The Truth About Technology

Some memories have a way of being stored in the brain under the same category. Taking a stroll down memory lane, one will tend to see side streets diverging with names such as “pubescent me” or “mom tips.” I happen to have a particular street labeled as “the pompous interlocutor:” the person who, at dinner parties, seems to come up with an incredibly bland or popular-mechanics sort of answer to anything that requires deep thought. And so I can picture this pompous interlocutor replying to a question such as “what is technology” with an all too boring answer such as “why, it’s a tool, silly!”

Well, I’d like to think about technology because it is not merely a tool. See, my hammer doesn’t really have the same characteristics as the internet or my smartphone. It would surprise you, perhaps, to learn that I classify many things as technologies that you would not conceive of being called that way. Would you, for instance, classify language as a technology? If so, is language a tool? If it is a tool, then it is one which is of inordinate importance for it seems that complex thinking, the most elemental of human activities, seems to be impossible without language.

The first time I came across this question was when I read Heidegger. The sensorial experience of reading Heidegger to me comes with the taste of beer, the heat of a Texan summer and the weight of an inexpensive paperback, fleeting images stored in my memory as “undergrad experience.” But the notions that reading Heidegger inspired have lasted over ten years and are stored as “life-changing experiences.”

I described (and I apologize for I did a terrible job at that) last week Aristotle’s four causes. Heidegger relies upon that concept to explore what technology is and his answer is surprising. Heidegger says that technology is a constant stream of revealing the truth, a way that is always present in our activities and which reveals to us forms of existence that would otherwise remain hidden. We are, in a sense, chained to technology and cannot escape it. Technology is a way of being, not a tool.

If we think of ourselves as having parts, we could at least come up with two kinds of parts: our bodies and our minds. Within the latter we have another sub-division: the intellect and the will. If technology is a way in which we reveal the truth to ourselves about the world, then we are concerned with the mind and the will. To be engaged in understanding the truth has implications that are far reaching and impact our ethics, morals, work, and endless other human activities. It implies that, at every waking moment, we decide whether we want to look at the world in one way or another, always making tradeoffs.

In the next post, I will explore further what Heidegger says and what these tradeoffs are, so that we can further engage with them and come to terms with the existence we have been given.

The Best Way To Spend Your Wednesday Morning

Most humans spend their mornings deciding whether they’re going to be trees, onions, squirrels or just plain old humans. They wake up every morning and don’t remember at all what they did the day before but simply start fresh. Today, as you go about your daily business, you may thank your morning self for not choosing to become some of the lesser forms of being that result from natural digestive processes that are better described by biologists or certain, very wise and observant toddlers.

“But, hold on,” you might be thinking to yourself, “that’s not at all how it goes and I’ve never forgotten, at least not entirely, what I was up to the day before.” And I would most emphatically congratulate you for you have just begun the first step on the journey to become a metaphysician.

Metaphysics began as a serious attempt at understanding change: why is it that we are able to recognize some features as staying the same but others as changing? Almost instantly, other questions arose, such as: why do some things come into being? Why do things become what they are? That is: why does an acorn become an oak and not an ice cream? And, finally, what is being? On the quest to answer these questions hinges much of what many would recognize as the true drama of human history.

And now, to some answers.

Plato and Aristotle came from a long tradition of thinkers before them that had tackled these questions, with varying degrees of clarity and all sorts of creative answers. It was with Plato and Aristotle, however, that the conversation shifted to an actual study of being, from whence answers to the other questions could come. For Plato, being came from the Forms: the abstract, immaterial, eternal and unchanging realities that give being to everything in the world. Plato, however, wrote in dialogues and not in systematic treatises. We therefore have many and sometimes conflicting ideas as to what these forms are exactly and what the process of interaction between them and the “created” world looks like. It is on Aristotle that we must count on to get a more thorough explanation of what is being and how change comes about.

Without going into too much detail about Aristotle’s work, suffice it to say that he came up with a basic framework to define being and change: things have essential qualities and accidental qualities. That is: things have that which makes them be what they are and things about them that can be different at different times without changing what that same thing is. To put it more bluntly: if you get a haircut you’re still going to be a human being, just wearing your hair differently. There is also a way to determine what each of these two qualities are in each being. That is through the four causes.

When a thing exists, it can be described as having its being in four ways:

  1. Its material cause: the material composition of a thing: metal, wood, bone and sinew; i.e.: the bronze that a statue in a public square is made out of.
  2. Its efficient cause: the immediate action which brought about the existence of a thing; i.e.: the craftsman or artist that carves out a statue.
  3. Its formal cause: that which gives a thing its “whatness,” what makes it be what it is; i.e.: in a statue this would be the form of a human, such as a general on horseback.
  4. Its final cause: that which gives a thing its “why”; i.e.: a statue that serves as a memorial of a past event.

Through Aristotle’s framework, we can more or less determine the nature of a thing and see what it should be, according to what it in fact is. This is called teleology: the notion that things have a definite nature and that the mind can grasp when something is deviating from its nature. It then becomes possible to define what the correct way of life for a person is: since a person can be definitely defined and identified, it follows that it should live in a certain way. This framework eventually gave rise to the idea that to be truly happy, a person must live an ethical and virtuous life.

Naturally, not everyone agreed with Aristotle, but his view became more or less standard for the next 1,700 years or so.

Now, if any trained philosopher reads what will follows (and, to some extent, what I have said above), he would probably bring a lawsuit against me and bring me to trail for all the grave misrepresentations and over-simplifications that I am here going to make. I will nonetheless proceed and, in very general terms, provide a sketch of how the rest of the history of metaphysics sort of became an answer or a coming to terms with what Aristotle said.

Why We Need To Think About Magic

I had been avoiding reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy for many years. I somehow had the impression that it was boring, but 40 pages in and my mind has been blown already. In any case, now that you’ve read into the third line of this post, I might as well tell you that this post is not about Foundation and its fascinating reflections on the nature of power. That post may be forthcoming but it might also not. This post is about magic.

While reading Asimov, I came across this passage: “A man in glaring blue and yellow uniform, shining and new in unstainable plastotextile, reached for his two bags. […] ‘The Luxor Hotel,’ said the driver.” To give you some context: a man who had just gotten off a spaceship that could travel millions of light years, had just gotten off a taxi that had to be driven by a person. And here we are in the 21st century with no colonies in Mars but have driverless cars zooming around in some cities with the hopes of taking this technology to scale in less than two decades. As I read that passage, I thought to myself: how would I write about a futuristic society and achieve “technological foresight immortality”? And by this I mean: how would I write something that doesn’t seem dated forty or fifty years down the line?

Questions like this might blow up the internet, naturally, but this question brought me to another passage in another, quite different, book:

‘And you?’ she said, turning to Sam. ‘For this is what your folk would call magic, I believe; though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem to use the same word of the deceits of the Enemy. But this, if you will, is the magic of Galadriel. Did you not say that you wished to see Elf-magic?’[1]

This is the encounter between Galadriel, Frodo and Sam in Lothlorien. I then asked myself: why does Galadriel not understand what magic is? For those who’ve read some of Tolkien’s essays and letters, you’ll know that this has to do with his “metaphysics” or the underlying structure of the world he created. Without going down the rabbit hole with this notion, suffice it to say for now that the interaction between an elf’s mind and the world around him is not limited in the same way that a hobbit’s, or a human’s is. That is, elves have a certain control over matter and nature that enables them to shape the world through images and notions in their minds.

Herein lies the secret, I believe, to writing about technology: the more perfect a technology is, the less there is a barrier between a person’s mind and the world around him.

I hope to follow up on this notion with a few ideas I explored in my thesis a long time ago, where I relied upon Heidegger’s analysis of technology to explore the nature of the internet and its impact on how we perceive ourselves.

In the meantime, I highly suggest reading Asimov 😊

[1] Tolkien, J.R.R.. The Lord of the Rings: One Volume (p. 389). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

How To Crush It (Or Work At Your Best)

Last Wednesday, I shared some of my ideas about philosophy: where I learned some of the things I hold to be true and why they are useful to me. This week I want to share some resources that helped me get to where I am professionally and continue to be valuable.

2.     Resources for the young professional:

  • So Good They Can’t Ignore You: this book really resonated with me. I think that, overall, Cal Newport is right in saying that in order to achieve a highly satisfying professional career, you must first focus on developing skills that are in high demand. Passion usually follows this. Plus, being useful to others is generally highly satisfying.
  • Deep Work: again by Cal Newport, he dives into the topic of how to work best. The key takeaway is that setting aside time to work deeply without interruptions yields the best kind of knowledge work the mind can produce. The key is to have no distractions. There has been a lot of science supporting this claim.
  • a product that’s become a company developed by a good friend of mine. This platform will teach you work habits that will enable you to be in flow when you work. It goes beyond work habits, however, to help you become more introspective and truly gain satisfaction in life.
  • The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: one of my all-time favorites, this book taught me to focus on the things I can control and work towards them, leaving the tings that are out of my control to sort themselves.

As you can probably tell, these resources are profoundly influenced by some of the philosophers I mentioned in my previous post. I hope they’re useful to some extent and please share more if you come across any that helped you!

What to Do About This Thing Called Life

Over the years, I’ve come across certain resources that have definitively shaped the way I think and who I am. I’ll share them here in a few broad categories that are not necessarily mutually exclusive but provide a preliminary grounding for explaining why I think each resource is valuable and in what kinds of context I’ve applied each. I hope you like this list and feel free to share your thoughts!

1.     Why do we exist and what should we do with this thing called life?

Personally, I would be unable to do anything significant with my life if I didn’t understand why I do what I do. Here’s a sort of guide for how I went about things:

  • Read a lot of Ancient philosophy including:
    • Plato’s Republic, the Meno, Phaedo, Phaedrus and Symposium. Plato thinks that there is a thing called the Good, towards which we all strive. This Good is an abstract reality. In essence, the goal of life is to become virtuous and lead a good life to get to know the good. This will lead to blessedness and joy.
    • Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, On the Soul, Politics and Organum (his treatises on language and logic). Aristotle develops a theory on how things come into being and become other things. His theory on the goal of life is more appealing and coherent than Plato’s (simply because he didn’t write in dialogues, whereas Plato says contradictory things because his ideas are set down in dialogue form). Essentially, Aristotle says that we are able to understand what our nature is and become virtuous according to our nature. This entails practicing becoming virtuous: courageous, truthful, just, prudent, etc. The key difference between Plato and Aristotle is that the former thought virtue came out of knowledge, but the latter claims it comes out of practice.
    • The Stoics: Marcus Aurelius is probably one of the best examples of this philosophy.
    • The Epicureans: Read On the Nature of Things by Lucretius.
    • The Academics: the best way to get an understanding of what these intellectuals taught is to read Cicero’s On Academic Skepticism.
    • Probably one of the best works that sort of deals with all of these questions in a more succinct matter is Cicero’s On the Good Life.
  • Read more philosophy:
    • Augustine’s Cassiciacum dialogues, including: Soliloquy, On Order, On the Good Life, Against the Academics. Also, profoundly affecting the way I understood the world was On Free Choice of the Will.
  • Read some more philosophy:
    • Kant;
    • Hume;
    • Hegel;
    • Marx;
    • Nietzsche;
    • Heidegger;
    • Sartre;
    • Foucault.

The key takeaway for me from philosophy is that life is complicated, that the mind exists and can learn concepts that are true independently from itself through great effort, and that the best way to live life is to examine it, learn the truth about self and the world and pursue it relentlessly.

I will follow up on Friday with resources that deal with other, more mundane but equally important aspects of life 😊