Sue Mehrtens is the author of this and all the other blog essays on this site. The opinions expressed in these essays are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of other Jungian Center faculty or Board members. Honesty, as well as professional courtesy, require that you give proper attribution to the author if you post this essay elsewhere.
This essay is an excerpt from C.G. Jung’s Wisdom for Our Time, a collection of essays examining Jung’s thoughts on aspects of our current reality.
Jung on Modern Technology
“… technology,… is based on a specifically rationalistic differentiation of consciousness which tends to repress all irrational psychic factors….”
“The power of science and technics… is so enormous and indisputable that there is little point in reckoning up all that can be done and all that has been invented. One shudders at the stupendous possibilities. Quite another question begins to loom up: Who is applying this technical skill? in whose hands does this power lie?… Our technical skill has grown to be so dangerous that the most urgent question today is not what more can be done in this line, but how the man who is entrusted with the control of this skill should be constituted, or how to alter the mind of Western man so that he would renounce his terrible skill. It is infinitely more important to strip him of the illusion of his power than to strengthen him still further in the mistaken idea that he can do everything he wills….”
“In general it can be said that for modern man technology is an imbalance that begets dissatisfaction with work or with life. It estranges man from his natural versatility of action and thus allows many of his instincts to lie fallow….”
“… at the bottom of all these problems [the great problems of our time] lies the development of science and technology, which has destroyed man’s metaphysical foundation…. Technology and ‘social welfare’ provide nothing to overcome our spiritual stagnation, and they give us no answer to our spiritual dissatisfaction and restlessness, on account of which we are threatened from within as from without….”
“Anything that looks technological goes down without difficulty with modern man.”
The cell phone—that technological device that seems to have swept the entire world—appeared in my college classroom a few years before I retired from college teaching. Observing my students over several semesters, I came to realize they were enamored of their cell phones, so much so that I had to tell some students repeatedly to put their phones away, off the desk, and to give their attention to our classroom activities. That didn’t work: Students didn’t have their phones on the desk, but in their laps, or under the desk, and they were texting. So finally I made all students, as they entered the room, place their phones on my desk for the duration of the session.
This produced a reaction that amazed me. Some students could do little more throughout the class but stare at their phones, with a look of longing, as if I had taken a piece of their being! I came away from this experience convinced that, in some people, this technology has become addictive.
To explore this possibility—that technology can be a form of addiction—I sought out Jung’s ideas about technology. This essay considers Jung’s perspective on modern technology.
By “modern” technology I refer to those inventions, devices and tools that have been developed since 1875. Jung was born in 1875, and died in 1961—an 86-year interval that saw the development and/or dissemination of: the automobile, the airplane, the telephone, electricity, indoor plumbing, motion pictures, radio, television, mainframe computers (laptops appeared after Jung had died), antibiotics, automatic washing machines, clothes dryers, microwave ovens, plastics, nuclear energy, Sputnik, and many forms of armaments and weapons, e.g poison gas, atomic bombs and rockets. This list touches on the highlights; there are many other inventions that came along in the years Jung was alive. Jung is right when he described the 20th century as a time of “rapid technological advance.”
“Advance” does not mean that Jung felt sanguine about these developments. He did not. He grew up in the Swiss countryside, in a poor family that could barely put food on the table. As a child, he lived by lamplight, warmed by fireplace and fed by wood stove. When he and his wife, Emma, built a new house in 1908, it had the new amenities of electricity, central heat and indoor plumbing, but Jung did not acquire an automobile until he was 54, and he never went to the movies, watched television, flew in an airplane, used a computer or handled plastics. As the quotes above indicate, Jung was not a devotee of most of the modern inventions that we today take for granted.
Jung’s Attitude toward Technology
On the plus side, Jung recognized that modern technologies are popular. Western peoples in Jung’s day, and people all over the world now, jump on the latest gizmos. Jung noted how inventions made in the West were spreading into the East in the early 20th century. He could not deny that the comfort and convenience provided by modern technology were regarded as “progress” and sought by people everywhere.
Comfort and convenience were two pluses. Another was the labor-saving nature of many modern inventions. In conventional economic theory, labor is regarded as a “disutility,” something we want to avoid or lessen as much as possible. So, for most people, the labor-saving potential of technology is a plus. Not so to Jung. He understood that “for modern man technology is an imbalance that begets dissatisfaction with work or with life. It estranges man from his natural versatility of action and thus allows many of his instincts to lie fallow….”
Like his contemporary, E.F. Schumacher, Jung recognized that human beings need work—meaningful engagement with head, heart, hands—to realize their potential. The theory that posits labor as something negative is a theory that impoverishes life, robbing us of a vital element of living, limiting the range of our abilities, closing down some aspects of our instinctual nature.
Another problem Jung had with technology is its tendency toward imbalance. By this Jung referred to the inventor’s and engineer’s mindset, which prizes rationality, theory, logic, quantification, and objectivity. Devalued, even to the point of repression are the irrational, non-logical, personal, emotional, subjective aspects of human life. By putting such a premium on the rational and objective, the technologist—and our Western society that supports him (it is almost always a “him,” not a “her”)—lives in a reality that leaves “less and less room for the natural and irrational man.” leading to “… an inner opposition which today threatens the world with chaos….”
A third problem Jung had with technology and the technological mindset was how it fosters erroneous beliefs. Jung mentions two specifically: that we humans are superior to Nature, and that we can do everything we want. Certainly our modern technical skills—damming rivers, putting men on the Moon, tripling crop yields with super hybrid varieties of wheat and rice, bulldozing mountains to extract coal, gold, and other ores—would suggest that we can manipulate natural landscapes and systems to suit our purposes. Many people then assume our abilities here prove that we are superior to Nature. Others cite Scripture: Man was given “dominion over Nature” by God. Jung would disagree. “Dominion” does not mean “domination.” Humans do not own Nature, but rather are stewards of the natural world, meant to treat it with care and respect, as something that does not belong to us. We are simply its caretakers. Jung was explicit in denying our superiority over Nature:
“Western man has no need of more superiority over nature, whether outside or inside. He has both in almost devilish perfection. What he lacks is conscious recognition of his inferiority to the nature around and within him. He must learn that he may not do exactly as he wills….”
which is the second erroneous belief, expressed often in the old adage “Where there’s a will there’s a way.” Jung was blunt that this belief is not only wrong; it is dangerous:
“Our technical skill has grown to be so dangerous that the most urgent question today is not what more can be done in this line, but how the man who is entrusted with the control of this skill should be constituted, or how to alter the mind of Western man so that he would renounce his terrible skill. It is infinitely more important to strip him of the illusion of his power than to strengthen him still further in the mistaken idea that he can do everything he wills.”
A fourth problem with our fascination with technology is how it pulls us out of ourselves, encouraging a focus on externals that exacerbates our already-excessive American Extraversion. All our gizmos and gadgets are distractions from what really matters in life: self-awareness and Self knowledge. Playing video games, texting on cell phones, gunning the car down the highway, or flying off on explorations—none of these activities fosters awareness of our inner life, the “nature within us.” With the purpose of human life, according to Jung, being to create more consciousness, Jung understood that much of modern technology actively thwarts the main aim of our existence.
It also destroys our “metaphysical foundation.” Jung felt that all the great problems of our time were due, ultimately, to the development of science and technology, which
“…provide nothing to overcome our spiritual stagnation, and they give us no answer to our spiritual dissatisfaction and restlessness, on account of which we are threatened from within as from without….”
Jung warned us that, if we do not learn humility in the face of Nature’s power, and turn within, to become more self- and Self-aware, our “own nature will destroy” us. Our infatuation with modern technologies is blinding us to the reality that our “souls are rebelling against us in a suicidal way.”
A 21st Century Update
Since Jung’s comments in the middle of the 20th century, there have been many commentators voicing other criticisms about technology and technological trends, especially as these have developed in the United States.
Perhaps more than any other culture, American society has become infatuated with technology. Analysts of the subject speak of our “autonomous technology” and the “technological imperative.” By the former they mean that the process of invention has taken on a life of its own, unmoored from any considerations of ethics, morals, environmental or societal impact. If some genius toiling in a garage some place can come up with the next “new, new” thing, great! If this gizmo saves time, offers distraction, prevents boredom, or provides convenience, it gets snapped up and makes millions. The “technological imperative” is the attitude prevalent especially in America that if a technology is invented, it must be developed and used. There is no mechanism, no formal or informal process to vet or evaluate the technology for possible problems or negative impacts. The result is that Americans now tend to assume that new technologies will improve our lives, that any gadget that comes along could be the next blockbuster, and that life in general is enriched by more—more gadgets, more stuff, more money to buy more stuff. That someone, like Jung in building his tower at Bollingen, could intentionally choose to live simply, without electricity, running water, central heat, or any modern “conveniences” strains the credulity of most Americans.
Jung put his stress on soul—on living in ways that nourished the soul. He would be appalled at the situation in which we find ourselves now—living as we are now amid a host of technologies that invade our privacy, rob us of contact with our instinctual nature, encourage sloth (e.g. “couch potatoes” playing video games), threaten our health, compromise our ability to empathize and communicate, and destroy the integrity of natural systems. Were he alive today, Jung would urge us to question the value of most modern technologies, and to reorder our lives so as to live as soulfully as possible.
Akerlof, George & Robert Shiller (2015), Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Bair, Deirdre (2003), Jung: A Biography. New York: Little, Brown & Co.
Editors (2015), “Can You Hear Me Now?,” Consumer Reports, vol. 80, no. 11 (November 2015), 10-11.
Hannah, Barbara (1976), Jung: His Life and Work, A Biographical Memoir. New York: G.P. Putnam.
Jung, C.G. (1970), “Civilization in Transition,” CW 10. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1969), “Psychology and Religion: West and East,” CW 11. Princeton: ________ (1976), ”The Symbolic Life,” CW 18. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
________ (1975), Letters, ed. Gerhard Adler & Aniela Jaffé. 2 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Lewis, Michael (2000), The New New Thing¨A Silicon Valley Story. New York: Penguin Books.
O’Hara, Carolyn (2015), “Editor’s Letter,” The Week (October 16, 2015), 3.
Pasquale, Frank (2015), The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
Sands, Frederick (1977), “Men, Women and God,” Jung Speaking, eds. William McGuire & R.F.C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Schumacher, E.F. (1973), Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered. New York: Perennial Library.
Turkle, Sherry (2015), Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. New York: Penguin Press.
Winner, Langdon (1977), Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
 Collected Works 11, ¶443. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.
 Ibid., ¶869.
 CW 18, ¶1405.
 “Letter to DorothyThompson,” 23 September 1949; Letters I, 536-7.
 CW 10, ¶624.
 Many African countries skipped the landline phone systems altogether and developed cell phone infrastructures far superior to the cell service in some parts of the United States. One of my college students from Tanzania told me she had better cell phone service in her country than she had in Vermont!
 That cell phone usage can become addictive is not just my personal conclusion: Carolyn O’Hara, the managing editor of The Week magazine, admitted her addiction to her digital device; O’Hara (2015), 3. For another perspective on the addictive potential of the cell phone, Sherry Turkle notes that, while alcohol or drugs are things addicts should get off of, the Internet, laptops and cell phones are now “facts of life” and not things we can realistically eliminate. The key is to learn to use these technologies with intention, rather than having them control our lives. See Turkle (2015), 215-6. For another “improved” technology that has become addictive by design, see the new version of the slot machine, the addictive nature of which has been researched by MIT’s Natasha Schüll; Akerlof & Shiller (2015, ix. Akerlof & Shiller also note that some psychiatrists are arguing for the inclusion of Internet addiction in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-V; Akerlof & Shiller (2015), 227.
 Bair (2003), 19 & 348.
 CW 11, ¶443.
 Bair (2003), 31.
 Ibid., 124.
 Hannah (1976), 65, note D.
 Sands (1977), 249
 CW 10, ¶624.
 CW 11, ¶443.
 Schumacher (1973), 54.
 CW 18, ¶1405.
 Schumacher (1973), 54-5.
 CW 18, ¶1405.
 CW 11, ¶443.
 Ibid., ¶444.
 Ibid., ¶870.
 Ibid., ¶869.
 Genesis 1:27; cf. Gen. 2:15.
 CW 11, ¶870.
 Jung quotes this; ibid., ¶869.
 Ibid., ¶870.
 “Letter to Dorothy Thompson,” 23 September 1949; Letters, I, 536-7.
 CW 11, ¶870.
 See Winner (1977) for a detailed examination of autonomous technology.
 Ibid., 100-105.
 This is the title of Lewis (2000), referring to the ethos of Silicon Valley, driven by our American lust for the latest gadgets.
 Winner (1977), 101.
 Bair (2003), 323.
 See Pasquale (2015) for a frightening account of how corporations are using the massive data collecting abilities of computers to invade our privacy.
 CW 18, ¶1405.
 Cell phones are dangerous, causing changes in the cells of our bodies, most particularly in our brains; see Consumer Reports (November 2015), 10-11.Technophiles and the mobile phone industry debunk such studies, much as the makers of X-ray machines disputed studies showing the dangers of public X-ray machines in shoe stores and elsewhere in the early years of the 20th century. Given our love of new gadgets, we fail to allow sufficient time for thorough testing of the environmental and health impacts of new devices. I was first made aware of the dangers of cell phones in my studies of the human energy field. Using high sense perception, we can see how cell phone use distorts the auric field.
 For a thorough and alarming description of just how destructive cell phone use has become, in terms of empathy and our ability to communicate face-to-face, see Turkle (2015).
 E.g. in the current practice of “geoengineering,” which has been defined as “the artificial modification of Earth’s climate systems… a clear and present danger” to the living systems we depend on; go to www.geoengineeringwatch.org for this definition and more information on this technology.