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Alienation 2.0

In accordance with the inexorable momentum of specialization in the sciences, experts will continue to learn more and more about less and less until they end up knowing everything about nothing. This astonishing possibility, reduced by now to the sort of PowerPoint profundity that bedazzles at “TED talks,” remains to be adequately interpreted.

The most important implication of scientific specialization is that it essentially forces science to become technological. This is not simply to state the obvious fact that science increasingly relies on technology to carry out its purpose, and that its purpose is often understood to be “practical.”

Rather, the claim at issue here is that, however pure its intentions (or pretensions), hyper-specialized scientific knowledge can only make sense of itself within a technological context. To fully make this case (I demure) would reach just a bit beyond the scope of a typical Chronicle column. It is possible, however, to provide a very general intuitive sketch of what I have in mind.

Most scientific projects, broadly conceived, might be thought of as being motivated by the desire to piece together a big puzzle. If a “piece” of the puzzle is defined as the largest partition of the puzzle that can be effectively studied and managed by one person, the pieces will increase in number and complexity as more knowledge is acquired. At a certain point, the pieces become so small and remote that each researcher loses sight of exactly how his piece relates to and facilitates the understanding of the whole. As specialization progresses indefinitely, each individual piece of the puzzle shrinks in size and grows in complexity to the point that it becomes an infinitesimally small yet maximally dense point—a black hole of sorts in which any sense of its larger contextual significance collapses under the weight of its specificity. This rupture of means from ends is an especially dramatic instance of what Marx called “alienation.”

Technology functions as a partial means of coping with the alienation the scientific researcher experiences on account of hyper-specialization. Specifically, technology is able to present the “big picture” of the puzzle back to the researcher by providing a reified, tangible expression of the functioning whole that includes his successful contribution to it. If a project is too complex for any one person to comprehend theoretically how each piece fits together, technology at least provides a simulacrum of that coherence; the fact that the technology “works” is perhaps the only satisfactory indication the researchers could have that they were on the right track with respect to the larger picture.

Consider a hypothetical “iPhone 2,000,000,” which consists of 2,000,000 separate programs, each of which is the product of the entire research career of a Ph.D. level expert. Clearly the final product would be beyond the comprehension of any single person. Although most projects of this complexity would develop organically, this inaccessibility to individual comprehension would remain the case even in a situation of more centralized planning. Indeed, the sheer vastness of the undertaking would ensure that the “planners” were just as removed from holistic understanding by virtue of hollow generality as the expert researchers were by virtue of narrow specificity. At any rate, having all of the pieces come together in the form of a tangible, functioning final product confirms indisputably the coherence of a project which is impossible to grasp merely conceptually.

While the easy functionality and objectification of the product saves its producers from the otherwise unbearable alienation of hyper-specialization, one wonders about the effect on the consumers of such a product. Keeping with our earlier example, the iPod 2,000,000 would prove extremely user-friendly, and, of course, fit comfortably into the palm of one’s hand. Far from being overwhelmed by the alienating influence of specialized complexity, the everyday user of technology must face the seemingly opposite danger connected with the deceptive temptations of false simplicity. Indeed, a peculiar feature of the technology that is becoming ever more enmeshed in our daily lives is that the complexity of its inner workings is more than overcome by the simplicity of its use. In a certain sense, the more complicated our technological society becomes, the simpler it appears. The false confidence this might engender presents rather obvious dangers that need not be elaborated upon here.

While the above description is true as far as it goes, it suffers itself from a simplification that masks a deeper, more complicated problem. When actually pressed to think about it, most people are in some sense aware of how impossibly labyrinthine their technology is. It is not so much that people are unaware of their increasing ignorance in the technological world as that they don’t care that they are ignorant. They don’t care precisely because technology, having already been created by man, is “in principle” intelligible to man. Unlike the original Socratic ignorance that cultivated wonder, ignorance in the technological world is largely met with indifference. The result is a grotesque situation of ignorance without mystery or, as I call it, alienation 2.0.

Darren Beattie is a third-year Ph.D. candidate in political science. This is his final column of the semester.

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