Technology can simply be defined as the application of knowledge to a task. As such, all technology is the product of human design. Yet, there is still the widespread idea as if technological solutions are superior to the people-based solution, which would be a dichotomy, as a technological solution is actually the same thing as a “people-based” solution. Individuals create technologies to solve problems. For instance, imagine the first person who struck two stones together to make a spark and light a fire. Wouldn’t this count as a way of being “humanist” for discovering a method to feed oneself and others? Eventually, most tools and processes like these become part of the fabric of our lives they become so ordinary that we no longer even consider them “technology” at all. In other words, we start to take them for granted.
Criticism of technology often provide the readers with a feeling as if life in the proverbial ‘good old days” used to be much simpler or better in some way. The issue is that those ‘good old days weren’t so great. Opponents of innovation wrongly characterize new inventions as dangerous or anti-human simply because they were not supposedly “natural” or “traditional” enough in character. Given these negative connotations, one may want to ask them what if all farming and other work was to remain frozen in some past “natural” state? Presumably, we would all still be hunters and gathers struggling to find the next meal to put in our bellies.
A deterministic view that technology almost has a mind of its own and hence will plow forward without much resistance from society or governments will ignore the importance of the human element in moving history forward, or the so-called “people-based” solutions. There are no clear-cut boundaries in these debates given the fact that many other types of determinism exist. In a similar vein, the same issue exists when it comes to discussions about both “humanism” and “technology.” Based on individually preferred conceptions of these terms, definitions may become vague to fit a specific ideological disposition. Therefore, in order to start with a humanist critique of technology, there needs to be a clear explanation of what both those terms refer to.
Regardless of the criticisms made, technological solutions are people-based solutions. We craft tools to solve important problems and to better our lives and the lives of our loved ones. What could be more “humanist” than that? What lifted humanity up and improved our lot as a species is that we learned how to apply knowledge to tasks in a better way through ongoing trial and error experimentation. In other words, we flourished by innovating and as a result of our innovative activities we developed technologies. This continuous process of applying knowledge eventually leads to increased human flourishing as well.
While it would be going too far to assert that technological innovation can solve all the problems of the world, it would equally be wrong to underestimate the importance of other human values, or institutions to long-term human flourishing and overvalue ease or efficiency.
According to this 2015 Financial Times essay by McAfee, “Who are the humanists, and why do they dislike technology so much?” McAfee asserted that some “humanist” critiques of technological innovation merely remind us that all people are important, or that all technological processes involve trade-offs that we should be aware of. Needless to say, technological progress solves many of the problems that humanity faces today such as reducing hunger and disease.
Still another type of the humanistic conception has been mentioned by Sowell in his book “Vision of the Anointed where he asserts that rhetorical flourishes along with good intentions rather than actual real-world evidence may be preferred by some elites as they think that “what they say should be trusted as they are on the side of people instead of the cold machines”. That sort of vision has been at the core of technology criticism for a long time which has been exacerbated further by the idea that most technological innovation is “de-humanizing.
In his book, The True and Only Heaven, Lasch criticized “progressive optimism” for its supposed “denial of the natural limits on human power and freedom.” According to Lasch, populism for the twenty-first century should start with an acceptance of human limits.
Rather than viewing the material gains of modern civilization as both a fiction to be scoffed at and a reality to be scorned as being anti-human, we should start from the premise of a humanistic “state of heart and mind” that “asserts the goodness of life in the face of its limits.” In other words, we should be happy with what we’ve got because progress ain’t so great.