Desiring Machines and Civilizational Destinies: A Response to Alan Jacobs

By Jeff Appel

The Infernal Machine blog at UVA’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture is hosting a magnificent discourse on technology right now between Baylor’s Alan Jacobs, UVA’s Chad Wellmon, and Ned O’Gorman, professor of rhetoric at the University of Illinois. I have followed Jacobs on Twitter for a few years now and have found his posts on technology refreshing and insightful. He really leaves no technological stone unturned and has posted on topics such as the state of web, graphic design, content ownership and sharing functionality in social media sites, and why Twitter is sometimes totally the worst.

Jacobs set off the conversation by nailing his “79 Theses on Technology: for Disputation” to the (Charlottesville?) door (digitally, of course). I assume the 79 Theses is a culmination of sorts (though not in the sense of a climax); on second thought, perhaps it is more a collection, a gathering-together of thoughts that are the fruit of years of reflection and teaching. If you read carefully you will note that much of his missive focuses more on the behaviors and practices of attentiveness than on technologies themselves. In fact, one of the chief lines of disagreement between Jacobs and O’Gorman (which, in my opinion, actually gets to the heart of the issue) is the question of whether wanting can or should be ascribed to technologies. Jacobs suggests that this line of thinking leads us down the bleak path toward the Borg Complex: “Once you start to think of technologies as having desires of their own you are well on the way to the Borg Complex: We all instinctively understand that it is precisely because tools don’t want anything that they cannot be reasoned with or argued with.” In contrast, O’Gorman believes it is only by “coming to grips with the profound and active power of things that we best recognize that resistance to technology is…a cultural project, not a merely personal one, let alone primarily a definitional one”.

devolution

I have found the Canadian political philosopher George Grant helpful in these conversations and I would like to discuss him here (if not especially because I often find nobody has ever heard to him). Caveat: apologies to my Deleuzean friends who began salivating at the title of this post: alas, I will not be discussing him here…

Because we live in a technological society, Grant argues that we are blind to particular foibles about technology. We tend to pare down the novelty of our milieu because we see it as the modern embodiment of the dialectic of socio-cultural and scientific progress – it is merely a step forward in our collective abilities to apply systematic reason to the invention of instruments for our use. Technology is thought of as “the whole apparatus of instruments made by man and placed at the disposal of man for his choice and purposes.”[1] This technological epistemology seems so obviously true as to be beyond argument. Grant calls this a “civilizational destiny”, by which he means the constellation of fundamental presuppositions that the vast majority of a people inherit in a given civilization. These presuppositions are given the absolute status of ‘the ways things are’; they are seemingly beyond reproach.

Thus we assume modern machines like the personal computer are technological instruments in that their capacities have been programmed in to them by human beings, and it is human beings “who operate those machines for purposes they have determined”[2] (as an aside, Jacobs takes this line of argument in discussing algorithms, saying that technological production can overwhelm us to the point where we “talk about what algorithms do as though algorithms aren’t written by humans”). Grant offers a version of this argument, put forth by a computer scientist in his day, who argues, “The computer does not impose on us the ways it should be used.” Grant argues it is a mistake to abstract the computer from the paradigm of knowledge in which it was created. In our case, the computer arose from the paradigm of knowledge consisting of the methodologies and assumptions carved out through the new science and its abstract mathematics. Computers are thus an invention conceived of within a civilizational destiny. The computer scientist, then, is incorrect in assuming that “the computer does not impose”: on the contrary, the computer imposes itself upon us because it is an invention engendered within an imposing destiny.

Not only can our modern technologies not be abstracted from the paradigm of knowledge in which they were created, Grant argues, “the ways that computers have been and will be used cannot be detached from modern conceptions of justice, and that these conceptions of justice come forth from the very account of reasoning which led to the building of computers.”[3] Modern technological instruments and modern standards of justice are therefore indissociable – they are “bound together” and belong to “the same identity of modern reason.”[4] Thus “[W]hen we seek to elucidate the standards of human good (or in contemporary language ‘the values’) by which particular techniques can be judged, we do so within modern ways of thought and belief. But from the very beginnings of modern thought the new natural science and the new moral science developed together in mutual interdependence so that the fundamental assumptions of each were formulated in light of the other. Modern thought is in that sense a unified fate for us.”[5]

All of us in technoscientific modern North America are working within the same sets of assumptions about the nature of the world and our place in it. Yet Grant notes, “the very substance of our existing which has made us the leaders in technique, stands as a barrier to any thinking which might be able to comprehend technique from beyond its own dynamic.”[6] The North American ethos is technological, and it’s become a fate we can’t think outside of. In this way Grant is very much a Heideggerian: both men argue that modern technology, far from being a neutral endeavor, has enabled a pervasive and dynamic way of thinking and seeing the world that conceals alternative modes of knowing and being. We want modern technology to be a neutral edifice whose use is dictated by us for good or ill. However, once illuminated, it is helpful to see it as “a destiny which enfolds us in its own conceptions of instrumentality, neutrality, and purposiveness. It is in this sense that it has been truthfully said: technology is the ontology of the age.”[7]

It’s a whole package view, then, and not merely one from which we can pick and choose and determine our own ends as responsible individuals. Our technologies are determined by a particular philosophical mindset and do not simply rise from the ashes of technological neutrality. In this way, I am unsure how much I can get on board with Jacobs’ theses, which seems to put the onus on shaping behavior and yet misses the larger cultural (and I would dare say political) vision of what modern technologies desire.

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Jeff Appel (@jeffappel) is a PhD student in the Joint Doctoral Program of Religious Studies at the University of Denver and the Iliff School of Theology. His research interests include Continental Philosophy, the Philosophy of Technology, and Theological Anthropology. When he’s not writing or reading or working, his two daughters ensure he’s not sleeping, either.

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[1] George Grant, “Thinking About Technology” from Technology and Justice (Concord, Ont.: Anansi, 1986), 19.

[2] Ibid., 20.

[3] Ibid., 27.

[4] Ibid., 28.

[5] George Grant, “In Defense of North America” in Technology and Empire: Perspectives on North America (Concord, Ont.: Anansi, 1969), 38.

[6] Ibid., 40.

[7] Grant, “Thinking Through Technology”, 32.

2 thoughts on “Desiring Machines and Civilizational Destinies: A Response to Alan Jacobs

  1. Well written. Makes me reflect on Foucault’s title and work, “The Order of Things.” Neutrality? O Neutrality, where art thou?

    Like

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