Erich Fromm on Our Relation to Technology
Rediscovering ancient skills in everyday life
In the previous post, we talked about the promises of modern technology and how, according to Erich Fromm, these have not paid off.
How can we apply Erich Fromm’s criticism of technology to our everyday lives? Instead of catapulting us into a utopia of eternal youth and affluence, modern technology has condemned us to a life under constant surveillance, is destroying the planet, and, in the form of AI, now threatening to take away human employment on a grand scale. Rediscovering some of the ancient skills that we all once had may provide a way out of the problem.
This article is part of The Ultimate Guide to the Philosophy of Erich Fromm.
Technology, capitalism and obsolescence
This kind of technological progress is particularly dangerous in combination with capitalism, which naturally leads to perverse strategies like planned obsolescence: the construction of technical devices that are intended to break a short time after their period of warranty is over, so that the customer has to buy the same thing again.
Having grown up in the logic of the capitalist system, most of us do see the point: if things kept working forever, there wouldn’t be enough demand for them to justify the existence of the factories that make them. But we also have to realise that we are not talking about pottery made of clay or chairs made of natural wood that will eventually decay and be recycled in nature. These things actually do keep for hundreds of years, as antique furniture shops and ancient vases found in excavations testify. What we are throwing away with wild abandon are products that are, for the most part, not recyclable: electronics that will leach heavy metals into the environment while they decompose; batteries that contain precious rare earth metals (in 2019, Tesla warned of a shortage of rare earth metals used in battery production, despite the fact that these can, actually, be recycled); and plastics of all kinds that decompose in nature and enter the our own food chain in the form of microplastics, now already found in many water sources and inside our bodies.
In California, there is one lightbulb that has been burning since 1901. It now even has its own Wikipedia page. This proves that lightbulbs, often a symbol for throwaway technology, could easily last a lifetime – if the companies that make them didn’t put their profits above both customer convenience and the environment. Meanwhile, the lightbulb industry has pushing us for decades towards fluorescent, energy saving lamps – which is, where the energy is concerned, surely a good thing; but these lamps contain mercury and other poisonous materials that again end up in the environment after the lamp’s useful life is over.
The most infuriating example for planned obsolescence is what both Apple and Google are doing in the world of mobile phones and tablets. While an iPhone could last a very long time and be useful as a phone for many years, Apple has intentionally caused the batteries of older phones to fail, thus forcing the customers to buy new ones. Both Apple and Google are regularly releasing new versions of their operating systems that are intentionally breaking compatibility with older phones: after five years, Apple officially stops supporting its own older hardware and even prevents older devices from connecting to its services. Google does the same, perhaps less obviously, with its frequent updates to Android that leave older phones unsupported and not covered by security fixes, eventually forcing their owners to buy new phones. None of this is based on any law of nature. These companies could well create compatible software and they could be forced, for example by governments that are really interested in protecting the environment, to provide long-term support for their products. But of course, the same governments get tax income and jobs from these companies, and no one has an interest in stopping this practice.
The Happier Society. Erich Fromm and the Frankfurt School.
In this book, philosophy professor, popular author and editor of the Daily Philosophy web magazine, Dr Andreas Matthias takes the reader on a tour, looking at how society influences our happiness. Following Erich Fromm, the Frankfurt School, Aldous Huxley and other thinkers, we go in search of wisdom and guidance on how we can live better, happier and more satisfying lives today.
This is an edited and expanded version of the articles published on tis site.
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Can we control technology?
There is a discussion in the philosophy of technology that has been going on for many years about whether technology forces society to adopt it or whether societies can actually control their technologies. Proponents of a theory called “technological determinism” or “autonomous technology” point out that our societies have never been successful in regulating even the most dangerous technologies.
From the automobile, plastics and nuclear power to TV, the Internet and social media, and now AI, technologies have often had great destructive effects on society: the plastering of countryside with highways, the resulting dying-off of inner cities and the rise of crime and pollution, nuclear disasters, Internet abuse and addiction, the disappearance of high streets, shops and public spaces as a result of online shopping and now the problems of surveillance, loss of jobs and algorithmic justice. All these tell a very long and complex story of how we have failed to regulate technologies so that they stay beneficial to human societies – leaving them instead to take over and develop systems and values of their own that are, all too often, opposed to the values of a sane and healthy human society.
Focal practices: The rituals of life
Reading Fromm’s technology criticism today leaves one a little disappointed – we feel that we understand the point that Erich Fromm tries to make about technology, but his examples do not really resonate any more. After all, Fromm was writing for the world of the 60s and 70s – a far more innocent world than ours, one in which technology still seemed to hold some promise for improving human life and where the problems that it causes were not yet as visible as they are for us today. It was a world without Fukushima and Chernobyl, a world without personal computers, Internet and iPhones, without surveillance cameras, microplastics and oceans dying from overfishing and pollution. It’s us who have really seen a much uglier face of the technological dream than Fromm could have imagined.
One interesting aspect of the technological transformation of life is the meaningfulness of what people often call “chores”. Household technology has, like Fromm says, promised us that utopian household that would do everything itself: machines to wash our dishes, machines to wash our clothes, machines to vacuum the floor, machines to heat up our meals within twenty seconds.
The result of all these machines managing our lives is not, as we were promised, more freedom. What do we do with the half hour we saved through not doing the dishes? What do we accomplish in the hour in which we didn’t cook a meal but had the microwave heat up a ready-made mess out of the freezer? We have saved so much time and what do we really do with it? We spend it watching cat videos on Youtube or endlessly binge on ten-year-old TV series on Netflix, feeling more tired and fed up with the world than if we had actually done something meaningful.
Congregating with one’s family around the dinner table is an ancient ritual that goes back to the early ancestors of humans: in a cave in South Africa, archeologists found evidence of a Homo Erectus cooking fireplace that is a million years old. The ritual of cooking is so important to our lives, that all around the world human beings have believed in gods that were specifically associated with the hearth: the ancient Greek Hestia, the Norse Frigg, the Korean Gashin, the Ainu-Japanese Kamui Fuchi, and Zao Jun, the kitchen God of the Chinese. Our modern culture of convenience and speed has reduced that ancient culture to twenty seconds and a ding of the microwave – but is this really a good thing? There is a beauty in the old rituals of family life, in eating home-made meals together, even in cultivating the basic skills of making one’s own bread or yogurt, which doesn’t take much time at all.
Well, yes, they do take some time. But it’s a good kind of time. Time spent exercising one’s skills and abilities, and producing a work, a thing, a meal of which one can be proud. Having baked a good loaf of bread is not the same as getting one of the squishy, sugary, white, cellophane-wrapped, dead things from the supermarket or even popping a bag of dough into the automated bread maker. A home-made loaf is a thing of beauty, its thick crust, still hot, covered with melting butter, connecting one to a tradition thousands of years old.
There is no achievement in having a bread machine bake a loaf of bread, or a yogurt incubator make a cup of yogurt. But make it yourself, and you will feel the satisfaction of having, in a small way, reclaimed some of your humanity that this society had taken away from you. And then, consider this: baking one’s own bread does not require computerised electronics, plastic wrapping, a freezer, aluminum foil: a whole bag of garbage that will immediately go from shop to landfill.
And so we’ll have spent an hour baking a bread. But wouldn’t this be an hour well-spent? Wouldn’t this be a more meaningful use of those sixty minutes than watching something on TV that we’re not even interested in, or playing Sudoku on a phone?
For a while, my family loved to watch Ruth Goodman’s re-enactment of old times in a number of educational BBC series. Of course, living in Tudor times was hard, without modern medicines, without a secure food supply, at the mercy of the weather and the seasons. But what one also realises is how meaningful life must have looked to those people back then, and how much satisfaction they must have got from just living day to day, exercising their skills and their creativity and transforming their little world all around them: planting, harvesting, cooking, tending to the fire, making their own clothes, even building their own houses with the work of their own hands. In our modern world, I panic when the tap begins to drip, because this means a call to the plumber, a wait for two weeks until he can finally grant me an audience, and fifty dollars gone just to get him to have a look at the thing.
If you’d like to give Fromm’s ideas a try, you could start by looking out for opportunities to reclaim some of these ancient skills. The knowledge is all there, for free, in the form of endless websites, blogs and Youtube videos. You can learn to bake bread on Youtube, to make soap from ashes and old oil, to make yogurt, ice-cream and cheese and your own wine and mead. You can involve the rest of your family in these tasks. Children love experimenting, cooking and playing, and I’ve yet to meet someone who doesn’t admire a fresh loaf of bread or doesn’t enjoy a cup of home-made yogurt with honey.
So go and have a great, creative weekend and enjoy rediscovering some of the skills that once we all had! Skills that, far from being “chores,” may just hold the keys to a more happy, more fulfilled, more meaningful life for all of us.
Return to The Ultimate Guide to the Philosophy of Erich Fromm.
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Thanks for reading! Do you agree? Do you practice some these skills yourself or with your family? Tell me in a comment!