From Tech Critique to Ways of Living

Neil Postman was right. So what?
Subscriber Only
Sign in or Subscribe Now for audio version

In the 1950s and 1960s, a series of thinkers, beginning with Jacques Ellul and Marshall McLuhan, began to describe the anatomy of our technological society. Then, starting in the 1970s, a generation emerged who articulated a detailed critique of that society. The critique produced by these figures I refer to in the singular because it shares core features, if not a common vocabulary. What Ivan Illich, Ursula Franklin, Albert Borgmann, and a few others have said about technology is powerful, incisive, and remarkably coherent. I am going to call the argument they share the Standard Critique of Technology, or SCT. The one problem with the SCT is that it has had no success in reversing, or even slowing, the momentum of our society’s move toward what one of their number, Neil Postman, called technopoly.

The basic argument of the SCT goes like this. We live in a technopoly, a society in which powerful technologies come to dominate the people they are supposed to serve, and reshape us in their image. These technologies, therefore, might be called prescriptive (to use Franklin’s term) or manipulatory (to use Illich’s). For example, social networks promise to forge connections — but they also encourage mob rule. Facial-recognition software helps to identify suspects — and to keep tabs on whole populations. Collectively, these technologies constitute the device paradigm (Borgmann), which in turn produces a culture of compliance (Franklin).

The proper response to this situation is not to shun technology itself, for human beings are intrinsically and necessarily users of tools. Rather, it is to find and use technologies that, instead of manipulating us, serve sound human ends and the focal practices (Borgmann) that embody those ends. A table becomes a center for family life; a musical instrument skillfully played enlivens those around it. Those healthier technologies might be referred to as holistic (Franklin) or convivial (Illich), because they fit within the human lifeworld and enhance our relations with one another. Our task, then, is to discern these tendencies or affordances of our technologies and, on both social and personal levels, choose the holistic, convivial ones.

The Standard Critique of Technology as thus described is cogent and correct. I have referred to it many times and applied it to many different situations. For instance, I have used the logic of the SCT to make a case for rejecting the “walled gardens” of the massive social media companies, and for replacing them with a cultivation of the “digital commons” of the open web.

But the number of people who are even open to following this logic is vanishingly small. For all its cogency, the SCT is utterly powerless to slow our technosocial momentum, much less to alter its direction. Since Postman and the rest made that critique, the social order has rushed ever faster toward a complete and uncritical embrace of the prescriptive, manipulatory technologies deceitfully presented to us as Liberation and Empowerment. So what next?

The Rise of Technopoly

One must begin, I think, by grasping why the SCT has been so powerless. First, it has been articulated primarily in books. Not many people read books at all, and a tiny fraction of those who do read books ever read ones that develop complex and countercultural ideas. Second, human beings are lazy herd animals. Or, to put it in less pejorative terms, the vast majority of people will always choose options for action that conserve mental energy without alienating them from their peers and aspirant peers. The SCT offers no answer to this tendency. Moreover, …

I’m sorry, am I depressing you? Perhaps so. A quick scan of my emotional faculties suggests that I am depressing myself. But my rational faculties tell me that useful thinking depends on an accurate assessment of the circumstances under which one thinks. And a rational assessment of the current moment must begin with the recognition that the forces against which Illich, Franklin, Postman, and Borgmann contended — and against which Borgmann still contends — have progressed with dramatic speed in the past forty years.

This progression is the inevitable result of three trends, all occurring within the context of global capitalism:

  • Moore’s Law: In 1965, an electrical engineer named Gordon Moore — then the co-founder of Fairchild Semiconductor Laboratory, later the co-founder of Intel — wrote a paper claiming that the number of components on a given integrated circuit had for some time been doubling every year, and would continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Others pegged the period of doubling at eighteen months, but whatever the specifics, the effect has been not just a great increase in readily available computing power but also the placement of that computing power within smaller and smaller containers.
  • The mining of lithium: Lithium can be mined directly — mines may be found in the United States (primarily Nevada), Canada (primarily Quebec), and China, among other places — but direct mining is prohibitively expensive in comparison to extraction from salars (salt flats) or briny lakes. Most of the world’s lithium comes from salars in Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile. Lithium is the essential component of the batteries that power our increasingly small devices.
  • The spread of wireless telecommunications networks: Wireless telecommunications networks are based on an astonishingly diverse set of technologies, involving multiple means of safely transmitting multiple kinds of signals from one location to another.

These three developments are of course built upon an infrastructure subject to many other developments. And all are able to work in smoothly harmonious concert only because of the spread of a global economic order that allows the relatively free passage of raw materials and finished products alike around the world. The result is the global dominance of what Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism,” a dominance that is limited only by the following factors:

  • A potential slowing of miniaturization, which is to say, the possible falsification of Moore’s Law (though quantum computing may eventually provide a practical solution to such slowing);
  • Limits to the world’s supply of lithium, potentially accelerated by the use of lithium batteries in automobiles (though a potentially significant new supply has just been discovered in Cornwall, England);
  • Spottiness in fast wireless coverage in parts of the world (which will likely be addressed by various initiatives, such as the introduction of Internet satellites by Amazon, SpaceX, and other companies);
  • The possible intensification of global political conflicts, especially between China and the West.

Any of these, or any combination thereof, could slow the spread of surveillance capitalism; but none of them promises imminent danger to it, and there are potential workarounds for them all.

We are therefore moving ever closer to an environment in which prescriptive, manipulatory technologies are ubiquitous and totalizing — not to say totalitarian, necessarily, although perhaps we do want to say that. A Uighur from western China, faced with an open, full-scale deployment of the most powerful surveillance technologies in the world, would probably want to say that. And it seems increasingly likely that the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uighurs — who, as Muslims who are ethnically Turkic rather than Han Chinese, make exceptionally convenient guinea pigs — is but a trial run for a system that will ultimately be deployed in the whole of China, and exported to other autocracies. It also seems very likely that the Xinjiang re-education camps prefigure the future of China.

‘Life versus the Machine’ in the West

Technopoly in the West, by contrast, has tended to deploy carrots rather than sticks, largely through advertising. It is of course possible to resist those carrots, to practice what Paul Kingsnorth calls “life versus the machine,” though only at significant cost. It has been Kingsnorth’s writerly mission in recent years to articulate what such resistance to the siren-song of technopoly might look like — and why this resistance is necessary:

Any action which hinders the advance of the human industrial economy is an ethical action, provided it does not harm life.

Any action which knowingly and needlessly advances the human industrial economy is an unethical action.

The “human industrial economy” is Kingsnorth’s term for technopoly conceived in relation to the whole of the natural order. While the proponents of the SCT tend to focus their arguments on what technopoly is doing to us, to human beings, they are not unaware of the consequences of prescriptive, manipulatory technologies for the rest of the world. By adding Kingsnorth’s insights — and those of other thinkers of similar character, especially Wendell Berry — to those of the SCT, we can see more clearly that every depredation of the human is also a depredation of the natural order, and vice versa.

We might think of the shifting relationship of human beings to the natural world in the terms offered by German sociologist Gerd-Günter Voß, who has traced our movement through three different models of the “conduct of life.” The first, and for much of human history the only conduct of life, is what he calls the traditional. Your actions within the traditional conduct of life proceed from social and familial circumstances, from what is thus handed down to you. In such a world it is reasonable for family names to be associated with trades, trades that will be passed down from father to son: Smith, Carpenter, Miller. But the rise of the various forces that we call “modernity” led to the emergence of the strategic conduct of life: a life with a plan, with certain goals — to get into law school, to become a cosmetologist, to get a corner office.

Quite recently, thanks largely to totalizing technology’s formation of a world in which, to borrow a phrase from Marx and Engels, “all that is solid melts into air,” the strategic model of conduct is replaced by the situational. Instead of being systematic planners, we become agile improvisers: If the job market is bad for your college major, you turn a side hustle into a business. But because you know that your business may get disrupted by the tech industry, you don’t bother thinking long-term; your current gig might disappear at any time, but another will surely present itself, which you will assess upon its arrival.

The movement through these three forms of conduct, whatever benefits it might have, makes our relations with nature increasingly instrumental. We can see this shift more clearly when looking at our changing experience of time, and our understanding of the values inscribed in the passage of time. Within the traditional conduct of life, it is necessary to take stewardly care of the resources required for the exercise of a craft or a profession, as these get passed on from generation to generation. For an excellent example of how this works, see The Wheelwright’s Shop by George Sturt, a 1923 book for which Albert Borgmann has expressed great regard. The wheelwright must know a great deal about timber. Knowing that good timber for wheels is not easily found, he must also practice care for the forests in which such timber is found. The practice of wheelwrighting requires knowledge of and attention to an entire woodland ecosystem.

But in the progression from the traditional to the strategic to the situational conduct of life, continuity of preservation becomes less valuable than immediacy of appropriation: We need more lithium today, and merely hope to find greater reserves — or a suitable replacement — tomorrow. This revaluation has the effect of shifting the place of the natural order from something intrinsic to our practices to something extrinsic. The whole of nature becomes what economists tellingly call an externality.

It might seem useful to understand a little more clearly how the arguments of the SCT intertwine with the arguments of environmentalists, post-environmentalists (like the ecomodernists), and naturalists (as they were once called) or “nature-lovers,” if we can possibly reclaim that now frivolous term. But to pursue this understanding would only be to expand the population of a rudderless and leaky boat, soon to be swamped by the wake of the mighty ocean-liner of technopoly. We still don’t have a way to shift the course of that Leviathan, much less to slow its progress. The question, as we think about moving beyond the Standard Critique, is whether there can be such a way. And at least one answer comes from a surprising source: Daoism. But we can’t go there by a direct route.

The Danger of ‘Human Resources’

The philosophical ancestor of the Standard Critique is Martin Heidegger. This is not to say that all the proponents of the SCT have read Heidegger, though some of them (such as Borgmann) have drunk deep from that peculiar well. I mean only that Heidegger, especially in his famous essay “The Question Concerning Technology,” provides a specifically philosophical account of the issues that the SCT attempts to address.

Much could be said about Heidegger’s strangely compelling exposition — which asks what the essence of technology is — but a few points require our attention here. First, because “technology itself is a contrivance,” an instrumentum,” we are led to think instrumentally about it. It is a contrivance for mastery, and we therefore naturally think in terms of how we can master it.

But when we look more carefully at how technology is a means that we try to master for specific ends, says Heidegger, we realize that we too, as much as the Great Externality called nature, become raw material in the process. Consider — to re-enter via Heidegger the lifeworld of George Sturt’s wheelwright — a modern forester:

The forester who, in the wood, measures the felled timber and to all appearances walks the same forest path in the same way as did his grandfather is today commanded by profit-making in the lumber industry, whether he knows it or not. He is made subordinate to the orderability of cellulose, which for its part is challenged forth by the need for paper, which is then delivered to newspapers and illustrated magazines.

There is a whole economic system here of which the forester has willy-nilly become a part. Trees make timber, which makes cellulose, which makes paper, which makes newspapers — and because the process is repeated and ongoing, all that material has to be held in “standing-reserve,” that is, regarded as a resource waiting to be used. And so too the forester. Now, as a human being he is not mere standing-reserve; but as a forester he is. Sturt’s account of the transformation of the craft of the wheelwright provides an equally vivid account of this situation.

As Mark Blitz has written in these pages (“Understanding Heidegger on Technology,” Winter 2014) — in one of the clearest expositions I know of Heidegger’s engagement with technology — within the governing logic of our current moment

all things increasingly present themselves to us as technological: we see them and treat them as what Heidegger calls a “standing reserve,” supplies in a storeroom, as it were, pieces of inventory to be ordered and conscripted, assembled and disassembled, set up and set aside. Everything approaches us merely as a source of energy or as something we must organize. We treat even human capabilities as though they were only means for technological procedures, as when a worker becomes nothing but an instrument for production. Leaders and planners, along with the rest of us, are mere human resources to be arranged, rearranged, and disposed of. Each and every thing that presents itself technologically thereby loses its distinctive independence and form. We push aside, obscure, or simply cannot see, other possibilities.

This is what Heidegger means when he speaks of the technological “enframing” or “positionality” — the German word is Gestell — of human life. It gradually turns us all into “standing-reserve,” as when we speak with equal facility of “natural resources” and “human resources.”

This technological enframing of human life, says Heidegger, first “endanger[s] man in his relationship to himself and to everything that is” and then, beyond that, “banishes” us from our home. And that is a great, great peril.

The Way Beyond Heidegger

The philosopher Yuk Hui, a native of Hong Kong who now teaches in Germany, thinks that Heidegger is the most profound of recent Western thinkers on technology — but also that it is necessary to “go beyond Heidegger’s discourse on technology.” In his exceptionally ambitious book The Question Concerning Technology in China (2016) and in a series of related essays and interviews, Hui argues, as the title of his book suggests, that we go wrong when we assume that there is one question concerning technology, the question, that is universal in scope and uniform in shape. Perhaps the questions are different in Hong Kong than in the Black Forest. Similarly, the distinction Heidegger draws between ancient and modern technology — where with modern technology everything becomes a mere resource — may not universally hold.

Hui explores, for instance, Kant’s notion of the cosmopolitan, and the related role of print technology. A central concept in Enlightenment models of rationality, the cosmopolitan is the ideal citizen of the world engaged in public reasoning, and Kant believed that a “universal cosmopolitan condition” would one day be the natural outcome of history. But Kant’s understanding of what that means is thoroughly entangled with the rise and expansion of print culture. It is directly through print culture that the “Republic of Letters,” the very epitome of cosmopolitanism as Kant knew it, is formed. But, then, what might a cosmopolitan be within a society whose print culture is either nonexistent or radically other than the one Enlightenment thinkers knew?

Hui’s novel approach to the question(s) concerning technology thus begins with a pair of seemingly contradictory ideas about whether technology should be seen as universal:

Thesis: Technology is an anthropological universal, understood as an exteriorization of memory and the liberation of organs, as some anthropologists and philosophers of technology have formulated it;

Antithesis: Technology is not anthropologically universal; it is enabled and constrained by particular cosmologies, which go beyond mere functionality or utility. Therefore, there is no one single technology, but rather multiple cosmotechnics.

As I read Yuk Hui’s enormously complex argument, he claims that we are now in a position where we can see what is of value in the Thesis only after we fully dwell within the Antithesis. This leads us to the generative idea of “multiple cosmotechnics.” First, what does Hui mean by the peculiar word “cosmotechnics”? “It is the unification of the cosmos and the moral through technical activities, whether craft-making or art-making.” That is, a cosmotechnics is the point at which a way of life is realized through making.

The point may be illustrated with reference to an ancient tale Hui offers, about an excellent butcher who explains to a duke what he calls the Dao, or “way,” of butchering. The reason he is a good butcher, he says, it not his mastery of a skill, or his reliance on superior tools. He is a good butcher because he understands the Dao: Through experience he has come to rely on his intuition to thrust the knife precisely where it does not cut through tendons or bones, and so his knife always stays sharp. The duke replies: “Now I know how to live.” Hui explains that “it is thus the question of ‘living,’ rather than that of technics, that is at the center of the story.”

A jade sculpture depicting a Daoist paradise, 18th century
Metropolitan Museum of Art (public domain)

This unification — of making and living — might be said to be the whole point of Daoism. Though the same theme is woven through certain Confucian texts and the I Ching, it is particularly notable as the incessant refrain of the Daodejing, or, as it is more commonly called in the English-speaking world, the Tao Te Ching. The title means something like “The Classic of the Virtue of the Way” or “The Classic of the Way and of Virtue.” In both cases “virtue” (Te) should be understood as something close to the Latin virtus or the Greek aretē, meaning a kind of excellence, an excellence that has power.

Hui says, in an interview with Noema magazine about his book, that he has

attempted to understand Chinese cosmotechnics through the dynamic relationship between two major categories of traditional Chinese thought: “dao,” or the ethereal life force that circulates all things (commonly referred to as the way), and “qi,” which means tool or utensil. Together, dao and qi — the soul and the machine, so to speak — constitute an inseparable unity.

Hui further comments that if the fundamental concern of Western philosophy is with being and substance, the fundamental concern of Classical Chinese thought is relation. So it makes sense, then, that his approach to cosmotechnics would center on the inquiry into a certain relation, that between dao (the way) and qi (tools).[1]

‘They Will Sit Collecting Dust’

One could use many different passages in the Tao Te Ching to illustrate Yuk Hui’s views, but the obviously central passage is verse 80, which presents us with a vision of a wholly local life.[2]

Neighboring villages are within sight of each other
Roosters and dogs can be heard in the distance
Should a man grow old and die
without ever leaving his village
let him feel as though there was nothing he missed

But what is especially interesting about this village is the presence of technological sophistication:

Let every state be simple
like a small village with few people
There may be tools to speed things up
ten or a hundred times
yet no one will care to use them
There may be boats and carriages
yet they will remain without riders
There may be armor and weaponry
yet they will sit collecting dust

Powerful technologies are present — but unused. They are not destroyed, as the Luddites destroyed industrial machinery. They are simply ignored. Neither novelty nor power are attractive to the residents of this village — or rather, this state that bears the character of a village.

Let them return
to the knotting of cord
Let them enjoy their food
and care for their clothing
Let them be content in their homes
and joyful in the way they live

This is a vision of a well-lived life, in relation to others, that may be described generally — what the people in one village do will resemble what the people do in neighboring villages — but instantiated only locally and specifically. For those who live this life, their relation to their tools will be determined by their commitment to the Way. Tools that do not contribute to the Way will neither be worshipped nor despised. They will simply be left to gather dust as the people choose the tools that will guide them in the path of contentment and joy: utensils to cook food, devices to make clothes.

Of course, the food of one village will differ from that of another, as will the clothing. Those who follow the Way will dwell among the “ten thousand things” of this world — what we call nature — in a certain manner that cannot be specified legally: Verse 18 of the Tao says that when virtue arises only from rules, that is a sure sign that the Way is not present and active. A cosmotechnics is a living thing, always local in the specifics of its emergence in ways that cannot be specified in advance. Nevertheless, those animated by the Way will bear certain common traits, as described in verse 15:

Deliberate, as if treading over the stones of a winter brook
Watchful, as if meeting danger on all sides
Reverent, as if receiving an honored guest
Selfless, like a melting block of ice
Pure, like an uncarved block of wood
Accepting, like an open valley

It is from the ten thousand things that we learn how to live among the ten thousand things; and our choice of tools will be guided by what we have learned from that prior and foundational set of relations. This is cosmotechnics.

The variability of this way of life has already been hinted at. Multiplicity avoids the universalizing, totalizing character of technopoly. The adherents of technopoly, Hui writes, “wishfully believ[e] that the world process will stamp out differences and diversities” and thereby achieve a kind of techno-secular “theodicy,” a justification of the ways of technopoly to its human subjects. But the idea of multiple cosmotechnics is also necessary, Hui believes, in order to avoid the simply delusional attempt to find “a way out of modernity” by focusing on the indigenous or biological “Other.” An aggressive hostility to modernity and a fetishizing of pre-modernity is not the Daoist way.

Hui doesn’t believe we can simply return to traditional ways — but this doesn’t mean we cannot resist technopoly. “I believe that to overcome modernity without falling back into war and fascism, it is necessary to reappropriate modern technology through the renewed framework of a cosmotechnics.” His project “doesn’t refuse modern technology, but rather looks into the possibility of different technological futures.”

This project is necessary because “we are confronting the crisis of the Anthropocene” — the term widely used to designate the current geological age, in which human activity is largely responsible for the transformation of the Earth. Hui describes this shift as “the planetarization of standing reserves.” That is, what makes this era the Anthropocene is our transformation of Earth’s ecosystem into resources waiting to be exploited. (An illustration: Paul Kingsnorth notes that “Ninety-six percent of Earth’s mammals, by biomass, are humans and livestock. The remaining 4 percent are wild creatures.”) And when we make our world into standing reserve, we do the same to ourselves. We divide the cosmos into “natural resources” and “human resources.”

Therefore, writes Hui, “Heidegger’s critique of technology is more significant today than ever before” — though not adequate to resist “the competition of technological acceleration and the allures of war, technological singularity, and transhumanist (pipe) dreams.” All those forces are pushing in the same direction — the wrong direction. “To reopen the question of technology is to refuse this homogeneous technological future that is presented to us as the only option.”

Further, “Thinking rooted in the earthy virtue of place is the motor of cosmotechnics. However, for me, this discourse on locality doesn’t mean a refusal of change and of progress, or any kind of homecoming or return to traditionalism; rather, it aims at a re-appropriation of technology from the perspective of the local and a new understanding of history.” What is required, then, is not a cosmopolitanism that unifies and regulates but rather a cosmopolitanism of difference.

I would like to suggest how this cosmopolitanism of difference can be accomplished by invoking certain concepts that are essential to Daoism, in addition to dao and qi. The key concepts are wuwei (“inaction,” or “acting without action”) and ziran (“spontaneously so,” “self-deriving,” or “natural”). In verse 2 of the Tao Te Ching we are told,

The sage acts without action [wuwei]
and teaches without talking
All things flourish around him
and he does not refuse any one of them

This choice not to refuse is a choice not to control, not to dictate; that is the form this inaction takes. (Not all inaction takes the same form: the character of inaction is determined relationally.) Note how this point is illustrated in the villagers, or citizens, of verse 80 who simply ignore massive, powerful technologies. Their response to the invitation to dramatically increase their power is simply inaction. Thus also verse 25:

Mankind depends on the laws of Earth
Earth depends on the laws of Heaven
Heaven depends on the laws of Tao
But Tao depends on itself alone
Supremely free, self-so, it rests in its own nature [ziran]

So to follow the Way sometimes means to let things be, to do nothing — not to destroy or even resist, but to be silent and still. Perhaps to knot a cord, attending all the while to the ten thousand things surrounding us that flourish by resting in their own nature. In so doing we may be able to discern our own nature and dwell spontaneously in it.

Unhoarding

In Always Coming Home (1985) — a strange, unclassifiable book, part novel, part ethnography of an invented people of the future, the Kesh — Ursula K. Le Guin imagines a society governed by verse 80 of the Tao Te Ching. We first learn a great deal about the people of the valley of the Na — their songs and dances, their pottery, their social organization into Houses, their rites of maturation and of marriage. Then we discover that in one of the villages there is a computer terminal connected via Internet to a vast AI called the City of Mind, which also knows the very different life of a great metropolis not so far away. (Plural ways of life indeed.) People in the villages know that the terminal exists, but most of them aren’t interested in it. Occasionally someone becomes interested, which is fine. The terminal is there when needed.

But social flourishing doesn’t require the terminal. I say “social” flourishing because the Kesh do not live very long. Their lifespan has been diminished by a great plague that once ravaged the world. Such plagues we cannot do very much about, nor the resulting compromise of our collective health. But to live virtuously, in accordance with Dao, and to be content — these we can do. We can only hope that it will not take a truly deadly pandemic — something far worse than the one we’ve had — to remind us of the contentment that can be found in the acceptance of limits.

Always Coming Home illustrates cosmotechnics in a hundred ways. Consider, for instance, information storage and retrieval. At one point we meet the archivist of the Library of the Madrone Lodge in the village of Wakwaha-na. A visitor from our world is horrified to learn that while the library gives certain texts and recordings to the City of Mind, some of their documents they simply destroy. “But that’s the point of information storage and retrieval systems! The material is kept for anyone who wants or needs it. Information is passed on — the central act of human culture.” But that is not how the librarian thinks about it. “Tangible or intangible, either you keep a thing or you give it. We find it safer to give it” — to practice “unhoarding.” She continues,

Giving involves a good deal of discrimination; as a business it requires a more disciplined intelligence than keeping, perhaps. Disciplined people come here … historians, learned people, scribes and reciters and writers, they’re always here, like those four, you see, going through the books, copying out what they want, annotating. Books no one reads go; books people read go after a while. But they all go. Books are mortal. They die. A book is an act; it takes place in time, not just in space. It is not information, but relation.

It is not information, but relation. This too is cosmotechnics.

Mocking the Proud Spirit

How does a Dao-inspired view of our future with technology square with the totalizing tech-dystopian agenda of present-day China?

It is, I think, significant that Yuk Hui is not from the People’s Republic of China but rather Hong Kong, and was educated partly in England before moving to Germany. This seems relevant to his interest in and reliance on Daoism as opposed to Confucianism, which he treats in his work but does not emphasize to the same degree. Though Daoism is one of the traditional Three Ways of Chinese culture, along with Confucianism and Buddhism, it is not easily made compatible with the interests of the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP. There is something intrinsically dissenting about Daoism, whereas Confucianism has for many centuries been associated with governance and statecraft. After all, the famous imperial examination system that for almost fifteen hundred years produced Chinese scholar-bureaucrats was based primarily on Confucian texts and principles.

The relationship between Confucianism and bureaucracy has led one Chinese scholar, Tongdong Bai, in his new book Against Political Equality: The Confucian Case, to make a provocative argument about the world’s political future. The growing discontent within liberal democracies might find an answer, he says, in Confucianism. Early Confucians “more or less embraced the ideas of equality, upward mobility, and accountability.” But “they had reservations about the democratic idea of ‘by the people,’ or self-governance. Their political ideal was a hybrid between popular participation and intervention by the elites or, more properly, by the meritocrats.” The rational, meritocratic, hierarchical social structures promoted by Confucianism, he argues, are well-suited to Chinese culture under the CCP, and are equally well-suited to resolving the political problems of the West.

A similar argument is made by Daniel A. Bell and Wang Pei in their new book Just Hierarchy: Why Social Hierarchies Matter in China and the Rest of the World. Both books contend that Confucianism is uniquely positioned to consolidate and rationalize the order of modernity by drawing strength from traditional insights that modernity in the West has lost sight of, especially the rejection of a crude universal notion of equality and its replacement by a socially embodied just hierarchy. This would not mark the end of technopoly but its reshaping by the classic Confucian commitment to “benevolence.” Bell and Pei write that for Confucians, public officials should “grasp the moral Way … , implement benevolent policies that benefit the people, and protect civilians from cruel policies.” The authors even claim that “Confucianism can help us to think of how to meet the challenge of artificial intelligence so that machines continue to serve human purposes.”

How does Daoism fit in? Though Tongdong Bai explores it elsewhere, in Against Political Equality he does not treat it at all. Bell and Pei see a very limited, negative role for Daoism: For those “left out of the political hierarchies,” a “Daoist-style skepticism about the desirability of the whole meritocratic system can help to legitimize alternative avenues for socially valued ways of life.” Or, to put this the other way around, “Daoist ideas can help to legitimize the system among those left out.”

The skeptical character of Daoism is indeed the key here. As Yuk Hui writes, in response to a scholar who argues that both Confucianism and Daoism advocate a “return to the self in order to seek moral principles,” the likeness is false because “the nature proposed by Daoism is not a scientific and moral principle, but rather a Dao that cannot be named and explained.” (It is for good reason that Daoism features in every reputable history of anarchism, and that people who are interested in anarchism, like Ursula K. Le Guin, are also interested in Daoism.) The Daoist sage, like Michel de Montaigne — the Western thinker who most closely resembles that central figure in the Tao Te Ching — asks, “What do I know?” (Que sçay-je?) It is not a recipe for rule. The Daoist sage does not seek to govern, though the Tao Te Ching makes it clear that any community that happens to have a sage lying around should plead with him to lead them.

The particular tone of the sage’s skepticism is ironic, and the sage is in some essential sense an ironist, but his irony is always directed primarily toward himself. Indeed, this is precisely why people should seek him out to govern them: His primary qualification for office is the gently humorous attitude he takes toward himself, which then extends outward toward our technological “enframing” of the world. As I noted earlier, a community of Daoist sages, such as the one envisioned in verse 80 of the Tao Te Ching, wouldn’t smash machines as the Luddites did, but rather smile at them and if possible ignore them.

Heidegger is not known for his humor; there aren’t a lot of laughs in Hui’s work either. But I think this ironic humor I have been sketching out is essential to the character of the sage and, more important for my purposes here, essential to the sage’s role in leading us anarchically out of the technological “enframing” of the world. Sir Thomas More said that Satan is a “proud spirit” who “cannot endure to be mocked”; this is equally true of the slightly lesser Power we call technopoly.

I think Hui’s cosmotechnics, generously leavened with the ironic humor intrinsic to Daoism, provides a genuine Way — pun intended — beyond the limitations of the Standard Critique of Technology. I say this even though I am not a Daoist; I am, rather, a Christian. But it should be noted that Daoism is both daojiao, an organized religion, and daojia, a philosophical tradition. It is daojia that Hui advocates, which makes the wisdom of Daoism accessible and attractive to a Christian like me. Indeed, I believe that elements of daojia are profoundly consonant with Christianity, and yet underdeveloped in the Christian tradition, except in certain modes of Franciscan spirituality, for reasons too complex to get into here. (Franciscans are in a way the Daoists of Christianity, and Saint Francis himself, if you observe him from certain angles, a kind of Daoist sage.)

More generally, this cosmotechnics, this technological Daoism as an embodiment of daojia, is accessible to people of any religious tradition or none. It provides a comprehensive and positive account of the world and one’s place in it that makes a different approach to technology more plausible and compelling. The SCT tends only to gesture in the direction of a model of human flourishing, evokes it mainly by implication, whereas Yuk Hui’s Daoist model gives an explicit and quite beautiful account. And the fact that cosmotechnics, as I noted earlier, can be generally described but only locally instantiated makes room for a great deal of creative adaptation.

Moreover, cosmotechnics provides guidance for ordinary people and technologists alike. The application of Daoist principles is most obvious, as the above exposition suggests, for “users” who would like to graduate to the status of “non-users”: those who quietly turn their attention to more holistic and convivial technologies, or who simply sit or walk contemplatively. But in the interview I quoted from earlier, Hui says, “Some have quipped that what I am speaking about is Daoist robots or organic AI” — and this needs to be more than a quip. Peter Thiel’s longstanding attempt to make everyone a disciple of René Girard is a dead end. What we need is a Daoist culture of coders, and people devoted to “action without acting” making decisions about lithium mining.

One reason to hope that this is possible arises from the genealogy of what Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron have called the “Californian ideology”: that peculiar combination of capitalist drive and countercultural social preference that has done so much to make Silicon Valley what it is. The anarchic Sixties counterculture that provides half the impetus of this ideology is of course saturated with thought from the East; and now the whole of Silicon Valley is intricately entangled with China — where for some years now there has been a renewal of Daoism, one not challenged, though also not endorsed, by the Chinese Communist Party. A synergy could emerge — if only we can find the sages necessary to make this cosmotechnics compelling. The question of how such sages might be formed, and formed more in a Daoist mode than a Confucian one, is a matter for further reflection.


[1] An earlier version of this essay, in a footnote on Yuk Hui’s rendering of qi, implied incorrectly that the widely known qi meaning “energy” or “spirit” is the same word as Hui’s qi, which he translates as “tool.” They are distinct Chinese characters, and Hui in his book romanizes “energy” qi as ch’i.
[2] I quote from the translation by Jonathan Star (Tarcher, 2001). Knowing no Chinese, I have also found it prudent to consult other translations, especially the one by Edmund Ryden (Oxford, 2008) and the one by Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall (Ballantine, 2003). Star’s translation is an especially elegant one, and while his readings differ from some of the more scholarly ones, the scholarly ones also differ from one another. Ursula K. Le Guin’s version, Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way (Shambhala, 1997), is rather free but accompanied by thoughtful commentary, especially interesting for readers of her fiction — about which more later.
Alan Jacobs, “From Tech Critique to Ways of Living,” The New Atlantis, Number 63, Winter 2021, pp. 25–42.
Header image via Alamy

A crucial moment

Jᴜɴᴇ 2021 — Please read this note about the most important opportunity The New Atlantis has seen since our launch.