Young people are increasingly aware that climate change, migration, and digital transformation will impact their biographies, but they don’t know how. In earnest but sometimes irritating and cynical ways, they are certain that they will have to live differently from us. They are looking at an open, challenging future, for which the life of the adults around them and the past offer little orientation.
However, a look at the past shows that technological revolutions are not only about technology. The industrialization of the 18th and 19th centuries resulted in global upheaval rather than a more elegant, technologized variation of the old society. The introduction of the steam engine paralleled the birth of democracy. It brought world trade but also extreme forms of slavery and exploitation of nature. It also highlighted the misery of laborers that has since assumed terrible proportions, and it has consequences that are apparent in climate change, war, and global migration. Industrialization led to a new image of humans as autonomous beings: the special nature of childhood was identified, compulsory schooling introduced, and schools were regarded as places of social balance. At the same time, schools became increasingly industrialized, equipped like machine halls, and organized like factories—from the architecture to the basic structures (in grades or years) to standardized outcomes.
Education has since become a mirror of the ambivalence of industrialization, with efficiency, learning targets, and preparation for the labor market on the one hand, and, on the other hand, energetic attempts to make education more individual, fair, inclusive, and humane, in order to mitigate the industrial aspect. Only a small part of industrialization’s technological revolution is in fact technological. It has affected the world and humanity in all aspects of life.
Sub-Nature and Super-Nature
Steam engines and railroads were alien and new when they were first introduced to a rural world, but soon came to form the technological foundation of urban life. Digital devices were equally alien and new when they entered urban life at the end of the 20th century, but in the 21st century, digitalization has become so widespread that we depend on it. From basic provisions to highly responsible tasks, everything relies directly or indirectly on digital infrastructures today. Since the 2010s, digital technologies have become ubiquitous in everyday life, forming an often seamless environment for our work, our relationships with others, entertainment and leisure. Just as industrialization created the environment of the modern city, digitalization has created our digital lifeworld.
Email, social media, video conferencing, learning platforms and chats are places where presence of mind is required so one can understand decision-making processes, respond, cultivate friendships, carry out tasks, form judgements, and assume responsibility. In this space, ideas, fantasies, illusions, and memories—which manifest as texts, icons, films, photos—as well as the responses and references to them, constitute the substance in which consciousness is present. Digital media could thus be understood as «ideation machines» that create a space where our minds can comfortably move and interact with the products of our inner life. These technologies allow us not only to be in the world of images, ideas and memories as we produce them ourselves through mental activity, but also to live and interact in them almost without being active ourselves.
The architecture of these digital spaces has become so dense in the past ten years that being in them has become the full-time daily norm for many people in the previously industrial nations. The digital environment that has become the lifeworld that our mind inhabits can be described as a technological form of «super-nature». It forms a counterpart to the lifeworld of the industrial machine age that Rudolf Steiner referred to as «sub-nature». According to Rudolf Steiner, living in sub-nature causes us to become separated and alienated from essential aspects of the world – in particular nature, other people and the meaning of life – in a way that threatens our very humanity.
Alienated from the Body
Just as modern industrial work and city life has fundamentally changed our relationship with the world, living in the digital lifeworld fundamentally changes how we relate to our own being, to our body, since the mind can now permanently inhabit an imaginative world without being active itself. From the point of view of this «super-nature», this digital lifeworld, our own body becomes part of the world of things: I’m no longer the one who looks at the world and generates an inner image of it, but I look at my physicality from the outside.