Assistent professor Nolen Gertz: Do digital technologies make us more nihilistic?

Nolen Gertz, author and assistant professor of applied philosophy at the University of Twente, talks with David van Overbeek about his latest book Nihilism and Technology.

In our times, digital technology is ubiquitous and immediately at our disposal. Yet, while we feel empowered by these technologies, we experience displacement and unease at the same time. According to assistant professor of applied philosophy Nolen Gertz (UT) this has something to do with the way that modern digital technologies mediate our relation to the world. Sometimes even in ways that go unnoticed. And that can be dangerous.

Technologies are not neutral

In order to think properly about digital technologies Gertz wants us to get rid of the neutral-view, or “the idea that technologies are neutral instruments”, as he calls it. Rather, we should view technologies as tools that actively shape and mediate our relation to the world, and thus the way we engage with it. “For example: the ubiquity of smartphones makes us rely less and less on human interactions and more on smartphone interactions, meaning that we do not need to ask anyone for directions anymore, instead we ask Google Maps.” Interestingly, Google Maps presents itself as filling a void, but it also creates this void itself. Gertz: “Technologies do not only help us solve problems, but make us look at life as a problem as well.”

Nihilism and Technology

In his book, Nihilism and Technology, he claims that digital technologies make us more nihilistic than we think. In other words, digital technologies not only help us relax or make life more convenient, but they can also lull us into self-destructive behaviour that makes us forget that we are alive. Take for example the phenomena of Netflix and Chill or binge-watching. Gertz: “Techno-hypnosis intensifies in us what Nietzsche recognized in his time: the need to drink ourselves to a stupor in order to forget our suffering.” The key idea is that the more life feels like pain and suffering, the more we have this urge to avoid life. “For Nietzsche this was done religiously. In our times, it is done technologically. Technologies are not the enemies of religion, they are the newest form of religion.”

Another problem that he addresses is the fundamental opaqueness of algorithms. “YouTube is not just a website where people watch the videos they want, but it is also algorithmically curating what people (can) watch, and its directing our attention. It is actively working to keep us watching.” At the same time the decision-making process of these algorithms is undisclosed – or even unknown – which poses a threat. Gertz: “This is why it is so important to realize what is going on with Facebook, Google and Twitter. They increasingly reshape society and gain political influence, but they have no actual interest in ruling, in policy or in political ideals. It seems that these companies do not care about our privacy, they just want their users’ attention to make money. Yet in doing so they already reshape the way we think about privacy.”

Dangers of techno-culture

What adds to this is that the same technologies render us less capable of collectively discussing their influence on society. “The danger of techno-culture”, Gertz argues, “is that it reinforces the individualistic mindset, meaning that it increasingly frames problems into how the individual can do something about it.” Yet, it is clear, according to Gertz, that these issues need to be addressed at the political level. “Compare it to environmental issues. It feels good to recycle – and you should do it – but you can’t expect that to save polar bears. The government has to do it.”

Throughout the interview Gertz points out that his message should not be understood as pessimist news. Gertz: “Technologies are not just bad. They are also a force for good. But I want to draw attention to the way in which philosophical inquiry can help us understand our humanity and the relation we have with our technologies.” Philosophy can help us with that, as it revolves around the human project. Something which will always be work in progress.

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