Technology: Our Long-Lost Twin?
A critical essay written for a Humanities elective called “Rage Against the Machine,” for which I won the Helen G. Scott Prize for Best Critical Essay on Literary Criticism and Theory:
Just like any other day, you are sitting, minding your own business, when you hear a fervent yell. Perhaps you even catch the start of what is a poorly concealed swear. The atmosphere is tense and an emotional argument ensues. If you had not glimpsed back to see the cause of the commotion, you might presume that two people were having a heated conflict but instead, you see a disgruntled person eyeing their computer warily. This is not an uncommon phenomenon. In fact, one could see such interactions daily. At some point of each person’s life, technology has played a large role in serving some kind of human purpose and at some point, this role was not played correctly and produced a very natural human emotion in response.
But why respond to something that is clearly non-human? Why waste precious nerves on something that could not possibly understand all of the intricacies behind the human mind?
Several philosophers and psychologists have attempted to explain why objects face the brunt of human emotional turmoil. Their conclusions are rather straightforward. Since people are so intrinsically connected to their environment, which is saturated with technology aimed to accomplish feats based on human desires, technology has become a part of us and as such, part of the human identity is encoded in technology.
Our being is deeply linked to our environment. The long-established debate in science of “nature vs. nurture” attests to the fact that although our genetic makeup determines a large percentage of our mental and physical attributes, nature, or our environment, has an equally important role.
Martin Heidegger, a German philosopher, emphasized the concept of “being” in his work. “Dasein,” or “to be” expressed the way one’s Being determined how someone lived in a network of both humans and non-humans. One’s Being is stimulated with environmental interaction. Moreover, these interactions become our “dealings” or “Being-in the world.”
Heidegger contends that these dealings are of a kind of “concern which manipulates things and puts them to use; and this has its own kind of ‘knowledge’” (pg. 95). Present in his argument is the intrinsic knowledge humans have for using things which in this case, are machines and technology. Heidegger mentions how the Greeks coined “things;” to them, things were “that which one has to do with in one’s concernful dealings” (pg. 96). Thus, the relationship between the user and the thing is one involving concern, or a substantial cognitive bearing.
Since things or equipment exist for some kind of purpose, it could be said that things also possess a Being. In fact, Heidegger affirms that “the kind of Being which equipment possesses…it manifests itself in its own right,” showing that our daily dealings with objects are in reality, not with the objects themselves, but with their underlying purpose and essence (pgs. 98-99).
It is almost as if things possessed a quasi-spirit that humans were naturally inclined to treat as a sort of kindred companion in their daily interactions. By using objects for a certain purpose, humans seem to actualize their desires upon objects and through this, the objects begin to carry a particular identity.
While humans possess cognition, objects possess the analog of “readiness-to-hand” or being available when called upon for a certain purpose. Therefore, it becomes clearer why people would react emotionally to objects if objects seemed to carry more of a human-like soul by having a certain “purpose in life” much like humans.
Heidegger explains that when an object does not obey its intended purpose, there is an obstinacy and obtrusiveness about the situation (pg. 104). Surely both of these refusals carry a certain degree of agency and thus, anthropomorphism by relating very human-like actions upon non-human things. Consequently, techno-frustration arises when objects are no longer suitable for our given purposes, which results in what Freud coins a “bungle.”
Freud’s example of picking the wrong key multiple times when going in for work lies at the heart of a bungle. Wishing to be at home, many people will pull out their home key for their office and face a moment of confusion before realizing the failure behind their desires and the object’s purpose (pg. 102-103).
Although Heidegger was not a proponent of psychoanalysis or theories regarding the unconscious, his argument seems to point at the underlying human desires that motivate our use of instruments. When the connection between human desire and object functionality is amiss, a bungle occurs.
All in all, Heidegger suggests that not only do objects have an identifiable agency and essence to them, but humans and non-humans exist in a synergistic equilibrium in Nature. In other words, “we encounter the world in which wearers and users live, which is at the same time ours,” (pg. 100).
This coexistence begins to define how much one truly relies upon the other. Based on their interactions with us, objects seem to take on a life. Tools are often talked about as if they had “lifetimes” and as Petroski points out, objects have adopted terms clearly associated with human activity: stress, strain, fatigue, etc. Things clearly lack the experience people get from human-human interaction, but the projection of human desires unto objects is what creates objects’’ reality.
If thought is the human “instrument” to grasp reality in a more metaphysical sense, things are the more tangible instruments humans use to define their experience. In turn, humans seem to “create” an experience or a livelihood for objects.
The human-object relationship is nothing but simple. In fact, because of its complexity, the human-object relationship can be likened unto that of the human-human relationship which, more often than not, contains a great emotional aspect to it.
If not for this relationship, than why does the “rage cage” exist in a China shopping mall? As a means of a cathartic outlet, women are allowed to smash household items to smithereens in representation of their anger and frustration with these objects. Why women? Simply because women have a daily relationship with these items and would benefit from such emotional therapy.
Aristotle’s theory on anger lends support to this inherent need for revenge or retribution on objects. The attendance of anger must be conducted with the anticipated pleasure of revenge, which places a degree of importance on the object itself. The emotional reaction begs the question: why would we react to it if the object in question meant nothing to us?
Although humans seem to have a certain mastery over objects, both with having our desires actualized through them and by thinking that we can attain revenge in the first place, humans forget that they are dependent on objects carrying out their wishes. As such, humans actually have a part of their identity intrinsically tied to objects, no matter how belittling this sounds.
Freud suggested that there exists a “splitting of the ego” or “splitting of the consciousness” when people oscillate between two psychical complexes. This splitting allows the person to avoid the mental strife of a rupture by manifesting itself in defense mechanisms and fetishisms. In this process of defense against life’s pains and disappointments, people will use “powerful deflections, which cause us to make light of our misery; substitutive satisfactions, which diminish it; and intoxicating substances, which make us insensitive to it” (Freud, 1931).
The use of technology to achieve specific ends counts as a “substitutive satisfaction” where we relegate the inability of accomplishing something unto objects. For this reason, it is not surprising that people develop a relationship with objects by creating fetishisms and deeming certain objects more “special” or “lucky”.
Moreover, this split occurs between our inherent human aspects, and those based on technology. Our identity is split between a more mechanistic nature, and a more humanistic one.
Humans are endowed with the gift of using technology. According to the myth of Prometheus and Epimethius, man has no innate qualities except for those that are replaced in time with the skill of using fire and light, or better known in modern day as technology. Thus, it is not implausible to assume that humans have a distinct part of their identity tied to using technology and objects.
When one half of our identity splits (technology), we feel the internal failure. Emotion is produced in response to this failure of our second half. Furthermore, Freud offers a perspective on the importance people place on objects by acknowledging the amount of common superstitions existing for dropped or lost objects. Both of these actions hold a negative connotation (as opposed to finding an object, which is desirable) and perhaps the superstitions exist because in the end, people want to avoid the sense of losing a part of oneself.
It seems that not only do human desires fall upon objects, but the tendencies of objects fall upon humans. This reciprocity is only expected in the coexistence of humans and non-humans.
Hume proposes that the mechanistic characteristics demanded of objects transcend the object itself and present themselves in the way humans behave. In other words, humans have begun to embody nonhuman traits.
With the spawn of industry, human interaction has been guided by a sense of efficacy and a feeling of estrangement. There is no longer tenderness, but an “awareness of the possibility of relations without purpose” and “every sheath interposed between men in their interactions is felt as a disturbance to the functioning of the apparatus, in which they are not only objectively incorporated but with which they proudly identify themselves” (pg 41). By deeming human interaction a source of functionality and forgetting about the more subtle human characteristics, humans have begun to imitate their second halves.
As children, Petroski offers that we are used to structural failure brought about by our own human flaws. Perhaps because it “is human to make mistakes, it is also human to want to avoid them” by delegating perfection unto objects (pg. 28).
This ideal sets us up for failure. Humans undoubtedly have flaws. As parts of human identity, it is only natural for objects to have flaws, too. But because of the special bond humans share with objects, both humans and objects support one another and lend credence to the way both technology and humans seem to become more advanced with each passing year. Perhaps in technology, humans have finally redeemed themselves in the eyes of the Gods and have found their long-lost twin.
Freud, Sigmund. “The Psychopathology of Everyday Life.” W. W Norton & Company, Inc:
1965, New York.
Freud, Sigmund. “Civilization and its discontents.” 1931.
Heidegger, Martin. “Being and Time.” Harper & Row: 1962, New York.
Petroski, Henry. “To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design.”
Vintage Books: 1982, New York.