Gilbert Simondon: The Conditions of Technical Evolution

What are the reasons for the convergence manifest in the evolution of technical structures?

– Gilbert Simondon, On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects

In my last post on Simondon’s early dissertation we saw the impetus in his thought toward defining an evolutionary sequence for technics, the technical object, and technical culture. One was tempted to see his critique in both negative and positive light. On the he saw a certain manifestation of regulatory processes guiding both the genesis and telos of the technological object and its culture, and on the other he saw another tendency toward negentropy and resistance to these very processes within the evolutionary sequences that brought about the genesis and evolution of this very technics: “the machine is something which fights against the death of the universe; it slows down, as life does, the degradation of energy, and becomes a stabilizer of the world”.

In describing the process of standardization and replacement of parts within the mode of existence of a technical object Simondon tells us it is neither the extrinsic causes (although they, too apply pressure), but is the necessary conditions of the intrinsic nature of the technical object itself that produce the very concretion of what is in fact contingent: “its being based on an analytical organization which always leaves the way clear for new possibilities, possibilities which are the exterior manifestation of an interior contingency”. 1

As he states it there is an alignment between the convergence of technics and needs of the industrial system itself that produces the utility of an integrative consilience: “the reason for this is that the made-to-measure object is one which has no intrinsic limits; its norms are imposed from without; it fails to achieve its own internal coherence; it is not a system of  the necessary; it corresponds to an open system of requirements”.

Yet, on the Industrial level, at the level of supply and demand the technical object takes on a more powerful role: “needs are moulded by the industrial technical object, which thereby acquires the power to shape a civilization”. What exactly does this mean? Is the technical object somehow a creative agent in its own right? No. It’s because the technical object is imperfect due to both economic and technical constraints that it is the synergistic incorporation into its imperfect structure through a process of concretion that the organization of other supporting functional sub-systems come into play to modify and complete the functional utility of the object. As he states it:

The essence of the concretization of a technical object is the organizing of functional sub-systems into the total functioning. Starting from this principle, we can understand precisely how the redistribution of functions is brought about in a technical object is the organizing of functional sub-systems into the total functioning. Starting from this principle, we can understand precisely how the redistribution of functions is brought about.

In more direct terms the concretization of technical objects is conditioned by the “narrowing of the gap separating science from technics”. Simondon realizes that the gap can never be closed because our scientific knowledge and the technical object are always in a state of flux, unstable, contingent. Classical rational mechanics made it possible for us to acquire a scientific understanding of the functioning of those objects which we call simple machines. But the more complex the technical objects became the wider the gap in our explanatory cosmos the mechanistic science became until there was a need for some kind of transformation within the explanatory framework itself. This is why the discovery of functional synergies is the essential characteristic of progress in the development of the technical object. In Gilbert Simondon: Being and Technology Brian Massumi explains it this way:

The moment of invention is when the two sets of potentials click together, coupling into a single continuous system. A synergy clicks in. A new ‘regime of functioning’ has suddenly leapt into existence . A ‘threshold’ has been crossed, like a quantum leap to a qualitatively new plane of operation. The operation of the turbine is now ‘self-maintaining’. It has achieved a certain operational autonomy, because the potentials in the water and in the oil have interlinked in such a way as to regulate the transfer of energy into the turbine and of heat out of it automatically, allowing the turbine to continue functioning independently without the intervention of an outside operator to run or repair it.2

In the final part of the essay Simondon tells us that there are two kinds of improvement: “those that modify the division of functions, increasing in an essential way the synergy of functioning, and those that, without modifying the division in question, diminish the harmful consequences of residual antagonisms.” He terms these the “major” and “minor” forms of improvement, and considers them both to be ruinous of the technological object in the long view. The point is that this kind of improvement depends on the imperfection of the technical object itself. Through the usage of certain non-essential devices become integrated into the synergistic functioning of the system to “compensate for real antagonisms” in the system as a whole. The problem with this is that as Simondon states the technical object does not show any signs of the usual technological form of genesis in the usual sense, instead what comes about is a series of “discontinuous improvements that bring about specific “modifications in the internal scheme of the technical object” thereby producing at that point the required technological genesis by a discontinuous set of “leaps and not along a continuous line”.

In the final pages of the essay Simondon relates the ethical dilemmas facing humans and their relationship to the technical object:machine relationship is the fact that until our own time man played the technical role of the individual. Now that he is a technical being no longer, man is forced to learn a new function and to find for himself a position in the technical ensemble that is something other than the position of individual”. Because we as humans take up into ourselves these technical objects and form new relationships or ensembles he tells us that the “first thing he must do is to take on two non-individual functions, that of the element and that of the director of the ensemble”. He finishes saying:

But in both these functions man is in conflict with his memories of himself. Man has played the role of technical individual to the extent that he looks on the machine-as-technical- individual as if it were a man and occupying the position of a man, whereas in actual fact it was man who provisionally took the place of the machine before real technical individuals could be made. In all judgements made on the subject of the machine, there is an implicit humanization of the machine which has this role-change as its deepest source.

Because of this inversion, because we’ve made machines into our own image instead of seeing them in their own light devoid of our human characteristics and properties we must invent the possibility of a technical culture that will allow us to know the technical object in and of itself. The technogenesis of the technical object is this relation between human qua machine.

More Questions:

    1. What is a technical individual?
    2. Is this evolution of the technical object natural of synthetic?
    3. Are these technical objects to be seen as autonomous in themselves, or co-dependent and co-evolving?
    4. Is he affirming an older humanism, or something else?

1.  On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects (Accursed Share, pdf)
2. Gilbert Simondon: Being and Technology (p. 25). Edinburgh University Press. (2012-01-13). Kindle Edition.

1 thought on “Gilbert Simondon: The Conditions of Technical Evolution

  1. Pingback: Deleuze on Machines and Society | Deterritorial Investigations Unit

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