Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.
“Humanism” is associated with the flourishing of science and the arts during the 15th and 16th century Renaissance when cultivation of the human essence in all its potential was elevated to center stage, airing out the stultifying closet of the Middle Ages and reviving the reasoned sensibility of Greco-Roman antiquity. To this day, the humanist outlook informs the open societies of the modern West in their material progress, cultural achievements and individual freedoms.
But what will become of human centrality as our species is knocked off its pedestal by machines more intelligent than we are and de-centered by the humbling realization that survival depends on reducing our outsized footprint on this fragile planet?
The vise of these two developments is prompting a rethinking of what humanism might mean in the oncoming future.
The Client Is Absorbed Into The Tool
The controversies of late over the perils and promise of generative AI have raised anew the philosophical question of where technological sovereignty ends and human autonomy begins. Will the super-intelligent capacities of the putative servant we have invented end up being our actual master?
“The fact is that the powers which seem to use and govern technology are in reality more or less unwittingly used and governed by it,” Giorgio Agamben, the philosopher of biopolitics, observed in his presentation to the opening symposium of the Berggruen Institute Europe in Venice. “Both totalitarian and democratic regimes share the same incapability to govern technology, and both end up transforming themselves through the technologies they believed they were using for their own purposes. Why does it seem so hard and even impossible to govern technology?” he asked.
Back in the middle of the 20th century, prominent thinkers already worried that human autonomy would get the short end of the stick. In his 1954 book, “The Technological Society,” the French theologian and sociologist Jacques Ellul focused his critique not on any given technology, but on “technique” itself, which he defined as “ordered efficiency” — any complex of standardized means for realizing a predetermined outcome aimed at achieving “the one best result.” For Ellul, “all-embracing technique is, in fact, the consciousness of the mechanized world.” The programmed monopolization of possibilities disables human agency by robbing it of any alternative competency.
Ellul’s worry pretty much approximates Yuval Noah Harari’s more recent concept of “dataism,” wherein the universe is configured as a standing reserve of “big data,” the value of which is determined by algorithms that process it for specified ends.
For fellow travelers of Ellul like Ivan Illich, technique colonizes the temper, rhythm and vernacular quality of convivial life through the social technology of institutions from mass education to the medical-industrial complex. In the latter, he foresaw the advent of “a brave new biocracy” that would deprive individuals of “hygienic autonomy” and reduce them to depersonalized immune systems managed by experts “from womb to tomb.” This, too, anticipated the later thought of Harari, who suspects that most people will surrender privacy to the idol of health by welcoming constant supervision of their bodies by AI.
For Illich, technologies meant to enhance the well-being and freedom of humans shackle them in another way. As he put it in one penetrating quip, “the client is absorbed into the tool,” thus losing the ability to operate outside the system.
Anthropogenesis Is Technogenesis
Agamben approaches the question he posed by positing that technology is not external to the human condition. Rather, it is technology that makes us human. Unlike other bodily creatures who adapt to their environment, humans alone have sought to free ourselves from necessity through the tools we have invented.
Agamben cites two thinkers on the subject that arrived at similar, but symmetrically opposed, views.
Lodewijk Bolk, the Dutch anatomist of the early 20th century, believed that humans invented tools to compensate for their weakness in the wild, notably the birth of offspring still in the prematuration stage of fetalization, where the baby is unable to provide for its own survival, something unparalleled among other mammalians.
For Bolk, this technological displacement inhibits the vital capacity for adaptation and portends dark times ahead. Well before climate calamity appeared on the horizon, he warned that “the more humanity progresses along the path of technics, the more it gets closer to the fatal point where progress means destruction. And the nature of man will not stop in front of the chasm.”
Agamben also cites the theory of Paul Alsberg, a German anthropologist who wrote “The Enigma of the Human” in the 1930s. He postulated that “the principle of animal evolution is Körperanpassung, body’s adaptation. The principle of human evolution is Körperausschaltung, the disabling of the body through artificial instruments.”
As Agamben reads Alsberg, “the deactivation of body is not at all a diminution, it is, quite the contrary, a liberation of the body from its natural limitations. The liberation from the body is at the same time a liberation of the body. Unlike the animal, man can be spiritually free, only because technics releases him from his body’s restraint. Deactivation and liberation of the body are one principle, which defines humanity and constitutes the material ground of man’s freedom.”
In this way of thinking, far from heading toward regressive destruction, “man is destined to reach through technology and culture his fulfillment and his triumph.”
Either way, as Agamben sees it, what Bolk and Alsberg understood is that human becoming through technology is part and parcel of our evolution. In short, “anthropogenesis is technogenesis.”
The Human Threshold
The exosomatic quality of inventing tools to escape necessity may be what distinguishes humans, but it does not eradicate within ourselves the endosomatic animal quality of adaptation to the environment.
“The fact is that what makes us human cannot be divided,” Agamben says. “Anthropo-technogenesis, the becoming human of man, is not an event once and for all achieved. It is a process always in progress, where humanity and animality cannot split. The animal, the living being, continues to exist in the human body, and can never be completely humanized.”
For Agamben, “the exosomatic element will tend to assert itself at the expense of the endosomatic. Technologies and culture will take the form of power and domination over nature and will necessarily end up substituting itself for nature.” But that is not the end of the story.
“The human is not a substance that you can once and for all define, it is rather a threshold between endosomatic and exosomatic, between body and technics.”
At that threshold there is always a caesura, or breakpoint, that is undetermined. “Only at this threshold” concludes Agamben, “can ethics and politics find their right place, ethics and politics that will not simply seek to command and dominate nature through technology, but rather to master the relationship between nature and culture, body and technics. It is in this third space between human and non-human, body and technology, that we must locate our investigations.”
Katechon: The Withholding From Becoming
In this perspective, the present-day climate crisis marks a breakpoint point in Agamben’s “third space” where the quest for freedom from necessity through technology runs up against its planetary limits.
At this caesura, the adaptive animal in humans is compelled to awaken in order to survive the consequences of technics. Peter Sloterdijk calls this awakening “co-immunism,” the species instinct for survival, wherein humans rebalance their exosomatic genius with the imperatives of bodily existence on the Earth. For the German philosopher, that entails a shift from the “allotechnology” of previous eras conceived to dominate nature toward a conscious “anthropo-technology” which is co-creative in alignment with nature.
How species adaptation might play out for the freedom of the person is an open question for which there is no easy answer. In an interview with Noema toward the end of his life, James (“Gaia”) Lovelock speculated on the eventuality of a “Novacene age” when disembodied superintelligence gains the upper hand as the biosphere deteriorates.
He mused that human civilization would then be organized like a hornet’s nest where all functions are ascribed by algorithms to reach ordered efficiency in the use of resources as the necessary condition for reducing its carbon footprint. Absent such an arrangement, not even transhumanists who upload their consciousness to the cloud could survive since machines cannot withstand the thermal threshold anymore than embodied minds.
An alternative to this scenario would be a post-Anthropocene humanism which Sloterdijk, following Martin Heidegger, calls “homo humanus” — a perpetually vigilant state of “caring” that mediates the relationship among humans, technique and nature to guard against the human becoming “inhuman, outside his essence.”
To find a home in Agamben’s third space, the governing principle that seems most appropriate for homo humanus is the ancient Greek concept of “katechon” — cognizant restraint, or “the withholding from becoming” that avoids the binding of being either by our tools or by necessity. Technogenic humans must learn to respect our embodiment, but not be imprisoned by it. And vice-versa.