The technological age has been in gestation since the late Middle Ages, when the Sorbonne professors (Oresme, Buridan), the Catalan Ramón Lull, and the German Nicholas of Cusa directed their quest away from the Scholastic philosophy of essences toward a method that explores relationships. This quest was at the heart of modernity, and for centuries great thinkers subscribed to its objectives, trying to refine method. It followed that in the 17th century the mechanical sciences with their mathematical ideal conquered the foremost minds, lay and ecclesiastical alike. The former (Descartes, Hobbes) saw in method the key to an ideal society (utopia) based exclusively on reason and calculable appetites (social calculus); the latter (Malebranche, Mersenne) saw in the mechanical laws of the universe proof of God’s reliability as a master-mechanic, a supreme watchmaker. (Cusanus, two centuries before, had made room for a “geometrical god,” which was to inspire Copernicus and Galileo.) Only Pascal, Leibniz, and Bossuet pointed out the other, nonmechanical, dimensions of God and the universe.
These brief preliminaries help us to measure the social—and ideological—impact of technology. It is easy to assert that technology is an assemblage of neutral instruments that provides shortcuts to generally desired goals. If this were the case, if technologues did not aim at organizing a smoothly functioning society and developing the appropriate mentality to run it, technology would have no opponents. After all, we no longer subscribe to the ancient Greek ethos according to which the task of free men is to govern the polity and engage in philosophical contemplation—but not to undertake action in the areas of the ars mechanica, the techné. Nor did medieval man object to useful technical inventions for harnessing a horse’s shoulders rather than neck, or to improved methods of deep-mining, of powering mills, etc.
If contemporary thinkers rebel against technology, the reason must be sought in the role that technology has assumed in the modern era: the replacement of social authority and moral principles by exclusively rational arrangements. Put otherwise, technology is suspect in the elimination of the mysterious, the spontaneous, the incalculable—and in the rise of the homogenized common denominator and what we called above the social calculus.
The latter has seductive aspects, and not everybody sees in it the work of “terrible simplifiers.” As a tool of ad-hoc problem-solving or long-range planning—from oil exploration to space ships to medical cloning—technology does indeed appear an overall facilitator of human existence, indispensable and innocent. Some of technology’s anxious critics—Arnold Gehlen, for example—are so fascinated as to provide a quasi-justification for it. Accordingly, the technological age is the culmination of the self-sustaining activity of the Homo Faber who, by degrees from food-gathering and hunting, has achieved total control of his surroundings. That technology may be final is not only Gehlen’s alarmed conclusion; Helmut Schelsky was even more pessimistic, perceiving the use of technology in social and intellectual manipulation. Quite a few others have accepted similar anti-technological lines of argumentation, and their number is perhaps growing with the recent applications of biotechnological solutions to what earlier would have been understood as purely human and moral situations. At any rate, we have left behind critics like Ortega and his mass-man or the more pertinent Bergson, who perceived in technological man the sclerosis of the elan vital, the ossification of the spirit’s potentialities. The last word among technology’s critics belongs to Jacques Ellul, for whom technology is like sin: the collective automaton’s rebellion against God. Even Marxists— that is, later disciples such as Lukacs, the early Kolakowski, Adam Schaff—distanced themselves from the scientific and technological paradise, preferring to speak of a “Marxist humanism” in which the cruder aspects of the praxis would not entirely extinguish the light of a spiritual culture.
But it is not spirit alone that is at stake. In its essence, technology is a method of organizing aspects of life and then organizations, until a totality is reached in which organization is self-perpetuating. The perpetuum mobile is the ultimate dream behind every machine and every technologue. At this point error is eliminated, and with it the human being who errs. We note here the sharpening of the affinity between technology and ideology, both of which propose hermetically closed systems and super-systems that remove as superfluous an independent inner life. Society is no longer Plato’s man writ large, history ceases to be an indefinite number of crossroads where freedom and imagination meet in unplanned combinations. The features of the machine are copied in society: uniformity in production, homogeneity, predictability. The last word of technology is simultaneity, since time, too, is mechanized: history moves according to planned portions of time; time for all men must become the same.
This is the final significance of technology: the precalculated simultaneity of human awareness. If this sounds like jargon, let us rather say that consciousness is reordered as a clock: all men are aware of the same thing at the same time. Why is this technologically or ideologically desirable? Because it guarantees transparence, that is the abolition of individuality and personhood. This is approximately what A. Gehlen had in mind when he wrote that “the future no longer holds any prospect of a resurgence of mythical consciousness, since the industrial culture now conquering the globe is rationalistic through and through.” In the years when Gehlen wrote this, Marshall McLuhan had his intuitive phrase about the world as an “electronic village,” in other words the rise of the collectivity to consciousness through technology. Simultaneity, transparence.
The final phase of technology calls forth the planetary participation of all mankind in receiving information and making decisions, so that each becomes transparent to all. Jürgen Habermas has built on this insight a whole social epistemology, technology’s final refinement and philosophical crowning. The content of Habermas’s “social rationalization” is the intercommunication of all members of planetary society. It would be naive to suppose that with such a step technology is still only a neutral instrument; in fact, it acquires an ideological dimension. The chef de file of the Frankfurt School discards any further philosophical speculation when he writes that truth is a (social) language game, offering us a practical grasp of the world, a substitute for reasoning with abstract concepts. “Truth” is then the linguistic perspective of social communication, the only valid espousal of reality, itself social. The conditio sine qua non is then technology, which permits immediate awareness and offers the monopoly of initiating and programming intercommunication to a social scientific elite.
It would be wrong, however, to assume that such an elite is by necessity the top echelon of a totalitarian party, a nomenklatura. Technology has its own set of postulates, independent of the regime in which it functions. Writing of the fusion of a regime-neutral technology with industrial megaproduction, Ingmar Granstedt observes that such a combination cannot be reversed or dismantled because our collective fascination with productive power has reached ideological dimensions—although we are aware of our increasing impotence as persons within the system. In other words, socialism versus capitalism is not here an issue; from the point of view of technology, they do not represent positive or negative signs.
The critics mentioned above seem to feed the ideological dimensions of technology when they conclude that technology is an end-situation, inscribed in mankind’s fate as an apocalypse. But Granstedt himself speaks in L’impasse industrielle (1980) of the finitude of our mental capacity as it clashes with the superpower of modern and foreseeable industrial equipment. This is also the view of F. Hayek, K. Popper, and others. McLuhan’s and Habermas’s global intercommunication may not be possible for the same reasons that huge empires collapse. The increasingly interdependent structures (or structures of structures) are so refined at their points of junction that the probability of failure and dysfunction becomes overwhelming. This seems to be true of industry, but also of statecraft, indeed of civilizations. The law that governs the finality of technology may itself be subsumed to another, more general law: the law of degeneracy and exhaustion.
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