Will we soon be replaced by transhuman machines? Will new biotechnology turn us all into cyborgs? Man versus machine, in other words, nature versus technology? Are new technologies the symbol of a technically effortless symbiosis, or will they mark the downfall of the human race?
Technological progress has always elicited such hopes and fears. Even so, I ask myself whether such emotionally fuelled debates really get to the heart of the matter when it comes to current technologies – technologies which, after all, we develop ourselves and which we take in hand on a daily basis.
I therefore adopt a different approach from the two classic narratives of dystopia or utopia. I believe the problem no longer lies in the fear of apocalypse, alienation or technological intimidation – a popular cliché that has been encouraged by the media to this day. On the contrary: modern technology has become anthropophilic, or user friendly. We have become attached to our mobile devices. They ensnare us physically and mentally, and flatter our ego. They even complement us in a certain way.
New relationship with technology
Traditional attempts to describe technology – as a method to utilise or exploit knowledge from natural sciences, or as the composition of a device – no longer therefore quite chime with the way we use technology today. Despite all the human downfall scenarios and perennial pessimism about the pitfalls of technology, the use of technology is no longer a problem in daily life. We feel comfortable using our mobile phones, smart TVs and laptops; we scroll, tap, press or stroke them. We have an ever-closer relationship with technology – quite often an emotional one. Modern technology shapes us through socio-cultural, private and public contexts, and to a large extent through its user-friendly design as well. Our interaction with technology works precisely because we cannot take a neutral stance towards it.
But how did we actually get to the point where we now have a “touchy-feely” attitude towards an existence that is actually intensely alien to humans? In the second half of the twentieth century, technology was humanised both from an epistemological and practical perspective, or to put it another way, it was integrated into human society.1 This blurred the boundaries and reduced the distance between man and machine: technology became practically invisible to us.
Technology shapes humans
The technical possibilities have a normative effective on people, as demonstrated by the smartphone, for example. Constant availability, route planning using Google Maps, or our digital self-image on countless social media appear to connect us seamlessly with reality. But all these applications require the small, unobtrusive end device that fits our hand so easily. This is where the outside world becomes our “shared world”.
New machines, technical milieus and digital working environments undoubtedly change the image of man and machine in both a discursive and practical context. The tram driver of the 1920s or the pilot of the 1960s worked with very different technical systems from today’s totally networked user.
Humans shape technology
But the human condition has an equally powerful influence on technical realisation. One question I find particularly interesting here is how, and why, man-machine interactions are conceived and constructed based on a model of interhuman relations and anthropological/humanist notions. The various players in Industry 4.0 or Affective Computing try to shape technology according to human criteria so as to make them seem less alien and facilitate interaction with them.2 The major fear that humans could become “mechanised” is allayed by the reassuring fact that technology eventually becomes naturalised. Maximising user-friendliness is thus synonymous with minimising anxiety.
The new technologies are rhetorically anthropologised, linearised and finalised for this purpose, as the term "Industry 1.0 to 4.0" very nicely shows. Interestingly, in the modern discourse on technical sciences, it is no longer dystopian post-, trans-, or anti-humanistic images that are invoked, but rather classical humanist-anthropological ones. An anthropophilic interface design like Siri or Alexis is successful because it fosters acceptance, trust and efficiency in human-machine interaction. Michel Foucault rightly demands that the sciences should waken from their "anthropological sleep" and stop "speaking of man, of his domination and of his liberation". But the same anthropological sleep has become rhetorically and practically significant in man-machine design.3
Debate does not get to the heart of the matter
Anthropology, humanism and anthropocentrism are efficient from both a commercial and design-technology perspective. The design is geared entirely to the user, in other words the living, thinking and breathing person. This anthropological signature of the technical dimension is necessary for us to be able to manage, use and live with the technology. The problem of anthropophilic technology could therefore lie precisely in the fact that there is no longer any problem using it, as a rule. Technical applications therefore convey a naturalness that needs to be scrutinised and analysed regarding their structure, arguments and practices. Debates are bound to continue about the technical substitution or optimisation of humans, which either play man and machine against each other, or try to merge the two. But that’s why I believe concrete reflection on the technical and anthropological issues is all the more important: otherwise the subtle problem of technology as an intuitive application in our lives will be obscured too quickly by abstract pros and cons.