Paul Dumouchel – « The Impacts of Technology »

Paul Dumouchel

« The Impacts of Technology: Anthropological Foundations »

Linda Hogan, João J. Vila Chã, Michelle Becka

Concilium 2019-3. Technologie – Fluch oder Segen?
Concilium 2019-3. Technology: between Apocalypse and Integration
Concilium 2019-3. Tecnología?
Concilium 2019-3. Tecnologia: tra apocalisse e integrazione
Concilium 2019-3. Technologie: entre apocalypse et intégration
Concilium 2019-2. Tecnologia: entre o Apocalipsis e a integração

1. Introduction

Humans are technological animals, not only do they shape and transform their environment as every species does to some extent, they also add to it new realities, independent objects which only exists as a result of their activities. Of course they are not the only ones, many animals build nests, dig burrows or use more or less elaborate tools, for example to crack nuts open or to hunt. Others, like ants or termites, practice agriculture and herding, domesticating members of different species, building towering structures in which they live to house their gardens and herds. Nonetheless, we have introduced into the world an unprecedented quantity of new realities which but for our activities would not exist. In the process, we transformed the world profoundly, intervening even among its most basic components, sub-atomic particles, while we also gained the ability to act beyond the limits of our planet. Humans engage in niche construction -organism driven modification of the environment-[1] far beyond what any other species we know has done.

Simultaneously, humans are highly social animals. Eusociality to the side,[2] definitions of social species are controversial, often uninformative or tautological. One suggestion is that a species is social to the extent that its members’ fitness depends on relations among co-specifics rather than on independent individual interactions with the environment. The degree to which a species is social understood in this way is something that can be measured along two dimensions: importance and extension. The first correspond to how important relations with co-specifics are to the fitness of an individual compared to unmediated interactions with the environment; the second concerns the number of co-specific on which this dependence rests and the relation (parent, sibling, co-worker, etc) they entertain with the individual.[3]According to these criteria, humans are certainly the most highly social animals on this planet. Our lives, our success and failures biological or otherwise depend primarily on our relations with others. Whether it is reproduction, business success, life expectancy, resistance to disease, cognitive abilities or any dimensions of our existence, including those we like to think of as “natural”, our performance or “endowments” are socially mediate by direct or indirect relations to other humans.

It is likely that these two characteristics, high sociality and technical activity both complex and far reaching, are closely related. Especially as the growing complexity, number and importance of technical artifacts and networks, has gone hand in hand, not only with the augmentation in the number of humans, but also in the size of human agglomerations and in the complexity of the social relations found there. Of course, correlations are not causes and that the two things are related does not explain what their relation is. However, the importance and centrality of technology in human life, the extent to which it is inseparable from human sociality argue that whatever technology may be, it is not a ‘third party’. That is to say, it is not an external force in a game played between humans and nature, but part of the very way we are who we are. To put it otherwise, it seems clear that the artificial is natural to us. 

2. Reflections on Technology

Hegel in 1807 formulated a view of our relation to nature and to each other that was to have a lasting influence on reflection on technology whether critical or eulogizing. In the Phenomenology of Mind, he argues that work, the human activity that transforms nature, constitutes both the means by which the mind re-appropriates the world which it originally posits as exterior and different from itself, and the means by which the slave regains the freedom that he lost when he submitted to the Master for fear of being killed. Hegel installed work at the heart of two fundamental human projects, liberation from natural constraints, from disease, poverty and ignorance on the one hand, and political freedom on the other. Through his conception of work these two projects became intertwined. For the next one hundred and fifty years at least, work became the fundamental topic in reflections on technology. Beyond the central place that Hegel had given it, this was due first to the fact that work is inseparable from techniques and technology and second that during the 19thcentury transformation of the workplace was where the impacts of technological change were most evident and far reaching. 

Much of those reflections on technology (and work), beginning with Marx’s, were highly critical of the consequences of technical changes. Rather than liberating us, technology was seen by many, as a source of alienation from nature and from each other. Yet, whether it was critical or believed in the promises of technology, this literature retained from Hegel the close relationship between technology and alienation, both political and in relation to nature. Very few authors – Gilbert Simondon is one of the few names that comes to mind – pursued a philosophy of technology focused on conceptual and philosophical questions, rather than on issues of alienation either political or personal.[4]Technology was analyzed with a view towards its social, political and ethical  consequences, but the question of what it is in itself was rarely addressed and its anthropological dimension continued to be understood in the context of work as the means through which we transform nature.

That began to change with the rise of the ecological movement in the early 1970s. The center of attention started to shift away from man, his destiny either personal or collective, to nature as an object of moral concern. Nature as something that we need to take care of and towards which we have obligations. Either because the damage we inflict upon it will ultimately rebound upon us, or because it has a value in itself that deserves to be preserved. Nonetheless, the question of alienation remained present and important. However, from that point on it was our relation to nature, rather than political liberation, that provided the norm of the good life and of political responsibility. The workplace lost its centrality as the prime example of the negative effects of modern technology and workers their fundamental role in shaping our political future. To a large extent, this transformation of philosophical and social reflections on technology was ‘event-driven’, due to evolution in technologies which became more powerful, and as their ecological consequences became more evident. Furthermore, transformation of the workplace, automation and the development of service industries, rather than to universalize the working class, reduced its social and political importance. 

Progressively technology came to appear more and more as something that exists and acts by itself, independently of us, an external force and a destiny which we cannot escape, that is either feared or embraced. Reflections that exalt the power and prowess of technological innovations present them as a means to “improve nature”[5] or to go “beyond humanity”[6], to override the limits of nature or of human nature. Positive eugenics and genetics enhancements, it is argued, will allow us to increase our physical and cognitive abilities, while Transhumanism promises us immortality. To the opposite technology is also often seen as a purely destructive force, not only in relation to nature but also to humankind. Technological progress is expected to make us redundant; the future will not need us, as Bill Joy famously claimed.[7] Or worst, AI will one day take over the world and destroy humanity.[8]

3. Technology?

Limited as they were because of their quasi-exclusive focus on work and their disregard for ecological issues, earlier reflections on technology had one advantage: subsumed under the concept of work, technology is construed as a human activity, one among others, rather than as something. It is clear that there exist many technical objects, from humble water faucets to terrifying intercontinental ballistic missiles, but it is not clear that there is such a thing as technology. The word, in its proper sense, designates a body of knowledge, knowing how and knowing that, which relates to particular activities, for example, boat building or plumbing and it further refers, as part of technology, to the instruments and machines used in carrying out these activities. We also use the term to refer loosely to an extremely wide variety of human made objects, some of which, like an algorithm, are no thing at all. What these objects have in common is extremely abstract and difficult to pin point. Perhaps that they are the products of human activities and used in carrying out either the activity that produced them or some other activity. However, these activities are extremely diverse ranging from measuring air pressure to crowd control, from extracting ore to mail distribution, from designing video games to curing disease. 

Moreover, the objects, skills and knowledge involved in carpentry seem too different from what is necessary say, to construct a plane for them to constitute together a homogeneous class. That is, a set of realities that share common characteristics distinguishing them from other sets of objects, skills and knowledge, and this is clearly the case for just about any other example one can think of. Placing the word ‘modern’ before ‘technology’ does not improve the situation. The variety of activities involved makes it impossible to think that technology constitute what philosophers call a “natural kind”, a set of phenomena characterized by uniquely shared traits. Technologies are a strange hybrids, disparate collections of human activities, of objects, the tools, buildings, vehicles related to them and of the knowledge necessary to carry out those activities. To imagine that the collection of all such collections forms a unified or coherent whole is to dream. It follows that there is no one thing that is technology, which exists in itself, that has its own particular characteristics, and which may either save or destroy us. That idol does not exists. Technologies are the means and products of human activities immensely varied throughout history and in the present. 

Many recent reflections on new technologies are formulated in terms of ethics: for example, the ethics of nanotechnology[9], of protocells[10], of genetic manipulation[11] or of social robotics[12]. Important as some of the questions they raise may be, these approaches tend to hide the political dimension of technological transformations. Or when they are aware of it, that political dimension is reduced to the effects of innovations on common welfare, employment or the environment. Regulations are then conceived as a way of mitigating those consequences, and ethics as a code that determines the proper use of the technologies. What is overlooked in such approaches is the fact that technological changes are not simply something that happens, the sudden appearance of new objects and tools in our environment, but result from what people do, from the choices they make and from the objectives that are pursued by various social actors. What needs to be addressed are not only consequences of new technologies on nature or employment, but also the choices that lead to them and most importantly how they transform power relationships. To put it otherwise, it is not things, it is not objects that need to be regulated, but actions. Changes in relations between persons, changes with which we need to agree or to disagree should be at the heart of our reflection on technological innovations, especially as these changes in interactions often are modifications of existing power relationships whose unbalance they entrench, rather than they represent something radically new. For example, the ethical dilemma created by the technical possibility of surrogate motherhood may seem completely unheard of, but there is little new in the power relations involved between those who can, through money or power, impose their will upon others who may suffer harm and those submit either out of necessity or desire for income. To reduce this issue to a purely ethical question without taking into account its political aspect is to misunderstand and to misrepresent technological activities which inseparably are forms of interactions among social groups and individuals. 

Ethical reflections tend to view issues concerning new technologies as individual questions: do I want to do this (use plastic bags, buy a smartphone, join Facebook, create protocells) or not? Questions which are addressed either to consumers or to scientists and to understand legislation, or regulation, as a means of protecting the individual while granting him or her the widest possibility of choice. A political approach to the opposite sees the issues involved as inherently relational. What is as stake in technological changes is never the single individual only, but a relational structure where agents do not act independently of others and where the aggregation of their actions may turn out to defeat the goals aimed at by the individual. Technological activities in all their forms inevitably are collective enterprises, even in very simple societies they rest on knowledge that others possess and tools that others have made.

4. Technologies and Affordances

Some years ago the American psychologist J.J. Gibson introduced the idea of affordances. Affordances are not things, they are not objects as such but what individual objects or different arrangements of objects offer to our activities, what they ‘afford’ an organism in terms of its actions and goals. More precisely Gibson argues that what we and other animals first perceive are not objects, but affordances, not a seat but a place to sit, not a door but an opening or an escape route, not an overhanging rock but protection from the rain, and so on. Affordances are more abstract and more general than objects, a hiding place is not any thing in particular, but instantiates an abstract relation between me and the world. Clearly affordances correspond to and highlight certain objective aspects of the world, the ground will only hold me if it is solid enough. However, they cannot be identified with those objective characteristics, because affordances only arise, so to speak, at the meeting point, at the interface of an organism, its abilities and objectives and its environment. In that sense affordances are more like events than objects, as I run pass a bifurcation my escape route disappears. It is not there anymore. Of course there is a sense in which we can say that it still exists potentially, there still is an opening there through which I can flee in thought and imagination, but in the actuality of my action, I cannot anymore. What exists potentially in that way is infinite in number, more to the point indefinite. That is, it remains unknown and under-determined until it is revealed and created as an affordance by an organism’s intervention. Thus, an affordance only exists inasmuch as some organism makes it real by taking advantage of this or that characteristic of the environment.[13] To live in a world of affordances is to live in a meaningful world, but because affordances are like events predicated on an individual’s action, rather than objects, this meaning is essentially subjective.[14]

It is interesting that many technical objects can be viewed as crystallized affordances, as materializing into an independent object the abstract relation to the world that defines an affordance. This is particularly evident in simple objects, a chair, a bed, a wall, a house. They are made because of what they afford protection, rest, comfort, and they give a material objective form to the affordance which they are. They stabilize the affordance, transforming the event into an object. Other objects, like a knife, a spear, a boat, and activities, horse back ridding or making fire, create or provide new affordances, making regularly possible what could not be done or was only occasionally available, like crossing a river. All these simple objects and not so simple practices reduce the contingency of affordances predicated on individual chance encounters with this or that aspect of the world and they introduce new affordances, new opportunities and dangers which did not exist previously. This of course is not only the case of simple objects, but also of smartphones, of computers, of airplane, or antibiotics. Technologies then may be understood as the various activities through which humans domesticate and materialize affordances, as well as the objects which result from these activities and some of the new affordances to which they give rise. 

The materialization of affordances through human technical activities makes them objective in the proper sense, transforming them into particular objects. In the process technologies and technological practices give rise to a shared world of objects, to an objective reality which progressively takes, beyond each individual’s collection of subjectively experienced affordances, a form that is not merely episodic. That is to say, the world that we share and is real for us is not only primarily made of objects we created and of the common practices that make them possible, rather than given as nature, but it is made available to us as real by these objects, sedimented affordances. It is true that to think that the world is real is to view it as existing independently of us, as a universe that is indifferent to our whims and desires, which exists in itself and imposes itself to us as the inescapable basis upon which can be done whatever can be done. Yet, paradoxically technical objects that we have created provide the experience of such a world much more clearly than our encounters with ‘natural affordances’ that are always to some extent contingent on our momentary needs or desire. A ladder reveals the objectivity of its purpose in a way that the tree, which I may also climb, does not. In that latter case, the objectivity of the world attached as it is to the occasion of the affordance tends to remain episodic compared to the materialized objectivity of the technical object. In the case of the ladder its objectivity is its very meaning and existence. The ladder exists not only as offered for recursive use by a plurality of users, but that is also the reason why it was made and exists. 

The impact of technology then is simply who we are and the world as we know and have made it. Global warming is probably the clearest illustration that the impact of technology is not a particular problem caused by an object called (modern) technology, but the result of what we do.


[1] F. John Odling-Smee, Niche Construction: The Neglected Process in Evolution (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003).

[2]  Eusociality is usually defined by the three following characteristics: cooperative brood care (including care of offspring from other individuals), overlapping generations within a colony of adults, and a division of labor into reproductive and non-reproductive groups. It is usually found in insects especially ants and termites but also exists in rare cases among crustaceans and mammals. 

[3]  For more on this definition of social species, see Paul Dumouchel, “Acting Together in Dis-Harmony. Cooperating to Conflict and Cooperation in Conflict,” Studi di Sociologia 55, no. 4 (2017): 303–13; Idem, “A Covenant Among Beasts: Human and Chimpanzee Violence in Evolutionary Perspective,” in Can We Survive Our Origins?: Readings in René Girard’s Theory of Violence and the Sacred, ed. Pierpaolo Antonello and Paul Gifford, Studies in Violence, Mimesis, and Culture (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2015), 3–24.

[4]    Gilbert Simondon, Du mode d’existence des objets techniques (Aubier: Editions Montaigne, 1958).

[5]    Michael J. Reiss and Roger Straughan, Improving Nature? The Science and Ethics of Genetic Engineering (Cambridge [England]; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

[6]    Allen E. Buchanan, Beyond Humanity? The Ethics of Biomedical Enhancement (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). 

[7]    Bill Joy, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” Wired, 2000,, reprinted in Deborah G. Johnson and Jameson M. Wetmore, Technology and Society: Building Our Sociotechnical Future (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2009), pp. 69-91.

[8]    Nick Bostrom, Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, First edition. (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[9]    Dónal O’Mathúna, Nanoethics: Big Ethical Issues with Small Technology, Think Now (London ; New York: Continuum, 2009).

[10]  Mark Bedau and Emily C. Parke, The Ethics of Protocells: Moral and Social Implications of Creating Life in the Laboratory, Basic Bioethics (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2009). 

[11]  Allen E. Buchanan, A. Brock, D. W. Daniels, N. & D. Wilker (eds) From Chance to Choice Genetics and Justice. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

[12]  Wendell Wallach and Colin Allen, Moral Machines: Teaching Robots Right from Wrong (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[13]  James J. Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1986).

[14]  Affordances as such are not subjective, but real: an opening is or is not sufficiently large for an animal. What is subjective, or what does not need to be more than subjective, is the animals world, what Uexküll called its Umwelt.


Paul Dumouchel is professor at the Graduate School of Core Ethics and Frontier Sciences, Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto, Japan, where he teaches political philosophy and philosophy of science. He is the author of Emotions (Seuil, 1999) The Ambivalence of Scarcity and Other Essays and The Barren Sacrifice both at Michigan State University Press. With Reiko Gotoh he edited Against Injustice: The New Economics of Amartya Sen (Cambridge University Press, 2009) and Social Bonds as Freedom (Berghahn Books, 2015). His most recent book, with Luisa Damiano, is Living With Robots (Harvard University Press, 2017).

Address: Graduate School of Core Ethics and Frontier Sciences, Ritsumeikan University, 56-1 Toji-in Kitamachi, Kita-ku, Kyoto 603-8577 JAPAN.