In his coining of the term technosphere, geoscientist Peter Haff attempts to describe the physical properties of a human-technological system that takes on a role equivalent to the biosphere or hydrosphere. In this conversation with media philosopher Erich Hörl, Haff discusses the finer points of this concept while they both attempt to locate ethical and philosophical questions that emerge from it.
Erich Hörl: What do you think is the problem that the concept of the technosphere is reacting to or answering to?
Erich Hörl: When would you date this, the emergence of something like a technosphere? What is the difference to other spheres such as the atmosphere or the biosphere?
I’m interacting with you and interacting with the audience; and the molecules and the water are interacting with their neighbors, and so on.
So, I think it was my geological background that led me to calling it a sphere.
Erich Hörl: I’m glad you didn’t call it the anthroposphere. That doesn’t mean we have to cross out the position of the human; on the contrary, it means that we need to reformulate it. And in your concept, this is exactly what is happening, because you say humans are part of technology; and the constitutive part of this Anthropocene illusion was first of all the kind of concentration of all agency on the human. Exactly this concentration led to an explosion of agency, of non-human agency to be precise. What is happening today is that we are witnessing the disenchantment of the Anthropocene illusion because of the distributed agencies we start to witness more and more exactly because of and as a consequence of technologization. This makes necessary a reformulation of the place of the human, and this is exactly the reconsideration that happens when thinking the technosphere.
Erich Hörl: You would think, then, that the technosphere would be a notion for a profound rearrangement of humans and non-humans. Technical entities of course are non-humans. What does it mean, then, to inhabit, or how shall I put it: what does it mean to inhabit or to dwell in the technosphere?
Erich Hörl: Let’s come to your accentuation of the autonomy of technology as condensation as well as expression of an ongoing decentering of the human. Already the Nazi project, for example, has essentially to do with this question; at that time technology seems to get a certain autonomy, and the big issue was that of governmentality and mastering technology. To a certain degree this Nazistic fascination with control, which in the end penetrated all modes of existence at all levels, grew out of a discussion of the 1920s about the autonomy of technology involving Jünger, Heidegger, and others. In the 1950s in Germany, this issue came up again, and this time it was the big displacement or decentralization of the human that was the scandal and the problem, which technology was all about. Fifty years later, the interesting point for me is that the same formulation came up in your work: the autonomy of technology. Now it’s nothing scary, it’s something that forces us to shift our perspective, to change our ways of thought, our strategies ‒ our conceptual and theoretical strategies ‒ and for me that is one of the most important points. The becoming autonomous of technology is not anymore (as it was from the 1920s to the 1950s) a problem of mastery, will, and nihilism, but it compels us to a revolution in thought, even a revolution in our theoretical attitude [theoretische Einstellung], to follow Husserl. And the whole problem of thinking the technosphere has to do with, is maybe one of the starting points of this deep reformulation of our attitude, which will be ‒ as I argue elsewhere ‒ a technoecological attitude. Could you develop a bit your own notion of autonomy?