Monday, October 9, 2023

On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, Introduction

Gilbert Simondon (2017 [1958]), On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

Summary of Introduction (and other prefatory matter)

Simondon lays out his agenda, which is “introducing a knowledge into culture that is adequate to technical objects” (xv). S sees culture largely in terms of a regulatory function:

a culture establishes regulatory communication among those who share that culture; arising from the life of the group, culture animates the gestures of those who ensure the command functions, by providing norms and schemas. (19)

The problem is that our cultural vision of technical objects is outdated, and needs to be brought up to date. However, certain illusions or prejudices prevent this from happening. “Culture is unbalanced” because while some objects (viz. aesthetic objects) are privileged, others, in particular technical objects, are seen as only having a “utility function.” A false opposition is set up between “man and machine” (15), which results in two somewhat diametrically opposed misconceptions. The first is misoneism, or fear of the new; S asserts this is really a rejection of the foreignness which the machine is mistaken as; in reality, the machine is “the stranger in which something human is locked up, misunderstood, materialized, enslaved, and yet which nevertheless remains human all the same” (16).

The opposite error is technofetishism, which, failing to find a proper way to understand the technical object, comes to treat it as a sacred object. S has some choice words for this “idolatry of the machine,” and its associated “technocratic aspiration to unconditioned power”:

The man who wants to dominate his peers calls the android machine into being. He thus abdicates before it and delegates his humanity to it. He seeks to construct a thinking machine, dreams of being able to build a volition machine, a living machine, in order to retreat behind it without anxiety, freed of all danger, exempt from all feelings of weakness, and triumphant through the mediation of what he invented.

However, this machine-as-substitute for the human, which Simondon terms the robot, is a myth, a mere illusion: “the robot does not exist.” Both those who celebrate it and keep trying to bring it to life, and those who fear it and its presumed “hostile intentions toward man” (17) are mistaken based on their respective misunderstandings of the mode of existence of technical objects.

S bases this argument in part on a distinction between automatism and the margin of indeterminacy. Automatism he sees as a closed system, in which a machine completes a predesignated task without any further input. Such a closed system “must sacrifice a number of possibilities of operation as well as numerous possible usages.” In contrast, the margin of indeterminacy is the openness of the machine to outside information. Part of his point is thus that automation limits, rather than fully enabling, the productive and progressive capacities of machines. There is presumably a continuum between relative automatism and relative openness; otherwise S’s terminology would have a hard time accounting for modern machine learning, etc. In any event the openness or margin of indeterminacy of machines are what makes machines amenable to interconnection or communication between machines, which S calls an ensemble; he imagines humans as necessarily involved in the management and operation of these by humans, as the “permanent organizer” (17) and “interpreter” (18). Simondon appears to take for granted that there will necessarily always be a ["human in the loop."]

S goes through several subject positions, arguing why each is incapable of coming up with a new and more accurate “awareness of technical reality,” to disseminate into the culture: workers who work with machines, managers who oversee them, and technically-oriented scientists are all dismissed. What is needed is a social scientist, someone who will be like “a sociologist or psychologist of machines” (19). Simondon thus proposes the new science of mechanology, the goals of which will be to remove the man-machine divide as a source of alienation, and restore the regulatory function of culture in regard to machines. This will be done through an exploration of the three “levels” of technical objects: element, individual, and ensemble (20). An understanding of these three levels corresponds to stages in the historical development of modern technology:

1. The level of element does not cause anxiety; it corresponds to the “climate of eighteenth century optimism, and the idea of constant progress or technical improvement.” Tools apparently fall under this category; “man had centralized technical individuality within himself at a time when only tools existed” (21).

2. The individual level, however, “becomes for a certain time the adversary of man, his competitor” (21). Unlike the tool, the machine replaces the human worker. This goes along with a [dominant ideology] with a ‘dramatic and impassioned notion of progress, which turns into the rape of nature, the conquest of the world, and the exploitation of energies.” With this last, White’s Law or the Kardashev scale spring to mind, though S goes on to locate this ideology in “the technophile and technocratic excesses of the thermodynamic era,” and it is not clear from his usage here if that refers to the 19th century industrial revolution only, or refers to that as a sort of foundational era on which the present is premised. [Because surely this “rape of nature” is still ongoing!].

3. Ensembles come into existence in the 20th century, and the supplanting of the “thermodynamic energeticism” of the previous level is replaced by information theory [and cybernetics]; it seems that the proper mode of understanding of this level is yet to come, through the success of mechanology, and the spread of its insights through the education system.

So to provisionally summarize, we as a culture understand the first level, but are stuck there; we misunderstand the second level, resulting in all kinds of alienation, anxiety, and environmental destruction; finally, we have not yet (as of S’s writing, in 1958) grasped or adequately imagined the final level of the ensemble. The point of mechanology is to get us there:

The machine, as an element of the technical ensemble, becomes that which increases the quantity of information, increases negentropy, and opposes the degradation of energy; the machine, being a work of organization and information, is like life itself and together with life, that which is opposed to disorder, to the leveling of all things tending to deprive the universe of the power of change. The machine is that through which man fights against the death of the universe; it slows down the degradation of energy, as life does, and becomes a stabilizer of the world.

Reputedly this book is in part a rejoinder to Wiener’s writings, and we can see here the same theme of life as order, opposed to death as disorder. There is also the same anxiety regarding this whole “death of the universe;" ironically, given that S’s critique of technofetishism evoked a certain anxiety of the alienated technophile to create a robot to hide behind. The difference appears to be not that the anxiety has been resolved, but that it has become collective (“man” and “universe” as opposed to selfish individual subjects), and that it is based on an accurate understanding of the three levels. So far, many of the concerns and issues which S promises to address are strikingly relevant to the current day, and now and then it is easy to forget that this book was written in the 1950s.

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