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    abstract collage art

    Masters of Our Tools

    Four writers reflect on the purpose and power of technology.

    By E. F. Schumacher, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Jean-Pierre Dupuy and Hannah Arendt

    June 9, 2024


    abstract collage art

    Hollie Chastain, Harvest, 2017. All artwork by Hollie Chastain. Used by permission.

    E. F. Schumacher


    The dominant modern belief is that the soundest foundation of peace would be universal prosperity. One may look in vain for historical evidence that the rich have regularly been more peaceful than the poor, but then it can be argued that they have never felt secure against the poor; that their aggressiveness stemmed from fear; and that the situation would be quite different if everybody were rich.…

    This dominant modern belief has an almost irresistible attraction, as it suggests that the faster you get one desirable thing the more securely do you attain another. It is doubly attractive because it completely bypasses the whole question of ethics: there is no need for renunciation or sacrifice; on the contrary! We have science and technology to help us along the road to peace and plenty, and all that is needed is that we should not behave stupidly, irrationally, cutting into our own flesh. The message to the poor and discontented is that they must not impatiently upset or kill the goose that will assuredly, in due course, lay golden eggs also for them. And the message to the rich is that they must be intelligent enough from time to time to help the poor, because this is the way by which they will become richer still.

    Gandhi used to talk disparagingly of “dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.” But is it not precisely this dream which we can now implement in reality with our marvelous powers of science and technology? Why ask for virtues, which man may never acquire, when scientific rationality and technical competence are all that is needed?

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    Hollie Chastain, Future, 2010.

    Antoine de Saint-Exupéry


    The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them.

    Numerous, nevertheless, are the moralists who have attacked the machine as the source of all the ills we bear, who, creating a fictitious dichotomy, have denounced the mechanical civilization as the enemy of the spiritual civilization.…

    It is hard for me to understand the language of these pseudo-dreamers. What is it makes them think that the ploughshare torn from the bowels of the earth by perforating machines, forged, tempered, and sharpened in the roar of modern industry, is nearer to man than any other tool of steel? By what sign do they recognize the inhumanity of the machine?

    Have they ever really asked themselves this question? The central struggle of men has ever been to understand one another, to join together for the common weal. And it is this very thing that the machine helps them to do! It begins by annihilating time and space.…

    It seems to me that those who complain of man’s progress confuse ends with means. True, that man who struggles in the unique hope of material gain will harvest nothing worthwhile. But how can anyone conceive that the machine is an end? It is a tool. As much a tool as is the plough. The microscope is a tool. What disservice do we do to the life of the spirit when we analyze the universe through a tool created by the science of optics, or seek to bring together those who love one another and are parted in space?

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    Hollie Chastain, Gilbertville Public Library, 2009.

    Jean-Pierre Dupuy


    The principal danger facing humanity, I believe, is the temptation of pride. The fatal conceit is believing that technology – which has severely impaired all those traditional (that is, religious) systems that serve to curb the tendency to excess, itself inevitably a part of human action – will be able to assume the role that these systems once played when the capacity to act bore only upon other human beings, and not upon nature. To believe this is to remain the prisoner of a conception of technology that sees it as a rational activity subject to instrumental logic, to the calculus of means and ends. But today technology has much less to do with fabrication (poiesis) than with the power to act (praxis), which now means: the power to unleash irreversible processes; indeed, the power to generate “out-of-controlness.” In abandoning ourselves to scientistic optimism, counting on technology to rescue us from the very impasses into which it has led us, we run the risk of producing monsters that will devour us.

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    Hollie Chastain, I Came to Get Down, 2010.

    Hannah Arendt


    The discussion of the whole problem of technology, that is, of the transformation of life and world through the introduction of the machine, has been strangely led astray through an all-too-exclusive concentration upon the service or disservice the machines render to men. The assumption here is that every tool and implement is primarily designed to make human life easier and human labor less painful. Their instrumentality is understood exclusively in this anthropocentric sense. But the instrumentality of tools and implements is much more closely related to the object it is designed to produce, and their sheer “human value” is restricted to the use the animal laborans makes of them. In other words, homo faber, the toolmaker, invented tools and implements in order to erect a world, not – at least, not primarily – to help the human life process. The question therefore is not so much whether we are the masters or the slaves of our machines, but whether machines still serve the world and its things, or if, on the contrary, they and the automatic motion of their processes have begun to rule and even destroy the world and things.

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    Hollie Chastain, March, 2020.

    E. F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (Harper & Row, 1973), 23–24.

    Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wind, Sand and Stars, trans. Lewis Galantière (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992), 43–45.

    Jean-Pierre Dupuy, The Mark of the Sacred, trans. M. B. DeBevoise (Stanford University, 2013), 29–30.

    Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (University of Chicago, 1998), 151.

    Contributed By E. F. Schumacher E. F. Schumacher

    E. F. Schumacher (1911–77) was a German-British statistician, economist, and writer.

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    Contributed By Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

    Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900–44) was a French writer and aviator who was killed in action during World War II.

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    Contributed By Jean Pierre Dupuy Jean-Pierre Dupuy

    Jean-Pierre Dupuy (b. 1941) is a French engineer, writer, and philosopher.

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    Contributed By portrait of Hannah Arendt Hannah Arendt

    Hannah Arendt (1906–1975) was a Holocaust survivor and political philosopher.

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