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A Hobbesian Philosophy of Technology

August 25, 2017

Thanks to David Seng, HMU doctoral student, for today's post.

One of things I admire most about the Great Authors is how relevant their ideas are to our particular time and place. Sometimes this relevancy shows up in surprising ways. As one who works in the intersection of philosophy and technology I was surprised to see how the ideas of Thomas Hobbes applied to the twenty first century issues of technology and our digital culture.

Hobbes was a keen student of human nature and focused on the fears, greed, and hubris that drive nearly all social arrangements. Interestingly, the same fears and motivations drive humans today as they did in the seventeenth century. In the world of internet communication technologies (ICTs) and as an important cultural phenomenon, social media has demonstrated that Hobbes’s view of human nature has important implications for our time. Further, Hobbes believes that human nature itself is the driving force behind the actions of both individuals and the states (and firms) that are made up of individuals. From a Hobbesian perspective, technology itself, being a social creation, brings with it all the aspects of human nature and provides a kind of technological realism that helps us develop an interesting conceptual scheme for understanding the social and cultural ramifications of technology and social media. Along the way, we’ll discover that Hobbes sets up the concerns that were addressed later by the Great Authors Karl Marx and Martin Heidegger regarding the effects of technology on society.

Hobbes famously described human nature as “brutish, nasty and short”. The idea is that without an all-powerful sovereign to keep society under control, mankind is essentially in a selfish and brutal war of all against all (he calls this humanity’s “natural state of nature”). According to Hobbes, human beings are simply unable to create free consensual governments based on reasonable laws. An all-powerful political force is therefore needed to keep everyone at bay. In order to overcome this fearful state of existence, individuals will create a social contract with the sovereign in exchange for a strong political power that will provide safety, security, and economic prosperity. Finally, according to Hobbes, the sovereign is clearly above the law. While political theorists debate this picture of human nature and reason presented by Hobbes, I think a very significant social element of his thought is overlooked and provides some interesting warnings to those of us living in the information age.

Long before Martin Heidegger became concerned about the impact and effects of technology on our understanding and view of the world, Thomas Hobbes presents and defends the position that human beings are essentially mechanical, material, and computational. Being overcome with the “new method” of his day, Hobbes essentially converts the scientific method into a new metaphysical system and uses the first six chapters of the Leviathan to explain that individuals are elemental parts of the great machine of the commonwealth. In this sense, Hobbes presents an instrumentalist view of human beings. People exist for the purposes of the state. In short, Hobbes gives us a view of human nature that is essentially greedy, brutal, and mechanistic but if harnessed through an all-powerful sovereign, individuals will collectively serve the state.

Perhaps, a response could be made that things have changed so much in the nearly four hundred years since Hobbes wrote the Leviathan that he has no bearing on cultural reality today. After all, we have the internet that has connected people and families across the world, and communication of all kinds is now nearly instantaneous. In the age of information, we have created new and more knowledge and disseminated it in mind-numbing speeds. Through technological advances, humans have discovered treatments and cures for diseases which before were thought to be impossible to address. We even have global capitalism, driven largely by technology firms, which has created more wealth for most of the people on the planet. Has technology, and the corporations that create our devices shaped humanity into a more rational, thoughtful, and compassionate existence?

In the age of ICTs that transcend geo-political realities and cross borders and boundaries in an immediate manner, social media firms have become Hobbesian states. The Hobbesian state is not simply about the structure of governance in monarchies or consensually governed nation states. It now has properties that apply across national boundaries with global, cultural, and social implications. Sadly, consumer capitalism driven by technology firms that make more money than the GDPs of many emerging countries, are not altogether altruistic. Individuals exist for the purposes of social media firms—a Leviathan that collects data from compliant individuals to be bought and sold. Developing markets understand this phenomenon and is the reason why India recently rejected Facebook’s attempt to be the sole internet provider in the region. India (the world’s largest democracy) neither wanted Facebook’s limited and controlled service, nor—worse—the data collection the social media company would conduct upon its citizens. India did not want its citizens to become instruments in digital colonization.

Interestingly and ironically, those of us in the West, happily give up our property (pictures, documents, music, and other digital files), conversations, and privacy rights to the all-powerful Leviathan of social media firms or various internet service providers. As Hobbes explains it:

"I authorise and give up my right of governing myself to this man, or to this assembly of men, on this condition; that thou give up thy right to him, and authorize all his actions in like manner. This done, the multitude so united in one person is called a Commonwealth; in Latin, Civitas. This is the generation of that great Leviathan, or rather, to speak more reverently, of that mortal god to which we owe, under the immortal God, our peace and defence" (italics in original).

When it comes to social media firms, we seem to give up our rights to our own vital information, privacy, and property in exchange for very little. We may think that the tradeoff is of no consequence, that giving up our most valued information to the mortal god of a social media firm is harmless. However, when users accept the terms of service for a social media account they are immediately mined for their consumer data by eCommerce firms and surveilled by the government. What are users getting in return? Google, Facebook, and Twitter (just to name a few) are famous for changing and discontinuing services at will, leaving the user with no legal recourse. Like Hobbes’s sovereign, social media firms can create the rules and stand above them. From a Hobbesian perspective, social media firms and those that make them up will always act in their own interests

So what can we learn from this Hobbesian state of social media? It is important to remember that Hobbes emphasized one side of human nature to the exclusion of the rationality, creativity, and compassion of the human spirit. Human beings always carry over into their technology and social institutions the most vexing traits of the human condition itself. The fact is, our social and technological efforts are always a mixture of good and evil. That is why, sadly, whatever humans create for good can also be used in the most malicious ways. We should always carefully and rationally think through the claims of digital utopians who state that certain technologies are “good”. We must consider what the “good” is at hand and whether or not that which is new is better. In addition, the instrumentalist view of humans first seen in Hobbes and developed ever since in the West is the source of alienation pointed out by Karl Marx. In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx describes the alienation of the instrumentalist view of human nature as it applies to work and the effects of technology on society. Marx and Heidegger continue this discussion set up by Hobbes and these Great Authors set the tone and issues we struggle with today. Finally, we must seek a balance between the positive and negative sides of technology. While technology can bring about many good and useful things, we must keep a vigilant eye on the Hobbesian and dehumanizing aspects of society that create our technology.

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