We nihilists

By Hans Schnitzler

 

You can safely call him the icon of the information age: the computer geek. This designation stands for a highly educated professional group, a ‘virtual class’ of computer scientists, system builders and game developers, who have succeeded in becoming the dominant cultural force in a very short time. Since the introduction of the iPhone in 2007 by Steve Jobs, services such as WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat or the cloud have become indispensable. This is a huge achievement, which raises a question that is rarely asked: how did the tech elite manage, in just fifteen years, to create an environment that feels like a second skin to most people?

 

In my soon-to-be-published book We Nihilists, I try to formulate an answer to this question. Spoiler alert: the world that techies imagine and present to us is the world we want; their ambitions and dreams are essentially ours. In other words, what the nerd aspires to is what the average screen person aspires to.

 

The nerd and the average screen person have in common that they have been transformed into what Friedrich Nietzsche called ‘last people’. These are people who still want to have experiences, as long as they do not cause pain or entail risks – hello, virtual reality – and as long as they contribute to the increase of convenience and personal happiness in life – hello, smart speakers and lifestyle apps. This type of person consumes and enjoys him-or herself without really believing in anything anymore; it embodies a decadent and jaded sense of life and faces a threat that Nietzsche considered unavoidable: the advent of nihilism.

 

“The world that techies imagine and present to us is the world we want.”

 

This nihilism has different faces – from cynical harshness to decadent pettiness – but is, according to Nietzsche, inevitable because after the loss of religious thinking (the ‘death of God’), a crisis of meaning has arisen. There is no clear goal, no answer to the question of what life is for. From now on, morality has no sender, values and standards have become suspended in a vacuum and have lost their cohesive power.

 

But this bottomlessness, this great nothingness (nihil), is unlivable. Now that the old absolute truths have been discarded, people will create new fictions and search tirelessly for ways to make the meaninglessness liveable. How? By embracing new idols to compensate for the feeling of moral emptiness. The most beloved of these has the archaic name technè: a form of practical knowledge with the promise that we ourselves can turn into gods and that we can be freed from everything that makes existence complicated and unmanageable.

 

For ‘last people’, safety, health and the optimisation of happiness and convenience have become the most important values. In times of far-reaching technologisation, this ethos leads to the notion that technology can smooth out every conceivable wrinkle and offer a solution to every problem – also known as techno-solutionism. Think, for example, of administrators who hastily call a #appathon to combat a pandemic or of so-called ecomodernists, who believe that with more technology, such as more nuclear energy or even more intensive agriculture, the climate crisis can be averted.

 

To put it more generally: in the era of Big Data, the dataïst believes that life can be captured in numbers and can be managed with spreadsheets is experiencing its finest hour and the belief in social engineering is flourishing as never before. After God and the Great Stories, it is now smart technology that serves as the normative narrative and guideline for action. This is pre-eminently a reflex that suits the last people for whom the need for redemption from everything that makes existence unpredictable hangs over their doings like a flyspeck.

 

If it is the case that the Internet is broken, but that ‘we’ can fix it, as Internet pioneer Marleen Stikker argues in her book The Internet is Broken, then it is necessary to involve the nature and behaviour of that ‘we’ even more emphatically. We need to look beneath the surface of computerised reality, as it were, and see the digital infrastructure as the product of a cultural development of which we, the networked foot soldiers, are both the product and the driver.

 

Criticism of the tech industry remains necessary, and of course it is important to think of ways to put ethics at the heart of the design process of new technologies, as the ethics by design movement aims to do. But for a critical digital awareness, self-insight is indispensable. For without a change of consciousness – that is, an alternative view of ourselves and of the matter – change is
impossible.

 

This column is a pre-publication of We Nihilists, which will be available in bookshops from 28 October.

 

About the author
Hans Schnitzler is philosopher, author, columnist and speaker. He is the author of ‘Het digitale proletariaat’ (2015) & ‘Kleine filosofie van de digitale onthouding’ (2017) at De Bezige Bij, columnist for Follow the Money, former columnist at de Volkskrant. His essays and columns are published in NRC, NRCNext, Trouw and more.