Ortega y Gasset’s ideas on technology

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
25 September, 2018
Editorial: 241
Fecha de publicación original: 14 noviembre, 2000

An “able” generation can attain what centuries without one could not
José Ortega y Gasset

This week the International Congress “Arte, educación y sociedad en Ortega y Gasset” (1883-195,5) (“Art, Education and Society in Ortega y Gasset” (1883-1955) is being held in Madrid to commemorate the 70th aniversary of the publication of three fundamental works by this Spanish philosopher: “The Dehumanisation of Art”, “The Revolt of the Masses” and “Mission of the University”. When one reads the talks on which this last work is based, for example, it is so up to date one would never guess that it is 70 years old. In the 1930s Ortega y Gasset wrote of the urgent need to reform universities so that they could keep up with the times, and his powerful arguments painted a gloomy picture of the future should this not come about. Looking at these pages again today, he could still be talking about present-day universities and the endemic pathology that prevents them adapting to a “[History] that, contrary to popular opinion, changes in leaps and bounds and not only, or less so, by slow evolution”.

This is the connecting thread running through another fundamental work, “Meditation on Technique” (*) in which he explains his advanced and enlightened ideas on technology – ideas which have still not caught on in our academic world and, consequently, even less so amongst the public in general. Ortega projects his ideas way ahead, like other philosophers of his period, to decipher how human beings modify themselves through technology. “Without technique man would not exist now and never would have”, was the powerful opening phrase of the course he gave at the Summer School at the University of Santander in the summer of 1933 and which was later compiled in an essay which, sadly, Spanish philosophical thinking did not give much credence to. We are still paying the price today.

“Meditations on Technique” should, nevertheless, be compulsory reading for anyone attempting to understand our complex relationship with technology. Ortega y Gasset was decades ahead of works such as those written by Herbert Simon for example, saying things like, “Man no longer lives in Nature, but in the supernatural which we created ourselves on a new day of Genesis: technology”. This supernatural environment implies a specific design for modifying the environment –not ourselves– to satisfy our needs for welfare, a concept which changes and is determined by the particular historical circumstances of every era.

Ortega’s way of attacking the passive attitude taken by universities to the teaching of technology has not lost a fraction of its relevance today. “Some people are taught special techniques in specialised schools for this purpose. But not even in these are people taught what the significance of this technique is on human life, its connection to other aspects of it, its genesis, its evolution, its conditions and its dangers. As far as universities are concerned, technique is not even discussed there –in fact, part of their constitution is that the teaching body exclude this technique, tossing it out and relegating it to special schools. This seems to imply that technique affects specific and secondary services in life which, certainly and perforce, some people have to deal with but which does not affect human beings as a whole. “. The result of this intellectual blind spot, according to Ortega, is that conflict inevitably takes university-educated people by surprise, “amongst other reasons because they have had no real contact with technique and do not include the economic outcome of the same, let alone their social impact, in their predictions and calculations.”

In the sixties and seventies, as a result of the rising importance of polytechnical universities and their dependence on universities of “humanist extraction”, some people in the US, led by Herbert Simon, began to seriously ponder the role of engineering in a society which was founded more and more on technological development (see the interview with Artur Serra in en.red.ando). Their work led to the establishing of the idea of “artificial nature” created by machines and, at the same time, represented a –failed– attempt to relieve tensions in higher education created by the particular branch of knowledge driven by engineering. Almost four decades earlier, the Spanish philosopher was saying this about it, “To sum up, the radical separation of universities from engineering is one of the greatest calamities that the incredible clumsiness we display in trying to deal with our own present day anxieties has given rise to. This separation is disastrous, for different but complementary reasons, both for the University and for engineering”.

Ortega –whose Complete Works will appear shortly– seems to be talking right to us, here and now, as he develops his richly complex conception of technology (technique as he calls it). Although, logically enough, his arguments are accompanied by examples taken from his era, they haven’t lost a jot of their perspicacity –quite the contrary in fact– if they are propped up by the globalising arm of digital technology. Despite his putting technology at the very centre of human life, Ortega is no servile disciple of the idea of progress. On the contrary, he argues strongly against that unidirectional approach to history which seems to, most particularly, illuminate the deeds of those trying to become apostles against the one-way thinking: “The idea of progress, disastrous in every way if applied without criticism, has also been fatal. It supposes that man has always wanted, wants and will always want, the same things, that basic desires are always identical and that the only thing that has changed over time has been the progressive advance towards that object of desire. The truth is just the contrary: ideas about life, the definition of well-being, have changed innumerable times, sometimes so radically that so-called technological advances were abandoned and lost without a trace. On other occasions –without doubt– , and this is what happens most often in history, the inventor and the invention are hounded down like criminals. What we are experiencing these days, a fever for the exact opposite, an eagerness for inventions, has not always been the case. On the contrary, humanity has often felt a mysterious cosmic terror for discoveries, as though, along with the benefits they bring, they hide terrible dangers”. Don’t miss this short book, you will find it of great service in these agitated times.

Amazon.co.uk includes a good list of these books

(*) Meditación de la Técnica y otros ensayos sobre ciencia y filosofía. José Ortega y Gasset. Revista de Occidente en Alianza Editorial, 1998. Madrid. ISBN: 84-206-4121-9

Translation: Bridget King