Alienation and technology

Alienation and technology

In the most general view, alienation is seen as a process of separation from the people of the process and results of their activities (activity is understood broadly as any social activity), which go beyond the people’s control, and even rule over them. As a result, people become alien to the world they live in.
The concept of "alienation" continues to attract the attention of researchers, despite the fact that it has occupied a prominent place in philosophy for centuries. This is connected with the currently growing feeling of danger that is created by the other side of social progress. Mankind is becoming stronger and more powerful, and ... more dangerous to itself. The developed productive forces created by the significant efforts of many generations are increasingly seen as alien, uncontrollable, hostile forces that threaten the life itself. The impression is that in these circumstances, alienation is becoming the determining factor, the importance and role of which is inevitably growing. And if in the last century, the issue was general and philosophical, today the life itself puts it forward to the number of the most pressing ones.

The concept of alienation from different perspectives

The problem of alienation has been actively discussed by philosophers, starting with Hegel, but the term has never really entered the number of commonly used psychological concepts. Various authors speak of alienation in relation to such different phenomena, that the discussion of alienation in general, without answering the question of who and what is alienated, is counterproductive.

Indeed, a single content of the concept "alienation", explaining a wide range of economic, social and psychological phenomena, is defined exclusively by its theoretical interpretation. The most well-known conception of alienation proposed by Marx and developed at the Frankfurt School, according to which the alienated nature of labor as the main human activity (when it objectively is a means of satisfaction of biological and social needs of man, not his aim, or realization of his creative forces) leads to the alienation of man from the process and the product of labor, from the generic essence, from other people and from himself (Marx 61-62).

At the same time, the concept of alienation is widely used in existential philosophy in somewhat different, but very definite way: on the one hand, as the alienation of man from the outside world (Heidegger, Jaspers, Sartre), and on the other hand, as abandonment, alienation of man from Being which represents his potential (M. Heidegger). A separate concern is the phenomenon of alienation in language, discussed by the representatives of both traditions (E. Fromm, Heidegger, and others).

A detailed analysis of the interrelation of different views on alienation requires a detailed discussion, which is planned to be covered further; so first we just mark, that they have a number of significant common features. Hegel introduced a common to both traditions view of alienation as a basic phenomenon inherent to the human being in general (Entäußerung); on the other hand (Entfremdung), both the alienation from generic essence and alienation from Being are of normative- and value-based nature. Philosophical analysis of concepts of alienation is a large-scale task.

The things are a bit simpler in psychology, where the concept of alienation appeared in two ways: on the one hand, as a theoretical concept, mostly from the Marxist philosophy (E. Fromm, S. Rubinstein, and others) and, on the other hand, as a generalization for a number of empirical phenomena (M. Seaman, J. Ray and others), often not supported by a theoretical explanation. Both variants of development were not quite successful: in the first case, the theory with a high-level of generalization was separated from empiricism; in the second case, the number of contradictory versions of the empirical development of alienation did not give a consolidated basis for the theoretical explanation of this concept as a psychological one. The exception is, perhaps, the theory of alienation as an existential illness, developed by S. Maddy.

From the empirical point of view, different authors under the notion of alienation mean very similar number of subjective phenomena: dissatisfaction with life on the whole or with its separate sectors, the experience of powerlessness, anomie, nihilism, or cynicism towards society's values, experience of isolation, loss of meaning. In our view, it is the notion of meaning that can explain the full range of cognitive, emotional and behavioral phenomena that are traditionally associated with alienation, thus providing a basis for the psychological development of this concept in line with the activity-theoretical approach.

Marx's concept of alienation

Alienation is considered in Marx’s early works, including the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. For Marx alienation was a loss of meaning of existence by a worker in the labor process under capitalism. Marx singled out four types of alienation: from the labor process, from the product of labor, from one’ own essence, and people from each other. Karl Marx saw the worker in capitalist society, due to the development of machine production and the respective level of division of labor, turned into the "detail" of the huge machine mechanism, an "appendage". The labor force is transformed into a commodity sold for wages. A product produced by an employee passed to the capitalist (the owner of the means of production), and therefore was a kind of an alien object separated from the employee. Alienation was considered in the process of separating the product of labor, and in the productive activity itself, and in respect of an employee to himself and to others (Marx 35-41, 72-76, 90-93).

In the sphere of social production objectification begins with the connection of subject and object, and ends with their complete break. If the producer subsequently uses the thing that he himself produced, he uses it as an alien, because there was a moment of alienation, because the thing he produced is universally valid. Thus, in the objectified labor the producer becomes alien to himself due to the fact that the moment of alienation separates the producer from himself. This moment determines the beginning of the person’s need for another person. Or, in other words, any man creates for himself as for someone else and vice versa, and in this creation he means both himself and another person. And generated thus the moment of alienation is the moment of social connection, and this is a genuine human relationship (Fromm 45-56).

Thus, alienation happens all the time in any subject human activity. It should be emphasized that in the developed society where everyone produces not so much for themselves as for others, the producers and consumers are mostly different people, and at the same time – they are the same people. The first ones produce ("objectify") and part with the product, completing the alienation. The second ones realize the reverse process and overcome alienation. These two processes are substantially separated and distant from one another, but this is only a moment, a side of the whole. The opposite, but equally essential point is the unity of these processes (Fromm 89-101).

So, once a person has produce a thing (whether for himself or for another person), he has simultaneously produced alienation, regardless the means of public of production, class structure and ownership factor. Hence, alienation is an essential point of public relations. It has played (and continues to play) an important role in the formation of social relations; and this role is timeless because the alienated labor (capital) performs the function of uniting people. Accumulation of labor, and hence the formation of capital are also impossible without alienation. Marx’s law of value begins to "labor" only after the accumulation of the sufficient measures of such labor in the society (Marx 111-115). This is the role of capital as a social phenomenon. One of the dialectical contradictions here is that the alienated labor, carrying out social integration, reduces alienation between people who are also alienated being out of production relations.

Economic alienation is the basis for the alienation of the real life and the real life of a person, according to Marx, is, above all, person’s practical life. That is why Marx sees the root of all the forms of alienation in the alienation of labor. And the first form of alienation of labor is private ownership, which, according to Marx, is both the result of the alienation of labor and its foundation (Marx 123-26).

Marx wrote that alienating people from their livelihoods, the alienated labor thereby alienates from a man of his generic space: it turns person’s generic life into the means for maintaining individual life. And further Marx points out that the man turns his essence turns into merely the means to sustain his existence (Marx 117-18). In other words, labor in an alienated state becomes the means, while eating, drinking and breeding becomes the aim of human life.
The final liberation of man from all the forms of alienation, including the political alienation in the face of the political state (which, according to Marx, is the illusory form of collectivism), is connected with the liberation of man from labor (Marx 178-79). This means the liberation from the labor as forced activity and the transition to the so-called self-activity. In this case, the society would be seen as an abstract capitalist.

Existential approach to alienation

As it follows from the previous section, Marx regarded alienation as appropriation by some people of the forces, means and results of labor of other people, i.e. alienation was interpreted as a product of definite social relations - relations of property. According to Marx, the higher the level of exploitation of labor in the society is, the greater is the person’s alienation from other people and from the human nature (Fromm 68-69). Later, the idea was vulgarized by the adherents of Marxism, who narrowed the understanding of the property to an extent of not yet appropriated material wealth of others, and the overcoming of alienation was associated with the liquidation of the institution of private property.

In the social sciences of the 20th century, the forefront in the study of alienation was occupied by the question of ‘mechanized’, ‘technolized’, extensive waste of human and natural resources. The establishment of intensive forms of production, economy, technology, social organization focused on the quality of life emphasized the value of personal forms of life of people, their self-fulfillment and development, and the importance of overcoming self-alienation of people. Heidegger believes that the main reason that homelessness and alienation become the world destiny is the fact that a person is known (and therefore exists) as the 'lord of being', not as a 'shepherd of Being' (Heidegger 134-35).

According to Heidegger, there is a tendency that the more valid the human-generated world is, the less valid is the man himself. The 'dissolution' of a man inside of the world takes place, and the issue of mainstreaming secret horizons and possibilities of Being comes to the forefront. Reflecting the spontaneity as a still significant factor of the evolution of civilization along with the natural tendency of the society to dominate over the pace and direction of social change, the concept of alienation and self-alienation of people is a specific indicator or philosophical 'thermometer' of controllability and humaneness of man and his history. The scale of the problem is seen by Heidegger as universal, because it does not have partial solutions (Heidegger 151-64).

Marx did not know the so-called philosophy of existence (existentialism), which in the 20th century will be called upon to justify this alienation and distortion theoretically, placing existence instead of essence as the only meaning. And the meaning of this existence is meaningless and absurd. Marx also stated that the direct consequence of the fact that a man is alienated from the product of his labor, from his life, from his family really is the alienation of man from man. When a man confronts himself, he confronts another man. What we can say about man's relation to his labor, the product of his labor and himself, the same can be said about man's relation to another person, as well as to the objects of labor of another person.

Another important idea advanced by Marx in his early works is that in the civil society alienation becomes universal. Universal both, in the sense that all entity human forces undergo the alienation and distortion, and in the sense that it applies to all members of this society: the worker and the capitalist. After all, both are ruled by a superhuman power - power of material wealth and uncontrolled socio-economic circumstances. Therein lies the root of all hoaxes which are generated by this society of universal alienation: neither gods, nor nature, but only man himself can be this alien power, ruling over a man.

The paradox is that this hoax - when a person perceives his own alienation as a pressure of anonymous forces – happens in a civil society, where all the forms of direct oppression of man by man are removed, and where man, in a formal legal sense, is absolutely free. And the more this democratic civil society develops, the more exacerbated is the dominance of anonymous forces over man. Therefore, in the age of space exploration and computer technology, we meet people with wildest superstitions that bring the humanity back to pre-Christian pagan times.

The condition for the liberation of the worker, as Marx shows working on the Capital, is namely the change of work nature. And this the means change in the direction of socialization of labor at its very content, i.e. the transformation of labor into a "universal work", as Marx would call it, referring to work in its directly universal form. In the modern society, such is the work of the scientist, a man of art, i.e., all those who are busy not with routine, but with creativity. The results of such work are difficult to privatize due to their direct social nature. Thus, for example, the work of the writer is meaningless unless it is printed. Hence appear the conflicts of copyright in the Internet era, when the World Wide Web publishes everything regardless of the rights and opinions of the author.
Marx could not foresee the modern conflicts of universal labor, but he predicted the movement in this direction.

Thus, we have discussed the alienation of materialized labor in different concepts. Generalizing this phenomenon, it should be noted that alienation is generated not only by the independence of the existence of matter, but the independence of Being in general, which is characterized by the loss of connection with the cause, source, substance or foundation. Appropriate examples abound.

1. The alienation of the individual is slavery. The state of slavery is generated by violence, in result of which man loses everything that separated his gender from animals. The state of slavery itself is absolute and irreversible, since becoming a slave, a person is deprived of social essence. In this state the person is reduced to a simple state of property, thing or object. As a specific form of alienation, the slavery is necessary at a certain stage of historical development.

2. The alienation of labor is the basis of sociality. It is dialectically contradictory, since being performed in the social environment it means its own removal. This was discussed above. Only being alienated, the labor reproduces the mode of social production - slave, feudal, capitalist or other one.

3. Alienation of capital is an advanced form of alienation of labor. The accumulation of alienated labor equals to the industrial and economic power of society.

4. Alienated cost is the cost taken separately from the labor, for example, money. As is known, money doesn’t have its own value. They just reflect the cost of those goods that can be bought for them. This property is present in any reliable fixation of value, the record (display) on the storage medium. The value existing independently in the form of money activates the public relations, because it activates the exchange of products of labor.

5. Alienation in the information process is the most interesting case in the sense that the dialectical contradictions and questions discussed above can be seen here as the obvious and natural abstractions. Information is pure content presented in perfect form and originally intended for someone else. All the elements of alienation are here of a standard form, unitized and provided in a special way. The information transmission itself presents the central point of alienation, which, as in the traditional labor, connects the two sides. The alienation of labor (more precisely, its content), and the alienation of the content in the information process are one and the same.


In the conclusion we can say the following. In the above article, we mark that many existentialists - Jaspers, Sartre, Heidegger - see alienation as the only way of organization of human relations, as the way of Being in the condition of publicity. Unfortunately, in Marx’s works, alienation most often is interpreted only as a loss of property, while the meaning of this term is much broader.

In addition, in the framework of Marxism, the problem of overcoming the alienation was formulated. In our view, it is an imaginary problem. It is illogical, utopian, is ludicrous and absurd, because labor produces alienation, and it overcomes alienation on its own. One of the basic and unavoidable contradictions of social life is that the labor always comes back to a man and is always in an alienated form, i.e. as the labor of others. When we say "to overcome the space", "to transcend the time", we do not mean “to overcome the attribute of matter”.

All human culture, experience, knowledge are handed from generation to another only because any achievements of the civilization are recorded and fixed in the form of material objects, finding a specific form of alienation (e.g., the Constitution and the law are valid only as absolutes, as alien positednesses. To summarize this all, it is appropriate to use the following words of Marx: "... a man, who understood that in law, politics, etc., he has alienated life, leads in the alienated life as such a true human life" (Marx 211-12).

Works Cited:

Fromm, Eric. Marx's Concept of Man. Continuum, 2004. Print.
Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays. Harper Perennial, 1982.
Marx, Karl. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Dover Publications, 2007. Print.

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