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Excerpt: Prometheanism: Technology, Digital Culture and Human Obsolescence

 The following is an extract from Prometheanism: Technology, Digital Culture and Human Obsolescence by Christopher John Müller, published by Rowman & Littlefield International.  



Thinking Finitude, Digital Technology and Human Obsolescence with Günther Anders.


“‘Technology’ is a fetish-word that covers over our lack of understanding of finitude and our terror at the precipitate and unbridled character of our ‘mastery’, which no longer knows either end or completion.”

– Jean-Luc Nancy, A Finite Thinking.


“Prometheus’s triumph has been all too overwhelming.”

– Günther Anders, On Promethean Shame.


Prometheus, ‘the brilliant’, ‘the clever, shifty one’ first enters the Western imaginary as a trickster. The name Prometheus means ‘fore-thought’ and records the Titan’s scheming and cunning nature, whereas his dim-witted brother Epimetheus (‘after-thought’) is described less flatteringly by Hesiod as the ‘mind that missed the mark’. In ancient mythology the story of Prometheus has many versions. Prometheus appears as the creator of mankind who bestows on us his brilliance and his ability to think and plan ahead. Other versions, Plato’s Protagoras, for instance, which is central to Bernard Stiegler’s influential reading in Technics and Time 1, focus on Epimetheus, the idiot brother without whom the figure of Prometheus, as Stiegler puts it ‘makes no sense’. While helping his brother to create life, Epimetheus forgets to reserve any of the qualities and abilities he distributed so harmoniously among animals, leaving the newly formed humans ‘naked, unshod, without bedding or weapons.’ A third trope of the myth is given central stage in Aeschylus’s account, in which Prometheus is shown to have protected us from the knowledge of death that foresight inevitably brings. As the Titan proudly declares with bound hands and a liver awaiting the eagle’s tormenting beak, ‘I stopped mortals from brooding on death’, ‘I made to lodge within them blind hopes’.

These divergent accounts all converge on the central deed that the myth narrates, the deed that names the source of the blind hopes Aeschylus evokes: Prometheus tricks the gods and steals fire from them to bestow it on us. The gift of fire signifies technology and the skill to create and inhabit artificial structures with which Prometheus retroactively furnishes his creation. Humanity begins by becoming technological, by advancing into the space of possibility that technology and artificial skill open. As Pierre Hadot has outlined in a compelling reading, the trickery of Prometheus is remembered in the Greek mekhane, from which we derive the words ‘machine’ and ‘mechanics’: ‘For the Greeks, mechanics first appeared as a techniques for tricking nature, and by obliging nature to do what it cannot do by itself, by means of artificial and fabricated instruments, or “machines” – scales, wedges, screws, gears – which can serve, for instance, for the construction of war machines or automata.’ Hadot’s words accentuate how Prometheus’s trickery escapes the grasp and control or the trickster. The art and skill of tricking nature is not only employed to prolong life, to overcome suffering with medicine and to seek meaning in art and philosophy. The innate limitations and the frailty of the human body are not only reconfigured to extend a helpful hand, the power of artifice also begins to trick the good intentions of benevolent Prometheus. For, technology also names the innumerable ways in which humans are tricked out of lives worth living. It kills, destroys and exploits; it is used to create automata that can replace the creatures Prometheus sought to provide for and protect. ‘You are pleased at having stolen fire and outwitted me’, Hesiod’s Zeus addresses the fire-thief with thundering words, ‘a great calamity both for yourself and for humans to come’.

This, of course, is not a book about Greek myth. Yet at the threshold of what Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee have recently called The Second Machine Age, an age in which ‘smart devices’, ‘the big data revolution’ and ‘networked and artificial intelligence’ are reconfiguring all aspects of the consumerist societies in which they proliferate, the trickery of Prometheus opens us to ways of thinking about technology that resist the intellectually and comfortable position of mobilizing a false opposition between ‘humanity’ and ‘technology’ when looking ahead into our digital future. Placed in opposition to humanity, ‘technology’ turns into a ‘fetish word’, to use Jean-Luc Nancy’s phrase. The word ‘technology’ often takes on the function of a blanket description for a wide range of instruments, technological devices and machines that are considered to be under human control. The slogan of the American National Rifle Association ‘guns don’t kill people – people kill people’ succinctly introduces the idea about technology which, as Arthur Bradley puts it, has ‘dominated’ Western thought: technological objects are neutral because they can be ‘utilised for good or ill depending upon who or what happens to wield [them]’.

At the same time and at the other end of the spectrum, ‘technology’ is opposed to ‘humanity’ in order to name a malignant force running out of control and threatening everything human. Here, the instrumental definition of technology just described is inverted to present machines as being in control of humanity. Such notions of technology becoming increasingly hostile towards their onetime masters find expression in the dystopian futures with which film and literature present us, and in the cultural anxieties that surround the prospect of artificial intelligence (in all its guises). The hostile position is frequently also narrowly ascribed to philosophical approaches that confront us with the idea that human existence has become progressively alienated in the course of our technological modernity (reductive readings of Karl Marx, Walter Benjamin and Martin Heidegger spring to mind). Our ‘incomprehension’ of the possible futures our technological mastery is propelling us towards ‘demands a new sort of thinking’, as Nancy puts it, one that is not preoccupied with ‘exorcising the purely verbal demon’ and ‘false concept’ which the word ‘technology’ points towards. The challenge we face today is that technology is revealing itself in increasingly obvious way neither as a neutral tool to be used well or badly nor simply as a malignant force perverting the human. We live in a time, as Katherine Hayles writes in reference to herself, in which a lack of a phone signal or an internet connection or a low battery can make us ‘feel lost, disorientated, unable to work’, or even give us the impression that our ‘hands have been amputated’. Such feelings of deprivation propel us to the heart of the myth of Prometheus, a myth which suggests that technology is not a ‘thing’ at all, but that it names a space of possibility which configures the way we think, feel, speak and encounter ourselves and others. Put otherwise, such feelings force us to see something that is otherwise imperceptible: the trickery of machines at work in the depths of the human soul.


From Prometheanism: Technology, Digital Culture and Human Obsolescence by Christopher John Müller Copyright © 2016 Rowman & Littlefield International. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher. 



Christopher John Müller is an Honorary Research Associate of the School of English, Communication and Philosophy at Cardiff University and an Associate Teacher at the University of Bristol. His work draws on Literature, Philosophy and Critical Theory to address the manner in which technological and linguistic structures shape human perception, agency and interaction.


First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, April 24th, 2017.