“I’m not someone who gives happy little talks about technology”, says American philosopher Nolen Gertz from the University of Twente. “At conferences, I’m usually the bad guy who points out the holes in the idea that devices and apps will lead us to Utopia.”
Which is exactly what he did recently at Leiden’s tech conference, Brave New World. “In my opinion, Friedrich Nietzsche described what’s going on very well.” This nineteenth-century German philosopher wrote about nihilism, which, in short, is the belief that nothing is important and that life has no purpose. Nietzsche regarded nihilism as a huge threat.
Although in his day, there was no “swiping” or “liking” as we know it, Nietzsche’s ideas can be applied to developments in modern technology, Gertz writes in his book Nihilism and technology, which was published last year.
“He warns that we do all we can to avoid thinking about our own humanity. We tend to resist life and to become distracted from what is truly important. We want to be entertained in an attempt to get away from ourselves. That’s also why we design apps, devices and streaming services in a particular way.”
A good example of this is how Netflix works, Gertz explains. “Netflix and chill is a euphemism for an invitation to have sex. Of course, it’s funny that the corporation promptly started using it in their marketing campaign, but what I find particularly fascinating is how consumers use Netflix. Initially, the company presented itself as a gigantic library of films you could choose from. But then Netflix realised that people don’t want to choose. Viewers prefer the recommendations and the autoplay feature. We want the corporation to decide what we watch. We want to escape the freedom of choice because it’s hard to choose.”
According Gertz, the idea that we can reduce our world to a number of problems that can be solved with technology is gaining popularity. “Problems that were partly caused by the use of the previous generation of technology. It’s a vicious circle, we just don’t realise it. We see technology almost as something that’s superior to human beings. We rely on computer coding. Algorithms are required to solve problems for us, biased and inefficient humans. It’s a dangerous development when every decision we make is based on an algorithm. They have their failings and prejudices too, just like the people who design them. But it’s easy to lay the blame on computers then. It means that life is a problem that can fixed by an app.”
Applications tell you how live your life. “The smartwatch on your wrist determines how many steps you should take in a day. The device says 10,000, but there’s no foundation for that number. It just sounds good. It could just as easily be 5,000 steps or 15,000.”
Gertz claims that some apps expose the nasty side of humans.
“It’s obvious with Tinder. Nihilism is booming on Tinder. It’s supposed to be a dating app, but the figures give a different perspective. Very, very few swipes result in a date. The thrill is that you have the power to judge people. The tendency to enjoy cruelty, that’s what Nietzsche thought was worrying about nihilism.”
But don’t recent developments, like those concerning Facebook, show that a large number of these “slavish” humans are quite critical of technology? Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter’s boss Jack Dorsey are frequently in the dock.
“That’s right, but our criticism is focused on the wrong thing,” says Gertz. “We are not pointing the finger at ourselves; we’re pointing to those corporations. In fact, it’s not even Facebook we’re angry with, it’s Zuckerberg. But he’s only the symbol of an underlying problem. It’s nonsense to rebel against Twitter and Facebook by saying they’re not social and don’t really connect people. The problem is us, the users.”