Hungarian Conservative

The Prison of Technological Determinism — How Our Perception of Technology Contributes to the Mental Health Crisis

Excerpt of the French poster of the film Metropolis (1927) directed by Fritz Lang
Wikimedia Commons
‘A radical paradigm shift is required in which mental suffering is understood not in isolation, but in relation to consuming and depriving human existence of its roots: family, community, and a transcendental orientation. Only then can Hungarian society, as well as the West as a whole, like a reemerging forest, rediscover itself and create a society based on human flourishing instead of technological determinism; a society full of mentally resilient people with meaningful lives.’

The internet, who could live without it? With 57 per cent of the world population using it on average for 6 hours and 42 minutes per day, it is hard to imagine a life without information technology. The Hungarian population in contrast uses the internet a lot less, with averaging 3 hours and 30 minutes. Yet, this reduction can be partly explained by the 4 hours and 30 minutes that Hungarians spend on average daily to watch television. In recent time, technology, especially social media, has manifested itself as an integral part of ‘social life’. It is rather easy to point out the positive contribution of social media: it has created a platform for likeminded people to meet, space for self-expression and the ability to form and maintain online friendships. Yet, we have just started to see the negative impact of social media and other impactful technologies, especially on mental health. In a time in which the Western world sees it increasingly difficult to combat the rapidly rising mental health problems, often referred to as the mental health crisis, the question arises: what are the negative consequences of the modern outlook on and usage of technology?

Let’s go back to social media to demonstrate the staggering impact that modern technology can have on mental health. Both in Europe and the Unites States, the number of psychological studies indicating the damaging results of social media are increasing rapidly. Hungary is no exception to this problem. Therefore, looking at the general trends in the Western world will give some key insights into the damaging effects and its root causes. To give some examples, for girls between the age of 11 and 13 and boys between the age of 14 and 15, social media use is a significant factor in predicting a decreased life satisfaction. If this was not bad enough, negative mental health outcomes are not only found in adolescents. For example, a study showed that

introducing a new social media platform increased depression by 9 per cent and anxiety by 12 per cent.

To put this into perspective, if this new social media platform would be introduced in all US colleges, this would be predicted to lead to 300,000 new cases of depression.

Most social media companies try (and succeed) to use algorithms to keep people ‘engaged’ on their platform as long as possible. This strategy increases the risk of excessive use and behavioural dysregulation. In short, this makes human flourishing and financial gain competing goals as social media companies’ business model predominantly revolves around selling off human attention as a means of advertisement. Especially for adolescents, who are extra vulnerable to risk-taking behaviour, addictions, high fluctuations in well-being and mental health challenges, this poses a great risk. One might argue that the greed of people exploited by advertisements is mostly a sign of human motivation instead of technology. Yet, as we will see in this essay, human organization itself has become a proxy and servant of technological expansion. Therefore, marketing tools which primarily are utilized to increase technological application above everything else are exactly what we would expect in a modern technological world.

Now that we have indicated the severe risks of social media use to mental health, it is time to zoom out. Similar analyses could be made for a variety of technologies, so the real question should not be focused on social media per se. Therefore, let’s look at technology as a whole. First, let’s define technology. Technology comes from the two Greek words techne and logos. Techne means ‘the art or craft by which something is gained’, whereas logos can be defined as ‘the words by which inward thought is expressed’. Simply put, technology constitutes the words or reasoning about the way things are gained. Nowadays in society, technology is mostly dominated by ‘high-tech’ industries such as biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and information technology. Yet, the two extremes of technological perspectives, transhumanism and low-tech, provide the most inside into how we might define technology. On the one extreme end, technological progress (including modern high-tech industry) is built on the concept of transhumanism, the merging of human beings with technology into one ‘new’ being. While such fantasies like cyborgs in fiction are attractive to an increasing amount of people, it is important to understand what transhumanism is based upon.

It all directly starts with the science philosopher Karl Popper (although we could also start with Descartes’s fundamentalism). According to Popper, knowledge is primarily based on the criticism of current knowledge. Critical rationalism therefore claims that objectivity and reason should be excluded as knowledge can only exist inside a paradigm and is doomed to be incorrect in the long-term, when the paradigm shifts. Moreover, this also explains why transhumanism is not striving towards perfection, but towards endless progress. Perfection is not achievable and therefore, one can only try to progress towards the next paradigm. A good example of the distinction between striving towards perfection and progress can be found in modern medicine. Whereas ‘normal medicine’ aims to increase human flourishing by taking away suffering (although a cynic might argue differently), transhuman concepts such as designer babies do not aim to alleviate the pain of human imperfection. It attempts to create a new, endlessly technologically progressing species. The underlying assumed techno-solutionism embodies the myth of high-tech saving the world from its imperfect stagnation. Yet, techno-solutionism is deeply flawed as it assumes an endless increase in productivity which is unachievable due to (1) diminishing returns and (2) humanity not being able to keep up psychologically with the endless progression. This is a natural result from an evolutionary psychological perspective, as human nature in essence is unchangeable on the timescale that our modern society has culturally changed. Whereas culture changes over centuries or even decades, evolution suggests a timescale of hundreds of thousands to millions of years. Therefore,

for all practical purposes, the nature of humanity is unchangeable.

Thus, there is a limit to how much humanity can adopt without causing serious (dis)stress to human functioning. The transhuman solution, on the other hand, has been to create a whole new technology-based being.

So, if high-tech and its transhuman supposition are inherently based on flawed assumptions, what can low-tech offer us as an alternative? With the highly addictive features of smartphones (e.g. social media), companies creating ‘low-tech phones’ have emerged. Their added value is to create a product that is less addictive in nature and can be merely used as a tool for human beings to call each other. And even in other industries, we slowly are starting to see the emergence of more low-tech industry. This might seem counterproductive to modern man with its hunger for progress, but once we dive deeper into the role of technology in society, one might be surprised to find a newfound appreciation for a low-tech society.

There are many thinkers who have given insight into the advantages of a ‘low-tech society’. For this essay, we will look at Jacques Ellul and Friedrich Junger. Both thinkers have elucidated the formation of the modern technological society in ways that are still relevant today. They both offer a complementary and unique view on the role of technological determinism. To start off with Ellul, he defined technology as ‘the whole of rational methods’. In other words, technology can be defined as the rational aim to make society as efficient as possible. Thus, technology goes much further than toolmaking as it is normally understood. Technology in its rational conduct reduces the ideal to that which is the most efficient. Therefore, the modern technological society is a society in which technology dominates all other domains. Hence, the rational strive towards technological innovation suppresses any other human endeavour in its importance. Unsurprisingly, this is exactly what we see in current society. Technological expansion has led to environmental pollution effecting human health on issues such as microplastics, air quality as well as other health-related problems due to the likes of food additives and a lack of movement causing vascular problems. The list of physical and mental problems caused by technology is enormous. Yet, creating the most efficient way to expand technology has become the primary goal of society and therefore human flourishing has had to take a backseat.

Therefore, as Ellul already pointed out, technology in its essence shapes human desires and thereby creates a technological determinism in which people follow ‘the will of technology’. In practice, this means that nobody is born with a desire to be on social media for hours a day, often involuntarily. Yet, the dominance of increasing technological efficiency creates a platform which creates this human desire anyway. One might argue that this is a consequence of societal acceptance instead of an innate feature of modern technology. Yet, as Ellul argues, technology in essence is not a tool, it is a way to structure society in a reductionist rational attempt to optimize efficiency. Therefore, once this modern view of technology became dominant, it has pushed, either by persuasion, repetition or force itself on the many. To put it into context, the early industrial revolution was not met with positive attitude by many. By giving away individual means of production of the individual craftsman in favour of centralized factory work, working conditions became substantially worse for most people. Therefore, the idea of technology had to be powerful enough to push people over the edge to implement it top-down and internalize it for the newly created working class.

This brings us to the essence of what Ellul can teach us about the role of technology concerning the mental health crisis.

Human beings have universal psychological desires

such as human connection, an embedded social structure (i.e. family and community) and a transcendental orientation (see my other essay on this topic to learn more). Technology in its rational dominance increasingly brings these psychological needs under the submission of technological growth. Consequently, technology becomes a danger to human freedom. This might seem extreme to some, but unvoluntary social media use and pollution are just two examples of how technology undermines human freedom. Therefore, there is much truth in Ellul’s calling to humanity to live a life not constrained by technology and its increasing determinism if we aspire to live a free and dignified life. According to Ellul, a good start towards achieving this would be to stop praising technology as a secular religion. By taking away its holy status, we can bring in many more concepts in decision-making such as aesthetics, human dignity, flourishing and freedom. Therefore, the solution is not to destroy any increase in efficiency that technology might give us, but to see it as only one goal in a wider hierarchy of values.

Now, let’s turn our attention to Junger. Junger defines technology as the force behind exploitation. Technology is mostly interested in consuming acquired wealth to increase its dominance in society. To demonstrate this concept, let’s look at the hypothetical consumption of the wood in a forest. By means of technological exploitation, one will try to cut and consume as many trees in the forest as possible. The result, one might argue is the increase in wooden products and therefore an increase in wealth. Yet, below the surface, one has destroyed wealth by consuming the forest uncontrollably without giving it the chance to regrow and regenerate. Thus, the forest is consumed and left only in memory. Now let’s go back to the emerging mental health problems. Here, we find nothing more than psychological exploitation and consumption. Human societies, like a forest, formed itself around the things that made it flourishing: an alignment between human desires (e.g. socially embedded structures and transcendental orientation) and institutions which guarantee societal flourishing. The technological advancement has, under the name of emancipation and individualization, consumed these resources which are like the roots of the trees giving it its nutrition to stay strong and flourishing. It is therefore not surprising that society, like the forest, is starting to collapse in its social cohesion, mental resilience, and flourishing, as its social resources have been consumed. Consequently, when society loses its social fabric, people become demoralized, self-centred, and ultimately unhappy. One of the most dire consequences of this social trend is the staggeringly declining fertility rates which will plague most Western societies, including Hungary’s for the upcoming decades.

One might argue that this is a reasonable price to pay for the staggering rise in Western wealth. If we would compare the GDP of Western countries in the early post-WWII years to now, how could one argue otherwise?  As we have already demonstrated with the example of the forest, technology, by pushing out unstructured organizations, increases wealth consumption. The increased supply and demand therefore do not necessarily increase wealth. It merely increases the threshold of being wealthy while leaving most people in a state of less wealth. In modern society we predominantly see this in the economic functioning of households. Whereas in the early post-WWII years and the following decades a one-income household was able to sustain a family, nowadays, one experiences a need for two-household incomes to do the same. Therefore, an actual wealth increase is not realized. Psychologically, we see that technology, with the likes of smartphones and other gadgets, has indeed created many new human desires which explain why one feels the need for two household incomes. Therefore, as Junger points out, we can define wealth either as a state of having or as a state of being. In the technological definition of having wealth, technology has indeed increased human wealth. But with the accompanied societal changes leading to a rapid increase in loneliness and mental health problems, the state of being wealthy has decreased tremendously. According to Junger, the solution can be found in economics. Contrary to the contemporary utilization of economics (which is more like consumption), economics to Junger entails production in which, like a farmer taking care of its land, society takes care of the whole production process to ensure true sustainability. Not in a reductionistic way which some ideologs use to reduce climate science to CO2-emissions, but in a way in which one creates an economy based on flourishing on multiple domains (eg, psychology, sociology, and ecology).

Last, to play the devils’ advocate, one might argue that from an evolutionary psychological view, human beings are technology-seeking and -using beings. Thus, technology would seem to fit in with the concept of natural human desires. Therefore, technological determinism seems to be persuasive as a default destiny as men cannot help but make better and better tools which become more and more dominant in society. To truly look at this premise, one must look at the reason why pre-modern men used tools to begin with. Since the dawn of time, human beings have used tools to enhance the human body and influence the environment. There is scientific discussion whether the conceptual reasoning of tool (and technology) creation is dominant or if the physical experience in the environment has been the force to push toolmaking into existence. Either way, the crucial part is that toolmaking has evolutionary been associated with our body. Therefore, cognitively speaking, we are wired through embodied cognition. In other words, the fundamental human desire of toolmaking is attached to our direct physical body as is. With the emergence of the modern society, technology has more and more become independent of our body due to digitalization and become dominant over human flourishing instead of a tool to support it. Thus, the modern argument that progression has merely made a quantitative difference in the evolution of toolmaking is flawed. The qualitative difference between pre-modern toolmaking and modern technology has psychologically broken the continuation of toolmaking in service of human flourishing through embodied cognition.

In conclusion, one does not often connect the mental health crisis to the modern technological emergence as a whole. Yet, as I have argued, these are deeply intertwined. Therefore, modern attempts to solve the mental health crisis by technological solutions are doomed to fail as the root cause is its own technological determinism. One does not solve a crisis by adding more of the same into the mix. A radical paradigm shift is required in which mental suffering is understood not in isolation, but in relation to consuming and depriving human existence of its roots: family, community, and a transcendental orientation. Only then can Hungarian society, as well as the West as a whole, like a re-emerging forest, rediscover itself and create a society based on human flourishing instead of technological determinism; a society full of mentally resilient people with meaningful lives.

‘A radical paradigm shift is required in which mental suffering is understood not in isolation, but in relation to consuming and depriving human existence of its roots: family, community, and a transcendental orientation. Only then can Hungarian society, as well as the West as a whole, like a reemerging forest, rediscover itself and create a society based on human flourishing instead of technological determinism; a society full of mentally resilient people with meaningful lives.’