Günther Anders, Smart Technology and the Rise of Promethean Shame
Our reliance on mundane but powerful technologies such as smartphones, laptops and tablets produces a wide range of peculiar emotional states. A slow Wifi signal or low battery might make us feel restless or unable to work. The auto-correct function might impress on us that we cannot spell. The voice of the Sat Nav admonishing us to perform a U-turn, can easily make us feel incompetent, and our partner’s phone might make us jealously feel like bad company.
If such instances of momentary disquiet, confusion and feelings of deprivation and exposedness sound familiar, it is likely that you have been experiencing what Günther Anders called Promethean Shame.
What makes these emotional states so unique, is that they confront us with our own reliance and even dependence on technological objects that usually slip from our consciousness. And as is the case with other forms of shame, the response to such machine induced nakedness is likely to follow one of two paths. The rising nervous tension is treated as inexistent, relegated to an unvisited recess of the mind, as if it were a guilty secret, or else, it is discharged in public gestures of redemption or confession. Perhaps even in tweets about how we rely on technology too much or in dystopian images about future robot overlords.
To the visionary thinker Günther Anders whose work is beginning to be discovered in the English-speaking world, these repressed moments of deprivation and public gossip about machines are decisive phenomena: They confront us with something we cannot positively see: the trickery of machines at work in even our most intimate experiences of self. They also led him onto his key idea: The more machines become part of our intuitive sense of self to give us a feeling of empowerment, agency and control, the smaller, more helpless and limited we seem to become the moment we lose access to the abilities they lend us.
‘Who am I anyhow?’ the Prometheus of today asks, whilst playing the jester at the court of his own machines. ‘Who am I anyhow?’ (Günther Anders, The Obsolescence of Human Beings Vol. 1)
Self-augmentation for Anders thus perfectly coincides with a curious form of self-depreciation and self-humiliation. As such, these repressed moments of machine induced panic and disquiet can help us re-imagine how to theorise and respond to increasingly capable machines – in thought, and action. Such moments invite us to contemplate that the word 'technology' does not merely describe a set of objects. For each technology is synonymous with a set of abilities that shape our self-image and the way we relate to other entities: a knife makes it possible to cut and manipulate matter in all sorts of ways, language allows us to speak and write, a smartphone gives us the power to out-source our memory, record our impressions with artificial eyes and, of course, stay in touch, interact and publicise our activities.
By shaping our pragmatic experience of self – what we can and can’t do, can and can’t feel – the technologies we daily rely on slip from our consciousness, and become part of our bodily sense of self: holding a hammer automatically removes the inhibition to strike a nail, no thought is required. Yet the feeling of hesitation we might experience without such technological support also highlights the extent to which we forget that our pragmatic sense of self is subtly shaped by machines. And the more technology allows us to do, the less we notice the work it does, and the more we feel at loss without it.
The discrepancy that Anders isolates is that although machines empower us as individuals, 'we' - that is, the figurative ‘99%’, who do not create these machines, operating systems, and technological infrastructures - are also automatically excluded from decisions about how the world shaped by our machine-use will look. Our growing individual agency thus coincides with curious forms of collective disempowerment. The more machines run our lives, the more our lives are governed by those who run our machines. At the same time, the creators of machines are in a sense themselves excluded from the world they help create, for the more powerful a machine ability, the harder it is to anticipate its social, economic and environmental impact.
Anders was thus interested in the curious machine induced emotional states and affects he covers in ‘On Promethean Shame’ because they can help us detect and contemplate the invisible and oligarchic power-relations machine dependence generates. The more technology allows us to do, the more it necessarily also does ‘without us’, that is, without our active comprehension, involvement and thus, ultimately, also without requiring our consent and cognition.
All this means, for Anders, that complex technological objects aren’t ‘phenomena’ in the traditional sense, because they ‘do not show themselves’. Whereas we might be able to look at our smartphones (to stick with the opening image), we cannot positively see how these devices shape all aspects of our lives and our perception, how they place us on call and how the data and meta-data we generate whilst interacting with them exposes us to corporate interests, state power, automated bots, quantification and the provision of a personalized world enticing us to rely on our machines even more.
When looking at the phone, we cannot see the cumulative ‘supra-liminal’ effects of our dependence – be it climate change (what is the carbon footprint of binge watching Netflix?), pollution (what materials went into the phone?), exploitative-labour practices and technological unemployment or the erosion of social cohesion and political discourse.
Instead, we see a familiar object that looks ‘ordinary’, ‘like nothing’, tying us into global process that we might ‘know about’, but in a manner that remains devoid of affective feeling. For by existing without us, the phone itself, and its promise to put us more in touch, acts as an affective shield against the constellations of power that configure around it. ‘There is no situation that is morally more evil’, to cite one of Anders’s most cutting remarks, ‘than the situation in which evil has been so fully integrated into the situation that the individual itself is spared from being evil’.
In our uncertain times, Anders’ at times playful, often dark and pessimistic, always exaggerated and provocative reflections on the ‘world without us’ harbored by technological objects can offer an immediate bridge between the everyday and the abstract realm of academic reflection. By troubling our intimate relationship with machines, Anders’ thought often hits a raw nerve. But in doing so, it also shows its unique potential to enrich both public debate and academic research (in both its empirical and more speculative modes). His thought is critical without being luddite and is the product of a rhetoric that is purposefully designed to show us something we cannot possibly see: namely, that we are becoming obsolete not because the machine is some scary and better other, but because it is an integral part of our intuitive sense of self.
When a microscope exaggerates the size of a virus a million times over, does it also
exaggerate the danger? Or does it make it visible? It is in this sense that I exaggerate
Günther Anders – A short account of an extraordinary life
Günther Anders was born Günther Sigmund Stern in 1902 in Breslau, Germany (now the Polish city of Wroclaw). He was the son of the eminent psychologists Clara and William Stern and a cousin of Walter Benjamin. In the early 1920s, Stern completed his doctorate under Edmund Husserl in Freiburg, where he was also taught by Martin Heidegger. At one of Heidegger’s seminars, he met Hannah Arendt, his first wife (their marriage lasted from 1929-1937). In the early 1930’s, Hitler’s rise to power scuppered his habilitation project at the University of Frankfurt (where Theodor Adorno was also working on his own habilitation project at the same time). It was around this time that Stern assumed the name ‘Anders’, whilst working for a Berlin newspaper. Following the Reichstag fire on the 27th February 1933, which gave the Nazi’s sweeping powers to control the press and incarcerate and murder anti-fascist and Jewish journalists, Anders fled into exile.
In Paris, where he initially fled to, Anders published influential philosophical essays in French, which went on to inspire Jean-Paul Sartre, Franz Fanon and Gilles Deleuze. He travelled on to America in 1936, but his academic prospects continued to dwindle. Although he at times lived at the Marcuse household in Santa Barbara, and was part of a large circle of émigré authors, artists and intellectuals – including figures such as Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Ernst Bloch, Bert Brecht and the Mann brothers – Anders began to lose touch with the scholarly scene. Whilst working ‘odd jobs’ in factories, Hollywood movie repositories and as a private tutor, he dedicated himself to his extensive philosophical diaries, the manuscript for a highly acclaimed book on Kafka (published in 1951), the occasional scholarly essay, and poems reflecting on the fate of the European Jews. (He published these poems frequently throughout his years of exile). When being appointed as a lecturer at the New School for Social Research in New York in the late 1940s, he seems to have already been more or less resolved not to take up an academic post upon his return to Europe (in 1950). Instead, he dedicated himself exclusively to the study and critique of the threat to humanity which had materialised in the form of one single technological object: the atomic bomb.
His ardent political activism and his critique of post-war Germany’s repression of its Nazi past through consumerism often made him a persona non-grata in the academy. At times this also led to travel bans to the U.S. The works that arose from his unique style of writing went on to influence many of his contemporaries, even though this was only sporadically acknowledged at the time. In Continental Europe, his central work, The Obsolescence of Human Beings (2 Vols), and the close to thirty books he published between 1950 and his death in 1992, have long since established him as one of the key thinkers of his age. Late in life his work was honoured with a number of prizes, including The Theodor Adorno Prize and The Sigmund Freud Prize for Academic Prose. Today, engagements by key continental thinkers such as, for instance, Zygmunt Bauman, Ulrich Beck, Bruno Latour, Jean-Luc Nancy, Roberto Esposito and Jean-Pierre Dupuy, underline how Anders’ perspectives are arguably even more philosophically and critically acute than at the time of writing.
Christopher John Müller is an Honorary Research Associate of the School for English, Communication and Philosophy, Cardiff University, and a Senior Associate Teacher at the Department of English, University of Bristol.
A detailed, beautifully illustrated biography: http://www.guenther-anders-gesellschaft.org/en/vita-guenther-anders/
Opening pages of Prometheanism in 3AM Magazine: http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/prometheanism-technology-digital-culture-human-obsolescence/
Interview about Prometheanism: https://rhystranter.com/2016/10/26/christopher-john-muller-gunther-anders-prometheanism/
Daniel Ross’ discussion of Prometheanism in Lo Sguardo: http://www.losguardo.net/it/c-j-muller-prometheanism-technology-digital-culture-and-human-obsolescence-rowman-littlefield-2016/
Prometheanism makes one of Anders’ key texts – the substantial essay ‘On Promethean Shame’, first published in The Obsolescence of Human Beings Vol 1 (1956), available in English for the first time. Building on this, it mobilises Anders' mode of thinking to discuss how our reliance on increasingly capable machines often embarrassingly exposes the bodily, cognitive and emotional limitations that shape, what Hannah Arendt, Anders’s first wife, called ‘the Human Condition’