The Technician and the Poet – ferocious arguments, half-hearted reconciliation

Technician are used to thinking, poets also give free reign to feelings, sometimes they only express their feelings without caring much about thinking. The technician ruthlessly imposes his opinion on the poet that nowadays his views count for little – all serious life being determined by science and technology. You are no more than distant spectators, while we, the technicians, can boast of having measured the world making it possible in the first place that ten billion people will soon populate the globe instead of just one two centuries ago. In science and business, it is us, the technicians, who are paid to plan and run the machinery for a growing mass of people.


(whom we should imagine as speaking for art as a whole) conceive their own task quite differently. They try to give meaning to human life (unless they happen to lament the absence of meaning). As a rule, technicians and poets encounter each other with greatest mutual incomprehension. They represent the „Two Cultures“ about whose mutual alienation C. P. Snow had already written towards the end of the 1950s.

The seizure of power by technocrats – for this is how their rise should actually be described – is a historical novelty. Roughly speaking, it dates from the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution – which means that it is not even three hundred years old. But its success is dazzling. Science and its material products have provided a steadily growing part of mankind with a standard of living unique in history. No wonder that technocrats mold our thinking and our worldview, while poets – together with art as a whole – are considered by many to be rather superfluous: providing nothing more than a pastime with little or no importance for serious life.

The scientific representatives of optimism,

one of whose outstanding proponents is undoubtedly the US cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, insist that mankind today is much better off than all its ancestors down to hunter-gatherers of the Stone Age. Life expectancy, health, nutrition, even the crime rate and war-related mortality have clearly changed for the better.

But currently this situation is about to change. Since the beginning of the new century, technocrats have to cope with a new task that does not enhance their reputation, but threatens to damage it. In the 1980s, sociologist Ulrich Beck had talked about modern „risk society“ – since then risks have materialized. Today, science and technology are called upon to cope with the catastrophic, largely unforeseen consequences of technology. Since the climate crisis at the latest, we find ourselves living in a „repair society„. What progress has ruined, progress is now supposed to repair.

It is open to question whether this will succeed. Many people already accept climate change as an inevitable fact, especially as long as it „only“ damages the countries of the South. But climate change is only one of the repairs facing mankind; another is the rapid consumption of resources already interpreted as a sinister warning in the „Limits of Growth“. In its turn, the specter of resource exhaustion has given new impetus to the competitive „race of nations“ in both the military and the economic sphere – a race which threatens to lead us directly into the abyss. As if that weren’t enough, we have to end the contamination of the seas with plastic; the increasing degradation of soils by industrial agriculture; the worldwide destruction of forests, the rapid annihilation of species and the global growth of rubbish dumps – we all know that to the point of weariness! These are the manifestations of a „progress“ that the sorcerer’s apprentices of technocracy have unleashed, but are less and less able to master.

So, it is by no means surprising that the question of meaning – the meaning of technology and progress – is now being asked again. It is the poet unjustly declared to be dead to whom we listen anew in such moments.

The Poet:

You, the technicians, are about to exploit the planet – our only dwelling place – to the point of making it uninhabitable. That is because you made yourselves slaves to an addiction that now grips all of humanity: an addiction that Mahatma Gandhi had expressed in a simple formula. „The world has enough,“ he said, „for everyone’s needs, but not for everyone’s greed. This greed you have transmitted from Europe to the entire globe. Today everyone wants to have their own water closet, of course their own car as well and, if possible, a flight to the nearest holiday paradise. Everyone – regardless of whether they are politically on the right or on the left – strive for the highest standard of living, that which they admire in their neighbors. They have long since stopped arguing about the depletion of resources caused by material luxury, dwelling instead upon technical issues like how resources may be distributed so that everyone can enjoy the same luxury at any place on the globe. Wealth and the exploitation required for this purpose are still concentrated in the states of the West, but in two or three decades the Far East is set to lead the world. Once all of Asia and the entire African continent have finally reached the goal everyone is striving for, humanity will consume at least five to ten globes.

But you, the technocrats, should perfectly know what that means – after all arithmetic is your favorite passion. The whole structure of progress will collapse like a house of cards, because unfortunately we just have this single globe. What else is there for competitive states to do than to attack each other in wars of robbery in order to lay hold upon vanishing resources? The „American way of life“ is, as we know, „non-negotiable“ – and of course the same applies to its Japanese, Chinese, European and other counterparts. Nobody – least of all Prof. Pinker, the die-hard optimist – is upset that the globe is now being squeezed out like a lemon so that we may continue to enjoy the daily luxuries of civilization. But woe betide anybody who dares to take this luxury away from us or even to diminish it! When that happens, everyone raises a murderous scream, people climb barricades eager to wage wars for further „progress“ and against the terrorists who threaten it. Then German politicians even claim that „Europe should be defended at the Hindu Kush“.

The Technician:

My dear poet and incurable romantic, I hardly need to answer that tirade – your accusations have nothing at all to do with myself or technicians in general. We only carry out what politicians want us to do – and politicians, for their part, depend on the people, how else could they stay in power? The democratic majority is the real king – and this king is both the victim and the protagonist of greed. Don’t you see that the average consumer is addicted to the latest models and products technology is able to offer him? It is he who wants to buy and to buy again. And it is he who, after once or twice using those coveted products sends them to the garbage bin if lured by a still newer model.

To be sure, I know that a huge advertising industry is doing what it can to fuel this addiction, but that only concerns the war among competing companies! As to the products themselves, you certainly need not talk the average consumer into buying them – for that is his most cherished pastime in all industrialized countries. Everywhere, he queues up in front of the temples of consumption eager to snatch the latest mobile phones and computers from the producers‘ hands. Nor is there any need to talk him into booking cheap flights to distant paradises – tourism has become a mass industry because people would otherwise be bored to death in their free time. An as for cars, this fetishist symbol has long since replaced the golden calf of earlier times. People are obsessed with it, even if spending hours in daily traffic jams.

So please, don’t blame us, the technicians, for the world’s luxury consumption. We are all consumers, we all have created the „Brave New World“ of throwaway society.

And there is something more you hopeless social romantics should know. It is not inertia and double morality – the usual suspects – that keep citizens trapped in the corset of consumerism, but our modern economy has made luxury consumption and throwaway mentality its basis principle and prerequisite. As consumers we are supposed to buy and to throw away and then buy again so that as workers, employees, researchers, engineers and inventors we may continue to produce. But when producing we, of course, want to earn an income. At this point, the circle is finally complete because we earn income only to buy something with it. What is the annual struggle between employers and workers for? It is meant to raise incomes so that citizens may further increase their consumption. This is called „growth“, and, as you know, all the governments of the world cry out for this alluring drug on behalf of their citizens.

And now let me add a further remark as you haughtily look down on us from your elevated castles in the air. How come that you are so naïve as to ignore the fact that you, the poets, have always been the main beneficiaries of material progress and prosperity? Has art ever unfolded in times of need and scarcity? Where do we find as many theatres and opera houses, as many public concerts, museums and poetry readings as in Germany (Navid Kermani)? But Germany can afford such luxury because it is one of the world’s richest countries. It is due to us, the scientists and technicians, that within three centuries famines were eliminated, epidemics suppressed, and all those malign forces of nature curbed, which until then regularly exterminated entire parts of the population. Due to our efforts it has become possible that more and more of your kind now enjoy a secure life, which gives them enough free time and freedom to confront the public with a true deluge of crazy ideas, that they call „art“. More technology and science now sway the globe than ever before, but that is precisely why there can be more of those crazy ideas as well posturing under the name of art. No doubt, you depend on technology and progress – even when you raise your voices against us. And, please, don’t forget how loudly you start to protest when your annual subsidies happen to be diminished!

The Poet makes a sour face,

then he shakes his head disapprovingly. How typically narrow-minded this view from a purely technical perspective which is as superficial as it is false. Man lives from the meaning he is able to give to his life. Once meaning disintegrates, even technically highly developed civilizations wither away, as we can see in retrospect when regarding the fate of the once highly civilized Roman Empire. Today we are threatened by a similar development. Although we acquired material wealth as never before, meaning got lost in the process. We must waste more and more inventiveness and energy repairing „progress“ so that it does not lead us into the abyss.

Suddenly the Poet seems thoughtful

as if he had forgotten the presence of the technician and was talking to himself:

as if he had forgotten the presence of the technician and was talking to himself:

I even want to tell you something more. What has happened to us for three centuries does not merely involve our physical being, which progress first spectacularly improved, while it now endangers life as technocrats are forced to repair the gaping wounds it produced. The ominous change affects more than merely our physical being, it concerns our psychic existence. We have become a repair society not only with regard to material „progress“, but with regard to man’s soul as well because the latter has been badly damaged in the process.

I know that you do not understand what I mean, but you will not deny that technology and art submit to different gods. Technicians follow the laws of nature, while art does not: It enjoys freedom. For the laws of nature are absolutely the same in China, Mongolia and Germany. For this reason, there can be no Chinese, Mongolian or German physics or chemistry – all states in the world manufacture cars, airplanes and bombs produced worldwide by means of identical formulas. As technicians, you obey the necessity that nature imposes on you everywhere in the same way. You do not know freedom because you have to submit to nature’s laws. Necessity – that is your truth: the only one you know.

The poet, however, uses his own language anywhere in the world, he uses different parables, makes up other stories, lives in peculiar traditions. He creates his own truth, which he does not find readymade, but which he invents, because it does not exist outside of himself, but must be drawn from within. We, poets, rely on freedom, man’s most precious good.

The Technician:

Oh yes, I agree, only that I don’t see the facts so romantically. You needn’t tell me that the difference between necessity and freedom has shaped the world view of modern times since the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution. That is a well-known fact. But from my point of view – that is from the technician’s point of view – what you call freedom is synonymous with chance or arbitrariness.

Just take the commonplace example of language. Theoretically there could be an infinite number of languages besides English, Chinese, German, etc. and, of course, an infinite number of cultures, traditions and novels besides French or Japanese. None of these cultural products has any claim to necessity. On the contrary, they are more or less short-lived structures of pure arbitrariness – created at a certain time and mostly condemned to quickly disappear with the following era. On the other hand, everything invented by technology has a potentially infinite existence until the end of human civilization. This applies to the invention of fire, the breeding of wheat and maize and all advanced techniques of agriculture, but will be as true of all the great inventions of our time. Once fire and computers are present, they remain an achievement of civilization for all times to come.

On the other hand, even the most long-lived cultural creations, such as the various human languages, are no more than ephemeral witnesses of arbitrariness. Thousands of languages have emerged and disappeared in the course of history, most of those still existing today will disappear in the future.

What more do you want me to say about history? Barring a few specialists, who else is still interested in the mass cemetery of all those extinct cultures and arts that once governed the minds of people? You see, cultural creations are nothing better than a fleeting pastime. We technicians need not be afraid of arbitrariness as we adhere to the necessity that we borrow from nature, for only in nature eternal laws can be found.

Let me tell you quite frankly: humanity does not need all those infinite traditions, art forms and cultures – it certainly does not need history, which is a wholesale panorama of arbitrariness. It is for this reason that modern man has started to express himself more and more through mathematical-physical formulas, which describe material reality much more precisely than any colloquial language. Everywhere in the world technology is on the advance, while the cultural „superstructure“ is subject to fatal consumption. You find it less and less among the subject matters of schools and universities where it ended up existing as a mere residue. Take a look at what remains of history, religion, languages etc. at German grammar schools! All this stuff is no longer needed. It does not make any state rich or powerful. You, the advocates of culture, are luxury creatures dependent on our grace – yet you like to sit in judgement on us.

The Poet has trouble keeping back his anger

With all due respect – what narrow-mindedness! Everything that you can offer us is but the material basis of human life. I do not deny its indispensability. Man is able to think only if feeding sufficiently. „First comes food, then morality.“ You really don’t need to come up with such utter banality. But all material care only serves to come a little bit closer to the actual goal of human existence – and by that I mean freedom and the meaning of life.

We are social beings; a full life consists in the resonance that our ideas, our feelings, our whole being generate in other people. The worst punishment for any human being is being forced to live in solitary confinement or complete solitude. A newborn may be artificially nourished and kept physically alive. If, however, it grows up without the company of other people, it turns imbecile because it cannot develop the elementary organ of resonance – language.

The basic desire for human resonance remains a fact – no matter whether we turn to the earliest epochs, when man was just descending from trees, or the present time, when he surrounds himself with the most modern high-tech devices. In spite of all his inventions and gadgets, even the most brilliant technician would wither away both mentally and emotionally if nobody were interested in him and what he does.

Suddenly the Poet falls into a rather sharp tone

I’m even going one step further. Technology as a way of life, as opposed to technology as a means of caring for physical existence, does no longer serve man, but, on the contrary, becomes a power of psychological destruction. Being turned into a „way of life“ it uses people in a purely functional way as material – that is as „human material“ – without any consideration for their need for resonance. The typical economic units of modern states, their administrative, scientific, manufacturing enterprises, are bent on using humans like functioning robots. As soon as these robots no longer provide the required performance, the defective or overstrained „human material“ is immediately exchanged for a better one. That produces the psychological damage I was talking about. Neoliberal economy demands that every employee must always be prepared to leave his accustomed circle of life, his friends and partners when being transferred to some other location. In this way, the economic machine has gained absolute priority over all human concerns.

I ask you: What is this but a work of destruction? For the consequences are visible to all. For three centuries, i.e. since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we are faced with the uprooting of individuals from grown social bonds where they used to satisfy their needs for resonance. Meanwhile, even the oldest human community, the family, is exposed to this process of erosion.

And the Poet continues his accusation:

Here you may find the deeper roots of man’s struggle against capitalism, against the „system“, against neo-liberalism, etc. Human beings, reduced to mere robots and functions, feel exposed to extreme loneliness – they feel superfluous. Their need for resonance wants to manifest itself in communities, but human community is no part of technocratic ideology.

The Technician has been listening with some difficulty

Finally he erupts:

That is an insupportable exaggeration! In many companies I admire democratic co-determination; clever company bosses allow their employees to decorate their workplace with flowers and have nothing against friendships forming among them. Nobody imprisons working people in individual cells so that they may function eight hours a day. Everybody knows that people are different from robots or computers.

And who would deny that friendships develop everywhere, even if it is certainly true that they are sometimes disruptive in the eyes of a boss intent on efficiency. After all, an economic or scientific business cannot be regarded as a dance course or singing club.

The Poet puts on a sarcastic smile

Oh, yes, of course. But as a technician you should ask yourself the basic question why you never manage to completely transform a human being into a robot performing his daily work at the push of a button? That’s precisely because man’s need for human resonance is so overwhelmingly strong that it is able to hold its own even against stubborn resistance! But I want to stress a different point. We should ask ourselves in which direction people are driven by technocracy?

I think we still agree on the facts, don’t we? And these seem unequivocal. They say that companies today are the center of life for most people. If you deduct sleep, that’s where they spend most of their conscious lives. And it is at the workplace that the rationale of technology mercilessly prevails. As soon as ubiquitous competitive pressure becomes stronger and workers are easy to get, human needs tend to be ignored. Companies then quickly turn into recycling machines for supernumerary human material. In other words, they become more and more similar to the military, where humans have always had to function as mere robots. The military constitutes the classic institution for functional human exploitation – and the neo-liberal economy is its closest approximation.

Attention!, says the Technician,

that’s just one more one-sided exaggeration. We know on the contrary that it is the military that sometimes creates the very strongest human ties. I know of comradeships where survivors meet decades after the war because they remember how one man saved another man’s life or gave comfort in moments of existential need. This diametrically contradicts your statement. Everywhere there is human resonance, to use your own words – even where people are used as mere puppets.

The Poet:

You’re wrong again! Or do you think that the military becomes any more human, because friendships even arise in situations of brutal slaughter? Nor does reducing man to a mere function in the neoliberal system become more humane because, despite the greatest efforts, these attempts never completely succeed in suppressing or even abolishing man’s need for resonance. How overwhelmingly lonely many people nevertheless feel in those places where they spend the largest part of their conscious life is proven by statistics. According to a study by the Harvard Business Review, fifty percent of American professionals consider their own work to be completely meaningless, while the same is true for 37 percent of the British. A cross-sectional survey of 142 countries found that no more than 13 per cent of all employees are satisfied with their work (see Loss of meaning and loneliness are close neighbors, and loneliness creates pain and therefore acts like a disease (Manfred Spitzer).

The technician:

Your leaps from one concept to the next seem rather daring. After all, loss of meaning and loneliness are by no means the same. Beware of unscientific assertions!

The Poet

seems to overhear the objection.

Without togetherness and community that make people similar to each other by creating a common language, they whither away. And by language I don’t just mean any idiom like German, English or Chinese, but the feelings, ideas and conceptions that arise and grow between people. Language in the narrow sense, that is the idiom everybody learns in childhood, is not enough to create a common ground. Just think of  those terrible barracks, where quite a few people of our time spend their whole lives. At one door stands „Catholic“, at the other „Buddhist“, at the following perhaps „atheist“, „stamp collector“, „member of duelling fraternity“, „anarchist“, „Maoist“, etc. These people have nothing to say to each other; they are strangers just as if they lived on separate planets. They must not even…

The Technician impatiently interrupts him

But that goes without saying! In the old days, when ninety percent of people were still tied to a piece of farmland, they could of course talk about the same things in much the same manner – their lives were just about as monotonous and primitive everywhere. Today’s society, on the other hand, consists of truck drivers, university professors, bakers, stewardesses, surveying engineers and ten thousand other professions – and every year a few hundred more are added worldwide. How could we still talk about common identities? Such times belong to an irretrievable past. I guess that in a hundred years every single person on earth will be a specialist in his or her own field. I hold this to be no less than the true and final goal of developing our species into Homo sapientissimus. Every human will then be transformed into the expert of some field that only he or she is able to master completely. In this way, the current explosion of our collective knowledge will reach its logical point of perfection. By the way, historian Ian Morris already predicted this final stage. In a remarkable study he showed that the increase of scientific journals between the 17th and the 20th century follows an exponential curve, so that at some point in the future there will be as many journals as there are human beings.

The Poet shakes his head in disgust

I know: This is your vision, the vision of social plumbers, for whom there is always some purely technical solution for any problem. In your perspective human beings are nothing more than cogwheels in the big economic mega-machine completely absorbed in keeping it running. But what sense does this machine make for people when they can merely express themselves in their own private language as experts, a language understood by nobody else so that they have nothing more to say to each other? How can community and resonance survive under such conditions?

Didn’t I already say so? The actual disease, the basic evil of modern times, is the loneliness of human beings uprooted by technical functionalization. Technology cannot do anything about it, because it disregards human freedom, which manifests itself in languages, traditions, common convictions and gives people a common identity. According to technocrats, these derive from mere arbitrariness and are therefore without any intrinsic value. Technocrats cannot create resonance and community, they merely destroy it.

Nevertheless, as community is a basic need of man, he does everything to enforce it – in whatever primitive form – even in modern, high-tech society. Therefore, you too are bent on creating communities. Whatever you may be – whether electricians, quantum physicists or biogeneticists – you naturally build groups and associations because you follow an „irrational“ need – a need not to be derived from your ideology. To use the shortest – albeit rightly controversial – term: You too create your own identity, for harmony or resonance can only arise among people who harmonize on the same frequencies.

Identity!, calls the Technician

and the poet is put aback by the indignation expressed by that single word. How well I know that term coming from the mouth of all those who stubbornly cling to the past! The AfD – German right-wing extremists – crave for identity, so does the nationalist FPÖ in Austria, which wants to defend the Alpine race against contamination by alien immigration. Beyond Europe, Hindu nationalists strive for identitarian uniqueness. Vladimir Putin tries to position the Pan-Slavic identity against European liberalism, everywhere the call for identity drowns out reason and reflection. And now you too are falling for demagogues! But I should have known beforehand that social romanticists like you are most susceptible to such temptations.

The Poet jumps from his seat

If things were that simple! You technicians don’t even see the problem, because you confuse the effect with its cause. Why do right-wing populists dance around identity like others around the golden calf? Why do they use the fear of alienation, the fear of uncertainty, and of all those changes and upheavals that unsettle daily existence? They are able to do so because you destroyed all grown identities: faith, a common history, a unifying world view, which you ridiculed as arbitrary – your century-old destruction has left nothing back but purely functional man. What you have done with our old cities, when you replaced their imposing historical nuclei with department stores or monotonous tenements submitting to the principle of mere usefulness, you have done to people as well. Thousands of associations, federations, cooperatives have been squashed so that in the end nothing but „The Man without Qualities“ remains – a purely functional being. In this way you have created the emotional vacuum of human robots – all those atomized people who live next to each other without common resonance. No wonder that these robots cry out for artificial identities, after you have destroyed all traditional ones!

You have put people into an emotional vacuum, because to you even emotions are only ridiculous remnants. But now humans avenge themselves – they cannot permanently endure the loneliness of a psychological vacuum. If the historical bond of common convictions and mutual understanding, i.e. the cultural identity often grown over centuries, no longer holds them together, then they react with fear to this elementary loss. Fear, however, easily transforms into hatred from which the lurid blossoms of artificial identities sprout. Unfortunately, hatred – the common roar against real or imagined enemies – is able to fill the vacuum of loneliness much faster than is possible by following the lengthy path of mutual cultural adaptation. Often extremist identities are overnight creations, with which demagogues and populists transform the lonely masses into roaring herds. Then it may so happen that all the welfare and luxury your technology has created suddenly appear to people like a worthless shell, while they see their salvation in being fanatical xenophobes or fanatical xenophiles, fundamentalist capitalists, persecuting Marxists, crusading Catholics, murdering Muslims or radical atheists. What matters to these extremists is much less the content of their different creeds, but the fact that the latter Weld them into a community that shares in a common „truth“ (Eric Hoffer). What matters is the flag that covers their emotional void and gives them the much longed-for feeling of final belonging.

The Technician:

Sorry, I don’t get it. What does technology have to do with extremism? People like me brood over formulas and make the devices with which to physically transform the world. The inner life of people is none of our business, we don’t want to know anything about it – at least that’s what I may assert of myself. What you say may be true or not, in any case, it doesn’t concern me. I told you that culture and the extremists‘ collective delusion, which you just spoke about, represent what we hold to be arbitrary and therefore without deeper significance. These are the cramps and diseases of passing times. The likes of us prefer to think in millennia instead of decades.

The Poet:

And that is exactly where the misery and acute danger lies. Technocrats are familiar with gadgets and formulas, but man has no place in their world view. Human beings, however, cannot but shape their lives by means of values and desires. The gadgets you offer them can at best help them, but they are no substitutes. It is man’s privilege that he draws these values and desires from himself and does not receive them from nature as ready-made recipes. What appears to you as arbitrary is nothing less than man’s actual goal: the conquest of the future, as he would like to shape it by virtue of his freedom. In this way he creates for himself an identity and a meaning that connects him to other people, but which cannot be derived from any technical formula let alone objective necessity.*1* You don’t seem to understand that – unfortunately you are not even alone. A fashionable Viennese philosopher (Isolde Charim) does not even know that she is joining the choir of technocrats, when she flatly contests the necessity of any identity. It is a sad fact that even those who talk about politics and society are tempted to overlook man’s deepest needs – mostly because of their justified disgust for demagogues and right-wing populists.

The Technician suddenly seems to be absent-minded

He still mumbles: Oh certainly, you may be right, but sorry I now have to deal with more important things. He bends over a lined sheet covered with formulas from top to bottom – probably a recently completed research paper. The poet suddenly becomes aware that he has spoken into the void. The „Two Cultures“ are not yet ready to merge. But the technician turns to him again.

We should continue our conversation, but in a serious scientific way. I suggest that we put it under the title: The battle between Technology and Culture.

The poet:

Agreed, but we know the result beforehand. That’s why I want to propose another title: Risk Society turned into a Society of Repair.

Well, the technician replies

let’s combine the two: Risk Society turned into a Society of Repair – the Struggle between Technology and Culture.

1. There is, I venture to assert, a solution to the problem of freedom. See my book: „Creative Reason – A Synthetic Philosophy of Freedom in Nature and Man (Homage to William James)“ (Paperback or Kindle eBook).