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Our tools shape our selves

For Bernard Stiegler, a visionary philosopher of our digital age, technics is the defining feature of human experience

by Bryan Norton + BIO

Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty

It has become almost impossible to separate the effects of digital technologies from our everyday experiences. Reality is parsed through glowing screens, unending data feeds, biometric feedback loops, digital protheses and expanding networks that link our virtual selves to satellite arrays in geostationary orbit. Wristwatches interpret our physical condition by counting steps and heartbeats. Phones track how we spend our time online, map the geographic location of the places we visit and record our histories in digital archives. Social media platforms forge alliances and create new political possibilities. And vast wireless networks – connecting satellites, drones and ‘smart’ weapons – determine how the wars of our era are being waged. Our experiences of the world are soaked with digital technologies.

But for the French philosopher Bernard Stiegler, one of the earliest and foremost theorists of our digital age, understanding the world requires us to move beyond the standard view of technology. Stiegler believed that technology is not just about the effects of digital tools and the ways that they impact our lives. It is not just about how devices are created and wielded by powerful organisations, nation-states or individuals. Our relationship with technology is about something deeper and more fundamental. It is about technics.

According to Stiegler, technics – the making and use of technology, in the broadest sense – is what makes us human. Our unique way of existing in the world, as distinct from other species, is defined by the experiences and knowledge our tools make possible, whether that is a state-of-the-art brain-computer interface such as Neuralink, or a prehistoric flint axe used to clear a forest. But don’t be mistaken: ‘technics’ is not simply another word for ‘technology’. As Martin Heidegger wrote in his essay ‘The Question Concerning Technology’ (1954), which used the German term Technik instead of Technologie in the original title: the ‘essence of technology is by no means anything technological.’ This aligns with the history of the word: the etymology of ‘technics’ leads us back to something like the ancient Greek term for art – technē. The essence of technology, then, is not found in a device, such as the one you are using to read this essay. It is an open-ended creative process, a relationship with our tools and the world.

This is Stiegler’s legacy. Throughout his life, he took this idea of technics, first explored while he was imprisoned for armed robbery, further than anyone else. But his ideas have often been overlooked and misunderstood, even before he died in 2020. Today, they are more necessary than ever. How else can we learn to disentangle the effects of digital technologies from our everyday experiences? How else can we begin to grasp the history of our strange reality?

Stiegler’s path to becoming the pre-eminent philosopher of our digital age was anything but straightforward. He was born in Villebon-sur-Yvette, south of Paris, in 1952, during a period of affluence and rejuvenation in France that followed the devastation of the Second World War. By the time he was 16, Stiegler participated in the revolutionary wave of 1968 (he would later become a member of the Communist Party), when a radical uprising of students and workers forced the president Charles de Gaulle to seek temporary refuge across the border in West Germany. However, after a new election was called and the barricades were dismantled, Stiegler became disenchanted with traditional Marxism, as well as the political trends circulating in France at the time. The Left in France seemed helplessly torn between the postwar existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and the anti-humanism of Louis Althusser. While Sartre insisted on humans’ creative capacity to shape their own destiny, Althusser argued that the pervasiveness of ideology in capitalist society had left us helplessly entrenched in systems of power beyond our control. Neither of these options satisfied Stiegler because neither could account for the rapid rise of a new historical force: electronic technology. By the 1970s and ’80s, Stiegler sensed that this new technology was redefining our relationship to ourselves, to the world, and to each other. To account for these new conditions, he believed the history of philosophy would have to be rewritten from the ground up, from the perspective of technics. Neither existentialism nor Marxism nor any other school of philosophy had come close to acknowledging the fundamental link between human existence and the evolutionary history of tools.

Stiegler describes his time in prison as one of radical self-exploration and philosophical experimentation

In the decade after 1968, Stiegler opened a jazz club in Toulouse that was shut down by the police a few years later for illegal prostitution. Desperate to make ends meet, Stiegler turned to robbing banks to pay off his debts and feed his family. In 1978, he was arrested for armed robbery and sentenced to five years in prison. A high-school dropout who was never comfortable in institutional settings, Stiegler requested his own cell when he first arrived in prison, and went on a hunger strike until it was granted. After the warden finally acquiesced, Stiegler began taking note of how his relationship to the outside world was mediated through reading and writing. This would be a crucial realisation. Through books, paper and pencils, he was able to interface with people and places beyond the prison walls.

It was during his time behind bars that Stiegler began to study philosophy more intently, devouring any books he could get his hands on. In his philosophical memoir Acting Out (2009), Stiegler describes his time in prison as one of radical self-exploration and philosophical experimentation. He read classic works of Greek philosophy, studied English and memorised modern poetry, but the book that really drew his attention was Plato’s Phaedrus. In this dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus, Plato outlines his concept of anamnesis, a theory of learning that states the acquisition of new knowledge is just a process of remembering what we once knew in a previous life. Caught in an endless cycle of death and rebirth, we forget what we know each time we are reborn. For Stiegler, this idea of learning as recollection would become less spiritual and more material: learning and memory are tied inextricably to technics. Through the tools we use – including books, writing, archives – we can store and preserve vast amounts of knowledge.

After an initial attempt at writing fiction in prison, Stiegler enrolled in a philosophy programme designed for inmates. While still serving his sentence, he finished a degree in philosophy and corresponded with prominent intellectuals such as the philosopher and translator Gérard Granel, who was a well-connected professor at the University of Toulouse-Le Mirail (later known as the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès). Granel introduced Stiegler to some of the most prominent figures in philosophy at the time, including Jean-François Lyotard and Jacques Derrida. Lyotard would oversee Stiegler’s master’s thesis after his eventual release; Derrida would supervise his doctoral dissertation, completed in 1993, which was reworked and published a year later as the first volume in his Technics and Time series. With the help of these philosophers and their novel ideals, Stiegler began to reshape his earlier political commitment to Marxist materialism, seeking to account for the ways that new technologies shape the world.

By the start of the 1970s, a growing number of philosophers and political theorists began calling into question the immediacy of our lived experience. The world around us was no longer seen by these thinkers as something that was simply given, as it had been for phenomenologists such as Immanuel Kant and Edmund Husserl. The world instead presented itself as a built environment composed of things such as roads, power plants and houses, all made possible by political institutions, cultural practices and social norms. And so, reality also appeared to be a construction, not a given.

One of the French philosophers who interrogated the immediacy of reality most closely was Louis Althusser. In his essay ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’ published in 1970, years before Stiegler was taught by him, Althusser suggests that ideology is not something that an individual believes in, but something that goes far beyond the scale of a single person, or even a community. Just as we unthinkingly turn around when we hear our name shouted from behind, ideology has a hold on us that is both automatic and unconscious – it seeps in from outside. Michel Foucault, a former student of Althusser at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, developed a theory of power that functions in a similar way. In Discipline and Punish (1975) and elsewhere, Foucault argues that social and political power is not concentrated in individuals but is produced by ‘discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions’. Foucault’s insight was to show how power shapes every facet of the world, from classroom interactions between a teacher and student to negotiations of a trade agreement between representatives of two different nations. From this perspective, power is constituted in and through material practices, rather than something possessed by individual subjects.

We don’t simply ‘use’ our digital tools – they enter and pharmacologically change us, like medicinal drugs

These are the foundations on which Stiegler assembled his idea of technics. Though he appreciated the ways that Foucault and Althusser had tried to account for technology, he remained dissatisfied by the lack of attention to particular types of technology – not to mention the fact that neither thinker had offered any real alternatives to the forms of power they described. In his book Taking Care of Youth and the Generations (2008), Stiegler explains that he was able to move beyond Foucault with the help of his mentor Derrida’s concept of the pharmakon. In his essay ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’ (1972), Derrida began developing the idea as he explored how our ability to write can create and undermine (‘cure’ and ‘poison’) an individual subject’s sense of identity. For Derrida, the act of writing – itself a kind of technology – has a Janus-faced relationship to individual memory. Though it allows us to store knowledge and experience across vast periods of time, writing disincentivises us from practising our own mental capacity for recollection. The written word short-circuits the immediate connection between lived experience and internal memory. It ‘cures’ our cognitive limits, but also ‘poisons’ our cognition by limiting our abilities.

In the late 20th century, Stiegler began applying this idea to new media technologies, such as television, which led to the development of a concept he called pharmacology – an idea that suggests we don’t simply ‘use’ our digital tools. Instead, they enter and pharmacologically change us, like medicinal drugs. Today, we can take this analogy even further. The internet presents us with a massive archive of formatted, readily accessible information. Sites such as Wikipedia contain terabytes of knowledge, accumulated and passed down over millennia. At the same time, this exchange of unprecedented amounts of information enables the dissemination of an unprecedented amount of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and other harmful content. The digital is both a poison and a cure, as Derrida would say.

This kind of polyvalence led Stiegler to think more deliberately about technics rather than technology. For Stiegler, there are inherent risks in thinking in terms of the latter: the more ubiquitous that digital technologies become in our lives, the easier it is to forget that these tools are social products that have been constructed by our fellow humans. How we consume music, the paths we take to get from point A to point B, how we share ourselves with others, all of these aspects of daily life have been reshaped by new technologies and the humans that produce them. Yet we rarely stop to reflect on what this means for us. Stiegler believed this act of forgetting creates a deep crisis for all facets of human experience. By forgetting, we lose our all-important capacity to imagine alternative ways of living. The future appears limited, even predetermined, by new technology.

In the English-speaking world, Stiegler is best known for his first book Technics and Time, 1: The Fault of Epimetheus (1994). In the first sentence, he highlights the vital link between our understanding of the technologies we use and our capacity to imagine the future. ‘The object of this work is technics,’ he writes, ‘apprehended as the horizon of all possibility to come and of all possibility of a future.’ He views our relationship with tools as the determining force for all future possibilities; technics is the defining feature of human experience, one that has been overlooked by philosophers from Plato and Aristotle down to the present. While René Descartes, Husserl and other thinkers asked important questions about consciousness and lived experience (phenomenology), and the nature of truth (metaphysics) or knowledge (epistemology), they failed to account for the ways that technologies help us find – or guide us toward – answers to these questions. In the history of philosophy, ‘Technics is the unthought,’ according to Stiegler.

To further stress the importance of technics, Stiegler turns to the creation myth told by the Greek poet Hesiod in Works and Days, written around 700 BCE. During the world’s creation, Zeus asks the Titan Epimetheus to distribute individual talents to each species. Epimetheus gives wings to birds so they can fly, and fins to fish so they can swim. By the time he gets to humans, however, Epimetheus has no talents left over. Epimetheus, whose name (according to Stiegler) means the ‘forgetful one’ in Greek, turns to his brother Prometheus for help. Prometheus then steals fire from the gods, presenting it to humans in place of a biological talent. Humans, once more, are born out of an act of forgetting, just like in Plato’s theory of anamnesis. The difference with Hesiod’s story is that technics here provides a material basis for human experience. Bereft of any physiological talents, Homo sapiens must survive by using tools, beginning with fire.

Factories, server farms and even psychotropic drugs possess the capacity to poison or cure our world

The pharmacology of technics, for Stiegler, presents opportunities for positive or negative relationships with tools. ‘But where the danger lies,’ writes the poet Friedrich Hölderlin in a quote Stiegler often turned to, ‘also grows the saving power.’ While Derrida focuses on the ability of the written word to subvert the sovereignty of the individual subject, Stiegler widens this understanding of pharmacology to include a variety of media and technologies. Not just writing, but factories, server farms and even psychotropic drugs possess the pharmacological capacity to poison or cure our world and, crucially, our understanding of it. Technological development can destroy our sense of ourselves as rational, coherent subjects, leading to widespread suffering and destruction. But tools can also provide us with a new sense of what it means to be human, leading to new modes of expression and cultural practices.

In Symbolic Misery, Volume 2: The Catastrophe of the Sensible (2015), Stiegler considers the effect that new technologies, especially those accompanying industrialisation, have had on art and music. Industry, defined by mass production and standardisation, is often regarded as antithetical to artistic freedom and expression. But Stiegler urges us to take a closer look at art history to see how artists responded to industrialisation. In response to the standardising effects of new machinery, for example, Marcel Duchamp and other members of the 20th-century avant-garde used industrial tools to invent novel forms of creative expression. In the painting Nude Descending a Staircase, No 2 (1912), Duchamp employed the new temporal perspectives made possible by photography and cinema to paint a radically different kind of portrait. Inspired by the camera’s ability to capture movement, frame by frame, Duchamp paints a nude model who appears in multiple instants at once, like a series of time-lapse photographs superimposed onto each other. The image became an immediate sensation, an icon of modernity and the resulting entanglement of art and industrial technology.

Technical innovations are never without political and social implications for Stiegler. The phonograph, for example, may have standardised classical musical performances after its invention in the late 1800s, but it also contributed to the development of jazz, a genre that was popular among musicians who were barred from accessing the elite world of classical music. Thanks to the gramophone, Black musicians such as the pianist and composer Duke Ellington were able to learn their instruments by ear, without first learning to read musical notation. The phonograph’s industrialisation of musical performance paradoxically led to the free-flowing improvisation of jazz performers.

Technics draws our attention to the world-making capabilities of our tools, while reminding us of the constructed nature of our technological reality. Stiegler’s capacious understanding of technics, encompassing everything from early agricultural tools to the television set, does not disregard new innovations, either. In 2006, Stiegler founded the Institute for Research and Innovation, an organisation at the Centre Pompidou in Paris devoted to exploring the impact digital technology has on contemporary society. Stiegler’s belief in the power of technology to shape the world around us has often led to the charge that he is a techno-determinist who believes the entire course of history is shaped by tools and machines. It’s true that Stiegler thinks technology defines who we are as humans, but this process does not always lock us into predetermined outcomes. Instead, it simultaneously provides us with a material horizon of possible experience. Stiegler’s theory of technics urges us to rethink the history of philosophy, art and politics in order that we might better understand how our world has been shaped by technology. And by acquiring this historical consciousness, he hopes that we will ultimately design better tools, using technology to improve our world in meaningful ways.

This doesn’t mean Stiegler is a techno-optimist, either, who blindly sees digital technology as a panacea for our problems. One particular concern he expresses about digital technology is its capacity to standardise the world we inhabit. Big data, for Stiegler, threatens to limit our sense of what is possible, rather than broadening our horizons and opening new opportunities for creative expression. Just as Hollywood films in the 20th century manufactured and distributed the ideology of consumer capitalism to the rest of the globe, Stiegler suggests that tech firms such as Google and Apple often disseminate values that are hidden from view. A potent example of this can be found in the first fully AI-judged beauty pageant. As discussed by the sociologist Ruha Benjamin in her book Race After Technology (2019), the developers of Beauty.AI advertised the contest as an opportunity for beauty to be judged in a way that was free of prejudice. What they found, however, was that the tool they had designed exhibited an overwhelming preference for white contestants.

The digital economy doesn’t always offer desirable alternatives as former ways of working and living are destroyed

In Automatic Society, Volume 1: The Future of Work (2016), Stiegler shows how big data can standardise our world by reorganising work and employment. Digital tools were first seen as a disruptive force that could break the monotonous rhythms of large industry, but the rise of flexible forms of employment in the gig economy has created a massive underclass. A new proletariat of Uber drivers and other precarious workers now labour under extremely unstable conditions. They are denied even the traditional protections of working-class employment. The digital economy doesn’t always offer desirable alternatives as former ways of working and living are destroyed.

A particularly pressing concern Stiegler took up before his untimely death in 2020 is the capacity of digital tools to surveil us. The rise of big tech firms such as Google and Amazon has meant the intrusion of surveillance tools into every aspect of our lives. Smart homes have round-the-clock video feeds, and marketing companies spend billions collecting data about everything we do online. In his last two books published in English, The Neganthropocene (2018) and The Age of Disruption: Technology and Madness in Computational Capitalism (2019), Stiegler suggests that the growth of widespread surveillance tools is at odds with the pharmacological promise of new technology. Though tracking tools can be useful by, for example, limiting the spread of harmful diseases, they are also used to deny us worlds of possible experience.

Technology, for better or worse, affects every aspect of our lives. Our very sense of who we are is shaped and reshaped by the tools we have at our disposal. The problem, for Stiegler, is that when we pay too much attention to our tools, rather than how they are developed and deployed, we fail to understand our reality. We become trapped, merely describing the technological world on its own terms and making it even harder to untangle the effects of digital technologies and our everyday experiences. By encouraging us to pay closer attention to this world-making capacity, with its potential to harm and heal, Stiegler is showing us what else is possible. There are other ways of living, of being, of evolving. It is technics, not technology, that will give the future its new face.