do that willingly enough - we drive instead of walking, use an axe instead of our teeth(!) etc. I'd argue that much of technology is, in fact, effectively a form of prosthesis.

I like your discussion of Ralston and DADES very much. One difficulty that comes up for me is that you ignore the organic and, in fact, near-human nature of the androids - you make things a little too easy on yourself. On the other hand, the (false) idea of them as being artificial is still of overwhelming importance...

Your discussion of Taylor and Haraway in relationship to Marcuse is great.

Overall: Your reading of Marcuse is sophisticated and interesting, with the incorporation of R. being a great idea. Each individual text is discussed with great skill and clarity - there is a great deal of fantastic material here.

My only overall concern - and a relatively minor one at that - is that your central argument has a way of getting lost in the very interesting details; you handle each moment very well, but the whole doesn't cohere as well as it might, which is essentially a problem with the introduction and conclusion.