Technology below and beyond

augustinein studio

“Neither helplessness nor unbounded enthusiasm and indifference to consequences would have allowed humans to inhabit the earth for very long,” observed Bruno Latour in a lecture in Copenhagen in February. “Rather a solid pragmatism, a limited confidence in human cunning, a sane respect for the powers of nature, a great care invested to protect the fragility of human enterprise — these appear to be the virtues for dealing with first nature. Care and caution: a totally mundane grasp of the dangers and of the possibilities of this world of below.”

We live in two worlds, Latour says. There’s first nature, the earthly “world of below,” and there’s second nature, the transcendent “world of beyond.” Second nature reflects our yearning for a world “more solid, less transitory, less perishable” than that of the earth. Through most of history, second nature manifested itself in myth and religion. Now, argues Latour, it manifests itself in the “laws” of economics:

The transcendent world of beyond has always been more durable than the poor world of below. But what is new is that this world of beyond is not that of salvation and eternity, but that of economic matters. […] The world of economy, far from representing a sturdy down-to-earth materialism, a sound appetite for worldly goods and solid matters of fact, is now final and absolute.

Purging an economic system of its contingencies and investing it with inexorability tends “to generate for most people who don’t benefit from its wealth a feeling of helplessness and for a few people who benefit from it an immense enthusiasm together with a dumbness of the senses.” You get either fatalism or hubris.

It strikes me that what Latour says about our current conception of economics goes equally well for our current conception of technology. Consider the following passage from his speech in which, in three instances, I’ve replaced the word “capitalism” with the word “technology”:

We begin to see how difficult it is to disentangle the contradictory affects created by an appeal to the concept of technology: it generates a prodigious enthusiam for seizing unbounded opportunities; a dystopian feeling of total helplessness for those who are submitted to its decrees; a complete disinhibition as to the long-term consequences of its action for those who profit from it; a perverse wound of smug superiority in those who have failed to fight its progression; a fascination for its iron laws in the eyes of those who claim to study its development, to the point that it appears to run more smoothly than nature itself; a total indifference to how the soil on which it is rooted is occupied; a complete confusion about who should be treated as a total stranger and who as a close neighbor. And above all, it marks a movement towards modernization that delegitimates those who stay behind as so many losers. Actually now that technology is thought to have no enemy, it has become a mere synonym for the implacable thrust forward of modernization. From this tangle of effects, I get no other feeling than an increased sense of helplessness. The mere invocation of technology renders me speechless.

“Resistance is futile”: Depending on who’s speaking, it’s a statement of triumphalism or of defeatism.

Latour finds, in thinking about our shifting sense of economics, a great irony in the “inversion of what is transitory and what is eternal.” The irony becomes even stronger when we consider the similar inversion that has taken place in our view of technology. The glory of technology stems from the possibilities it opens to people in the material world of first nature. The glory hinges on technology’s contingency, on the way it yields not only to circumstance but to human desire and planning. When technological progress comes to be seen as a transcendent, implacable force, a force beyond human fashioning, it begins to foreclose opportunities at least as often as it opens them. It starts to hem us in.

“A solid pragmatism, a limited confidence in human cunning, a sane respect for the powers of nature, a great care invested to protect the fragility of human enterprise”: Would not these earthly virtues serve us equally well in dealing with technology?

Image: detail of Botticelli’s “St. Augustine in His Studio.”

7 thoughts on “Technology below and beyond

  1. Henry Beer

    All of this that latour puts forward points toward a kind of prudence, a restraint and a level of mindfulness that hearkens back to the most noble and useful of religious fundaments. However when the diety becomes either technology or capitalism, these qualities/habits of mind are seen as either weakness or impediments to the insatiable need to grow or broaden the reach of capitalism or technology. How can these tendencies be moderated to enable us to get the best that CT&R can provide , minus the toxins?

  2. Brian

    It’s a pity that Christianity has been relegated to the category of “Religion” because the reason it had the original resonance it had (before Augustine, Aquinas and Co. reintroduced dualisms) was precisely in that it resolved the Now/Not Yet, Heaven/Earth, Physical/Metaphysical, Material/Spiritual dualistic tensions on the surface of human experience in each era of “Change”.

    We can no longer talk about economics or technology without resorting to Biblical categories (like Glory, Clouds, Profile/Image, Wisdom (of Crowds)…First Nature, Second Nature…Human Nature disappearing) because those once-promising vistas are offering “hope” to a decreasing few and are enslaving the masses. We are now in captivity (in the Glass Cage?) and in need of Exodus. We are in exile from our Maker and the human family and are in need of restoration.

    Part of the point of having a Messiah was to be the place/Person where all those universal contradictions came together and were resolved. Where all the promises found their ‘Yes’. Past and Future, Rich and Poor, Mercy and Justice…Online and Off…Death and Resurrection. Heaven and Earth overlapping and interlocking. Now in Him…then, everywhere.

    Today we are just a shadow of our future selves if we are in Him. Outside Him we decline into a selfie waiting to be deleted.

    Economic Man, you face the Robotic Moment. The choice is between imminent post-humanity and the forever True Human the holiday this weekend is supposed to be about.

    Consider well – especially you techno-agnostic-pragmatic-ever-observers out there!

  3. bernard

    Aldous Huxley warned in remarkably similar terms of what he called technological idolatry, back in 1945…

    “So whole-hearted is the modern faith in technological idols that (despite all the lessons of mechanized warfare) it is impossible to discover in the popular thinking of our time any trace of the ancient and profoundly realistic doctrine of hubris and inevitable nemesis.”

  4. Daniel Cole

    Interesting post, and interesting replies. I wonder if the substitution is as appropriate as the original because capitalism and technology increasingly seem so inextricable.

    As Brian pointed out above, the religious baseline is hard to miss, and it makes me wonder how anyone ever thought that religion was endangered by modernity. If the source of religion really does lie somewhere deep within the human psyche, then surely we can expect familiar attitudes to spring up around new focal points once the old ones have lost their power.

    What amazes me is just how elastic the narrative has become, and how easily it’s done so. Apparently, you can get the same basic trajectory from a lot of different contortions. For instance, you’ve got Daniel Dennett saying that we can deliberately replace religion with TED Talks. On the other hand, you’ve got Kevin Kelly plopping his utopian technological determinism straight into the christian narrative without any qualms. Whatever linguistic flavor makes the medicine go down, I guess.

  5. Tim

    Nicely written. I’ve passed this one on to my fellow Tech Committee members. In my school there is a very tangible sense of “fatalism or hubris,” though this is more often described as having a “positive” or “negative”outlook or as being “a team-player or a Nay-sayer.”

  6. Nathan Rinne


    Amen to all this. I recently did a presentation for a library technology conference. What you’ve written here dovetails nicely with what I said there.

    Here is the abstract:

    The desire to create automatons is a familiar theme in human history, and during the age of the Enlightenment mechanical automatons became not only an “emblem of the cosmos”, but a symbol of man’s confidence that he would unlock nature’s greatest mysteries and fully harness her power. And yet only a century later, automatons had begun to represent human repression and servitude, a theme later picked up by writers of science fiction. Man’s confidence undeterred, the endgame of the modern scientific and technological mindset, or MSTM, seems to be increasingly coming into view with the rise of “information technology” in general and “Big data” in particular. Along with those who wield them, these can be seen as functioning together as a “mechanical muse” of sorts – surprisingly alluring – and, like a physical automaton can serve as a symbol – a microcosm – of what the MSTM sees (at the very least in practice) as the cosmic machine, our “final frontier”. And yet, individuals who unreflectively participate in these things – giving themselves over to them and seeking the powers afforded by the technology apart from technology’s rightful purposes – in fact yield to the same pragmatism and reductionism those wielding them are captive to. Thus, they ultimately nullify themselves philosophically, politically, and economically – their value increasingly being only the data concerning their persons, and its perceived usefulness. Likewise libraries, the time-honored place of, and symbol for, the intellectual flowering of the individual, will, insofar as they spurn the classical liberal arts (with the idea that things are intrinsically good, and in the case of humans, special as well) in favor of the alluring embrace of MSTM-driven “information technology” and Big data – unwittingly contribute to their irrelevance and demise as they find themselves increasingly less needed, valued, wanted. Likewise for the liberal arts as a whole, and in fact history itself, if the acid of a “science” untethered from what is, in fact, good (intrinsically), continues to gain strength.

    The whole paper can be downloaded here:

    Best regards,
    Nathan Rinne

  7. Ty Pimienta

    In your book called The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, you talk about how the Internet is transforming the way we think and absorb information. By going onto the Internet, we are adapting to a medium that tends to shorten our attention span for deeper concentration. For example, I could be sitting in a library reading a book, and then ten minutes later I’m going through Twitter and Facebook. Based on the evidence you have written in your book, our brains have been transformed into this fast paced pattern of acquiring data. I completely agree with what you have written. Because after reading this book, I am beginning to see how the Internet is impacting those around me. We are continuously and constantly taking out our cellular devices trying to figure out what is going on with other people’s lives and so forth. Beforehand, we were able to really sit down and read a book without interruption from technology. Now that there is such an abundance of it, it’s like a drug that we can’t stop taking because there is so much information out there that we need to absorb and tell others about what we’ve seen. This question may seem crazy to ask, but I just want to know what you feel about it. “Do you think that there will ever be a time when a thought can be interpreted by a computer?” I don’t know if anyone has asked you this question or perhaps even though about it. The reason why I asked you this is because I’ve read a book called Neuromancer and wondered if that could ever be created.

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