By Iain Espey
Caterpillars and construction aren’t Stanford’s only epidemics. From blender bottles to scheduling coffee-and-catch-ups on your Google calendar three weeks in advance, there’s an underlying approach to life that’s more spiritually unhealthy than we realize. The best of us can’t help but fall into it at times, while the worst know nothing else. I call it technê thinking. When you understand what it is, you’ll know it when you see it; once you notice it you’ll never stop noticing it.
This isn’t about the techy-fuzzy divide, I promise. The humanities could certainly find more qualified and eager apologists than me. In a word, technê thinking is about efficiency. It’s a mindset that values maximizing utility and minimizing difficulty above all else, while disregarding style or concern for process. It’s also easier to understand in practice than it is in theory, so let me give you some examples.
Soylent? Protein powder? The gallon of milk a day diet? Pure technê. Why eat like a human being when you have science (or an insane lactose tolerance) on your side? The same attitude is at play whenever you see the word “fuel” used to describe food in a Stanford dining hall. Eating is one of our basest activities, so why not raise it the level of the aesthetic? But here, technê thinking devalues the process by focusing on the product. By treating food as only instrumental eating comes to look like an annoying necessity and loses any possibility of becoming an end in itself.
Among the ranks of technê I’d also include speed-reading, power-napping, motorized skateboards, Crossfit, Kettle bells and putting a shot of vodka in your natty light. Hopefully you’re seeing the trend by now.
Some of the best things (gyros, yogurt, democracy) come from the Greeks (despite their responsibility for natural slavery). So does technê, sort of. I first encountered it in Aristotle. For him, technê means a species of knowledge (epistêmê) dealing with crafts like shipbuilding, horsemanship, medicine, etc. More broadly, it can refer to any human productive activity that applies such knowledge. The value of crafts lie in the objects they produce, since by definition a craft aims at producing some object.
So, by wrenching the term out of its technical context, mixing in equal parts humor and misanthropy and reapplying it to lived experience, technê thinking was born as a new tool to understand the world around me and the secret motivations of the people in it. (That’s what philosophy is for, right?) Of course, I was aware of the attitude technê thinking describes, but it’s often the case that you can’t fully grasp a phenomenon until you can put a name to it. And to give credit where credit is due, the idea isn’t totally my invention, but part of a larger cache of pseudo-intellectual jargon born out of my freshman dorm friend group.
But, you may be thinking, I like my protein powder. And “the aesthetic”? I can only pretend to be interested in things that don’t make me more marketable. (Come at me, Google.) But there’s a reason I write opinions, and any evaluation of the world I make is just that, my opinion. Stay in the cave, if you like, and enjoy your shadows. But to me, a human being isn’t a budget or a program; he cannot be optimized, nor should he be. That doesn’t altogether preclude self-improvement, as long as it’s tempered by pessimism.
The danger in technê thinking is more than a matter of principle. In a sense, it’s really about quality of life. Technê thinking makes activities into tasks just so that they can be accomplished better. It all goes back to that platitude I learned from a Bruce Lee poster in my mother’s office: Life is the journey, not the destination. The downside to making life easier is you make it more mechanized too, and then you’re on autopilot. Even if I can’t convince you to cast out your Apple Watch, at least you should be scared of living like that.
Contact Iain Espey at iespey ‘at’ stanford.edu.