Friday, December 1, 2023

On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, Chapter 1

Summary of Chapter One: Genesis of the technical object: the process of concretization

From previous experience with Simondon I expected him to be very dense and hard to follow, but at least in this chapter he was not. He comes straight at you with his precise and distinct terminology (“concretization,” “individualization,” etc.) but always provides definitions for his terms, often multiple times. Much of the chapter is taken up with detailed description of diodes, tetrodes, and so on, which the reader can either 1) follow, if they understand it, or 2) ahem, sort of glaze over it, and wait for him to get around to saying, “and the moral is...,” which he reliably does. The chapter is also handily divided into four sections, each of which makes its own basic argument.

I. – The abstract technical object and the concrete technical object. Concretization is the process of change from the abstract technical object to the concrete (or more concrete) one. Abstraction corresponds at the same time to the representation of an engine (for example) on a blackboard as it is explained to students (27), and to the “primitive” stage of technology in the system of artisanal production. Each of the elements of the engine, in the abstract stage, performs one particular function, and there is no cohesion as a whole:

In the old engine each element intervenes at a certain moment in the cycle, and then is expected no longer to act upon the other elements; the pieces of the engine are like people who work together, each in their own turn, but who do not know each other.

The abstract machine, with these separately acting parts, is inefficient in that certain possibilities are unexplored, and also because the different parts cause various kinds of interference, etc. so that they have to develop “defense structures” to protect their own zone against the action of the other parts. In contrast, the concrete machine is illustrated by cooling fins, which originally had performed the sole purpose of cooling, but have evolved to also add strength to the cylinder head, allowing for a lighter, thinner construction; “this unique structure is not a compromise, but a concomitance and a convergence” (28). The elements of the concrete machine thus play multiple functions as part of the same machine, interacting with other parts in unison or cooperation, instead of each playing their own separate functions.

In outlining the process of concretization, as machines become more concrete, S is opposing the idea of simply categorizing them according to species and genera, and also to taking some given object, frozen in time, as the form in itself.

The gasoline engine is not this or that engine given in time and space, but the fact that there is a succession, a continuity that runs through the first engines to those we currently know and which are still evolving. (26)

To understand machines, then, we need to understand them as moments of this process of concretization.

II. – Conditions of technical evolution. “Technical evolution” and concretization are about fulfilling potentials that are already existent in the technical object or technology; thus, “it is not the production-line that produces standardization, but rather the intrinsic standardization that allows for the production-line to exist” (29). There are two points being made here. First, S is distinguishing between “extrinsic” causes and internal causes, as factors shaping the evolution of objects; his point is that “internal necessity” is the more important. Secondly, he is arguing that concretization tends to reveal or approach the essence of the object, which is that underlying, “intrinsic standardization” which replaces the “made-to-measure” variation of the artisanal era. Hence, the development from artisanal production to industrial production is driven by concretization, and a better understanding of a more evolved and “coherent” technical object (or system of technical objects). He gives the example of a customized automobile; this will, in its essence, be the same as any other automobile as far as the important parts are concerned, all that will be different are unimportant, superficial aspects: “what can be made to measure are inessential aspects, because they are contingent” (30). Too much of this frivolity can even hurt the car and make it less functional: “The made-to-measure aspect is not only inessential, it goes against the essence of the technical being, it is like a dead weight being attached from the outside.” This again ties back to the contrast between extrinsic causes (adding dead weight) and intrinsic functioning (which which the development of the machine approaches its essence).

Not unlike Wiener, Simondon seems to view capitalism, not as a key factor in modern industrial production, but as a somewhat unfortunate delusion or add-on, which complicates things frivolously, interfering with the serious work of engineers and scientists. He contrasts “economic constraints” (extrinsic) and “technical requirements” (intrinsic) in the development of technology, and notes that “it is mostly within the domains where technical constraints prevail over economic constraints (aviation, military equipment), that become the most active sites for progress” (31). [Yet somehow the presence of war, and of the State as a funding agent (removing in wartime, as in the cold war development of the computer, etc. the issue of “economic constraints” so that “technical constraints” can be explored) is not itself to be considered as an “extrinsic” factor? What would Virilio interject here?] “Economic causes are not pure, they interfere with a diffuse network of motivations and preferences that attenuate or even reverse them (a taste for luxury, … taste for very apparent novelty, commercial propaganda)” to the extent that “the technical object is known through social myths or fads in public opinion.” This results in irrational (and non-concretizing) design decisions influenced by marketers and the need to always project an image of novelty. His example is the elimination of a hand-crank as a backup way to start a car; this elimination actually involves making the engine more complicated, and is thus an unnecessary complication, not an improvement; yet the lack of a crank is presented as new, and a “nuance of ridicule is thus projected onto other cars” which continue to have cranks. “The automobile, a technical object charged with psychic and social inferences, is not suitable for technical progress” (32); the auto becomes a kind of technological leech, borrowing developments from less fettered domains, instead of being the site of development itself.

S outlines his arguably [saltationist] view of technological evolution, wherein concretization is not a continuous process, but proceeds through “successive systems of coherence,” “due to the progressive perfection of details resulting from experience and use”:

the play of limits, whose overcoming constitutes progress, resides in the incompatabilities that arise from the progressive saturation of the system of sub-ensembles… (32, emphasis in original)

“Saturation” will be discussed later in the chapter, but it seems to basically mean the filling out of the potentials of the technical object. The primitive technical object is non-saturated, because its possible lines of development and improvement remain abstract, unfulfilled. Saturation is thus part of the process of concretization but not identical with it, as it also leads to “incompatibilities” within each “system of coherence,” which need to be resolved by evolution to a new stage.

It is important that these difficulties get resolved rather than merely avoided (33), the latter of which involves the insertion of new palliative elements in a misguided attempt, a reversal to abstract thinking. “Genuine progress” involves stabilizing functioning without adding new structures: “The adjunction of a supplementary structure only constitutes genuine progress for the technical object if this structure incorporates itself concretely into the totality [ensemble] of dynamical schemas of functioning” (35).

The term axiomatic is used: “the dynamic system closes in on itself just as an axiomatic saturates” (36). According to Barthélémy’s glossary, “In Simondon, this notion does not designate a formal system as in the case of logico-mathematical axiomatics, but simply a set of principles, or first propositions, that enable the linking of fundamental concepts” (Barthélémy, 2012: 208). The axiomatic thus relates to what will be called later the “essence” of the technical object, and its working-out through concretization. The distinction between abstract and concrete is revisited, with a clear articulation:

in the abstract technical object, [each structure] only fulfills one essential and positive function, integrated into the functioning of the ensemble; in the concrete technical object, all the functions fulfilled by the structure are positive, essential, and integrated into the functioning of the whole; the marginal consequences of the functioning, eliminated or attenuated in the abstract technical object by corrective measures, become stages or positive aspects in the concrete object... (39)

S turns to the subject of “universal scientific knowledge,” which appears to be the sum total of scientific understanding at a given point in history (?). “The difference between the technical object and the physico-chemical system studied as an object only resides within the imperfection of the sciences,” a presaging of a later point he will make at the end of the chapter, regarding mechanology as a science that studies technical objects, the way physics, etc., study natural objects. The imperfection of scientific knowledge is linked to the unfinalizability of the process of concretization: “the technical object is never fully known; for this reason it is never fully concrete;” basically, concretization does not come to a conclusion, it simply continues endlessly (“unless it happens through a rare chance occurrence”).

There could have been a nice little debate between Braverman and Simondon over the role of science in the development of technology: S states that concretization is a “narrowing of the interval that separates the sciences and technology” (40), with the primitive artisanal stage showing a wide gap, and the industrial stage a narrower one. “The construction of a determinate technical object can only become industrial when this object has become concrete,” linking back to the earlier argument that the production line is made possible by “intrinsic standardization,” not standardization by the production line.

III. – The rhythm of technical progress; continuous and minor improvements; discontinuous and major improvements. The point of this section is to distinguish between major improvements, which “modify the distribution of functions, increasing the synergy of functioning in an essential way,” and minor improvements, which “without modifying this distribution, diminish the nocuous consequences of residual antagonisms” (42). The former constitute true progress towards concretization, but the latter “obstruct major improvements, because they mask the technical object’s true imperfections” with incomplete and temporary solutions which will need to be swept away for the next stage of coherence to be reached. “The path of minor improvements is one of detours” (43); they “hide behind a pile of complex palliatives” and “entertain a false consciousness of continuous progress” which is demanded by the “false novelty” of commerce and the market, not by the actual, discontinuous progress of actual concretization. The latter only occurs in “leaps,” in the form of “mutations.”

IV. – Absolute origin of the technical lineage. Simondon now raises the question as to whether an origin can be determined, as to when the progress of any technical object actually began. To be honest, I assumed the answer would be a resounding no, because of the antipathy of later scholars influenced by Simondon (viz., Deleuze and Guattari) to the idea of origins. However, Simondon is quite happy to talk about origins, and of essences to boot. So, the answer is yes, and he gives the example of the invention of the first diode as the “absolute beginning” that contained the technical essence of all the later inventions which would develop on, yet share the “technical essence” of, the diode (the technical essence of which is “assymetrical conductance” (45)). S reiterates a point he had made back at the beginning of the chapter, that it is not the context of use that determines the essence of the technical object, because often an object with a completely different history of development could be substituted, or an object can be adopted to a new use. Instead, it is the lineage of objects sharing this “pure schema of functioning” which form the technical object over time, as an object of mechanological study. The non-saturation of the initial invention gives it “fecundity,” meaning a large progeny or posterity of inventions that will proceed down the path of greater saturation. He defines technical essence:

A technical essence can be recognized by the fact that it remains stable across the evolving lineage, and not only stable, but also productive of structures and functions through internal development and progressive saturation ….” (46)

There is a lot of use of language I can’t help but think of as mystifying/fetishizing, after the manner of Marx’s wooden table that creates itself instead of being created by human labor: “the technical object alters and changes its structure,” it “evolves by generating a family.” He is of course trying to emphasize how this path of development is not due (or not due solely) to the chance whims or insights of human inventors and tinkerers (as could perhaps have been said for the artisanal era), but unfolds according to its own intrinsic causality, or essence. But when he calls this “natural technical evolution,” this sounds a lot like one of those schemes of cultural evolution which, though modeled on the status and model of the theory of evolution by natural selection, share one major difference from it, which is that the latter is completely non-teleological. For all Simondon’s numerous disagreements with Aristotle, it is interesting that he here seems to clearly adopt a concept like that of telos, to the extent that the technical object develops, in accordance with its intrinsic essence, from abstract to concrete, in much the same way as Aristotle’s acorn becomes an oak tree.

He concludes the chapter by showing how the previous discussion is meant to ground the proposed science of mechanology, and improve upon the insights of the cyberneticists. “Concretization gives the technical object an intermediate place between the natural object and the scientific representation,” (49), i.e., between the natural world and abstract knowledge. Natural objects have an inherent coherence; concretized technical objects also have a coherence, although this has been developed over time, yet this means the concretized technical object “comes closer to the mode of existence of natural objects” than does the primitive object or scientific abstraction. He tangents into an interesting discussion of artificiality, how, for example, a greenhouse plant that has been modified to produce flowers but no fruit counts as an artificial, not a natural object, in a path of development which is the opposite of that of concretization: “Artificialization is a process of abstraction within the artificial object.”

In any event, “By existing, [concretized technical objects] prove the viability and stability of a certain structure that has the same status as a natural structure,” because obviously made possible by natural laws, even if they had to be brought into existence through human invention instead of being found in nature (50). This is what makes them fitting objects of mechanology. However, it is important to understand that these technical objects are still distinct from natural objects, and particularly from living beings. This is the heart of his disagreement with Wiener and the cyberneticists, who reasoned by analogy from automata to posit that machines and living creatures are all simply types of self-regulating systems. (Simondon is also against this kind of reasoning by “external” analogy). Cybernetics is “partially inefficient as an inter-scientific study” due to its “initial postulate concerning the identity between living beings and self-regulating technical objects” (51). However, this is to confuse natural objects, which “are concrete to begin with,” with technical objects which only become so through the process of concretization, and the study of this process itself (rather than jumping to the end and treating them like natural objects) needs to be part of their study.

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