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Author Information: Alcibiades Malapi-Nelson, Humber College, alci.malapi@outlook.com.

Malapi-Nelson, Alcibiades. “Revisions on a Study of Steve Fuller.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 5 (2019): 16-24.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-48S

Image by antifixus21 via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

The following essay is a substantive revision of Alcibiades Malapi-Nelson’s earlier review of Knowing Humanity in the Social World. You can read that older version at this link.

Francis Remedios and Val Dusek have written a thorough and exhaustive account of Steve Fuller’s work, ranging (mostly) from 2003 to 2017. Fuller’s earlier work was addressed in Remedios’ previous book, Legitimizing Scientific Knowledge (2003) – to which this one is the logical continuation. Back then Remedios introduced the reader to Fuller’s inaugurated field of research, “social epistemology”, encompassing the philosopher’s work from the late 1980’s until the turn of the century.

Given that Steve Fuller is one of the most prolific authors alive, having published (so far) 30 books and hundreds of articles, Remedios & Dusek’s book (as Remedios’ previous book), fill a practical need: It is hard to keep up with Fuller’s elevated rate of production. Indeed, both the seasoned reader and the neophyte to Fuller’s fairly overwhelming amount of writing, will need a panoramic and organic view of his breathtaking scope of research. Remedios & Dusek successfully accomplish the task of providing it.

Part of the beauty of Remedios & Dusek’s book is that the authors masterfully distributed Fuller’s somewhat eclectic intellectual pursuits in various chapters, so that, qua textbook, one can focus on those aspects that one finds relevant to our particular interests. I believe that Remedios & Dusek had precisely this intention: doing a service to the readers via facilitating access to Fuller’s thought in a selective manner.

The Bildung of a Person and Its Concepts

Remedios & Dusek’s book starts with a Foreword by Fuller himself, followed by an Introduction (Ch. 1) by the authors. The bulk of the monograph is comprised by several chapters addressing Fuller’s ideas on Science and Technology Studies (Ch. 2), Social Epistemology (Ch. 3), the University & Interdisciplinarity (Ch. 4), Intelligent Design (Ch. 5), Cosmism & Gnosticism (Ch. 6), and the Proactionary principle (Ch. 7).

There is some connective overlap between chapters. In each one of them, Remedios & Dusek provide an articulated landscape of Fuller’s ideas, the occasional criticism, and a final summary. The book ends up with an appropriately short Conclusion (Ch. 8) and a PostScript (Ch. 9) – an interview’s transcription.

It is worth pointing out that the work is chronologically (and conveniently) in sync with Fuller’s own progressive intellectual development, and thus, the first part roughly focuses on his earlier work, whereas the second part on his later writings.[1]

The first chapter after the Introduction (Chapter 2, “Fuller on Science and Technology Studies” (STS), already provides a cue for a theme that would transfix the arc of Fuller’s thoughts spanning the last decade. As I see it, Steve Fuller is arguably going to extents that some may deem controversial (e.g., his endorsement of some type of Intelligent Design, his backing up of transhumanism, his gradual “coming out” as a Catholic) due to one main reason: A deep preoccupation with the future of humanity vis-à-vis pervasively disrupting emerging technologies.

Accordingly, Fuller wants to fuel a discussion that may eventually salvage whatever we find out that being human consists of – even if this “human” will resemble little the “humans” as we know them now. At this point, the “cue” is not self-evident: Fuller does not like Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network theory.

In Fuller’s view, Latour’s framework triggers both an epistemological and an ethical problem: it diffuses human agency and by extension, responsibility – respectively. Equating human agency with the causal power attributed to the “parliament of things” ultimately reverberates in an erosion of human dignity. Here the cue becomes clearer: It is precisely this human dignity that Fuller will later defend in his attack of Darwinism.

This chapter also articulates Fuller’s views on the neo-Kantian transformation of the unity of “philosophy and science” to a disentangled “philosophy of science”, triggering the role – disliked by him – of the philosopher as “underlabourer” of science. Linked to this chain of events is the critical view of STS’ subsequent degeneration into a merely descriptive pursuit (abandoning its primogenital normative calling).

Finally, the chapter also addresses Fuller’s famous criticism of Thomas Kuhn and support of Karl Popper; his (for some surprising) friendliness with logical positivism; and the perhaps equally famous comparison of the various rings of power within science with the religious disputes of Post-Reformation Christianity.

Humanity Beyond the Human

Chapter 3, “Fuller’s Social Epistemology and Epistemic Agency”, provides a further clue to Fuller’s agenda. Remedios & Dusek coined a sentence that may constitute one of the most succinct, although fundamental, pillars in Steve Fuller’s grand framework: “For Fuller, humanity would continue if homo sapiens end”.[2]

This statement ingeniously captures Fuller’s position that “humanity” (a “project” started during the Medieval Ages and developed during Modernity), is something that homo sapiens earn – or not. Biology might provide a compatible receptacle for this humanity to obtain, but it is by no means an automatic occurrence. One strives to get it – and many in fact fail to reach it.

In the context of this theme, Fuller steers away from an “object-oriented” (social) epistemology to an “agent-oriented” one: Instead of endlessly ruminating about possible theories of knowledge (which would render an accurate picture of the object – social or not), one starts to take into account the possibilities that open up after considering transforming the knowing agent itself. This transition foretells Fuller’s later view: a proactionary approach[3] to experimentation where the agent commits to the alteration of reality – as opposed to a precautionary stance, where the knower passively waits for reality’s feedback before further proceeding.

In chapter 4, “The University and Interdisciplinarity”, Remedios & Dusek treat Fuller’s views on the situation of institutions of higher education currently confronting the relentless compartmentalization of knowledge. Fuller praises Wilhelm von Humboldt’s reinvention of the notion of the university in the 19th century, where the individual would acquire a holistic formation (bildung), and which would produce in return tangible benefits to society out of the growth of knowledge in general and science in particular.

This model, which catapulted Germany to the forefront of research, and which was emulated by several Western nations, has been gradually eroded by neoliberalism. Neoliberal stances, spurred by an attention to clients’ requests, progressively severed the heretofore integral coexistence of research and teaching, creating instead pockets of specialization – along with their own idiosyncratic jargon.

This fragmentation, in turn, has generated an overall ignorance among scientists and intellectuals regarding the “big picture”, which ultimately results in a stagnation of knowledge production. Fuller advocates for a return to the Humboldtian ideal, but this time incorporating technology as in integral part of the overall academic formation in the humanities.

As a proposed solution, and espousing a risk-taking (proactionary) approach, Fuller would assign “Academic Caesars”[4] as heads of universities – namely, people who get into academic management not out of being “failed academicians”, nor because they are poked from corporative realms with cero knowledge about the educational system, but because they successfully merge both outstanding management skills with deep knowledge of universities’ academic structures (likely holding advanced degrees in the two areas).

The Academic Caesar would be in charge of breaking down the barriers built up between disciplines. This task would be primordial, since the current communication breakdowns between disciplines in fact represent an existential threat against the educational institutions themselves, given that hiring corporations gradually find less value added in this hyper-specialized knowledge – tinkering instead with the possibility of cutting the middle man, recruiting people with high IQ’s and “forming” them themselves.

An integrated knowledge constituted by both humanities and technology (which Fuller differentiates from “digital humanities” – the passive translation of humanities into accessible electronic means) would bring an added value in terms of creativity and critical thinking that not only would be deemed attractive to demanding employers of the future, but it would immunize the citizen against a Draconian forthcoming competition against Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the workplace.

Roles for Religion and God

Chapter 5, “Fuller’s Intelligent Design” (ID), deals with the philosopher’s controversial views regarding this position, particularly after the infamous Dover Trial. Remedios & Dusek have done a very good job at tracing the roots and influences behind Fuller’s ideas on the issue. They go all the way back to Epicurus and Hume, including the strong connection between these two and Charles Darwin, particularly in what concerns the role of “chance” in evolution. Those interested in this illuminating philosophical archeology will be well served after reading this chapter, instead of (or as a complement to) Steve Fuller’s two books on the topic.[5]

It would perhaps be best to start pointing out that the infamous ID controversy within Fuller’s work[6]  might have been blown out of proportion. Fuller has expressed, both orally and in writing, that the notion of ID he is sympathetic to is one that refers to the “intelligibility” of phenomena in the universe – the possibility of us understanding a certain finding, discovery or natural mechanism.

The acknowledgment that a particular portion of reality was parsed in such way that it can sync with our cognitive capacities, raises the question regarding whether or not there is some sort of intelligence behind it. The very mark of this intelligence would be our intelligibility of the phenomenon.

This way of presenting the ID position is closer to what some call the “teleological argument” – to which Isaac Newton subscribed: “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.”[7] This is a far cry from, if not the opposite of, the infamous quasi-scientific, right-wing, Sola Scriptura-inspired, Protestant creationism to which ID is unfortunately often associated.

Newton, the natural philosopher who embodied the Scientific Revolution (and thus, by extension, the beginning of Modern Science) shared this view. Three hundred years later, we find ID as underpinning a theoretical framework friendly with deep alterations of nature.

What Intelligent or Intelligible Design Does or Doesn’t Do

Remedios & Dusek, however, maintain that ID has no positive scientific agenda, that all its claims about life and its origins are negations (instead of putting forward testable hypotheses).[8] Perhaps that is to be expected – and a brief consideration of its ID’s character could provide a hint as to why such is the case. On the one hand, ID does not attribute “intelligence” to any entity in particular. It can refer to a divine being, an extra-terrestrial creature or a human being.

They just have to possess, to use Cartesian nomenclature, a sort of res cogitans – which for Descartes included angels. On the other hand, “design” belongs more to the realm of technology (i.e. engineering) than to that of science. Recreating the object of study has been a mark of epistemic success from Giambattista Vico on. It is no coincidence that some nanotechnologists see him as a sort of patron saint.[9]

And this is why ID is found as part of a core “metaphysical research program” behind the so-called Emerging Technologies (or the NBIC Convergence: Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information technology and Cognitive science),[10] the innovative culture of Silicon Valley and the views of several tech billionaire gurus.

In fact, this operating framework behind innovation may constitute one of the best arguments against those who claim that ID’s illustrious heritage does not justify its recognition as an epistemic meta-force in science.[11] If “Intelligent Design”, now at the hands of humans, aiming at the modification of nature towards our betterment, is what is behind technology innovators who actually make things work, how much does the complaints of older philosophers really matter?

Chapter 6, “Fuller, Cosmism and Gnosticism” lays out the relationship of the philosopher with these two themes. Steve Fuller recognizes in Russian cosmism an important predecessor to transhumanism – along with the writings of the mystical Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin.

Fuller is lately catering to a re-emergence of interest among Slavs regarding these connections, giving talks and seminars in Russia. Cosmism, a heterodox offspring of Russian Orthodoxy, aims at a reconstruction of the (lost) paradise by means of reactivation of a type of “monads” spread-out throughout the universe – particles that disperse after a person dies.

Scientific progress would be essential in order to travel throughout the cosmos retrieving these primordial “atoms” of people of the past, so that they could be one day resurrected. Russia would indeed have a cosmic ordering mission. This worldview is a particular rendition of the consequences of Christ’s Resurrection, which was denounced by the Orthodox Church as heretical.

Nevertheless, it deeply influenced several Slavic thinkers, who unlike many Western philosophers, did have a hard time reconciling their (Orthodox) Christianity with reason and science. This syncretism was a welcomed way for them to “secularize” the mystical-prone Christian Orthodoxy and infuse it with scientific inquiry. As a consequence, rocket science received a major thrust for development. After all, machines had to be built in order to retrieve these human particles so that scientifically induced global resurrection occurs.

One of the more important global pioneers in rocket engines, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (who later received approval by Joseph Stalin to further develop space travel research), was profoundly influenced by it. In fact, increasingly more scholars assert that despite the official atheism of the Soviet Union, cosmism was a major driving force behind the Soviet advances, which culminated in the successful launch of the Sputnik.

Engaging Proactionary Thinking

Chapter 7, “Proactionary and Precautionary Principles and Welfare State 2.0”, is the last chapter before the Conclusion. Here Remedios & Dusek deal with Fuller’s endorsement of Max More’s Proactionary Principle and the consequent modified version of a Welfare State.

The proactionary approach, in contradistinction with the precautionary principle (which underpins much of science policy in Europe), advocates for a risk-taking approach, justified partly in the very nature of Modern science (experimentation without excessive red tape) and partly in what is at stake: the survival of our species. Fuller further articulates the proactionary principle, having written a whole book on the subject[12] – while More wrote an article.

Steve Fuller’s general endorsement of transhumanism is not uncritical. A representative issue that does not sit easy in Fuller’s mind is the question of those humans that choose to remain “unimproved” in a future where individual amelioration becomes normalized – perhaps even “reasonably” imposed (not unlike today’s children’s vaccination).

Indeed, Fuller forcefully brought up this issue during his 2016 Budapest debate with Zoltan Istvan.[13] The future situation of those persons who choose staying unenhanced, in a “human 1.0” state, brings me to my last point. A framework of “reasonable accommodation” to these minorities (which might actually constitute high numbers, just as some conceptions qualify women as a minority) will have to be worked out. After all, some hardcore luddites, such as the Amish, are still around.

In this context, Remedios & Dusek bring up Fuller’s involvement in the StarArk project: an attempt to construct a future self-sustaining mega spaceship that will make of humans an interplanetary species and which may justify the said enhancements for interstellar travel.[14] Remedios & Dusek characterize Fuller’s endorsement of this project as an elitist attempt to pick and choose only (or mostly) those “enhanced”, for perpetuating the species:

Perhaps the StarArk would only be able to accommodate a Strangelovian elite of proactionary Uebermenschen adventurers, leaving the ecologists, precautionaries, and most other benighted humans to perish.[15]

This occurs in the penultimate paragraph, where the authors probably could not resist finally coming out as precautionaries. It is a good point. However, Fuller also advocates for the defense of minorities in a transhuman world, even giving them opportunities for contributing to the betterment of the whole species. For instance, he supports the idea of sending the elderly to space.[16]

Of course, on the one hand, there is not much they could lose. But on the other, they could live their last years of a human 1.0 lifestyle in space peace, just as we now regard with admiration the well polished and carefully refurbished American cars of the 60’s still circulating in La Havana. In that regard, indeed the opposite of the alleged neo-Nietzschean supermen would be sent to the stars.

The Roles of This Book

Remedios & Dusek have done an excellent job in summarizing, articulating and criticizing the second half of Steve Fuller’s vast corpus – from the early 2000s until last year. I foresee a successful reception by thinkers concerned with the future of humanity and scholars interested in Fuller’s previous work. As a final note, I will share a sentiment that will surely resonate with some – particularly with the younger readers out there.

As noted in the opening remarks, Remedios & Dusek’s book fill a gap in what concerns the possibility of acquiring an articulated overview of Fuller’s thought, given his relentless rate of publication. However, the sheer quantity to keep up with is not the only issue. These days, more than “the written word” may be needed in order to properly capture the ideas of authors of Fuller’s calibre. As I observed elsewhere,[17] reading Fuller is a brilliant read – but it is not an easy read.

It may be fair to say that, as opposed to, say, the relatively easy reading of an author like Steven Pinker, Steve Fuller’s books are not destined to be best-sellers among laymen. Fuller’s well put together paragraphs are both sophisticated and precise, sometimes long, paying witness to an effort for accurately conveying his multi-layered thought processes – reminding one of some German early modern philosophers.

Fortunately, there is now a solid source of clarity that sheds effective light on Fuller’s writing: his available media. There are dozens of video clips (and hundreds of audio files[18]) of his talks, freely available to anyone. It may take a while to watch and listen to them all, but it is doable. I did it. And the clarity that they bring to his writings is tangible.

If Fuller is a sophisticated writer, he certainly is a very clear (and dare I say, entertaining) speaker. His “talking” functions as a cognitive catalyst for the content of his “writing” – in that, he is arguably returning to the Humboldtian ideal of merged research and teaching. Ideally, if one adds to these his daily tweets,[19] now we have at reach the most complete picture of what would be necessary to properly “get” a philosopher like him these days. I have the feeling that, regardless of our settled ways, this “social media” component, increasingly integrated with any serious epistemic pursuit, is here to stay.

Contact details: alci.malapi@outlook.com

References

Brain Bar (2016). Human vs Artificial. Steve Fuller and Zoltan Istvan. Budapest, Hungary. Available at: http://brainbar.com/video/human-vs-artificial.

Fuller, S. (2007). Science Vs. Religion?: Intelligent Design and the Problem of Evolution. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Fuller, S. (2008). Dissent Over Descent: Intelligent Design’s Challenge to Darwinism. Cambridge, UK: Icon.

Fuller, S. (2014). The Proactionary Imperative: A Foundation for Transhumanism. Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fuller, S. (2015). “Embracing Transhumanism.” Talk given at the Stevens Institute of Technology on 25 Mar 2015. Available (item 107) at: www.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/sociology/staff/sfuller/media/audio.

Fuller, S. (2016). The Academic Caesar: University Leadership is Hard. London, UK: SAGE.

Horgan, J. (2015).  “Steve Fuller and the Value of Intellectual Provocation” Scientific American. March 27, 2015. Available at: www.blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/steve-fuller-and-the-value-of-intellectual-provocation.

Jung, R. (2005). “Postmodern systems theory: A phase in the quest for a general system.” In E. Kiss (Hg.). Postmoderne und/oder Rationalität (pp. 86–93). Kodolányi János Főiskola, Székesfehérvár.

Lynch, W. (2016a). “Cultural Evolution and Social Epistemology: A Darwinian Alternative to Steve Fuller’s Theodicy of Science.” Social Epistemology 31(2): 1-11.

Malapi-Nelson, A. (2013). “Book review: Steve Fuller, Humanity 2.0: What it Means to be Human Past, Present and Future.” International Sociology Review of Books 28(2): 240-247.

Malapi-Nelson, A. (2017). The Nature of the Machine and the Collapse of Cybernetics: A Transhumanist Lesson for Emerging Technologies. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.

Newton, I. (1687). The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. (B. Cohen, A. Whitman, & J. Budenz, Trans.). Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 1999.

Remedios, F. and Dusek, V. (2018). Knowing Humanity in the Social World: The Path of Steve Fuller’s Social Epistemology. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

[1] With the exception of the PostScript, which is a transcription of an interview with Steve Fuller mostly regarding the first period of his work.

[2] Remedios & Dusek 2018, p. 34

[3] Remedios & Dusek 2018, p. 40

[4] Fuller 2016

[5] Fuller 2007 and Fuller 2008

[6] Fuller 2007 and Fuller 2008

[7] Newton 1687, Book III, General Scholium

[8] Remedios & Dusek 2018, p. 79

[9] Malapi-Nelson 2017, p. 248; Jung 2005

[10] Malapi-Nelson 2017, ch. 10

[11] Lynch 2016a, p.2

[12] Fuller 2014

[13] BrainBar 2016

[14] This idea was, in fact, at the core of the first transhumanist proposals as such, during the first half of the 20th century. Cf. Malapi-Nelson 2017, pp. 227-237.

[15] Remedios & Dusek 2018, p. 119

[16] Fuller 2015, Horgan 2015

[17] Malapi-Nelson 2013

[18] warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/sociology/staff/sfuller/media/audio

[19] Some of which are reproduced by Remedios & Dusek 2018 (e.g. p. 102).

Author Information: Gregory Sandstrom, Arena Blockchain, gregory.sandstrom@gmail.com.

Sandstrom, Gregory. “Is Blockchain an ‘Evolutionary’ or ‘Revolutionary’ Technology, and So What If It Is?: Digitally Extending Satoshi Nakamoto’s Distributed Ledger Innovation.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 3 (2019): 17-49.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references, and includes the full text of the article. Shortlink, Part One: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-47f. Shortlink: Part Two: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-47m

Image by Tiger Pixel via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Ideological Blockchain Evolutionism

There is also a position held that promotes what I call ‘ideological evolutionism’ in insisting that blockchain must be called a particularly ‘evolutionary’ phenomenon. This appears to be due largely to a broader ideological framework to which the authors are already committed.

This view requires either that blockchain should not be seen as a ‘revolutionary’ technology or use ideas available in literature produced by academics that promote something akin to the ‘evolution of everything,’ i.e. that ‘everything evolves’ based on the logic that ‘everything changes.’ This ideology is professed in the works of Matt Ridley and David Sloan Wilson among others.

Patrick T. Harker, President and Chief Executive Officer for the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, tells us that, “banking evolved its products and appendages just like the first single-cell organisms evolved fins and gills and eventually feet and legs.” (2017: 4) Here an analogy with the origins of life and animals implies that blockchain is an innovation of almost mythical proportion. Though it may surprise the people who use ‘evolution’ colloquially to hear this, not a few people actually do link the rise of blockchain to a broader understanding of life, human existence and their general worldview.

One of the most well-known ideological blockchain evolutionists is Naval Ravikant, co-founder of Angel List. “The Evolution of Everything by Matt Ridley, one of my favorite authors,” tells Ravikant. “If I can’t verify it on my own or if I cannot get there through science, then it may be true, it may be false, but it’s not falsifiable so I cannot view it as a fundamental truth. On the other side, I do know that evolution is true. I do know that we are evolved as survival and replication machines. I do know that we have an ego so that we get up off the ground and worms don’t eat us and we actually take action.” Ravikant also appeared on a podcast with Tim Ferris using a title “The Evolutionary Angel[1].” In short, Ravikant says, “I think almost everything about humans and human civilization is explained better by evolution than anything else[2].” To clarify what he means, he says,

“I use evolution as my binding principle in that it can explain a lot about how we behave towards each other and why we do certain things. / Ignoring that your genes want you to live in a certain way is a delusion that is going to hurt you. / I think a lot of modern society can be explained through evolution. One theory is that civilization exists to answer the question of who gets to mate. If you look around, from a purely sexual selection perspective, sperm is abundant and eggs are scarce. It’s an allocation problem. How do you choose which sperm gets the egg? / Literally all of the works of mankind and womankind can be traced down to people trying to solve that problem.”[3]

In short, we see an attempt at the ‘naturalisation’ of blockchain technology based on ideology or worldview, rather than ‘science.’

Similarly, but with a more academic focus, Chris Berg et al. (2018) are promoting an institutional evolutionary approach that mixes together ‘development’ with ‘evolution’. They ask: “How do blockchain protocols develop? How do they evolve? It is useful to see the development of blockchain innovation through the entrepreneurial innovation literature. Each sequential adaptation of a blockchain represents a new economic organisation, such as a firm.” (Ibid: 3)

For them, “Blockchain protocols offer us an evolutionary window into institutional change. The protocols are evolving under variation, replication and selection conditions, and researchers have a near complete and comprehensive window into those changes.” (Ibid: 10) This choice of terms follows on the work of Donald T. Campbell who attempted to apply Darwinian principles regarding biology to the human world, using the controversial notion of ‘blind variation and selective retention’ (cf. the Darwinian notion of ‘random mutation and natural selection’), which at the same time dislocates humanity’s power of choice by removing the teleological impulse[4] that is present in non-evolutionary and trans-evolutionary (Sandstrom 2016) viewpoints.

Nick Szabo is a major figure in blockchain space, perhaps most known for his coinage of the term ‘smart contract.’ Szabo is also somewhat prolific in his use of the term ‘evolution’ when it comes to cultural artefacts. He writes, “Common law is a highly evolved system of security for persons and property.” This draws on his general belief that, “Over many centuries of cultural evolution has emerged both the concept of contract and principles related to it, encoded into common law. Algorithmic information theory suggests that such evolved structures are often prohibitively costly to recompute. If we started from scratch, using reason and experience, it could take many centuries to redevelop sophisticated ideas like property rights that make the modern free market work.”

Szabo, however, notes that, “the digital revolution is radically changing the kinds of relationships we can have. … New institutions, and new ways to formalize the relationships that make up these institutions, are now made possible by the digital revolution. I call these new contracts ‘smart,’ because they are far more functional than their inanimate paper-based ancestors.” (1996) At the same time, he reminds us that, “Societies have evolved institutions such as firms and competitive markets to set prices, legal precedents and judicial proceedings to make judgments, and so forth.” (2002) Thus, we are proposed with a digital revolution happening inside of a broadly evolutionary version of human history.

Kartik Hegadekatti (2017) believes that, “Man has not only evolved biologically and culturally but also economically. Human economy has grown over many centuries through continuous addition of value. This value addition has been an evolutionary factor as it has influenced the formation of the main economic sectors-namely Primary, Secondary and Tertiary. Recently after the advent of Blockchain technology, Bitcoin achieved Gold parity. This paper analyses whether such an event will have any impact on the evolution of our economies.”

He suggests that,

“Man first settled down for agriculture, and started the process of economic and social development. In fact, this event led to conditions where mankind could experiment and evolve new economic and social systems. Earlier, during the hunter-gatherer phase, there were very few niche specialties. A hunter had to sharpen his [sic] own spear and go to hunt with the group. Once man settled down, distribution and differentiation of labor started. Villages sprang up where there were blacksmiths, cattle herders, and traders etc. who became part of the then-nascent human society.” (2017: 3)

Further, he writes that, “Consequently we may witness an explosion in technology entities, akin to the industrial revolution; A Technology Revolution. This may culminate in the creation of a truly Artificial Intelligence (as investment and research into Data analytics and automation technology will increase, thanks to investment in Blockchain Technology) leading to Technological Singularity.” (Ibid: 6)

In this final example of ideological blockchain evolutionism, we notice the author predicting a ‘Technological Singularity’ (cf. Ray Kurzweil’s dystopian scenario for humanity), which presents a kind of teleological goal and aim for human-machine interaction. Proponents of blockchain development who share this view may thus somehow still believe in technological revolutions that happen within a broader worldview in which everything, inevitably, is always and everywhere evolving.

Digitally Extending Blockchain

“The idea of cultural evolution strikes me as nothing but a dodge to put off the work of doing th[e] thinking, a piece of displacement activity brought in to dodge the conflict. It is not the right way to grasp the continuity between human and non-human nature. We need to drop it and find a better path[5].” – Mary Midgley (1984)

“Practitioners should be skeptical of claims of revolutionary technology.”

– Arvind Naryanan and Jeremy Clark (2017)

After having considered the ways various people write about blockchain as a constantly changing and ‘evolving’ technology, potentially a ‘revolutionary’ one, in this section I will offer an additional approach to blockchain development. My view is that blockchain technology is an example of a ‘social machine[6]‘ (Berners-Lee 1999) that most closely resembles the educational and agricultural extension movements from the late 19th and 20th centuries, which continue around the world today.

It is not necessary and can even be harmful or at least restrictive to use ‘evolutionary’ language to describe this alternative approach. In the current 21st century, we can thus consider the emergence and development of blockchain as a form of ‘digital extension services,’ which I will briefly elaborate on below and further in a forthcoming book chapter (Bailetti IGI, 2019).

The first thing to realise in order to make a simple yet crucial shift in language is that ‘change’ is the master category, not ‘evolution’ or ‘revolution’. That is to say that both evolution and revolution require change to happen, but change need not be either evolutionary or revolutionary. That is what makes change the master category over both evolution and revolution.

This basic semantic point serves an aim to help curb the rampant over-use and exaggeration of the ‘biological theory of evolution’ into the field of technology development that at the same time largely avoids identifying non-evolutionary or trans-evolutionary (Sandstrom 2017c) types of change. Instead, properly identifying the master category reveals that the intended new directions of social and cultural change due to blockchains are happening less rapidly and possibly also less disruptively compared to what many ‘blockchain revolution’ proponents enthusiastically claim.

Here it is worth noting that blockchain technology is based on not a few prior innovations, which when taken into account make it appear less revolutionary and more step-wise logically sequential. Such is the case that Naryanan and Clark make in their impressive paper “Bitcoin’s Academic Pedigree (2017). In it they state that, “many proposed applications of blockchains, especially in banking, don’t use Nakamoto consensus. Rather, they use the ledger data structure and Byzantine agreement, which, as shown, date to the ’90s. This belies the claim that blockchains are a new and revolutionary technology.” (Ibid)

They continue, concluding that, “most of the ideas in bitcoin that have generated excitement in the enterprise, such as distributed ledgers and Byzantine agreement, actually date back 20 years or more. Recognize that your problem may not require any breakthroughs—there may be long-forgotten solutions in research papers.” (Ibid) While nevertheless celebrating the significant achievement that Satoshi Nakamoto made in bringing multiple previous innovations together into Bitcoin, Naryanan and Clark reveal how the ‘revolutionary’ language of some proponents of blockchain can be considered as an exaggeration that avoids its historical precursors and likewise neglects the ‘shoulders of giants’ on which Nakamoto stood.

Junking the Blockchain Hype

Instead of either ‘evolution’ or ‘revolution,’ the alternative term ‘extension’ identifies inherently teleological, intentional and goal-oriented change-over-time. This term also adds considerable untapped value in connecting directly with the history of educational extension and agricultural extension mentioned in the introduction.

In both cases, the extension of knowledge, training and scientific innovations from centres to margins and from people in cities and at research institutes to people in rural areas around the world without convenient access to educational institutions has opened new opportunities for social learning and overall human development[7].

Thus, blockchain framed as an example of ‘digital extension services’ provides an analogy with applications for business, finance, governance[8], military[9], education, agriculture[10], cultural heritage[11], and any and all other institutions in society that may make use of peer-to-peer transaction-based systems that can be measured with data collection.

Burton Swanson et al. define ‘extension’ as “the organized exchange of information and the purposive transfer of skills.” (1997) It was such intentional diffusion of creative innovation and knowledge sharing that led to a worldwide movement of ‘extensionsists’ and ‘extension agents,’ that has arguably become the greatest social impact force, both personally and institutionally, perhaps alongside of universities, football (soccer) and major religions, that the world has ever known and experienced.

This is why I believe a discussion now of blockchain as ‘digital extension services’ is particularly ripe for exploration and why the regularly repeated question of whether or not blockchain is an ‘evolution or revolution’ is not currently as important. If blockchain is going to become a ‘revolutionary’ technology in the digital era, an ‘internet of trust,’ then it will require require some kind of individual and social ‘extension’ motif with goals, aims and purposes in mind in order to achieve this.

At the same time it appears crucial, however, to openly reject ‘evolutionary’ approaches to blockchain as if believing that the origin of Bitcoin did not happen as the result of a random and undirected process that was simply a result of external ‘environmental pressures’ (cf. blind variation and selective retention). Rather, Bitcoin and the technology now known as ‘blockchain’ were created intentionally by a pseudonymous programmer and cryptographer in 2008, with the first Bitcoin mined on January 3, 2009.

If Satoshi Nakamoto’s intentional creation is not credited as such, then an invitation to future blockchain chaos without planning or purpose will be the likely result. In short, an ‘evolutionary’ origins story for blockchain falls short of validity and simply makes no logical sense. Instead, more goal-oriented and teleological discussion is needed about where we are now heading through the use of distributed ledgers, which indeed may bring highly transformative social change to people around the world through digital peer-to-peer interactions.

Investment in Revolution

The question of whether or not blockchain is potentially a ‘revolutionary’ technology and what impact it will have on society raises many difficult questions to answer. To some degree it must involve speculative futuristics. The promises of ‘decentralisation’ and the removal of intermediaries (disintermediation) from digital social transactions that happen across borders and nations using the internet has led to what can be called ‘centre-phobia,’ or the fear of centralised institutions of social, economic and political power. Some proponents of blockchain are even calling for ‘leaderless democracy[12],’ which sounds more utopian and radical than what mainstream blockchain builders are aiming for.

The blockchain feature of having a timestamped, immutable record has many implications, including for deterrence of online criminal activity and financial fraud detection[13]. While much of the zeal for Bitcoin in the early years involved illicit use through the Silk Road website involving weapons, drugs, human trafficking and various nefarious schemes, other non-criminal uses of distributed ledger for ‘social impact[14]‘ soon started to arise that pushed the boundaries of what peer-to-peer networking and transacting around the world could enable.

All of these changes require the intentional and ‘signed’ (cf. key signatures) use of blockchain systems, where users must agree to accept the rules and regulations of the ledger community’s ‘Genesis Block’ in order to participate. Again, the language of ‘extension’ based on individual and social choices seems more suitable than outsourcing the conversation to biological or even environmental language.

To enable easily distinguishing ‘non-evolutionary’ change and ‘development’ from ‘evolutionary’ change, we may simply consider the effects of intentionality, purpose and aim[15]. When we explore the directions and trajectories that blockchain DLT is headed, we mean that people are consciously developing and building it and/or purchasing crypto-assets and digital currencies, i.e. they are ‘extending’ the innovation made by Satoshi Nakamoto with new applications.

Rest assured, however, with this new terminology in hand this does not necessarily mean that any one person knows, or even that it can be known exactly for certain, in which direction(s) blockchain is headed, such that a single person, group or institution can ‘control’ it, as Carter rightly identified above. Yet, while most people cautiously say they do not now know and cannot predict where blockchain is headed in the future, those who are actually building blockchains now should properly be given credit for their work and not left out of the conversation as if their plans are irrelevant to the eventual outcome of the technology’s growth.

Indeed, the goals, aims, visions and plans of many blockchain builders and investors will determine the trajectory of blockchain development; they are the ones who are now ‘in control’ of where the technology is headed since Satoshi Nakamoto has disappeared from public[16].

Similarly, the perspective which holds that all change that is gradual, rather than rapid, therefore, according to biological precedent, automatically counts as ‘evolutionary,’ turns out to be both false and unnecessary upon closer investigation. French Nobel prize winner in Medicine, François Jacob suggested that, “Natural selection does not work as an engineer works. It works like a tinkerer — a tinkerer who does not know exactly what he is going to produce but uses whatever he finds around him… to produce some kind of workable object[17].”

Yet with blockchain the ‘human selection[18]‘ or ‘human extension’ of technology is being done by software developers, legal experts and innovation leaders with particular practical goals and business solutions in mind, even if ‘tinkering’ is the method by which the development occurs. The key is that people are actively involved in plotting the trajectory of blockchain growth and application, in contra-distinction with the mere anthropomorphic appearance (design) of biological change over time.

It simply does not make sense, therefore, when speaking about blockchain technology to use the language of a biologist like Dawkins, who suggested based largely upon a reactionary view, that ‘natural selection,’ “has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind’s eye. It does not plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all. If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker.” (1986: 5) Instead, with blockchain, it is our deep sense of purpose, vision, foresight, and planning that will result in new opportunities to apply the technology in potentially beneficial and effective social and cultural, economic and political configurations.

Indeed, the all-too-human sense of vision and deliberate drive, even if the direction was not always entirely clear and involved a kind of groping for solutions towards an unknown future; this is what enabled Satoshi Nakamoto to bring together past innovations, to ideate, code and eventually build a technological, legal framework and community for Bitcoin users in the first place.

To write this off according to a non-inventive theory of biological evolution that has no foresight or personal agency is to unnecessarily reduce and even dangerously dehumanise the conversation about blockchain in a disparaging way. Instead, I believe that aiming to uplift the conversation involving blockchain for humanity’s individual and collective extension and benefit is what the situation now most urgently requires.

What was the problem to which blockchain presented a solution? Was Nakamoto mainly aiming to undermine the power of financial institutions following the USA’s Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, i.e. the great bailout for banking elites at massive cost to millions of citizens? What purposes need there be other than financial ones to inspire the invention of an immutable public ledger that may serve as the basis for a ‘blockchain revolution’?

A public ledger (cf. triple entry accounting) that eliminates the double spending problem for digital transactions involving money is a massively transformative technology in and of itself. Regardless of what purposes Nakamoto had in mind when designing, creating and developing Bitcoin, we now are faced with what to do with this invention in ways that not only disrupt older systems, but that rather may at the same time creatively uplift human development of people around the world. What seems most urgently needed nowadays is a globally-oriented, socially-responsible digital extension services built upon distributed ledger technologies, using a combination of human, informational and material resources to produce it.

Conclusion

“The extensions of man with their ensuing environments, it’s now fairly clear, are the principal area of manifestation of the evolutionary process[19].” – McLuhan (1968)

“Building is the only truth path. Creation.” … “Bitcoin started because of my ideas. It was my design, and it is my creation.” – Craig Steven Wright (2019)

Given the above survey of uses of both terms ‘evolution’ and ‘revolution’ with respect to blockchain in the available literature, it is clear at least that there is on-going debate between which term is more suitable. My preference is to drop the term ‘evolution’ as unnecessarily ambiguous and imprecise when applied to technology, while cautioning that ateleological language is not particularly helpful or constructive in the conversation about blockchain development.

Likewise, at this early stage of historical growth, we still don’t know what kind of ‘revolution’ blockchain may cause in combination with other emerging digital technologies (IoTs, UAVs, VR/AR, virtual assistants, neural nets, quantum computing, etc.). We may thus look with either some trepidation or tempered optimism at the potential for revolutionary changes with the coming of distributed ledgers, particularly in the way blockchain will impact society, economics, politics, and culture.

In this paper, a brief comparison towards blockchain’s ‘revolutionary’ impact was proposed in the educational extension movement and agricultural extension and advisory services. The worldwide extension movement in agriculture contributed to the so-called ‘Green Revolution[20]‘ of the 1950s and 60s through knowledge sharing and information transfer to farmers who otherwise would not have had access to new seeds, knowledge and farming techniques.

With blockchain as a globally-oriented technology built upon the internet, we are starting to see new opportunities for digital identity provision that opens access to vital resources for those who are currently identity-less, for money transfer across borders (remissions), and for opportunities to bring ‘banking to the unbanked.’ This transformation has the potential to unlock many available human resources that will be able to further develop societies and cultures through savings and investment in peoples’ futures, something now impossible via institutional gridlock, exclusion and information capture.

On the strictly academic level, distributed ledgers may turn out to be the greatest technology created since the ‘social survey’ (or questionnaire) itself with the prospect of gathering big data for multivariate analysis. Now with a partially anonymous (cf. pseudonymous) user platform to protect personal identities from recrimination and ‘outing,’ social scientific research may be able to provide greater safety and security for ethical studies of humanity via digital devices that was simply not available in the past.

Nevertheless, we are still largely in the theoretical stage of blockchain’s coming impact and no mass platform for collecting such linked social data has yet been created where peer-to-peer interactions can produce a cascading global network effect. The question of whether a ‘revolution’ is coming or not due to blockchain DLT is thus for many people one still of sheer fantasy or hopeful speculation waiting for a major consensus-building breakthrough.

The Origins and the Future

Whether or not a person believes Craig Steven Wright was ‘Satoshi Nakamoto’ (perhaps with helpers alongside) or not is beside the point that someone must have been the inventive creator of Bitcoin. It simply didn’t arise on its own without an inventor and creator or without a purpose, aim and plan for its roll-out. To posit an ‘evolutionary origin’ for blockchain DLT thus profoundly misses out on the crucial elements of intentional, planned, purposeful technological change. Instead, looking at blockchain as an ‘extension’ of peoples’ choices places priorities on human values and desires, which are not to be ignored, but rather individually and collectively celebrated.

That said, in closing it is worth noting that a ‘revolution’ would only happen involving blockchains if the technology is not limited in usage to banks, multi-national corporations, and intermediary holders of financial power that collect fees without adding actual value to communities and users. Rent-seeking behaviour and currency speculation indeed has levied a massive cost on human civilisation in terms of widening the inequality gap within and between nations.

Similarly, writes Lawrie, “the Extension Movement … had to battle against the prejudice of those who would prefer university education to remain a privilege for the few.” (2014: 79) An overall struggle for power can and therefore must be expected in attempts to control distributed ledgers via ‘super users’ and centralised databases that sell user information. If the champions of blockchain DLTs are also champions of human freedom and dignity of person, the result may turn out better for a majority, rather than a minority few.

The dangers also adds caution and concern to those who focus on blockchain’s supposed ‘revolutionary’ impact as something necessarily disruptive and even destructive. The rhetoric heats up especially when blockchain is framed as a kind of deterministic, unavoidable and inevitable change driven by forces outside of human control.

Does technology have a ‘mind of its own?’ If not, then who is in control? Who is innovating? Who is guiding, choosing and directing the development of blockchain technology? And are they creating it for their own selfish gains or for the broader aims of society and culture? These questions animate the underlying concerns in this paper that mainly attempted to distinguish between random, unguided and guided, responsible technological change.

While it is true that in some sense the identity of Satoshi Nakamoto does not matter anymore, as the so-called “genie is out of the bottle[21]” now with blockchain. I believe it is nevertheless wrong to suggest that no one is or even should be in control of blockchain development, even though Satoshi Nakamoto disappeared. The growing number of people now building blockchain technologies will create a new horizon in which this technology will impact humanity in the coming years in a profound way. We may therefore watch with interest at the various ways P2P and E2E digital interactions on a global scale will change the course of human history in the near future to come.

In short, blockchain technology is a non-evolutionary or trans-evolutionary phenomenon that is potentially revolutionary for how it will restructure human society and culture based on immutable, timestamped distributed public ledgers. Blockchain as a ‘social machine’ heralds digital extension services and a new era of social change-over-time. Let us be ready and unafraid to face the challenges that this technology brings as it both disrupts, re-creates and unites people in a way that was unimaginable until Satoshi’s blockchain was invented to change the world.

Contact details: gregory.sandstrom@gmail.com

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Videos

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“Blockchain Evolution” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tGcuJoFZLOY

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“How the Blockchain revolution will change our lives? | Eddy Travia | TEDxIEMadrid” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ErxKm0b0DIU

“How the Blockchain Revolution Will Decentralize Power and End Corruption | Brian Behlendorf” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tv-XR6gXfLI

“Interview for Bitcoin And Blockchain Evolution Podcast – Sarah Herring – “Evolution – There is a Revolution coming!” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tIZJsFotDdg

“John McAfee on Infowars: Nothing Can Stop The Blockchain Revolution” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CssU9WBHx6k

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“The Blockchain Evolution” – Hewlett Packard – https://www.hpe.com/us/en/insights/videos/the-evolution-of-blockchain-1712.html

“The Blockchain Evolution” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TeyeKXmqQn8

“The Blockchain Evolution” – Cambridge House International” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nELBTdqeKuQ

“The Evolution of Bitcoin – Bill Barhydt – Global Summit 2018 | Singularity” Universityhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZjK1i9CE6U

“The Evolution of Blockchain and Global Vision (Shanghai)” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56rOLarCttA

“The Evolution Of Blockchain Over The Decades” – With David Birch” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yC8oBJSQ6vc

“The Evolution of Blockchain technology” – Amir Assif. Microsoft Israel” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f_eKp1z5hj0

“The Evolution of Blockchain: How EOS is reinventing blockchain” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R8aDGf8WpKs

“The Evolution of Blockchain” – Nicola Morris – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aSy-UJn1G1I

“The Evolution of Blockchain” – The State of Digital Money 18′ conference” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RWfNVTgbqjc

“The Blockchain Revolution – Graham Richter, Accenture” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYTmjZmsUm4

“The Blockchain Revolution | Rajesh Dhuddu | TEDxHyderabad” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OrnvX92vlu8

“The Blockchain Revolution by Talal Tabaa – ECOH 2018” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AvRJ1kEQ2so

“The Blockchain Revolution Changing the Rules https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GTgG8XzcVC0

“The Blockchain Revolution in Business and Finance” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3SUfz6p0a7Y

“The blockchain revolution, the ultimate industry disruptor” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7hEiHR-K_KY

“The Blockchain Revolution: From Organisations to Organism | Matan Field | TEDxBreda” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2OSbseTJWfY

[1] https://tim.blog/2017/06/04/nick-szabo/

[2] http://www.businessinsider.com/angellist-ceo-naval-ravikant-shares-his-favorite-books-2015-8

[3] http://www.killingbuddha.co/the-present/2016/10/17/naval-ravikant-on-the-give-and-take-of-the-modern-world

[4] “Being teleological is the second worst thing you can be as a Historian. The worst is being Eurocentric.” – Joel Mokyr

[5] “Biological and Cultural Evolution.” 1984. ICR Monograph Series 20. https://idriesshahfoundation.org/biological-and-cultural-evolution/

[6] Berners-Lee writes of “interconnected groups of people acting as if they shared a larger intuitive brain,” defining social machines on the internet as “processes in which the people do the creative work and the machine does the administration.” (1999) Smart and Shadbolt provide an updated version: “Social Machines are Web-based socio-technical systems in which the human and technological elements play the role of participant machinery with respect to the mechanistic realisation of system level processes.” (2014)

[7] “Extension lectures offered many middle-class women almost their only contact with education beyond the secondary level, and in consequence women came to use the new movement in greater numbers than any other social group, and frequently displayed the greatest personal application.” – Lawrence Goldman (Dons and Workers, 1995: 88)

[8]  A blockchain is “a place [digital ledger] for storing data that is maintained by a network of nodes without anyone in charge.” – Jeremy Clark (2016, https://users.encs.concordia.ca/~clark/talks/2016_edemocracy.pdf)

[9]  See Kevin O’Brien’s (2018) “China, Russia, USA in Race to Use Blockchain for Military Operations.” https://bitcoinist.com/china-russia-usa-blockchain-military/ and Salvador Llopsis Sanchez’ “Blockchain Technology in Defence.” https://www.eda.europa.eu/webzine/issue14/cover-story/blockchain-technology-in-defence

[10] Andrew Braun’s (2018) “Blockchain & Agriculture: A Look at the Issues & Projects Aiming to Solve Them” https://blockonomi.com/blockchain-agriculture/ and “Digging into Blockchain in Agriculture.” https://blockchain.wtf/2018/11/industry-impacts/digging-into-blockchain-in-agriculture/

[11]  Zohar Elhanini’s (2018) “How Blockchain Changed The Art World In 2018.” https://www.forbes.com/sites/zoharelhanani/2018/12/17/how-blockchain-changed-the-art-world-in-2018/#30caa5333074

[12] “Without the need for any central control or mediator blockchains allow for leaderless democracy – a new way of governing human behaviour online through ‘one computer one vote’.” http://kmi.open.ac.uk/projects/name/open-blockchain

[13] “Bitcoin is an immutable evidence system, a ledger that stops fraud.” – Craig Steven Wright https://medium.com/@craig_10243/the-great-mining-swindle-2dec8ffa819d

[14] https://consensys.net/social-impact/

[15] “As a result of the new scientific orthodoxy, the origins of organisms and of artifacts are nowadays seen as radically different: blind natural selection versus the purposive, forward-looking, and intelligent activity of designers.” – Phillip Brey (2008)

[16] However, with the noteworthy possibility that Craig Steve Wright was Satoshi Nakamoto, as he is now claiming, as he did in 2016: “I was Satoshi.” (2019)

[17]  “Evolution and Tinkering.” Science, Vol. 196, No. 4295, June 1977: pp. 1161-1166.

[18] This term was used in 1890 by A.R. Wallace, co-discoverer of ‘natural selection’ with Charles Darwin, to distinguish human-made things from natural organisms, after Darwin’s death.

[19] War and Peace in the Global Village. With Quentin Fiore. New York: Bantam, 1968: p. 19.

[20] “The first Green Revolution enabled developing countries to experience large increases in crop production through the use of fertilisers, pesticides and high-yield crop varieties. Between 1960 and 2000, yields for all developing countries rose 208 per cent for wheat, 109 per cent for rice, 157 per cent for maize, 78 per cent for potatoes and 36 per cent for cassava. This success was most felt with rice growers in Asia and lifted many out of poverty. … Capital investments and agricultural extension services are key for farmers to properly adopt new technologies and raise their farms’ productivity. ” – Liu (2017)

[21] As Joseph Lubin of Ethereum and Consensus says, “She’s big, she can’t go back in.” [21] http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/668104-the-entrepreneur-joe-lubin-coo-of-ethereum/

Author Information: Gregory Sandstrom, Arena Blockchain, gregory.sandstrom@gmail.com.

Sandstrom, Gregory. “Is Blockchain an ‘Evolutionary’ or ‘Revolutionary’ Technology, and So What If It Is?: Digitally Extending Satoshi Nakamoto’s Distributed Ledger Innovation.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 3 (2019): 17-49.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references, and includes the full text of the article. Shortlink, Part One: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-47f. Shortlink: Part Two: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-47m

Image by Kevin Krejci via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

“If you cry ‘Forward!’ you must without fail make plain in what direction to go. Don’t you see that if, without doing so, you call out the word to both a monk and a revolutionary they will go in directions precisely opposite?” – Anton Chekhov

“I’m better with code than with words though.” – Satoshi Nakamoto[1]

Did Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous creator of Bitcoin, actually invent anything new that had not previously existed before? Should people stop referring to a ‘blockchain revolution’ and instead call blockchain a ‘technological evolution’ that happened gradually and was caused randomly by environmental pressures rather than the intentional acts of a unique inventor? These basic questions make up the core of this paper, along with the suggestion that an alternative way of describing blockchain development makes considerably more sense than using the concept of ‘evolution’ in the digital era.

While it is unoriginal to ask whether blockchain distributed ledger technology should be thought of as an ‘evolution’ or a ‘revolution,’ since many people have asked it already (see bibliography below, including texts and videos), in this paper I’ll go a step deeper by looking at what people actually mean when they refer to blockchain as either an ‘evolution’ or a ‘revolution,’ or rather inconsistently as both at the same time.

In short, I’ll distinguish between their colloquial, ideological and technical uses and ask if one, both or neither of these terms is accurate of the changes blockchain has made, is making and will make as a new global digital technology.

Introduction: From the Book of Satoshi

In the Foreword to The Book of Satoshi: The Collected Writings of Bitcoin Creator Satoshi Nakamoto, libertarian Bitcoin activist Jeff Berwick wrote: “Bitcoin has changed everything. Its importance as an evolution in money and banking cannot be overstated. Notice I don’t use the word ‘revolution’ here because I consider Bitcoin to be a complete ‘evolution’ from the anachronistic money and banking systems that humanity has been using—and been forced by government dictate to use—for at least the last hundred years.” (2014: xvii)

While I don’t really understand what he means by a ‘complete evolution,’ Berwick’s attention to the difference in meaning between ‘evolution’ and ‘revolution’ regarding Bitcoin nevertheless sets the stage for this exploration of blockchain technology, as we consider its current development trajectory. Which term is more suitable?

Worth noting, nowhere in Satoshi Nakamoto’s collected writings is either the term ‘evolution’ or ‘revolution’ to be found. Berwick’s interpretation of ‘blockchain evolution,’ framed within his worldview as an anarcho-capitalist, is thus of his own making and not one that derives from Nakamoto himself. I’ll touch on why I believe that is below. Also of note, the book’s writer and compiler of Nakamoto’s writings, Phil Champagne, states that, “Bitcoin, both a virtual currency and a payment system, represents a revolutionary concept whose significance quickly becomes apparent with a first transaction. … Bitcoin has therefore clearly sparked a new technological revolution that capitalizes on the Internet, another innovation that changed the world.” (2014: 2, 7)

Champagne closes the book stating, “Satoshi Nakamoto brought together many existing mathematical and software concepts to create Bitcoin. Since then, Bitcoin has been an ongoing experiment, continuing to evolve and be updated on a regular basis. It has, so far, proven its utility and revolutionized the financial and monetary industry, particularly the electronic payment system, and is being accepted worldwide.” (2014: 347) The use of both ‘evolution’ and ‘revolution’ in past and present tense shows a debate exists even within this one book about which term best fits blockchain’s current and future status in society.

This paper will look closely at the difference between these two terms as they relate to blockchain, largely staying away from speculation about cryptocurrencies, i.e. digital tokens, crypto-assets, and/or crypto-securities. It will primarily serve to catalogue the way people have used these two terms with respect to blockchain and cryptocurrency and ask if they are suitable or unsuitable terms. In conclusion, I offer an analysis of why the distinction between these two terms matters as different ways to describe change-over-time and assess an alternative model to analyse and discuss these changes called ‘digital extension services.’ 

Reflexive Background and Context 

To set the background and context, let me write reflexively about why I am writing this paper. Over the past 15+ years studying the topic, I’ve become somewhat of an expert on how the term ‘evolution’ is used outside of the natural-physical sciences, in theories such as ‘social and cultural evolution,’ ‘evolutionary economics’ and ‘technological evolution.’

I wrote a master’s thesis comparing the concepts of ‘evolution,’ ‘extension’ and ‘Intelligent Design,’ and have published more than 20 papers and delivered more than 30 presentations at international conferences outlining and exploring the limits of ‘evolutionary’ thinking as well as promoting the notion of ‘human extension’ in social sciences and humanities[2].

My interest in this paper is to clear up what appears as massive public confusion and oftentimes puzzling equivocation about various types of change-over-time, especially non-evolutionary changes such as revolution, development, emergence, and extension. Some people think there is no such thing as a ‘non-evolutionary’ change since all change must be ‘evolutionary,’ in response to which I would like to set the record straight.

There are undoubtedly some people who will consider this paper and having written it to be a complete waste of time and for them, it’s best to stop reading at the end of this sentence. However, others may find in this exploration a key distinction towards gaining even a small bit of insight and perhaps some understanding into the considerable differences between biological change-over-time and technological development[3], innovation and planning, the latter which generally fall outside of the meaning of ‘evolution.’

Notably, I find it somewhat humorous for having studied this rather arcane social epistemological topic quite closely for many years to be able to write this paper now. It’s meant that I’ve had to lock horns repeatedly with ideological (young earth) creationists, Intelligent Design advocates and evolutionists on many occasions along the way[4]. What I have discovered is that sometimes choosing the right term matters and sometimes it doesn’t; some people want to use a term to mean whatever they want it to mean[5] and it’s most often not worth taking the time in trying to stop or persuade them.

When I learned in 2016 that blockchain technology is about more than just cryptocurrency, and that it also has potentially significant and far-reaching implications for a variety of social, cultural and educational uses, it simply made sense to bring some of the knowledge I had gathered as an associate professor and researcher into my study of distributed ledgers, which is what leads to this text.

In Q3 2017, I asked and answered myself on Twitter as follows: “Is blockchain really evolving of its own accord? No.” I copied that message to the Managing Director of the Blockchain Research Institute (BRI) in Toronto, Hilary Carter, who I had met that summer at the Blockchain Government Forum in Ottawa. She replied: “Agreed! Evolution is a series of beneficial genetic accidents. Blockchain and the development of the community is entirely intentional.” (24 Sep 2017) That exchange happened after I had recently arrived in Yangon, Myanmar, first to teach, then to work as Director of Blockchain Innovation at an educational technology startup company. I had many new things and needs to focus on and didn’t think about it too much further at that time.

However, after returning to Canada in 2018, I later raised this topic again directly in conversation with Carter[6]. While she still stands behind the view that blockchain is indeed a revolutionary phenomenon and that its development is based upon the various intentions of its builders and creators, she also suggested that, “the blockchain ecosystem is [an] evolution,” that it is in a state of maturation, and that, “no one is controlling it.” It is the latter contention that I’d like to take up again now and ‘unpack’ during the course of this paper.

Carter’s view, to which I will return below, raises an important question about how blockchain was invented, as well as the way that blockchain ecosystem development is currently being planned and executed, and both how and why people are aiming for social scalability and public adoption. Also, it raises the question of what then counts as the ‘blockchain revolution’ that BRI founder Don Tapscott wrote a book about with his son Alex in 2016.

To me, Carter’s original comment that blockchain development is ‘entirely intentional’ is obviously correct and requires no further commentary for validation. However, it also signifies that there is at least some type of ‘control’ when it comes to actual blockchain technology building, even if the trajectory of distributed ledgers aren’t being controlled, nor are they entirely predictable, by any single person or company, anywhere in the world.

My prior research in sociology of science had shown that while the term ‘evolution’ is used by not a few people in a basic colloquial sense simply as a synonym for ‘change,’ it can also be used, and not rarely, in an ideological sense that draws on ‘cultural evolutionary’ theories in SSH or in the case of technology, one that adheres to the so-called ‘laws of software evolution[7]‘ (M. Lehman). It is the latter usage of the term ‘evolution’ that I wholeheartedly reject and think has caused great damage to human self-understanding and initiative.

Let it be clear, however, in stating this that I am not one of the ‘new evolution deniers’ (Wright 2018) pursuing an anti-biology or anti-science blank slate ideology that doesn’t acknowledge change-over-time, which is evident in many ways across a range of cultural issues. Rather, I’m a dedicated social scientific researcher and more recently community builder of blockchain technology who rejects the notion that ‘no one is in control’ of what is being developed (i.e. ‘unguided evolution’).

Likewise, I strongly reject the misanthropic worldview that claims ‘there is no purpose[8]‘ (Dawkins) in change-over-time. I oppose both of these positions as dehumanising. So, with this context provided, the following sections present my research findings into how other people use the terms ‘evolution’ and ‘revolution’ with respect to blockchain technology.

Equivocating Between Evolution and Revolution 

“Bitcoin is a completely new narrative. It alters everything, and in 20 to 30 years from now, people will not recognise the world we are in because of Bitcoin.” – Craig Steven Wright (2019a)

Many writers on the topic of blockchain switch back and forth equivocally between ‘evolution’ and ‘revolution,’ apparently without much rhyme or reason, not carefully distinguishing between them. Rather curiously, this includes the Tapscotts. “We strongly believe that India has the potential to lead the blockchain revolution[9],” said Don Tapscott in 2018.

And there are indeed many places where Don and his son Alex use the term ‘revolution’ to describe blockchain in their 2016 book, which I will outline in the following paragraphs. They write, “Like the first generation of the Internet, the Blockchain Revolution promises to upend business models and transform industries. But that is just the start. Blockchain technology is pushing us inexorably into a new era, predicated on openness, merit, decentralization, and global participation.” (Ibid) This type of language continues throughout the book, which explains why they gave it the title they did.

However, they also use the term ‘evolution’ to describe technological change. “The Web is critical to the future of the digital world,” they say, “and all of us should support efforts under way to defend it, such as those of the World Wide Web Foundation, who are fighting to keep it open, neutral, and constantly evolving.” (Ibid)

They quote Blake Masters, who states, “Bear in mind that financial services infrastructures have not evolved in decades. The front end has evolved but not the back end. … posttrade infrastructure hasn’t really evolved at all.” (Ibid) Likewise, they cite Joseph Lubin, who says:

“I am not concerned about machine intelligence. We will evolve with it and for a long time it will be in the service of, or an aspect of, Homo sapiens cybernetica. It may evolve beyond us but that is fine. If so, it will occupy a different ecological niche. It will operate at different speeds and different relevant time scales. In that context, artificial intelligence will not distinguish between humans, a rock, or a geological process. We evolved past lots of species, many of which are doing fine (in their present forms).” (Ibid)

The Tapscotts in this vein also consider human-made technology itself, not just biology, as an ‘evolutionary’ phenomenon. They thus label one of their chapters, “The Evolution of Computing: from mainframes to smart pills.” (Ibid) “Unlike our energy grid,” they say, “computing power has evolved through several paradigms. In the 1950s and 1960s, mainframes ruled—International Business Machines and the Wild ‘BUNCH’ (Burroughs, Univac, National Cash Register Corp., Control Data, and Honeywell).

In the 1970s and 1980s, minicomputers exploded onto the scene.” (Ibid) They continue this line of thinking, suggesting that, “Driven by the same technological advances, communications networks evolved, too. From the early 1970s, the Internet (originating in the U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) was evolving into its present-day, worldwide, distributed network that connects more than 3.2 billion people, businesses, governments, and other institutions. The computing and networking technologies then converged in mobile tablets and handhelds. BlackBerry commercialized the smart phone in the early aughts, and Apple popularized it in the iPhone in 2007.” (Ibid)

Yet at some point unstated, they switch back to ‘revolutionary’ language, suggesting that, “We’re beginning the next major phase of the digital revolution.” (Ibid) They cite Michelle Tinsley of Intel, who “explained why her company is deeply investigating the blockchain revolution: “When PCs became pervasive, the productivity rates went through the roof. We connected those PCs to a server, a data center, or the cloud, making it really cheap and easy for lean start-ups to get computer power at their fingertips, and we’re again seeing rapid innovation, new business models.”

Just imagine the potential of applying these capabilities across many types of businesses, many untouched by the Internet revolution.” (Ibid) In short, their view is that “the technology is always evolving and designs are ever improving.” (Ibid) This encapsulates their equivocating meaning of ‘blockchain revolution,’ from one of the most widely cited texts in the field of blockchain technology.

Carter followed up with me after receiving the first draft of this paper to clarify her position. She explains, “We’ve evolved from single-purpose peer to peer electronic cash to Ethereum to private distributed ledgers to Cryptokitties. Everything is intentional. Evolution post-Bitcoin is more a figure of speech to reflect that blockchain systems have changed[10].” She continues, saying that, “Blockchain was no accidental software that emerged from the first generation of the internet.”

This sentence brings in another ‘change-over-time’ term with the notion of ’emergence,’ that adds to the linguistic feature of this analysis. Carter concludes that, “maybe ‘matured’ is a better word [i.e. than ‘evolution’] – because of the creativity of humans, not because of fortunate digital coincidences.” This explanation from the current leadership of the BRI helps to make sense of the variety of ways that people around the world are now speaking about the ‘growth,’ ’emergence,’ ‘maturing,’ ‘development,’ ‘advancement,’ ‘expansion’ and other ‘change-over-time’ metaphors to describe what is happening with distributed ledger technologies.

But What Are the Meanings of These Words?

Moving on to another writer and public figure, managing director of the IMF, Christine Lagarde similarly switches back and forth between ‘evolution’ and ‘revolution’ in seemingly an unsystematic way. She confirms that, “the fintech revolution questions the two forms of money we just discussed—coins and commercial bank deposits. And it questions the role of the state in providing money.” (2018)

She continues, however, saying, “I have tried to evaluate the case this morning for digital currency. The case is based on new and evolving requirements for money, as well as essential public policy objectives. My message is that while the case for digital currency is not universal, we should investigate it further, seriously, carefully, and creatively.” (Ibid)

One of the most prolific speakers and writers about blockchain, Andreas Antonopolous (2017), believes, “Over time, the way transaction fees are calculated and the effect they have on transaction prioritization has evolved. At first, transaction fees were fixed and constant across the network. Gradually, the fee structure relaxed and may be influenced by market forces, based on network capacity and transaction volume.” (2017: 127) … “Beyond bitcoin, the largest and most successful application of P2P technologies is file sharing, with Napster as the pioneer and BitTorrent as the most recent evolution of the architecture.” (Ibid: 171) He states that,

“the bitcoin network and software are constantly evolving, so consensus attacks would be met with immediate countermeasures by the bitcoin community, making bitcoin hardier, stealthier, and more robust than ever. … In order to evolve and develop the bitcoin system, the rules have to change from time to time to accommodate new features, improvements, or bug fixes. Unlike traditional software development, however, upgrades to a consensus system are much more difficult and require coordination between all the participants.” (Ibid: 256)

Further, he argues that, “Consensus software development continues to evolve and there is much discussion on the various mechanisms for changing the consensus rules.” (Ibid: 266) We thus see a major focus on ‘evolutionary’ blockchain change.

Yet in the final paragraph of the book, Antonopolous says, “We have examined just a few of the emerging applications that can be built using the bitcoin blockchain as a trust platform. These applications expand the scope of bitcoin beyond payments and beyond financial instruments, to encompass many other applications where trust is critical. By decentralizing the basis of trust, the bitcoin blockchain is a platform that will spawn many revolutionary applications in a wide variety of industries.” (Ibid: 304) The future of blockchain, therefore might be revolutionary based on many ‘evolutions’ of the technology.

In Life after Google: the Fall of Big Data and the Rise of the Blockchain Economy, George Gilder flip-flops back and forth between evolution and revolution with little apparent consistency, speaking about “the root-and-branch revolution of distributed peer-to-peer technology, which I call the ‘cryptocosm’,” (2018: 44) then stating that, “[t]he next wave of innovation will compress today’s parallel solutions in an evolutionary convergence of electronics and optics.” (Ibid: 58)

He suggests that, “[a] decentralized and open global rendering system is foundational for disruptive services and platforms to evolve from the post-mobile world of immersive computing, just as the open web was formed in the creation of Google, Amazon and Facebook.” (Ibid: 205) However, he also notes that, “Far beyond mere high-definition voice, 5G is the technological infrastructure for a coming revolution in networks. It enables new distributed security systems for the Internet of Things, the blockchain ledgers of the new crypto-economy of micropayments, and the augmented and virtual reality platforms of advanced Internet communications.” (Ibid: 231)

Gilder’s language seems to sometimes be more about appearance than substance, as he writes, “In the evolving technological economy, shaped by cryptographic innovations, Google is going to have to compete again.” (Ibid: 239) Further explaining, he notes that, “The revolution in cryptography has caused a great unbundling of the roles of money, promising to reverse the doldrums of the Google Age, which has been an epoch of bundling together, aggregating, all the digital assets of the world.” (Ibid: 256)

One key formulation renders his ideological views visible, reflecting his affiliation with the Discovery Institute: “The new system of the world must reverse these positions, exalting the singularities of creation: mind over matter, human consciousness over mechanism, real intelligence over mere algorithmic search, purposeful learning over mindless evolution, and truth over chance. A new system can open a heroic age of human accomplishment.” (Ibid: 272) Gilder seems to have no difficulty both denying and accepting ‘evolution’ at the same time, regardless of the fact that everyone agrees both ‘minds’ and ‘matter’ are involved in developing technologies.

Uncertainty Too From Financial Technology Leaders

Hanna Halaburda writes for the Bank of Canada (2018), saying, “The market’s excitement about blockchain technologies is growing and is perhaps best summarized in the increasingly popular slogan ‘blockchain revolution.’ It is estimated that the blockchain market size will grow from US$210 million in 2016 to over US$2 billion by 2021.” (2018: 1) Later in the paper she uses both terms, suggesting that,

“The broadening of the meaning of ‘blockchain’ to include smart contracts, encryption and distributed ledger could simply reflect the evolution of a term in a living language. However, precision matters for estimating costs and benefits, or even for predicting the best uses of blockchain technologies. Smart contracts, encryption and distributed ledger each bring different benefits. And since they can be implemented independently, an optimal solution for a particular application may include only some of these tools but not others. This may matter for the future of the blockchain revolution.” (Ibid: 5)

In conclusion, she accepts the same terminology as the Tapscotts, saying, “The blockchain revolution has brought distributed databases to the forefront and may result in wider adoption and new ideas for their use.” (Ibid: 9)

Andrea Pinna and Weibe Ruttenberg (2016) write that, “Over the last decade, information technology has contributed significantly to the evolution of financial markets, without, however, revolutionising the way in which financial institutions interact with one another. This may be about to change, as some market players are now predicting that new database technologies, such as blockchain and other distributed ledger technologies (DLTs), could be the source of an imminent revolution.” (Ibid: 2) “It is not yet, therefore, clear whether DLTs will cause a major revolution in mainstream financial markets or whether their use will remain limited to particular niches.” (Ibid: 32)

Former Chief Scientific Advisor to the British Government, Mark Walport (2016) suggests, “The development of block chain technology is but the first, though very important step towards a disruptive revolution in ledger technology that could transform the conduct of public and private sector organisations.” (2016: 10) He continues, “Regulation will need to evolve in parallel with the development of new implementations and applications of the technology” (Ibid: 12)

However, he also distinguishes a ‘revolutionary’ dimension to the technology, saying, “We are still at the early stages of an extraordinary post-industrial revolution driven by information technology. It is a revolution [that] is bringing important new benefits and risks. It is already clear that, within this revolution, the advent of distributed ledger technologies is starting to disrupt many of the existing ways of doing business.” (Ibid: 16)

And then he reverts back to evolutionary language, saying, “The terminology of this new field is still evolving, with many using the terms block chain (or blockchain), distributed ledger and shared ledger interchangeably.” (Ibid: 17) He emphasizes that, “M-Pesa challenged the notion that value transfer for exchange transactions had to be done through banks, and leapfrogged several developmental stages. But these innovations still rely on an existing hierarchical structure, using proprietary technology and trusted intermediaries. Though the change improves customer convenience, and significantly reduces costs to users and customers, this is evolution rather than revolution.” (Ibid: 54) Walport is one of the few voices insisting that changes in blockchain development are happening at a rather slower than rapid pace, which seems to determine his choice of terms.

Sam Town makes clear his preferred terminology between the two notions, stating, “While the ICO as it exists today may be gone tomorrow, the blockchain brings evolution, not revolution.” (2018) Here he seems to be suggesting that while ICOs may not last long as a credible method of fundraising, at least not without more stringent regulatory oversight, that nevertheless blockchain distributed ledger technologies will indeed have lasting and significant impact on finance and economics.

Does Evolution vs Revolution Matter?

Ugur Demirbas et al. (2018) also write to intentionally distinguish the two terms, saying, “In summary, while digital transformation shows disruptive influence on individual elements, its overall effect is rather evolutionary than revolutionary. The impact of DT in the context of the overarching corporate sourcing strategy is an incremental change than a disruptive creation of something completely new.” (2018: 8)

Again we see an explanation given that ‘evolutionary’ is preferred because of the pace (slow) and type (incremental) of change or the people’s aims and goals involved in developing the technology. They also indicate ‘disruption’ and ‘something completely new’ in their meaning of ‘revolutionary,’ which we will look at again below.

Jagjit Dhaliwal (2018) says that, “We all know that the Blockchain technology is revolutionizing our future by providing distributed networks, allowing peer-to-peer transactions without intermediaries. We have come a long way in a really short period of time from the inception of Bitcoin, one of the first cryptocurrencies based on Blockchain technology.”

He continues saying that, “Everyone is curious about which platform and cryptocurrency will win the race. The DLT landscape is changing rapidly and evolving really fast. I won’t be surprised if some of the solutions in this article will [sic] extinct soon.” Dhaliwal thus likewise shows that the pace of change impacts his choice of terms, though it is unclear how ‘rapid change’ and ‘fast evolution’ differ from ‘revolutionary.’

In a paper curiously named “The Evolution of Blockchain Development” (2017), the team at Alibaba Cloud similarly suggests that, “Blockchain as a technology has evolved rapidly in the past decade.” They continue, however, by appealing to readers: “Let us discuss a few major innovations that have revolutionized this field[11].” This is yet another example of the confusion in using the terms ‘evolution’ and ‘revolution’ when there is no clear explanation of what differentiates one from the other.

Megan Ray Nichols weighs in on the ‘revolution’ side, when she says, “blockchain is serving as a critical component in a major revolution that also includes rapid prototyping, lean manufacturing, 3D printing, & now blockchain-facilitated manufacturing & supply contracts.” (2018).

This and several of the examples above certainly do not refer to a ‘political revolution’ or ‘scientific revolution,’ but rather to an incoming ‘technological revolution’ that is supposedly happening all around us with ’emergent’ or ‘nascent’ new technologies, including, but not exclusive to blockchain. The hype surrounding blockchain with expectations in the near future, however, often seems to far exceed evidence of what has changed so far because of it.

Don Tapcott responded in an interview with McKinsey that, “the blockchain, the underlying technology, is the biggest innovation in computer science—the idea of a distributed database where trust is established through mass collaboration and clever code rather than through a powerful institution that does the authentication and the settlement[12].”

We have, of course, heard this kind of suggestive language before, so it’s not like predictions about ‘revolutionary technology’ are entirely new. One example of this harkens back to what Fred Brooks asked in 1975, if “technical developments that are most often advanced as potential silver bullets … offer revolutionary advances, or incremental ones?” (1975: 188) While not a few people have expressed inflated expectations for distributed ledger systems, we are still nevertheless waiting for a clear example of widespread usage of blockchain to be able to assess the variable speeds at which adoption can and likely will eventually take place.

With that basic background, we will now look at largely colloquial uses of the term ‘evolution’ as it relates to blockchain technology development.

Colloquial Usage of ‘Evolution’ for Blockchain Technology Development

A remarkable pattern among technology writers is to apply the term ‘evolution’ in what appears to be a basic colloquial way, suggesting no theoretical underpinning or technical meaning, and with no ideological implications. Instead, for these cases, the notion of ‘evolution’ is basically just used as a synonym for either ‘change’ (i.e. over time), ‘development,’ ‘creation’ or some kind of a general ‘process of history.’

Brigid McDermott, vice president of IBM blockchain business development, states:

“We’re asking companies to join to help evolve the solution and guide and steer its direction.”

“We’ll do PoCs [proofs-of-concept] later down the line.[1]” In this case, the verb ‘to evolve’ is meant in the same way as ‘to create,’ ‘to build’ or ‘to develop,’ without the notion of a natural genetic population, implication of a ‘struggle for life’ or ‘survival of the fittest,’ rates of mutation, variation, or other notions usually connected with ‘biological evolutionary theory.”

The Commonwealth of Learning suggests that, “When it comes to educational innovation, blockchains and ledgers are likely to lead to evolutionary gains[2].” While it is not entirely clear what they mean in this short report, we are likely supposed to gather a sense of ‘progress’ or ‘advancement’ in what they imply and suggest blockchain will lead to in the field of education.

Margaret Leigh Sinrod writes about blockchain for the World Economic Forum (2018). “The fact that banks are investing in this [blockchain] technology may sound fairly paradoxical,” she says, “given the context in which it evolved and gained traction.” In this case, the term ‘evolved’ seems to simply signify ‘history,’ i.e. that ‘something has happened’ and that blockchain now continues to persist as a phenomenon.

Dennis Sahlstrom similarly tells us that, “the evolution of blockchain arrived with Ethereum, created by Vitalik Buterin, which was an improvement of Bitcoin. This evolution added a further element which is the ability to build decentralized applications (dApps) and smart contracts to ensure that deals, transactions, and many other tasks can be performed without intermediaries.” (2018)

Here we see ‘evolution’ used as a way to symbolise a historical fact, again that ‘something has happened,’ thus indicating a new ‘stage’ of blockchain that also was ‘created. This approach might be confusing to people who accept a more technical meaning of ‘evolution’ as distinct from ‘creation’ or ‘intentional planning,’ almost sounding as if blockchain has taken on a life of its own.

John Dean Markunas from Power of Chain Consultancy continues this anthropomorphic language, suggesting that, “The [blockchain] technology itself will continue to evolve along with a wide variety of creative applications developed on top of it, similar to the development of the internet and world-wide-web[3].” This usage, while it signifies persistence and continuity, appears particularly confusing since the term ‘development’ is also used referring to the Internet, which other people claim has led to a ‘revolution’ in human society, as seen above.

Tadas Deksnys CEO and Founder of Unboxed writes that, “Though the future of ICOs is vague, the blockchain industry is still evolving and presenting new opportunities[4].” Again, we see here the notion of both history and continuity and that there is some kind of on-going process of unspecified speed, type or significance.

These are all common examples of people involved in or writing about the blockchain industry who suggest that blockchain demonstrates an ‘evolutionary’ rather than a ‘revolutionary,’ ‘developmental’ or otherwise ‘non-evolutionary’ process of change-over-time.

Frederik De Breuck (2019) says that, “its capabilities and platforms (both public and private) are rapidly evolving and blockchain and distributed ledgers remain for me (and many others) two of the most promising technology evolutions of recent decades for their potential to transform both society and enterprises.”

He uses other change-based concepts as well, such as emergence and extension, in the latter case saying, “[w]e think next year will see the ongoing evolution of these complex trust architectures and their extension beyond their organizational boundaries, into both ecosystems and society.” (Ibid) This language basically indicates something supposedly important is happening with blockchain, a description that it is growing and reaching more people in a community, network and/or ecosystem.

Reflections of What May Be Historical Precedents

Jesus Leal Trujilo et al. in their Deloitte paper (2017) base their logic in the ‘evolution’ of digital ecosystems, writing, “Our study appears to be the first empirical attempt to understand the evolution of blockchain using metadata available on GitHub … Our findings could help firms improve their ability to identify successful projects and opportunities based on how the blockchain ecosystem is evolving.” (2017: 2)

They also address the time period in terms of stages of development, saying, “At the current evolutionary stage of blockchain technology, it is likely to be in a developer’s best interest to develop, or watch the development of, blockchain solutions on open source. Blockchain appears to have a better chance to more quickly achieve rigorous protocols and standardization through open-source collaboration, which could make developing permissioned blockchains easier and better.” (Ibid: 5)

They continue, “The data scientists of Deloitte developed and honed a methodology to analyze and organize GitHub data in order to better understand the evolution of a young, possibly transformative technology and its ecosystem.” (Ibid: 15) They conclude saying, “It is our hope that these findings can arm the financial services industry with the data it may need to not only better identify successful projects and opportunities based on how the blockchain ecosystem is evolving, but to become influential participants, themselves, in how blockchain evolves.” (Ibid: 15) Thus, the promote both the development and so-called ‘evolution’ of blockchain technology based on the language of ‘ecosystem’ that loosely mimics biology.

The Systems Academy suggests about blockchain technology that, “over the past years it has been evolving fast, from the original Bitcoin protocol to the second generation Ethereum platform, to today where we are in the process of building what some call blockchain 3.0. In this evolution we can see how the technology is evolving from its initial form as essentially just a database, to becoming a fully-fledged globally distributed cloud computer.”

They add to others in this paper who suggest that, “The development and adoption of the Ethereum platform was a major step forward in the evolution of blockchain technology[5],” suggesting a kind of ‘progress’ narrative that switches between ‘development’ and ‘evolution’ and indicates improvement rather than replacement or destruction of the old system.

Stapels et al. flip back and forth between ‘development’ and ‘evolution,’ stating that, “blockchains are still a rapidly evolving technology, with ongoing developments, especially to improve scalability and confidentiality. Globally, governments, enterprises, and startups are exploring the technology/market fit in a wide variety of use cases and for a wide variety of requirements and regulatory demands.” They also suggest a present lack of knowledge towards building and maintaining trust among blockchain users, saying “There is still much that is unknown about the development of trustworthy blockchain-based systems.” (2018: 1)

Bryan Zhang writes in the Foreword to Rauchs et al. 2018, that, “the landscape of DLT itself continues its swift evolution.” Again, we see the suggestion of a continuity of some kind, as if we are in a historical period of flux and change with the rise of DLTs. In conclusion, the authors state that, “Nearly 10 years after Bitcoin entered the world, the DLT ecosystem is still in early stages: it is constantly evolving and characterised by relentless experimentation and R&D.” (2018: 92)

This usage doesn’t necessarily imply that Bitcoin arrived on its own without a creative inventor or network of users, but rather that it’s simply in a process that has yet to reach its conclusion and thus should be thought of as impermanent or temporary.

ElBarhrawy et al. (2017) “Here, we present a first complete analysis of the cryptocurrency market, considering its evolution between April 2013 and May 2017.” (Ibid: 2) They then suggest there is a theoretical underpinning one can use to study this historical period involving cryptocurrencies. “By adopting an ecological perspective, we have pointed out that the neutral model of evolution captures several of the observed properties of the market.” (Ibid: 7)

In this approach we again see usage of the term ‘evolution’ to mean ‘history,’ yet in a broader way that combines economics with ecology and push the idea of ‘ecosystem’ thinking that is also front and centre in much of the ideological blockchain evolutionism below.

Contact details: gregory.sandstrom@gmailcom

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Videos

“Alex Tapscott: Blockchain Revolution | Talks at Google” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3PdO7zVqOwc

“Are Blockchains Alive? Co-evolving with Technology” – Amanda Gutterman (ConsenSys) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X7GkkGTnVwA

“Block Chain Revolution | Giovanna Fessenden | TEDxBerkshires” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oMhZTEQZJPI

“Bitcoin and the history of money” – “Let’s take a look at the evolution of money.” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IP0jCjyrew8

“Blockchain – evolution or revolution?” –  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LojzPukAtmM

“Blockchain Evolution & Empowerment” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eSUC9NFccNk

“Blockchain Evolution 2” – Reese Jones – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mCPqXHt-z0k

“Blockchain Evolution or Revolution in the Luxembourg Financial Place? – Nicolas Carey https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wp9FB_JQlgI

“Blockchain Evolution” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CULUqgfVteg

“Blockchain Evolution” – Complexity Labs – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rO2LSBDekvE

“Blockchains’ Evolution by natural selection like biology’s genetics” – Reese Jones – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4JEFGtsu0s4

“Blockchain Evolution” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tGcuJoFZLOY

“Chandler Guo on The Bitcoin & Blockchain Revolution” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7g2JFn68LU

“Cryptos Are The EVOLUTION of Money and Blockchain is the REVOLUTION of Trust! Vlog#18” – Siam Kidd – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-nu2F6_K0S0

“DigiByte Blockchain – The evolution of the Internet & the revolution in the financial systems” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w8h10ckU0sE “The revolution has already begun.”

“Don Tapscott – The Blockchain Revolution – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gZEmaSbqfYQ

“Evolution of Bitcoin” – Documentary Film – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HUpGHOLkoXs

“Evolution of Blockchain And Its Future Moving Forward In 2018!” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWlMoxMTbDQ

“Evolution of Blockchain in India:The value of Ownership.” – Mr.Akash Gaurav – TEDxKIITUniversity – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BtTJmb0jYzE

“Evolution of the Blockchain Economy” – Jeremy Gardner – Startup Grind – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q7cPy6ITUm4

“Future Evolution of Blockchain” – Silicon Valley TV – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5_6m7LYIEo4

“Future Thinkers Podcast – a podcast about evolving technology, society and consciousness. https://futurethinkers.org/

“Genetics of Blockchain Evolution” – Reese Jones – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8fFsmuvyXeE

“Keynote: Blockchain’s Evolution: Digital Assets are getting Physical” – FinTech Worldwide” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1p5PUn4z_Gs

“How the Blockchain revolution will change our lives? | Eddy Travia | TEDxIEMadrid” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ErxKm0b0DIU

“How the Blockchain Revolution Will Decentralize Power and End Corruption | Brian Behlendorf” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tv-XR6gXfLI

“Interview for Bitcoin And Blockchain Evolution Podcast – Sarah Herring – “Evolution – There is a Revolution coming!” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tIZJsFotDdg

“John McAfee on Infowars: Nothing Can Stop The Blockchain Revolution” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CssU9WBHx6k

“Make the blockchain business case: Evolution, not revolution” (only title, not in video) – PWC – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sjr_Wqwk1SI

“The blockchain evolution, from services…to smartphones.” – Mingis on Tech – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jvn5zZj5IR8

“The Blockchain Evolution” – Hewlett Packard – https://www.hpe.com/us/en/insights/videos/the-evolution-of-blockchain-1712.html

“The Blockchain Evolution” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TeyeKXmqQn8

“The Blockchain Evolution” – Cambridge House International” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nELBTdqeKuQ

“The Evolution of Bitcoin – Bill Barhydt – Global Summit 2018 | Singularity” Universityhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CZjK1i9CE6U

“The Evolution of Blockchain and Global Vision (Shanghai)” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56rOLarCttA

“The Evolution Of Blockchain Over The Decades” – With David Birch” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yC8oBJSQ6vc

“The Evolution of Blockchain technology” – Amir Assif. Microsoft Israel” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f_eKp1z5hj0

“The Evolution of Blockchain: How EOS is reinventing blockchain” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R8aDGf8WpKs

“The Evolution of Blockchain” – Nicola Morris – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aSy-UJn1G1I

“The Evolution of Blockchain” – The State of Digital Money 18′ conference” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RWfNVTgbqjc

“The Blockchain Revolution – Graham Richter, Accenture” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYTmjZmsUm4

“The Blockchain Revolution | Rajesh Dhuddu | TEDxHyderabad” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OrnvX92vlu8

“The Blockchain Revolution by Talal Tabaa – ECOH 2018” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AvRJ1kEQ2so

“The Blockchain Revolution Changing the Rules https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GTgG8XzcVC0

“The Blockchain Revolution in Business and Finance” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3SUfz6p0a7Y

“The blockchain revolution, the ultimate industry disruptor” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7hEiHR-K_KY

“The Blockchain Revolution: From Organisations to Organism | Matan Field | TEDxBreda” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2OSbseTJWfY

[1] Nov. 14, 2008. https://satoshi.nakamotoinstitute.org/emails/cryptography/12/

[2] Your author of this paper received his degree in ‘Sociological Sciences’ from St. Petersburg State University in Russia, after a dissertation defense at the Sociological Institute of the Russian Academy of Science in 2010.

[3] “The gap between biological evolution and artificial systems evolution is just too enormous to expect to link the two.” – Meir Lehman (In Williams, 2002)

[4] It is most likely that none of the authors cited in this study was thinking about ‘young earth creationism’ as a position that they aimed to oppose by using the term ‘evolution.’ Similarly, no theory of ‘Intelligent Design’ as an alternative to ‘neo-Darwinism’ is at the heart of this paper’s rejection of ‘technological evolutionary’ theories.

[5] “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” – Lewis Carroll (Through the Looking-Glass, 1872)

[6] Private conversation 07-02-2019.

[7] “In software engineering there is no theory. It’s all arm flapping and intuition. I believe that a theory of software evolution could eventually translate into a theory of software engineering. Either that or it will come very close. It will lay the foundation for a wider theory of software evolution.” – Lehman (In Williams 2002)

[8] “This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous – indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose.” … “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” – Richard Dawkins (River Out of Eden. Basic Books, New York, 1995: 95)

[9] https://money.cnn.com/2018/02/21/technology/canada-india-blockchain-partnership-bri-nasscom/index.html

[10] Private email, 24-02-2019.

[11] https://www.alibabacloud.com/blog/The-Evolution-of-Blockchain-Development_p73812

[12] http://www.mckinsey.com/industries/high-tech/our-insights/how-blockchains-could-change-the-world

[1] http://fortune.com/2017/08/22/walmart-blockchain-ibm-food-nestle-unilever-tyson-dole/

[2] https://www.col.org/news/news/col-promotes-blockchain-education

[3] https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/emancipation-from-ball-chain-blockchain-john-dean-markunas

[4] https://medium.com/unboxed-network/our-journey-so-far-unboxed-airdrop-update-72b63ab52631

[5] http://complexitylabs.io/evolution-of-blockchain/

Author Information: Manuel Padilla Cruz, Universidad de Sevilla, mpadillacruz@us.es.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “On the Successfulness of Venting and Its Venues.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 2 (2019): 39-48.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-46P

Image by Emery Way via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

This article continues the points from Padilla-Cruz, Manuel. “On the Pragmatic and Conversational Features of Venting: A Reply to Thorson and Baker.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 2 (2019): 21-30.

And the author ultimately replies to Juli Thorson & Christine Baker (2019) Venting as Epistemic Work, Social Epistemology, DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2018.1561762.

In their recent paper “Venting as epistemic work”, Juli Thorson and Christine Baker (2019: 5) depict venting as a face-to-face action. They deem it to differ from consciousness-raising in that the audience of a venting episode may already have their consciousness raised about some state of affairs. Its importance is claimed to reside in its emotional helpfulness: it enables venters to make “[…] sense of the tangled thoughts and feelings” resulting from the epistemic injustice originating it (Thorson and Baker 2019: 6).

Venting succeeds, the authors argue, when the audience understand testimonial and hermeneutical injustices, even if implicitly, and have “[…] the right kind of standpoint” (Thorson and Baker 2019: 4). This facilitates recognition of the venter’s credibility and may prompt the audience to initiate epistemic work by undertaking the appropriate remedial action to eradicate the epistemic injustice in question.

Such a remedial action may simply amount to a re-assessment of the venter’s epistemic personhood. However, venting may be risky and be likely to cause further epistemic damage, Thorson and Baker (2019: 5-6) aver, if someone vents to the wrong person, i.e., a person who has already undermined or is prone to undermine her epistemic personhood.

In a previous paper, I have addressed the pragmatic and conversational features that enable an adequate and precise characterisation of venting (Padilla Cruz 2019). For it to spark off epistemic work, venting must certainly meet certain requisites, which unveil its felicity conditions (Searle 1969). In terms of propositional content, venting must focus on a recent or past state of affairs. While its preparatory condition establishes that the venter must assess the state of affairs as negative or unfair to herself, its sincerity condition determines that the venter must genuinely believe the state of affairs to be detrimental to herself.

Finally, its essential condition sets that venting must be an attempt by the venter to have her audience recognise that the state of affairs in question has affected her negatively and given rise to a variety of feelings like indignation, anger, disappointment, anxiety, etc.

However, a series of issues still deserve consideration in order to gain a fuller understanding of why venting can result in epistemic work:

  • What does having “the right kind of standpoint” involve?
  • When or why may venting actually be dangerous?
  • Can the interactional locus of venting be limited to face-to-face interaction?

The first issue will be tackled from the angle of Relevance Theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995; Wilson and Sperber 2002, 2004), a cognitive pragmatic model that considers the linguistic properties of utterances and the mental operations that they trigger during comprehension. The second issue will be dealt with from an anthropological angle, some notions coming from psychology and the sociocultural or sociolinguistic branch of pragmatics. More specifically, part of the discussion will rely on concepts and viewpoints contributed by politeness theories, which centre on human verbal action, its conflict-generating or aggressive potential, and how this is softened or redressed. The last issue will be tackled from the perspective of digital discourse analysis, which looks into communicative behaviour through the new technologies and how these are exploited for various social practices and purposes. To conclude, in addition to summarising some of the views and ideas this reply presents, some suggestions for further research will be given.

On the Achievement of the Effects Associated With Venting

Thorson and Baker (2019) simply state that venting may result in epistemic work when the audience have “the right kind of standpoint” but they do not duly explain what they take such a standpoint to amount to. This is something that may be done from a cognitive angle by relying on a pragmatic framework concerned with what the human mind does when processing intentional stimuli like utterances: Relevance Theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995; Wilson and Sperber 2002, 2004). In particular, the effect attributed to venting may be accounted for on the basis of the relevance-theoretic notions of cognitive environment, mutual cognitive environment and metarepresentation.

Individuals represent reality mentally by constructing assumptions or forging beliefs, and store those that they regard as true. When a state of affairs actually is, or is likely to be, mentally represented, it becomes manifest to an individual, since he in effect entertains, or may entertain, (a) belief(s) about it. The whole set of beliefs about states of affairs that he entertains makes up his cognitive environment (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995: 39). Although cognitive environments are highly idiosyncratic, those of two or more individuals may be similar in some respects, i.e. as regards their contents. If this happens, those individuals share a mutual cognitive environment (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995: 42).

The information that individuals process and mentally represent interacts with already stored information in three ways: by lending support to and strengthening old information, by contradicting and subsequently eliminating it, or by yielding new information that can only be derived from the joint interaction of both old and recently processed information. New information coming from such an interaction amounts to contextual implications (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995: 108).

On the other hand, utterances are public –i.e. perceptible, audible– representations of either other private representations –i.e. thoughts, beliefs– or other public ones –i.e. utterances produced by other individuals. Therefore, utterances are metarepresentations of the speaker’s own thoughts, but they can also be used to metarepresent the thoughts attributed to other individuals or the utterances that they (might) have produced.

In the former case, utterances are descriptive metarepresentations; in the latter, they are attributive metarepresentations, as long as there is an (easily) identifiable source of those thoughts or utterances. Furthermore, when utterances attributively metarepresent other individuals’ thoughts or words, speakers can also express their own attitudes towards the metarepresented content. The range of attitudes that they can express includes dissociative, endorsing or questioning ones. Expression of any of them renders utterances echoic metarepresentations (Wilson 1999; Noh 2000; Sperber 2000).

In heavy-load venting episodes where the audience know nothing about the complainable beforehand, the venter descriptively metarepresents her own thoughts and thus makes manifest to the audience assumptions amounting to new information. If the audience sense that the beliefs about the complainable that they forge are similar to those of the venter and experience similar feelings about it, there arises a cognitive mutuality or similarity between their respective cognitive environments, which is indispensable for those individuals to share a common or similar viewpoint. Such a cognitive mutuality will increase if the venter and her audience feel that they (can) further derive similar contextual implications from the beliefs manifest to themselves (Padilla Cruz 2010, 2012).

It is when such a cognitive mutuality or similarity between the venter and the audience’s respective cognitive environments is perceived that venting creates the necessary condition leading to epistemic work: the audience is acquainted with a situation, how someone experiencing it feels, its potential consequences and, eventually, how to fight it. When the audience is unaware of a problematic or unfair situation beforehand, this would be what must happen for them to have the right standpoint and be ready to undertake epistemic work.

In turn, when the audience already knows about an unfair situation and the venter is conscious of this, venting does not only metarepresent and make manifest the venter’s beliefs, but also attributively metarepresents beliefs already manifest to the audience. Similarity between the venter and the audience’s respective cognitive environments already exists, so these intersect in some respects: there is shared information or knowledge about what is vented.

Additionally, both the venter and her audience would realise that they do share (a) common negative attitude(s) towards the vented state of affairs. Hence, the venter may also simultaneously express, in addition to any of the negative attitudes characteristic of venting, a further one of endorsement with that of anger, frustration, wrath, etc., which she is certain that the audience also hold towards the state of affairs in question (Padilla Cruz 2007, 2008, 2010).

Consequently, when the audience are familiarised with what is vented, the venter may signal “the right kind of standpoint” by attributively metarepresenting beliefs already entertained by the audience, expressing her own negative feelings and simultaneously endorsing those of the audience. Such an endorsement is essential for venting to incite epistemic work because it indicates the alignment of the participants in the verbal episode as regards their viewpoints and feelings about the vented unjust state of affairs (Padilla Cruz 2010, 2012).

Why May Venting Be Dangerous?

Through heavy-load venting the venter achieves cognitive mutuality with her audience, whereas in maintenance venting such a mutuality already exists because the venter and her audience’s respective cognitive environments intersect in some respects. Venting, however, may be dangerous, and Thorson and Baker (2019) suggest that this may be the case when someone vents to the wrong person. If so, that person may inflict further epistemic damage.

The cognitive underpinnings of this undesired effect of venting are to be found mainly in an absence of cognitive mutuality, precisely. In other words, the venter and her audience’s cognitive environments not only do not intersect, but are different and perhaps (radically) opposed. To put it differently, the assumptions about the complainable which are manifest to the venter and her audience or the beliefs that these entertain do not match. As a result, the venter’s action becomes conflictive, in Leech’s (1983) terms: it questions, challenges or even attacks the audience’s viewpoint. Or, in Brown and Levinson’s (1987) view, her action amounts to an act threatening the audience’s face.

From an anthropological perspective, individuals are endowed with two quintessential attributes: rationality and face. The latter is the private and public self-image that every competent member of a sociocultural group claims for himself or herself (Goffman 1959, 1967). It is a rather vulnerable, two-sided personal attribute consisting of positive face, or the desire to be liked, appraised and admired, and feel that one’s actions are perceived as desirable or adequate by other people, and negative face, or the desire not to be questioned or challenged, and feel that one’s freedom of action is not curtailed by other people or their actions (Brown and Levinson 1987: 101, 129).

Threats to face stem from an individual’s own actions but also from other people’s actions, so that individuals may put at risk their own positive and negative face, but also those of other individuals at the same time.

Face is a complex and non-stable personal attribute liable to constant (re-)negotiation actions. Its more specific components may even be defined culturally (Arundale 1999). According to Spencer-Oatey (2000, 2008), face may even include what she labels quality face, which is linked to an individual’s skills, capacities, role, job, etc., and identity face, which is connected with the individual’s self-ascription to a sociocultural group, self-delineation, values, beliefs, ideology, viewpoints, etc.

When something is vented to a person with differing ideas or views, the venter is somehow challenging that person’s ideas or views, and thus challenging that person’s identity face. Or, following Brown and Levinson (1987), the venter threatens her audience’s positive face, as their viewpoints, ideas or beliefs about a state of affairs may be implicitly suggested not to be desirable, right or adequate. Venting, then, becomes a face-threatening act.

The reason why such challenge or threat arises is to be found in two psychological traits. On the one hand, confirmation bias or perseverance of belief (Klayman 1995). This is the human tendency to tenaciously adhere to beliefs obtained or conclusions drawn by one’s own means and for which enough supportive evidence is thought to exist. Confirmation bias makes individuals reluctant to abandon beliefs that they think are well rooted or well founded on evidence or reason.

As a consequence, individuals become or remain egocentric –the other psychological trait– and almost blindly trust their own set of beliefs without further questioning and do not admit other individuals’ perspectives. This may also explain why when something is vented to someone, venting may turn out dangerous: the hearer might not be open to differing views and ready to accept criticism, and would perceive the venter’s action as an attack. To it, he would react with some sort of counterattack intended to affirm and secure a safe epistemic position where his beliefs remain unquestioned.

On the Face-to-Face Nature of Venting

Paradoxically, even though the example of venting with which Thorson and Baker (2019) begin their discussion is an e-mail received by one of them, they contend that successful venting must be a face-to-face activity. In other words, venting must occur in situations characterised by the interlocutors’ physical co-presence, where there is immediacy, sequentiality and synchronicity in their verbal contributions (Biber 1988).

Such a claim is excessively restrictive and ignores other advantageous, more recent, less traditional, less text-based forms of communication where those four features of conversational interaction need not be indispensable: computer-mediated communication –e-mailing, instant messaging, blogs, discussion forums, message boards or websites[1]– mediated social networks –Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, to name but some– or the many applications for instant texting.

Venting needs not solely occur in face-to-face contact, but could also be successfully accomplished through any of these new technologies, which greatly facilitate visibility or exposure by reaching larger audiences (Signorelli 2017: 4). Indeed, venters could benefit from what these new technologies now offer in order not to simply achieve their goals, but also to increase the impact of their action and secure the desired reaction(s).

The advent and consolidation of new technologies like the computer decades ago, and the mobile phone or the smartphone more recently, gave rise to new forms of communication that rapidly spread and became new sites for a plethora of social practices (Androutsopoulos 2011: 281). As the technologies were developed and updated to satisfy further social, interactive needs, such forms of communication massively gained adept users and these introduced new conventions and ways of interacting: acronyms, lack of punctuation, new opening or closing formulae, innovative address forms, briefness in messages, etc. (Gains 1999; Wellman and Haythornthwaite 2002; White 2014).

As a result, communication was progressively deprived of its traditional defining features. Their absence may involve disadvantages and increase the probability of misunderstanding, above all when certain new conventions are unknown (Economidou-Kogetsidis 2011, 2016; Padilla Cruz, forthcoming), but the new technologies have attempted to overcome them by facilitating an incredibly rich variety of communicative resources that endow interaction through them with an additional characteristic: multimodality.

For instance, texting or messaging tools incorporate a wide range of emoticons enabling the expression of psychological states (Yus Ramos 2014) and offer the possibility of sending images, videos or voice notes. Similarly, e-mail servers, websites, blogs, discussion forums and message boards allow various formats for attachments and postings –textual and (audio)visual– which enable addition of photographs, drawings, videos, recordings, presentations, etc.

Moreover, discussion forums and message boards permit diverse participants to make their contributions or replies to a particular message, thus generating polylogues. All these resources are not only exploited by the users in order to make their informative intention[2] clearer or to secure correct understanding by helping other users visualise something, but also affect how users carry out their various social practices in the distinct venues that the new technologies offer. As a consequence, specific genres have been reshaped and redefined.

Each of the new technologies may be an excellent venue for venting and any communicative resource may be exploited for venting. Indeed, photographs, videos or drawings may become the first, initial contribution to a potential technology-mediated exchange that will actually unfold when (an)other participant(s) react(s) by means of a reply, further comments, postings, etc.

Subsequent reactions may give rise to polylogues, threads, (mass) forwarding, sharing, etc. Accordingly, it is possible to vent not just orally or textually through more traditional verbal means or written media, but also by displaying videos, posting comments, sharing pictures, etc. Venting, then, can also be multimodal and polylogal.

In this respect, Signorelli (2017) has shown how members of an online community subvert dominant discourses concerning obesity through their messages. Similarly, Garcés-Conejos Blitvich (2018) has also explained how a user of the new technologies took advantage of them in order to denounce the unfair, prejudiced and racist behaviour of a customer at a service encounter.

Smartphone in hand, the user recorded the customer’s offensive, denigrating and abusive words on site and posted the video, which was viewed and shared by several other users. This sparked off an impressive number of furious comments and reactions that resulted in the customer being prosecuted for misconduct, abuse and racism.

Conclusion

When the audience is not previously acquainted with the topic of venting, the venter metarepresents and makes manifest her own viewpoints, and voices her negative feelings with a view to achieving cognitive mutuality with her audience. If the audience is already aware of its topic, the venter metarepresents the thoughts and ideas that she attributes to them, and endorses their negative feelings.

Thus, the venter hints that cognitive mutuality between her and the audience actually exists. Cognitive mutuality increases when the audience feel that they can draw contextual implications that are similar to those that the venter can draw.

Cognitive mutuality is essential for achieving the pursued effects through venting, as it involves an alignment between the venter and her audience. If their cognitive environments are not mutual and do not intersect in any respect, venting may be perceived as a questioning of the audience’s ideas, ultimately threatening their identity. This is why venting may be dangerous and lead to further epistemic damage: the audience may attempt to secure their epistemic position by counterattacking.

Venting cannot be limited to traditional forms of social interaction such as face-to-face verbal communication or written communication. On the contrary, it may appear in more recent technology-mediated forms of communication, which potential venters can certainly take advantage of with a view to reaching larger audiences and magnifying its impact. The new and fascinating challenge that pragmatists, analysts of mediated discourse and communication, researchers in the new technologies and social epistemologists interested in venting now face is to examine and account for the dynamics of newer technology-based forms of venting and their contribution to fighting and eradicating injustices and inequalities.

Future research could look into the characteristics of and constraints on multimodal and polylogal venting, and ascertain their effectiveness. Scholars could additionally examine strategies and techniques deployed in order to increase the exposure of vented states of affairs and the (dis)advantages of specific media or venues. It could also be illuminating to investigate if venting can blend with or shade into other actions such as shaming.

These are just some avenues for future research which will surely shed much light onto this social and epistemic practice and its consequences, and widen our understanding thereof.

Contact details: mpadillacruz@us.es

References

Androutsopoulos, Jannis. “From Variation to Heteroglossia in the Study of Computer-mediated Discourse.” In Digital Discourse: Language in the Media, edited by Crispin Thurlow and Kristine Mroczek, 276-298. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Arundale, Robert. “An Alternative Model and Ideology of Communication for an Alternative to Politeness Theory.” Pragmatics 9 (1999): 119-153.

Biber, Douglas. Variation across Speech and Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Brown, Penelope, and Stephen C. Levinson. Politeness. Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Economidou-Kogetsidis, María. “‘Please Answer Me as Soon as Possible’:  Pragmatic Failure in Non-native Speakers’ E-mail Requests to Faculty.” Journal of Pragmatics 43 (2011): 3193-3215.

Economidou-Kogetsidis, María. “Variation in Evaluations of the (Im)Politeness of Emails from L2 Learners and Perceptions of the Personality of their Senders.” Journal of Pragmatics 106 (2016): 1-16.

Gains, Jonathan. “Electronic Mail –A New Style of Communication or just a New Medium?: An Investigation into the Text Features of E-mail.” English for Specific Purposes 18, no. 1 (1999): 81-101.

Garcés-Conejos Blitvich, Pilar. “Smart Mobs, Cyber Public Shaming, and Social Justice”. Plenary talk delivered at the 11th International Conference on (Im)Politeness. University of Valencia, Spain.

Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday, 1959.

Goffman, Erving. Interactional Ritual: Essays on Face to Face Behavior. New York: Garden City, 1967.

Klayman, Joshua. “Varieties of Confirmation Bias.” In Decision Making from a Cognitive Perspective. The Psychology of Learning and Motivation, edited by Jerome Busemeyer, Reid Hartie and Douglas L. Medin, 385-418. Vol. 32. New York: Academic Press, 1995.

Leech, Geoffrey. Principles of Pragmatics. London: Longman, 1983

Noh, Eun-Ju. Metarepresentation. A Relevance-Theory Approach. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2000.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “Metarepresentations and Phatic Utterances: A Pragmatic Proposal about the Generation of Solidarity between Interlocutors.” In Current Trends in Pragmatics, edited by Piotr Cap and Joanna Nijakowska, 110-128. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “Mindreading and the Communicative Functions of Phatic Utterances.” In Modern Developments in Linguistics and Language Teaching, edited by Tatiana Dubrovskaya and Yrina Kitayeya, 141-146. Moscow: MNEPU (Penza Branch), 2008.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “Metarepresentation and Indirect Complaints: A Relevance-Theoretic Approach.” In In the Mind and across Minds: A Relevance-theoretic Perspective on Communication and Translation, edited by Ewa Wałaszewska, Marta Kisielewska-Krysiuk and Agnieszka Piskorska, 167-187. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “Metarepresentation, Attitudinal Utterances and Attitude Combination: A Relevance-theoretic Approach.” In Relevance Studies in Poland. Volume 4: Essays on Language and Communication, edited by Agnieszka Piskorska, 75-88. Warsaw: Wydawnictwa Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego, 2012.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “Pragmatics and Discourse Analysis.” In The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics, edited by Carol A. Chapelle, 1-6. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2015.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “On the Pragmatic and Conversational Features of Venting. Reply to Thorson and Baker.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 2 (2019): 21-30.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “El malentendido.” Forthcoming.

Searle, John. Speech Acts. An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Signorelli, Julia A. “Of Pumpkin Spice Lattes, Hamplanets, and Fatspeak: The Venting Genre as Support and Subversion on Reddit’s r/Fatpeoplestories.” MA diss., The University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Spencer-Oatey, Helen D. (ed.) Culturally Speaking. Managing Rapport through Talk across Cultures. London: Continuum, 2000.

Spencer-Oatey, Helen D. (ed.) Culturally Speaking: Culture, Communication and Politeness Theory. London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2008.

Sperber, Dan (ed.). Metarepresentations: A Multidisciplinary Perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Sperber, Dan, and Deirdre Wilson. Relevance. Communication and Cognition. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986.

Sperber, Dan, and Deirdre Wilson. Relevance. Communication and Cognition. 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

Thorson, Juli, and Christine Baker. “Venting as Epistemic Work.” Social Epistemology. A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy (2019).

Wellman, Barry, and Caroline Haythornthwaite (eds.). The Internet in Everyday Life. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.

White, Jonathan. “Standardisation of Reduced Forms in English in an Academic Community of Practice.” Pragmatics and Society 5, no. 1 (2014): 105-127.

Wilson, Deirdre. “Metarepresentation in Linguistic Communication.” UCL Working Papers in Linguistics 11 (1999): 127-161.

Wilson, Deirdre, and Dan Sperber. “Relevance Theory.” UCL Working Papers in Linguistics 14 (2002): 249-287.

Wilson, Deirdre, and Dan Sperber. “Relevance Theory.” In The Handbook of Pragmatics, edited by Larry Horn and Gregory Ward, 607-632. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.

Yus Ramos, Francisco. “Not All Emoticons Are Created Equal.” Linguagem em (Dis)curso 14, no. 3 (2014): 511-529.

[1] In technical terms, the difference between a discussion forum and a message board is that the former contains chains of comments on an issue or topic that may be read in block, while the latter organises contributions in thematic groups that can be selected by users.

[2] An individual’s informative intention is the intention to make manifest a specific set of assumptions, i.e. the intention to transmit a specific message (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995).

Technology and Evil, Brian Martin

SERRC —  January 31, 2019 — 2 Comments

Author Information: Brian Martin, University of Wollongong, bmartin@uow.edu.au.

Martin, Brian. “Technology and Evil.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 2 (2019): 1-14.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-466

A Russian Mil Mi-28 attack helicopter.
Image by Dmitri Terekhov via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Humans cause immense damage to each other and to the environment. Steven James Bartlett argues that humans have an inbuilt pathology that leads to violence and ecosystem destruction that can be called evil, in a clinical rather than a religious sense. Given that technologies are human constructions, it follows that technologies can embody the same pathologies as humans. An important implication of Bartlett’s ideas is that studies of technology should be normative in opposing destructive technologies.

Introduction

Humans, individually and collectively, do a lot of terrible things to each other and to the environment. Some obvious examples are murder, torture, war, genocide and massive environmental destruction. From the perspective of an ecologist from another solar system, humans are the world’s major pestilence, spreading everywhere, enslaving and experimenting on a few species for their own ends, causing extinctions of numerous other species and destroying the environment that supports them all.

These thoughts suggest that humans, as a species, have been causing some serious problems. Of course there are many individuals and groups trying to make the world a better place, for example campaigning against war and environmental degradation, and fostering harmony and sustainability. But is it possible that by focusing on what needs to be done and on the positives in human nature, the seriousness of the dark side of human behaviour is being neglected?

Here, I address these issues by looking at studies of human evil, with a focus on a book by Steven Bartlett. With this foundation, it is possible to look at technology with a new awareness of its deep problems. This will not provide easy solutions but may give a better appreciation of the task ahead.

Background

For decades, I have been studying war, ways to challenge war, and alternatives to military systems (e.g. Martin, 1984). My special interest has been in nonviolent action as a means for addressing social problems. Along the way, this led me to read about genocide and other forms of violence. Some writing in the area refers to evil, addressed from a secular, scientific and non-moralistic perspective.

Roy Baumeister (1997), a prominent psychologist, wrote a book titled Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, that I found highly insightful. Studying the psychology of perpetrators, ranging from murderers and terrorists to killers in genocide, Baumeister concluded that most commonly they feel justified in their actions and see themselves as victims. Often they think what they’ve done is not that important. Baumeister’s sophisticated analysis aims to counter the popular perception of evil-doers as malevolent or uncaring.

Baumeister is one of a number of psychologists willing to talk about good and evil. If the word evil feels uncomfortable, then substitute “violence and cruelty,” as in the subtitle of Baumeister’s book, and the meaning is much the same. It’s also possible to approach evil from the viewpoint of brain function, as in Simon Baron-Cohen’s (2011) The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty. There are also studies that combine psychiatric and religious perspectives, such as M. Scott Peck’s (1988) People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil.

Another part of my background is technology studies, including being involved in the nuclear power debate, studying technological vulnerability, communication technology, and technology and euthanasia, among other topics. I married my interests in nonviolence and in technology by studying how technology could be designed and used for nonviolent struggle (Martin, 2001).

It was with this background that I encountered Steven James Bartlett’s (2005) massive book The Pathology of Man: A Study of Human Evil. Many of the issues it addresses, for example genocide and war, were familiar to me, but his perspective offered new and disturbing insights. The Pathology of Man is more in-depth and far-reaching than other studies I had encountered, and is worth bringing to wider attention.

Here, I offer an abbreviated account of Bartlett’s analysis of human evil. Then I spell out ways of applying his ideas to technology and conclude with some possible implications.

Bartlett on Evil

Steven James Bartlett is a philosopher and psychologist who for decades studied problems in human thinking. The Pathology of Man was published in 2005 but received little attention. This may partly be due to the challenge of reading an erudite 200,000-word treatise but also partly due to people being resistant to Bartlett’s message, for the very reasons expounded in his book.

In reviewing the history of disease theories, Bartlett points out that in previous eras a wide range of conditions were considered to be diseases, ranging from “Negro consumption” to anti-Semitism. This observation is part of his assessment of various conceptions of disease, relying on standard views about what counts as disease, while emphasising that judgements made are always relative to a framework that is value-laden.

This is a sample portion of Bartlett’s carefully laid out chain of logic and evidence for making a case that the human species is pathological, namely characteristic of a disease. In making this case, he is not speaking metaphorically but clinically. The fact that the human species has seldom been seen as pathological is due to humans adopting a framework that exempts themselves from this diagnosis, which would be embarrassing to accept, at least for those inclined to think of humans as the apotheosis of evolution.

Next stop: the concept of evil. Bartlett examines a wide range of perspectives, noting that most of them are religious in origin. In contrast, he prefers a more scientific view: “Human evil, in the restricted and specific sense in which I will use it, refers to apparently voluntary destructive behavior and attitudes that result in the general negation of health, happiness, and ultimately of life.” (p. 65) In referring to “general negation,” Bartlett is not thinking of a poor diet or personal nastiness but of bigger matters such as war, genocide and overpopulation.

Bartlett is especially interested in the psychology of evil, and canvasses the ideas of classic thinkers who have addressed this issue, including Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Karl Menninger, Erich Fromm and Scott Peck. This detailed survey has only a limited return: these leading thinkers have little to say about the origins of evil and what psychological needs it may serve.

So Bartlett turns to other angles, including Lewis Fry Richardson’s classic work quantifying evidence of human violence, and research on aggression by ethologists, notably Konrad Lorenz. Some insights come from this examination, including Richardson’s goal of examining human destructiveness without emotionality and Lorenz’s point that humans, unlike most other animals, have no inbuilt barriers to killing members of their own species.

Bartlett on the Psychology of Genocide

To stare the potential for human evil in the face, Bartlett undertakes a thorough assessment of evidence about genocide, seeking to find the psychological underpinning of systematic mass killings of other humans. He notes one important factor, a factor not widely discussed or even admitted: many humans gain pleasure from killing others. Two other relevant psychological processes are projection and splitting. Projection involves denying negative elements of oneself and attributing them to others, for example seeing others as dangerous, thereby providing a reason for attacking them: one’s own aggression is attributed to others.

Splitting involves dividing one’s own grandiose self-conception from the way others are thought of. “By belonging to the herd, the individual gains an inflated sense of power, emotional support, and connection. With the feeling of group-exaggerated power and puffed up personal importance comes a new awareness of one’s own identity, which is projected into the individual’s conception” of the individual’s favoured group (p. 157). As a member of a group, there are several factors that enable genocide: stereotyping, dehumanisation, euphemistic language and psychic numbing.

To provide a more vivid picture of the capacity for human evil, Bartlett examines the Holocaust, noting that it was not the only or most deadly genocide but one, partly due to extensive documentation, that provides plenty of evidence of the psychology of mass killing.

Anti-Semitism was not the preserve of the Nazis, but existed for centuries in numerous parts of the world, and indeed continues today. The long history of persistent anti-Semitism is, according to Bartlett, evidence that humans need to feel prejudice and to persecute others. But at this point there is an uncomfortable finding: most people who are anti-Semitic are psychologically normal, suggesting the possibility that what is normal can be pathological. This key point recurs in Bartlett’s forensic examination.

Prejudice and persecution do not usually bring sadness and remorse to the victimizers, but rather a sense of strengthened identity, pleasure, self-satisfaction, superiority, and power. Prejudice and persecution are Siamese twins: Together they generate a heightened and invigorated belief in the victimizers’ supremacy. The fact that prejudice and persecution benefit bigots and persecutors is often overlooked or denied. (p. 167)

Bartlett examines evidence about the psychology of several groups involved in the Holocaust: Nazi leaders, Nazi doctors, bystanders, refusers and resisters. Nazi leaders and doctors were, for the most part, normal and well-adjusted men (nearly all were men). Most of the leaders were above average intelligence, and some had very high IQs, and many of them were well educated and culturally sophisticated. Cognitively they were superior, but their moral intelligence was low.

Bystanders tend to do nothing due to conformity, lack of empathy and low moral sensibility. Most Germans were bystanders to Nazi atrocities, not participating but doing nothing to oppose them.

Next are refusers, those who declined to be involved in atrocities. Contrary to usual assumptions, in Nazi Germany there were few penalties for refusing to join killings; it was just a matter of asking for a different assignment. Despite this, of those men called up to join killing brigades, very few took advantage of this option. Refusers had to take some initiative, to think for themselves and resist the need to conform.

Finally, there were resisters, those who actively opposed the genocide, but even here Bartlett raises a concern, saying that in many cases resisters were driven more by anger at offenders than empathy with victims. In any case, in terms of psychology, resisters were the odd ones out, being disengaged with the dominant ideas and values in their society and being able to be emotionally alone, without peer group support. Bartlett’s concern here meshes with research on why people join contemporary social movements: most first become involved via personal connections with current members, not because of moral outrage about the issue (Jasper, 1997).

The implication of Bartlett’s analysis of the Holocaust is that there is something wrong with humans who are psychologically normal (see also Bartlett, 2011, 2013). When those who actively resist genocide are unusual psychologically, this points to problems with the way most humans think and feel.

Another one of Bartlett’s conclusions is that most solutions that have been proposed to the problem of genocide — such as moral education, cultivating acceptance and respect, and reducing psychological projection — are vague, simplistic and impractical. They do not measure up to the challenge posed by the observed psychology of genocide.

Bartlett’s assessment of the Holocaust did not surprise me because, for one of my studies of tactics against injustice (Martin, 2007), I read a dozen books and many articles about the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which between half a million and a million people were killed in the space of a few months. The physical differences between the Tutsi and Hutu are slight; the Hutu killers targeted both Tutsi and “moderate” Hutu. It is not widely known that Rwanda is the most Christian country in Africa, yet many of the killings occurred in churches where Tutsi had gone for protection. In many cases, people killed neighbours they had lived next to for years, or even family members. The Rwandan genocide had always sounded horrific; reading detailed accounts to obtain examples for my article, I discovered it was far worse than I had imagined (Martin, 2009).

After investigating evidence about genocide and its implications about human psychology, Bartlett turns to terrorism. Many of his assessments accord with critical terrorism studies, for example that there is no standard definition of terrorism, the fear of terrorism is disproportionate to the threat, and terrorism is “framework-relative” in the sense that calling someone a terrorist puts you in opposition to them.

Bartlett’s interest is in the psychology of terrorists. He is sceptical of the widespread assumption that there must be something wrong with them psychologically, and cites evidence that terrorists are psychologically normal. Interestingly, he notes that there are no studies comparing the psychologies of terrorists and soldiers, two groups that each use violence to serve a cause. He also notes a striking absence: in counterterrorism writing, no one has studied the sorts of people who refuse to be involved in cruelty and violence and who are resistant to appeals to in-group prejudice, which is usually called loyalty or patriotism. By assuming there is something wrong with terrorists, counterterrorism specialists are missing the possibility of learning how to deal with the problem.

Bartlett on War Psychology

Relatively few people are involved in genocide or terrorism except by learning about them via media stories. It is another matter when it comes to war, because many people have lived through a time when their country has been at war. In this century, just think of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, where numerous governments have sent troops or provided military assistance.

Bartlett says there is plenty of evidence that war evokes powerful emotions among both soldiers and civilians. For some, it is the time of life when they feel most alive, whereas peacetime can seem boring and meaningless. Although killing other humans is proscribed by most moral systems, war is treated as an exception. There are psychological preconditions for organised killing, including manufacturing differences, dehumanising the enemy, nationalism, group identity and various forms of projection. Bartlett says it is also important to look at psychological factors that prevent people from trying to end wars.

Even though relatively few people are involved in war as combat troops or even as part of the systems that support war-fighting, an even smaller number devote serious effort to trying to end wars. Governments collectively spend hundreds of billions of dollars on their militaries but only a minuscule amount on furthering the causes of peace. This applies as well to research: there is a vastly more military-sponsored or military-inspired research than peace-related research. Bartlett concludes that, “war is a pathology which the great majority of human beings do not want to cure” (p. 211).

Thinking back over the major wars in the past century, in most countries it has been far easier to support war than to oppose it. Enlisting in the military is seen as patriotic whereas refusing military service, or deserting the army, is seen as treasonous. For civilians, defeating the enemy is seen as a cause for rejoicing, whereas advocating an end to war — except via victory — is a minority position.

There have been thousands of war movies: people flock to see killing on the screen, and the bad guys nearly always lose, especially in Hollywood. In contrast, the number of major films about nonviolent struggles is tiny — what else besides the 1982 film Gandhi? — and seldom do they attract a wide audience. Bartlett sums up the implications of war for human psychology:

By legitimating the moral atrocity of mass murder, war, clothed as it is in the psychologically attractive trappings of patriotism, heroism, and the ultimately good cause, is one of the main components of human evil. War, because it causes incalculable harm, because it gives men and women justification to kill and injure one another without remorse, because it suspends conscience and neutralizes compassion, because it takes the form of psychological epidemics in which dehumanization, cruelty, and hatred are given unrestrained freedom, and because it is a source of profound human gratification and meaning—because of these things, war is not only a pathology, but is one of the most evident expressions of human evil. (p. 225)

The Obedient Parasite

Bartlett next turns to obedience studies, discussing the famous research by Stanley Milgram (1974). However, he notes that such studies shouldn’t even be needed: the evidence of human behaviour during war and genocide should be enough to show that most human are obedient to authority, even when the authority is instructing them to harm others.

Another relevant emotion is hatred. Although hating is a widespread phenomenon — most recently evident in the phenomenon of online harassment (Citron, 2014) — Bartlett notes that psychologists and psychiatrists have given this emotion little attention. Hatred serves several functions, including providing a cause, overcoming the fear of death, and, in groups, helping build a sense of community.

Many people recognise that humans are destroying the ecological web that supports their own lives and those of numerous other species. Bartlett goes one step further, exploring the field of parasitology. Examining definitions and features of parasites, he concludes that, according to a broad definition, humans are parasites on the environment and other species, and are destroying the host at a record rate. He sees human parasitism as being reflected in social belief systems including the “cult of motherhood,” infatuation with children, and the belief that other species exist to serve humans, a longstanding attitude enshrined in some religions.

Reading The Pathology of Man, I was tempted to counter Bartlett’s arguments by pointing to the good things that so many humans have done and are doing, such as everyday politeness, altruism, caring for the disadvantaged, and the animal liberation movement. Bartlett could counter by noting it would be unwise to pay no attention to disease symptoms just because your body has many healthy parts. If there is a pathology inherent in the human species, it should not be ignored, but instead addressed face to face.

Remington 1858 Model Navy .36 Cap and Ball Revolver.
Image by Chuck Coker via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Technologies of Political Control

Bartlett’s analysis of human evil, including that violence and cruelty are perpetrated mostly by people who are psychologically normal and that many humans obtain pleasure out of violence against other humans, can be applied to technology. The aim in doing this is not to demonise particular types or uses of technology but to explore technological systems from a different angle in the hope of providing insights that are less salient from other perspectives.

Consider “technologies of political control,” most commonly used by governments against their own people (Ackroyd et al., 1974; Wright, 1998). These technologies include tools of torture and execution including electroshock batons, thumb cuffs, restraint chairs, leg shackles, stun grenades and gallows. They include technologies used against crowds such as convulsants and infrasound weapons (Omega Foundation, 2000). They include specially designed surveillance equipment.

In this discussion, “technology” refers not just to artefacts but also to the social arrangements surrounding these artefacts, including design, manufacture, and contexts of use. To refer to “technologies of political control” is to invoke this wider context: an artefact on its own may seem innocuous but still be implicated in systems of repression. Repression here refers to force used against humans for the purposes of harm, punishment or social control.

Torture has a long history. It must be considered a prime example of human evil. Few species intentionally inflict pain and suffering on other members of their own species. Among humans, torture is now officially renounced by every government in the world, but it still takes place in many countries, for example in China, Egypt and Afghanistan, as documented by Amnesty International. Torture also takes place in many conventional prisons, for example via solitary confinement.

To support torture and repression, there is an associated industry. Scientists design new ways to inflict pain and suffering, using drugs, loud noises, disorienting lights, sensory deprivation and other means. The tools for delivering these methods are constructed in factories and the products marketed around the world, especially to buyers seeking means to control and harm others. Periodically, “security fairs” are held in which companies selling repression technologies tout their products to potential buyers.

The technology of repression does not have a high profile, but it is a significant industry, involving tens of billions of dollars in annual sales. It is a prime cause of human suffering. So what are people doing about it?

Those directly involved seem to have few moral objections. Scientists use their skills to design more sophisticated ways of interrogating, incarcerating and torturing people. Engineers design the manufacturing processes and numerous workers maintain production. Sales agents tout the technologies to purchasers. Governments facilitate this operation, making extraordinary efforts to get around attempts to control the repression trade. So here is an entire industry built around technologies that serve to control and harm defenceless humans, and it seems to be no problem to find people who are willing to participate and indeed to tenaciously defend the continuation of the industry.

In this, most of the world’s population are bystanders. Mass media pay little attention. Indeed, there are fictional dramas that legitimise torture and, more generally, the use of violence against the bad guys. Most people remain ignorant of the trade in repression technologies. For those who learn about it, few make any attempt to do something about it, for example by joining a campaign.

Finally there are a few resisters. There are groups like the Omega Research Foundation that collect information about the repression trade and organisations like Amnesty International and Campaign Against Arms Trade that campaign against it. Journalists have played an important role in exposing the trade (Gregory, 1995).

The production, trade and use of technologies of repression, especially torture technologies, provide a prime example of how technologies can be implicated in human evil. They illustrate quite a few of the features noted by Bartlett. There is no evidence that the scientists, engineers, production workers, sales agents and politician allies of the industry are anything other than psychologically normal. Indeed, it is an industry organised much like any other, except devoted to producing objects used to harm humans.

Nearly all of those involved in the industry are simply operating as cogs in a large enterprise. They have abdicated responsibility for causing harm, a reflection of humans’ tendency to obey authorities. As for members of the public, the psychological process of projection provides a reassuring message: torture is only used as a last result against enemies such as terrorists. “We” are good and “they” are bad, so what is done to them is justified.

Weapons and Tobacco

Along with the technology of repression, weapons of war are prime candidates for being understood as implicated in evil. If war is an expression of the human potential for violence, then weapons are a part of that expression. Indeed, increasing the capacity of weapons to maim, kill and destroy has long been a prime aim of militaries. So-called conventional weapons include everything from bullets and bayonets to bombs and ballistic missiles, and then there are biological, chemical and nuclear weapons.

Studying weaponry is a way of learning about the willingness of humans to use their ingenuity to harm other humans. Dum-dum bullets were designed to tumble in flight so as to cause more horrendous injuries on exiting a body. Brightly coloured land mines can be attractive to young children. Some of these weapons have been banned, while others take their place. In any case, it is reasonable to ask, what was going through the minds of those who conceived, designed, manufactured, sold and deployed such weapons?

The answer is straightforward, yet disturbing. Along the chain, individuals may have thought they were serving their country’s cause, helping defeat an enemy, or just doing their job and following orders. Indeed, it can be argued that scientific training and enculturation serve to develop scientists willing to work on assigned tasks without questioning their rationale (Schmidt, 2000).

Nuclear weapons, due to their capacity for mass destruction, have long been seen as especially bad, and there have been significant mass movements against these weapons (Wittner, 1993–2003). However, the opposition has not been all that successful, because there continue to be thousands of nuclear weapons in the arsenals of eight or so militaries, and most people seldom think about it. Nuclear weapons exemplify Bartlett’s contention that most people do not do much to oppose war — even a war that would devastate the earth.

Consider something a bit different: cigarettes. Smoking brings pleasure, or at least relief from craving, to hundreds of millions of people daily, at the expense of a massive death toll (Proctor, 2011). By current projections, hundreds of millions of people will die this century from smoking-related diseases.

Today, tobacco companies are stigmatised and smoking is becoming unfashionable — but only in some countries. Globally, there are ever more smokers and ever more victims of smoking-related illnesses. Cigarettes are part of a technological system of design, production, distribution, sales and use. Though the cigarette itself is less complex than many military weapons, the same questions can be asked of everyone involved in the tobacco industry: how can they continue when the evidence of harm is so overwhelming? How could industry leaders spend decades covering up their own evidence of harm while seeking to discredit scientists and public health officials whose efforts threatened their profits?

The answers draw on the same psychological processes involved in the perpetuation of violence and cruelty in more obvious cases such as genocide, including projection and obedience. The ideology of the capitalist system plays a role too, with the legitimating myths of the beneficial effects of markets and the virtue of satisfying consumer demand.

For examining the role of technology in evil, weapons and cigarettes are easy targets for condemnation. A more challenging case is the wide variety of technologies that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and hence to climate change, with potentially catastrophic effects for future generations and for the biosphere. The technologies involved include motor vehicles (at least those with internal combustion engines), steel and aluminum production, home heating and cooling, and the consumption of consumer goods. The energy system is implicated, at least the part of it predicated on carbon-based fuels, and there are other contributors as well such as fertilisers and clearing of forests.

Most of these technologies were not designed to cause harm, and those involved as producers and consumers may not have thought of their culpability for contributing to future damage to the environment and human life. Nevertheless, some individuals have greater roles and responsibilities. For example, many executives in fossil fuel companies and politicians with the power to reset energy priorities have done everything possible to restrain shifting to a sustainable energy economy.

Conceptualising the Technology of Evil

If technologies are implicated in evil, what is the best way to understand the connection? It could be said that an object designed and used for torture embodies evil. Embodiment seems appropriate if the primary purpose is for harm and the main use is for harm, but seldom is this sort of connection exclusive of other uses. A nuclear weapon, for example, might be used as an artwork, a museum exhibit, or a tool to thwart a giant asteroid hurtling towards earth.

Another option is to say that some technologies are “selectively useful” for harming others: they can potentially be useful for a variety of purposes but, for example, easier to use for torture than for brain surgery or keeping babies warm. To talk of selective usefulness instead of embodiment seems less essentialist, more open to multiple interpretations and uses.

Other terms are “abuse” and “misuse.” Think of a cloth covering a person’s face over which water is poured to give a simulation of drowning, used as a method of torture called waterboarding. It seems peculiar to say that the wet cloth embodies evil given that it is only the particular use that makes it a tool to cause harm to humans. “Abuse” and “misuse” have an ignominious history in the study of technology because they are often based on the assumption that technologies are inherently neutral. Nevertheless, these terms might be resurrected in speaking of the connection between technology and evil when referring to technologies that were not designed to cause harm and are seldom used for that purpose.

Consider next the role of technologies in contributing to climate change. For this, it is useful to note that most technologies have multiple uses and consequences. Oil production, for example, has various immediate environmental and health impacts. Oil, as a product, has multitudinous uses, such as heating houses, manufacturing plastics and fuelling military aircraft. The focus here is on a more general impact via the waste product carbon dioxide that contributes to global warming. In this role, it makes little sense to call oil evil in itself.

Instead, it is simply one player in a vast network of human activities that collectively are spoiling the environment and endangering future life on earth. The facilitators of evil in this case are the social and economic systems that maintain dependence on greenhouse gas sources and the psychological processes that enable groups and individuals to resist a shift to sustainable energy systems or to remain indifferent to the issue.

For climate change, and sustainability issues more generally, technologies are implicated as part of entrenched social institutions, practices and beliefs that have the potential to radically alter or destroy the conditions for human and non-human life. One way to speak of technologies in this circumstance is as partners. Another is to refer to them as actors or actants, along the lines of actor-network theory (Latour, 1987), though this gives insufficient salience to the psychological dimensions involved.

Another approach is to refer to technologies as extensions of humans. Marshall McLuhan (1964) famously described media as “extensions of man.” This description points to the way technologies expand human capabilities. Vehicles expand human capacities for movement, otherwise limited to walking and running. Information and communication technologies expand human senses of sight, hearing and speaking. Most relevantly here, weapons expand human capacities for violence, in particular killing and destruction. From this perspective, humans have developed technologies to extend a whole range of capacities, some of them immediately or indirectly harmful.

In social studies of technology, various frameworks have been used, including political economy, innovation, social shaping, cost-benefit analysis and actor-network theory. Each has advantages and disadvantages, but none of the commonly used frameworks emphasises moral evaluation or focuses on the way some technologies are designed or used for the purpose of harming humans and the environment.

Implications

The Pathology of Man is a deeply pessimistic and potentially disturbing book. Probing into the psychological foundations of violence and cruelty shows a side of human behaviour and thinking that is normally avoided. Most commentators prefer to look for signs of hope, and would finish a book such as this with suggestions for creating a better world. Bartlett, though, does not want to offer facile solutions.

Throughout the book, he notes that most people prefer not to examine the sources of human evil, and so he says that hope is actually part of the problem. By continually being hopeful and looking for happy endings, it becomes too easy to avoid looking at the diseased state of the human mind and the systems it has created.

Setting aside hope, nevertheless there are implications that can be derived from Bartlett’s analysis. Here I offer three possible messages regarding technology.

Firstly, if it makes sense to talk about human evil in a non-metaphorical sense, and to trace the origins of evil to features of human psychology, then technologies, as human creations, are necessarily implicated in evil. The implication is that a normative analysis is imperative. If evil is seen as something to be avoided or opposed, then likewise those technologies most closely embodying evil are likewise to be avoided or opposed. This implies making judgements about technologies. In technologies studies, this already occurs to some extent. However, common frameworks, such as political economy, innovation and actor-network theory, do not highlight moral evaluation.

Medical researchers do not hesitate to openly oppose disease, and in fact the overcoming of disease is an implicit foundation of research. Technology studies could more openly condemn certain technologies.

Secondly, if technology is implicated in evil, and if one of the psychological processes perpetuating evil is a lack of recognition of it and concern about it, there is a case for undertaking research that provides insights and tools for challenging the technology of evil. This has not been a theme in technology studies. Activists against torture technologies and military weaponry would be hard pressed to find useful studies or frameworks in the scholarship about technology.

One approach to the technology of evil is action research (McIntyre 2008; Touraine 1981), which involves combining learning with efforts towards social change. For example, research on the torture technology trade could involve trying various techniques to expose the trade, seeing which ones are most fruitful. This would provide insights about torture technologies not available via conventional research techniques.

Thirdly, education could usefully incorporate learning about the moral evaluation of technologies. Bartlett argues that one of the factors facilitating evil is the low moral development of most people, as revealed in the widespread complicity in or complacency about war preparation and wars, and about numerous other damaging activities.

One approach to challenging evil is to increase people’s moral capacities to recognise and act against evil. Technologies provide a convenient means to do this, because human-created objects abound in everyday life, so it can be an intriguing and informative exercise to figure out how a given object relates to killing, hatred, psychological projection and various other actions and ways of thinking involved in violence, cruelty and the destruction of the foundations of life.

No doubt there are many other ways to learn from the analysis of human evil. The most fundamental step is not to turn away but to face the possibility that there may be something deeply wrong with humans as a species, something that has made the species toxic to itself and other life forms. While it is valuable to focus on what is good about humans, to promote good it is also vital to fully grasp the size and depth of the dark side.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Steven Bartlett, Lyn Carson, Kurtis Hagen, Kelly Moore and Steve Wright for valuable comments on drafts.

Contact details: bmartin@uow.edu.au

References

Ackroyd, Carol, Margolis, Karen, Rosenhead, Jonathan, & Shallice, Tim (1977). The technology of political control. London: Penguin.

Baron-Cohen, Simon (2011). The science of evil: On empathy and the origins of cruelty. New York: Basic Books.

Bartlett, Steven James (2005). The pathology of man: A study of human evil. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.

Bartlett, Steven James (2011). Normality does not equal mental health: the need to look elsewhere for standards of good psychological health. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Bartlett, Steven James (2013). The dilemma of abnormality. In Thomas G. Plante (Ed.), Abnormal psychology across the ages, volume 3 (pp. 1–20). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

Baumeister, Roy F. (1997). Evil: Inside human violence and cruelty. New York: Freeman.

Citron, D.K. (2014). Hate crimes in cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gregory, Martyn (director and producer). (1995). The torture trail [television]. UK: TVF.

Jasper, James M. (1997). The art of moral protest: Culture, biography, and creativity in social movements. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Latour, Bruno (1987). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Martin, Brian (1984). Uprooting war. London: Freedom Press.

Martin, Brian (2001). Technology for nonviolent struggle. London: War Resisters’ International.

Martin, Brian (2007). Justice ignited: The dynamics of backfire. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Martin, Brian (2009). Managing outrage over genocide: case study Rwanda. Global Change, Peace & Security, 21(3), 275–290.

McIntyre, Alice (2008). Participatory action research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

McLuhan, Marshall (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man. New York: New American Library.

Milgram, Stanley (1974). Obedience to authority. New York: Harper & Row.

Omega Foundation (2000). Crowd control technologies. Luxembourg: European Parliament.

Peck, M. Scott (1988). People of the lie: The hope for healing human evil. London: Rider.

Proctor, Robert N. (2011). Golden holocaust: Origins of the cigarette catastrophe and the case for abolition. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Schmidt, Jeff (2000). Disciplined minds: A critical look at salaried professionals and the soul-battering system that shapes their lives. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Touraine, Alain (1981). The voice and the eye: An analysis of social movements. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wittner, Lawrence S. (1993–2003). The struggle against the bomb, 3 volumes. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Wright, Steve (1998). An appraisal of technologies of political control. Luxembourg: European Parliament.

Author Information: Frank Scalambrino, Duquesne University, franklscalambrino@gmail.com.

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: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-44B

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: franklscalambrino@gmail.com

References

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: Joshua Earle, Virginia Tech, jearle@vt.edu.

Earle, Joshua. “Deleting the Instrument Clause: Technology as Praxis.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 10 (2018): 59-62.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-42r

Image by Tambako the Jaguar via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Damien Williams, in his review of Dr. Ashley Shew’s new book Animal Constructions and Technical Knowledge (2017), foregrounds in his title what is probably the most important thesis in Shew’s work. Namely that in our definition of technology, we focus too much on the human, and in doing so we miss a lot of things that should be considered technological use and knowledge. Williams calls this “Deleting the Human Clause” (Williams, 2018).

I agree with Shew (and Williams), for all the reasons they state (and potentially some more as well), but I think we ought to go further. I believe we should also delete the instrument clause.

Beginning With Definitions

There are two sets of definitions that I want to work with here. One is the set of definitions argued over by philosophers (and referenced by both Shew and Williams). The other is a more generic, “common-sense” definition that sits, mostly unexamined, in the back of our minds. Both generally invoke both the human clause (obviously with the exception of Shew) and the instrument clause.

Taking the “common-sense” definition first, we, generally speaking, think of technology as the things that humans make and use. The computer on which I write this article, and on which you, ostensibly, read it, is a technology. So is the book, or the airplane, or the hammer. In fact, the more advanced the object is, the more technological it is. So while the hammer might be a technology, it generally gets relegated to a mere “tool” while the computer or the airplane seems to be more than “just” a tool, and becomes more purely technological.

Peeling apart the layers therein would be interesting, but is beyond the scope of this article, but you get the idea. Our technologies are what give us functionalities we might not have otherwise. The more functionalities it gives us, the more technological it is.

The academic definitions of technology are a bit more abstract. Joe Pitt calls technology “humanity at work,” foregrounding the production of artefacts and the iteration of old into new (2000, pg 11). Georges Canguilhem called technology “the extension of human faculties” (2009, pg 94). Philip Brey, referencing Canguilhem (but also Marshall McLuhan, Ernst Kapp, and David Rothenberg) takes this definition up as well, but extending it to include not just action, but intent, and refining some various ways of considering extension and what counts as a technical artefact (sometimes, like Soylent Green, it’s people) (Brey, 2000).

Both the common sense and the academic definitions of technology use the human clause, which Shew troubles. But even if we alter instances of “human” to “human or non-human agents” there is still something that chafes. What if we think about things that do work for us in the world, but are not reliant on artefacts or tools, are those things still technology?

While each definition focuses on objects, none talks about what form or function those objects need to perform in order to count as technologies. Brey, hewing close to Heidegger, even talks about how using people as objects, as means to an end, would put them within the definition of technology (Ibid, pg. 12). But this also puts people in problematic power arrangements and elides the agency of the people being used toward an end. It also begs the question, can we use ourselves to an end? Does that make us our own technology?

This may be the ultimate danger that Heidegger warned us about, but I think it’s a category mistake. Instead of objectifying agents into technical objects, if, instead we look at the exercise of agency itself as what is key to the definition of technology, things shift. Technology no longer becomes about the objects, but about the actions, and how those actions affect the world. Technology becomes praxis.

Technology as Action

Let’s think through some liminal cases that first inspired this line of thought: Language and Agriculture. It’s certainly arguable that either of these things fits any definition of technology other than mine (praxis). Don Ihde would definitely disagree with me, as he explicitly states that one needs a tool or an instrument to be technology, though he hews close to my definition in other ways (Ihde, 2012; 2018). If Pitt’s definition, “humanity at work” is true, then agriculture is, indeed a technology . . . even without the various artifactual apparati that normally surround it.

Agriculture can be done entirely by hand, without any tools whatsoever, is iterative and produces a tangible output: food, in greater quantity/efficiency than would normally exist. By Brey’s and Canguihem’s definition, it should fit as well, as agriculture extends our intent (for greater amounts of food more locally available) into action and the production of something not otherwise existing in nature. Agriculture is basically (and I’m being too cute by half with this, I know) the intensification of nature. It is, in essence, moving things rather than creating or building them.

Language is a slightly harder case, but one I want to explicitly include in my definition, but I would also say fits Pitt’s and Brey’s definitions, IF we delete or ignore the instrument clause. While language does not produce any tangible artefacts directly (one might say the book or the written word, but most languages have never been written at all), it is the single most fundamental way in which we extend our intent into the world.

It is work, it moves people and things, it is constantly iterative. It is often the very first thing that is used when attempting to affect the world, and the only way by which more than one agent is able to cooperate on any task (I am using the broadest possible definition of language, here). Language could be argued to be the technology by which culture itself is made possible.

There is another way in which focusing on the artefact or the tool or the instrument is problematic. Allow me to illustrate with the favorite philosophical example: the hammer. A question: is a hammer built, but never used, technology[1]? If it is, then all of the definitions above no longer hold. An unused hammer is not “at work” as in Pitt’s definition, nor does it iterate, as Pitt’s definition requires. An unused hammer extends nothing vs. Canguilhem and Brey, unless we count the potential for use, the potential for extension.

But if we do, what potential uses count and which do not? A stick used by an ape (or a person, I suppose) to tease out some tasty termites from their dirt-mound home is, I would argue (and so does Shew), a technological use of a tool. But is the stick, before it is picked up by the ape, or after it is discarded, still a technology or a tool? It always already had the potential to be used, and can be again after it is discarded. But such a definition requires that any and everything as technology, which renders the definition meaningless. So, the potential for use cannot be enough to be technology.

Perhaps instead the unused hammer is just a tool? But again, the stick example renders the definition of “tool” in this way meaningless. Again, only while in use can we consider a hammer a tool. Certainly the hammer, even unused, is an artefact. The being of an artefact is not reliant on use, merely on being fashioned by an external agent. Thus if we can imagine actions without artefacts that count as technology, and artefacts that do not count as technology, then including artefacts in one’s definition of technology seems logically unsound.

Theory of Technology

I believe we should separate our terms: tool, instrument, artefact, and technology. Too often these get conflated. Central, to me, is the idea that technology is an active thing, it is a production. Via Pitt, technology requires/consists in work. Via Canguilhem and Brey it is extension. Both of these are verbs: “work” and “extend.” Techné, the root of the word technology, is about craft, making and doing; it is about action and intent.

It is about, bringing-forth or poiesis (a-la Heidegger, 2003; Haraway, 2016). To this end, I propose, that we define “technology” as praxis, as the mechanisms or techniques used to address problems. “Tools” are artefacts in use, toward the realizing of technological ends. “Instruments” are specific arrangements of artefacts and tools used to bring about particular effects, particularly inscriptions which signify or make meaning of the artefacts’ work (a-la Latour, 1987; Barad, 2007).

One critique I can foresee is that it would seem that almost any action taken could thus be considered technology. Eating, by itself, could be considered a mechanism by which the problem of hunger is addressed. I answer this by maintaining that there be at least one step between the problem and solution. There needs to be the putting together of theory (not just desire, but a plan) and action.

So, while I do not consider eating, in and of itself, (a) technology; producing a meal — via gathering, cooking, hunting, or otherwise — would be. This opens up some things as non-human uses of technology that even Shew didn’t consider like a wolf pack’s coordinated hunting, or dolphins’ various clever ways to get rewards from their handlers.

So, does treating technology as praxis help? Does extracting the confounding definitions of artefact, tool, and instrument from the definition of technology help? Does this definition include too many things, and thus lose meaning and usefulness? I posit this definition as a provocation, and I look forward to any discussion the readers of SERRC might have.

Contact details: jearle@vt.edu

References

Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Duke University Press.

Brey, P. (2000). Theories of Technology as Extension of Human Faculties. Metaphysics, Epistemology, and Technology. Research in Philosophy and Technology, 19, 1–20.

Canguilhem, G. (2009). Knowledge of Life. Fordham University Press.

Haraway, D. J. (2016). Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press.

Heidegger, M. (2003). The Question Concerning Technology. In D. Kaplan (Ed.), Readings in the Philosophy of Technology. Rowan & Littlefield.

Ihde, D. (2012). Technics and praxis: A philosophy of technology (Vol. 24). Springer Science & Business Media.

Ihde, D., & Malafouris, L. (2018). Homo faber Revisited: Postphenomenology and Material Engagement Theory. Philosophy & Technology, 1–20.

Latour, B. (1987). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. Harvard university press.

Pitt, J. C. (2000). Thinking about technology. Seven Bridges Press,.

Shew, A. (2017). Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge. Lexington Books.

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

[1] This is the philosophical version of “For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.”

Author Information: William Davis, California Northstate University, William.Davis@csnu.edu.

Davis, William. “Crisis. Reform. Repeat.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 10 (2018): 37-44.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-422

Yale University, in the skyline of New Haven, Connecticut.
Image by Ali Eminov via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

If you have been involved in higher education in recent decades, you have noticed shifts in how courses are conceived and delivered, and what students, teachers, and administrators expect of each other. Also, water feels wet. The latter statement offers as much insight as the first. When authors argue the need for new academic models, indeed that a kind of crisis in United States higher education is occurring, faculty and administrators in higher education are forgiven if we give a yawning reply: not much insight there.

Another Crisis

Those with far more experience in academia than I will, likely, shake their heads and scoff: demands for shifts in educational models and practices seemingly occur every few years. Not long ago, I was part of the SERRC Collective Judgment Forum (2013) debating the notion that Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are the future of higher education. The possibilities and challenges portended by online education would disrupt (“disruptive technologies” often represent the goals not the fears of the California culture where I live and work) the landscape of colleges and universities in the United States and the rest of the world.

Higher education would have to adapt to meet the needs of burgeoning numbers of people (at what point does one become a ‘student?’) seeking knowledge. The system of higher education faced a crisis; the thousands of people enrolling in MOOCs indicated that hordes of students might abandon traditional universities and embrace new styles of learning that matched the demands of twenty-first century life.

Can you count the number of professional crises you have lived through? If the humanities and/or social sciences are your home, then you likely remember quite a few (Kalin, 2017; Mandler, 2015; Tworek, 2013). That number, of course, represents calamity on a local level: crises that affect you, that loom over your future employment. For many academics, MOOCs felt like just such a threat.

Historian of technology Thomas Hughes (1994)[i] describes patterns in the development, change, and emergence of technologies as “technological momentum.” Technological momentum bridges two expansive and nuanced theories of technological development: determinism—the claim that technologies are the crucial drivers of culture—and constructivism—the idea that cultures drive technological change. MOOCs might motivate change in higher education, but the demands of relevant social groups (Pinch and Bijker 1984) would alter MOOCs, too.

Professors ought not fear their jobs would disappear or consolidate so precipitously that the profession itself would be transformed in a few years or decade: the mammoth system of higher education in the U.S. has its own inertia. Change would happen over time; teachers, students, and universities would adapt and exert counter-influences. Water feels wet.

MOOCs have not revolutionized models of higher education in the United States. Behind the eagerness for models of learning that will satisfy increasing numbers of people seeking higher education, of which MOOCs are one example, lies a growing concern about how higher education is organized, practiced, and evaluated. To understand the changes that higher education seems to require, we ought first to understand what it currently offers. Cathy Davidson (2017), as well as Michal Crow and William Dabars (2015), offer such histories of college and university systems in the United States. Their works demonstrate that a crisis in higher education does not approach; it has arrived.

Education in an Age of Flux

I teach at a new college in a university that opened its doors only a decade ago. One might expect that a new college offers boundless opportunity to address a crisis: create a program of study and methods of evaluating that program (including the students and faculty) that will meet the needs of the twenty-first century world. Situated as we are in northern California, and with faculty trained at Research 1 (R1) institutions, our college could draw from various models of traditional higher education like the University of California system or even private institutions (as we are) like Stanford.

These institutions set lofty standards, but do they represent the kinds of institutions that we ought to emulate? Research by Davidson (2017), Crow and Dabars would recommend we not follow the well-worn paths that established universities (those in existence for at least a few decades) in the United States have trodden. The authors seem to adopt the perspective that higher education functions like a system of technology (Hughes 1994); the momentum exerted by such systems has determining effects, but the possibility of directing the course of the systems exists nevertheless.

Michael Crow and William Dabars (2015) propose a design for reshaping U.S. universities that does not require the total abandonment of current models. The impetus for the needed transformation, they claim, is that the foundations of higher education in the U.S. have decayed; universities cannot meet the demands of the era.

The priorities that once drove research institutions have been assiduously copied, like so much assessment based on memorization and regurgitation that teachers of undergraduates might recognize, that their legibility and efficacy have faded. Crow and Dabars target elite, private institutions like Dartmouth and Harvard as exemplars of higher education that cannot, under their current alignment, meet the needs of twenty-first century students. Concerned as they are with egalitarianism, the authors note that public institutions of higher education born from the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 fare no better at providing for the needs of the nation’s people (National Research Council 1995).

Crow and Dabars’s New American University model (2015, pp. 6-8) emphasizes access, discovery, inclusiveness, and functionality. Education ought to be available to all (access and inclusiveness) that seek knowledge and understanding of the world (discovery) in order to operate within, change, and/or improve it (functionality). The Morrill Acts, on a charitable reading, represent the United States of America’s assertion that the country and its people would mutually benefit from public education available to large swaths of the population.

Crow and Dabars, as well as Davidson (2017), base their interventions on an ostensibly similar claim: more people need better access to resources that will foster intellectual development and permit them to lead more productive lives. The nation benefits when individuals have stimulating engagement with ideas through competent instruction.  Individuals benefit because they may pursue their own goals that, in turn, will ideally benefit the nation.

Arizona State University epitomizes the New American University model. ASU enrolls over 70,000 students—many in online programs—and prides itself on the numbers of students it accepts rather than rejects (compare such a stance with Ivy League schools in the U.S.A.). Crow, President of ASU since 2002, has fostered an interdisciplinary approach to higher education at the university. Numerous institutes and centers (well over 50) have been created to focus student learning on issues/topics of present and future concern. For instance, the Decision Center for a Desert City asks students to imagine a future Phoenix, Arizona, with no, or incredibly limited, access to fresh water.

To engage with a topic that impacts manifold aspects of cities and citizens, solutions will require perspectives from work in disciplines ranging from engineering and the physical sciences to the social sciences and the humanities. The traditional colleges of, e.g., Engineering, Law, Arts and Sciences, etc., still exist at ASU. However, the institutes and centers appear as semi-autonomous empires with faculty from multiple disciplines, and often with interdisciplinary training themselves, leading students to investigate causes of and solutions to existing and emerging problems.

ASU aims to educate broad sections of the population, not just those with imposing standardized tests scores and impressive high school GPAs, to tackle obstacles facing our country and our world. Science and Technology Studies, an interdisciplinary program with scholars that Crow and Dabars frequently cite in their text, attracted my interest because its practitioners embrace ‘messy’ problems that require input from, just to name a few, historians, philosophers, political scientists, and sociologists. While a graduate student in STS, I struggled to explain my program of study to others without referencing existing disciplines like philosophy, history, etc. Though I studied in an interdisciplinary program, I still conceptualized education in disciplinary silos.

As ASU graduates more students, and attracts more interdisciplinary scholars as teachers, we ought to observe how their experiment in education impacts the issues and problems their centers and institutes investigate as well as the students themselves. If students learn from interdisciplinary educators, alongside other students that have not be trained exclusively in the theories and practices of, say, the physical sciences or humanities and social sciences, then they might not see difficult challenges like mental illness in the homeless population of major U.S. cities as concerns to be addressed mainly by psychology, pharmacology, and/or sociology.

Cathy Davidson’s The New Education offers specific illustrations of pedagogical practices that mesh well with Crow and Dabars’s message. Both texts urge universities to include larger numbers of students in research and design, particularly students that do not envision themselves in fields like engineering and the physical sciences. Elite, small universities like Duke, where Davidson previously taught, will struggle to scale up to educate the masses of students that seek higher education, even if they desired to do so.

Further, the kinds of students these institutions attract do not represent the majority of people seeking to further their education beyond the high school level. All colleges and universities need not admit every applicant to align with the models presented by Davidson, Crow and Dabars, but they must commit to interdisciplinary approaches. As a scholar with degrees in Science and Technology Studies, I am an eager acolyte: I buy into the interdisciplinary model of education, and I am part of a college that seeks to implement some version of that model.

Questioning the Wisdom of Tradition

We assume that our institutions have been optimally structured and inherently calibrated not only to facilitate the production and diffusion of knowledge but also to seek knowledge with purpose and link useful knowledge with action for the common good. (Crow and Dabars 2015, 179)

The institutions that Crow, Dabars, and Davidson critique as emblematic of traditional models of higher education have histories that range from decades to centuries. As faculty at a college of health sciences established the same year Crow and Dabars published their work, I am both excited by their proposals and frustrated by the attempts to implement them.

My college currently focuses on preparing students for careers in the health sciences, particularly medicine and pharmacy. Most of our faculty are early-career professionals; we come to the college with memories of how departments were organized at our previous institutions.

Because of my background in an interdisciplinary graduate program at Virginia Tech, and my interest in the program’s history (originally organized as the Center for the Study of Science in Society), I had the chance to interview professors that worked to develop the structures that would “facilitate the production and diffusion of knowledge” (Crow and Dabars 2015, 179). Like those early professors at Virginia Tech, our current faculty at California Northstate University College of Health Sciences come from distinct disciplines and have limited experience with the challenges of designing and implementing interdisciplinary coursework. We endeavor to foster collaboration across disciplines, but we learn as we go.

Crow and Dabars’s chapter “Designing Knowledge Enterprises” reminds one of what a new institution lacks: momentum. At meetings spread out over nearly a year, our faculty discussed and debated the nuances of a promotion and retention policy that acknowledges the contributions of all faculty while satisfying administrative demands that faculty titles, like assistant, associate, and full professor, reflect the practices of other institutions. What markers indicate that a scholar has achieved the level of, say, associate professor?

Originally trained in disciplines like biology, chemistry, physics, or English (coming from the interdisciplinary program of Science and Technology Studies, I am a bit of an outlier) our faculty have been disciplined to think in terms of our own areas of study. We have been trained to advance knowledge in increasingly particular specialties. The criteria to determine a faculty member’s level largely matches what other institutions have developed. Although the faculty endeavored to create a holistic rubric for faculty evaluation, we confronted an administration more familiar with analytic rubrics. How can a university committee compare the work done by professors of genetics and composition?[ii]

Without institutional memory to guide us, the policies and directives at my college of health sciences develop through collective deliberation on the needs of our students, staff, faculty, college, and community. We do not invent policy. We examine publicly available policies created at and for other institutions of higher learning to help guide our own decisions and proposals. Though we can glean much from elite private institutions, as described by Crow and Dabars, and from celebrated public institutions like the University of California or California State University systems that Davidson draws upon at times in her text, my colleagues know that we are not like those other institutions and systems of higher education.

Our college’s diminutive size (faculty, staff, and students) lends itself to agility: when a policy is flawed, we can quickly recognize a problem and adjust it (not to say we rectify it, but we move in the direction of doing so, e.g., a promotion policy with criteria appropriate for faculty, and administrators, from any department). If we identify student, staff, faculty, or administrator needs that have gone unaddressed, we modify or add policies.

The size of our college certainly limits what we can do: we lack the faculty and student numbers to engage in as many projects as we like. We do not have access to the financial reservoirs of large or long-standing institutions to purchase all the equipment one finds at a University of California campus, so we must be creative and make use of what materials we do possess or can purchase.

What our college lacks, somewhat counterintuitively, sets us up to carry forth with what Davidson (2017) describes in her chapter “The Future of Learning:”

The lecture is broken, so we must think of better ways to incorporate active learning into the classroom . . . . The traditional professional and apprentice models don’t teach students how to be experts, and so we must look to peer learning and peer mentoring, rich cocurricular experiences, and research to put the student, not the professor or the institution, at the center. (248-9)

Davidson does not contend that lecture has no place in a classroom. She champion flipped classrooms (Armbruster, Patel, Johnson, and Weiss 2009) and learning spaces that emphasize active student engagement (Elby 2001; Johnson and Johnson 1999) with ideas and concepts—e.g., forming and critiquing arguments (Kuhn 2010).

Claiming that universities “must prepare our students for their epic journey . . . . should give them agency . . . to push back [against the world] and not merely adapt to it” (Davidson 2017, 13) sounds simultaneously like fodder for a press-release and a call to action. It will likely strike educators, a particular audience of Davidson’s text, as obvious, but that should not detract from its intentions. Yes, students need to learn to adapt and be flexible—their chosen professions will almost certainly transform in the coming decades. College students ought to consider the kinds of lives they want to live and the people they want to be, not just the kinds of professions they wish to pursue.

Ought we demonstrate for students that the university symbolizes a locale to cultivate a perspective of “sympathy, empathy, sensitivity, and responsiveness” (Held 2011, p. 479)? Do we see ourselves in a symbiotic world (Margulis and Sagan) or an adversarial world of competition? Davidson, Crow, and Dabars propose a narrative of connectivity, not just of academic disciplines, but of everyday problems and concerns. Professors ought to continue advancing knowledge, even in particular disciplines, but we must not imagine that we do it alone (individually, in teams, in disciplines, or even in institutions).

After Sifting: What to Keep

Crow and Dabars emphasize the interplay between form and function as integral to developing a model for the New American University. We at California Northstate also scrutinize the structure of our colleges. Though our college of health sciences has a life and physical science department, and a department of humanities and social sciences, our full-time faculty number less than twenty. We are on college and university committees together; we are, daily, visible to each other.

With varying levels of success so far, we have developed integrated course-based undergraduate research experiences for our students. In the coming year, we aim to integrate projects in humanities and social sciences courses with those from the physical sciences. Most of our students want to be health practitioners, and we endeavor to demonstrate to them the usefulness of chemistry along with service learning. As we integrate our courses, research, and outreach projects, we aim to provide students with an understanding that the pieces (courses) that make up their education unify through our work and their own.

Team teaching a research methods course with professors of genetics and chemistry in the fall of 2017, I witnessed the rigor and the creativity required for life and physical science research. Students were often confused: the teachers approached the same topics from seemingly disparate perspectives. As my PhD advisor, James Collier, often recounted to me regarding his graduate education in Science and Technology Studies (STS), graduate students were often expected to be the sites of synthesis. Professors came from traditional departments like history, philosophy, and sociology; students in STS needed to absorb the styles and techniques of various disciplines to emerge as interdisciplinarians.

Our students in the research methods class that fall saw a biologist, a chemist, and an STS scholar and likely thought: I want to be none of those things. Why should I learn how to be a health practitioner from professors that do not identify as health practitioners themselves?

When faculty adapt to meet the needs of students pursuing higher education, we often develop the kinds of creole languages elaborated by Peter Galison (1997) to help our students see the connections between traditionally distinct areas of study. Our students, then, should be educated to speak in multiple registers depending on their audience, and we must model that for them. Hailing from disparate disciplines and attempting to teach in ways distinct from how we were taught (e.g., flipped classrooms) and from perspectives still maturing (interdisciplinarity), university faculty have much to learn.

Our institutions, too, need to adapt: traditional distinctions of teaching, scholarship, and service (the hallmarks of many university promotion policies) will demand adjustment if they are to serve as accurate markers of the work we perform. Students, as stakeholders in their own education, should observe faculty as we struggle to become what we wish to see from them. Davidson, Crow, and Dabars argue that current and future crises will not be resolved effectively by approaches that imagine problems as solely technical, social, economic, cultural, or political. For institutions of higher education to serve the needs of their people, nations, and environments (just some of the pieces that must be served), they must acclimate to a world of increasing connectivity. I know: water feels wet.

Contact details: William.Davis@csnu.edu

References

Armbruster, Peter, Maya Patel, Erika Johnson, and Martha Weiss. 2009. “Active Learning and Student-centered Pedagogy Improve Student Attitudes and Performance in Introductory Biology” Cell Biology Education—Life Sciences Education 8: 203-13.

Bijker, Wiebe. 1993. “Do Not Dispair: There Is Life after Constructivism.” Science, Technology and Human Values 18: 113-38.

Crow, Michael; and William Dabars. Designing the New University. Johns Hopkinds University Press, 2015.

Davidson, Cathy. The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux. Basic Books, 2017.

Davis, William, Martin Evenden, Gregory Sandstrom and Aliaksandr Puptsau. 2013. “Are MOOCs the Future of Higher Education? A Collective Judgment Forum.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 2 (7) 23-27.

Elby, Andrew. 2001. “Helping Physics Students Learn How to Learn.” American Journal of Physics (Physics Education Research Supplement) 69 (S1): S54-S64.

Galison, Peter. 1997. Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Hughes, Thomas. 1994. “The Evolution of Large Technical Systems.” The Social Construction of Technological Systems: New Directions in the Sociology and History of Technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Johnson, David, and Roger T. Johnson. 1999. “Making Cooperative Learning Work.” Theory into Practice 38 (2): 67-73.

Kalin, Mike. “The Crisis in the Humanities: A Self-Inflicted Wound?” Independent School, Winter 2017. https://www.nais.org/magazine/independent-school/winter-2017/the-crisis-in-the-humanities-a-self-inflicted-wou/

Kuhn, Deanna. 2010. “Teaching and Learning Science as Argument.” Science Education 94 (5): 810-24.

Mandler, Peter. “Rise of the Humanities.” Aeon Magazine, December 17, 2015. https://aeon.co/essays/the-humanities-are-booming-only-the-professors-can-t-see-it

National Research Council. Colleges of Agriculture at the Land Grant Universities: A Profile. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1995.

Pinch, Trevor and Wiebe Bijker. 1984. “The Social Construction of Facts and Artifacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each Other.” Social Studies of Science 14: 399-441.

Smith, Merritt, and Leo Marx. 1994. Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism

Tworek, Heidi. “The Real Reason the Humanities Are ‘in Crisis.’” The Atlantic, December 18, 2013. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/12/the-real-reason-the-humanities-are-in-crisis/282441/

[i] My descriptions here of technological determinism and social constructivism lack nuance. For specifics regarding determinism, see the 1994 anthology from Leo Marx and Merritt Smith, Does Technology Drive History. For richer explanations of constructivism, see Bijker (1993), “Do not despair: There is life after constructivism,” and Pinch and Bijker (1984) “The social construction of facts and artifacts: Or how the sociology of science and the sociology of technology might benefit each other.”

[ii] Hardly rhetorical, that last question is live on my campus. If you have suggestions, please write me.