Edtech and the Tool-Using Man

Technology and labourAt no time in history have people been so obsessed with their tools. The edtech discourse turns discussions of education into discussions about the new educational tools, and the discourse of the digital revolution assumes that the latest wave of tools (silicon chips, fibre optics, the hypertext transfer protocol, etc., etc.) are ushering in a new era for humanity. This obsession with tools implies a view of the essence of our human being: the view that we are above all tool-using animals.

A quick contrast: Classical Greek civilisation was built using tools and advanced technical know-how, but even a quick flick through the works of someone like Aristotle reveals that all the emphasis is on the civilisation they built, not on the tools with which they built it. For us, the word “civilisation” seems like the remnant of a dead language, but talk of tools is just about the liveliest talk there is. We now seem to think of ourselves primarily in terms of the tools we use and not the civilisation we belong to.

This distinctively modern view of tools and their essential relation to our human being came to the surface briefly in a talk given by Gavin Dudeney about digital technology and education. 24 minutes into his talk he addressed the question of why teachers should make full use of the new tech in their lessons. To persuade the possibly wary educationalists the first thing Dudeney did was project the following image onto the screen behind him.

Digital homo faber

Dudeney said nothing about the image itself, but chose to make some comments instead about developments in Spain and India, highlighting how countries are moving forward by digitally retooling and devoting more of their economies to things like data-processing. However, although the image considered on its own is ambivalent, the message in the context of Dudeney’s talk is clear: This is progress; the advance of technology is the advance of humanity (and no educationalist in their right mind would be against progress).

First of all, it is worth noting that the edtech discourse, which in other settings tries to spin itself as revolutionary, is really an utterly conservative reaffirmation of the bad old narrative developed during the Enlightenment – a narrative about humanity ascending as it develops the technological means to harness the powers of nature. The narrative has its roots in the sort of hopes expressed by Francis Bacon back in the 1630s – hopes about the new science of natural causes being a source of tremendous new powers. In investigating the causes of natural phenomena we will learn how to produce the effects ourselves, gradually putting us in command of nature so that we can build a New Atlantis.

Francis Bacon technology hopes
Hiroshima in the dialectic of the Enlightenment

Back in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was excusable for people to have a naïve optimism about the progress that would be made possible by the new science and its technological applications – a naïve optimism not only about material plenty but also about the spread of a global, scientifically-based civilisation accompanied by universal peace. There is no excuse for such naivety after the world wars of the 20th century and after the unscrupulous development of the murderous tools in relation to which Robert Oppenheimer said “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

To engage critically with the image of man as essentially a tool-using animal involves taking a closer look at this Enlightenment discourse that first construed technology as the most progressive force in history.

One of the most common criticisms of the Enlightenment project is this: Man with his new tools was supposed to dominate nature, but, in the process of reorganising society to that end, individual men find that they have become slaves to a social order that has the same relentless and merciless character as the natural order they were supposed to have dominated. Georg Simmel in The Philosophy of Money (p483) sums this up nicely: “the machine, which was supposed to relieve man from his slave labour in relation to nature, has itself forced him to become a slave to it.” (Of course people like Sugata Mitra have tried to argue that digital technology is different in that it liberates individuals instead of enslaving them, but he has yet to convince the employees of Foxconn or the shop assistants selling his favourite tablet devices or the unemployed who are able to experience the true meaning of liberation in a society where the most important form of public life is economically productive labour.)

Digital labour

This standard criticism of the Enlightenment vision of the rise of the tool-using man is unsatisfactory insofar as it leaves us hankering after a form of domination that has proven to be self-defeating. We are left with the feeling that we are trapped. There is no way out.

A line of criticism that avoids this pitfall is the one developed by Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition – a book that devotes a lot of attention to the rise of the tool-using man in the modern world – a human type also known as homo faber.

As Arendt argues, in the early modern period homo faber came to be the highest human type, ousting classical notions of the greater excellence of the political life and medieval notions of the supremacy of the contemplative life. It can even be argued that the new science of natural causes was framed according to the needs of homo faber: the study of natural causes is the study of how to produce and reproduce the things of nature in the laboratory. Classical philosophy concentrated on the question of what (What is life? What is beauty? What is the highest good?), whereas the modern natural philosophy that became modern science concentrates more on questions of how (how inanimate elements combine to form a living organism, for instance). So, in a sense, the modern scientist, who might appear to be held in high regard, is actually a menial figure carrying the intellectual bags of homo faber. It is homo faber who is going to effect the domination of nature dreamed of by people like Francis Bacon. It is his success that is to legitimate the entire modern project.

As Hannah Arendt argues in The Human Condition (p312) what is curious about homo faber is not that he comes to ascendance in the modern world but that he fails to assert himself in an epoch that, at first sight, seems to be organised according to his dictates. Arendt’s analysis highlights a deeper problem beneath the more obvious dialectic of the Enlightenment (in which the would-be master becomes the slave). Figuratively, we might sum up the problem in this way: At exactly the point at which homo faber is placed in the driving seat of history, something happens that cuts the cables of the headlights, and he is left driving in the dark.

To appreciate that problem first we need to clarify who homo faber is.

Homo faber, at his best, is the builder of the world that we collectively inhabit and that we can regard as our home on Earth. The form of knowledge that is distinctive to homo faber is the knowledge of how to build the things of the world. Also characteristic of homo faber is an instrumental approach to the natural world: seeing it as a source of means that can be put to work to achieve the end of the building process. The tree is seen as timber; the sun is solar energy; the sand on the beach is a source of silicon, etc., etc.

The know-how and the instrumental reasoning of homo faber are necessary but not sufficient for the activity of building a world. Homo faber needs to draw upon a different kind of knowledge – a knowledge of what we should be building – a knowledge of the values in terms of which we can judge the goodness of the things of our world. Homo faber knows how to build, but he does not know what to build.

Given this image of homo faber at his best, how is homo faber fairing now? To some extent he is alive and well. The DIY business in places like the UK is flourishing. Every weekend tool-using men are doing things like insulating their lofts or adding a conservatory to the back of their houses. In the private sphere millions of people are happily using their favourite tools to build their own little worlds. It makes little difference if the tools are digital or pre-digital. People online are equally busy using the new tools to build little virtual worlds as the introductory video at the Second Life website makes clear:

Homo faber builds a second world

This is what the modern homo faber does in his spare time in the domestic sphere. The more important issue concerns how homo faber is faring in the public sphere. If homo faber can really assert himself as the ultimate historical force, it will be in the public sphere. So, how well is homo faber doing there?

Here is where the blindness of the modern homo faber really becomes apparent. Although at home, the DIY amateur knows what he should be building, in the public world of work things are very different. Let’s use an example from our own experience. Homo faber signs a contract with a large international publishing company to write a collection of educational materials. He wonders: “What should I write? Each book of educational materials will promote a certain kind of approach to education. Which kind of approach should we be promoting?” He tries to raise the issue with his employers, the publishers, and quickly realises that they don’t care what sort of book it is as long as it sells. Homo faber feels the ground give way beneath him. He realises that he cannot function properly without some other kind of thinking and judging in which we collectively sustain a social realm of values in terms of which homo faber can know what ought to be made.

In a sense the world – the public world – begins to collapse, or rather it gets transformed into something resembling the Weberian iron cage. The world becomes a pseudo-world in which the means take the place of the ends. The best example of this is money – a means of exchange whose accumulation, measured every three months as the GDP, becomes the highest social end. And in the very notion of the GDP what matters is merely the level of production (expressed in monetary terms), not what is produced. The qualities of the world become irrelevant as a pseudo-order of quantity (a digital order) is raised above them, and everything has to be organised to keep the numbers at their highest possible level.

The preponderance of means over ends is sickeningly obvious in the very term “edtech” where all the limelight is shone on the tools themselves not on the qualities of the world whose creation they might contribute to. We could say of this something similar to what Georg Simmel in The Philosophy of Money says of earlier forms of techno-fetishism:

“It is true that we now have acetylene and electrical light instead of oil lamps; but the enthusiasm for the progress achieved in lighting makes us sometimes forget that the essential thing is not the lighting itself but what becomes more fully visible. People’s ecstasy concerning the triumphs of the telegraph and telephone often makes them overlook the fact that what really matters is the value of what one has to say.” (482)

Simmel sums up the critique: “the peripheral in life, the things that lie outside its basic essence, have become masters of its centre and even of ourselves.”

This perverse shift of the peripheral to the centre is also evident in the phenomenon of work. Michael Foley in The Age of Absurdity describes it thus: “Once people worked in order to live; now working is living…The means has become the end…Long gone is the notion of work as a tedious necessity that supports the true life.” (162) He quotes Erich Fromm: “There is no other period in history in which free men have given their energy so completely a single purpose: work.” And according to Hannah Arendt’s scheme of things, once work (i.e. production) becomes an end in itself, the epoch of homo faber is over, and we enter the age of what she calls the animal laborans.

The problem, Arendt insists, is not properly understood if we frame it in terms of our individual empowerment (whether we feel more like the master of things or more like the slave), rather the problem has to be grasped in terms of the fate of the world: “The question, therefore, is not so much whether we are the masters or the slaves of our machines, but whether machines still serve the world and its things, or if, on the contrary, they and the automatic motion of their processes have begun to rule and even destroy the world and things.” (152)

We won’t here go into the causes except to mention that for Simmel they have to do with the rise of the money economy, whereas for Arendt they have more to do with the role of the new science and the disastrous impact it has on our discourse of value (where the only values that can claim objectivity are those that can be reduced to number). But in this instance agreeing on the aetiology of the phenomenon is less important than agreeing that the image of the rise of the healthy tool-using man has become little more than a ridiculous myth.

Moving forward, what we need is not a reassertion of the dominance of homo faber, but a new social imaginary in which homo faber is put back in his place as the builder of a world – as someone whose activity depends on a more important type of thinking and deliberation about what sort of world we need to build. What this requires on the cultural level is nothing short of a revolutionary shift in the way we understand ourselves – a shift that recalls the significance of the world as a place on Earth that we can call home. One way of figuring this shift would be to see it as a recuperation of the Aristotelian notion that above all we are political beings – beings who are engaged by the life and the things of this particular social world – beings for whom the question of what homo faber should be building is far more important than the question of the tools to be used, or the question of the total monetary value of what is being made (to which can be added the profits gained from trashing it) – beings who refuse to allow a realm of number to take precedence over the realm of qualities – beings who recognise that our fragile social world is something of essential, not merely instrumental, value.

written by Torn Halves on July 30, 2013 in digital revolution and Edtech and education with 4 comments