Gilbert Simondon, Save the Technical Object, 1983

The following is an English translation of a 1983 interview that Simondon gave to the French magazine Esprit #76, april 1983.

Anita Kechickian: In 1958 you wrote about alienation produced by non-knowledge of the technical object. Do you always have this in mind as you continue your research?

Gilbert Simondon: Yes, but I amplify it by saying that the technical object must be saved. It must be rescued from its current status, which is miserable and unjust. This status of alienation lies, in part, with notable authors such as Ducrocq, who speaks of “technical slaves”. It is necessary to change the conditions in which it is located, in which it is produced and where it is used primarily because it is used in a degrading manner. The automobile, a technical subject that everyone uses, is something that fades in a few years because the paint is not intended to resist weathering, and because it is often after electric welding points have been made that at the interior of the assembly of the body there develops a rust which demolishes a car in a few years, whereas the engine is still good. This fact leads to the loss of the entire building of technics. It is a similar crushing that I stand against.

Anita Kechickian: Don’t you take the alienation of man into account?

Gilbert Simondon: Sure, but other researchers are working here. I am thinking in particular about the movements of our physiocratic contemporaries (environmentalists) who deal in saving the human, to give it a way for liberation. Only they are not interested here, or very little, and so the technical object remains neglected.

Anita Kechickian: Who cares then?

Gilbert Simondon: Many people, often by profession, like engineers and technicians. There are also merchants, but they are perhaps not those who care for the better, they speak with ulterior motives. I saw an advertisement extolling the skirts of a certain automobile. This kind of embellishment of the technical object by something other than the same technicity should be refused. I agree that the technical object is aestheticized and eroticized, but inside its own margin of indeterminacy. Indeed, not everything coalesces in the technical object and blurs can be cleared by a better understanding that is not only functional but pleasing to the eye. A sill is not in itself a technical object. It has no functionality of its own. It does its functionality on a car. This is why I believe that there should not be a reason to sell.

Anita Kechickian: To what do you attribute this alienation of the technical object?

Gilbert Simondon: It comes mainly from what is produced to be sold. And to prices well above its cost. In an automobile, the need for plates planed, that is to say, surfaced in a pleasant way, is half the price and given to appearance. There is something wrong here. In this sense, a truck seems more pure perspective, aesthetic and technical, than a passenger car.

Anita Kechickian: In other words, the technical object has become a commodity, an other?

Gilbert Simondon: There is an enormous waste the technician himself or the manufacturer encourages. The path of non-waste already exists – energy for example – but there is a kind of frenzy of novelty which is a real monstrosity. The motorcycle has long been an object stripped. Today it has become an object of consumption; it changes from one year to another, adornments of color, chrome plating or design in a certain order. So it ends “dated” even though it is not outdated from the point of view of its essential characteristics.

Anita Kechickian: What, then, would be a strictly technical novelty?

Gilbert Simondon: The main improvements. For example, it would be much better, rather than changing the shape of the rack of a motorcycle, to make double brakes acting simultaneously on the front wheel and the rear wheel. There are so many things unresolved and that would be more positive to study, among others, security.

Anita Kechickian: You oppose simple changes and inventions, only creations are technical?

Gilbert Simondon: Indeed. Similarly there is a risk in all creation; I think there is a risk in technics. It is certain that the inflation of technical objects currently is one, if only the arms of overconsumption. That is why I said earlier, it’s a question of saving the technical object, just as it is the question of human salvation in the Scriptures. I believe there are humans in the technical objects, and that the alienated human can be saved on the condition that man is caring for them. It must in particular never condemn them. In the Old Testament, there is a sort of jealousy of Yahweh toward the creature. And we say that transgresses the creature. But is not all creation a transgression? I think transgression, whose origin is the serpent, is the creation of a person. If Adam and Eve never left the Garden of Eden they would have not become human beings or inventors. Their one son was a shepherd, the other a farmer. Techniques were born there. Finally, technics and transgression seem to be the same. Blacksmiths were once considered as cursed.

Anita Kechickian: Transgression is still possible in the modern world that values change and innovation?

Gilbert Simondon: This is the case of the engineer at Ford, loaded with others to explore packing machinery tires, who declared that nothing needed such packing and that it was unnecessary to wrap them. He transgressed because he was there to discuss equipment and he recognized it as useless.

Anita Kechickian: In this case, can one say that technology, i.e. the study of technical reality, relates only to its invention or genesis? Gilbert Simondon: Technology is a true reinvention. As there are different forms of technological progress, there are several types of technologies. She is forced, step by step, in the induction when she sees a problem that has to be solved inductively. Knowledge is obliged to imitate this process to some extent. If the study is inductive, it is that its subject has been done several times. For example, the mineshaft is not a reality that was complete the first time. From 1550 until today, there have followed a series of improvements. At first there were inclined wells where there were steps. Then wells were made, increasingly, which passed enclosed loads considered more important, air, etc. However, we can know the technical object by deduction when it is invented as a consequence of an axiomatic. For example, the radio was invented by a scientist. One can think of that deductively from the spread provided by Maxwell, the displacement current.

Anita Kechickian: The inferred object is first an object of thought. Are there not, thereby, any drawbacks?

Gilbert Simondon: This is the link to the actual thing missing in the deduction. To mimic the land surface conditions of space flight, U.S. researchers have destroyed three pilots: they powered the cabin in pure oxygen [trans. Simondon is probably referring to the Cape Canaveral disaster of 1981, in which three STS-1 workers, not pilots, died from anoxia]. The cosmos, weightless, can supply pure oxygen as a possible outbreak of fire, burning on the spot without spreading and without heating (lack of convection), but the ground situation of the test makes it terribly dangerous because even the metal of the cabin can burn. A simulation model might have avoided the accident. Similarly, judging the Titanic unsinkable because of its being provided watertight was an incomplete deduction. The fact, though exceptional, that an iceberg tore the hull 80 meters was not expected. The deduction is necessary but not sufficient because it is rigid and incomplete. I think there are steps in technical progress and the last is one where we make the object as harmless as possible. It is not coming from the hands of the déducteur.

Anita Kechickian: Are these the only modes of invention?

Gilbert Simondon: There is a third way of progress that I try to think through; the notion of transductivity (transductivité). It is the passage of an assembly consisting in a set. In this sense, something is transductive which is transmitted to the next, which eventually propagates with amplification. It is the passage of the triode (electron tube) to the transistor, that is to say, from one system to another where voltages and currents are not the same. Another example would be an aircraft engine from, without doubt, the motorcycle engine; lightweight, reliable and not requiring water cooling. In all cases we use an analogy where the real differences are taken into account and not a simple approximate reasoning.

Anita Kechickian: Just now you mentioned environmentalists. Is there not, in some of them, a new design technique? I think of the sun.

Gilbert Simondon: Solar is the future because it is the only virtually inexhaustible energy. Environmentalists believe the technique as being in accordance with nature. It is antitechnocratique. All that I ask these movements is not to reject mystical technicity. They need to learn scientific ecologists, such as Dumont, e.g., conditions under which the technical object does not damage nature. If plowing the soil has a laterization trend, it depletes the earth in a few years. What works is the plow that prevents it from becoming brick. I totally agree on the necessity to adapt the technical object to nature.

Anita Kechickian: But should not it also be adapted to humans?

Gilbert Simondon: Probably, this is why I remember the idea of “conviviality” in which Illich states that technical objects must be made for man and not enslave him. Here we can greet the appearance on the market of certain tools made for women, weaker but faster, who can use them. Conversely, we should not introduce technical strength in a population that does not want it. This is Illich’s reproach; the technics he fears is in the impact in a given society. It must be noted that testing plowing with a tractor and plow was done during the colonial era, where it was attempted to introduce heavy agriculture in an area where it was catastrophic. The plow that does that move without turning the soil (like a harrow) is adapted not only to a population that restricts the use, but also a country, its geological conditions.

Anita Kechickian: So there are companies who refuse certain technics. Is it possible to be insensitive to technical objects?

Gilbert Simondon: Yes. So-called primitive objects are often insensitive to technics. Sometimes they are interested, but in a way that is beyond us. In New Zealand, for example, native species build control towers and runways, hoping that a plane lands in their village. They believe that the airplanes are the product of the work of their ancestors, and they belong to them. That is why they want to reach them on land. Then, for the attempt, they make their way. This is a variant of a “cargo cult” [trans. The phenomena of new religious practices in pre-industrial cultures after a confrontation with modern technology].

Anita Kechickian: Between indifference and overestimation is there an inherent value to a technical object?

Gilbert Simondon: On this point the traditions differ. The Old Testament does not seem to recognize technics as a value other than utilitarian. In other cultures you find, for example, the myth of Prometheus, which is not at all the same. I think, for me, the technical object has several values. Firstly, it is something that comes from a very ancient human activity, and that is likely the one that pulled us away from barbarism. But there is also the value that is the result of a realization of our human origin.

Anita Kechckian: Finally, what merits saving in the universe of technology?

Gilbert Simondon: What deserves to be saved is the heart of each of the inventions. If the steam locomotive deserves to be saved it is less for its large boiler than for the ability to stop anything from continuing to roll, by simple reversal of the steam. This allows slow, light touches without the risk of derailing the machine (with the Stephenson slide, in particular). We must keep the material from the past because it represents a possibility of recovery, and not just to establish an archeology. Faraday’s transformer (1831) was in the shape of a torus. From 1870-1880, the construction industry retains cubic shapes. It is only because of the requirements, high-fidelity, and best yields that we returned to the toroidal transformers. Thus the form of the torus invented by Faraday was not intended to be included in the museums dedicated to the beginning of the technical; it was a rational form deserving to be resumed. Technics are never completely and forever in the past. They contain a power that is schematic, inalienable, and that deserves to be conserved and preserved.

Translated by Andrew Iliadis.

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