Steiner’s surprising assignment

By Sebastian Lorenz, May 2020

The inhabitants of coastal areas in the eastern Indian Ocean learnt the lesson from the great flood disaster of Christmas 2004. In Thailand and Indonesia, reliable tsunami warning systems were installed with German assistance by 2008 and the way that houses were constructed was adapted in such a way that the water masses were able to flow through below the now firmly anchored raised buildings without causing major damage. Emergency ladders and bridges were built everywhere.

So what if we were able to adapt in a similar way with regard to the technology of the future: from being taken by surprise to forewarned? Because something is approaching at ever greater speed: the fusion between human being and computer, the machine, will go beyond anything we imagine today and can damage us like a tsunami. What if? The founder of Waldorf education gave us such a tsunami warning for technology a little over a hundred years ago!

“Machine animals”

When Rudolf Steiner returned to Dornach in November 1917, after he had tried in vain all summer to persuade the political decision-makers in Berlin to make peace, he set out for his audience on 25 November 1917 (GA 178) how humanity would change with regard to technology. By way of introduction he said that in the future the attempt would be made “to place the spiritual and etheric in the service of outer practical life”. To this end “human states of mind, the motion of human states of mind... would be transferred to machines in wave movement ...”. And “out of an American way of thinking” the attempt would be made “to extend the realm of the machine over human life itself.”

Steiner was pointing to a time in which the human being and the machine would become one, in which “human strength ... and the strength of machines” would be yoked together. And, as if sensing the objection among the good anthroposophists in the audience and wanting to address it straight away, he continued: “These things must not be dealt with as if they had to be fought. That is a wrong view. These things will not fail to happen, they will come.”

Steiner goes much further in his remarks about a mechanised human future dominated by machines than many a futurologist – he speaks about beings he called “machine animals”. Yet right at the beginning of these predictions, frightening and surprising as they are, he makes a crucial comment in which he links the inevitability of this strongly engineered and mechanised future of humanity directly with the stream of the good forces in world development which accord with human nature:

“The question is only whether they [the things that will come] will be brought about in the course of world history by people who are familiar with the great goals of earth development in a selfless way and shape these things for the benefit of human beings or whether they are brought about by those groups of people who only exploit these things in an egotistical or group egotistical sense. That is what this is about. It is not about “what” will happen in this case, for it undoubtedly will; it is about “how”, how these things are tackled. For what happens is simply as intended in earth development. The forging together of human nature with machine nature will present a big and significant problem for the rest of earth development.”

This is not an event in the far distant future of humanity but a “big and significant” problem concerning the “rest of earth development”. People who wanted to contribute to knowledge and assist development in this context should and had to concern themselves, Steiner says, with the secrets of illness and death, of birth and procreation as well as the conditions for a spiritualised medicine and economy. A lot of preparatory work is still required here in that entrepreneurs, economists, technologists and engineers with an anthroposophical outlook should work together with midwives, therapists and doctors in all specialisms. Just as the groundwork has already been laid for priests and doctors in anthroposophical “pastoral medicine”, or as has already been implemented in banking, an anthroposophically oriented IT sector could in future arise.

The work which needs to be done here has so far been neglected, perhaps because Steiner says not much later in the same lecture: “Today we cannot do more than talk about these things until people will have sufficiently understood them, those people who are inclined to take them up in a selfless spirit.” But this time has already arrived: the wave of technology approaching us towers to such a mighty height on the horizon that more than a hundred years later the time has probably come to act on the wave warning.

The Waldorf schools and Rudolf Steiner schools in all parts of the world, and in them particularly the upper school teachers of science and mathematics, could make a wonderful contribution here by seeking out and supporting the talents of their pupils in this direction with even greater care. Our school movement still suffers from the occasionally heard preconception that Waldorf education favours the artistically and linguistically gifted child and supports them much better. But the healthily deferred development of the intellectual powers of young people, as is lived as a core principle of our system of education, does not in any way exclude a passion for nature and engineering as well as the sovereign handling of technology from middle school onwards.

No fear of technology

The lecture of 25 November 1917 mentioned above, with its at first sight perhaps shocking vision of the future, may indeed also, if we take a positive view of technology and the future, lead us to discern an assignment which may surprise us: that “[this fusion of living and machine entities] be brought about [by such people] who are familiar with the great goals of earth development in a selfless way and shape these things for the benefit of human beings.” For an education for freedom is nothing other than learning to shape the world knowing the great goals of human development and for the benefit of human beings.

For us people today it can, to begin with, be about making sure we have the technical knowledge as parents, teachers and citizens and not to be satisfied with fragmentary knowledge about key developments in the modern technologies. That removes the fear and gives us the possibility of assessing what is coming towards us. Our children will happily follow us in developing an interest, without anxiety, in what there is. Websites such as techcrunch.com and wired.com can help in this respect, as can the book by Nicanor Perlas, Humanity's Last Stand: The Challenge of Artificial Intelligence - A Spiritual-Scientific Response (Temple Lodge Publishing, Forest Row, 2018). Perlas has, among other things, been awarded the Alternative Nobel Prize and is a member of the Artificial Intelligence Task Force at the University of Vermont.

It will also be worthwhile to keep introducing the (few?) Waldorf pupils who are thus inclined and have the aptitude to the technological subjects with even greater energy and passion and to support them in that: “STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics” is what the American education system designates the subjects in which Waldorf pupils still tend unfairly to be seen as weak, although with Thomas Südhof a Nobel Prize winner emerged from their ranks in 2013. Waldorf pupils as critical programmers with Facebook, heads of department at Amazon or as developers with Apple might be a medium-term goal to be reached by 2035.

About the author: Dr med Sebastian Lorenz was a Waldorf pupil and is a doctor specialising in general practice and psychiatry/psychotherapy. Stages as an assistant doctor, subsequently in private industry as a manager, at the Christian Community seminary in Stuttgart, as an upper school teacher at the Freie Waldorfschule am Bodensee Waldorf school and as a psychiatrist with the German armed forces (Naval Medical Service). Now works in independent practice in Berlin.

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