Carissa Ma reviews a book that thinks our visions of the future for the human body is driven by darker facets of the unconscious.

Nolen Gertz, Nihilism and Technology (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018), 227pp.

Implants and genetic engineering have given rise to the dream not of curing diseases and impairments but of curing death itself. There are now people who refer to themselves as “longevity entrepreneurs,” who see death as an inconvenience that ought to be eliminated. Implicit in this dream is the conviction that human existence is imperfect and should be fixed like a software bug. For transhumanism, man’s limitless consciousness is trapped in a limited body and technologies promise freedom “from the burdens of living, from the burdens of introspection, of decision-making, of weakness, of loneliness, and of responsibility” (204). This dualistic neo-Cartesian attitude that sees the human body only in terms of unwanted limitations is fundamentally nihilistic; it is a renunciation of life “positing the existence of a world beyond ours, a better world, a world that we can achieve through death, whether that death be literal or living” (25).

To borrow an analogy employed by Timothy Morton to describe ecological awareness in the Anthropocene, human-technology relations take the form of a strange loop or Möbius strip, twisted to have only one side, without a back or front, up or down, inside or outside. When you trace your finger along the strip, you find yourself flipping around to another side — which turns out to be the same side. Both ecological phenomena and technological beings bear a loop form that is also fundamental to the structure of how things are. Techno-utopianism is at once techno-nihilism; the “leisure-as-liberation trend” (1) in technological design is at once its flipside — “leisure-as-dehumanization.” While we aspire to a problem-free world through ever-advancing technological solutions, Nolen Gertz observes in this book that “modern technologies appear to function not by helping us achieve our ends but instead by determining ends for us, by providing us with ends that we must help technologies achieve” (3).

Taking a critical stance toward the dualistic human/technology distinction, Gertz shows that technologies significantly shape our values, as manifested in the modern prioritization of efficiency and objectivity, along with the redefinition of privacy and friendship. In Chapter 2, laying the philosophical groundwork, Gertz sets out by explicating and contextualizing Friedrich Nietzsche’s notion of nihilism — the “uncanniest of all guests” (17) — according to Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals. Nietzsche identifies abstinence — the suppression of instinctual energy — as the dominant value in both the rise of Christian morality and the rise of nihilism. According to Nietzsche, nihilism grew and has continued to grow from out of Juedeo-Christian morality, which has produced “a sick world, a world where we are sick of being mortal, sick of being human, and sick of being ourselves” (20). Life is for Nietzsche the “will to power” — the will to will, to pursue, to strive after one’s end. In contrast, “the will to preservation, the will to maintaining the status quo, is the will turning against life, the will turning against willing, the will turning towards asceticism” (22). Nietzsche identifies five human-nihilism relations propagated by the ascetic priests: self-hypnosis, mechanical activity, petty pleasures, herd instinct, and orgies of feeling.

In Chapter 3, Gertz goes on to introduce Martin Heidegger’s notion of “enframing”. To the famously technophobic thinker, “what is dangerous is not technology” (39); the truly dangerous is the logic of the in-order-to, the logic of “Gestell” or “enframing” (39). Enframing not only reveals what we can do with nature but also conceals our ability to see nature as anything but its use-value, and thus conceals that we can be anything other than manipulators of nature. In other words, “viewing technology as instrumentality, as instruments for us, is to become blind to how we too have come under the rule of instrumentality, how we too have become instruments, instruments for technology” (38).

Having touched on both Nietzsche and Heidegger, Gertz proceeds to introduce a Nietzschean reappropriation of Heidegger, namely Don Ihde’s philosophy of postphenomenology. Ihde’s philosophy is centred on “human-technology relations” (45) that are conspicuously non-dualistic. From a postphenomenological perspective, “technological beings, in a technological world, come to have meaning in, and through, and for each other” (45). Postphenomenology is underpinned by a Husserlian ontology based not on subjects and objects but on intentional relations. By way of a lively example, Gertz shows that to stab someone with a fork is to relate to a fork as a participant in a murder plot, to constitute the fork as a potential weapon, and vitally, to constitute myself simultaneously as a potential murderer. Technologies are thus characterised by their “multistability” (47) — their lack of a stable essence. Ihde observes that owing to the non-neutral nature of technologies, technologies have the paradoxical ability to both empower us and belittle us, to enlighten us and betray us, to entertain us and enrage us, to enliven and incapacitate us. The dynamic of amplification and reduction pervades human-technology relations such that the technological amplification of human abilities comes at the price of our having a reduced awareness of the mediating role of technologies in those abilities. For instance, the AR game Pokémon Go is so immersive, addictive, and hypnotic that the game itself has to remind users of reality, which AR simultaneously amplifies and reduces.

From Chapter 4 to Chapter 8, Gertz engages the kernel of his philosophical inquiry to discuss at length what he terms “nihilism-technology relations” (55), which include “techno-hypnosis” (60), “data-driven activity” (90), “pleasure economics” (113), “herd networking” (138), and “orgies of clicking” (162). Partly derived from Nietzsche’s analyses of human-nihilism relations, Gertz’s nihilism-technology relations link the Christian moral world to the present “technomoral world” (210). The book abounds with vivid and compelling examples of our radical ambivalence toward technologies, for instance the zombifying effects of binge-watching on Netflix, “Big Data” as “the algorithmic equivalent of ‘Big Brother’” (99), the active exploitation of group psychology by social networking sites, and the judgmental, discriminatory, power-seeking behaviour that underpins the sharing economy. Of particular interest is the analysis of emojis as an impersonal language that capitulates to our herd instinct. Gertz describes emojis as a “ready-made, corporate-designed language” (144) that individual users cannot claim as their own since it always refers back to, and ultimately serves to advertise for, the corporation, a.k.a. the Unicode Consortium. Emojis as a language deconstructs our most basic assumptions about what constitutes a language the same way Nietzsche led us to question the value of our values with the Genealogy.

Nihilism and Technology is a provocative and unsettling philosophical inquiry into our increasingly compulsive technological practices, revealing how our nihilism and our technologies have been raveled in a twist. Whereas Nietzsche asks us to consider whether someone seen as “good” is necessarily beneficial to society and whether someone seen as “evil” is necessarily harmful to society, Gertz asks us whose meaning is being conveyed by emojis, what is the true currency of the sharing economy, why do we troll or shame others online, who is obeying the Fitbit’s command to “Move!”  These are all pertinent questions to ask as you virtually peruse this book review, proceed to leave a reply online, for this review has or has not deserved your time — or perhaps you will occupy yourself with a more infectious video that has gone viral.

Carissa Ma recently completed her MSt in English at the University of Oxford. She is interested in postcolonial literature in English from the 20th century to present and ecofeminist literary criticism.

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