Archives For technological mediation

Author Information: Frank Scalambrino, Duquesne University,

Scalambrino, Frank. “Reviewing Nolen Gertz’s Nihilism and Technology.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 12 (2018): 22-28.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

Image by Jinx! via Flickr / Creative Commons


There are three (3) parts to this review, each of which brings a philosophical, and/or structural, issue regarding Dr. Gertz’s book into critical focus.

1) His characterization of “nihilism.”

a) This is specifically about Nietzsche.

2) His (lack of) characterization of the anti- and post-humanist positions in philosophy of technology.

a) Importantly, this should also change what he says about Marx.

3) In light of the above two changes, going forward, he should (re)consider the way he frames his “human-nihilism relations”

1) Consider that: If his characterization of nihilism in Nietzsche as “Who cares?” were correct, then Nietzsche would not have been able to say that Christianity is nihilistic (cf. The Anti-Christ §§6-7; cf. The Will to Power §247). The following organizes a range of ways he could correct this, from the most to least pervasive.

1a) He could completely drop the term “nihilism.” Ultimately, I think the term that fits best with his project, as it stands, is “decadence.” (More on this below.) In §43 of The Will to Power, Nietzsche explained that “Nihilism is not a cause, but only the rationale of decadence.”

1b) He could keep the term “nihilism” on the cover, but re-work the text to reflect technology as decadence, and then frame decadence as indicating a kind of nihilism (to justify keeping nihilism on the cover).

1c) He could keep everything as is; however, as will be clear below, his conception of nihilism and human-nihilism relations leaves him open to two counter-arguments which – as I see it – are devastating to his project. The first suggests that from the point of view of Nietzsche’s actual definition of “nihilism,” his theory itself is nihilistic. The second suggests that (from a post-human point of view) the ethical suggestions he makes (based on his revelation of human-nihilism relations) are “empty threats” in that the “de-humanization” of which he warns refers to a non-entity.

Lastly, I strongly suggest anyone interested in “nihilism” in Nietzsche consult both Heidegger (1987) and Deleuze (2006).

1. Gertz’s Characterization of “Nihilism”

Nietzsche’s writings are notoriously difficult to interpret. Of course, this is not the place to provide a “How to Read Nietzsche.” However, Dr. Gertz’s approach to reading Nietzsche is peculiar enough to warrant the following remarks about the difficulties involved. When approaching Nietzsche you should ask three questions: (1) Do you believe Nietzsche’s writings are wholly coherent, partially coherent, or not coherent at all? (2) Do you believe Nietzsche’s writings are wholly consistent, partially consistent, or not consistent at all? (3) Does Nietzsche’s being consistent make a “system” out of his philosophy?

The first question is important because you may believe that Nietzsche was a “madman.” And, the fallacy of ad hominem aside, you may believe his “madness” somehow invalidates what he said – either partially or totally. Further, it is clear that Nietzsche does not endorse a philosophy which considers rationality the most important aspect of being human. Thus, it may be possible to consider Nietzsche’s writings as purposeful or inspired incoherence.

For example, this latter point of view may find support in Nietzsche’s letters, and is exemplified by Blanchot’s comment: “The fundamental characteristic of Nietzsche’s truth is that it can only be misunderstood, can only be the object of an endless misunderstanding.” (1995: 299).

The second question is important because across Nietzsche’s writings he seemingly contradicts himself or changes his philosophical position. There are two main issues, then, regarding consistency. On the one hand, “distinct periods” of philosophy have been associated with various groupings of Nietzsche’s writings, and establishing these periods – along with affirming position changes – can be supported by Nietzsche’s own words (so long as one considers those statements coherent).

Thus, according to the standard division, we have the “Early Writings” from 1872-1876, the “Middle Writings” from 1878-1882, the “Later Writings” from 1883-1887, and the “Final Writings” of 1888. By examining Dr. Gertz’s Bibliography it is clear that he privileges the “Later” and “Unpublished” of Nietzsche’s writings. On the other hand, as William H. Schaberg convincingly argued in his The Nietzsche Canon: A Publication History and Bibliography, despite all of the “inconsistencies,” from beginning to end, Nietzsche’s writings represent the development of what he called the “Dionysian Worldview.” Importantly, Dr. Gertz neither addresses these exegetical issues nor does he even mention Dionysus.

The third question is important because throughout the last century of Nietzsche scholarship there have been various trends regarding the above, first two, questions, and often the “consistency” and “anti-system” issues have been conflated. Thus, scholars in the past have argued that Nietzsche must be inconsistent – if not incoherent – because he is purposefully an “anti-systematic thinker.”

However, as Schaberg’s work, among others, makes clear: To have a consistent theme does not necessitate that one’s work is “systematic.” For example, it is not the case that all philosophers are “systematic” philosophers merely because they consistently write about philosophy. That the “Dionysian Worldview” is ultimately Nietzsche’s consistent theme is not negated by any inconsistencies regarding how to best characterize that worldview.

Thus, I would be interested to know the process through which Dr. Gertz decided on the title of this book. On the one hand, it is clear that he considers this a book that combines Nietzsche and philosophy of technology. On the other hand, Dr. Gertz’s allegiance to (the unfortunately titled) “postphenomenology” and the way he takes up Nietzsche’s ideas make the title of his book problematic. For instance, the title of the first section of Chapter 2 is: “What is Nihilism?”

What About the Meaning of Nihilism?

Dr. Gertz notes that because the meaning of “nihilism” in the writings of Nietzsche is controversial, he will not even attempt to define nihilism in terms of Nietzsche’s writings (p. 13). He then, without referencing any philosopher at all, defines “nihilism” stating: “in everyday usage it is taken to mean something roughly equivalent to the expression ‘Who cares?’” (p. 13). Lastly, in the next section he uses Jean-Paul Sartre to characterize nihilism as “bad faith.” All this is problematic.

First, is this book about “nihilism” or “bad faith”? It seems to be about the latter, which (more on this to come) leads one to wonder whether the title and the supposed (at times forced) use of Nietzsche were not a (nihilistic?) marketing-ploy. Second, though Dr. Gertz doesn’t think it necessary to articulate and defend the meaning of “nihilism” in Nietzsche, just a casual glance at the same section of the “Unpublished Writings” (The Will to Power) that Gertz invokes can be used to argue against his characterization of “nihilism” as “Who cares?”

For example, Nietzsche is far more hardcore than “Who cares?” as evidenced by: “Nihilism does not only contemplate the ‘in vain!’ nor is it merely the belief that everything deserves to perish: one helps to destroy… [emphasis added]” (1968b: 18). “Nihilism” pertains to moral value. It is in this context that Nietzsche is a so-called “immoralist.”

Nietzsche came to see the will as, pun intended, beyond good and evil. It is moralizing that leads to nihilism. Consider the following from Nietzsche:

“Schopenhauer interpreted high intellectuality as liberation from the will; he did not want to see the freedom from moral prejudice which is part of the emancipation of the great spirit… Fundamental instinctive principle of all philosophers and historians and psychologists: everything of value in man, art, history, science, religion, technology [emphasis added], must be proved to be of moral value, morally conditioned, in aim, means and outcome… ‘Does man become better through it?’” (1968b: pp. 205-6).

The will is free, beyond all moral values, and so the desire to domesticate it is nihilistic – if for no reason other than in domesticating it one has lowered the sovereignty of the will into conformity with some set of rules designed for the preservation of the herd (or academic-cartel). Incidentally, I invoked this Nietzschean point in my chapter: “What Control? Life at the limits of power expression” in our book Social Epistemology and Technology. Moreover, none of us “philosophers of the future” have yet expressed this point in a way that surpasses the excellence and eloquence of Baudrillard (cf. The Perfect Crime and The Agony of Power).

In other words, what is in play are power differentials. Thus, oddly, as soon as Dr. Gertz begins moralizing by denouncing technology as “nihilistic,” he reveals himself – not technology – to be nihilistic. For all these reasons, and more, it is not clear why Dr. Gertz insists on the term “nihilism” or precisely how he sees this as Nietzsche’s position.

To be sure, the most recent data from the CDC indicate that chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis are presently at an all-time high; do you think this has nothing to do with the technological mediation of our social relations? Yet, the problem of bringing in Nietzsche’s conception of “nihilism” is that Nietzsche might not see this as a problem at all. On the one hand, we have all heard the story that Nietzsche knew he had syphilis; yet, he supposedly refused to seek treatment, and subsequently died from it.

On the other hand, at times it seems as though the Nietzschean term Dr. Gertz could have used would have been “decadence.” Thus, the problem with technology is that it is motivated by decadence and breeds decadence. Ultimately, the problem is that – despite the nowadays obligatory affirmation of the “non-binary” nature of whatever we happen to be talking about – Dr. Gertz frames his conception in terms of the bifurcation: technophile v. technophobe. Yet, Nietzsche is, of course, a transcendental philosopher, so there are three (not 2) positions. The third position is Amor Fati.

The ‘predominance of suffering over pleasure’ or the opposite (hedonism): these two doctrines are already signposts to nihilism… that is how a kind of man speaks who no longer dares to posit a will, a purpose, a meaning: for any healthier kind of man the value of life is certainly not measured by the standard of these trifles [pleasure and pain]. And suffering might predominate, and in spite of that a powerful will might exist, a Yes to life, a need for this predominance. (Nietzsche, 1968b: p. 23).

In terms of philosophy of technology, if it is our fate to exist in a world torn asunder by technological mediation, well, then, love it (in this wise, even the “Death of God” can be celebrated). And, here would be the place to mention “postmodern irony,” which Dr. Gertz does not consider. In sum, Dr. Gertz’s use of the term “nihilism” is, to say the least, problematic.

Technology’s Disconnect From Nietzsche Himself

Nietzsche infamously never used a typewriter. It was invented during his lifetime, and, as the story goes, he supposedly tried to use the technology but couldn’t get the hang of it, so he went back to writing by hand. This story points to an insight that it seems Dr. Gertz’s book doesn’t consider. For Nietzsche human existence is the point of departure, not technology.

So, the very idea that technological mediation will lead to a better existence (even if “better” only means “more efficient,” as it could in the case of the typewriter), should, according to Nietzsche’s actual logic of “nihilism,” see the desire to use a typewriter as either a symptom of decadence or an expression of strength; however, these options do not manifest in the logic of Gertz’s Nietzsche analysis.

Rather, Dr. Gertz moralizes the use of technology: “Working out which of these perspectives is correct is thus vital for ensuring that technologies are providing us leisure as a form of liberation rather than providing us leisure as a form of dehumanization.” (p. 4). Does the “Who cares?” logic of Gertz’s “nihilism” necessarily lead to an interpretation of Nietzsche as a kind of “Luddite”?

Before moving on to the next part of this review, a few last remarks about how Dr. Gertz uses Nietzsche’s writings are called for. There are nine (9) chapters in Nihilism and Technology. Dr. Gertz primarily uses the first two chapters to speak to the terminology he will use throughout the book. He uses the third chapter to align himself with the academic-cartel, and the remaining chapters are supposed to illustrate his explication of what he calls Nietzsche’s five “human-nihilism relations.” All of these so-called “human-nihilism relations” revolve around discussions which take place only in the “Third Essay” of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals – except one foray into The Gay Science.

Two points should be made here. First, Dr. Gertz calls these “nihilism relations,” but they are really just examples of “Slave Mentality.” This should come as no surprise to those familiar with Nietzsche because of where in his writings Dr. Gertz is focused. Moreover, there is not enough space here to fully explain why, but it is problematic to simply replace the term “Slave Mentality” with “nihilism relation.”

Second, among these “nihilism relations” there are two glaring misappropriations of Nietzsche’s writings regarding “pity” and “divinity.” That is, when Dr. Gertz equates “pity sex” (i.e. having “sexual intercourse,” of one kind or another, with someone ostensibly because you “pity” them) with Nietzsche’s famous discussion of pity in On the Genealogy of Morals, it both overlooks Nietzsche’s comments regarding “Master” pity and trivializes the notion of “pity” in Nietzsche.

For, as already noted above, if in your day to day practice of life you remain oriented to the belief that you need an excuse for whatever you do, then you are moralizing. (Remember when we used to think that Nietzsche was “dangerous”?) If you are moralizing, then you’re a nihilist. You’re a nihilist because you believe there is a world that is better than the one that exists. You believe in a world that is nothing. “Conclusion: The faith in the categories of reason is the cause of nihilism. We have measured the value of the world according to categories that refer to a purely fictitious world.” (Nietzsche, 1968b: p. 13).

Lastly, Dr. Gertz notes: “Google stands as proof that humans do not need gods, that humans are capable of fulfilling the role once reserved for the gods.” (p. 199). However, in making that statement he neither accurately speaks of the gods, in general, nor of Nietzsche’s understanding of – for example – Dionysus.

2) The Anti- and Post-Humanist Positions in Philosophy of Technology

In a footnote Dr. Gertz thanks an “anonymous reviewer” for telling him to clarify his position regarding humanism, transhumanism, and posthumanism; however, despite what sounds like his acknowledgement, he does not provide such a clarification. The idea is supposed to be that transhumanism is a kind of humanism, and anti- and post-humanism are philosophies which deny that “human” refers to a “natural category.” It is for this reason that many scholars talk of “two Marxisms.” That is to say, there is the earlier Marxism which takes “human” as a natural category and aims at liberation, and there is the later Marxism which takes “human” to be category constructed by Capital.

It is from this latter idea that the “care for the self” is criticized as something to be sold to “the worker” and to eventually transform the worker’s work into the work of consumption – this secures perpetual demand, as “the worker” is transformed into the “consumer.” Moreover, this is absolutely of central importance in the philosophy of technology. For, from a point of view that is truly post-human, Dr. Gertz’s moralizing-warning that technology may lead to “a form of dehumanization.” (p. 4) is an empty threat.

On the one hand, this fidelity to “human” as a natural category comes from Don Ihde’s “postphenomenology.” For Gertz’s idea of “human-nihilism relations” was developed from Idhe’s “human-technology relations.” (p. 45). Gertz notes, “Ihde turns Heidegger’s analysis of hammering into an exemplar of how to carry out analyses of human-technology relations, analyses which lead Ihde to expand the field of human-technology relations beyond Heidegger’s examples” (p. 49).

However, there are two significant problems here, both of which point back, again, to the lack of clarification regarding post-humanism. First, Heidegger speaks of Dasein and of Being, not of “human.” Similarly, Nietzsche could say, “The will to overcome an affect is ultimately only the will of another affect, or of several other affects.” (Nietzsche, 1989a: §117), or “There is no ‘being’ behind doing … the ‘doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed – the deed is everything.” (Nietzsche, 1989b: p. 45).

Second, the section of Being & Time from which “postphenomenology” develops its relations of “co-constitution” is “The Worldhood of the World,” not “Being-in-the-World.” In other words, Dasein is not an aspect of “ready-to-hand” hammering, the ready-to-hand is an aspect of Dasein. Thus, “human” may be seen as a “worldly” “present-at-hand” projection of an “in order to.” Again, this is also why Gertz doesn’t characterize Marxism (p. 5) as “two Marxisms,” namely he does not consider the anti- or post-humanist readings of Marx.

Hence, the importance of clarifying the incommensurability between humanism and post-humanism: Gertz’s characterization of technology as nihilistic due to its de-humanizing may turn out to be itself nihilistic in terms of its moralizing (noted in Part I, above) and in terms of its taking the fictional-rational category “human” as more primordial than the (according to Nietzsche) non-discursive sovereign will.

3) His “human-nihilism relations”

Students of the philosophy of technology will find the Chapter 3 discussion of Ihde’s work helpful; going forward, we should inquire regarding Ihde’s four categories – in the context of post-humanism and cybernetics – if they are exhaustive. Moreover, how might each of these categories look from a point of view which takes the fundamental alteration of (human) be-ing by technology to be desirable?

This is a difficult question to navigate because it shifts the context for understanding Gertz’s philic/phobic dichotomy away from “care for the self” and toward a context of “evolutionary selection.” Might public self-awareness, in such a context, influence the evolutionary selection?

So long as one is explicitly taking a stand for humanism, then one could argue that the matrix of human-technology relations are symptoms of decadence. Interestingly, such a stance may make Nihilism and Technology, first and foremost, an ethics book and not a philosophy of technology book. Yet, especially, though perhaps not exclusively, presenting only the humanistic point of view leaves one open to the counter-argument that the “intellectual” and “philosophical” relations to “technology” that allow for such an analysis into these various discursive identities betrays a kind of decadence. It would not be much of a stretch to come to the conclusion that Nietzsche would consider “academics” decadent.

Further, it would also be helpful for philosophy of technology students to consider – from a humanistic point of view – the use of technology to extend human life in light of “human-decadence relations.” Of course, whether or not these relations, in general, lead to nihilism is a separate question. However, the people who profit from the decadence on which these technologies stand will rhetorically-bulwark the implementation of their technological procedures in terms of “saving lives.” Here, Nietzsche was again prophetic, as he explicitly considered a philosophy of “survive at all costs” to be a sign of degeneracy and decay.

Contact details:


Blanchot, Maurice. (1995). The Work of Fire. C. Mandell (Trans.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Deleuze, Gilles. (2006). Nietzsche and Philosophy. H. Tomlinson (Trans.). New York: Columbia University.

Heidegger, Martin. (1987). D.F. Krell (Ed.). Nietzsche, Vol. IV: Nihilism. F.A. Capuzzi (Trans.). New York: Harper & Row.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. (1989a). Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. W. Kaufmann (Trans.). New York: Vintage.

_____. (1989b). On the Genealogy of Morals /Ecce Homo. W. Kaufmann (Trans.). New York: Vintage Books.

_____. (1968a). Twilight of the Idols/The Anti-Christ. R.J. Hollingdale (Trans.). Middlesex, England: Penguin Books.

_____. (1968b). The Will to Power. W. Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale (Trans.). New York: Vintage Books.

Schaberg, William H. (1995). The Nietzsche Canon: A Publication History and Bibliography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Author Information: Luca Tateo, Aalborg University & Federal University of Bahia,

Tateo, Luca. “Ethics, Cogenetic Logic, and the Foundation of Meaning.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 12 (2018): 1-8.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

Mural entitled “Paseo de Humanidad” on the Mexican side of the US border wall in the city of Heroica Nogales, in Sonora. Art by Alberto Morackis, Alfred Quiróz and Guadalupe Serrano.
Image by Jonathan McIntosh, via Flickr / Creative Commons


This essay is in reply to: Miika Vähämaa (2018) Challenges to Groups as Epistemic Communities: Liminality of Common Sense and Increasing Variability of Word Meanings, Social Epistemology, 32:3, 164-174, DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1458352

In his interesting essay, Vähämaa (2018) discusses two issues that I find particularly relevant. The first one concerns the foundation of meaning in language, which in the era of connectivism (Siemens, 2005) and post-truth (Keyes, 2004) becomes problematic. The second issue is the appreciation of epistemic virtues in a collective context: how the group can enhance the epistemic skill of the individual?

I will try to explain why these problems are relevant and why it is worth developing Vähämaa’s (2018) reflection in the specific direction of group and person as complementary epistemic and ethic agents (Fricker, 2007). First, I will discuss the foundations of meaning in different theories of language. Then, I will discuss the problems related to the stability and liminality of meaning in the society of “popularity”. Finally I will propose the idea that the range of contemporary epistemic virtues should be integrated by an ethical grounding of meaning and a co-genetic foundation of meaning.

The Foundation of Meaning in Language

The theories about the origins of human language can be grouped in four main categories, based on the elements characterizing the ontogenesis and glottogenesis.

Sociogenesis Hypothesis (SH): it is the idea that language is a conventional product, that historically originates from coordinated social activities and it is ontogenetically internalized through individual participation to social interactions. The characteristic authors in SH are Wundt, Wittgenstein and Vygotsky (2012).

Praxogenesis Hypothesis (PH): it is the idea that language historically originates from praxis and coordinated actions. Ontogenetically, the language emerges from senso-motory coordination (e.g. gaze coordination). It is for instance the position of Mead, the idea of linguistic primes in Smedslund (Vähämaa, 2018) and the language as action theory of Austin (1975).

Phylogenesis Hypothesis (PhH): it is the idea that humans have been provided by evolution with an innate “language device”, emerging from the evolutionary preference for forming social groups of hunters and collective long-duration spring care (Bouchard, 2013). Ontogenetically, language predisposition is wired in the brain and develops in the maturation in social groups. This position is represented by evolutionary psychology and by innatism such as Chomsky’s linguistics.

Structure Hypothesis (StH): it is the idea that human language is a more or less logic system, in which the elements are determined by reciprocal systemic relationships, partly conventional and partly ontic (Thao, 2012). This hypothesis is not really concerned with ontogenesis, rather with formal features of symbolic systems of distinctions. It is for instance the classical idea of Saussure and of the structuralists like Derrida.

According to Vähämaa (2018), every theory of meaning has to deal today with the problem of a terrific change in the way common sense knowledge is produced, circulated and modified in collective activities. Meaning needs some stability in order to be of collective utility. Moreover, meaning needs some validation to become stable.

The PhH solves this problem with a simple idea: if humans have survived and evolved, their evolutionary strategy about meaning is successful. In a natural “hostile” environment, our ancestors must have find the way to communicate in such a way that a danger would be understood in the same way by all the group members and under different conditions, including when the danger is not actually present, like in bonfire tales or myths.

The PhH becomes problematic when we consider the post-truth era. What would be the evolutionary advantage to deconstruct the environmental foundations of meaning, even in a virtual environment? For instance, what would be the evolutionary advantage of the common sense belief that global warming is not a reality, considered that this false belief could bring mankind to the extinction?

StH leads to the view of meaning as a configuration of formal conditions. Thus, stability is guaranteed by structural relations of the linguistic system, rather than by the contribution of groups or individuals as epistemic agents. StH cannot account for the rapidity and liminality of meaning that Vähämaa (2018) attributes to common sense nowadays. SH and PH share the idea that meaning emerges from what people do together, and that stability is both the condition and the product of the fact that we establish contexts of meaningful actions, ways of doing things in a habitual way.

The problem is today the fact that our accelerated Western capitalistic societies have multiplied the ways of doing and the number of groups in society, decoupling the habitual from the common sense meaning. New habits, new words, personal actions and meanings are built, disseminated and destroyed in short time. So, if “Our lives, with regard to language and knowledge, are fundamentally bound to social groups” (Vähämaa, 2018, p. 169) what does it happen to language and to knowledge when social groups multiply, segregate and disappear in a short time?

From Common Sense to the Bubble

The grounding of meaning in the group as epistemic agent has received a serious stroke in the era of connectivism and post-truth. The idea of connectivism is that knowledge is distributed among the different agents of a collective network (Siemens, 2005). Knowledge does not reside into the “mind” or into a “memory”, but is rather produced in bits and pieces, that the epistemic agent is required to search, and to assemble through the contribution of the collective effort of the group’s members.

Thus, depending on the configuration of the network, different information will be connected, and different pictures of the world will emerge. The meaning of the words will be different if, for instance, the network of information is aggregated by different groups in combination with, for instance, specific algorithms. The configuration of groups, mediated by social media, as in the case of contemporary politics (Lewandowsky, Ecker & Cook, 2017), leads to the reproduction of “bubbles” of people that share the very same views, and are exposed to the very same opinions, selected by an algorithm that will show only the content compliant with their previous content preferences.

The result is that the group loses a great deal of its epistemic capability, which Vähämaa (2018) suggests as a foundation of meaning. The meaning of words that will be preferred in this kind of epistemic bubble is the result of two operations of selection that are based on popularity. First, the meaning will be aggregated by consensual agents, rather than dialectic ones. Meaning will always convergent rather than controversial.

Second, between alternative meanings, the most “popular” will be chosen, rather than the most reliable. The epistemic bubble of connectivism originates from a misunderstanding. The idea is that a collectivity has more epistemic force than the individual alone, to the extent that any belief is scrutinized democratically and that if every agent can contribute with its own bit, the knowledge will be more reliable, because it is the result of a constant and massive peer-review. Unfortunately, the events show us a different picture.

Post-truth is actually a massive action of epistemic injustice (Fricker, 2007), to the extent that the reliability of the other as epistemic agent is based on criteria of similarity, rather than on dialectic. One is reliable as long as it is located within my own bubble. Everything outside is “fake news”. The algorithmic selection of information contributes to reinforce the polarization. Thus, no hybridization becomes possible, the common sense (Vähämaa, 2018) is reduced to the common bubble. How can the epistemic community still be a source of meaning in the connectivist era?

Meaning and Common Sense

SH and PH about language point to a very important historical source: the philosopher Giambattista Vico (Danesi, 1993; Tateo, 2015). Vico can be considered the scholar of the common sense and the imagination (Tateo, 2015). Knowledge is built as product of human experience and crystallized into the language of a given civilization. Civilization is the set of interpretations and solutions that different groups have found to respond to the common existential events, such as birth, death, mating, natural phenomena, etc.

According to Vico, all the human beings share a fate of mortal existence and rely on each other to get along. This is the notion of common sense: the profound sense of humanity that we all share and that constitutes the ground for human ethical choices, wisdom and collective living. Humans rely on imagination, before reason, to project themselves into others and into the world, in order to understand them both. Imagination is the first step towards the understanding of the Otherness.

When humans loose contact with this sensus communis, the shared sense of humanity, and start building their meaning on egoism or on pure rationality, civilizations then slip into barbarism. Imagination gives thus access to the intersubjectivity, the capability of feeling the other, while common sense constitutes the wisdom of developing ethical beliefs that will not harm the other. Vico ideas are echoed and made present by the critical theory:

“We have no doubt (…) that freedom in society is inseparable from enlightenment thinking. We believe we have perceived with equal clarity, however, that the very concept of that thinking (…) already contains the germ of the regression which is taking place everywhere today. If enlightenment does not [engage in] reflection on this regressive moment, it seals its own fate (…) In the mysterious willingness of the technologically educated masses to fall under the spell of any despotism, in its self-destructive affinity to nationalist paranoia (…) the weakness of contemporary theoretical understanding is evident.” (Horkheimer & Adorno, 2002, xvi)

Common sense is the basis for the wisdom, that allows to question the foundational nature of the bubble. It is the basis to understand that every meaning is not only defined in a positive way, but is also defined by its complementary opposite (Tateo, 2016).

When one uses the semantic prime “we” (Vähämaa, 2018), one immediately produces a system of meaning that implies the existence of a “non-we”, one is producing otherness. In return, the meaning of “we” can only be clearly defined through the clarification of who is “non-we”. Meaning is always cogenetic (Tateo, 2015). Without the capability to understand that by saying “we” people construct a cogenetic complex of meaning, the group is reduced to a self confirming, self reinforcing collective, in which the sense of being a valid epistemic agent is actually faked, because it is nothing but an act of epistemic arrogance.

How we can solve the problem of the epistemic bubble and give to the relationship between group and person a real epistemic value? How we can overcome the dangerous overlapping between sense of being functional in the group and false beliefs based on popularity?

Complementarity Between Meaning and Sense

My idea is that we must look in that complex space between the “meaning”, understood as a collectively shared complex of socially constructed significations, and the “sense”, understood as the very personal elaboration of meaning which is based on the person’s uniqueness (Vygotsky, 2012; Wertsck, 2000). Meaning and sense feed into each other, like common sense and imagination. Imagination is the psychic function that enables the person to feel into the other, and thus to establish the ethical and affective ground for the common sense wisdom. It is the empathic movement on which Kant will later on look for a logic foundation.

“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” (Kant 1993, p. 36. 4:429)

I would further claim that maybe they feed into each other: the logic foundation is made possible by the synthetic power of empathic imagination. Meaning and sense feed into each other. On the one hand, the collective is the origin of internalized psychic activities (SH), and thus the basis for the sense elaborated about one’s own unique life experience. On the other hand, the personal sense constitutes the basis for the externalization of the meaning into the arena of the collective activities, constantly innovating the meaning of the words.

So, personal sense can be a strong antidote to the prevailing force of the meaning produced for instance in the epistemic bubble. My sense of what is “ought”, “empathic”, “human” and “ethic”, in other words my wisdom, can help me to develop a critical stance towards meanings that are build in a self-feeding uncritical way.

Can the dialectic, complementary and cogenetic relationship between sense and meaning become the ground for a better epistemic performance, and for an appreciation of the liminal meaning produced in contemporary societies? In the last section, I will try to provide arguments in favor of this idea.

Ethical Grounding of Meaning

If connectivistic and post-truth societies produce meanings that are based on popularity check, rather than on epistemic appreciation, we risk to have a situation in which any belief is the contingent result of a collective epistemic agent which replicates its patterns into bubbles. One will just listen to messages that confirm her own preferences and belief and reject the different ones as unreliable. Inside the bubble there is no way to check the meaning, because the meaning is not cogenetic, it is consensual.

For instance, if I read and share a post on social media, claiming that migrants are the main criminal population, despite my initial position toward the news, there is the possibility that within my group I will start to see only posts confirming the initial fact. The fact can be proven wrong, for instance by the press, but the belief will be hard to change, as the meaning of “migrant” in my bubble is likely to continue being that of “criminal”. The collectivity will share an epistemically unjust position, to the extent that it will attribute a lessened epistemic capability to those who are not part of the group itself. How can one avoid that the group is scaffolding the “bad” epistemic skills, rather than empowering the individual (Vähämaa, 2018)?

The solution I propose is to develop an epistemic virtue based on two main principles: the ethical grounding of meaning and the cogenetic logic. The ethical grounding of meaning is directly related to the articulation between common sense and wisdom in the sense of Vico (Tateo, 2015). In a post-truth world in which we cannot appreciate the epistemic foundation of meaning, we must rely on a different epistemic virtue in order to become critical toward messages. Ethical grounding, based on the personal sense of humanity, is not of course epistemic test of reliability, but it is an alarm bell to become legitimately suspicious toward meanings. The second element of the new epistemic virtue is cogenetic logic (Tateo, 2016).

Meaning is grounded in the building of every belief as a complementary system between “A” and “non-A”. This implies that any meaning is constructed through the relationship with its complementary opposite. The truth emerges in a double dialectic movement (Silva Filho, 2014): through Socratic dialogue and through cogenetic logic. In conclusion, let me try to provide a practical example of this epistemic virtue.

The way to start to discriminate potentially fake news or the tendentious interpretations of facts would be essentially based on an ethic foundation. As in Vico’s wisdom of common sense, I would base my epistemic scrutiny on the imaginative work that allows me to access the other and on the cogenetic logic that assumes every meaning is defined by its relationship with the opposite.

Let’s imagine that we are exposed to a post on social media, in which someone states that a caravan of migrants, which is travelling from Honduras across Central America toward the USA border, is actually made of criminals sent by hostile foreign governments to destabilize the country right before elections. The same post claims that it is a conspiracy and that all the press coverage is fake news.

Finally the post presents some “debunking” pictures showing some athletic young Latino men, with their faces covered by scarves, to demonstrate that the caravan is not made by families with children, but is made by “soldiers” in good shape and who don’t look poor and desperate as the “mainstream” media claim. I do not know whether such a post has ever been made, but I just assembled elements of very common discourses circulating in the social media.

The task is no to assess the nature of this message, its meaning and its reliability. I could rely on the group as a ground for assessing statements, to scrutinize their truth and justification. However, due to the “bubble” effect, I may fall into a simple tautological confirmation, due to the configuration of the network of my relations. I would probably find only posts confirming the statements and delegitimizing the opposite positions. In this case, the fact that the group will empower my epistemic confidence is a very dangerous element.

I could limit my search for alternative positions to establish a dialogue. However, I could not be able, alone, to find information that can help me to assess the statement with respect to its degree of bias. How can I exert my skepticism in a context of post-truth? I propose some initial epistemic moves, based on a common sense approach to the meaning-making.

1) I must be skeptical of every message which uses a violent, aggressive, discriminatory language, and that such kind of message is “fake” by default.

2) I must be skeptical of every message that treats as criminals or is against whole social groups, even on the basis of real isolated events, because this interpretation is biased by default.

3) I must be skeptical of every message that attacks or targets persons for their characteristics rather than discussing ideas or behaviors.

Appreciating the hypothetical post about the caravan by the three rules above mentioned, one will immediately see that it violates all of them. Thus, no matter what is the information collected by my epistemic bubble, I have justified reasons to be skeptical towards it. The foundation of the meaning of the message will not be neither in the group nor in the person. It will be based on the ethical position of common sense’s wisdom.

Contact details:


Austin, J. L. (1975). How to do things with words. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bouchard, D. (2013). The nature and origin of language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Danesi, M. (1993). Vico, metaphor, and the origin of language. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Fricker, M. (2007). Epistemic injustice: Power and the ethics of knowing. Oxford University Press.

Horkheimer, M., & Adorno, T. W. (2002). Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Kant, I. (1993) [1785]. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by Ellington, James W. (3rd ed.). Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett.

Keyes, R. (2004). The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life. New York: St. Martin’s.

Lewandowsky, S., Ecker, U. K., & Cook, J. (2017). Beyond misinformation: Understanding and coping with the “post-truth” era. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 6(4), 353-369.

Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(1)

Silva Filho, W. J. (2014). Davidson: Dialog, dialectic, interpretation. Utopía y praxis latinoamericana, 7(19).

Tateo, L. (2015). Giambattista Vico and the psychological imagination. Culture & Psychology, 21(2), 145-161.

Tateo, L. (2016). Toward a cogenetic cultural psychology. Culture & Psychology, 22(3), 433-447.

Thao, T. D. (2012). Investigations into the origin of language and consciousness. New York: Springer.

Vähämaa, M. (2018). Challenges to Groups as Epistemic Communities: Liminality of Common Sense and Increasing Variability of Word Meanings, Social Epistemology, 32:3, 164-174, DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1458352

Vygotsky, L. S. (2012). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: MIT press.

Wertsck, J. V. (2000). Vygotsky’s Two Minds on the Nature of Meaning. In C. D. Lee & P. Smagorinsky (eds), Vygotskian perspectives on literacy research: Constructing meaning through collaborative inquiry (pp. 19-30). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Author Information: Damien Williams, Virginia Tech,

Williams, Damien. “Deleting the Human Clause: A Review of Ashley Shew’s Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 42-44.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink:

Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge is Ashley Shew’s debut monograph and in it she argues that we need to reassess and possibly even drastically change the way in which we think about and classify the categories of technology, tool use, and construction behavior. Drawing from the fields of anthropology, animal studies, and philosophy of technology and engineering, Shew demonstrates that there are several assumptions made by researchers in all of these fields—assumptions about intelligence, intentionality, creativity and the capacity for novel behavior.

Many of these assumptions, Shew says, were developed to guard against the hazard of anthropomorphizing the animals under investigation, and to prevent those researchers ascribing human-like qualities to animals that don’t have them. However, this has led to us swinging the pendulum too far in the other direction, engaging in “a kind of speciesist arrogance” which results in our not ascribing otherwise laudable characteristics to animals for the mere fact that they aren’t human.[1]

Shew says that we consciously and unconsciously appended a “human clause” to all of our definitions of technology, tool use, and intelligence, and this clause’s presumption—that it doesn’t really “count” if humans aren’t the ones doing it—is precisely what has to change.

In Animal Constructions, Shew’s tone is both light and intensely focused, weaving together extensive notes, bibliography, and index with humor, personal touches, and even poignancy, all providing a sense of weight and urgency to her project. As she lays out the pieces of her argument, she is extremely careful about highlighting and bracketing out her own biases, throughout the text; an important fact, given that the whole project is about the recognition of assumptions and bias in human behavior. In Chapter 6, when discussing whether birds can be said to understand what they’re doing, Shew says that she

[relies] greatly on quotations…because the study’s authors describe crow tool uses and manufacture using language that is very suggestive about crows’ technological understanding and behaviors—language that, given my particular philosophical research agenda, might sound biased in paraphrase.[2]

In a chapter 6 endnote, Shew continues to touch on this issue of bias and its potential to become prejudice, highlighting the difficulty of cross-species comparison, and noting that “we also compare the intelligence of culturally and economically privileged humans with that of less privileged humans, a practice that leads to oppression, exploitation, slavery, genocide, etc.”[3] In the conclusion, she elaborates on this somewhat, pointing out the ways in which biases about the “right kinds” of bodies and minds have led to embarrassments and atrocities in human history.[4] As we’ll see, this means that the question of how and why we categorize animal construction behaviors as we do has implications which are far more immediate and crucial than research projects.

The content of Animal Constructions is arranged in such a way as to make a strong case for the intelligence, creativity, and ingenuity of animals, throughout, but it also provides several contrast cases in which we see that there are several animal behaviors which might appear to be intentional, but which are the product of instinct or the extended phenotype of the species in question.[5] According to Shew, these latter cases do more than act as exceptions that test the rule; they also provide the basis for reframing the ways in which we compare the behaviors of humans and nonhuman animals.

If we can accept that construction behavior exists on a spectrum or continuum with tool use and other technological behaviors, and we can come to recognize that animals such as spiders and beavers make constructions as a part of the instinctual, DNA-based, phenotypical natures, then we can begin to interrogate whether the same might not be true for the things that humans make and do. If we can understand this, then we can grasp that “the nature of technology is not merely tied to the nature of humanity, but to humanity in our animality” (emphasis present in original).[6]

Using examples from animal studies reaching back several decades, Shew discusses experimental observations of apes, monkeys, cetaceans (dolphins and whales), and birds. Each example set moves further away from the kind of animals we see as “like us,” and details how each group possess traits and behaviors humans tend to think only exist in ourselves.[7] Chimps and monkeys test tool-making techniques and make plans; dolphins and whales pass hunting techniques on to their children and cohort, have names, and social rituals; birds make complex tools for different scenarios, adapt them to novel circumstances, and learn to lie.[8]

To further discuss the similarities between humans and other animals, Shew draws on theories about the relationship between body and mind, such as embodiment and extended mind hypotheses, from philosophy of mind, which say that the kind of mind we are is intimately tied to the kinds of bodies we are. She pairs this with work from disability studies which forwards the conceptual framework of “bodyminds,” saying that they aren’t simply linked; they’re the same.[9] This is the culmination of descriptions of animal behaviors and a prelude a redefinition and reframing of the concepts of “technology” and “knowledge.”

Editor's note - My favourite part of this review roundtable is scanning through pictures of smart animals

Dyson the seal. Image by Valerie via Flickr / Creative Commons


In the book’s conclusion, Shew suggests placing all the products of animal construction behavior on a two-axis scale, where the x-axis is “know-how” (the knowledge it takes to accomplish a task) and the y-axis is “thing knowledge” (the information about the world that gets built into constructed objects).[10] When we do this, she says, we can see that every made thing, be it object or social construct (a passage with important implications) falls somewhere outside of the 0, 0 point.[11] This is Shew’s main thrust throughout Animal Constructions: That humans are animals and our technology is not what sets us apart or makes us special; in fact, it may be the very thing that most deeply ties us to our position within the continuum of nature.

For Shew, we need to be less concerned about the possibility of incorrectly thinking that animals are too much like us, and far more concerned that we’re missing the ways in which we’re still and always animals. Forgetting our animal nature and thinking that there is some elevating, extra special thing about humans—our language, our brains, our technologies, our culture—is arrogant in the extreme.

While Shew says that she doesn’t necessarily want to consider the moral implications of her argument in this particular book, it’s easy to see how her work could be foundational to a project about moral and social implications, especially within fields such as animal studies or STS.[12] And an extension like this would fit perfectly well with the goal she lays out in the introduction, regarding her intended audience: “I hope to induce philosophers of technology to consider animal cases and induce researchers in animal studies to think about animal tool use with the apparatus provided by philosophy of technology.”[13]

In Animal Constructions, Shew has built a toolkit filled with fine arguments and novel arrangements that should easily provide the instruments necessary for anyone looking to think differently about the nature of technology, engineering, construction, and behavior, in the animal world. Shew says that “A full-bodied approach to the epistemology of technology requires that assumptions embedded in our definitions…be made clear,”[14] and Animal Constructions is most certainly a mechanism by which to deeply delve into that process of clarification.

Contact details:


Shew, Ashley. Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2017.

[1] Ashley Shew, Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge p. 107

[2] Ibid., p. 73

[3] Ibid., p. 89, n. 7

[4] Ibid., pg. 107—122

[5] Ibid., pg. 107—122

[6] Ibid., p. 19

[7] On page 95, Shew makes brief mention various instances of octopus tool use; more of these examples would really drive the point home.

[8] Shew, pg. 35—51; 53—65; 67—89

[9] Ibid., p. 108

[10] Ibid., pg. 110—119

[11] Ibid., p. 118

[12] Ibid., p. 16

[13] Ibid., p. 11

[14] Ibid., p 105

Author Information: Emma Stamm, Virginia Tech,

Stamm, Emma. “Retooling ‘The Human.’” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 1 (2018): 36-40.

The pdf of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Ashley Shew’s Animal Constructions and Technical Knowledge challenges philosophers of technology with the following provocation: What would happen if we included tools made and used by nonhuman animals in our broad definition of “technology?”

Throughout Animal Constructions, Shew makes the case that this is more than simply an interesting question. It is, she says, a necessary interrogation within a field that may well be suffering from a sort of speciesist myopia. Blending accounts from a range of animal case studies — including primates, cetaceans, crows, and more — with pragmatic theoretical analysis, Shew demonstrates that examining animal constructions through a philosophical lens not only expands our awareness of the nonhuman world, but has implications for how humans should conceive of their own relationship with technology.

At the beginning of Animal Constructions, Shew presents us with “the human clause,” her assessment of “the idea that human beings are the only creatures that can have or do use technology” (14). This misconception stems from the notion of homo faber, “(hu)man the maker” (14), which “sits at the center of many definitions of technology… (and) is apparent in many texts theorizing technology” (14).

It would appear that this precondition for technology, long taken as dogma by technologists and philosophers alike, is less stable than has often been assumed. Placing influential ideas from philosophers of technology in dialogue with empirical field and (to a lesser extent) laboratory studies conducted on animals, Shew argues that any thorough philosophical account of technology not only might, but must include objects made and used by nonhuman animals.

Animal Constructions and Technical Knowledge lucidly demonstrates this: by the conclusion, readers may wonder how the intricate ecosystem of animal tool-use has been so systematically excluded from philosophical treatments of the technical. Shew has accomplished much in recasting a disciplinary norm as a glaring oversight — although this oversight may be forgivable, considering the skill set required to achieve its goals. The author’s ambitions demand not only fluency with interdisciplinary research methods, but acute sensitivity to each of the disciplines it mobilizes.

Animal Constructions is a philosophical text wholly committed to representing science and technology on their own terms while speaking to a primarily humanities-based audience, a balance its author strikes gracefully. Indeed, Shew’s transitions from the purely descriptive to the interpretive are, for the most part, seamless. For example, in her chapter on cetaceans, she examines the case of dolphins trained to identify man-made objects of a certain size category (60), noting that the success of this initiative indicates that dolphins have the human-like capacity to think in abstract categories. This interpretation feels natural and very reasonable.

Importantly, the studies selected are neither conceptually simple, nor do they appear cherry-picked to serve her argument. A chapter titled “Spiderwebs, Beaver Dams, and Other Contrast Cases” (91) explores research on animal constructions that do not entirely fit the author’s definitions of technology. Here, it is revealed that while this topic is necessarily complicated for techno-philosophers, these complexities do not foreclose the potential for the nonhuman world to provide humans with a greater awareness of technology in theory and practice.

Ambiguous Interpretations

That being said, in certain parts, the empirical observations Shew uses to make her argument seem questionable. In a chapter on ape and primate cases, readers are given the tale of Santino, a chimpanzee in a Switzerland zoo with the pesky habit of storing stones specifically to throw at visitors (40). Investigators declared this behavior “the first unambiguous evidence of forward-planning in a nonhuman animal” (40) — a claim that may seem spurious, since many of us have witnessed dogs burying bones to dig up in the future, or squirrels storing food for winter.

However, as with every case study in the book, the story of Santino comes from well-documented, formal research, none of which was conducted by the author herself. If it was discovered that factual knowledge such as the aforementioned are, in fact, erroneous, it is not a flaw of the book itself. Moreover, so many examples are used that the larger arguments of Animal Constructions will hold up even if parts of the science on which it relies comes to be revised.

In making the case for animals so completely, Animal Constructions and Technical Knowledge is a success. The book also makes a substantial contribution with the methodological frameworks it gives to those interested in extending its project. Animal Constructions is as much conceptual cartography as it is a work of persuasion: Shew not only orients readers to her discipline — she does not assume readerly familiarity with its academic heritage — but provides a map that philosophers may use to situate the nonhuman in their own reflection on technology. This is largely why Animal Constructions is such a notable text for 21st century philosophy, as so many scholars are committed to rethinking “the human” in the wake of recent innovations in technoscience.

Animal Knowledge

Animal Constructions is of particular interest to critical and social epistemologists. Its opening chapters introduce a handful of ideas about what defines technical knowledge, concepts that bear on the author’s assessment of animal activity. Historically, Shew writes, philosophers of technology have furnished us with two types of accounts of technical knowledge. The first sees technology as constituting a unique case for philosophers (3).

In this view, the philosophical concerns of technology cannot be reduced to those of science (or, indeed, any domain of knowledge to which technology is frequently seen as subordinate). “This strain of thought represents a negative reaction to the idea that philosophy is the handmaiden of science, that technology is simply ‘applied science,’” she writes (3). It is a line of reasoning that relies on a careful distinction between “knowing how” and “knowing that,” claiming that technological knowledge is, principally, skillfulness in the first: know-how, or knowledge about “making or doing something” (3) as opposed to the latter “textbook”-ish knowledge. Here, philosophy of technology is demarcated from philosophy of science in that it exists outside the realm of theoretical epistemologies, i.e., knowledge bodies that have been abstracted from contextual application.

If “know-how” is indeed the foundation for a pragmatic philosophy of technology, the discipline would seem to openly embrace animal tools and constructions in its scope. After all, animals clearly “know how” to engage the material world. However, as Shew points out, most technology philosophers who abide by this dictum in fact lean heavily on the human clause. “This first type of account nearly universally insists that human beings are the sole possessors of technical knowledge” (4), she says, referencing the work  of philosophers A. Rupert Hall, Edwin T. Layton, Walter Vincenti, Carl Mitcham, and Joseph C. Pitt (3) as evidence.

The human clause is also present in the second account, although it is not nearly so deterministic. This camp has roots in the philosophy of science (6) and “sees knowledge as embodied in the objects themselves” (6). Here, Shew draws from the theorizations of Davis Baird, whose concept “thing knowledge” — “knowledge that is encapsulated in devices or otherwise materially instantiated” (6) — recurs throughout the book’s chapters specifically devoted to animal studies (chapters 4, 5, 6 and 7).

Scientific instruments are offered as perhaps the most exemplary cases of “thing knowledge,” but specialized tools made by humans are far from the only knowledge-bearing objects. The parameters of “thing knowledge” allow for more generous interpretations: Shew offers that Baird’s ideas include “know-how that is demonstrated or instantiated by the construction of a device that can be used by people or creatures without the advanced knowledge of its creators” (6). This is a wide category indeed, one that can certainly accommodate animal artefacts.

Image from Sergey Rodovnichenko via Flickr / Creative Commons


The author adapts this understanding of thing-knowledge, along with Davis Baird’s five general ideals for knowledge — detachment, efficacy, longevity, connection and objectivity (6) — as a scale within which some artefacts made and used by animals may be thought as “technologies” and others not. Positioned against “know-how,” “thing knowledge” serves as the other axis for this framework (112-113). Equally considered is the question of whether animals can set intentions and engage in purpose-driven behavior. Shew suggests that animal constructions which result from responses to stimuli, instinctive behavior, or other byproducts of evolutionary processes may not count as technology in the same way that artefacts which seem to come from purposiveness and forward-planning would (6-7).

Noting that intentionality is a tenuous issue in animal studies (because we can’t interview animals about their reasons for making and using things), Shew indicates that observations on intentionality can, at least in part, be inferred by exploring related areas, including “technology products that encode knowledge,” “problem-solving,” and “innovation” (9). These characteristics are taken up throughout each case study, albeit in different ways and to different ends.

At its core, the manner in which Animal Constructions grapples with animal cognition as a precursor to animal technology is an epistemological inquiry into the nonhuman. In the midst of revealing her aims, Shew writes: “this requires me to address questions about animal minds — whether animals set intentions and how intentionality evolved, whether animals are able to innovate, whether they can problem solve, how they learn — as well as questions about what constitutes technology and what constitutes knowledge” (9). Her answer to the animal-specific queries is a clear “yes,” although this yes comes with multiple caveats.

Throughout the text, Shew notes the propensity of research and observation to alter objects under study, clarifying that our understanding of animals is always filtered through a human lens. With a nod to Thomas Nagel’s famous essay “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?” (34), she maintains that we do not, in fact, know what it is like to be a chimpanzee, crow, spider or beaver. However, much more important to her project is the possibility that caution around perceived categorical differences, often foregrounded in the name of scholarly self-reflexivity, can hold back understanding of the nonhuman.

“In our fear of anthropomorphization and desire for a sparkle of objectivity, we can move too far in the other direction, viewing human beings as removed from the larger animal kingdom,” she declares (16).

Emphasizing kinship and closeness over remoteness and detachment, Shew’s pointed proclamations about animal life rest on the overarching “yes:” yes, animals solve problems, innovate, and set intentions. They also transmit knowledge culturally and socially. Weaving these observations together, Shew suggests that our anthropocentrism represents a form of bias (108); as with all biases, it stifles discourse and knowledge production for the fields within which it is imbricated — here, technological knowledge.

While this work explicitly pertains to technology, the lingering question of “what constitutes knowledge overall?” does not vanish in the details. Shew’s take on what constitutes animal knowledge has immediate relevance to work on knowledge made and manipulated by nonhumans. By the book’s end, it is evident that animal research can help us unhinge “the human clause” from our epistemology of the technical, facilitating a radical reinvestigation of both tool use and materially embodied knowledge.

Breaking Down Boundaries

But its approach has implications for taxonomies that not only divide humans and animals, but humans, animals and entities outside of the animal kingdom.  Although it is beyond the scope of this text, the methods of Animal Constructions can easily be applied to digital “minds” and artificial general intelligence, along with plant and fungus life. (One can imagine a smooth transition from a discussion on spider web-spinning, p. 92, to the casting of spores by algae and mushrooms). In that it excavates taxonomies and affirms the violence done by categorical delineations, Animal Constructions bears surface resemblance to the work of Michel Foucault and Donna Haraway. However, its commitment to positive knowledge places it in a tradition that more boldly supports the possibilities of knowing than does the legacies of Foucault and Haraway. That is to say, the offerings of Animal Constructions are not designed to self-deconstruct, or ironically self-reflect.

In its investigation of the flaws of anthropocentrism, Animal Constructions implies a deceptively straightforward question: what work does “the human clause” do for us? —  in other words, what has led “the human” to become so inexorably central to our technological and philosophical consciousness? Shew does not address this head-on, but she does give readers plenty of material to begin answering it for themselves. And perhaps they should: while the text resists ethical statements, there is an ethos to this particular question.

Applied at the societal level, an investigation of the roots of “the human clause” could be leveraged toward democratic ends. If we do, in  fact, include tools made and used by nonhuman animals in our definition of technology, it may mar the popular image of technological knowledge as a sort of “magic” or erudite specialization only accessible to certain types of minds. There is clear potential for this epistemological position to be advanced in the name of social inclusivity.

Whether or not readers detect a social project among the conversations engaged by Animal Constructions, its relevance to future studies is undeniable. The maps provided by Animal Constructions and Technical Knowledge do not tell readers where to go, but will certainly come in useful for anybody exploring the nonhuman territories of 21st century. Indeed, Animal Construction and Technical Knowledge is not only a substantive offering to philosophy of technology, but a set of tools whose true power may only be revealed in time.

Contact details:


Shew, Ashley. Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2017.

Author Information: Frank Scalambrino, University of Akron,

Scalambrino, Frank. “Employees as Sims? The Conflict Between Dignity and Efficiency.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 2 (2017): 35-47.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink:

Please refer to:


Image credit: Aaron Parecki, via flickr

“… that which mediates my life for me, also mediates the existence of other people for me.” —Karl Marx[1]

Today’s technological mediation allows for unprecedented amounts and depths of surveillance. Those who advocate for such surveillance tend to invoke a notion of public safety as justification. On the one hand, if acceptance of being surveilled follows a philosophy, it would seem to be a kind of “greatest good for the greatest number” philosophy. However, it may be the case that the philosophy functions as an after-the-fact excuse, and people are simply willing to accept surveillance so long as they are able to use their technological devices. On the other hand, it is interesting to note that with context shifts in which such a philosophy could no longer justify surveillance, a philosophy of ownership may be the only viable justification for such surveillance. Yet, insofar as we are discussing the freedom of individuals, e.g. “employees,” we should be critical regarding surveillance justified by a philosophy of ownership.

This article seeks to provide a critique of surveillance in situations where surveillance thrives despite the tension between freedom and ownership. Specifically, this article examines the development of workplace surveillance—through technological mediation—from “loss prevention” to “profit protection.” The tension between freedom and ownership in this context may be philosophically characterized as the tension between dignity and efficiency. After describing an actual workplace situation in which a retailer uses technological mediation to surveil employees for the sake of “profit protection,” a critique of surveillance will emerge from a discussion of the notions of efficiency and dignity in relation to freedom. Rather than determine the justification of surveillance through technological mediation in terms of the “justified true belief” of “profit protection,” this article—from the perspective of social epistemology—takes for its point of departure a conception of knowledge in terms of the “social justification of belief” (Rorty, 1979: 170). Hence, the policy recommendations regarding technological mediation with which this article concludes may be understood as developed through social epistemology and a concern for freedom most often associated with existential philosophy.

Employees as Sims?

It is already the case that business owners may use their smartphones to access “real time” audio and video surveillance of their employees. This article considers a retail business with stores in more than one of the United States; speaking with individuals who have worked under such profit-driven surveillance is illuminating. The retail space in question was small enough to have audio and video surveillance covering the entire premises where employees and customers could interact. One employee described how “the boss” was “on a beach somewhere having a drink” watching the employee in question work. The “boss” would then periodically call the business to have the “middle management” ask this employee why he was doing whatever it was he was doing. The employee described the experience as “stressful.” Further, he described feeling “paranoid,” at times, not knowing for certain how closely he was being surveilled from moment to moment.

The idea of using technology to surveil a workplace is not new. However, the kinds of technology available today allow for unprecedented levels of surveillance. Whereas less technologically-mediated work environments could have justified surveillance in terms of employee safety and loss prevention, e.g. theft and accidental destruction, today’s technologically-mediated workplace allows for greater depths of “micro-managing” through surveillance. What we will see is that despite any negative connotation associated with the notion of “micro-managing,” when understood along a spectrum of “loss prevention” and in conjunction with the technological mediation which allows for it, the use of surveillance for the purpose of micro-managing employees can seem as justifiable as locking the door when you close shop for the night.

Originally the idea of “loss prevention” included concerns to monitor for theft. If setting up video surveillance will deter theft or help you recover lost property after theft, then the calculation seems straightforward enough that the video surveillance of your business is a good investment. Further, if video surveillance helps defend business owners against unwarranted worker compensation claims by employees who were hurt on the job through no fault of the business, then again the calculation seems straightforward enough that the video surveillance of your business is a good investment. In fact, retail businesses often employ an entire “loss prevention” department tasked not only with monitoring video surveillance of the business’s premises but also often to appear as customers among the customers to assure shop-lifters are quickly captured and restrained. From the perspective of a philosophy of ownership, the idea is that you own property which you are offering to sell to others, and if others attempt to take your property without compensating you as you deem appropriate, then it seems straightforward enough that your rights regarding your property have been violated.

Now, the idea of “profit protection” may be understood as an extension of “loss prevention.” Moreover, it should be kept in mind that such “profit protection” would not be possible without today’s technological mediation. “Profit protection” is supposed to refer to the reduction of the preventable loss of profit, and “the preventable loss of profit” refers to actions performed inadvertently or deliberately. Thus, notice how surveillance for the sake of “profit protection” may technically extend beyond theft and accidental destruction of property. In other words, if employees are not performing their job duties in a way that allows for the sale of your property, then the profit which you could have reasonably earned through their labor is lost.

There are a number of ways technological mediation allows for “profit protecting” surveillance. First, just like the popular smartphone applications which allow individuals to monitor their property while away from their homes or apartments, business owners may not only monitor their property but also the individuals tasked with facilitating the sale of their property. Second, a business owner could easily isolate which employees are not performing as efficiently as they should by simply tracking sales. If given the reasonable amount of expected sale, whether determined by season and time of day or by the ratio of sales to customer traffic, etc. business owners can determine when their property is not being sold as efficiently as it should be. Lastly, then, business owners may use technology to surveil those particular employees who are working during the times when business operations are not as efficient as they should be. In doing so, business owners could learn what these employees are doing “wrong.”

Notice, if such surveillance is framed as a “teaching opportunity,” then an employer could construe the whole surveillance operation as benevolent and caring, without even needing to mention “profit protection.” However, to whatever extent there would be a calculation involved to justify the use of management time to surveil such employees, then the notion of “profit protection” could be easily revealed as operable, despite denial on the part of the business. In either case, notice how the surveillance of such employees seems to justify such “micro-managing” as questioning sales techniques, and such a technologically-mediated relation to the employee would extend all the way to monitoring what employees say and how they say it. After all, even an employee’s relation to customers, if understood in terms of cybernetics[2] (cf. Scalambrino, 2014 & 2015b) may be quantified in terms of variables which correlate with successful sales. Thus, a business owner may be seen protecting profit by micro-managing the facial expressions, tone of voice, and suggestions made by their employees.

On the one hand, if all this is beginning to sound as if technologically-mediated business may make employee management and relations into a kind of video game (such as, for example, “the Sims”), then you are following the argument of this article.[3] On the other hand, there are three points to keep in mind. First, it would be too cumbersome to conduct such management and relations to employees, as if they were Sims, without technological mediation. Second, notice how framing the micro-management associated with such surveillance in terms of “profit protection” makes the enterprise sound like good (cybernetic) science and a wise business investment. Third, we will consider the question: How does such surveillance and micro-managing affect employees and relate to the constitution of their employee-identity? As we will see, whereas the second point may be rightfully characterized in terms of the efficiency of an employee in regard to the performance of assigned tasks, the third, which we will characterize in terms of the “dignity of the person” who is the employee, is not a simple question to answer. Moreover, as we shall see, the efficiency made possible by technological mediation seems to have tipped the balance in favor of efficiency over dignity.

The Conflict Between Efficiency and Dignity

There are a number of ways to articulate the conflict between efficiency[4] and dignity, and in doing so a distinction may be made between the rationale and the value[5] of such micro-managing and surveillance of employees through technological mediation. Privileging efficiency, it may be argued that the feelings and self-identity of an employee need not be included in the concerns of a reasonable business owner. In this way, it may be said that business owner’s need not include concerns for employee feelings and self-identity in their rationale for implementing various surveillance and management practices. Yet, insofar as employee feelings and self-identity have value which can be correlated with profit, then it becomes an issue of efficiency to control these variables as much as possible. That is to say, a cost/benefit analysis may be called for in which the impact of such variables on profit could be determined.

Considering profit necessary to sustain a business, a cost/benefit analysis of the appropriate relation to employee dignity can be quite complicated. For the purposes of this article, consider the following possibilities. The value of privileging dignity may run directly counter to “profit protection.” That is to say, venturing into the dimension of surveilling employees to promote various dignity-related psychological features may seem counter-intuitive, not only because a certain amount of disgruntlement may be constitutionally the norm for some individuals but also because it may be difficult to control the cost of sustaining such a workplace environment. Further, it is not immediately clear whether surveilling, micro-managing, and subsequently firing an employee for their inability to sustain a profit margin may not be in the best interest of the dignity of the employee. Whereas it may be more consistent with “profit protection” to screen potential employees for job aptitude, rather than hire individuals and subsequently surveil them for aptitude, to determine for an individual that they are not good at performing a task may be seen as providing helpful guidance consistent with respecting their dignity.

The “helpful guidance” framing of firing an employee is reminiscent of the “teaching opportunity” framing of surveillance and micro-management. In other words, though it may seem intuitively beneficial for an employer to appear to its employees as concerned with employee dignity in its various rationales for investing in surveillance and micro-managing, again it seems concern for profit would be the ultimate determining factor in whether the costs associated with maintaining such an appearance to its employees constitutes a good investment for the business. Moreover, on the one hand, it could be construed as a kind of alternative compensation, so business owners could justify keeping larger amounts of profit, e.g. “At our workplace managers will work with you to ensure you love your job.” On the other hand, establishing a workplace in which it is a requirement of employment that employees appear happy at all times may be considered unreasonably oppressive.

Hence, it seems even if a business were to remain neutral in expressing rationale for its actions regarding dignity, there may be a spectrum along which businesses cannot help but be placed regarding how they value employee dignity. On the end of the spectrum privileging efficiency would be located automatons, resulting from analyses and established through an investment in future profit; on the end of the spectrum privileging dignity would be autonomous persons, perhaps involved in a “profit-sharing” business.

Autonomy and Self-Awareness: The Scope of Simulation

There are three (3) distinctions which are now classic in the history of Western philosophy, which will help articulate the conflict between efficiency and dignity. These distinctions come from Immanuel Kant’s (1724-1804) ethics. The three distinctions are: the “three natural pre-dispositions to the good,” the “principle of ends” (as the second formulation of Kant’s famous Categorical Imperative), and the difference between “a person of good morals” and “a morally good person.”[6]

Building on Aristotle’s divisions of the soul, Kant distinguishes between the “animal,” “human,” and “personal” dimensions. Each of these dimensions has a corresponding type of “self-love,” which individuals use to determine self-worth. At the level of animality, self-love is “mechanical” and determined by physical pleasure. Individuals centered on this level determine the value of their existence by how much physical pleasure they experience in life. At the level of humanity, self-love is “comparative.” This is due to the fact that rationality cannot help but determine ratios. Individuals centered on this level determine the value of their existence by comparing aspects of their lives to the lives of others.

Finally, at the level of personality, according to Kant, the “predisposition to personality is the capacity for respect for the moral law as in itself a sufficient incentive of the will.” (Kant, 1960: 34). Thus fully actualized individuals determine their self-worth as “a rational and at the same time an accountable being” (Ibid), and the difference most relevant for our discussion is the sense in which a person has self-respect beyond the natural human tendency to compare oneself with others. In other words, though someone has more money or better possessions than you (cf. Epictetus, 1998: §6), you may value yourself in terms of your disciplined harmony with right living. Insofar as “right living” is meaningful, then its truth and reality precedes an individual’s acceptance of it. That is to say, it is true that touching the hot stovetop will hurt you, prior to your touching it and independent of your beliefs regarding it.

Hence, there are two conclusions to be drawn here. First, “dignity of the person” is meaningful, whether the self-respect associated with it is actualized by individuals or not. Second, “dignity” refers to the self-actualization which corresponds (as we will see more completely in a moment) with the highest natural capacity for living in humans. That is to say, individuals who have not actualized the personal dimension, and thereby self-respect, are individuals who are not living the most excellent life available to humans.

Two brief references to other philosophers may be helpful here for clarification. In regard to the second point, Friedrich Nietzsche’s (1844-1900) statement, “the seal of liberty” is “no longer being ashamed in front of yourself” (1974: 220) need not be understood as a philosophy of “anything goes,” but rather may be understood as indicating liberation from a life of self-shaming in regard to a comparison with the rest of humanity. Further, the first point, above, invokes a classic passage in Plato’s Republic where Socrates notes that rulers (i.e. employers and bosses) “in the precise sense” are people who “care for others” (Plato, 1997: 340d). This is, of course, juxtaposed with the definition of justice offered by Thrasymachus, namely, that “Rulers make laws to their own advantage.” (Ibid: 338c).

The next distinction from Kant is his “principle of ends.” This is the second formulation of his famous “Categorical Imperative,” and it suggests you should act in such a way “that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.” (Kant, 2002: 38). On the one hand, notice how this suggests we should not use others as a means to determine our own self-worth.  On the other hand, it also points to the dignity of persons as ends in themselves. That is to say, the principle of ends suggests a person should not use others in such a way that it is merely for utility. As we will see, for Kant this goes beyond J.S. Mill’s “principle of liberty”[7] in that to treat another person—even a consenting person—merely as a means, and thereby not as a self-respecting person, may be construed as a kind of harm to their person insofar as their ability to self-actualize their personhood is conditioned by their capacity for self-respect.

The final distinction from Kant, then, is the one between “a person of good morals” and “a morally good person” (cf. Scalambrino, 2016c). What is fascinating about this distinction is that it is not in terms of the actual action that the different types of individuals perform. Both persons may perform the same action; however, the latter type of person is motived in terms of the self-respect of personhood, and the former is motived in terms of a different pre-disposition to goodness. Notice that because all of the pre-dispositions are “to the good,” it is not in terms of the goodness of the action that its performance should be evaluated. Rather, it is the motivation that determines which performance of the action is better. This will be important for the thesis of this article, as there is no attempt being made to suggest that profit is “not good.”

To synthesize these distinctions from Kant, notice he believes the “morally good person” is freer and is existentially-situated better than the “person of good morals.” Further, he thinks the “morally good person” is living a more excellent life than the “person of good morals,” and all of this is despite the fact that both individuals may be performing the same actions. How is this the case?

Because the three pre-dispositions to the good constitute a hierarchy, in order for an individual to actualize the highest capacity, i.e. for personhood, the existentially-prior capacities must first be actualized.[8] This means “personhood” is a higher excellence than mere “humanity,” and personhood is existentially-situated in a better way, therefore, since the person has a wider horizon of evaluation available to it than in terms of mere humanity. For example, even if someone merely at the level of humanity were hoping for the best means to manipulate others, having a wider horizon of evaluation would provide a wider range of potential justifications, i.e. this may be seen in the attempt to suggest that profit-driven surveillance is somehow for the benefit of the surveilled—when the motivation determining the performance of the action is clearly “profit protection.”

In order to understand how the “morally good person” also lives the better life, a brief reference to Aristotle’ Nicomachean Ethics may be helpful. As Aristotle goes through the various types of life in his search to discover the best life for humans, he notes, “The life of money-making is one undertaken under compulsion, and wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else.” (2009: 1096a5). The idea here is that to ask regarding the natural purpose of human life is to ask what human life is in itself, i.e. as an end for itself and not as a means to be expended for something else. This points directly to the synthesis of Kant’s distinctions as a justifying how the “morally good person” lives the better, i.e. the most excellent life available to humans, in that the natural presence and hierarchical order of the dispositions suggests that life was made to fully actualize itself.[9] To be fully-actualized means to actualize the highest pre-disposition, which is the predisposition in which life treats itself as an end in itself, whether in its own person or in that of another, and thereby constitutes the dignity of personhood thru its self-respect.[10]

Lastly, notice how the above explication of Kant’s ethics regarding the dignity of personhood may be characterized in terms of “self-awareness” and “autonomy.” Because the individual who has actualized the capacity for personhood may relate to itself in terms of a greater number of dimensions than the “person of good morals” who is not performing actions with the full[11] actualization of their self. In this way, the “morally good person,” in expressing the self-respect associated with the dignity of personhood, is more self-aware. Were this in terms of content, then it would be as if age should determine greatest amount of self-awareness; however, this is in terms of capacity, not content. In a similar way, Kant characterizes the autonomy of an individual, not in terms of content but rather, in terms of relation (cf. Scalambrino, 2016b).

Thus, it is the “autonomy” of the fully actualized person which makes them freer. According to Kant, the “principle of autonomy” is “The principle of every human will as a will giving universal law through all its maxims [i.e. its code of conduct].” (Kant, 2002: 40). Notice, because both the “person of good morals” and the “morally good person” perform the same action, it may be said that they are following the same “law.” However, it is not the following of the law but the relation to the law when following it that differentiates these two types of individuals. In other words, because the “morally good person” understands its self-worth in terms of its accountability to the Natural Moral Law, it is motivated in terms of self-respect exemplary of the dignity of personhood. In this way, this type of person is freely choosing to follow the law. Because other types of individuals have motivations other than the accountability determining personal dignity, their decisions to follow the law are compelled by other motivations. The motivation to follow the law for its own sake is not an additional motive from the motive made possible through the actualization of personhood.

Efficiency and Dignity

In what way does the above section illustrate “the limits of simulation,” and how do the limits of simulation relate to the conflict between efficiency and dignity? Again, it is, of course, technological mediation that conditions the whole problem under discussion. In other words, it is the amount and depth of surveillance made possible today by technological mediation which has allowed for the shift from “loss prevention” to “profit protection.”

On the one hand, the above section helps illustrate that though loss prevention and profit protection may be good, the surveillance of employees for their sake is founded upon a relation in terms of “humanity,” at best, and not “persons.” In other words, it seems to neither treat employees with dignity nor to provide an environment which may help them fully actualize self-respect as an employee. Like “persons of good morals” in Kant, employees under surveillance may perform the right action and the same action that an employee with dignity and self-respect may perform; however, also like “persons of good morals,” employees under surveillance may lack the best motivation to perform their work “duties.”

On the other hand, it is autonomy and self-awareness that limit the scope of possible simulation. What this ultimately means is that if the goal is efficiency, then approaching it through technological mediation, as if to make employees simulations of the desires and knowledge of their employers, may only lead to short-term capped-amounts of efficiency. In other words, it seems consistent with the above Kantian discussion of self-actualization to note that employees who respect themselves as persons who do the kind of work they are employed to do should make for the best employees. That is, long-term efficiency seems predicated upon autonomous employees who are self-aware for their own sake. Simulation is ultimately limited by the lack of autonomy and self-awareness associated with employees motivated at Kant’s level of “humanity,” and even when performing the correct actions, it is as if they do so like “persons of good morals,” not “morally good persons.”

For those who advocate for efficiency, even at the cost of dignity, the above discussion suggests promoting dignity might be a better way to promote efficiency. One, it is inefficient to “micro manage” employees. Two, even with the use of cybernetics and technological mediation to help indicate where such “micro-management” may increase efficiency, such practices may work against efficiency to the extent that they undermine employee dignity. As the above discussion suggests, employee dignity indicates more self-actualization, i.e. a freer and better existentially-situated employee. In this way, though it may be true that if an employee will not be subjected to conditions of technological mediation, perhaps a replacement who would will be easy to find. However, the ease at which individuals with less self-respect and dignity, or with greater compelling conditions, may be found neither resolves the conflict between efficiency and dignity nor does it ensure efficiency.

Excursus: Control & Inauthenticity: Simulation, “Legacy Protection,” and Despair

Some readers of our edited volume Social Epistemology & Technology: Toward Public Self-Awareness Regarding Technological Mediation have recognized, at least, an analogy between society and families in regard to the control for which technological mediation allows. Though we cannot work out every detail here, we can provide a sufficient sketch of the analogy to, if nothing else, provoke deeper thinking and self-awareness regarding the potential effects of technological mediation. In general, this question relates to the chapters located in the second half of Social Epistemology & Technology, and specifically in regard to my chapter “The Vanishing Subject: Becoming Who You Cybernetically Are.” Of particular interest regarding this topic may be the section of that chapter titled “Pro-Techno-Creation: Stepford Children of a Brave New Society (?),” though if read in isolation from the rest of the chapter, that section may seem obscure. Since my second article in this SERRC Special Issue will be devoted to discussing the theme to which the second part of Social Epistemology & Technology was devoted, i.e. the theme of “changing conceptions of humans and humanity,” we will not engage such a discussion in this excursus (cf. Scalambrino, 2015b & 2015c).

In regard to the analogy, “profit protection” is to the use of technological mediation in business as “legacy protection” is to the use of technological mediation in the family. The basic idea is that: just as technological mediation may be used to control employee actions, technological mediation may be used to constitute select attributes of a child (e.g. IVF, PGD, CRISPR-Cas9, etc.) and to promote and sustain a select identity for the child. The motivation may be characterized as “legacy protection,” since the ends afforded by technological mediation constitute a kind of investment made by parents. In this way, the dynamics of the problem we uncovered above concerning employees, employer desires, and technological mediation, manifest analogously in regard to the family. That is to say, the question of the employee’s existential-freedom becomes the question of the child’s existential-freedom, and the dilemma regarding whether to risk losing profit to allow for the individual’s autonomy and increased self-awareness becomes the risk of losing one’s legacy and “investment” in their children.

Given the large cost associated with what amounts to genetically engineering one’s children, it is clear that parents have some goal(s) in mind when selecting various attributes for a child (cf. Marcel, 1962). Whether this initial investment is made or not, some see it as the technologically-mediated equivalent of mate selection; however, notice, whether equivalent or not, the level of control increases significantly thru technological mediation. Beyond the birth of the child, then, there is the question of how to sustain the initial investment made—whether through mate selection or genetic engineering—to ensure “legacy protection.” The idea here is that whatever goal(s) parents have in mind when selecting, perhaps as best they can, various attributes for a child, those goals point to the legacy the parents are attempting to protect.

As the technological mediation of a child’s life increases so too does the potential to surveil and control the child. Since the idea of increasing surveillance should be obvious (e.g. checking to see what websites they view, what they text to friends, GPS of where they go, and so on.) we will focus only on the control piece here. Control is understood here in the sense of limiting the full self-actualization associated with personhood above and discussed through the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. That is to say, if you are able to limit an individual’s self-actualization to the level of “humanity,” then they will continually constitute their identity through comparison with others. Just as I indicated in my second chapter of Social Epistemology & Technology, the way to “lock down” such self-awareness is by “misunderstanding nothing.” What this means is that if you can provide an individual with a worldview that seems to provide an account for everything in terms of that individual’s comparative self-worth to others, then you control that individual’s ability to interpret their own existence.

When this can be anchored through a talent in which the individual excels, then the comparative model may be all the more effective, since the individual seems themselves as “winning” or a “winner” based on an identity which takes itself as able to account for whatever happens in life. The problem, Kant would say, is that the individual is not fully autonomous. The “law” given to them is not of their own choosing. There are a number of ways to use technological mediation to control individuals, and thereby to ensure “legacy protection.” On the one hand, a discussion of inauthenticity and memes would be appropriate here, since it becomes possible to understand the whole enterprise for “legacy protection” as founded upon the comparative understanding; thus, the agency more commonly attributed to the parental desire ensure legacy protection may be attributed to the transmission of the comparative worldview itself from generation to generation—like the transmission of thought memes—in that the parent evidently operates with the same worldview which is successfully engineered into the child should likewise promote that child’s desire to pass on the same worldview that values “legacy protection” to their children, and so on.

In this way, cybernetic theories of human existence function as a kind support for holding individuals at the human level in which self-worth is determined through comparison and self-awareness and autonomy are thereby diminished. What the phrase “cybernetic theories of human existence” refers to is precisely any theory of existence which believes all of existence can be explained. The sense in which such “epistemic closure” misunderstands nothing suggests to the individual’s inhabited by it that it is a worldview that can provide them with the truth in regard to everything (cf. Scalambrino, 2012). “Existentialists,” resist such systemization because it treats life like “a problem to be solved,” rather than (as Kierkegaard phrased it) “a mystery to be lived.” It is worth noting that Kierkegaard characterized such an inauthentic relation to life as “despair” (cf. Scalambrino, 2016b).

Some of the memes that are easy to notice are phrases such as “a gap year.” When an individual looks at the time of existence as though it is merely fulfilling a pre-established form, like a “cookie cutter,” then we should ask: How did that form get there? Notice how the perfect example here would be to invoke the self-understanding of individuals in “third world” locations, and ask what a “gap year” is for them. The idea is not that “gap year” has no reference. Rather, the idea is that individuals who truly believe that their lives are, and should be, following a pre-established pattern are individuals who are neither fully autonomous nor fully self-aware (cf. Marcuse, 1991). Of course, proponents of “legacy protection” may suggest that insofar as the individual in question is not from a “third world” location, then understanding the time of one’s existence in terms of “gap years, etc.” is a privilege to be coveted. Why is it a privilege to be coveted? Perhaps because such a self-understanding is more efficient for the individual to live (and pass on) the privileged existence which is their legacy.

Beyond any technological mediation used to genetically engineer a child, technological mediation helps hold individuals at the human level in which self-worth is determined through comparison by helping to sustain an identity, however explicit it may be to the individual, anchored in a cybernetic worldview. Technological mediation does this in all the ways philosophers have been saying it does this since at least when Plato talked about the technē of “writing” and its effects on human self-understanding. Yet, more to the point, when Heidegger and Jünger discuss the “form” in which humans understand themselves as “standing reserve” or as “workers,” then we can see the insidious influence of technological mediation as twofold. First, the efficiency allowed for by technology becomes an expectation. For example, the expectation is common today that we should have all our email accounts consolidated in an app on a smartphone, so you can receive emails with a level of efficiency as if they were all text messages, etc. Second, the idea that you may have some self-understanding other than legacy “protector” or germ-line “curator” is really just the folly of an inefficient employee or the noise of malfunction in a cybernetic human machine.


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[1] From Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, translated by M. Milligan (1964).

[2] Cybernetics may be understood as a kind of science of life. For our purposes, it refers to a relation to life such that events in life are understood as capable of being fully quantified and subjected to calculations which would render the eventual outcomes predictable. Thus, proponents of such a relation to life tend to hold that the only limitation on the total cybernetic revelation of life is processing power in regard to the requisite quantification and calculation. Its continued relevance for conversations regarding technology and freedom is that if cybernetics is correct, then human freedom is a kind of illusion which results from the inability to calculate (what cybernetics considers to be) the fully deterministic nature of events. In short, according to cybernetics, it would be as if life were a machine with completely calculable motions (cf. Ashby, 2012; cf. Johnston, 2008; cf. Heidegger, 2008; cf. Wiener, 1965).

[3] For those unaware of the “Sims” reference, “The Sims is a video game series in which players “simulate life” by controlling various features of automatons and surveilling their activity. The video game was developed by “EA Maxis” and published by “Electronic Arts.”

[4] For a discussion of “efficiency” as indicative of the “Postmodern Condition,” see Lyotard, 1984.

[5] Cf. Fuller, 2015.

[6] I present the distinctions in this way for the sake of brevity and clarity; however, it should not escape Kant scholars that these three distinctions in essence represent a movement along Kant’s three different formulations of the Categorical Imperative, respectively, i.e. the principle of the law of nature, the principle of ends, and the principle of autonomy.

[7] Mill’s “Liberty Principle” suggests you are at liberty to act as you please so long as you are not harming others, i.e. so long as others consent to the treatment to which your actions subject them.

[8] Before even considering other reasons to justify this claim, notice the word “rational” in Kant’s articulation of the pre-disposition to personality.

[9] In Nietzsche’s language it is “to overcome itself.”

[10] This is, of course, why Kant thinks we naturally have a “duty” to be excellent.

[11] Cf. Scalambrino, 2015a.

Announcing a Special Issue of the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective (SERRC)

The SERRC is the online component of the Taylor & Francis journal Social Epistemology.

“Social epistemology” refers to understanding knowledge and belief as social phenomena from, in part, an inter-disciplinary perspective. The theme of the SERRC Special Issue, to be published in February, 2016 is “technological mediation”. The Special Issue will speak to issues raised in and broadly related to, Social Epistemology & Technology: Toward Public Self-Awareness Regarding Technological Mediation. The book, to be published by Rowman & Littlefield, will be edited by Frank Scalambrino. Dr. Scalambrino will serve as the Special Issue Guest Editor.

Abstracts between 500 and 1,000 words are to be submitted by November 15th 2015.

Notification of acceptance will occur by November 30th 2015.

First drafts (5,000 to 7,000 words) due by January 5th 2016.

Final drafts will be due sometime in February, 2016. As is usual and customary, acceptance of your abstract is no guarantee the final article will be published.

The final article must be of acceptable quality, etc.  Continue Reading…