this is meant to be a politically imaginative project. it is meant to enact the "what is this?" attitude towards technologies that I think can begin to restore political health. specifically, by using and working with and playing with two technologies, the internet and writing (as chirography and typography), I hope to develop a better understanding of how myself and the communities to which I am committed can better live with technologies (perhaps especially the technological systems to which the internet and writing belong, systems which are interrelated-overlapping-mutuallymodifying-influential political conditions). scroll down to read on, if you please.
how do we live well?
it seems that question is central to all human individuals and the communities to which they belong - like families, friendships, land, villages, cultures, mountains, and perhaps now the "global human community." In other words, people do not want to live bad lives, but rather good lives - the best life possible. This seems to be common sense. It is perhaps even tautologically and definitionally true: whatever humans strive for in life is what they understand to be the good life, and whatever certain humans call the good life is also what they strive for. While such common sense might be trivial and useless in formal logic (since it gives us no new knowledge), in a conversation it seems a good place to begin - such a reminder, that even language has conspired to give us no choice but to try to live well!
when we go about answering that central human question through a series of conversations with our various communities, it quickly becomes apparent that the answer to this question is both principled and conditional. It is principled to the extent that we can articulate in principle the features of what a life well-lived might be - but with the knowledge that the way in which those general principles might be achieved is conditional to individuals' and communities' circumstances. For example, if Plato's four virtues in the Republic - courage, moderation, wisdom, and justice - are general principles properly belonging to every individual and community life well-lived, for particular individuals and communities these general principles would be manifest as different actions in different conditions.
however, not all agree with this common sense understanding of the importance of conditions - in fact, the main way that conditions have entered into conversations about how to live well has been as arguments about how important the conditions of life are to living well. That is, "moral relativism" holds that conditions are so different for each individual human and human community that attempting to have a conversation about the more universal principles of living well is futile (and therefore making judgements, especially external to any given individual or cultural experience, is futile); conversely, "moral absolutists" believe that the principles for a good life are totally universal and aren't affected by different conditions of human existence (so making judgments about different ways of life is quite easy). Our histories testify that moral absolutism has often been the more common position - and that it has often gone along with ugly forms of imperialism (there may well be a slippery slope from moral absolutism to moral imperialism), a fact that has often provoked a backlash of relativism.
the debate between moral relativism and moral absolutism - about how important conditions are to living well assumes that conditions signifies one type of condition - customary or cultural conditions. This can be seen by synonyms for those two positions, cultural relativism or cultural absolutism. The text often regarded as the first history, Herodotus' Histories, exemplifies an early and influential example of this approach to discussing different ways of living since it is thematically bound by Pindar's powerful generalization that "custom is king of all" (Herodotus 3.38).
today, however, the approach aligned with Pindar and Herodotus' observation and the relativists' and absolutists' arguments seems particularly barren soil for beginning a conversation about how to live well - because the understanding of conditions as cultural conditions is out of tune with the world we know. A careful appraisal of our world suggests it is time for a new typology of the conditions of human existence
artificial vs. natural conditions
that is, inspired by Hannah Arendt's typology of conditions in The Human Condition, a more fertile observation to frame a discussion about how to live well is that places are different for natural and artificial reasons. Different conditions occur naturally by virtue of the diversity of natural communities to which we belong (like ecological systems of the southwestern coast of the indian subcontinent or the front range of the Rocky Mountains in colorado) and natural things with which we interact (like an ocean or a mountain-prairie). Different conditions occur artificially by virtue of the artificial communities to which we belong (like Manipal Centre for Humanities or Dartmouth) and artificial things with which we interact (like a road or a smartphone). Artificial and natural entities are distinguished by whether they are made by a human or not (artificial entities are made by humans, natural ones are not).
of course, a strict typology of natural and artificial conditions is just as misleading as the conflating of "conditions" per se with "customary conditions". But the categories of natural and artificial are useful in order to define a spectrum on which conditions might exist. For example customary conditions are a wonderfully complex and rich blend of natural and artificial conditions - it seems that conscious human will can cause customary conditions to emerge, grow, and senesce but also that they undergo those same processes in unconscious and natural ways. Especially given recent technological developments, there are entities that challenge our understanding of the differentiation between natural and artificial (cloned animals, for example). So, in awareness of the complexity and potential pitfalls of using these categories, the postulate that there is a distinction between natural and artificial conditions is maintained as an important observation about the world with political and moral consequences
that is, different conditions have a different political (and ontological) status, depending on the degree to which they are artificial or natural. that is, because humans have the ability to change artificial conditions, they necessarily enter into conversation, deliberation, and debate about how to live well. That is the premise behind the wisdom of the popular and (yet...) profound serenity prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
That this prayer was composed by Ronald Niebuhr as artificial conditions were beginning to rear their ugly head in the first and second world wars seems unlikely to be a coincidence (Shapiro).
of course, given that conditions exist on a spectrum of artificial to natural, the wisdom to know the difference is perhaps eternally elusive. Yet it seems not many are even asking the questions, doing the listening, and having the conversations it would take to get closer to having the wisdom to know the difference. Who is asking what the difference is? there seems to be an unconscious tendency to conflate natural and artificial conditions to a large degree, collapsing the majority of the category of artificial into the category of natural, and so failing to include many truly changeable conditions in the category of things we can change.
for example, the contemporary academic philosophers' "trolley problem", which is meant to allow students of ethics to experiment with a variety of different ethical positions (e.g., Millian utilitarianism, Kantian absolutism, Aristotelian virtue ethics), does not consider the moral implications resulting from the conditions of the industrial society in which the problem is located. Simply put, the inventors and perpetuators of this thought experiment abstract away from how the fact that a trolley or a train can be a killing machine might affect the effort of the moral agent to live well. Contradictory to popular interpretation, the trolley problem should be a way to explore the ethical decisions behind the building of trains and trolleys (and their rail-roads, and the industrial revolution more broadly), rather than an individual's choice to pull a lever or push a fat man onto the tracks.
wisdom to know the difference from traditional ways?
aside from the cookie-cutter ethical positions often used to answer the trolley problem, there are many traditional ways, many of which are wise and thus place-aware or condition-aware traditional ways, that have answered and continue to answer the question of how to live well. Here traditional is not meant to connote "archaic" but rather that these ways of life have long traditions of being practiced - which testifies to both their practical viability and their availability for study and learning. Imaginative possibilities should not be ignored, but it seems negligent, wasteful, and unwise to ignore the vast number of already-given and tried answers to the question of how to live well. While many are now lost, some traditional ways no longer practiced are still remembered and shared through oral, chirographic, or archaeological means.
however, it seems that many such traditional ways are not explicitly helpful in gaining wisdom to know the difference - the difference, that is, between natural and artificial conditions, and thus how we should act in regard to those conditions. Many of these ways did not have the ability to change the artificial conditions of their existence, and so it was politically useless to make distinctions between natural and artificial conditions. Further, up until sometime around two-hundred years ago, or around the industrial revolution (whatever that is and whenever it was), the natural and artificial world was a relatively stable place. There were certain communities and things that one could depend upon existing (or not existing) that formed the world-conditions in which life would be lived. Radical and world-altering natural changes (like volcanic eruptions or massive storm, drought, or flood events) did occur and were often accounted for, of course to varying degrees; but no world-remaking natural change has occurred on a global scale in the holocene, since the end of the last ice age. As world-remaking changes have begun to accumulate, it has been up to later interpreters of those traditional ways to reveal their wisdom to know the difference (and make the concomitant political choice about which artificial conditions to live with) - for example, as do Leslie Marmon Silko and Tayo and Betonie in Ceremony, facing and resisting the desecration of place-annihilating industrialization.
further, as technologic prowess and the influence of artificial conditions has increased, traditions of self-understanding have generally become increasingly abstracted from those conditions, instead relying on abstract ideas about- and spiritual understandings of- life. Allowed by the amplifying power of chirographic technology, or writing, more abstract systems developed that (supposedly) are not defined by world-conditions like location or technological prowess but rather by general life- principles and practices. Such systems, like the the abstract cultural-religious categories of the the Hellenic world, Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, often do not comprise or define ways of living in themselves, but rather provide general (and powerful) principles in the world that are manifest in particular circumstances and locations. Even while human lives are increasingly determined by artificial conditions, and thus conditions which can be chosen, the answers to the question of how to live well given by such systems are increasingly devoid of explicit reference to which artificial conditions are conducive to living well.
the liberal-democratic, "American" way of life that is largely responsible for the form of technological development that has so fundamentally altered, and continues to do so, the conditions of human existence, has been particularly inept at facing up to or resisting the reality of the harms produced by technology development (I prefer the term technological development to the term technological progress since it's not as (falsely) normative and is more descriptive). Indeed, the "American" way of life is not even conscious of the way that technology effects the life-well lived because the whole premise of liberal democracy has been to use wilderness subjugation, of which technological progress is a manifestation, as the means to achieving the end of bourgeois liberty and equality. How can it question its own most fundamental premise? [more on that later, and what we can learn from the "American" project, and why "Americans" should be particularly responsible (and perhaps empowered) to heal the wounds they have generated. but for now...]
the failure of traditional ways: adapting or abandoning
in response to the new world generated by technology, most people have adapted or abandoned their traditional ways. Someone who adapts a traditional way to technology might consciously examine the traditional way to which their ancestors belong and find that it (the traditional way) is relatively unconscious or independent of technology - and the changes in the conditions of the world wrought by technology - such that many, most, or even any technology can be incorporated into a way of life consistent with that tradition (of course, such adaptation can also be less-conscious as well). Someone who abandons their traditional way might do so consciously or unconsciously - regardless, they will begin to live the way of wilderness-subjugation. For example, someone in a historically Christian culture might embrace secular faith in technological progress and abandon their religion, or might think that their cultures' Christian-inspired way of life is adaptable to (compatible with) the community degradation produced by various technologies - the technological system of the electric grid that has generated the pathology of strip-mining for coal, and the technological system of the screen cum internet that has generated social pathologies - is compatible with a Christian way of life (here substitute for Christianity any of the five other cultural-religious categories mentioned above, and it seems there are plenty of individuals coming from those systems whose actions exemplify one or the other approach to technologies).
either course of action - abandoning a given traditional way for the way of wilderness-subjugation; or realizing that a traditional way is adaptable to the technologies of wilderness subjugation - constitutes a failure on the part of the traditional ways (and the cultural-religious systems under which many are categorized). Abstractly, this failure can be understood on three levels: most generally, it is a failure to guide the way to living well with technology; more precisely, it is a failure to attend to the relationship between politics and technology; most precisely, it is a failure failure to distinguish between artificial and natural conditions.
practically and more intuitively, this failure has contributed to the degradation and destruction of many beautiful communities - from coral reefs to suburban forests remembered from childhood to human families to libraries to memory to the awful possibilities threatened by technology-induced climate change... the list is long. Such destruction seems profoundly antithetical to living-well.
in the face of such a massive failure, many traditional ways, and especially the cultural-religious systems that informed many more recent ways of life, seem (and have seemed) to many to be sick, futile, and blameworthy.
nonetheless, these rich traditional ways, that have governed the way so many humans lived and continue to live, have much to give us and we have much to learn from them. Perhaps it is the responsibility of the questioner to ask the right question of their wisdom.
in order to have better conversations about living well in a world that is dominated by the change that various technologies have wrought, it is necessary that we correct the omission of those many traditional ways and cultural-religious systems by making a simple qualification to that age old question - how do we live well with technologies?.
how do we live well with technologies?
since some technologies - human-made things and systems of things meant to be useful - have existed for as long as we understand "humans" to have existed, there is no need for this question to exclusively turn our attention to those new-fangled technologies that have developed recently (like digital computation, the internet, and smartphones) and which in colloquial speech are often, misleadingly, the only things connoted by the word technology. Conversely, it seems better to root such conversations by considering some of the most simple and essential technologies with which we daily interact, like a table, a tea kettle, a pen. In this way we can better be in conversation with the traditional ways that have informed human living for so many ages, and can better make use of the wisdom they offer. "How do we live well with technologies?" is a a question that faces up to the reality of a world fundamentally shaped by technologies that in many ways have done violence to those traditional ways of life and made many seem obsolete - but that question at the same time resists the conclusion that such traditional ways have nothing to offer in understanding how to live well in this brave new world.
just as technologies are not altogether new, this question is not altogether new. It should be understood as part of an ongoing conversation, a new point of orientation amidst a rich and complex system of thought and action, question and answer. While not main-stream or well-understood, there are many thoughtful people who are well known for their writing on technology who have provided rich contributions to this conversation. Diverse writers like Ambedkar, Arendt, Berry, Lincoln, Marmon-Silko, Niebuhr, Thoreau, and Tocqueville, have written to one degree or another on technology and can be interpreted in ways that contribute to the conversation. Further, we would also do well to listen to the lives and ways of those who have not devoted their lives to the technologically mediated communication of writing, but instead have gone about more simply living out a conversation on how to live well with technology.
in many ways, then, this question itself is an answer to those previous conversations - and it is in such dialectical sense that this question will be interpreted on whatisthis.technology. Here questions will be understood as the beginning of a dialectic - a series of questions and answers that may not maintain the form that we conventionally assign to either of them (in which one articulates a problem and the other a solution), but rather bends and plays with that form such that questions and answers are understood more like calls and responses (respectively), such that at times it is legitimate to answer a question with a question, or to interpret an answer-statement as containing or implying a question. For example, the essence of my primary answer to the question "how do we live well with technologies" is itself another question: in order to live well with technologies, one's actions should be guided by and in conversation with the question "what is this?". In other words, a dialectical methodology of question and answer takes a question as a point of orientation that can be used to guide conversation and action, or the rich fusion of the two as contemplative-action.
the conversations on whatisthis.technology will be oriented by this core question - how do we live well with technologies? my hope is that these conversations can help us to act nobly with respect to various useful artifacts and their corresponding systems.
the conversant form of whatisthis.technology
the writing on whatisthis.technology (wit.t) is primarily meant to continue conversations on how to live well with technologies that were begun in person with people (individuals or groups in the form of friends, family, teachers, and acquaintances), places, and rhythms. (I think you can have conversations with a place or a rhythm, where a rhythm is something like a habitual activity like (in my own experience) climbing, running, or conversation). Given the geographic dispersion allowed by dislocating transportation technologies and encouraged by various forces and systems in our world (like capitalism), this year I am far away from many of those people, and places (the activities are generally more transportable), so this website allows for communication with them. However, this website is also meant to continue conversations with people, places, and activities that I am living together with this year.
for me, continuing these conversations is an exercise in being more careful. Being careful to me is not being cautious. In fact, perhaps it is the opposite, since it involves taking the significant risk of committing oneself to an activity (like reading this! [on my end, writing it]). If you're reading this you likely know me and I hope that I've done enough flashy advertising in person to convince you to be a careful reader of this home page - so there's no need to try to draw you in with the ubiquitous techniques of marketing and advertisement.
with the knowledge that the conditions of our world increasingly conduce carelessness, I ask that you please be careful! In general of course, but in this particular case with your entrance into the conversation of wit.t. That means only reading carefully, and so not attempting to read more than you can really commit to reading. I'd much rather that you be a careful human being in the world, not "spread yourself thin," not sacrifice the possibility of further investing yourself in the other activities you care about... than skim these pages. Believe me, they'll only be worthwhile if you put some effort into them - I don't write that well! I encourage caring for and maintaining the conversations we have already begun (which at times may indeed mean letting them go), so be wary of flippantly, wastefully, and carelessly beginning a new one on wit.t.
however, because it is not prudent to take such things for granted and naively hope for such care to be exercised, and in accord with the understanding that humans are conditioned beings, the form of this website is designed to encourage good conversation and active reading - in which the conversants are listening, focused, and imaginative. This requires a few features.
conversation niches and responses
two design features are directly intended to encourage good conversation: conversation niches and responses. Conversation niches will just be different groups of pages (html files collected in a single directory), but I'm calling it a conversation niche in order to conjure an ecological analogy: just like how an ecological niche describes the place (in a complex network of interactions) to which a particular organism is best suited, so conversation niches will describe the group of pages to which a given conversant is best suited.
responses encourage a rich conversation within any given conversation niche. I want to learn from people reading wit.t, and I want to discourage passive reading. A responsible conversant (someone who has responded verbally or in written form to a given essay or page) in a given conversation niche can ask for access to another conversation niche (of which there are currently only three). It's a bit different for the "first" conversation niche - you just need to ask me (in person, email...) since you've already contributed to the conversation by having a relationship with me in some way (and thus knowing the url to wit.t).
this scheme of conversation niches and responses will encourage good conversation by discouraging the passive anonymity to which internet users are often susceptible. That is, even in an age of big-data collection by surveillance-capitalist corporations, internet users do not present their name, do not disclose who they are, when they use the internet. Even though the social and commercial identities of many (most?) internet users are plastered all around the internet, they remain anonymous in that their self is not disclosed in the healthy, robust way it can be in the context of a living-community (more on this in the "next" conversation niche!). One result of not knowing who someone is is the elimination of the possibility to engage in healthy political deliberation and action (that is, the process by which communities come together to deliberate upon how to organize their lives together and plan actions that will achieve the decided-upon organization). Since most of the conversations on this website are meant to be political - to encourage contemplative-action that will change the organization of how we live together for the better - it is fitting to encourage conversants to take the first steps toward disclosing who they are. Another result of not knowing who someone is is that her/his story is left unknown, which is dangerous freedom that should be used carefully. Generally, I think it's better to err on the side of practicing disclosing who you are. Hence, this "responsible reading" scheme.
continue the conversation?
without ado then, if you'd like access to a conversation niche please let me know in some way (I'd prefer you do so in person or in some form of non-e-writing or in some other imaginative way, but email is fine too). It's not possible to post a comment on this page directly, but other conversation niches will afford the opportunity to respond to ideas on this page. Or, of course, if you'd like to talk to me in person or send me a letter or email, please do so.
the conversation niche I'll direct you to next includes some practical information on the design principles of the website and how it fits into a project on "living well with technology." Thanks for reading carefully, and I hope you'll continue the conversation!
this script is very post the above writing - some four months post - and was prompted by a few edits I did in response to a reader's response. I thought it might be helpful to provide a short sample of my approach to technology, which has developed significantly since I wrote the above essay. This can serve as a substantive sample for readers who choose not to proceed to the next conversation niche and as explanation of the essay's epigraph, gnōthi technē, since that was also added in this round of edits (in the time of Badami).
upon returning to this essay, under the perfunctory influence of the hot horned swarm of combustion engines wheeling Badami's main street, I found myself turning over gnōthi seauton.
to me, at it's best, this aphorism traditionally translated as "know thyself" is an imperative to better understand your relationship to the phenomenal world; to work to better understand your name relative to your communities, people, places, politics, actions, tools, techniques, art, artifacts; and to develop this knowledge so that you can better those relationships, better your actions. With this interpretation, gnōthi seauton seems a good, true, beautiful guide to action. But I'm compelled to suggest a corollary, or a timely revision, that might better serve to remind us of our relativity, that might induce conversations that seek to better understand the relational self: gnōthi technē. Know your technologies.
the very written words of gnōthi seauton provide an illustrative example of why it is important to gnōthi your technē. A quick google search will inform you that the anonymous technician(s) who wrote the wikipedia article on gnothi seauton (using the technician-technique-technology complex that might be named something like "electricpower-wires-fiberopticcables-transistors-lcd-keyboard-alphabet-wordsmith") typed this: "The Ancient Greek aphorism "know thyself" (Greek: γνϖθι σεαυτόν transliterated: gnōthi seauton; also ... σαυτόν ... sauton with the ε contracted), is one of the Delphic maxims and was inscribed in the pronaos (forecourt) of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi according to the Greek writer Pausanias (10.24.1)". Here I want to meditate on how the casual use of the word inscribed is suggestive of a need, common to all times but more acutely needed in our time than the oracle's, to incorporate a better understanding of technologies into an understanding of self.
I think there is a rich tension represented by the gnōthi seauton inscription; a tension between the action and the inscription. (In other words, there is a tension between the act of knowing oneself and the act of inscribing what commands the act of knowing oneself).
knowing oneself mandates a political knowledge of the tech-complexes that form one's life, but the inscription itself (that commands the action of knowing onself) seems to deemphasize an understanding of those tech-complexes. That is, while I admire the action, the inscription seems to be irresponsibly susceptible to the (mis)interpretation that it suggests an inward turn of the mind, a self-consciousness or self-awareness that is somehow devoid of political conditions (like the political condition of inscription) and one's relation to those conditions.
before I explain this tension further (or why knowing thyself demands knowing thy political conditions), I want to (re)introduce a solution, since I think it's always helpful to put a potential solution in dialogue with the problem: a less misleading, more politically healthy, inscription would have read "know thyself, and this". That is what I am trying to suggest with gnōthi technē - not a replacement of the know thyself inscription, but rather a less forgetful, stronger, and conserving understanding of the know thyself inscription. The "and this" is just a simple reminder of the powerful tech-complex being used to influence politics; a reminder that the powerful tech-complex of inscription should not be taken for granted, but should be understood as a powerful political conditon to be harmonized with in beautiful or ugly ways, as you choose. The "and this" would better conserve the rich human life from which the tech-complex of inscription emerged. It would better inspire the thought and action that might help us avoid impoverishing our own lives by misusing that tech-complex, becoming so hypnotized by technology that we become incapable of knowing that it was only good when it supplemnted the rich human life from which it emerged. It suggests the more politically healthy "loopy progress", a progress that is not linear and forgetful, but cyclical and always reincorporating and rengaging itself, its past.
that's the sort of progress that I think the action of knowing thyself encourages. In my understanding of the phrase, a knowledge of oneself means an understanding of one's political relations, the relations that determine how one lives but that themselves are not predetermined (they can be acted upon, intentionally changed by political communities). My understanding of this is tied deeply to the intuition - an intuition developed from historical accounts of visits to Delphi and other greek oracles, theoretical sources (books), and practical experience with human action - that most people visited the Oracle at Delphi with the intention of bettering their action.
the "knowledge" provided by the oracle was an input to a decision process that results in action (right action, hopefully). The alternative to seeking out the oracle for "action knowledge" would be to seek it out for "comfort knowledge", knowledge that foretells the future; but I cannot be convinced, political creature that I am, that such "knowledge" wouldn't influence one's action. At the very least, the oracle might give information that would influence action in a self-fulfilling way. Not only does the circumstantial evidence imply that right action was the goal of both oracle seeker and oracle herself (from the transactional perspective, the oracle is motivated to keep the customer satisfied), but the maxim's focus on the self as an entity about which it is important to know something implies that right action is the intended result of self-knowledge.
my understanding of action, largely informed by Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition, is that action and self are coextensive and interdependent - no action without the self, no self without action. So as compared to alternative maxims - "know the gods" or "know your religion" or "know the universe"; or "know the mountains" or "know the sea" or "know the ship" - "know thyself" is a call to action. Especially under the semideterministic influence of the greek pantheon, that the Delphic exhortation is not "know the gods" seems affirmation that "know thyself" is a call to action: "knowing the gods" would give you a strong knowledge of how the gods might act, and therefore what to expect, but not an understanding of how the knower of the gods herself should act. Gnōthi seauton is meant to awaken a sense of oneself, that you are a political individual and agent, not just some cog in the machinations of the gods (at it's best, someone with strong relationships to other (ones) in your political community, and other political communities). To some degree, I think the relationship with action is inevitable in any sort of knowledge statement; in this case, even the strongest of emphases on knowing the gods does not seem to imply determinism, for such knowledge would allow one to develop strategies for effective supplication of divinities. Of course, some "knowledge producers" laboring in our knowledge factories are destroying the possibility of action, let alone right action; but that's another story.
to the point: a knowledge of yourself requires a knowledge of those phenomena which are most important to right action. since politics is the realm of action (Aristotle's strong link between the Ethics and the Politics is a reminder of this), the phenomena most important to right action are by identity political phenomena. To explain why technology is an important political phenomena, and therefore why it should be known - gnōthi technē - I need to breakdwon political phenomena a bit more.
from a preliminary perspective, for present purposes, its useful to classify political phenomena, the phenomena most important to right action, into three categories: stories, technes, and natures.
stories are something essentially human - they are the purveyor's of importance (which is an important theme in the "next" conversation niche). They are language-dependent, although they do not always come in the form of language (for example, a musical composition or a work of visual or non-verbal performance art can tell a story; these forms might not directly engage with language, but they are all indirectly dependent on language because the human culture from which they emerge is a linguistic culture). Stories are a primary substratum of action - they are how we develop forms that inform decisions. History is a certain kind of story that helps inform decisions. But all sorts of more subtle cultural and religious stories influence decisions. Before we act, we consider what the story would be if we acted in a certain way - would the story be enriched or impoverished by this action? become more important or harmonious as a result? Our actions sing the story we want. We can know the story we want because we know many other stories. (aside: how many stories, and what sorts, (which ones), is it important to know (to inform right action)?).
technes are those manmade things (technologies) and the systems corresponding to them (techniques) that are more utilitarian than aesthetic. Recently I've started to use the language "technē-complex" rather than just "technology" because I want to be clear about the way technologies are coextensive with technicians and techniques (of course the shared "tech" root is suggestive of the connection). Using the language "technē-complex" emphasizes the way that technologies are just the material reification of a technique that must be guided or instantiated by a technician. Further, thinking about technologies in this way can help us understand that a technology need not be constituted from inanimate materials - workers in a factory, for example, are treated as technologies, or parts of a larger technology (when they are in the factory... and increasingly with time when they are not in the factory, too). Factory workers (and all other technologies) are the material reification of a technique, the instrument that instantiates or implements a technique. Technes determine what sort of actions are possible (if any are possible). They determine the power available to us (this is also the subject of a conversation niche... but not the "next" one). They embody and reify stories in an important way, but they are usually subject to being reincorporated into a different sort of story. Just like stories, technologies seem to be fundamentally human. From one perspective (the linguistic perspective in which I (must) think), I think tech-complexes too fit into the category of stories - I do think it's all just a story (how can I not, if I can only think in language, the medium of stories?) but within the story itself (that wonderful mystery) we political beings need to make distinctions, to discern - and one of the prime distinctions to be made is between technologies and stories.
another prime distinction is between those two categories and natures. That is, there is something that seems to preexist stories (humans), to be the substratum out of which stories emerged and with which we live. It is prior to stories and technology. Analagous to stories, it is tempting to say that "it's all" just nature, stories and technologies included. That is, from a perspective that language allows me to appreciate, the universe is nature (stories and technologies are natural) - but that perspective must admit of its language-dependency (story-dependency), and also its technology dependency (how have humans acquired so much scientific knowledge (of nature)?). Further, my use of the plural "natures" is meant to signify that when I refer to nature I am not referring to some primordial unity that pervades everything and is everything. Rather, "natures" is meant to accentuate that, just like technologies and stories, we experience nature in a plurality of different forms. It is important to wonder at the primordial unity beneath it all, but the prudential necessity of political action demands that we have a knowledge of particular natures. Further, I think an understanding of particular natures, the plurality of natures, harmonizes with a productive contemplation of the beautiful mystery of the natural world. Understanding the ecology of your backyard inspires a wonder at the intricacy and beauty of other natures. A knowledge of one's natural environment is necessary for a healthy politics, for right action - this can be the human natures with which one interacts (physical, spiritual, mental, artistic; and including one's own nature), physics, the landscape, the soil chemistry, the climate, the community of non-human beings. The natures in which and with which we live constrain our actions. In a nature with different gravity, what might you do? If humans weren't capable of anger, how might you act? If the climate were unchanging and unchangeable, how might you live?
stories, technes, natures and politics combine and interact in different ways. Using these categories to understand various phenomenon around us, we might say that the U.S. Constitution is a technically advanced political story that invokes nature (and is meant to "form a more perfect Union"). Knowing the Constitution's story, technical (systematic) details, and the relationship to certain natures that it embodies, is hugely important for a healthy politics in our time, especially in the U.S. Technes of course make use of natural phenomenon (roads are made of rock) while humans use stories and techniques (or trial and error, or chance) to develop new technologies. In many ways technes embody certain stories - the techne of a nuclear reactor reifies, materializes a story about politics (or lack thereof, and its replacement by national and global transactional systems that emerged from politics), the sort of technological prowess we have achieved, and hubris. Stories make sense of natures, technologies, and politics. Art is a technical expression of stories, which often makes use of nature and has a political effect. Natures are profoundly affected by stories, technes, and politics - the Tungabhadra "river" is a complex of technes (dams, canals, powerplants) and stories (Ramayana, natural beauty, human beauty (so many cosmetic chemicals in this river)) and politics (national, state, local (again, to the extent that governments at these levels are political and not technical)).
so, to braid the threads of this post script back together, and conclude: gnōthi seauton asks us to know our relation to stories and technes and natures so that we can improve our action, become better political agents. We cannot know ourselves without knowing our most important stories, our most important technes, our most important natures.
that is, gnōthi seauton's emphasis on the individual as the ethical unit (in addition to family, clan, caste, village, culture, religion) should result in a rich understanding of how oneself, an ethical individual, relates to various phenomena around it. It should not result in the psychological, navel-gazing individualism of high-tech philosophy (philosophy has become more and more high-tech since the time of Plato (to today's analytic philosophers); and it was quite technical even in Plato's time, since the mastery of the technical complex of writing is what allowed the post-Socratics to differentiate themselves from the less systematic pre-Socratics).
that is, the conversational idea and action of gnōthi seauton encourages a rich understanding of the relational self. But the inscription "gnōthi seauton" misleads, especially highly literate people like ourselves and our Wikipedia-contributor friend. The inscription of gnōthi seauton lures the unsuspecting mind away from a robust understanding of the relational, political self and instead towards a siloed, individualistic, and psychological self. Today's popular interpretation of gnōthi seauton would likely be something like "know your tastes" or "know your what makes you happy (in a hedonistic way)". (do you like chocolate or strawberry ice cream? vacations in the mountains or at the beach? ralph luaren or gucci or all the other brands I don't care to know?).
that's because the medium of inscription tends to present ideas to us without helping us to understand the political condition of inscription itself. We tend to take text out of context; and this is somewhat natural since that is in fact what the techne of writing allows for: we can take words out of the immediate spoken "context" (conspeech? conversation? conoration?) or situation and allow for many others in many different contexts (spatial/temporal) to read them. This is useful to a certain degree, but only insofar as it heightens a tension. With the perspective that text allows us to have, we can understand our world in new ways - tell new stories about it - and increase our potential importance in that world, which can lead to more dignified, beautiful, strong lives for a greater proportion of humans. I myself enjoy writing and reading (in particular forms... reading from a book and writing in a book (often the same book) in particular). I think text in certain forms serves to help me, and humans generally live well.
but when text loses all contact with context, becomes radically free, does not tense the bowstring but detaches one end of it... then text no longer serves to help us live well. When we code and text and journal and type and inscribe; when we read books and articles and emails and texts and signs, especially on digital screens; when we make use of the technical complex of writing without some understanding of or reflection on writing itself, the medium of the message, we weaken our political, ethical selves and subject ourselves to be governed by the technology of writing. This is both undesirable in and of itself, and for the effects that it brings (for further conversation as to why, continue to the conversation niches!).
so with awareness of the gains and losses of translating words into writing, we must approach writing in general with a curiosity about contexts, conditions. There should not be an overwhelming preoccupation on contexts (perhaps as with those who exclusively study the technical (book-making, digital electric, typographic, etc.), historical, personal, geographical, climatic, etc... contexts of a work of writing (an orthographic, typographic, or electrographic composition). Neither should there be an overwhelming emphasis on the "substance" itself - as with many casual readers and those who zealously adhere to Leo Strauss' approach to reading texts (i.e., employ the decontextualized, Straussian approach to reading texts that are not great, or do not have a basic understanding of the contexts of the great texts). A graceful and strong balance between form and substance should be maintained.
a graceful, strong balance between form and substance is not encouraged (I worry) by most writing - including the original gnōthi seauton inscription, the wikipedia article about it, and the many written copies of the original inscription. So there is an irony in the gnōthi seauton inscription: in a spoken, conversational medium it encourages a strong understanding of technologies, but in written, informational medium it discourages an understanding of technologies. Perhaps the oracle understood this irony, has played a grand joke on us, and has gotten the better of us - as she always seems to do. Perhaps we are better off interpreting what seems to be a simple command as a riddle instead, a riddle whose answer is in the medium of conveyance (Walter Ong's discussion on the orality of riddles would be an enriching voice in the conversation at this point). The oracle said: "the more literate the politics, the greater the need to know thyself and to therefore know the conditions of your political self - stories, technes, natures"; and the oracle wrote: "know thyself". How many have solved the riddle? (Socrates, perhaps, but he only complicated the riddle for others).
gnōthi seauton in the abstract is a maxim that I think is in service of the good, true, and beautiful. But from the very beginning its use, its transmission through inscription, resulted in a loss of understanding of the relational self by neglecting a robust understanding, a liberal education, in stories and nature and technology. My conversations on wit.t and in general are most focused on gaining a better (political) understanding of our technologies - I think this is the most neglected area of our (very literate peoples') education, but also that pursuing an understanding of technologies requires us to better understand our natures and stories (but I also pursue, and believe in the importance of, an education in stories and natures in a more independent way).
so that's why "I'm compelled to suggest a corollary, or a timely revision, that might better serve to remind us of our relativity, that might induce conversations that seek to better understand the relational self: gnōthi technē. Know your technologies." Or "know thyself, and this."
the ancient Greek emphasis on the individual is essential to a healthy politics, but I think we can and must do better than the ancients in more consciously pursing a knowledge of the conditions of our political selves - stories, technologies, natures. The ancient Greeks naturally, unconsciously, had a richer relationship with stories and natures and technes - but their attitude toward technes in general, writing in particular, seems to have resulted (by a long and circuitous path) in a world where many do not know the most important stories and natures - let alone technes, which often seem too dauntingly complex to be known. This means we have malnourished our (political) selves - we increasingly understand our "selves" in terms of, and subject our "selves" to, systems that treat our bodies as things that behave in statistically predictable ways - rather than as embodied souls, ensouled bodies, capable of political action, free will. We consequently expect "the system" to change and no longer take on the responsibility of being political individuals.
but that sounds no fun - at least I don't want to live that way! I'd rather go for the adventure of knowing my technologies and natures and stories, those important conditions to politics, and working to achieve a healthier politics!
for now, cheers again,
bibliography (some aren't books tho)
Herodotus of Halicarnassus. The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories.
Translated by Andrea L. Purvis. Edited by Robert B. Strassler. New York:
Anchor Books, Random House. It is usually thought that Herodotus wrote
The Histories between 450 and 420 BC. This edition published in
two-thousand and seven AD. Print.
"Know Thyself". Wikipedia. Accessed February fourth two thousand and twenty AD. Web.
Shapiro, Fred R. "Who Wrote the Serenity Prayer?". The Chronicle of Higher Education. April twenty-eighth, two-thousand and fourten. Web.