morality_play (morality_play) wrote,

Techno Demonology 3: Bronislaw Szerszynski/ Taxonomy of evil spirits

It's into this context that livejournalist turkishb has presented me with Bronislaw Szerszynski's Techno Demonology thesis. I confess to having experienced some trepidation at it's content at first. The reassuringly secular overtones that intelligent people are consoled by, and that permeate the technological analysis of Winner, Ellul, Keniston and Noble are absent here. He references Paul in Colloseans 2.8 for example:
"Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ."

The apostle Paul was warning you all about _me_ with this passage... But he came from a bartering culture so fuck him.

Szerszynski's thesis turns out to be worth reading in the light of Winnerian technological analysis though. (In fact, my undergraduate thesis project probably would have been more successful if I had known about Szerszynski before now.) He is principally occupied with the ways technologies and artifacts confront us as agencies which are malign or _indifferent_. I'm probably going to have some difficulty with his use of "agency" here, since his theology clearly puts it to different uses than moral philosophy does. His description of these agencies as "indifferent" attracted my attention, however. He goes on to describe these agencies as "forces that operate on the natural and human worlds that are neither natural nor _under human control_."

His emphasis of indifference and lack of human control are significant in that they denote the qualities that distinguish non-intelligent emergent systems from design in morally relevant ways. This is not a trivial distinction. One of the minimum requirements for an activity to have moral content is that it possess instrumentality. All moral action is instrumental because morality describes the quality of how an activity consciously serves an _agenda_. This is why competence bears upon moral standing, why we judge the mentally infirm to be incompetent to be held to accountability, and why injury caused by premeditation and negligence have two different kinds of moral status.

It's also why a phenomenon like an earthquake, possesses no intelligible moral status despite the fact it can cause injury to innumerable moral patients. The earthquake possesses no agency (in the sense of second order phenomenological consciousness). It is not an instrumental action (In the sense of serving an intelligence). Obviously this has real consequences for design, since all design would be instrumental and consequently moral or immoral. More importantly for my point, is the way this distinguishes design from natural systems (or more broadly, _emergent_ systems) like evolution through natural selection, or the propagation of a virus. These things are certainly propelled by their own internal or fundamental forces, but their movement is not responsive to any objective. They're groundless and drifting things that are simply propelled by where the path of least resistance carries them.

Szerszynski's project is the development of a taxonomic nomenclature to distinguish the various phenomenon where technology and artifacts behave maliciously or indifferently. Viewed through the Winnerian lens, he wants to enunciate the mechanisms by which technologies become politicized. He borrows the New Testament language of spiritual agencies (supernatural agencies like angels, demons, principalities, thrones) to name these distinctions. I find this ingenuity delightful. Anyone familiar with the graphic symbology associated with these agencies would understand why. I think the principalities are giant disembodied heads with wings sprouting from their necks. One could not imagine more horrifying monsters than what has been produced by christian mythology.

What I am particularly interested in though, is Szerszynski's nomination of "elementals," which he describes as "technical systems that are treated as ends in themselves." He characterizes them as technologies that exert control, and are driven by their own internal rationality. He borrows Jacques Ellul's theory of Technique to emphasize how a dominant mode of thinking can become an autonomous self-determining system. He quotes Ellul; "Under such conditions, no concrete individual steers the technological process and it becomes... blindly indifferent to empirical, real human projects and happiness." No one is at the wheel.

As illustrations, he submits the manner in which automobile enthusiasm in the US has required an infrastructure to be grown up around it, in the form of expressways, tunnels, parking lots, petrol stations, etc., and how these institutions begin to dictate the design of our built environment, so that any design _requires_ the perpetuation of automobile travel, and associated depletions of land and petroleum. Ultimately this needs to become a crisis, but the force propelling this is non-intelligent and possesses no reflexive self-corrective mechanism. He also cites the way industrial agriculture compels small farmers to industrialize in order to remain competitive, and speculates upon the likely consequences of marketable genetic intervention at the point of human conception. What happens if the selection of genes for traits becomes culturally selected? I'd be less concerned if the selection were being done by the midcentury atomic physicists, or benevolent philosopher kings, but if parents whose greatest credentials are business degrees make the hard decisions, you have a disaster in the making. The pressure of "competitive culture" would propel them to select traits useful for what they imagine to be "competitive." The important distinction is that this "pressure" is brought to bear by a distributed collective tendency rather than by intelligent response to what conditions should prevail. No one is at the wheel.

Szerszynski makes a point to stipulate that his use of the word "technology" does not "simply refer to particular material technologies such as mobile telephony, nuclear power generation or agricultural biotechnology, but also to any artificial technical system which operates through finding the most efficient means to any end." He includes _markets_ in this treatment. I should emphasize the argument can be extended as necessary that market forces _do_ conspire to impede the quality and practical efficiency of material technologies and designed artifacts through value engineering, planned obsolescence, and path dependency. There are various market-libertarian gibberings that attempt to ground all technological innovation within the competition of the marketplace, but they consistently do this by ignoring the role of the market in impeding innovation, and ususally by deliberately conflating scientists, engineers and technicians with entrepreneurs.

Szerszynski is alluding to markets, themselves, as a type of technology though, describing them as technologies that "cease to operate for completely secular ends and begin to impose their _own purposes_ on the world."

This description of markets as technologies is also accomplished by Winner and Noble in their analysis. Winner has even remarked upon the manner in which the market-libertarian shibboleth of "efficiency" is used as a trojan horse to contain a host of unspoken assumptions. But Szerszynski's treatment is useful for the way it attends to the unique features of emergent systems described above; Self-propulsion, autonomy from oversight, non-intelligence, non-instrumentality, objectivelessness. These are the qualities that distinguish natural/emergent systems from design.
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