“All our inventions have endowed material forces with intellectual life,
and degraded human life into a material force.”

—Karl Marx

After the Last Man is a short and dense book, consisting of a series of vignettes (excursus) ranging from a paragraph to a few pages in length on the contemporary technological system.  Each excursus is followed by a few lines that point the reader to other passages in the book.  Rather than having a formal beginning or end, After the Last Man is meant to be discursive reading, designed to mimic the infinite feedback loops of the technical system.  Its subject is the “postmodern” world that is the result of the spread of information and communication technologies.  The author is at his best in examining this world’s many facets.

The system is impossible to comprehend.  It is no longer a tool with specific tasks, but rather a series of interconnected nodes and episodes, each with its own discrete meaning.  It is also boundless, having no linear beginning or end.  Causality is indeterminate.  The system is also hidden.  The internet cannot be seen, and the system does not leave behind artifacts.  Who saves a computer as an heirloom?  The system is simply the flow of possibilities.  The only time it makes itself known is when it fails, and that is when people realize their total dependence upon it.  The technological system also abolishes time in order to master space.  This has led to greater individual mobility and widespread communication, but to a change in time perspective as well.  Time, which was once connected to eternity, has been reduced to a series of moments, each of which, as any bored multitasker will tell you, must be maximized.  And here is where the power of the system lies: It promises and delivers a universe of pleasures and diversions.  But because time has no meaning, the future becomes indeterminate.  As such, it is increasingly filled with some idea of impending doom, either ecological or civilizational collapse, brought on by the malfunction of the system itself.

The fragmentation of time has also led to the proliferation of religious fundamentalism, which seizes on some past golden age to restore the world.  Terrorism has become one of the principal means to achieve this.  The author makes an interesting point here, noting that global (especially Islamic) terrorists are not jealous of the West, nor do they seek revenge for centuries of economic exploitation and the concomitant psychological “othering” inflicted on them.  They are reacting to the spread of emptiness at the core of the modern project.  They are reacting to the “other” that is us.

The emptiness and alienation in the modern world that are the result of the “Death of God” and the “End of History” have led to a resurgence of the mythic one, in which people are desperately trying to find meaning in the world of hyperrationality.  For Koivukoski, the essence of the postmodern condition is captured by this paradox.  It is an omnipresent rationality now copenetrated by the mythic—“a world of broadband empires and wireless tribes.”  As in the premodern era, each tribe must now create its own reality.  But it is a reality totally disconnected from God, nature, and history, and mediated completely by technology.

How did this all happen?  Here the author is less clear.  He begins by discussing the origins of the Greek terms techne (art, craft) and logos (reason, rational thought) and how the two represented separate domains in the past.  The ancient role of techne was “to make beings at home in the world.”  It had a definite purpose and defined limits.  It certainly could never give an account of itself, which is why it always was subservient to logos, which articulated higher principles and the proper place of things.  For Koivukoski, the defining shift of the modern era was the reversal of these roles.  Logos became subservient to techneLogos was put to work solving problems, while techne was practiced for its own sake.  This inversion of roles has unleashed tremendous material benefits, but they are not connected to any overriding moral purpose.  So a cobbler, who once made shoes and played an integral part in the moral life of a community, has become Nike, which makes shoes purely for the sake of power in the global economic system.

Another critical shift is the increased emphasis on abstract language over the older vernacular languages.  Abstract, mathematical language is a series of self-reflexive signs, a closed system disconnected from life itself.  But because it is a universal set of symbols, it has unlimited applications.  In contrast, vernacular languages are tied to nature and shared human experience.  They were conditioned by meaning and purpose and had definite limits.  Language varied with each human community.  Contemporary society sees ancient languages as “dead”; yet it is mathematics that is dead, the corpse of a behemoth now engulfing the entire world.

The rise of the state and market was another key development associated with the spread of the technological system.  Both were essential to modernization, characterized by the centralization of power and the idea of progress.  Progress, measured by unlimited technological development, became the secular faith of the modern era, and, as Koivukoski opines, “the stock market has become its liturgy.”  He argues that, in the postmodern era, market and state are both becoming larger but, like the technological system, more abstract.  Economics is now more mythic than rational.  Products are only remotely connected to the cost of production.  What really matters is advertising (another abstract language) that evokes powerful images, even entire lifestyles, making it indispensable for crowd control.

With respect to the state, Koivukoski argues that the old centralized state—the Hobbesian mechanical monster—is no longer a viable model.  The state is now far-flung, with many nodes of control.  He calls it a “prosthetic state,” formless and with many strange growths.  It must continually expand and integrate itself with the market and all facets of life, which the technological system makes possible.  In the end, he writes, the modern state can only remain a state if it is also an empire.  And the larger the state grows, the more attuned it becomes to global economic and technical systems rather than to its human constituents, who become increasingly relegated to abstract variables.

Did state and market create the technological system, or vice versa?  It is difficult to say, as all are deeply intertwined—almost indistinguishable parts of a universal system.  Yet Koivukoski does make the point that all institutions develop because of the need to acquire, store, manage, and communicate information.  Thus, the political and economic centralization so characteristic of the modern era is the result of the massive increase in information, and the need to communicate it, during the last 500 years.  However, as this process accelerated exponentially after World War II, the older, centralized political and economic structures could not be sustained—they had to go global.  This process of global “liberation” was fostered by the neoconservative revolution—the last great modern revolution and the segue to the postmodern era.  The decentralization of power, which many conservatives and libertarians believe is the antidote to political and economic centralization, is actually a key feature of empire, argues Koivukoski, one made possible by the technological system itself (with a little help from the neocons).  By devolving power to many nodes, the system replicates itself more efficiently, allowing for greater self-augmentation and power reinforcement.

Where will it all end?  Is impending doom and total violence the necessary corollary of total freedom, as Hegel once suggested?  Koivukoski is also concerned with this problem and tries to sketch out ways to survive in this strange and dangerous new world.  Here the book is at its weakest.

Koivukoski reiterates the need to redefine human freedom in a world of constant flux and rapidly changing norms.  He emphasizes the importance of limits and boundaries, which the system dissolves, in defining humanity.  In the last line of the book, he asks, “What will become of the world if we do not stay human?”

At one point he quotes Canadian philosopher George Grant (1918-88), who wrote about the technological problem decades ago.  As a Christian, Grant argued that a strident defense against the technological system was necessary to protect Christian civilization.  This required an active participation in Christian life, as well as relearning ancient languages and protecting nature.  To Grant these were bulwarks against the most destructive elements of the system.  And as alternative ways of being and living, they could keep the system from gaining universal power.  Koivukoski rejects the Christian perspective, but he gives no clear explanation for doing so.  Perhaps he believes, like Martin Heidegger, that it was simply the precursor to modernization and the idea of progress.

Koivukoski’s model for humanity is ancient Greece.  The Greek myths, with a focus on this world and its functions, must be imitated to make postmoderns feel at home again in the technological world.  He also believes postmoderns must “take a cue from Hellenic civilization, with its maritime federation of autonomous island cities, all held together by a code of hospitality to strangers.”  Rootless cosmopolitans today must also extend friendship to strangers and travelers to sustain some semblance of humanity in an inhumane age.

But is this enough?

Here the ideas of the late Catholic theologian and physicist Fr. Stanley Jaki, O.S.B., are instructive.  Jaki notes that science and technology were developed in other civilizations, but it was only in the Christian world that they achieved so great a success because of the centrality of the human being and of individual freedom.  More importantly, Christ, the Logos as flesh, unleashed a revolution in human thought and action, of which the development of science and technology was but a facet.  This potential for creating a more humane world through institutions and technology was distorted in the modern era by old-fashioned greed and lust.  The state and market grew inordinately in power and scope as a result, as does the technological system now.  They became tools to plunder and a means to remake the world, rather than improve it incrementally and within the limits established by Christian tradition.

Because of these distortions, Jaki believed that demystifying science and technology is one of the overriding duties of Christians in this age.  Technology is a useful tool, but it should not be worshiped.  It is not a self-sufficient world, but another part of the order of Creation and must be subsidiary to higher moral principles.  A re-reversal of logos and techne must occur if we are ever to feel at home in the world again.  To accomplish this, Christians and their fellow travelers must do more than create a defensive strategy, as Grant suggested.  The revolutionary and totalitarian nature of the system must be revealed.

Each new technological generation abolishes the old.  Each new technical gadget severs human links to history and tradition, God and nature.  Each creates revolutionary potential, now placed in the hands of individuals.  And, like all revolutions, the technological one professes inevitability and irreversibility.  There is no turning back.  Most importantly, it appears indispensable.  One must succumb.  And the technological system is the most insidious form of totalitarianism, because people want to succumb.

The system is truly global in scope—a thoroughly integrated empire with a nearly ubiquitous presence.  It is an empire of raw power and possibility.  But it is also a false empire that is creating an equally false world.  This empire is naked and desperately needs a set of clothes. 


[After the Last Man: Excurses to the Limits of the Technological System, by Toivo Koivukoski (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books) 146 pp., $50.00]