Accueil > Critique de la technologie, Histoire, Texts in English > Bertrand Louart, Technology vs. Civilization, 1999

Bertrand Louart, Technology vs. Civilization, 1999

The Genesis of Technology

Power, like a desolating pestilence,
Pollutes whate’er it touches; and obedience,
Bane of all genius, virtue, freedom, truth,
Makes slaves of men, and of the human frame,
A mechanized automaton.”

From Percy Bysshe Shelley, Queen Mab: A Philosophical Poem, 1813.

Technology was originally a word used to designate merely a particular technology; the term, “technology”, is an Anglicism that has been imposed to designate the most modern techniques: one speaks of a highly advanced aerospace technology for designing the manufacture and the use of rockets, but one would not speak of technology with regard to carpentry, plumbing or bricklaying except in reference to the tools or materials that are used as elements of these particular techniques (a computer, standardized parts or new materials, for example). We confirm this usage by the practice of using this word in the sense that would be appropriate for designating the industrial and technical complex characteristic of our time and the ideology of material progress that accompanies it.

Technology is a set of techniques, tools and machines, organizations and institutions, as well as representations and arguments produced with the aid of a scientific knowledge of nature and man, that is very advanced in certain respects. This knowledge is incapable of attaining such a degree of dominion and specialized precision except by means of the technological products that its previous advances had allowed industry to apply. For example, genetic engineering would be unimaginable without very specialized knowledge in the field of molecular biology, and this knowledge is in turn impossible to acquire without the help of a complex apparatus that made it possible to lay the very elaborate foundations of physics, chemistry, etc.

Thus, every technology sets in motion very diverse techniques with great precision, and therefore technological development induces coordination between different industrial sectors, the standardization of techniques and products, the strict regulation of exchange, and all these factors in turn lead to the development of technologies due to the new capacities of production and the basic elements that are standardized and interchangeable at the will of those who apply them to industrial production. At the beginning of the technological era, with the appearance of the nuclear and aeronautics industries, the state ensured, in an authoritarian and voluntarist way, first of all, the large-scale coordination of different industrial sectors necessary for the production of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, and now, the movement of the concentration of capital in large corporations with diversified activities independently continues, in its impulse, that unification of the technological system on a planetary scale with the globalization of commercial exchange.

In this sense, technology is a higher stage of technics: first of all because it has acquired the foundations necessary for it to separate from preceding forms, but above all because what has been created by it, in a way, is a world of its own. Until now, technics was essentially empirical, it was derived from the practice of the arts and trades, from the time of the Neolithic era to the century of the Enlightenment; it then became methodical, with the development of scientific knowledge from the 17th century to the beginning of the 20th century. During this period, scientific research only had a few direct connections with technical applications, which were above all the concern of engineers. Because the principal goal of science was the understanding of the physical world and the description of nature, research was carried on in close connection with teaching in the universities and scientific institutes. Science then was nothing but the theoretical basis upon which the engineers relied to implement techniques and to direct their industrial applications. Only after the second half of the 20th century did scientific research become more strictly linked to the development of technics, at the same time that its methods were applied to the study of life, man and society. The state had assumed responsibility first of all for its funding and then for its organization in order to orient it more specifically towards knowledge that was directly operational and technically practical (1). From then on, in reality, all new knowledge had to be capable of being used to increase power over nature and man for the profit of the institutions that finance it.

We must acknowledge that technics is one of the determinant aspects of the history of the 20th century, a fact that has until now been relatively disregarded by the various currents of radical social critique.

Most social critique has always considered that scientific and technical advances were the absolute allies of the emancipation process, and never imagined that, as the creators of new servitudes, they transform domination into something insurmountable.”

Miguel Amorós, “Dónde estamos?”, February 1998.

The current claim that “technics is only the use to which it is put” precisely avoids posing the political question of knowing who applies technics and for what purpose exactly, and depicts technical means as politically neutral, as if they did not put any pressure on the organization of human affairs: it was not by chance that the Stalinists supported the French nuclear power program that required, for its security and operation, a powerful and centralized power, the political form of power that they have always admired.

Technology – etymologically, “the science of tools” – is scientific technique, that is, rational discourse (logos) applied to the organization of production (tekhnê). But by “rational discourse”, we must understand the discourse of the abstract reason of the sciences and of economic calculation whose objectivity only seeks to take into consideration the primary qualities of its objects, which are provided with a certain quantity of energy in the form of mass and motion and takes no consideration at all for the subjective interests and passions of men except as a kind of irrationality, always exploitable by public relations in order to more effectively set in motion masses of commodities. Technology is also an ideology, “the logic of an idea” (H. Arendt), and this idea that comes to determine all social activities is the way that technics (and the commodity exchange upon which capitalism seeks to base all social relations is in this sense a purely technical act, that is, an act in which only “cold interest, and cold hard cash” and no human considerations are operational) can automatically realize all the values to which men aspire, all the Good that is desirable. Unlike the religions that preach passivity and resignation, all ideologies claim to be scientific, because their goal is to mobilize human activity in order to realize their ideas on Earth. Ideologies seek to have an impact on the world, and thus begin with the scientific knowledge of a reality that, by its objectivity, they can effectively transform, at the same time that they claim to leave the political questions in the hands of those who determine the use of scientific knowledge.

Technology is the most highly perfected Materialized Ideology; it has replaced all the others because it is, immediately, the materialization in actions and the activity that materializes abstract reason, that is, the viewpoint and the metaphysical assumptions of science concerning nature and man that have constituted, in a profound way, the basis of all individual ideologies. It is the culmination of the scientistic ideal born with capitalism, according to which the world is ruled by precise and strict laws “whose secret can be wrenched from nature by science” in order to instruct men and finally make their existence and their behavior rational. Technological ideology does not see progress in ethical and political terms, but in material and technical terms: how can men be rationally organized in order to make them happy? (2)

However, the historical and social question of paramount importance is that of progress. What kind of life is worth living and what kind of world do we want to live in? What means are compatible with these ends? It is the answers to these political questions to which the use and development of technics must be subordinated. But the modern world does not want to hear anything about these questions; for it, technics is the answer to everything since it increases efficiency and yield in the material order, the only things that abstract reason wants to consider. Technologies have no other purpose than their own indefinite development, which can only embody and hence justify the values of progress that they represent.

In this circular chain of reasoning, where the use of technology is justified by the very rigorous calculations of abstract reason, and the use of abstract reason is in turn justified by the very particular results of technology, we can discern the trademark of ideology, which only considers reality on the basis of the perception of the latter made available to it by its simplifying way of looking at things, and whose superficial arguments radiate nothing but contempt for life; ideologies represent, according to the expression used by Marx to define the political economy from which everything else derived, “the most complete denial of humanity”. Humanity, after all, is neither efficient nor profitable, as we are reminded by every one of the inventions of the technicians, who seek to replace nature and the human faculties, and as has been proven by the harmful phenomena that result when this conception is put into practice.

Some of us still certainly say that the machine makes us free. It frees them provisionally in a way, but only one way, yet one that impresses their imagination; it frees them, to some extent, from time; it makes them ‘save time’. That is all. To save time is not always an advantage. When we are on our way to the gallows, for example, it is preferable to go on foot.”

Georges Bernanos, Why Freedom?, 1947.

Fragments of Ideology

It is claimed that technologies have replaced many old trades and techniques due to their precision and efficiency, but in reality they have succeeded because, first of all, the possibilities of independently practicing the old trades and techniques have been abolished. One need only consider the multifarious and increasingly more suffocating regulatory apparatus which, on the pretext of hygiene, safety and social protection does not prohibit but considerably complicates the most simple productive activities (for example: to sell eggs, the eggs must be dated by a certified and legally controlled electronic machine.…), thus delivering them into the hands of a business and, more generally, reserving large-scale distribution and management of the regulatory norms to an industrial organization capable of integrating all the operations linked to mass production… with the consequence of a loss of quality of the products (falsification and ersatz goods), the spread of harmful phenomena (mad cows, dioxin, etc.), the increase of bacterial resistance to antibiotics (salmonella, etc.) and other “anomalous pathologies” of unknown origin.

Now that automation has spread to a large part of the apparatus of production, the poor are dispossessed of their means of independent subsistence, which in the past they were able to derive from their free activity in combination with that of nature. Now their exclusion, which is nothing but forced unemployment within the system, was only made possible by that same industrial production that delivers to them ersatz food at low prices (3). They thus share the fate of the plebeians of ancient Rome, expelled from their land by the cheap wheat imported from all over the Empire and the expansion of the Latifundia, with nothing to look forward to but bread and circuses, reduced to a mass of labor power available for every kind of manipulation and barbarism… awaiting the decline that would entail the fall of the Empire (4). What once existed independently of industry and the state (petty trades, the mutual aid of neighbors, etc.) has no legal right to exist today; not because all of these things have been formally prohibited, but more subtly because, at the very moment that the law claims to regulate everything, the state becomes responsible for everything and the authorities assert their competence with regard to everything, and all the former practices and traditional ways have no place in the legal framework. The nature of the law has changed; it is no longer, as in other times, a boundary that defines certain limits for social life, but now it tends to dictate to every person his way of working and behaving in society; it claims to regulate the relations between men in the same way that physical laws apply to the parts of a machine, and on the pretext of protecting people against themselves it reduces their freedom and abandons them to bureaucratic arbitrariness (5).

All personal activity, all really productive labor carried out for the purpose of acquiring a certain independence from the commodity economy (such as was permitted in other times to the peasant, the artisan, etc., who formed the basis of what the economists call the informal economy) is tending to become impracticable; industrial society has transformed such work into a “corvée” (compulsory, unpaid labor), in the sense this term possessed in the Middle Ages, that is, unpaid labor subjected to taxes, fees, obligations and diverse controls, or else into off-the-books and therefore “unprotected” labor that the slaves and the plebeians owed to the lord, and the most arduous jobs and subordinate functions of the process of industrial production. How many carpenters make nothing but standardized Ikea furniture, for example, while the production of so-called “traditional” furniture is completely automated.

In order to preserve the indispensable cohesion of an increasingly evanescent “social fabric”, this same Legal State is obliged to use its authority to impose “solidarity” and “responsibility” (between parents and children, for example), qualities which it has otherwise made so difficult to practice, while the entertainment and culture industries reconstitute a synthetic sociability, authenticity and nature (from Disneyland to Center Parcs). Because, in fact, this so very democratic, liberal and open society does not tolerate the existence of anything outside of it, much less a way of life that would escape, even just a little, from its statistics, its regulations and its security systems; nothing over which this protection racket, which is the basis of all mafias, speculators and bureaucrats, cannot have the final word.

At present, prolonged education, retraining and social assistance are the methods so abundantly employed to maintain an increasingly larger part of the population outside of the production process insofar as they are unnecessary productive forces that must be decommissioned, methods for which the state is responsible and which are presented as social conquests, as expressions of well being. By these procedures, young people, the unemployed and the excluded in general, are separated from the circuits of productivity but preserved as consumers.”

M. Amorós, op. cit.

The ideology of material progress makes people believe that the most modern machines and technology are always more efficient than what came before. But no one takes the trouble to test the accuracy of this belief, which is nothing but a declaration of faith. Instead, we prefer to employ ourselves in abolishing every point of comparison that would allow us to grasp the nature of what kind of efficiency technologies are capable of, and the very particular way they have of “rationalizing” human activities (6). While production is being automated, the simplest machine-tools for craftwork whose use implies real practical knowledge are tending to disappear and are being replaced by a more complex apparatus, stuffed full of electronics that are hard to repair, but which perform marvelously with the technological materials and which above all do not require any particularly advanced level of skill to operate. The efficiency of the technological toolkit essentially resides, as we see every day, in the independence of its functioning with respect to the personnel who are employed above all in subordinate roles of maintenance and preservation of the productive apparatus, the management of the flows of circulating capital and the advertising of its products. The labor itself is interchangeable, and its ephemeral or non-existent skills cannot disturb the adaptation of the apparatus of production to the pressures and fluctuations of the market, that is, not to social demand itself, but, by way of advertising and fashion, to the speculation on social demand, a speculation that is all the more comfortable due to the dispossession and the precariousness of wage workers which is engendered everywhere by the intensive use of technologies.

Factory or office work, where the individual is nothing but a function, a cog in the machine that is the enterprise, has become the model for social relations, that is, it is in accordance with the model of factory or office work that individuals and institutions now perceive all social activity: both by way of social categories (citizen, consumer, wage worker, taxpayer, user, etc.) employed by the bureaucracy to divide up problems and thus to be able to administer them more effectively, and by way of our willingness to identify ourselves with one of these forms of social representation disseminated by the spectacle. For example, when wage workers demand more complete “recognition” for their work, they are requesting that they not be mistreated so much and also for a “revaluation of the image” that their superiors and other authorities have of them. Sometimes the inhabitants of low-income neighborhoods demand respect after certain television broadcasts lie about them. The social relations and activities of individuals are not, in effect, perceived and analyzed except in diffuse and fashionable terms by social representation, because there is no longer any community on the human scale in which their activities can assume a meaning for people. Thus, the atomized individual, who performs a fragmentary task with the help of ephemeral skills, has no choice but to look for a meaning for his existence in society as a whole, but this abstraction leaves nothing but the possibility of identifying himself with the dominant representations, and transforming himself into an image in the social spectacle.

The plot thickens, however, and, generally, the rationalization that operates through automation tends to abolish all living labor and to supplant it with the manipulation of signs that supposedly represent reality. The disastrous consequences of such a de-realization of human activity is displayed in all its absurd monstrosity in the activities that are directly in contact with nature, in industrial agriculture and stock raising (see Remarques…, op. cit.).

Realists, however, will tell us that, in every case, “man orders, the machine executes”; for this is what our senses lead us to immediately perceive, and we shrug our shoulders if anyone should claim that reality is quite different, that it is the machine that tells man what to do. The professors who teach the use of electronic thinking machines, for example, are always saying that “We must not allow ourselves to be led by the machine”, by which they mean that it is necessary to verify the orders that they give to the machines and not allow themselves to be deceived by an a priori faith in rules that had been previously implemented. So an automobile driver can be both the master of his vehicle and subject to its social use: this is a widely shared experience, but also one from which the dominant habit of abstract reason prevents most people from learning the slightest lesson. For an automated machine, due to the barrier it represents, the volume of production it implies, the low price it imposes on other producers and by means of which it subjects them to its power, causes those who operate that machine to have no other choice than to use it in accordance with the technical-economic necessities that it not only imposes, but which are also presupposed by its very existence: this is something that no technical assessment, no economic calculation, no scientific experiment can apprehend. We thus see how the abstract reason of the sciences is immune to any objective evaluation, not only with respect to its results which are always subject to rigorous calculation, but also with respect to its concrete, real and practical consequences, which anyone may verify every day with his own eyes, without the help of any experts, sophisticated measuring instruments or specialized knowledge, but only with a little curiosity and critical spirit, materials that certainly cannot be produced industrially (7).

The point of view from which we formulate our critical judgment on technology is thus quite simple: that of the concrete reason that does not view facts and phenomena in isolation, and which does not simply focus on the apparent and immediate consequences of actions, but also on the social and historical context in which they have appeared and which gives them their meaning, that is, it simultaneously gives them the significance they can have for men and the direction towards which they can channel previous events. In other words, unlike the scientific method, whose objectivity applied to the human sciences is identical to the point of view “of the coldest of the cold monsters” of authority and domination, of the state and the economy, “nothing human is alien to us”.

Bertrand Louart

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Technology vs. Civilization

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Notes:

1. Concerning the history of the institutionalization of science, see J. J. Salomon, Science and Politics (1970).

2. Concerning scientism, see the pamphlet, The Enemy is Man (1993); and see the summary of the critique of science set forth in Remarques sur l’agriculture génétiquement modifiée et la dégradation des espèces, Encyclopédie des Nuisances (1999).

3. See Venant Brisset, While There Is Still Time… Frank Opinions on Agriculture, the State and the Farmers’ Confederation, October 1998.

4. See Arthur Koestler, Spartacus (1945), especially the speech of Marcus Crassus in Part Four, Chapter 4.

5. In response to the increasing number of judicial appeals against the authorities for “involuntary crimes”: “people cannot bear the thought that they are the victims of fate”, a deputy complains in Le Monde on April 30, 1999. Might this not be due to the fact that they have not had the pleasure of experiencing any freedom?

6. A particularly illuminating example is provided by Jean-Marc Mandosio, L’Effondrement de la très grande Bibliothèque nationale de France, Encyclopédie des Nuisances (1999).

7. On the “continuing decline of critical intelligence and the meaning of language brought about by the educational reforms implemented over the last thirty years”, see Jean-Claude Michéa, L’Enseignement de l’ignorance et ses conditions modernes, Climats (1999).

 

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