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On the Synergy between the Extension Theory of Technology and the Literacy Doctrine

Hristina Ambareva

Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences


(The text continues from Part I)

3. The medium is the message

Heidegger’s philosophy of technology goes deeper into the relation between truthful knowledge and technology and explains the difference in truths we can reach by two different approaches – philosophical and technological (Heidegger 1977). Each of them has distinct goals.

The philosophical approach depends on the ability to contemplate the world and to keep a distance from it. Here we delve into philosophical questions like those about the ultimate reality of being and for the reasons the things to exist. Here one of the main interpretations of causality is created – the so-called “ontological dependence” argument, according to which one thing is dependent on another which ultimately leads to the conclusion that there is the first cause of existence. Knowing the first cause since the time of Hinduism and Vedas is equal to knowing the truth about being – what it is and why it is. Modified by Aristotle in Europe this theory of causality teaches that to know the truth about a single thing we have to ask about the four causes of its existence – the material, formal, moving, and end cause. Knowing the four causes reveals the authentic, primordial truth about the object. This is a philosophical knowledge achieved in the state of contemplation or meditation. The phenomenological approach of Heidegger teaches that when we know the four causes, we reveal the authentic truth – then truth goes from concealment into unconcealment (Heidegger 1977).

Unlike philosophy, technology reveals truth only framed by utilitarian ends. This is because the technology by definition is a tool and defines its object as a means to an end. Technology does not care about contemplating the authentic philosophical truth. It primarily cares about the moving and end causes of object existence as a resource. This makes technology a medium of a certain concept of truth and it is important to pay attention to it.

In the history of the development of human culture, there are three main philosophical theories of truth created – the correspondence theory, the coherence theory, and the pragmatic theory. In the correspondence theory, the concept of truth applies to being. Our statement about reality needs a referent like fact. (For example, in the case of a deepfake video, we know that it should have a real referent). In the coherent theory, the concept of truth applies to thinking. Our statement is true if it is a part of a coherent system of beliefs. A deepfake video can be considered authentic if it satisfies the condition of coherence, for example, on a visual and technical level. Correspondence theory as much as the coherence theories are part of the philosophical paradigm starting with Parmenides which equals being and thinking. At the end of the 19th century, the paradigm of equivalence between being and thinking is abandoned for the sake of a new one - the pragmatic theory of truth: it applies to doing (Drucker 1993). Truth is usefulness and we may ask about who did the deepfake video and for what purposes. In comparison to the first two theories which refer respectively to the material and formal cause of being, the pragmatic truth is external to any essential features of being or thinking and refers to the moving and end reasons of its object. The pragmatic theory of truth defines expediency as the main criterion of truthful knowledge. Here the truth value is linked to the fluid concept of “the best interest” when truth becomes itself a technology.

It is noteworthy that historically the pragmatic concept of truth follows the advance of technological revolutions when capitalism strengthens the priority of instrumental reasoning. At the end of the 19th century, truth falls from the realm of absolute values. Then Nietzsche writes that “there is no truth” (Nietzsche 1968: 14) that “will to truth” is “only a form of the will to power” (Nietzsche 1968: 314). In the pragmatic approach, truth becomes a resource, a means for power which is well discussed by the Frankfurt school and referred to by Foucault’s concept of “truth regimes” (Foucault, Gordon 1980). The utilitarian approach is neither based on consistency, nor relevance between words and facts. In the 21st century, even science is framed by the new paradigm of utilitarianism and the “apparatus”, which employs the concept of “expediency”. Truth is simply a technology for achieving certain goals. The concept of truth regimes of the 20th century reveals that truth is not an epistemological, but also a political question. In its turn education is seen to be not a search for truths but a part of something bigger like the ideology, the state, the political order, the global arrangement of the “apparatus” which unites technology, business, human wishes, and culture into one powerful and inescapable world (Althusser 2014 and French philosophy of the 20th century). The excessive accent on truth as technology seems to be what produces the epidemic of post-truth today. To the extent the economic crises in 2008 resulted from the bubbling credits, post-truth today results from the bubbling pragmatic concept of truth.

However, there are limitations to its approach – literacy has limits set by technology and utilitarian attachment to resources. As far as we wish to take a philosophical stance towards reality, to keep a distance from it, we can see a certain difference between adaptive learning (obtaining technology-relevant skills and adaptation to environment) and reflective thinking, which can embrace a certain level of pragmatic irrelevance. Searching for truths free from instrumental reasoning opens a different horizon.

Let’s go back to the time of the cognitive revolution. Speech is the main advanced technology for communication which makes it possible to talk about non-existing things including past and future and having no referent in the present. Here the problem of truth starts. Thus, the state of pre-orality has a certain philosophical value. It describes the goal of the ancient teachings, which develop meditation as a special technique for freeing the mind from thoughts and concepts and subjugating the senses and instincts to the goal of disembodied cognition. This state of mind is valued because of the belief that concepts, language, thinking are hiding the truth about reality. To reach this hidden truth, mind and body need to be trained until the chain of embodied cognition breaks. Freedom comes in the momentous and unmistakably clear experience of enlightenment when one reaches the truth beyond body senses and embodied mind.  In Hinduism, it is believed that in the state of nirvana (enlightenment) the self merges with the non-I and man reaches the universal principle of Brahman, which is the material, formal, moving, and end cause of all existing things.

There is no contradiction to be sought between technological skillfulness and the philosophical search for authentic truths. They are complementary approaches to knowledge. In terms of education, they both are necessary either to automate live skills, or to wisely reflect on stereotypes, schemes, and prejudices (to name a few well-known pre-set structures). Yet, a good point of view presents Heidegger’s analysis on the essence of technology which shows that it is a mistake the reality framed by technology, by the pragmatic concept of truth, to be regarded as authentic truth. It is worth thinking why meditation (which is the practice assisting philosophy of enlightenment for ages) has become one of the most popular activities around the world, including in Silicon Valley, in time when technological revolutions permanently cage reality in the fast-paced, instrumental frame of techno-logos.  Today we face unprecedented growth of knowledge and truths and the highest ever chaos concerning what truthful knowledge is. The luxury to slow down, pay attention, concentrate and reflect on the environment, own feelings, thoughts, and actions is becoming the biggest challenge to the future of learning.

4. Conclusions

The question, finally, is when we think about the future of education and the task of edifying not only literate but also (self-)reflective human beings, can we recommend the extension theory of technology as a proper approach to knowledge and truth or we can disregard it?

Only a century ago, defining technology as a driving force in history is more a questionable feeling than a convincing reality. Today we witness the creation of a brain-computer interface, we live with the concept of disruptive biotechnologies and cyborgs of the future, and we read about AI hacking humans and techno experts' expectations of singularity. The influence of technology on everyday human life and history is so pronounced that we are even forced to surrender our capacity and pride to be producers of knowledge and truth to algorithms and our own life gets datafied and profiled beyond our control. This could mean that the controversial discourse of technological determinism is growing in relevance and its philosophy is getting difficult to disregard.

To a certain extent multiliteracy in education is possible without the philosophical background of the extension theory. Yet, we have a meaningful justification of literacy doctrine only when we question the problems of “truth” and “semantics” of each medium. The “strong” definition of multiliteracy resulting from the synergy between literacy doctrine and extension theory of technology can be defined as literacy which develops the skills to understand and use all the different technological frames of knowledge through which we form our knowledge and concept of truth and reality. The different framings mean a different truth – it could be the truth of myth or magic, bureaucracy or sacred books, science or data science. They all have a different concept of truth – how to produce it, how to transfer it, where it applies.

This strong version of multiliteracy principle can be easily adapted to the school system, because the school system is adapted to the stages of human cognitive development. There is a clear parallel between skills the children develop in their individual cognitive development and the basic types of literacies following the historical development of speech, writing and science. The multi-literacy principle aligns very well with the stages of human cognitive development as studied by psychologists. It just has to be more pronounced, well understood and justified in school strategies and educational schedules.

The advantages of applying the strong version of multilitaracy to education include awareness of how the pre-set structure of knowledge works; a concept of how human mind and technology interact; well-defined limits of utilitarian approach to truth and reality. Knowing the different frames of knowledge is a step to the future of prostheses and hybrids, when we will need both technical literacy and (self)reflection in order to live with the truths which information technologies and biotechnologies are about to open.


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