Technology, Tocqueville, and Freedom

On the technological understanding of being, according to Heidegger, we feel called upon to constantly enhance, optimize, and render ever-more-manipulable everything that exists, which we treat as flexible resources or means to ends. We don’t ask whether enhancing something will enable us to accomplish anything concrete; we’re just constantly on the alert for enhancement opportunities. The same is increasingly true for how we think about the norms that shape human behavior: human beings are the ultimate in flexible resources. There’s a compulsive dimension to our attitude to technology: we upgrade to the next upgrade whether we need to, or not. Technological objects have no enduring value; any given commodity is merely the latest stage of the endless process of perpetual improvement.

Precisely because everything is always being improved, we are haunted by the idea that nothing is as good as it will be. Already in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville noticed that Americans were “restless” in the midst of prosperity. This was because the idea of equality, which denies the supreme authority of any one standard of achievement, and suggests that new standards will always continue to appear, further suggests that humankind is indefinitely perfectible – but, since new standards are continually coming into being, what one is progressing towards necessarily remains vague. All one knows is that everything will soon be obsolete. Tocqueville illustrates the point as follows: Continue reading