Preventing the ICT process from leading to Ethical decay in living and working. The Legacy of a Myth

Hendrik Opdebeeck


In spite of the many advantages of Information and Communication Technology(ICT) in an era of globalisation, crucial ethical questions raise about the impact of ICT on our living and working. In this paper, we intend to explore how one can prevent the flaws of dark sides of this ICT process from leading to ever-greater ethical decay. By ethical decay, we mean specifically the threat the ICT process poses to what is referred to as the longing for being and solidarity with the other(s). The current globalisation of living and working goes hand in hand with an ongoing revolution in ICT. We need to extrapolate to what these technological developments will lead if they are allowed to pursue an autonomous course.

Against this ethical background, in this paper the central role of ICT in current living and working issues is revealed by a hermeneutical approach of the well known myth of Orpheus and Eurydice1. More concrete we focus on the first European opera on Orpheus and Eurydice, composed by Claudio Monteverdi and for the first time performed in Mantua in the beginning of the 17th. century. Four hundred years later on the same historical place, during this Ethicomp conference, we want to explain how the essence of Monteverdi’s Orfeo can also be discovered in the leading practical influence of technology on living and working nowadays. The theme of this myth and opera indeed is the power of technology, more concrete the power of the technological rationality behind music. This power can soothe all troubled hearts, and now with noble anger (thymos), now with love (epithymos), inflame the coldest minds. Indeed, as music is based on technical instruments (e.g. the lyre of Orfeo, the technique of the voice etc.), one can recognize in this metaphor the power of technology. By his lyre and his voice, Orpheus not only becomes the leader of heaven, hell and earth but also loses the ultimate meaning of his life and work, Eurydice. The (technique of) music of this first opera in history gives us the chance to be sensitive to the use or abuse of technology. The fact that in this paper we bring technology in connection with literature, music and ethics, is to situate within the Aristotelian tradition in the classification of philosophical subjects. Like M.Nussbaum in her also by Aristotle influenced Upheavals of Thought, we consider a series of poetic subjects, especially technology, aesthetics and poetics, besides theoretical and practical (e.g. ethics, politics and economics ) subjects.

When philosophers of technology often conclude that not technology but a misuse of technology leads to problems in living and working, it is precisely our argument that the ever more presence of technology in economics and society, makes it harder and harder to control ones desires in such a way, one does not prevent becoming the victim of technology. For man it is really hard to resist technology. To remain indifferent is not possible. It becomes apparent that a neutral or purely instrumental role of technology is not evident at all. Technology, in the myth of Orfeo, the technique of music, both affect man’s thymos (willpower, anger) and epithymos (desire, love). In his recent work Zorn und Zeit, Politisch-psychologischer Versuch, the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk refers to these two fundamental forces, thymos and epitymos, which according to Plato, should be controlled by human reason as two horses behind a racing car. Together as a tripartite (tymos, epithymos and reason) they form the soul of man. The question that we engage in this paper is how the contemporary western society still has the reins in hands. To what extent increasingly driving forward the racing car, does not implicitly admit that the epithymos horse is so shaken up that it allows the car, another metaphor for technology, to become unmanageable.

It is noticeable that in his theory of virtues Plato introduces virtues such as prudence, justice, moderation, who have to bring order and harmony. Without these virtues, reason, in other words, is not capable to keep thymos and epithymos in balance. In the myth of Orpheus, the firmness of Orpheus’ thymos accessing the underworld is not feasible without the help of the virtue of hope. When as seen above, technology constantly develops on the basis of ever new needs created by the economy, in the long term the biggest danger is that society is no longer able to rely on technology as a solution to problems. This because society appears to succumb for the permanent overwhelming of her desires. If we really want to understand the impact of this power on live and working, a truly balance must be rediscovered between thymos and epithymos. For this, reintegrating virtues in the ICT context is essential. The importance of developing qualities like trust and responsibility, receptivity towards others, the ability to observe carefully and awareness of the importance of interpersonal relations, become apparent.

[1] In the myth of Orpheus one discovers a typical description of living and working in antiquity which essence remains very relevant to our times. On the occasion of his marriage Orpheus sings a hymn for Eurydice and in a Heideggerian pastoral landscape shepherds live, work and rejoice in song and dance. All this is shattered by the sudden entrance of the messenger Silvia whose tale slowly emerges. Eurydice has died from a snake-bite. Thanks to his famous music technique Orpheus resolves to recover from Hades. Speranza (Hope) leads Orpheus to the gates of Hades, where she must leave him, for inscribed on the rock at the entrance to Pluto’s kingdom are the words (from Dante): “Abandon all hope, ye that enter here”. Orpheus reaches the river Styx and encounters the boatman Caronte, who refuses to let him pass. Orpheus summons up all his musical singing technique. As Caronte remains unmoved, Orpheus changes tack, adopting a much simpler music technique. Eventually the boatman is lulled to sleep and Orpheus takes the oars. The chorus comments on the power of man to triumph over all obstacles, applying this technology. Pluto, king of the underworld has heard Orpheus’ lament and grants that Eurydice returns to earth, with the condition that Orpheus leads her without looking back. But as he moves earthwards, he has doubts and turns to see, only to find her disappearing before his eyes. Orpheus returns to earth alone and the final chorus comments on the paradox of a man who can conquer Hades with his technique, but not emotions.