Michael Goldhaber on Fri, 29 Aug 1997 00:10:29 +0200 (MET DST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> some heresies on the nature of technology

Submitted for Nettime (at suggestion of Bruce Sterling)


[Michael H. Goldhaber August 20,1997
COMMENTS? mgoldh@well.com
(Please consult me about any further circulation beyond nettime.)]

1. There is nothing more misleading than Heidegger and followers confusing
"techne" with "technology." For someone as besotted with etymology as
Heidegger, the depth of this mistake is quite revealing. Techne is roughly
craft or a craft. Craft knowledge tended to be handed down generation by
generation among the active participants in the specific craft, where it
traditionally remained relatively shielded from those not directly involved
(even from members of different genders or classes who occupied the same

Technology on the other hand was an attempt, begun quite late, say around
1600 to codify the crafts,  expose the secrets and make them accessible to
the world (in encyclopedias of sorts, at first), and especially to members
of the new, active leading class who would be able to recombine and control
the elements of the formerly autonomous and distinct craft practices.

2. Thus technology is the science of craft, a science in its own right that
draws on other sciences, and is necessary for them as well.

3. The essential point about technology, like science, is that it is
disseminated, openly available knowledge. Technology is from the start,
reverse engineering, in that objects that come from elsewhere, say from
other cultures, are analyzable into the processes that make them and make
them work, so that they can be remade elsewhere. Thus the European
development of "china" or Chinese-style, high-glazed pottery is an example
of reverse engineering centuries ago. Before the advent of technology this
could no more be contemplated than could making from scratch a fruit or
spice that came from far away.

(One of the ironies of modernity is that technology removes most of what
previously could be thought of as economic comparative advantage; yet it is
modern economics that fetishizes comparative advantage in arguing for
international trade openness. Aside from the contingencies of climate and
natural resources, pre-technological trade was the result of different
secret (or as good as secret) kinds of knowledge that would normally stay
in a country. Today despite all the brouhaha about national secrecy, trade
secrecy, and so forth,this is all pretty much gone. )

4. The openness of technological dissemination means that technology is
inherently political in a way that crafts are not. Debates about what is
possible take place incessantly in the public arena, and while there are
elites who are more central to such discussions, they do filter down to
ordinary people everywhere.

5. For this same reason, the so-called philosophy of technology is not
something separate from technology, but an inherent part of it.

6. The claim that we live in a technological society is thus a claim about
a particular historical era that necessarily also has with it the features
of public discussion and openness, and the relations of production that
constitute either capitalism or socialism, i.e. where the rulers, whoever
they are have a direct say not only about who shall produce or what shall
be commanded for production, but how it shall be produced and with an
interest in innovation, the recombination of technical methods for new

7. A certain dialectic obtains, as members of the ruling classes become
closer or farther from a direct involvement in technology. Technology as a
study of craft contains within it the seeds of its own endless
meta-ization. The attempt to develop rules for the management of
technology, of making the best use of specialized knowledge held by the
technologists, involving both an endless re-separation of the ones with
knowledge of specifics from effective control of what they do with that
knowledge, and endless opportunities for more and more public interventions
at ever-higher levels in the intended outcomes of technology.

8. Thus among the higher levels are such moves as Taylorization, socialist
central planning (Das Kapital as reverse engineering,) management research,
AI knowledge engineering, anthropology of offices, the codification of the
Jane Jacobs approach to cities. Etc. What is interesting is that at each
level, each kind of attempt, those at the top are not themselves yet
technologized, but are practicing idiosyncratic crafts, and these crafts
end up defining the differences that matter, plus continuously undermining
and corrupting the uniform rationality of the whole.

Thus, technology "should" leave us nothing but an ultimate grey uniformity,
but instead it propels strangeness, irreducibility, individuality and
peculiarity into the foreground over and over. Technology is always reverse
engineering of other human activity, a continual turning inside out, a
codifying and publicizing of the private that inevitably deconstructs the
apparent orderliness that sets it in motion, so creating new kinds and
places for craftiness.

9. Technology is always about the human mind and  the secret knowledge
contained therein, though this knowledge appears to be primarily about
matter, and thus gets reformulated as natural science as well. The question
is, is this process once begun simply an endless one. I think not. I think
technology does reach a point of sufficient success in the field of the
material, in the sense of meeting the normal physical needs of individuals
with growing ease. This of course inevitably creates a focus on the
abnormal needs of all kinds, from nutritional peculiarities to minor
deformities ripe for surgery, to kinky sex, to odd or extreme hobbies, to
illicit drugs and body piercings. Notwithstanding, or perhaps even
including these emergent desiderata, the trend, in the advanced(?)
countries anyway, is towards greater emphasis on mental and emotional
levels, post-materiality as it were.

10. The original crafts were mostly material in their focus, a matter of
fulfilling bodily ends, whether through farming, milling, textile making,
beer brewing or what have you. Thus, in a way, the exposing of secrets
operated on a different level from the affected crafts. Today however, the
residues of meta-crafts primarily work at less material and more ideational
levels themselves. Thus the bearing of secrets, as the basic technological
goal, also becomes a convenient method of self -aggrandizement,
self-revelation, confession, empowerment, therapy ---in all cases,
attention-seeking-- while it also is congruent to the technological
activity itself and is carried on through the products of previous layers
of technology, such as the Internet.

11. If this intuition,which I have discussed in different forms in so many
places, proves to be valid, then of course the future of technology,as the
future of capitalism and socialism, is perhaps in question. The technology
of attention-getting, inevitably tied as it is to the inherently craft like
activity of self-revelation, though made possible by a certain set of
technological developments, telescopes the technological process itself.
What is revealed, and therefore immediately available for copying by others
at the same time retains its idiosyncrasy. The technologist and the
technologized (as it were) are now one and the same, and the craft of this
individual technologist, in being technologized is made valuable only to
her, this one person, precisely through its spread.  There is no point in
anyone else copying these patterns. They are simultaneously elevated to
universality and outmoded at the same moment.

Thus, in a certain sense technology might give rise to a post-technological
era. I do not mean to claim that this will of necessity be a better era.


Michael H. Goldhaber
Ph/FAX 510 -482-9855

#  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo@icf.de and "info nettime" in the msg body
#  URL: http://www.desk.nl/~nettime/  contact: nettime-owner@icf.de