Our role as humans, at least for the time being, is to coax technology along the paths it naturally wants to go. – Kevin Kelly
In a book by that name What technology wants? he’ll elaborate, asking:
So what does technology want? Technology wants what we want— the same long list of merits we crave. When a technology has found its ideal role in the world, it becomes an active agent in increasing the options, choices, and possibilities of others. Our task is to encourage the development of each new invention toward this inherent good, to align it in the same direction that all life is headed. Our choice in the technium— and it is a real and significant choice— is to steer our creations toward those versions, those manifestations, that maximize that technology’s benefits, and to keep it from thwarting itself.1
As you read the above paragraph you notice how Kelley enlivens technology, as if it were alive, vital, had its own will and determination, its own goals. This notion that technology should be coaxed along toward its ‘inherent good’, and that this is our obligation and moral duty to steer (think of steersman: cyber) it and help it along so it doesn’t get frustrated and thwart itself is perilously close to treating technology like a child that needs to be educated, taught what it needs to know, help it become the best it can be, etc. But is technology alive, does it have goals, is it something that has an ‘inherent good’ or moral agenda; and, most of all, is this our task and responsibility to insure technology will get what it wants. Such a discourse shifts the game makes us feel as it technology now has the upper hand, its agenda is more important than ours, etc. What’s Kelley up too, anyway?
Again I take up from my previous post David Roden’s Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. In that post Roden would leave us asking: What is a technology, exactly, and to what extent does technology leave us in a position to prevent, control or modify the way in which a disconnection might occur? If we listened to Kelley we might just discover in helping this agent of the technium – as he terms the symbiotic alliance of humans and technology in our time, that technology wants something we might not quite want for ourselves: the end or humanity. Of course that’s the notion presented in such movies as the Terminator series of films, etc.
What Roden offers instead is a reminder that we may first want to question our role and the role of technology in our lives and futures. He will remind us that in chapter five he provided an theory of accounting which argued that we have a moral interest in making or becoming posthumans since the dated nonexistence of posthumans is the primary source of uncertainty about the value of posthuman life. Now whether we agree or disagree with this is beyond our immediate concern. As he’s shown over and over this is all within the perimeters of a speculative posthumanism that is both undetermined and open to variable accountings. In this chapter he will appraise such actions in the context of our existing technological society.
First thing he’ll question is the work of Jaques Ellul and Martin Heidegger both of whom support to varying degrees the notion that technology is deterministic. The notion that technology asserts a determining effect on society and humans is both instrumentalist and substantive:
Technology is not a neutral instrument but a structure of disclosure that determines how humans are related to things and to one another. If Heidegger is right, we may control individual devices, but our technological mode of being exerts a decisive grip on us: “man does not have control over unconcealment itself, in which at any given time the real shows itself or withdraws” (Heidegger 1978: 299). If this is right, the assumption that humans will determine whether our future is posthuman or not is premature. (Roden, 3476-3480)2
On the other hand Ellul will develop a theory of technique in which the notions of “self-augmentation” is aligned with the autonomy of technology: “the individual represents this abstract tendency, he is permitted to participate in technical creation, which is increasingly independent of him and increasingly linked to its own mathematical law” Ellul quoted (Roden, 3494). Roden on the other hand will argue that a condition of technical autonomy – which Ellul calls “self-augmentation” – is in fact incompatible with autonomy:
Self-augmentation can only operate where techniques do not determine how they are used. Thus substantivists like Ellul and Heidegger are wrong to treat technology as a system that subjects humans to its strictures. (Roden, 3512)
The rest of the chapter Roden will elaborate on this statement with examples from both Ellul and Heidegger. I’ll not go into the details which are mainly to bolster his basic defense of the disconnection thesis being indeterminate and open rather than being determined by technology or technique. The notion that planetary technology is a self-augmenting system then Ellul’s normative technological determinism is lacking in the necessary resilience to explain the various anomalous aspects of existing technological innovations and changes. In fact this chapters main thrust is to align Roden’s argument not over specific notions of technicity etc., but rather to argue for a realist conception of technological rupture and disconnection as compared to the deterministic phenomenological philosophies of Heidegger, Ellul, Verbeek, and Ihde: we should embrace a realist metaphysics of technique in opposition to the phenomenologies of Verbeek and Ihde. Technologies according to this model are abstract, repeatable particulars realized (though never finalized) in ephemeral events (Roden, 3748).
A realist metaphysic will realize that to control a system we also need some way of anticipating what it will do as a result of our attempts to modify it. But given the accounts … [Ellul, Heidegger, Verbeek, Ihde], it is likely that planetary technique is, as Ellul argues, a distinctive causal factor which ineluctably alters the technical fabric of our societies and lives without being controllable in its turn (Roden, 3767). Which will lead us to understand that even with the vast data storage and knowledge based algorithms of data mining, which would provide an almost encyclopedic information of current “technical trends”, this in itself will not be sufficient to identify all future causes of technical change. (Roden, 3773) It also entails a sense of porousness and fuzziness within this abstract and technical space, and as SP has shown technical change could engender posthuman life forms that are functionally autonomous and thus withdraw from any form of human control. (Roden, 3779) Last but not least, any system built to track changes within the various systems would be themselves part of the systems, so that any simulation of the patterns leading to a posthuman rupture would be “qualitatively different” from the one it was originally designed to simulate.
In summary if our planetary system is a SATS (self-augmenting technical system) or assemblage of systems Roden tells us there are grounds to affirm that it is uncontrollable, a decisive mediator of social actions and cultural values, but not a controlling influence (i.e., a deterministic system of technique or control). (Roden, 3794):
On the foregoing hypothesis, the human population is now part of a complex technical system whose long-run qualitative development is out of the hands of the humans within it. This system is, of course, a significant part of W[ide]H[umans]. The fact that the global SATS is out of control doesn’t mean that it, or anything, is in control. There is no finality to the system at all because it is not the kind of thing that can have purposes. So the claim that we belong to a self-augmenting technical system (SATS) should not be confused with the normative technological determinism that we find in Heidegger and Ellul. There is nothing technology wants. (Roden, KL 3797-3802)
In tomorrow’s post we will come to a conclusion, discussing Roden’s “ethics of becoming posthuman”.
1. Kelly, Kevin (2010-10-14). What Technology Wants (Kindle Locations 3943-3944). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.