On Technodiversity: A Conversation with Yuk Hui

A major philosopher of science on different paths to modernity, the openness of the future, and the fallacies of transhumanism.

On Technodiversity: A Conversation with Yuk Hui

IN HIS BOOK On the Existence of Digital Objects (2016), Chinese philosopher Yuk Hui drew on his background as a computer engineer and programmer to investigate digital entities like computer viruses, video clips, algorithms, and networks. In the foreword to the book, the French philosopher Bernard Stiegler described Hui’s thinking as a “generous and open theoretical milieu for exploration of human experience in connection to the infosphere.” A distinctive trait of Hui’s philosophy is its combination of Eastern thought with the European philosophical tradition. In The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics (2016), Hui analyzes China’s hyper-rapid modernization in light of its long history of technological development and its relationship to the West. His most recent book, Recursivity and Contingency (2019), explores cybernetics and its merging of the artificial and the natural — i.e., machines and organisms. More than mere reflection, the philosophy of history underlying Hui’s work can be read as a program for practical change. 

After a video-call with Hui in Hong Kong, where he was teaching aesthetics, I met with him in Los Angeles, where we continued our conversation on a visit to the Griffith Observatory, with its fitting double view of metropole and cosmos. In our discussion, Hui demonstrated his wide range of interests and his singular capacity to focus on philosophical problems in order either to solve them or to move beyond them. As the conversation unfolded, we continued over video-call, this time from Berlin, where Hui now lives and teaches.


ANDERS DUNKER: In your book about technology in China, you discuss the concept of “sinofuturism” — a Chinese vision of the future that is distinctively different from the one we have in the West. At the same time, you point out that China is becoming more like the West and thus risks cutting ties with its own traditions. You describe the new relationship between the Occident and the Orient as a “dis-orientation.” What does this process entail? 

YUK HUI: The Greeks made a distinction between the Occident, which Germans still call das Abendland, and the Orient. What counts as Occident and Orient has changed many times. For the Greeks, the Orient was Egypt and Persia, not China and Japan. Geographical orientation was also a technical issue, because it was only through novel navigational instruments that the West discovered the globe. From the 16th century onward, China and Japan found themselves lagging behind the West in technology and knowledge. As a direct consequence, the empires of the East were at last forced to open their gates and accept the colonizing powers of the West. China wasn’t conquered by the writings, values, or ideas of Europeans, it was conquered by technological discoveries and inventions. If we look at the history of East Asia (say, Korea, China, and Japan) we see that each of these countries at some point decided that they wanted to “catch up with the West.” One of the reasons was warfare — competition and military activities were closely connected to colonization. In fact, China started modernizing only after defeat in the opium wars against the British Empire at the end of the 19th century.

Being defeated often means you have to copy the conquering enemy. Must we accept this logic when it comes to modernization, no matter how much we want to reject cultural imperialism and a universal history wherein some countries and regions are more advanced while others lag behind? 

Let us remember that Oswald Spengler, in Man and Technics (1931), remarks that Europeans made a major mistake in exporting their technologies to other countries at the end of the 19th century. In his opinion, Europeans should have kept their technologies to themselves to make sure they kept their lead. That Japan vanquished Russia in 1905 was a signal that they might soon have the power to surpass the West in technological capacity.

For centuries, Japan resisted direct competition with the West — for instance, limiting their artilleries to bows and arrows and banning guns for over 200 years to protect traditional samurai sword fighting. Isn’t it striking that Japan started modernizing only after American warships forced them to open up for world trade?

The West needed hundreds of years to modernize. Japan completed the task in record time, moving from the middle ages to hypermodernity in 150 years. The same goes for China. Martin Heidegger wrote in the 1940s that only when communism comes to power in China will technology be “free.” What does he mean by that? Free means that it can be everywhere — that there is no longer any resistance. Heidegger talks about a technological planetarization. He says that civilization as such will be based on Western European thought, since non-European cultures haven’t managed to resist European technology. There is little point in writing local history and bolstering up regional traditions if you don’t know what to do when Google enters the world stage. Typically, you withdraw and defend your culture against the new technology, or you marginalize yourself as a subaltern. What has happened in globalization is that Western cultures have infiltrated other cultures and turned them upside down.

For a long time, as you point out in your book, China had a higher technological level than the West. And yet, China’s modernization still followed a Western blueprint. Did the world lose the opportunity to see an authentically Chinese modernity?

This is the big question. It was meticulously examined by the great sinologist and philosopher of technology Joseph Needham, who was a world-famous biochemist before he became a sinologist, writing and editing a great work in 26 volumes called Science and Civilisation in China (1954–2016). The question he asked was: If we accept that certain sciences were more advanced in China and the East than in the West before the 16th century, what were the crucial conditions that stopped China from developing modern technology and science? I have tried to ask this question in a different way. If we assume instead that China and Europe moved in two different directions in their scientific development, we can also avoid saying that one part of the world is ahead of the other.

Still, the act of resisting technological change means lagging behind, even in our times. Is there any viable alternative to the planetarization of technology — what you call a synchronization of the history of technology?

Instead of a universal history describing one technology with various stages of development, we can step back for a moment and instead describe technological development as involving different cosmotechnics. I call this technodiversity. Here, we must revisit the question of locality, which doesn’t necessarily entail that we take part in a discussion of ethnic groups and ideologies: Aryan, German, Russian, or whatever. We must rather think of locality in terms of systems of knowledge. Michel Foucault called knowledge systems epistemes and understood them as ways of life — ways of sensing and ordering experience, producing in turn certain forms of knowledge. Foucault emphasizes different epistemes in European history and orders them into epochs: Renaissance knowledge, classical knowledge, and modern knowledge. In his famous article “What is Enlightenment?” — which he prepared before his death in 1984 — he says that we also can understand knowledge as a way of thinking and feeling, as a sensibility.

In other words, different places and times have their own epistemes. What would it take for this diversity not to be effaced by the complete synchronization of cultural development?

First, we must recognize the diversity; then we must develop it further. Let me give you an example. I grew up in Hong Kong. My father had a Chinese pharmacy where he sold plants and herbs. Chinese pharmacists walk mountain paths collecting herbs to be made into medicines. Making medicine is a complicated procedure: some plants must first be treated, to extract the poisonous substances they contain, before they can be made beneficial to human health. Chinese medicine is based on Daoist cosmology, with Yin, Yang, and five kinds of Qi. If, from a Western perspective, you approach a Chinese doctor and ask, “Can you please show me your Qi and prove that this energy exists?” the answer would have to be no. If you can’t prove the existence of the energy at the base of your practice, how can you say that you practice a science? Here lies the problem.

But this doesn’t mean that Chinese medicine isn’t scientific. As an empirical science, it has functioned for 2,000 years based on a different epistemology. For a long time in Hong Kong, Chinese medicine has been ranked lower than Western medicine. If you go to a Chinese doctor, it won’t be covered by your health insurance because Chinese medicine is seen as unscientific.

Is this how Western technology establishes itself as universal, by monopolizing credibility and marginalizing what is different? 

Here we must be careful. I am not aiming to pit the relative against the universal, or see the particular in contrast to the universal, as philosophy often has done. I would rather point out that the universal is just one dimension of what is. You and I are both humans, but we are individual and different humans. In the same way, technology has some universal traits: from an anthropological perspective, technology is an extension of the body and an externalization of memory. But these gestures don’t work in the same way in all cultures. Chinese writing and the Latin alphabet are both externalizations of memory, but they are still extremely different. Chinese pictogram has a very different philosophical foundation compared to Western phonogram.

Derrida tried to explore this difference in On Grammatology (1967) in terms of a philosophy of relation versus a philosophy of substance — Leibniz versus Hegel — but he didn’t carry it further. Writing is a system for both memory and education of sensibility, and it can also be seen as a technology to preserve the distinctiveness of our culture. We cannot say which is better than the other. For the same reason, I don’t claim that Chinese medicine is better, but that different systems have different merits. If you have cancer, you might have to remove the tumor immediately, using surgery, because it can spread aggressively. Afterward, Chinese medicine can help you recover your health and strength.

Even granting that technological diversity has its advantages, is simply promoting diversity enough to combat the impending and fatal ecological disaster that you think synchronous technological development is causing? Isn’t it also necessary to change our technologies en bloc on a global scale? 

Western thinking always draws a distinction between good and bad, and seeks to remove what is deemed bad. We want to implement everywhere only the good side of technology. Peter Sloterdijk distinguishes between a dangerous “allotechnics” manipulating nature and a good “homeotechnics” cooperating with it. Bernard Stiegler says that technology is always both a poison and a cure, and he wants to separate the good pharmakon from the bad pharmakon. The division between good and bad is a philosophical gesture that goes back to Plato. He presents the philosopher as a judge with the task of determining what is good for the people.

For me, this is all very problematic. I don’t think we can come to a global agreement as to what is good and what is bad. Even if we have common problems we are trying to solve, that doesn’t mean there is a universal solution. There is no single way to respond to the collapse of ecosystems. We must understand that variation is a consequence of local adaptation. Biodiversity develops because of climatic variations, biological niches, and relations between particular plants, animals, and microorganisms. Something similar should hold for technologies. We need to explore the problem of the local, but we must be careful, since this is an extremely sensitive topic these days. Who is concerned with the local today? Marine Le Pen in France, Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, Aleksandr Dugin in Russia.

Dugin is influenced by a reading of Heidegger that tends to see technology as a tool for the spread of the moral hollowness he sees in liberal Western societies. To reject what is foreign and romanticize tradition seems an altogether obvious and dangerous mode of resistance.

Dugin misinterprets what Heidegger says. Heidegger doesn’t say that we should resist technology. He says that we mustn’t forget that there is also something else. This something else is the unconcealment of Being, which is forgotten in modern technology. Or, more precisely, the unconcealment in modern technology can only be carried out through a mode of challenging, of violence. With this statement, Heidegger abruptly ends his argument, but the way I understand him, he doesn’t call for a resistance to modern technology but rather a transformation of it. This transformation is at the same time a stepping back and a leap ahead.

If we want to deepen our understanding of the local, we should perhaps give a fresh look at the pre-romantic German thinker Herder, as Peter Sloterdijk told me he aims to do in a forthcoming book. Herder was the origin of German nationalism with all it entails, because of what he writes about the spirit of the people — der Volksgeist. In one way, he was the inventor of “the people.” Herder’s ideas are dangerous, but if you don’t dare confront danger, as Heidegger says, you end up with catastrophe.

Herder was worried that everything distinctive and original would be erased through the course of history, as the exchange between cultures makes them all similar. He despaired that Europeans were all speaking French, were forgetting their national customs, and seemed to dislike their own history and traditions. Today we find the same process all over the world, evidenced not only by the rapid loss of languages but also by technological unification. Is the world inevitably becoming more and more homogeneous?

Herder defends difference: different ways of life, different languages, different aesthetics. All these differences he sees as irreducible, as something that can’t and shouldn’t be replaced by something more universal. At the same time, we need to remember that Herder is not only a thinker of the local also an early cosmopolitan thinker, maybe even in a more interesting and theoretically credible way than Kant, whose courses he has attended in Königsberg. We must have the local as our point of departure, Herder says, but the local doesn’t need to be exclusive.

So, we might aim for a universality that is inclusive of diversity? The Chinese philosopher Zhao Tingyang has suggested that the Chinese concept of tianxia — “all under heaven” — is precisely such a concept of inclusive universality.

The problem, as I see it, is that the concept of tianxia is only relevant as long as “Heaven” exists. And in a Chinese context, Heaven is Cosmos. Tianxia was the cosmotechnics of the Chinese government, connecting morality and the cosmos, legitimizing laws and practices (as well as the government itself). The emperor was called tianzi, the son of Heaven. As such, he had the legitimacy to be at the center of the political sovereignty, and to govern the people, including the fringe “barbarians.”

And what is cosmotechnics, exactly?

For the Greeks, “cosmos” means an ordered world. At the same time, the concept points to what lies beyond the Earth. Morality is first and foremost something that concerns the human realm. Cosmotechnics, as I understand it, is the unification of the moral order and cosmic order through technical activities. If we compare Greece and China in ancient times, we discover that they have very different understandings of the cosmos, and very different conceptions of morality as well. The arbitration between them also takes place in different ways, with different technologies. A cosmotechnics of the tianxia type is no longer possible in a time that no longer has a conception of “Heaven,” as people did in the past. Like other big nations, China has satellites orbiting the Earth. The heavens have become a secular place, utilized by humans, and can no longer play a role as a morally legitimizing power.

In Recursivity and Contingency, you speak about the need to “recosmicize the world.” You borrow this term from Augustin Berque, who pointed out that the modern world no longer has a cosmos, understood as a moral and meaningful order, and that colonization by the West has robbed other cultures of their distinctive conceptions of the cosmos. He says that the universe, as it is described in science, has nothing to do with the classical cosmos, since scientific explanation has no moral significance whatsoever. Does this mean that we are faced with the task of recosmicizing not only our world, but the universe itself? Is the universe, discovered by astronomy, still waiting to be given a proper moral significance? 

When we think of astrophysics, we see the universe as a thermodynamic system that inexorably moves toward destruction and heat-death, where stars are nothing but basic elements in nuclear reactions and where their twinkling has nothing to do with us. In this sense, it seems absurd to recosmicize the Earth and the universe; it can’t lead to anything but superficial mysticism and naïveté. Astrophysics only informs us of certain facts about the universe. It has no ambitions of telling us how to live. What kind of life should we imagine in light of recent astrophysical discoveries? Physics has no ambition to answer these questions.

“Recosmicizing” doesn’t mean giving some mystique back to the stars and cosmos, or giving technology a mystical meaning, but rather understanding that we must develop ways of life that solve the conflict between modern science and tradition, between technology and mysticism whether we choose to talk about the Chinese Dao or Heidegger’s Sein. We must give the non-rational a place in a culture that is otherwise rational — the way, for example, that poetry gives the unknown a place in communication through an unconventional and paradoxical use of language. Art and philosophy can’t choose science as their point of departure. If they do, they become footnotes to positivism. They should not abandon science either, but rather tend to it and show the way to other modes of understanding the world. To paraphrase Georges Canguilhem, we must return technology to life.

What about people who want to develop new technologies in order to establish a new life in outer space? Does this also represent a cosmotechnics? For instance, the rocket billionaires, Bezos and Musk, who dream of colonies in space and a colonization of Mars?

There is a great passage in Nietzsche’s The Gay Science (1882), where he talks about “the horizon of the infinite.” It describes the moderns who have abandoned land for the pursuit of the infinite, yet, when they are in the middle of the ocean, there is nothing more fearful than the infinite there is no more home to return to. The desire of the moderns, described by Nietzsche, continues to produce an effect of disorientation, while the sentiment that there is no longer any home to return to provides a huge market for psychotherapy and spiritual salvation. The longing for the infinite transports us toward the inhuman.

For Jean-François Lyotard, there are both positive and negative infinities, which are connected to different forms of rationality. Positive inhumanity captures us in rigid technological systems, like we see in China with the social credit system. The positive inhuman is one that is “more interior in myself than me” — for example, God for St. Augustine. We humans carry something inhuman in us, which is irreducible to the human and which maintains the highest intimacy with us. At the outset of his book L’Inhumain (1998), Lyotard asks if the ultimate goal for science is not that of preparing for the death of the sun, which, granted, lies unimaginably in the future, but which also entails the destruction of all living beings on Earth.

Rocket billionaires, who are all transhumanists, want to overcome finitude: the finitude of human life and of life as such. This longing for the infinite also implies no limit to capital accumulation. Overcoming human limitations — the search for eternal life — also implies an infinite market. In a way, the same happens in space exploration: investors want to profit from the Earth losing its meaning, as if leaving the planet were a matter of leaving one spaceship to enter another. I don’t think it is wrong to explore, or to try to understand the universe, but the conquest we see today seems to me to be merely a preparation for tomorrow’s consumerism. Transhumanists impose on us a false choice because they connect the question of the future of human existence with the question of immortality and describe Earth as a mere spacecraft.

In your last book, there is a passage about the secularization of space in which you mention that Elon Musk has launched his Tesla roadster into orbit around the sun. You see this as the first step in the commercialization of the cosmos and the next step as mining on other planets, effectively reducing them to mere natural resources, raw material.

As far as I’m concerned, Elon Musk can send his car into space or even travel to Mars, but we should not believe that these projects are the necessary next step in a certain technological development. This doesn’t mean that I see travel in outer space as irrelevant or dangerous in itself. Humankind has speculated for a long time about what is out there among the twinkling stars. It is the same curiosity that has brought forth science and technology. The progressives choose science and the reactionaries choose tradition, but we can also choose to follow a third path — the way of thinking.

I have meticulously followed this third path by asking if we can begin from a cosmological perspective and find new ways of coexisting that will allow us to transform modern technology. My aim is not to refuse modern technology nor to see it as a cause for uprootedness, but rather to see the irreconcilability of technology and science with tradition as something fruitful, as a gesture I call “tragist.” This is a main subject of my new book Art and Cosmotechnics [published by the University of Minnesota Press in May]. The discrepancy can be fertile soil for new thinking. In The Question Concerning Technology in China, I try to find out how we can deploy Chinese philosophy to enable ourselves to think differently about the contradiction between tradition and modern technology. I hope to derive a Chinese technological thought from an interpretation of Qi and Dao, which should not be understood as mystical concepts but rather as frameworks for thinking about our relationship to the nonhuman — to the 10,000 beings that Lao-Tse talks about —  whereby the use of technology must follow Dao, as a philosophy of nature and a philosophy of life.

Since the Renaissance, nature has often been reduced to something solely material and mechanical that can be manipulated through human cunning. Is there a credible Western alternative to such a mechanistic worldview and its associated instrumental rationality?

Romantics and idealists in Kant’s time felt a need for something different from the mechanistic legacy of Descartes. They found a new metaphor in the “organism.” What we have here is an idealization of the organic, which also manifests itself in Kant’s cosmopolitan philosophy. The idea is that if a country misbehaves, it will be punished by losing the respect of other countries. More concretely, it will be subjected to boycotts and embargoes. The interests of trade make international politics into a self-regulating, organic system.

In Recursivity and Contingency, you explicitly read Kant’s organic thinking as an early form of cybernetic theory. Heidegger famously pointed out that cybernetics was about to take over our thinking, or at least the philosophical form of thought that seeks to reflect upon the world and play an active role in history. How could the idea of organic self-regulating systems look so promising and inclusive at first, and yet end up becoming such a threat to philosophy?

Cybernetics was promoted as an attempt to transcend the many contradictions of science. Hans Jonas, a pupil of Heidegger, discusses this in his book The Phenomenon of Life (1966). He said that with cybernetics we have, for the first time, a unified theory that is not dualistic. Instead of thinking in terms of logical contradictions, we think in terms of processes: inputs, outputs, and feedback loops. In the 20th century, organicist thinking was further elaborated in Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy, but it also became a part of the practical development of technology. Two centuries after Kant wanted to save philosophy from the mechanical by recourse to the organic, this way of thinking has become a part of technology. Using organic thinking, based on technology, to criticize modern technology becomes a fallacy — a misplaced fallacy, as Whitehead would say. When the organic already has merged with technology, cybernetic thinking has come to an end.

Do we end up in a position where a critique of technology functions as part of the same technological system — i.e., where criticism becomes just another piece of input, another feedback loop programmed into the machinery? If we really think cybernetically, when we repair or upgrade a machine, program, or mechanism, are we not also becoming a part of the machinery, an instrument for its improvement?

Yes, according to what we call second-order cybernetics, humans and machines are connected in a recursive movement, which becomes an instance of what Hegel calls a master-slave dialectic.

For Hegel, this dialectic was about power, knowledge, and recognition. The master exploits the slave for work and services. But who is the master and who is the slave here?

Machines are slaves but at the same time masters because human beings have to service them and come to depend on them. Once we look at ourselves as servants of machines, we arrive at what Hegel calls unhappy consciousness. To overcome unhappy consciousness, we need either a Hegelian reconciliation or a Nietzschean will to power. At the moment, however, there is difficulty in gaining recognition from machines unless we hardcode them to unconditionally subordinate themselves to us; this is what has been proposed in so-called “AI-ethics.”

For us to have a real choice with respect to the growing influence of new technologies, we also need to assume that technological evolution isn’t determined — that is, that we could have developed radically different technologies than those we have today. Are we really free to choose and shape tomorrow’s technologies?

History is contingent, which means simply that it could have been otherwise. If the Mongols had conquered the whole world, we would have a different world history, and probably another understanding of history as such. In light of this, it’s important to be open to different futures, to see numerous possibilities.

That the conception we have about our technological future really matters in the present day is something I can illustrate with a personal experience. I recently gave a course in the philosophy of technology in Germany that had 25 students, mostly from the humanities. I asked them: “How do you see the future given the latest developments in artificial intelligence and genetic engineering?” Ninety percent of them said they found our future prospects despair-inducing. The reason is obviously that they have very determined ideas about the future — for instance, that they will be replaced by machines. They will have to upgrade themselves to find a place in society. Personally, I don’t think this needs to be the answer. We shouldn’t give in to such perspectives but rather actively resist them.

Isn’t technological determinism, so ubiquitous in Silicon Valley, just a lot of hype, as if to say: “These disruptions are on their way, so it’s better to get ahead of things than to bother resisting”?

This rhetoric is the reason why all these tech companies employ futurists. The worst is Ray Kurzweil, of course, who says that that the so-called singularity is near and by 2025 we will become immortal. I say it in all my books: we must not give in to this kind of deterministic propaganda from Silicon Valley.

What about Elon Musk’s research program, Neuralink, which aims to connect computers to the brain? What do you say to his argument that humans should upgrade themselves to stay relevant when artificial intelligence starts outperforming us?

It is very vague, if not illogical, to say that we need to be ahead of technology, since if the “we” is humanity, then it is constituted by technology itself. “We” will only find ourselves always being late. Human-machine interface research has existed for a long time, and the desire to perfect the human being (including intelligence, emotion, and lifespan) has been a major motivation for that research, also known as transhumanism. In the past, perfecting the human being was done through education — aesthetic training, physical discipline, intellectual development, et cetera. In Musk’s vision, education will be replaced by a brain-microchip apparatus. This undermines the idea of Enlightenment humanism because microchips, instead of reason, are to mediate between the human mind and its world.

So where do we go from here?

Human beings have created a problematic decision for themselves: “to cut” or “to connect.” Biotechnology is introducing a new eugenics, which is at the core of 21st-century biopolitics. Enhancement of intelligence suggests better chances for employment and success. If you remember the famous Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell (1995), the anarchists who decided to cut were finally raided and transformed into cyborgs.

So, what is the message here — is the general idea that we don’t have a choice to disconnect from these biopolitical networks and impending updates to our bodies and our lives?

Precisely because our idea of “progress” implies a historical movement toward a unified goal, it resists all fragmentation and diversity in evolution. As a consequence, freedom and democracy are placed under threat. On top of this, the ideology of Silicon Valley increasingly sees freedom and democracy as irreconcilable goals. This is the case, in particular, for the investor Peter Thiel: for him, there is no doubt that freedom first and foremost means economic freedom, freedom for multinational corporations. The enormous investments in biotech are a preparation for a time when ethical limitations will be overcome or set aside so that technologies of biological intervention can freely circulate in the market. This is a gigantic force that everyone feels, but nobody knows how it will manifest or how people will react. To me, this is the point where technodiversity becomes important and decisive. If we don’t manage to demonstrate that there are other alternatives, the transhumanist ideology will conquer the whole world.

Do globalized and ubiquitous technologies have to become universal, in the sense of being regarded as true, necessary, and binding?

If you read Henry Kissinger’s article “How the Enlightenment Ends,” which appeared in a 2018 issue of The Atlantic, he discusses how the Enlightenment depended on the new technology of the printed word to spread its philosophy. Kissinger says that we now have technology that spreads itself, but which lacks a philosophy. This leads to the end of the Enlightenment. There is a blind spot in this argument, however — namely that the Enlightenment’s claim to universality persists, even after its end, in the guise of “technology.” In that sense, technology in itself becomes the universal. So, what we have to do is to radicalize Kissinger’s critique by rejecting this understanding of technological development as something given and predetermined — i.e., as something universal.

Still, shouldn’t we be able to accommodate the best of Enlightenment humanism, which educates us to reason and allows us to navigate between ourselves and the world? 

Kissinger’s understanding of the Enlightenment is narrowly restricted to what we call the Age of Reason, which consisted in a fight against superstition, injustice, and poverty. The spread of Enlightenment ideals is important to understanding contemporary democracies. My response to Kissinger should not be understood as a claim against the Enlightenment. The problem, rather, is that, in his critique, he contributes to universalizing a dubious mentality. Kissinger’s article is an invitation to conceive of a new form of politics, a new form of technological globalization, and a new world order. Even if Kissinger’s article strikes a critical note, it leads us into a dangerous way of thinking, into a politics racing toward technological singularity, particularly with respect to military technology, surveillance, and administration. In the years to come, everything will revolve around artificial intelligence. China, Russia, and America all strive to be the leader in this field. This development cannot possibly be seen as a continuation of the Enlightenment. Technological singularity is a completely apocalyptic goal.

In this respect, do globalization and the synchronization of technology represent a world-historical level of risk? Are these factors present in the climate crisis, given that Earth’s atmosphere absorbs the by-products of modern technology? Can we call global warming a negative universality, as Dipesh Chakrabarty does, defining humanity by means of a common, grand-scale problem-complex?

What we now call the Anthropocene is a consequence of technological and industrial expansion after World War II. The basic premise for this period of growth was rapid industrialization. Industrialization over the last 70 years is the direct cause of global warming and the dawning of the Anthropocene. But that doesn’t imply that we can or should attempt to remove industry to try to solve our problems. We have become dependent on an industrial form of life, so the only conceivable solution is to change our industries.

As Charles Fourier said in his time, we need to encourage a new industrial spirit. The kind of industrialization we have today is deeply problematic because it is so closely connected with industrial society. Constant abundance implies constant overproduction. If we look at agriculture, this is demonstrated flagrantly by the meat industry. Do we really need to eat this much meat? I don’t think so. When I grew up, I had chicken only once in a while, and I didn’t complain. We all know that the current industrial system is unsustainable.

Even those who promote organic agriculture emphasize that overproduction is harmful due to the development of monoculture and the widespread use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, all of which contribute to the destruction of biological and cultural diversity. Would you consider a variety of local farming techniques to be an example of technodiversity? 

Absolutely. If you want to avoid using pesticides, you will soon discover that there are a number of alternative approaches, including rotations of particular combinations of crops. There are also, for instance, specialized techniques of breeding certain insects that will eat harmful insects. This is technodiversity. My suggestion is that we organize a collective project to deliberate and discuss questions concerning technodiversity and the future of philosophy. And this is not a task for a single person — it is a task for a whole community.

Should we conceive of this community as planetary in size? Given that the problems we face are common to all, governance and decision-making regarding the development of technology is part of the destiny of the Earth itself. In your book about cybernetics, you also discuss James Lovelock and his Gaia theory. What is the relationship between your reconsideration of modern technologies and a planetary cybernetics? 

Lovelock was a former NASA employee. He had worked at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory doing research on the atmosphere of Mars. Comparing the lifeless desert environment of Mars to the living Earth inspired him to develop his Gaia theory, which says that our planet works like a cybernetic system stabilizing itself through organic processes. He added another point: through technology we can “wake up Gaia.” Satellites and antennas, for instance, are technical extensions giving Gaia new senses and technological unity. We can start to understand its workings through intelligible feedback mechanisms. The early Lovelock was a cybernetician.

Yet even with all of our satellites and antennae, we have yet to wake up Gaia. We have only just begun the technification of the Earth. Since cybernetics seems to transcend the divide between technology and nature, it is tempting to see it as a universal solution — a new universalism. If we really were to understand the Earth cybernetically, we would need to experiment with it, like a black box, where we find out, through trial and error, what works and what doesn’t. But how many times can we flirt with destroying the Earth in an effort to make that work? If we try to use cybernetic theory to solve environmental problems, we lose sight of the fact that our relationship to nature is integrally related to human sensibility, for which there is little room in cybernetics. When we think of humans and the Earth as a cybernetic system, we have already lost the world.

How so?

Because reducing the world is losing the world. This is what Heidegger calls forgetfulness of Being. Forgetfulness is not something that happens because we overlook Being, or because we fail to give Being a place in our understanding of the world, but rather because we think that the whole world is transparent and penetrable to our understanding — we think that everything can be calculated. The first thing we need to do is to reconsider the distinction between what is calculable and what is incalculable. Then we must learn anew how to approach the world as the Unknown.


A Norwegian-language version of this interview is scheduled to appear in the pan-Scandinavian journal Vagant, edited by Audun Lindholm, later this year. We would like to thank Julian Davis for helping to prepare this English version.


Anders Dunker is a Norwegian writer and journalist, currently living in Los Angeles.

LARB Contributor

Anders Dunker is a Norwegian writer and journalist, currently living in Los Angeles. His philosophical essays, reviews, and interviews focusing on the global future have appeared in Le Monde diplomatique, Modern Times Review, and Vagant. His book The Rediscovery of the Earth: 10 Conversations about the Future of Nature, featuring interviews with Bruno Latour, Kim Stanley Robinson, Vandana Shiva, Bernard Stiegler, and others, is forthcoming soon in English. 


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!