Nietzsche’s Tightrope and Homo-Electronicus

“Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Overman — a rope over an abyss.”

“What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal: what is lovable in man is that he is an over-going and a down-going.”

Thus Spake Zarathrustra

These words made a great impression on me when I was young. At first, I was filled by romantic thoughts of the struggle of make’s oneself anew from what has been made of one by parents, teachers, companions and ultimately history itself. The goal was to break heroically with patterns of the past, create new values, and to live a new life free of constricting and life-denying thoughts. Nietzsche’s concept of the Overman announces this new human being whose outline is just beginning to glimmer on the horizon of our vision.

Nietzsche saw this new sort of human being approaching. He saw that human evolution is a work in progress. We are always changing unpredictably as a species. However, Nietzsche had no very clear idea of what the Overman would be except a kind of super Greek warrior type who smashes the idols of the crowd and dares to live bravely under the sky without the need of heaven.

Since Nietzsche’s day, there have been scientific and technological advances that make our fast paced cultural evolution possible. Twentieth Century elders will hardly be able to fathom the changes taking place. The Overman is Homo-Electronicus, wired in, connected everywhere, possessing hundreds of instant applications. This evolution to a new sort of human being will not take long, nor will it be confined to creating changes in culture and mentality.

What we have discovered about the neuroplasticity of the brain holds out the promise that even old dogs can learn new tricks. It is never too late to create neural networks corresponding to abilities that allow the satisfaction of our desires. Furthermore, I hazard that the brains of young people have already changed to accommodate activities like texting that requires constant use of the thumbs.

As a mid 20th Century person, I have seen enough time pass to notice some differences between then and now. Starting lecturing in philosophy full time in 1972, I was from a wave of students that has receded only in the last ten years or so. Back then, I felt the generation gap began with people just a little older than I was at the time, 27. The cohorts following shared a similar mindset to my own. It seemed to me that I was on the same wavelength as my students. However, today’s students have become increasingly electronic in their being and I find it increasingly hard to imagine what it is like to be them. Perhaps it is a failure of empathy, since if one cannot model the interiority of another in oneself, it is is difficult to empathize with how they experience the world. I do not know the new links that bind students together, their electronic devices and social networks.

As one of the elders now, it is hard for me to see very far into the future. However, I can see that the convergence of technology with our mental powers is going to transform human beings in ways we cannot yet imagine. “Just in time” electronic knowledge is going to relieve our short term memory of the need to store contingently useless facts. When it is time to know the next thing, one will consult the web and move on to the next stage of the investigation. Knowledge acquisition will be driven by a constantly shifting focus of questions, desires and tasks. Our mental powers will be augmented by our union with the web and the society it creates. Information will be distributed across computer networks and the web will give constant access. What effect will this have? I really do not know, but I am confident that we will be changing our brains by merging with digital technology. These ‘augmented’ humans will look back at us and wonder how we ever survived. The trouble with being an elder is that much of the knowledge and understanding one has acquired over a lifetime applies to a world that increasingly ceases to exist. However, the ‘down-going’ of the elders is the ‘over-going’ of the young. There is nothing to complain about in that.

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11 Comments.

  1. We all become obsolete if we are lucky to live long enough and I can no more put myself in the mindset of a young student today than my grandfather could put himself in my mindset when I was 17.

    However, what is interesting about philosophy is that unlike what occurs in some disciplines, the basic philosophical questions are very similar to those of 1972. We still read many of the same philosophers as we did in 1972.

    Nietzsche seems as relevant as he did in 1972 or in 1892.

    It seems that philosophy resists the changes of fashion and of the zeitgeist better than do many other
    disciplines or fields of thought.

    Old paperbacks, from the 60′s or 70′s, many times have the publisher’s catalogue at the end of the volume.

    Look at the catalogue: so many authors are featured that absolutely no one reads today, yet the few philosophers or works on philosophy that are featured are generally still read.

  2. Re S Wallerstein Sept 5th

    I agree with what you say here. However The philosophical mind is surely driven by curiosity and the desire to formulate some sorts of explanations. Accordingly I do not think that these desires diminish with increasing age. Speaking personally I am just as curious about the world as ever. One can never know too much, one keeps up with latest developments as far as is possible. My own inclinations tend towards science rather than say politics, which I endeavour nevertheless not to shun. As a mature student my five years full time academic training in Philosophy took place with “The Young” as my peers. I cannot speak for them of course, but so far as I was concerned there was apart from say one or two, never any conflict in ideas or modes of behaviour between us. Age was not an issue. I was sometimes asked how it was I knew so much, to which I reminded them I had already lived much longer than them and just had more experience that was all. I do not know if young Philosophy students are different from those in other disciplines but those I studied with were, with very few exceptions, diligent, hard working, intelligent, and sociable.

  3. Don:

    I imagine that I could relate to today’s philosophy students qua philosopher students insofar as I am, without having studied philosophy formally, a de fact philosophy student, but each generation has its own mindset, its own way of seeing the world, its own phobias and prejudices, its own manias, its own intellectual fashions, its own collective unconsciousness, its own un-examined assumptions, and I don’t share those of the contemporary generation of students, and it is almost impossible that I come to share them, since my formative experiences were radically different.

    When I said that we all become obsolete if we live long enough, I was not referring to philosophical speculation per se, but to the generational gap, a generational gap that has increased with the increase in technical innovation.

    At some point, I do believe, the distance due to the generational gap is so radical that it is impossible to communicate effectively with young people as a group (there may be individual exceptions), even though one shares the same basic philosophical and existential queries.

    There is an interesting article in the TPM homepage about the relevance of Hume today. However, if Hume were to come alive today and to try to lecture to a group of typical, bright 18 year old’s, would they pay any attention to him?

    They probably would pay attention to Hume’s ideas translated into contemporary codes by one of their peers.

  4. Homo electronicus is the Overman? I think rather of another character in Zarathustra:

    “We have invented happiness,” say the e-humans; and they blink.

  5. Jeff,

    You seem to be attempting the impossible in this post. You say that the Overman is Homo-Electronicus. And you suggest that we will become Homo-Electronicus. But I think that the Overman will always be there for us to strive to become.

    Surely you don’t think that, if we did become Homo-Electronicus, we just wouldn’t be able to significantly develop anymore. The future holds more for us than that. Indeed, it might hold things for us that we can hardly imagine. We (or some of us) will always be striving to become the Overman for as long as we exist. And it will never happen.

    (Maybe I should confess that I’ve never read Thus Spoke Zarathustra. My opinion in this comment is based on the quotes you give at the beginning of your post and my limited knowledge of existentialism.)

    Michael

  6. Re S Wallerstein

    I do understand the point you are making. However if as you say “At some point,  I do believe,  the distance due to the generational gap is so radical that it is impossible to communicate effectively with young people as a group (there may be individual exceptions),  even though one shares the same basic philosophical and existential queries.” then how are we ever going to be able to educate them? It seems you are suggesting we cannot reach them in any manner whatsoever, Currently it seems we are successful in this educational connection, and where downright failure occurs it seems to be caused by bad influences outside of education, This as you will know allows the formation of subcultures which are inward looking and unprogressive, relying on mutual admiration and conducting life on their own rules. I do not drink, smoke, or use drugs. This is not to say I have never done so I will try anything once, or even twice. I have spoken with young people who do indulge in such pass times discussing the pros and cons of the matter. The fact that I see far more cons than they do does not result on a loss of contact and my point that subjecting a perfectly good brain to regular doses of high intoxicant is not a good idea is usually agreed.
    I do not disagree that there is a generation gap there always will be but I do not share your opinion that is is now impossible or becoming so, to communicate effectively across this gap.
    There are of course other potential communicational gaps atheist and Devout believer, The politics of the Right and Left, The fox hunter and the non- foxhunter. Certainly friction does often occur but far better keep the lines of communication open far better to try to understand viewpoints that way often a mutual respect can occur and progress made.

  7. Perhaps the Overman is perpetually unidentifiable. And, yes, it may be that the e-man is not the overman, but a version of Nietzsche’s Last Man. I am fairly sure that Nietzsche would not be fond of Homo-Electronicus, but for my generation, it seems that e-man is the “Next Man.”

  8. So the proposition is that electronic communication will fundamentally change human conciousness?

    Hmm.

    I don’t see that at all.

    What I do see – and its evinced right here – is the ability to create communities (God, I hate that word!) independently of geography.

    That doesn’t change consciousness as such, but boy it allows for extremely rapid dissemination of ideas.

    We have seen similar advances in the past – the invention of language itself, the written word, then printing.

    Followed by the telephone, radio and now TV.

    But what is unique about the internet, is that its the first time since language itself was developed that we have a many to many relationship: (Sorry for the database terminology creeping in: But its apt) namely that all other forms of advance have been one to many, or one to one.

    This is actually a dimension that occurs in terms of a normal meeting..or a dinner parry conversation..except that its better because the stored aspect means you can follow many conversations post hoc rather than being able to listen to one or another. solely.

    So homo electronicus is indeed a phenomenon of interest, but I really don’t see it in a Nietzschian context.

    Or perhaps in light of Perspectivism, it merely makes more perspectives available?

    I have very little problem communicating with the next generation by the way – if they are intelligent thinking people. The gap is not generational, its cultural ..I never could communicate with my peers anyway, if their worldview devolved to the tribal realities of football, and other sports, fashion, and what car my dad drives..

    Electronic media have not changed the vapidity and tribalism of the average human at all: merely made it blindingly obvious.

    The great advantage is that or the 1-2% of humanity that, for whatever reason, finds itself alone in pursuing paths of independent thought, aloneness is no longer the sole fate…

  9. Having given this matter further thought it seems to me that surely young or old we should keep up with developments in technology. Certainly the young are more obsessed with it. For instance a look at Facebook reveals that some people have hundreds and hundreds of so called “friends” which to me seems an absurdity the so called friends with a few exceptions are not exactly what I would define as a friends. I am on Facebook under a pseudonym, my only friend is my daughter and that was at her insistence, I don’t know why. She has 253 friends one is a well known academic, in a discipline quite remote from her own. I asked he how she became friends with that person to which she replied that she had spoken to the person once. All this does seem somewhat odd to me, but I do not see it as anything beyond my comprehension or as a deterrent in my communicating fruitfully with people should I so wish. I am capable of using my smart phone which can be very useful and interesting but I rarely text anyone although I know how to, I would prefer to phone if I had anything to say. The sat-nav on my car is very useful but not beyond my comprehension and I usually manage to solve my computer problems as and when they arise. There are many things the young do which hold little interest for me like organising riots in London by means of a certain aspect In Blackberry phones which are conducive to the sort of security they desire. I cannot think of anything worse then being overtaken by modern technology as it relates to our day to day life, and yes one does have to keep one’s ear to the ground in this connection. I cannot believe that the only people to take full advantage of technological advances are the young; Yes certainly they use it for purposes which in the course of time they will outgrow but have things like that not always been the case.
    Jeff Mason says:-
    “it is is difficult to empathize with how they experience the world. I do not know the new links that bind students together, their electronic devices and social networks.
    As one of the elders now, it is hard for me to see very far into the future. However, I can see that the convergence of technology with our mental powers is going to transform human beings in ways we cannot yet imagine”
    It is surely difficult to empathize with anybody for that matter, if one is going to define empathy as the ability to enter into another’s personality experiencing his or her experiences. Whatever the case my point here is that meaningful communication is surely still possible, but if this is marred my one’s ignorance of the technological links binding a certain important section of the community together then the remedy, if one wants a remedy, seems obvious.
    Leo Smith makes an excellent point here when he says “I have very little problem communicating with the next generation by the way – if they are intelligent thinking people. The gap is not generational, its cultural ..I never could communicate with my peers anyway, if their worldview devolved to the tribal realities of football, and other sports, fashion, and what car my dad drives.. “ I agree in the main communicational problems in this context are Cultural not Generational.
    Jeff has my full agreement when he says;_” I can see that the convergence of technology with our mental powers is going to transform human beings in ways we cannot yet imagine” This is surely the case. Already we can physically intervene in the neural processing of the brain, for instance the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease can in some cases be controlled in such a manner. There must be more which at this moment I cannot recall but no doubt could with a quick look at Wikipedia. How long will it be before we can consult that without recourse to one of those old fashioned computers?

  10. I think the behavior of the young and the use of electronic gadgets merits some close analysis, even speculation from a psychological point of view, understanding that culture is a backdrop of course. When they are constantly texting, tweeting, on facebook, X-boxes and what not, what is going on in their psyches? Are they lonely? Are they affirming an identity that they may be lacking? Is it “mutual admiration” as Don Bird aptly puts it? Is it egotism which gets stroked by clichéd compliments? Egotism can be the result of a tenuous sense of identity, so there is no incompatibility between the two. Insecurity?

    Now suppose these rather brief speculations point toward some truth, do we fail to empathize with the current electro-young because we can’t or because we don’t care to? My daughter once asked me what I thought of facebook (it had just started) and I replied “It’s a waste of time, but I have plenty of time to waste.” But really, don’t most adults, our generation, or whatever you want to call it, rather assume that basically they are wasting their time, rather than intimating a future Overman, even, perhaps, subliminally?

    I’m afraid the kind of electronic practices in question need not portend, in themselves, only a promising social future, as opposed to the other kinds of advances mentioned above, e.g., the neuro-sciences. Still, technology has always been a two-edged sword.

  11. In a Nietzschian context,an overman is the ultimate pillar in the evolutionery cycle. But this evolution is not linear .Means, there is no end to it. In fact , it is cyclic . Time is infinite ,but matter and events are limited .So Nietzsche claims, in an infinite time scale ,matter and events will repeat . That is true. Because matter has to born again and again to give time ,its meaning .

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