The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics
For roughly two thousand years, from 500 BCE to 1500 CE, China was the most advanced scientific civilization in the world. During this period, the Chinese intellectual tradition was more knowledgeable about nature and more technically creative than any other in world history. Then around 1500, China began to lose its leadership. Why did China fail to maintain its dominance, ceding superiority in science and technology to Europe?
This question came to fascinate the great British biochemist Joseph Needham (1900-1995). No Westerner did more to celebrate the myriad Chinese contributions to science and technology than Needham. His multivolume Science and Civilization in China series, which he began publishing in 1954 and continues—27 books later—to this day, is described in the popular historian Simon Winchester’s The Man Who Loved China (2008) as a magnum opus comparable to Aristotle’s body of work.
Needham’s project originated in 1937 with his serendipitous exposure, through an affair with a postdoctoral student from Nanjing, to the richness of a civilization older, larger, and more continuous than any in the West. As an ardent disciple of Western science—and with a belief in its essentially universal character—Needham set out to identify hidden continuities between Chinese and European discovery and invention. Today, the Needham Research Institute is a leading center for continuing work on the history of science broadly construed (to include technology and medicine) in Asia.
In the same year as the Needham multivolume book project began in England, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) published, from a series of talks given to German engineers, “Die Frage nach der Technik” (“The Question Concerning Technology”). This small essay, which took issue with the Western celebration of its technological and scientific superiority, has become a major influence on philosophical criticism of modern technology. For Heidegger, the truth of modern science is neither its rejection of superstition nor its development of the Big Bang cosmological theory.
Yes, science’s applied technological powers—from the steam engine through internal combustion to electricity and nuclear reactors—transformed the human condition by lightening the burdens of work, increasing material affluence, accelerating transport, and intensifying communications. At the same time, scientific and technological advances alienated workers from their industrial labor, undermined sociocultural stabilities, and left people feeling homeless in the cosmos. Social traditions of consensus about the good life and its meaning fractured, to be replaced by consumerism, pursuit of power, or both. The unmoored cosmopolitanism that a technologically sustained globalization seems to foster can give rise to reactionary political movements (see, e.g., Trumpism).
Heidegger fully recognized the enormous engineering achievements of the twentieth century. But what he considered more fundamental than the physical transformation of human experience was a metamorphosis in cultural assumptions and practices. For modern humans, basic beliefs about the nature of reality have changed. Whereas in premodern traditions humans understood nature as an ultimately stable order with which they aspired to live in harmony, the modern worldview sees nature as a plethora of resources available “for the use and convenience of man” (to quote the 1828 Royal Charter of the Institution of Civil Engineers). More than simply a given that might evoke homage and wonder, nature in the West today is something to be reconstructed by the multiple needs and wants of human makers. Insofar as innovation trumps contemplation, people find it increasingly difficult to appreciate what they have, to take grounded pleasure in the particularities and beauty of the world.
In The Question Concerning Technology in China, a young Chinese computer scientist and philosopher, Yuk Hui, makes a bold attempt to reassess the ideas of both Needham and Heidegger. There exists no more challenging work for anyone interested in trying to understand both the manifold philosophical challenges of Western scientific technology and the contemporary rise of China on the world-historical scene.
As a native of Hong Kong, Hui grew up fluent in Chinese and English. After earning a degree and working in computer science, he moved to Europe, where he became fluent in French and German (picking up a little Greek and Latin along the way). He earned a PhD under the contemporary French philosopher Bernard Stiegler, whose three-volume Technics and Time both deepened and challenged Heidegger. Drawing on his technical and philosophical expertise, Hui’s doctoral dissertation was an ontological examination of the historical development of computer programing, published in 2016 as On the Existence of Digital Objects, with a foreword by Stiegler. The Question Concerning Technology in China, dedicated to Stiegler, is an even deeper engagement with the fraught technoscientific mutation of our world.
The book is an effort to rethink technology, premised on and developing the idea that nature is not some one thing: that nature is co-constructed and therefore variable, and that its variability is reflected in historically and culturally diverse technologies. Though scientists posit a universe that is always the same underlying their theoretical and experimental discoveries, the discoveries themselves present an ever-shifting view of natural reality. Even Needham admitted that Chinese culture involved different cosmologies—ideas about the origins of the universe and humanity’s place in it—than the modern West. Against this background, Hui formulates a question: “If one admits that there are multiple natures, is it possible to think of multiple technics, which are different from each other not simply functionally and aesthetically, but also ontologically and cosmologically?”
As one illustration of the differences, Chinese immigrants to the United States during the California gold rush introduced the human-powered water wheel to pump water into dry streambeds for placer mining. This practice depended on a solidarity among workers that was difficult for individualist Americans to practice: someone had to be paddling while others did the panning, and all shared equally in the mining profits. A typically American, individualist social ontology has technological consequences.
To venture a more speculative instance, Chinese calligraphy is not just aesthetically different from the Latin alphabet. It enacts a distinctive way of understanding reality and what Heidegger called “being-in-the-world.” Chinese calligraphy, as a logographic system in which written characters represent things, privileges realities in the world over abstract human sounds. The Chinese art of writing can be understood as engaging the actuality of the world while it serves as well as a form of self-cultivation.
How did these very different conceptions of the world and human agency in it arise? Yuk Hui notes the different mythological accounts of the origin of “technics,” or the interplay of technologies with social circumstances. In both the Greek and Hebrew traditions of the West, technics is culturally conceived as a kind of opposition to the gods or God. Prometheus stole the technology of fire to give to deficient humanity, and was punished with eternal torment by Zeus. The Tower of Babel was a technical effort to reach heaven in defiance of God, and humanity was punished with a multitude of languages so that people could no longer understand one another.
As Hui points out, the Chinese mythopoeic account of technics is markedly different. There was no Promethean theft from nor human rebellion against the divine. Instead, there were three mythological leaders of ancient tribes: the half-human, half-snake female Nüwa; her half-dragon, half-human brother-husband Fuxi; and the divine farmer and later kitchen god Shennong. All three collaborated to create humans and to provide them with such tools as fire. Humans are seen as situated between, and natural combinations of, heaven and earth. There is no rebellion of humans against heaven; there is only working with earth and heaven to cultivate and take aesthetic, ritual, and common pleasure in the world.
Hui coins the term “cosmotechnics” to describe “the unification between the cosmic order and the moral order through technical activities” that is entailed by any mythology. Importantly, this concept connects cosmologies with cultural beliefs about what constitutes a good life—precisely what Heidegger thought modern technology had destroyed.
In his effort to valorize the Chinese inventive tradition, Needham asked what has become “Needham’s Question”: Why did China, which up until 1500 was more scientifically and technologically advanced than Europe, fail to develop modern technoscience? Yet he failed to notice the mythological difference that Hui identifies, instead attributing what Needham considered the failure of China to a set of historically contingent conditions: geographical, political, economic, and religious. Additionally, Hui might have added, Heidegger never considered the implications of a simple difference in Western engineering, which emerged out of the military, in contrast to the way Chinese qi (technics) and gong cheng (engineering) are more closely bound up with farming and a stabilized, sedentary life.
Following an extended introduction to his thought project, Yuk Hui divides his reflection into two parts. Part one, “In Search of Technological Thought in China,” explores the relationship between qi and dao (cosmic order) in the 3,000-year history of Chinese culture. This extended dialogue brings a new appreciation to Chinese philosophy in its many permutations across the centuries—in Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism—and promotes conversation with major philosophical traditions and thinkers of the West, from Plato and Aristotle on. It is, quite frankly, an original, provocative achievement that any future effort to consider technology in a global context will need to take into account.
Part two, “Modernity and Technological Consciousness,” draws on Hui’s presentation of traditional Chinese philosophy to reconsider both the philosophy of technology in the West and to offer alternatives to the contemporary tendency in China to follow the West too quickly. Hui’s challenge is not just to the West; it is also to China.
Repeatedly, Yuk Hui highlights mirror-image issues: In the West, the philosophical acidity of technoscience, which leaches away connections to particularities of place, tends to dilute social consensus about the good in favor of the pursuit of modern science itself (at least among the scientific few) or individualist freedoms (among the nonscientific many). Is it any accident that Ayn Rand’s extreme libertarianism thrives among engineering entrepreneurs financed by venture capitalists?
In China, a rich culture that became unable to defend itself against European imperialism—weaponized by advances in science and technology—has struggled since the Ming Dynasty to find a way to preserve “Chinese learning for essence, Western learning for application.” The Chinese effort deserves more consideration than it currently receives, Hui suggests, in either the West or China. Hui clearly wants to engage those who are trying to think about these issues, especially social critics of the contemporary world and philosophers of science and technology.
Other than philosophers, however, who might profitably place themselves in Yuk Hui’s audience? Anyone, I suggest, concerned with the relationship between science and politics or interested in the influence of China on the trajectory of globalization.
Most Western scientists and engineers—and even many Westerners tout court—will agree more with Needham’s view of science as devoted to understanding universal laws and the best account of nature that humans possess, than with Heidegger’s deep questioning of such a view. As a result, the majority of readers are likely to find Hui’s sustained engagement with Heidegger’s ideas, at best, strained. At the same time, scientists and engineers, along with those who study or formulate science policy, increasingly recognize problematic features in the relationship between science and society. Annual meetings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, for example, are replete with discussions of the difficulties involved in science communication, distrust and rejection of scientific knowledge, and attacks on public support for scientific research.
As challenges such as climate change well illustrate, technoscientific prowess (allied with capitalist economic formations) can have unintended consequences that sponsor new visions of the natural. Some political criticisms of climate change research even enroll (unwittingly) science studies theories of the social construction of reality to marginalize evidence-based policy-making. In other words, insofar as scientific knowledge is constructed through both social and technical means—rather than simply “discovered”—powerful interests have claimed a right to construct things to their liking.
In response, Bruno Latour, a French science studies scholar who has radically challenged the self-image of scientists, has recently undertaken his own defense of science. His mission, as he outlined in a recent interview in Science, is “to regain some of the authority of science [which] is the complete opposite from where we started doing science studies.” As part of this attempt—and in response to the mutation of the human condition he explores most broadly in his 2017 book, Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime—Latour has been practicing what he calls a philosophically diplomatic engagement with the world’s plurality of modes of existence.
In 2017 this diplomatic engagement took Latour to Shanghai and Beijing, where he invited Chinese colleagues to help address the challenge of climate change. At one point, Yuk Hui was among the participants. Yet as an observer at some of these gatherings, I found them singularly unsatisfying. It was not clear that Latour had done sufficient homework to avoid the projections of Western orientalism or to parry Chinese occidentalism. Latour had trouble making clear what he wanted from China, but he seemed to be asking Chinese intellectuals to contribute to his own project of “re-describing” the world (to better investigate the connections between nature and society), without appreciating the deeper distinctiveness of traditional Chinese culture or the ways contemporary Chinese often want to imitate the West.
Too often when Latour asked interlocutors for Chinese perspectives that could contribute to what Hui might call cosmotechnical living amid ongoing mutations of nature and culture, there was either talk at cross purposes or dead air time. Latour wanted things from the Chinese scholars that they were not prepared to offer, while Chinese scholars were more interested in Latour’s actor-network theory—the academic work on complex social relationships for which he is most famous—than his concern for global climate change.
For anyone who wants to reflect deeply and seriously about a world experience that includes globalized social destabilization, biodiversity loss, nuclear proliferation, climate disruption, and expansion in artificial intelligence, there is more to the grand challenges of the twenty-first century than either Western or Eastern technical resources alone can easily address. Globalization demands thinking and discourse across historical, cultural, and technological categories. Reading Yuk Hui can be a stimulating start but is not enough. As Hui himself indicates, his aim is simply to open doors to ideas that we all need to take more seriously.