NewsOut of the BoxSociety and CultureTechnology and InnovationThe Macroscope

Chinese philosopher Yuk Hui: Technology has multiple futures

What does Yuk Hui think?

Yuk Hui, a Chinese philosopher of digital technology, has developed an understanding of technology across the Chinese and European philosophical traditions. In The Question Concerning Technology in China, he argues that we have grown accustomed to a very narrow concept of modern technology. We tend to think that technology is anthropologically universal (for example, “don’t European and Chinese people use the same phones, TVs and computers?”). However, underlying these appearances of technology, there has never been a universal idea of what technology actually represents, Yuk Hui argues. Instead, there are multiple “cosmotechnics” across cultures: technology, besides external apparatus, is intrinsically linked to a cultural worldview. More specifically, technology is shaped by how people make sense of the world. Because worldviews are very different across cultures, there has never been a universal understanding of technology. This means that although technology itself may appear to be universal, its implementation in society is not. Consequently, Europe and China, for instance, may end up in radically different technological futures.

What does Yuk Hui teach us about the present?

To understand the different ways of thinking about technology across cultures, Yuk Hui points to mythology. Ancient myths tell us that different cultures have very different ideas about technology. These myths have kept returning over the centuries, showing their lasting influence up to the present day. In Europe, the Greek myth of Prometheus warns against the perils of the potentially debilitating force of technology. Prometheus stole fire (symbolic for technology) from the gods to give it to man. The supreme god Zeus then punished humanity by opening the vase (i.e. box) of Pandora, which spread death, disease and war around the world. In the popular story of Frankenstein (full title: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus), Dr. Frankenstein’s creation also turns against man, which can be interpreted as a punishment for his technological experimentation. Overall, here technology is synonymous with violent struggle and something that perhaps may not even belong to humanity. In China, the myth of the Three Sovereigns (Fuxi, Nüwa and Shennong) teaches that technology is a gift from great men to their community. The man Fuxi became godly by gifting the technical activities of hunting, fishing and cooking to man. Indeed, here technology is not a theft from the gods that deserves punishment, but a gift from man to man that fosters harmony. In this sense, Chinese thinking has also never comprised a clear distinction between nature and technology, as Western thinking has.

How could Yuk Hui inform us about the future?

Could the different cosmotechnics of Europe and China lead to radically different technological futures? We may have already seen the first signs of these alternative futures. The Western Promethean idea of technology’s debilitating force currently appears in popular Western discussion of technologies such as AI, facial recognition and CRISPR. Contrarily, the Chinese idea of technology as a gift from great men to their community is apparent in China’s radical embrace of AI, social credits systems and gene editing. Indeed, these different cosmotechnics have led to Western media, politicians and scientists growing more critical of China’s ethics of technology. Whereas in traditional Chinese thinking, the implementation of technology is part of the harmonious natural/social order, in the West it is generally understood as a violent threat to order. Could this mean that we are headed for different technological futures? China may have completely incorporated the Western perspective on technology by importing Western technology, possibly causing similar ethical concerns to take root in Europe and China. However, as China’s global power, innovation and pride grow, it is also possible for the Chinese view of technology to gain more ground in China in the coming years. As the development of radically innovative technologies is facing deep ethical concerns in the West, China may grab the opportunity to leap ahead in key technologies such as AI, robotics, surveillance and gene editing by understanding them to be gifts from man to man.