A Letter to the Zurcher Student At the Federal Polytechnic Institute in Zurich September 1949
The question you ask me, concerning the effect of technology on the human psyche, is not at all easy to answer, as you may well imagine. The problem is a very complicated one.
Since technology consists of certain procedures invented by man, it is not something that somehow lies outside the human sphere. One may therefore conjecture that certain modes of human adaptation also exist which would meet the requirements of technology. Technological activities mostly consist in the identical repetition of rhythmical procedures. This corresponds to the basic pattern of primitive labour, which is never performed without rhythm and an accompanying chant. The primitive, that is, the man who is relatively instinctive, can put up with an extraordinary amount of monotony. There is even something fascinating about it for him. When the work is accompanied by drumming, he is able to heat himself up into an ecstasy, or else the monotony of the action makes him fall into a semi-unconscious condition, which is not unpleasant either. The question naturally is: What is the effect of these primitive techniques on modern man, who no longer has the capacity to transport himself into semi-unconscious or ecstatic states for any length of time?
In general it can be said that for modern man technology is an imbalance that begets dissatisfaction with work or with life. It estranges man from his natural versatility of action and thus allows many of his instincts to lie fallow. The result is an increased resistance to work in general. The remedy would presumably be to move industry our of the towns, a four-hour day, and the rest of the time spent in agricultural work on one’s own property – if such a thing could be realized. In Switzerland it might be, given time. Naturally it is different with the slum mentality of huge worker-populations, but that is a problem in itself.
Considered on its own merits, as a legitimate human activity, technology is neither good nor bad, neither harmful nor harmless. Whether it be used for good or ill depends entirely on man’s own attitude, which in turn depends on technology. The technologist has something of the same problem as the factory worker. Since he has to do mainly with mechanical factors, there is a danger of his other mental capacities atrophying. Just as an unbalanced diet is injurious to the body, any psychic imbalances have injurious effects in the long run and need compensating. In my practice I have observed how engineers, in particular, very often developed philosophical interests, and this is an uncommonly sound reaction and mode of compensation. For this reason I have always recommended the Institution of Humanistic Faculties at Federal Polytechnic, to remind students that at least such thing exist, so that they can come back to them if ever they should feel a need for them in later life.
Technology harbors no more dangers than any other trend in the development of human consciousness. The danger lies in technology but in the possibilities awaiting discovery. Undoubtedly a new discovery will never be used only for good, but certainly will be used for ill as well. Man, therefore, always runs the risk of discovering something that will destroy him if evilly used. We have come very close to this with the atom bomb. Faced with such menacing developments, one must ask oneself whether man is sufficiently equipped with reason to be able to resist the temptation to use them for destructive purposes, or whether his constitution will allow him to be swept into catastrophe. This is a question which experience alone can answer.