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What was Karl Jaspers’ philosophy of technology?

He developed an existential philosophy of technology revolving around the transformation of human society into a mechanised culture

Psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) was one of the most important representatives of existential philosophy, who also developed an existential philosophy of technology.

His early conception of technology, which he put forth in Man in the Modern Age (1931), revolved around the transformation of human society into a mass, mechanised culture.

His initial assessment of this transformation was negative. He wrote of the demonism of technology, describing technology as an independent power which had been summoned into existence by human beings but which now has turned against them.

According to Jaspers, technology transforms human society into a mass culture, alienating human beings from themselves and from the world around them.

Technology dependence

Jaspers considered mass-rule a byproduct of the close interaction between technological development and population growth, which results in a vast number of human beings whose existence becomes utterly dependent on technology.

This dependency requires a specific social and cultural formation. Besides a mechanisation of labour, society needs a smoothly operating bureaucratic organisation in order to keep functioning. Society becomes a machine itself, described by Jaspers as The Apparatus.

This apparatus of workers, machines, and bureaucracy increasingly determines how human beings carry out their daily lives. It has two different but related effects:

  1. First, its system of mass production fosters a homogenisation of the material environment in which human beings live. No attachment is possible to mass-produced objects, which only exist as exemplars of a general form and are primarily present in terms of their functionality.
  2. Second, the apparatus approaches human beings not as unique individuals, but as fulfillers of functions who are in principle interchangeable. Both effects of the technological transformation of society impede human beings from being present as authentic existences, and from living their lives authentically and in existential proximity to the world around them.

Human guidance

After World War II, Jaspers’ analysis of technology changed course. Rather than viewing technology as a threat to authentic human existence, in The Origin and Goal of History (1949) and The Atom Bomb and the Future of Man (1958), Jaspers saw technology as what was at stake in it.

He concluded that technology is ultimately neutral or no more than a means for human goals, since it is incapable of generating its own goals. This neutrality makes human beings responsible for what they make of technology: technology requires human guidance. The task for human beings is to reassert sovereignty over technology.

The threat of technology

Jaspers’ later perspective allowed him to discern not only a threatening side of technology, but also ways in which it opened up new existential possibilities. These include new proximity to reality, by understanding the laws of nature lying behind the functioning of technology, and recognising the beauty of technological constructs. It also makes use of the possibilities opened up by media and transportation technologies, allowing humans to experience the Earth as one whole, for which they can feel responsible.

References

Jaspers, K. (1931). Die geistige Situation der Zeit. Berlin: Göschen (Band 1000). Translation: Man in the Modern Age (1957), Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Jaspers, K. (1949), Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte. Zurich: Artemis. Translation: The Origin and Goal of History (1953), London: Routledge

Jaspers, K. (1958), Die Atombombe und die Zukunft des Menschen. Munich: Piper. Translation: The Future of Mankind (1961), also as: The Atom Bomb and the Future of Man, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

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