Hand's End: Technology and the Limits of Nature

By David Rothenberg
University of California Press, 1994.

Review by Howard Rheingold.

Nature, humanity, technology: how do they fit together? This question is shaping up as the major challenge of the millennium. The task of clearly defining what you mean by "nature," "humanity," and "technology" is a political act, as well as a linguistic and philosophical challenge. A logger, an Earth-firster, a free-market economist, and an ethnobotanist are going to come up with very different maps of where each category begins and the other one ends.

David Rothenberg, Assistant Professor of Humanities at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, has particularly interesting qualifications to take on the job of revealing the philosophical roots of today's notions of nature and technology. He is the translator of one of the seminal works of the Deep Ecology movement, Arne Naess's Ecology, Community, and Lifestyle (1989). Yet he is not a technophobe.

The author's central claim -- that technology is an extension of what it is to be human, at a deep level, and that the way we see nature is powerfully influenced by our technologies -- was bold enough to keep me awake through the sometimes abstruse retelling of key passages from Spinoza or Heidegger.

Technology, human nature, and nature, according to Rothenberg, are inextricable; seeing them in opposition and contradistinction has been part of the problem, the author claims. From the first use of hand-tools to contemporary frontiers of artificial life and genetic engineering, technological evolution has continually redefined our views of human nature. We see the world, including the natural world, in a certain way that has everything to do with our tool-making penchant. Since our recent ancestors were swinging from trees, we have learned very well how to pay attention to the graspable aspects of the world; the urge and need to create tools is built into our opposable thumbs and our self-rewiring brains.

Rothenberg's hypothesis, with all its implications for our future, rests on the history of past discourse about technology, human nature, and nature: Plato, Aristotle, Bacon, Spinoza, Marx, Heidegger, Mumford and McLuhan are invoked and explained enroute to a bold new theory that encompasses ancient water works and nuclear weapons.

We must see our own human ability to transform the "natural" environment into an "artificial" one as something that exists within nature, Rothenberg claims. We cannot find a home in the natural world until we see the way our technologies influence our vision of all-important non-technical issues. We must acknowledge and understand the true power of technology as part of the natural world before we can ameliorate its destructive tendencies. We must perceive and treat technology as an extension of our humanity before we can effectively guide its use according to moral decisions of about the kind of world we want to leave our grandchildren.

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