Saturday, January 6, 2024

On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, Chapter 2

Summary of Chapter Two: Evolution of Technical Reality; Element, Individual, Ensemble

I. Hypertely and self-conditioning in technical evolution

“Hypertely” (or “hypertelia”) is a word with a fascinating history, apparently beginning in Lamarckian evolutionary theory. Many sources (e.g., Merriam-Webster) give definitions such as “an extreme degree of imitative coloration or ornamentation not explainable on the ground of utility,” but those are examples of hypertely, not definitions. The main point seems to be evolution to a degree or direction which is not really adaptive: over-specialization; Pierre Jolivet (2008: 1897) summarizes hypertely as “beyond the bounds of the useful,” while pointing out that alleged cases of hypertely can be better explained by natural selection (and it is thus interesting to consider how Simondon’s thinking on evolution was affected by non-synthesis strands which apparently survived longer in France than elsewhere (Boesiger 1980). The concept seems to have remained much more popular in France than in the US; Baudrillard, for example, uses it to refer to processes like cancer, capitalism, and so on, which have “no other end than limitless increase, without any consideration of limits” (Baudrillard 1990: 52).

Commentators on Simondon seem to get two related meanings out of his usage, both of which are referenced by Stiegler in Technics and Time. The first, and most broad, is “functional over-adaptation” (53); an example that comes to mind would be a Christmas present of pot-holders that fit over the end of the pot’s handles, thus being specialized and useful in particular circumstances, but less widely useful than square flat potholders, which could be used for the same purpose, and many others. (It seems likely that such hypertely is more common among Christmas presents compared to other objects). The second, more particular, sense, is that in which hypertely “limits the object’s indetermination by leaving it dependent upon an artificial milieu” (Stiegler 1998: 78). Simondon’s example is a transport glider, which can only fly with the assistance of a tow plane (54). “Indetermination” in the Stiegler quote refers to the openness of the technical object to be adapted to a broader range of uses, or to further technical evolution; the “artificial milieu” is a technological milieu upon which the object is dependent, and thus stands in contrast to the associated milieu, which it carries with itself, thus making the technical object more autonomous. 

S starts the chapter (53) by noting that the “schema that constitutes the essence of the technical object” can adapt in two ways: first, it can adapt to the “material and human conditions of production;” and second, to “the task for which it is made.” The second leads to overspecialization and hypertely. S then adds that there are two kinds of hypertely: 1) “a fine-tuned adaptation to well-defined conditions without breaking the technical object up and without a loss of autonomy” (e.g., the specialized pot-holders?) and 2) “a breaking up of the technical object” (54), as in the case of the transport glider and tow plane. He then describes a third kind, of “mixed hypertely,” in which the object becomes dependent on a particular environment to function. This leads to a distinction between two kinds of milieux or worlds: the geographical milieu and the technical milieu (55); the technical object is involved in both, at their meeting point: the two worlds act on each other through the technical object, which is “to a certain extent determined by human choice, attempting to realize the best possible compromise between these two worlds.” 

“The evolution of technical objects can only become progress insofar as these technical objects are free in their evolution and not pushed by necessity in the direction of a fatal hypertely” (58). There thus needs to be a third, “techno-geographic” milieu which allows for the “self-conditioning” of the object, that is, its evolution according to its schema or whatever, instead of imposed external conditions or whatever. Sorry if I sound like I’m not fully buying it here. At the end of this section S takes up the role of human intelligence, which will be explored in more detail subsequently.

II. Technical invention: ground and form in the living and in inventive thought.

S summarizes his argument so far:

We can therefore affirm that the individualization of technical beings is the condition of technical progress. This individualization is made possible by the recurrence of causality within a milieu that the technical being creates around itself and that conditions it, just as it is conditioned by it. This simultaneously technical and natural milieu can be called the associated milieu. (59)

Thus, individualization is a matter of increased autonomy, the technical object being able to re/act by itself in relation to its “associated milieu.” The “recurrence of causality” within this milieu is what allows for “self-conditioning,” which either means self-maintenance/homeostasis, or evolution, or both (if the former, it is a condition for the latter). The argument is in some ways a more sophisticated development on the cyberneticists’ interest in feedback, adding in the relationship between individual and milieu, and the insistence that these should be understood in time, as part of an “evolution.” 

“Invention” is distinguished by S from gradual development, apparently in line with his [saltationist] vision of technical evolution (the term he actually uses is “serrated” evolution). “The only technical objects that can be said to have been invented, strictly speaking, are those that require an associated milieu in order to be viable; these cannot in fact be constituted part by part via the phases of successive evolution, because they can exist only as a whole or not at all.” The example of the Guimbal turbine, from the previous chapter, is given again here as an example. “The reason the living being can invent is because it is an individual being that carries its associated milieu with it” in the form of culture, material culture, technical knowledge, etc.; this allows the [human] individual inventor to see beyond the present conditions to imagine a not-yet-existent future which then affects the present in a “reverse conditioning in time” (60).

The translators point out a key pun or word-play in the title of this section: the French term “fond et forme,” which normally means “content and form,” here is used by Simondon as a reference to Gestalt theory, and thus to mean “ground and form.” Much like it is necessary to understand the technical object in terms of its milieu, so is it necessary to understand form as contrasted against its ground; but here (in the case of invention),

the ground is the system of virtualities, of potentials, forces that carve out their own path, whereas forms are the system of actuality. Invention is the taking charge of the system of actuality through the system of virtualities... (61)

[I made a note that articulation in discourse works similarly, on the “form” of the present in terms of possible futures or alternative “systems of actuality.”] S continues to talk about symbolization and alienation, both of which will be returned to later; he ends the section with some remarks on the relations between organs and organisms.

III. Technical individualization.

In this short section S explores the relations between element, individual, and ensemble, starting by clarifying the distinction between a technical individual (of which the associated milieu is a necessary aspect of its functioning) and a mere “collection of organized individuals” working together, the latter of which is an ensemble. He explores the example of a laboratory as ensemble to show that the ensemble does not have a “truly associated milieu” (65); this appears to be because the different machines, experiments, etc. which are part of or can be done in the laboratory require different setups, cannot be allowed to interfere with each other, and so on, and thus the laboratory-as-milieu for these experiments or processes is adapted or changed in particular ways for each. There are nevertheless “relative levels of individualization” present (64), so the ensemble can contain relatively individualized sub-ensembles. This relativity of individualization extends as well to “infra-individual technical objects” (66).

IV. Evolutionary succession and preservation of technicity. Law of relaxation.

The “law of relaxation” has to do with causality within S’s theory of the  “serrated evolution” of technology, which means evolution that is not continuous but rather proceeds in stages, each of which apparently has its own “solidarity” or coherence or whatever. He illustrates this through the history of energy sources, with the pre- or proto-industrial artisanal stage powered by waterfalls, wind, and animal power (68). Within this era thermodynamic elements are invented, leading to the development of thermodynamic machines/individuals such as the steam engine, resulting in the transition, with thermodynamic ensembles such as factories and industrial centralization, to the succeeding thermodynamic or industrial era. [And it seems that “thermodynamic” applies here not only to the source of power but to the thinking that organizes this era.] Out of the thermodynamic ensemble emerges electrotechnics, which follows the same basic pattern, resulting in a new electrotechnical era, in which (in an interesting observation) the role of the railroad in spatially organizing and distributing production and relations in the thermodynamic era, is now played by high voltage transmission lines [and also of course by highways, railroads, etc.].

“At the moment in which electrical technics reaches its full development, it produces new schemes in the form of elements that initiate a new phase” (70); this quote reveals the sense in which this phase of  “relaxation” spends itself with a “full development” of its potentials or whatever, producing the elements of the new, succeeding phase. Here Simondon explores two related but competing technologies being developed in his day, which he sees as likely to form the basis of the succeeding stage – and, presciently, these are solar and nuclear power. (Though I do wonder what S would think about the fact that, over sixty years after this book was published, the confrontation between these two, and the promise of a new technological system following from this, has yet to have fully played out. Perhaps this is a limitation of the focus on “energy sources” as driving or shaping technological change; he does mention information elsewhere, but does not in this passage foresee the growth of computing and its high energy demands; nor does he mention fossil fuels in his discussion of “electrical technics.” (He drifts from focusing on the power source, to the mode of transmission, and back, without apparently realizing this). And of course we know that the fossil fuel industry and its vested interests would be, in Simondon’s eyes, an  “extrinsic cause” like all “economic constraints,” and thus not really of interest for his history of technological evolution.) For all that his discussion of nuclear and solar power as potentially competing, or potentially aligned, visions/power sources for a coming technological era, seems still quite relevant today.

V. Technicity and evolution of technics: technicity as instrument of technical evolution.

S asserts that, despite progressing in stages, his model of technical progress is distinct from dialectics because there is no negation or negativity playing a role as engine of progress in his model. Instead, negativity, in the form of a lack of individuation, plays a minor role and does not lead to progress, itself. He furthermore distinguishes between progress and change, per se, in that not all change counts as actual progress.

“For progress to exist, each age must be able to pass on to the next age the fruit borne of its technical effort” (71); this is passed not through individuals or ensembles (which must change more dramatically with each step of evolution), but through elements. He restates a key difference between technical beings and living beings: only the latter can engender other living beings (S dismisses as silly some attempts by cyberneticists to create machines that mimic the process). Technical beings, however, because they have less “perfection” than living beings, have more “freedom” of recombination and transmission of elements (rather than whole individuals); [this is perhaps why the Lamarckian-style evolutionary concepts can be applied to the evolution of technology, even if they don’t work for living creatures].

The question then becomes what “technical perfection” consists in, and S illustrates this with an adze, which, though appearing fairly simple, has several different parts which have to be forged to the correct strength, etc.; “as if, in its totality, the tool was made of a plurality of functionally different zones, welded together” (72). The point is that:

The tool is made not only of form and matter; it is made of elaborate technical elements according to a certain schema of functioning, and assembled into a stable structure though the operation of fabrication. The tool unites within itself the results of the functioning of a technical ensemble. In order to make a good adze a technical ensemble of a foundry, forge, and quench hardening is required.

The technicity of an object is thus more than a quality of its use; it is that which, within it, adds itself to a first determination given by the relation between form and matter; it acts as an intermediary between form and matter …. Technicity is the degree of the object’s concretization.

Even a simple element, like a coil spring, requires a complex and advanced technical ensemble to produce it; “It would not be an exaggeration to say that the quality of a simple needle expresses the degree of perfection of a nation’s industry” (73). “What the element transports is a concretized technical reality” (73-4) of the ensemble that produced it, “just as seeds transport the properties of a species and go on to make new individuals” (74). Technicity as a “positive aspect” of the element corresponds to the role of the associated milieu in constituting the individual (73).

Since this model of evolution does not have negativity a la the dialectic, invention appears to step in as the added ingredient causing progress. 

Invention, which is a creation of the individual, presupposes in the inventor the intuitive knowledge of the element’s technicity; invention occurs at this intermediate level between the concrete and the abstract, which is the level of schemas, and presupposes the pre-existence and coherence of representations that cover the object’s technicity with symbols belonging to an imaginative systematic and an imaginative dynamic. (74)

This appears to refer to not only an “individual” imagination, but a cultural imagination, involving representations and the capacity of prediction of new future individuals and ensembles assembled out of existing or possible elements. S does focus on the inventor as possessor of a particular sensitivity to the technicity of elements; yet the inventor does not give form to new elements and individuals out of the blue or out of their individual genius, but relies on the preexisting elements, ensembles, etc.

The technicities of elements are stable behaviors, or powers: “capacities for producing or undergoing an effect in a determinate manner” (75). S adds that “the higher the technicity of an element, the wider the conditions of deployment of this element are, as a result of the high level of stability of this element." He gives the example of a spring which can be used at a wide range of temperatures without losing its elasticity. Also, “the technical quality once again increases with the independence of its characteristics from the conditions of utilization;” S provides several technical examples, noting in passing that economic constraints affect the individual rather than the “element as element.” [Because it is at the individual level that cost, for example, might result in cheaper parts substituting for better or more efficient ones].

Simondon starts dropping in one of his key concepts, transduction, for which Barthélémy provides some dense definitions, “the process of individuation of the real itself,” and “a physical, biological, mental, social operation through which an activity propagates gradually within a domain, by founding this propagation on a structuration of the domain that is realized from one place to the next” (Barthélémy 2012: 230). (Ah, well that’s perfectly clear now!) A technical object here plays a “transductive role … with respect to a prior age” (76). Prior ensembles and individuals have become obsolete: but “at certain moments in its evolution the technical element makes sense in itself, and is thus a depository of technicity” that can be transmitted to the succeeding age. S turns to the role of technology in different cultures: there are always elements and ensembles, but pre-industrial tech seems to be characterized by “the absence of technical individuals” (77) (naturally, as it was already stated that the industrial era is that of the individual, while the pre-industrial was that of the element). Humans thus play the role of technical individuals in the pre-industrial era, providing the associated milieu for the various tools, etc, and this applies not only to individual human workers or artisans, but to “men employed as technical individuals rather than as human individuals,” which appears to refer to teams of workers operating together and thus forming one “technical individual” in Simondon’s sense.

S has an interesting footnote on “a certain nobility of artisanal work” (77n9), and notes that

the existence of separate [i.e., non-human] technical individuals is a rather recent development and even appears, in some respects, like an imitation of man by the machine, where the machine remains the more general form of a technical individual.

However, S argues, this is only a superficial analogy, because machines usually operate very differently than humans; “yet if man often feels frustration before the machine, it is because the machine functionally replaces him as an individual: the machine replaces man as tool bearer.” (78)

This is the opening to a very interesting discussion which goes a step or so beyond Marx’s observations in the Fragment on Machines. S starts by pointing out that in the artisanal stage there had also been a frequent distinction between the artisan who was “bearer of the tools” and a helper, such as the hod carrier who assists a mason. [Naturally, here is where Braverman (for Ruskin, for that matter) could object that this could have been part of a guild system in which the master’s assistant is an apprentice, learning the trade; Simondon is, typically, disregarding this sociopolitical context.] There is certainly a discourse today that we are to think of ChatGPT, etc. as “assistants” rather than “replacements,” but S acknowledges that it is not only the role of helpers which are taken by machines today; “one could even define the machine as that which bears and directs tools” (78). Humans become disengaged from this direct production, taking roles either as overseers directing one or more machine-tool-bearers, or playing an “auxiliary” role, in which “he greases, cleans, removes detritus and burrs.” What takes S’s discussion beyond Marx’s instrument/machine distinction is the recognition that a human can play both this overseer and assistant role to machines, at once, both “servant and regulator.” [And which of these come into play takes us back to the social relations of production, despite S’s general neglect of these.] (Also cf. Stiegler on technology as pharmakon).

Simondon then more directly addresses Marx’s instrument-machine distinction, in his own terminology. When “man applies his own action to the natural world through the machine,” this takes the relation man-machine-world; the machine becomes “a relay, an amplifier of movements, but it is still man who preserves within himself the center of this complex technical individual that is the reality constituted by man and machine … the man is the bearer of the machine, while the machine remains the tool bearer” (79). 

S now gives a broad historical overview of the relation between humans and “technical individuals.” With the individualization of technical objects beginning in the industrial era, “human individuality is increasingly disengaged from the technical function through the construction of technical individuals; for man, the functions that remain are both below and above that of the tool bearer, oriented both toward the relation with elements and toward the relation with ensembles.” Because, in the artisanal era, technical individuality had been associated with human individuality, in the industrial era (he appears to be saying), “it became customary to give each individual just one function in regard to work.” [He could be referring to his earlier distinction between mason and hod carrier, but the point would make better sense in relation to discretized factory labor.] 

But it now creates unease, because man, who still seeks to be a technical individual, no longer has a stable place alongside the machine: he becomes the servant of the machine or the organizer of the technical ensemble; yet, in order for the human function to make sense, it is necessary for every man employed with a technical task to surround the machine both from above and from below, in order to have an understanding of it in some way, and to look after its elements as well as its integration into the functional ensemble. (80; emphasis added)

S is saying that the ideal, and non-alienating, situation, is for the human to play the above-and-below-the-machine roles, simultaneously, since this is the only way to obtain a full “understanding” of it (and this point appears to link back to the first chapter’s discussion of the need for a science of mechanology to enable this understanding, and the reasons why the situated knowledges of various kinds of worker, engineer, etc. were dismissed as potential foundations for this new science). In fact, S now states that it is wrong to see these two positions as “above” and “below” (or, perhaps, to separate them into an above and a below):

Technicity is not a reality that can be hierarchized; it exists as a whole inside its elements and propagates transductively through the technical individual and ensembles: through the individuals, ensembles are made of elements, and from them elements issue forth. The apparent pre-eminence of ensembles comes from the fact that the ensembles are currently given the same prerogatives as those of people playing the role of the boss.

Historically, work relating to the ensemble has been that of the boss, and work with the element that of the servant; with the middle role of technical individual that of the artisan (and thus associated with democracy, equality, etc.). However, the modern machine renders all these anachronistic: “Ideas of servitude and liberation are far too strongly related to the old status of man as a technical object for them to correspond to the true problem of the relation between man and machine” today (81). Simondon’s goal is to articulate the necessary new and more accurate understanding.

Barthélémy, Jean-Huges (2012) “Fifty Key Terms in the Works of Gilbert Simondon” in de Boever, et al., eds. Gilbert Simondon: Being and Technology. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.

Baudrillard, Jean (1990) Fatal Strategies. Semiotext(e), New York.

Boesiger, Ernest (1980) “Evolutionary Biology in France at the Time of the Evolutionary Synthesis.” in Mayr and Provine, eds., The Evolutionary Synthesis. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA. 

Jolivet, Pierre (2008) “Hypertely.” in John L. Capinera, ed., Encyclopedia of Entomology.

Stiegler, Bernard (1998) Technics and Time 1. Stanford University Press, Stanford.

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