How I Begin

Below is how I start my dissertation (snipped from Ch. 1). I have sent out what I hope are the last edits. My committee accepts them or sends me back to revise. I hope for the former.


Chapter 1: Introduction

Our Technological Selves

“The posthuman subject is an amalgam, a collection of heterogeneous components, a material-information entity whose boundaries undergo continuous construction and reconstruction. . . . the presumption that there is an agency, desire, or will belonging to the self and clearly distinguished from the “wills of others” is undercut in the posthuman, for the posthuman’s collective heterogeneous quality implies distributed cognition located in disparate parts that may be in only tenuous communication with one another. . . . my dream is a vision of the posthuman that embraces the possibilities of information technologies without being seduced by fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality . . . that understands human life as embedded in a material world of great complexity, one on which we depend for our continued survival.” (Halyes, 1999, pp. 3-5)


Despite the spate of technological transformations and permutations that we in the West encounter each passing year; despite hyperbolic exclamations about technologies to revolutionize our lives, our relationships, and our world, even the state-of-the-art soon becomes quotidian. Perhaps humans adapt too well to change, to original and remarkable situations and devices. Because people adapt[1] so quickly, and with seeming ease and aplomb—we might even perceive societal pressure to do so as new technologies become imbedded in, for example, our professions, like electronic mail[2]–emerging technologies do not appear to herald much more than a need to purchase them, or incorporate them into daily life. The most recent handheld computers (nee cellular/mobile phones), packed with innovative features, become obsolete within a matter of years—if not months.

Our technologies teach us to expect such novelty from them, and they do not often disappoint in that regard. We learn from them to embrace modifications. More, we learn to seek out change lest we succumb to the boredom and monotony that results from engagement with the same old technologies, the same relationships we have already experienced. Somewhat counterintuitively, however, we often think that the technologies themselves will transform us and that we need only participate by, for instance, buying the product. The epigraph from Katherine Hayles (1999) reminds us that conceptions of the human should evoke ideas of heterogeneous entities, hybrid entities that depend on each other. To understand the human is to understand technologies: changes to the latter often require alterations to our own bodies, perceptions, and perspectives. The posthuman is embedded in a world of technologies, among other things. Discussions of agency or cognition, for instance, must account for these other things as co-constituting each other.

Philosophers of technology, then, have a particular responsibility. Just as “there is a place for specialization in philosophy”—like philosophy of technology—there is a need for persistent reflection on technological artifacts and processes themselves with an “’eye on the whole’” (Sellars, 1963, p. 3). One purpose of philosophy of technology is to connect the specifics (the micro)[3] with the broader social, economic, political and cultural tendencies and habits of our time (the macro).[4] Thus, in this dissertation, I explore what a philosophy of technology can, and should, account for in the creation, mediation and transfer of values to an epistemic community. In particular, I argue that our technologies, and the relationships we have with them, should compel us to reject essentialist visions of humans. We are hybrids, mixtures of many things. We should not axiomatically privilege humans over any “other,” whether nonhuman animals/life, the environment, or technology. That perspective of dominance masks our responsibility and co-dependence, and promotes an instrumental view of technologies that leads us away from discussing the technologies as producers, conveyors, and sites of value-formation.

How do, and should, we engage with our technologies, and how do technologies affect our relationships with other humans, animals, environments, and societies? Such broad and far-reaching questions occupied philosophers of technology like Jacques Ellul (1964), Martin Heidegger (1979), and Herbert Marcuse (1994); further, they remain as relevant today as they were in the last century. Our technologies have altered/enabled humans, relationships, environments, and just about every aspect/product of our existence; that seems a likely constant for the near future. Just as our devices need updates, so do our perspectives.

Philosophers of technology have an opportunity to help guide conversations and worldviews, and to do so will require engagement with the broad publics, engineers, and scientists regarding the values we wish to promote for the future.[5] In this dissertation, I review works from a variety of philosophers of technology and investigate how they propose we act with, and in relation to, our technologies. Further, I also engage thinkers/philosophers that imagine the prospect of humans merging with technologies, like Ray Kurzweil (2005), to form some new creature/being. For my part, I will side with those for whom the future entails an acknowledgment of the mergers/amalgamations that have already taken place, particularly over the past century (Hayles, 1999, 2011). The latter two positions represent a variety of speculative philosophy of technology, what I will term ‘un-disciplined’ philosophy of technology (UPoT), and both offer—at times conflicting—paths and standpoints for how we should approach human-technology relations.

[1] Paul Ceruzzi (2005) makes an analogous point regarding technologies in our lives: we adapt to them. Humans do not simply control and manipulate technologies according to our needs. We begin to conceptualize our problems based on the technologies at our disposal, and this affects what we see as solutions.


[2] Even writing that phrase out, as opposed to ‘email,’ is jarring.


[3] Peter-Paul Verbeek (2005), for example, performs empirical research into particular technologies while attempting to maintain focus on macro conditions and situations. He examines the role technology plays in human existence and in the relation between humans and reality. He does so by analysing particular technologies. Classical philosophers of technology (see Chapter 2) overgeneralized technology and based their theories of human-technology relations upon a false determinism where technologies drove societies and humans. Contemporary philosophers of technology (see Chapter 3), on the other hand, do not imagine technology as a single “thing” because that makes invisible the different pieces that make up the whole—like the rubber, metal and wood of the early bicycles (Bijker, 1993, p. 118). Bijker (1993) argues for a blurring of social and technical divisions in part because it allows him to show the related aspects of each, as well as the inherently contingent character of technological development.

Through demonstrating the interpretative flexibility of a technical artifact, it is shown that an artifact can be understood as being constituted by social processes, rather than by purely technical ones. This seems to leave more latitude for alternatives in technical change. (p. 121).

[4] Nicholas Rescher (2006) offers further explication regarding metaphilosophy, including first principles—akin to maxims in moral philosophy of the type “always keep your promises” (p. 2). For Rescher, these principles have functional efficacy for philosophy. Philosophy’s mission is “to enable us to orient ourselves in thought and action, enabling us to get a clearer understanding of the big issues of our place and our prospects in a complex world that is not of our own making” (p. 2). Philosophers of technology, as specialist philosophers, have a part to play in such engagement, and it extends beyond analysing and describing the particulars of technologies. After separating out the particulars of the technologies themselves, we must re-form and re-mould the specifics to show how they connect back to larger phenomena and practices.

[5] No stranger to such public engagement, Martin Heidegger sought it out explicitly. His essay, “The Question Concerning Technology” (1979), developed out of a series of lectures he gave to wealthy Bremen businessmen in 1949 (Heidegger, 2012; Merwin, 2014). Although I do not advocate philosophers of technology exclusively targeting businesspeople, or even technologists, as the essential audiences for their work, philosophers of technology must account for them and their products as they both represent important actors effecting change for our present and future.


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