Technology and Blindness to Suffering

Surely there is no more blatant sign of dehumanization than the inability to react to suffering. And yet, underscoring technological progress throughout the ages is the drive to obliterate the experience of suffering. We want to be immune to the suffering of others, and we want to be immune to our own suffering.

Pierre Flourens, a French physician living in the times of Victor Hugo, wrote the following about the effects of anaesthetics:

“I still cannot bring myself to assent to the use of chloroform in general surgical practice. As you may know, I have devoted extensive study to this drug and as a result of animal experiments have been one of the first to describe its specific characteristics. My scruples are based on the simple fact that operations under chloroform, and probably also under the other known forms of narcosis, amount to a deception. The agents act only on certain motor and coordination centers and on the residual capacity of the nerve substance. Under the influence of chloroform it loses a significant part of its ability to record traces of impressions but not the capacity for feeling as such. On the contrary, my observations indicate that in conjunction with a general paralysis of innervation, pain is felt still more keenly than in the normal state. The deception of the public results from the inability of the patient to remember the events once the operation is completed. If we told our patients the truth, it is likely that none of them would opt for the drug, whereas now, as a result of our silence, they generally insist on its use.”

The above was quoted by Horkheimer and Adorno in their classic Dialectic of Enlightenment (Stanford University Press, 2002). In the context of the mindset that the Enlightenment made possible, they liken our willingness to “tune out” during painful operations to our need to “tune out” during the infliction of pain and destruction upon others and nature:

“[O]ur attitude toward human beings, and toward all creatures, is no different to that toward ourselves after a successful operation: blindness to torment. For cognition, the space separating us from others would mean the same thing as the time between us and the suffering in our own past: an insurmountable barrier… [T]he perennial dominion over nature, medical and nonmedical technology, derives its strength from such blindness; it would be made possible only by oblivion. Loss of memory as the transcendental condition of science.”(pp. 190-191)

Langdon Winner referred to this same phenomenon as technology giving us a license to forget. (Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought, MIT Press, 1977). Is this forgetting too high a price to pay? Owning up to the suffering created by our actions and lifestyles is a responsibility that we will abdicate only at the cost of our own humanity. For, as history shows, dissassociating seemingly moral ends from the immoral means employed to achieve those ends has only brought more horrific technologies of destruction, applied by our “leaders” with more and more impunity, and with increasing consent from numb, apathetic masses.

Join the Conversation


  1. Interesting quote from the Guardian article Honour and martyrdom: Suicide bombing isn’t as new or alien as westerners imagine:

    “But our outraged incomprehension of suicide bombing is also partly because it is the opposite of how we have come to believe wars are fought. It is not the high technology of laser-guided bombs, nor the strangely sterile detachment of the aeroplane camera without any images of the screams, smashed bones and blood. The west can only now kill from a distance – preferably from several thousand feet up in the air or several hundred kilometres away on an aircraft carrier. It is the very proximity of these suicide missions which is so shocking. This kind of intimate killing is a reversion to pre-industrial warfare – the kind of brutality seen in the thirty years war, for example. Suicide bombers in Iraq are a new permutation of old traditions; they have no monopoly on the horrors they reveal of the human psyche and its capacity to destroy life.”

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.