Francis (2010). Perspectives on Technology. (The Technological Imperative in Canada)

Francis, R. D. (2010). Perspectives on Technology. In The Technological Imperative in Canada: An Intellectual History (pp. 9–27). University of British Columbia Press.

“… the historical and intellectual evolution of technology, first perceived as objects and then, by the advent of the Industrial Revolution, as machines, from prehistoric times to the twentieth century. … As early as the sixteenth century, technology had come to be seen as a form of knowledge. … Francis Bacon … [page break] … knowledge was power, and technical knowledge was the greatest source of intellectual power. … Martin Heidegger, distinguished German philosopher of technology, provided the first significant analysis of technology as volition, noting in his seminal essay ‘The Question Concerning Technology’ the ways in which it shapes the values and beliefs of the modern age. French theorist Jacques Ellul explored the subject further, especially the idea of technology as a _mentalité_ that was itself technologically induced, in his important study entitled _The Technological Society_.” (p 9-10)

“… the perspective of technology from one of the four broad categories of machines, knowledge, process, and volition.” (p 10)

“… Lewis Mumford … differentiated between machines as specific objects, such as the printing press or the power loom, and ‘the machine’ as a ‘shorthand reference to the entire technological complex.'” (p 10)

[Mumford …]

“… the ‘megamachine’ — has been collective human power, initially used to build the Egyptian pyramids, for example, and later used as large-scale armies. … he maintained that machines have both shaped the culture of the society from which they developed (far more than has been recognized by the people within that society and analysts since) and, more importantly, were themselves shaped by humans through a cultural context of the time.” (p 11)

“Mumford argued that machines came to dominate human life to a greater extent than ever before or since, making humans quantifiable entities valued only for their productivity.” (p 11)

[Mumford …]

“… the ‘megamachine’ — has been collective human power, initially used to build the Egyptian pyramids, for example, and later used as large-scale armies. Second, he maintained that machines have both shaped the culture of the society from which they developed (far more than has been recognized by the people within that society and analysts since) and, more importantly, were themselves shaped by humans through a cultural context of the time.” (p 12)

[Mumford …]

“‘…By renouncing a large part of his humanity, a man could achieve godhood: he dawned on this second chaos and created the machine in his own image: the image of power, but power ripped loose from his flesh and isolated from his humanity.'” (p 12)

“Because of Mumford’s persistence in seeing technology and culture as an interactive dynamic, he remained essentially optimistic about the ability of humans to control technology. … society in general was allowing technology to come under the control of an elite intent on creating a utopia that would be authoritarian and uniform rather than liberating. Mumford noted with concern that we are moving toward the age of ‘megatechnics’ when ‘the dominant minority will create a uniform, all-enveloping, super-planetary structure, designed for automatic operation. Instead of functioning actively as an autonomous personality, man will become a passive, purposeless, machine-conditioned animal, whose proper functions … will either be fed into the machine or strictly limited and controlled for the benefit of depersonalized, collective organizations.'” (p 13)

“Bacon, who has been called the first philosopher of industrial science, believed that technical knowledge, what was then called the ‘mechanical arts,’ was the most powerful and useful form of knowledge, superior in every way to scholastic discourse. Technical knowledge held the possibility of conquering nature by eliminating its vagaries and unpredictability and overcoming the devastation of human life through flood, famine, disease, and pestilence. Bacon maintained that scholastic knowledge, by comparison, saw physical nature as shaping human nature, thus becoming bogged down on issues of morality that he believed had no place in dealing [page break] with technology.” (p 13-14)

“Bacon’s faith in technology as knowledge and power continues into the present. It can be found in the teachings of schools of the practical arts and schools of engineering and in our belief that with each new invention and the accumulation and integration of new technical knowledge the world comes closer to a state of perfection.” (p 14)

“From that starting point, technology as knowledge evolved to the point at which it has now become one of the sacred and unquestioned truths of our modern value system, so much so, in fact, that it has created its own idols — what Leiss calls ‘the idols of technology’…” (p 14)

[Galbraith …]

“He called this technical knowledge ‘technostructure’ and noted that it had replaced capital as the crucial factor of production. This technostructure, created and sustained by technology, has its own imperative that may appear less threatening than power structures in the past, since power resides in many experts in a corporation rather than in one individual. However, these techno-corporations with their collective technical expertise, Galbraith pointed out, wield infinitely more power than any individual could have hoped to wield in the past. … He also noted the difficulty in the modern world of controlling the technical will to power because it is invisible, complex, and diverse. … Galbraith argued that ‘we are becoming the servants in thought, as in action, of the machine we have created to serve us.'” (p 15)

“It also poses the danger of seeing technology as a mammoth and autonomous entity — a somewhat friendly Frankenstein — over which humans have little control and technical knowledge as the only worthy kind of knowledge to acquire. [page break] … is only one form of knowledge and not necessarily the best at coming to terms with complex social problems arising out of the very technology that needs to be studied and addressed.” (p 15-16)

“From Bacon onward, a host of social reformers and utopianists alike have seen in technology the panacea to the multiplicity of ills besetting society, many of which are, ironically, the direct results of the very technology that has become the object of faith.” (p 16)

“… workers became slaves to the machines. They reacted by fighting the machines, by railing against the system that created the machines, through riots and strikes, and by denouncing the capitalists who controlled and benefited from the system. What is impressive about Marx’s analysis is his ability to show the multifaceted ways that machine technology in the form of a mechanized industrial system had an impact on all aspects of society, especially on the working class. … In Marx’s mind, industrialism and the accompanying process of mechanization were value-neutral; as to the outcome, it depended in whose hands the power of technology resided.” (p 17)

“Thus, Giedion also maintained, like Mumford, that technology in the form of mechanization is the by-product of a particular mindset that emerged in the modern world — a mindset that saw the world in mechanistic terms, that measured everything in quantitative as opposed to qualitative terms, that put a premium on utilitarian over spiritual values, and that had as its ultimate goal the rational, systematic, and calculated mechanization of the organic and inorganic, natural and human worlds.” (p 18)

“Heralding Marshall McLuhan’s later theories on communication [page break] technology, Giedion argued that new mediums create new values and new modes of imagination.” (p 18-19)

“For Giedion, change is the one ‘constant’ in the modern world of technology. … Our modern concept of motion has its roots, he argued, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the belief that the world was created at a point in time — _ex nihilo_ — ‘and set in motion by an act of will.’ … By the nineteenth century, movement forward became associated with progress.” (p 19)

“Volition refers to ‘the aims, intentions, desires, and choices’ that humans see in and bring to technology. The term assumes that technology in itself is neutral; its value depends on its uses.” (p 20)

“In ‘The Question Concerning Technology,’ Heidegger went further, arguing that technology … is ‘a kind of truth, a kind of revealing or disclosing of what is.’ … modern technology (beginning with the Industrial Revolution) reveals by ‘challenging,’ a ‘setting upon,’ nature.” (p 20)

“Heidegger also argued that nature too became an object of manipulation (his ‘setting upon’ in the modern technological age). He called this perspective _Gestell_ (‘enframing’), which is the technological attitude toward the world and thus the essence of the modern mindset.” (p 21)

“However, _Gestell_, or ‘setting upon’ and ‘challenging,’ occurs not only toward nature but also toward humans themselves. ‘The essence of modern technology,’ Heidegger wrote, ‘starts man upon the way of that revealing through which the real everywhere, more or less distinctly, becomes _Bestand_ [`stock,` `standing-reserve,` things `in supply`].’ … This way of thinking or perceiving is ‘the modern volitional stance towards the world.’ Because it is itself ‘technologically based,’ this mindset is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get outside of to view objectively. Hence, Heidegger referred to it as ‘the supreme danger.'” (p 21)

“As Gregory Bruce Smith notes, for Heidegger, ‘modern technology is no mere instrumentality that man can consciously and rationally control by imposing “values” upon it. We stand within its mode of revealing and cannot stand outside it.'” (p 22)

“Thus, in coming to terms with the meaning of art, we come closer to understanding the essence of technology and, paradoxically, better able to rise above it to see it for what it is — its essence.” (p 22)

“According to Ellul, to use the term ‘technology’ in speaking of the modern world is to misunderstand its pervasive nature, because the term has come to be associated with machines, whereas the world of technology is much more than machines. … He provided a definition of technique in a ‘Note to the Reader,’ a section in the revised edition of his text, published in 1967: ‘The term _technique_, as I use it, does not mean machines, technology, or this or that procedure for attaining an end. In our technological society, _technique_ is the _totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency_ (for a given stage of development) in _every_ field of human activity.” (p 23)

“Ellul described rationality, the second concept, as a process by which ‘mechanics is brought to bear on all that is spontaneous or irrational.’ Examples of rationality, he noted, are ‘systematization, division of labor, creation of standards, [and] production norms.’ All are characterized by ‘the reduction of method to its logical dimension alone. Every intervention of technique is, in effect, a reduction of facts, forces, phenomena, means, and instruments to the schema of logic.'” (p 24)

“Self-augmentation is the ability of technique to pursue its own course without the decisive intervention by human beings, because of an unquestioning faith in technical progress as inherently good. Monism is the fact that the ‘technical phenomenon, embracing all the separate techniques, forms a whole.’ Technical universalism is the ability of technique to pervade the whole world and equally to master _all_ the qualitative elements of civilization, including art, literature, and religion. … The fourth characteristic is autonomy, by which technique becomes an end in itself to be achieved by its own means. In such a technological world, humans only begin the operation without participating in it,” (p 24)

“Ellul argued that technique has not only created a modern age that is totally different from any previous age but has also created ‘a new man,’ who must fit into a world that is not of his own making and that runs counter to his ‘human nature.’ Ellul noted, for example, ‘He was made to go six kilometers an hour, and he goes a thousand. He was made to eat when he was hungry and to sleep when he was sleepy; instead, he obeys a clock.” (p 24)

“… systems designers, and the most sophisticated of these with regard to the rise of technology is Norbert Wiener in his science of cybernetics.” (p 25)

“The assumption underlying cybernetics is that ‘society can only be understood through a study of the messages and the communication facilities which belong to it; and that in the future development of these messages and communication facilities, messages between man and machines, between machines and man, and between machine and machine, are destined to play an ever-increasing part.'” (p 25)

“‘When human atoms are knit into an organization in which they are used, not in their full right as responsible human beings, but as cogs and levers and rods,’ they are machines” (p 26)

Selected References

  • Bacon, F. (2000). The new organon (1620). The Works of Francis Bacon, eds. James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis, and Douglas Denon Heath (London: Longman’s and Green, 1858), 5, 87.
  • Butler, S. (1974). Erewhon. Penguin UK.
  • Ellul, J. (1964). The technological society.
  • Galbraith, J. K. (1967). New Industrial State, The. Antitrust L. & Econ. Rev., 1, 11.
  • Heidegger, M. (1954). The question concerning technology. Technology and values: Essential readings, 99-113.
  • Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and Time. 1927. Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper.
  • Leiss, W. (1990). Under technology’s thumb. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
  • Marx, K. (1967). Capital: a critique of political economy, 3 vols.
  • Mumford, L. (1934). Technics and civilization. Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Mumford, L. (1952). Art and Technics.
  • Mumford, L. (1956) The Transformations of Man. New York.
  • Mumford, L. (1967). The Myth of the Machine: Technics and human development. Harcourt, Brace & World.
  • Mumford, L. (1970). The myth of the machine [Vol. 2], The pentagon of power. Harcourt, Brace & World.
  • Siegfried, G. (1948). Mechanization takes command.
  • Wiener, N. (1948). Cybernetics, or Communication and Control in the Animal and the Machine. New York.
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