Louis CK, Technology, and Philosophy

It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.

- Albert Einstein

Comedian Louis CK can be extremely profane - but also profound, particularly when it comes to technology.

In this and another 2009 appearance on Conan O'Brien which raked in over 4 million views on YouTube, Louis CK made us laugh - but also tapped into important philosophical insights into technology and its use.

In the first appearance, Louis CK complains about how "everything's amazing, and nobody's happy." Phones, computers, credit cards, banks, and airlines have made stunning leaps in speed, simplicity, and convenience in recent years. This is particularly true in information and cell phone technology, which has absolutely skyrocketed since the 1980s.

Yet, rather than appreciate how technology has made our lives radically easier, Louis CK notes that we tend to be unappreciative. In fact, we ironically get more angry and frustrated as our technology gets quicker and better.

We constantly gripe about our phones; but Louis CK reminds us: "It's going to space!..Is the speed of light too slow for you?" And who hasn't acted like a flight was "a cattle car in the 40's in Germany"? But he reminds us: "You're sitting in the chair in the sky...New York to California in five hours. That used to take thirty years to do that." Smart phones and air travel are truly "miracles" - but we never feel like they're good enough.

This all is very insightful - and very true. But what is it about technology and our relationship to it, that rather than make us happier, freer, and more fulfilled, it constantly leaves us angrier, busier, and more frustrated?

In the second appearance on Conan (embedded above), Louis CK gets to the crux of our relationship to technology.

In talking about Twitter, he decides: "Everything that's available to do, isn't a good idea. There's a culture right now that as soon as they say 'hey, you get to do this'...'I'm gonna do it!'" Not only do we jump at the chance to do anything newer and quicker - it's also making us more disconnected and dependent. "Nobody takes in life unless it comes through this," he says, making frantic, tunnel-vision gestures on an imaginary phone.

Does Facebook really make the world
more "open" and "connected"?
Again, very true. So why do we all have such an overwhelming desire to use the newest thing out? And why does it always manage to captivate, mesmerize, even enslave us? Is it really a desire to "stay connected," "learn more," "make the world better"? Or is there something else going on?

Tech-prophets like Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates, have all referred to technology as a way to do better and be better. But philosopher Martin Heidegger saw the lure of technology to be, in short, that it makes us feel better.

In The Question Concerning Technology, he writes:

"Man...exalts himself to the posture of lord of the earth. In this way the impression comes to prevail that everything man encounters exists only insofar as it is his construct."

In other words, smart phones and other computer technology give us an inebriated sense of control over the world, a control that seems to make everything hinge on our own desires and thoughts. Thus, the great secret of technology's entangling lure is not connectivity, community, freedom, intelligence, or happiness - but power.

In fact, William Lovitt notes that, for Heidegger, the essence of technology is bound up with the "will to power" - Nietzsche's idea that man's hidden desire in everything he does is domination over other things and other people. "Heidegger sees in Nietzsche’s philosophy…the consummation of the essence of technology." Nietzsche's "ubermensch" (or "overman"), his ideal man who prizes power over morality and has "dominion and disposal over all things," is "technology man par excellence."

And what would godly power be without magic? Arthur C. Clarke once said that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." CS Lewis agreed, writing that the aura of technology is more akin to magic than to science. This is because for "magic and [technology] alike the cardinal problem is how to conform reality to the wishes of the soul; and the solution is a technique."

With the lure of magical, god-like power available at our fingertips, who could resist staying on their iPhone all day? But Louis CK is right: just because we can do it, doesn't mean it's always a good idea. Or, in the words of GK Chesterton: "To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it."

If Nietzsche was right about the "will to power," computer technology would not only lure us - it would also fulfill us. Instead, cell phones and computers have a funny way of damaging our relationships, wasting our time, and filling us with frustration. That frustration with our technology is not just a desire to have something better - it is, I think, the creeping suspicion that we crave a technology fix like an addict craves a heroin fix. We know, deep down, that more often than not, this "high" is harmful.

But how? Louis CK hints at one way that technology degrades us; in the words of Heidegger, it is "forgetfulness of being." With technology, we cut ourselves off from the moment, from physical presence, from reality itself. Rather than really experiencing something - say, Louis CK's example of Times Square on New Year's Eve - we distance ourselves by filtering the experience through a little device. To paraphrase Walker Percy, when we photograph or film something instead of just looking at it, "there is no confrontation at all." We "waive" the right to see and know Times Square on New Year's Eve through an unfiltered, authentic experience when we put technology between ourselves and the experience.

Worse yet, in living through the tidbits of Twitter, iPhones, and texting, we effectively forfeit all of the value and wisdom that comes only through long conversations, contemplation, and silence. (One of the smartest people I know was raised Quaker, with no TV - and so filled that time reading, thinking, and listening.)

In fact, Louis CK isn't the first to quip that if Jesus himself came, we'd probably ignore him or trivialize the experience through tweets and technology. Nineteenth century philosopher Kierkegaard wrote:

"Even if [God's word] were blazoned forth with all the panoply of noise so that it could be heard in the midst of all the other noise, then it would no longer be the word of God."

Heidegger concludes his work saying that technology represents both a "supreme danger" and "saving power."

Or, as David Kaplan puts it:

"The very instrumentality that threatens us also has the power to save us..[because] once we realize that we have been living with this technological understanding of things, we are then free to appreciate that there is more to life than efficiency." We are, as Heidegger called it, "released."

In thirty short years, we have to wonder - does our attitude toward and use of technology stem from a desire to wield an unhealthy control over the world and other people (an act which, paradoxically, only debases, isolates, and frustrates us)? Do our iPhones enslave or save us? Should we ditch them altogether - or simply take a new view toward technology?

Where is technology going? More importantly: should we follow it? 


  1. Great article, Matthew. I've wondered the same things for quite some time now, which is the reason I stopped using social networking almost entirely (with the exception of a post on Google + here and there). Technology can only provide an approximation of reality, a filter that gives us control we aren't capable of wielding well. Good to see other people having similar thoughts in today's world.

  2. @JJ

    Thanks for commenting - I'm also continually tempted to scrap my Facebook account. But then, I'd have to forfeit our By Way of Beauty page too!

    Technology can be used for great goods - and unfortunately, to forfeit technology nowadays so often means being "out of the loop" with family and friends. But the temptation to waste our time, act irresponsibly, and exalt the virtual over the authentic is overwhelming - and in the words of Oscar Wilde, we can resist everything except temptation.

    Louis CK's profound point is missed on many people who are dazzled by speed and efficiency, who are taught that nothing is better than "better" - that is, that the "medium is the message." Our technologies are radically transforming the way we see and interact with the world, and I'm not sure we're benefiting in the end. I say that even as a child of the internet age - not every fundamental transformation is desirable.

  3. Followed a link from Reddit. Watched the Louis C.K. video, and was very impressed with your subsequent analysis of it. Our intoxication with technology and preoccupation with progress really does beg the question: when is enough "enough"? At what point do we stop demanding more, and start enjoying what we have? As an ambitious young adult, it's tough to even consider that option, but I realize that the only long-term sustainable path is acceptance; the only question is how to know when to stop.

  4. Great article.
    One gripe: The correct Arthur C. Clarke quote has a completely different meaning: "Any significantly advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

    Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clarke's_three_laws

  5. @Anonymous

    Thanks for your comments!

    You're right, the matter at hand is really knowing when "enough is enough." On an individual basis, I think it varies - some people curb and moderate their technology use easily, but others really feel the need to "unplug from the Matrix" entirely.

    The culture, though, is another question. As you noted, the professional world (like the social world) is geared now toward computer use and computer literacy. Computer technology is drawing up every realm of our lives because, as a culture, we haven't made any demands or placed any constraints on it except that it always be better, faster, and more convenient.

    The question is: is better, faster, and more convenient a good formula for everything in life? For friendship, wisdom, contemplation, art, community?

  6. Great article! I hadn't really thought much about Heideggers critique of technology yet, but your post got me going. I'd say though that you are harsh on Nietzsche and got the Ubermensch wrong. Your reference to the Superman-shirt Nietzsche underlines that. Would you really call someone who has "power" over the world via technology a Ubermensch, even if he cannot control himself the tiniest bit and cannot stand up to the idea of the Eternal Recurrence?

  7. @Meister Yoda

    The superman shirt picture is one of the few pictures I could find of the concept of "Ubermensch" (Ubermensch is also sometimes translated as "superman.")

    Below is the source for the quote that connects Heidegger with Nietzsche's overman. It says that "Nietzsche's overman might be said to be technological man par excellence."

    What does that mean? I don't think it means that anybody using an iPhone is the "overman" - and I certainly didn't mean to convey that. What it does suggest, though, is that Heidegger's "supreme danger" of technology and the overman share something - namely, the will to power and control. Even though an iPhone may not make a person Nietzsche's overman in the literal sense - it points in that direction as the ideal, or makes us "overmen-in-training." This is because technology exalts mastery, pride, and self-assertion over receptivity, humility, and self-control - or, the "will to power" over the will to serve.

    So I think the two ideas are very much linked by the "will to power" - but you're right, in the end they're very distinct concepts.

    Source for quote

  8. @Matthew
    It's Meister Yoda (changed my nick). For me, the most characteristic feature of the √úbermensch has always been the ability to exert self-control. Probably not the only possible option (Nietzsche is very vague), I still think, looking at his biography, that it is the most plausible.

  9. @ZootX

    That's interesting. I guess it could depend on what part of the self you're exerting control over - but I always found self-control to be something Nietzsche despises, something he associates with asceticism and "slave-morality" of Christianity, rather than the Dionysian impulse he revered. Take this quote for instance (the first part sounds very much like the Ubermensch):

    "Healthy, strong individuals seek self expansion by experimenting and by living dangerously. Life consists of an infinite number of possibilities and the healthy person explores as many of them as posible. Religions that teach pity, self-contempt, humility, self-restraint and guilt are incorrect."

    1. Its probably because I don`t like (it makes me to feel uneasy about myself) putting Ubermensch against having mastered self-control, but I thought that in your quote Nietzsche actually meant something a bit different with that "self-restraint". OR it just got lost in translation. Being able to control one-self for me might as well mean not going to the extremes with one thing in particular. I mean, he wants to see people exploring as many things as possible, but that requires some amount of self-control as well, doesn`t it? (:

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  11. I've been having a lot of the same thoughts about technology lately, thinking overall about how it's affected the level of happiness in people's everyday lives, but also particularly when it comes to music (as a music lover). The ease of access with which people can get their hands on anything nowadays has eliminated the process of acquiring information, which pre-internet was one of the aspects of information-gathering that led to a feeling of triumph. Listening to a song was so much better when you had to walk into a record store, look through CD's (or vinyl or whatever), and FIND the one that had the music you liked. By time you got home with that purchase, the only thing you wanted to do was take in what you'd just spent your time on. People don't spend time on any one thing anymore, which has sort of made everything that used to hold value seem just trivial now.

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