1. Discuss Ellul’s idea of a technological system. How has the computer allowed technology to form a system? Why does the technological system not possess true feedback? Discuss how two technological subsystems have become more interrelated.
In The Technological System, Ellul states “Technology has now become so specific that we have to consider it in itself and as a system.” (Ellul 1980, 78) By this he means that technology has several features that make it imperative that we consider it as a system. First, it consists of a set of interrelated elements, both quantitative and qualitative, with these elements changing at different rates. Second, the elements are disposed to combine with each other preferentially prior to combining with outside elements. Third, the system is dynamic, even if the system can be grasped as a composition. Fourth, the system exists as a totality and can enter into relationships with other systems as totalities. Fifth, is the presence of feedback, at least in theory. Ellul claims that the analysis cannot be complete as the system is not truly a closed system. Chance and probability both impact technology as a system; and the system is not repetitive.
The technological system is formed by the existence of, and is constituted by the conjunction of, the technological phenomenon (static) and technological progress (dynamic). The technological phenomenon is comprised of the characteristics of autonomy, monism, and universalism. The characteristic of autonomy means that technology tries to become a closed system; that is, it tries to remain isolated from its environment, much like a perfectly constructed machine. It follows its own logic operating without any true feedback; remaining oblivious to the moral control of humans. The second characteristic in this group is monism. Technique is everywhere the same. Very closely related to monism is universalism; that is, that technique permeates everywhere and everything. It rapidly diffuses geographically and culturally into all aspects of human life.
Technological progress, the dynamic portion of the technological system, consists of the characteristics of self-augmentation, automatism, and a causal progression and the absence of finality. Self-augmentation refers to the fact that technique progresses almost without human intervention. Humans of course build the machines and invent or discover the techniques but do so almost unconsciously. As a result of backing off of our responsibilities and our freedom our techniques combine and drive the system forward without any conscious effort on the part of humans. In this manner, technique could be said to be self-directing, or to have the characteristic of automatism. This drive manifests itself through the search for the single best method. The technological system attaches itself to every part of social and human reality, and can exist only to the extent that it does so. Due to this progression and attachment to all areas of human existence, “detechnization” is impossible. To attempt such a feat, Ellul claims that “we would be like primitive forest-dwellers setting fire to their native environment.” (Ellul, 1980, 82)
In the section on DEFINING THE SYSYEM Ellul says that technique has only gradually become a system. At first there were only disparate techniques. These became gradually linked by second- and third-degree techniques so that eventually technique became our environment, and finally a system. To claim that the technological system is only the addition of multiple techniques and objects is to entirely miss the analysis he is undertaking. It is a qualitatively different phenomenon, and can only be comprehended through its relationships. These interactions, to which I now turn, are the essential part of the technological system as a system.
The computer is what allows, encourages, and even drives these interactions. One of the aspects of the system is specificity. “That which is not a technology has no point in common with what which is.” (Ellul, 1980, 90) Thus, that which is technology shares commonalities. The primary commonality is that all of these ‘parts’ are correlated, with two ensuing consequences. First, modifications to one part cannot be made without causing repercussions throughout the system, or at the least modifications to other parts. Second, new objects and methods of technique are produced by the combination of technologies. All of this correlation of various technologies, repercussions engendered and overcome, and genesis of new techniques and objects which need correlation within the system can only be accomplished through the use of vast quantities of technical information. The computer or more accurately, networks of interconnected computers, have allowed the coordination and exchange of this vast quantity of information. The system is now so dependent on this transfer of information that it is actually more important than the actual movement of physical objects and material productivity. The “emergence of an ensemble of mediations,” an “intertechnological relationship,” as Ellul says, is what has finally constituted the technological system. (Elllul, 1980, 92)
As I said above, the computer is the real key to the technological system. Once computers became networked they formed a vast sub-system of information transmission and coordination. This became the system of connections that allowed the constitution of the technological system. “The sole function of the data-processing ensemble is to allow a junction, a flexible, informal, purely technological, immediate, and universal junction of the technological system.” (Ellul, 1980, 102-3) This vast network of interconnected computers in the service of the technological system has created a virtual universe; and in effect, has created a new reality. This new reality is “numerical, objective, synthesized, and imposes itself on us as the only effective reality.” (Ellul, 1980, 104) We are told that we live in a postmodern, deconstructionist age where all knowledge to include morals is subjective, and everything is relative. The computer is the great objective god and is thus the only thing capable of providing any objective reality for us. This blindly following the computer excludes dialectical thinking since everything computerized is either one or zero, either or, never both, neither, or more. It also decreases democracy and increases centralization leaving us less free.
Feedback exists in both manmade and natural systems. When an error or dangerous situation arises information is fed back into the system at the source, which in turn modifies the system by performing a slight correction. This is in turn checked and any further needed corrections are fed back into the system. The technological system does not act in this manner because it does not possess true feedback. It does not monitor itself, nor does it provide itself with feedback. Thus, irrationalities arise. When the system does try to correct itself it does so by applying further technique to the effects of the problem, not to the cause of the problem. Mainly, the system provides compensation for the problems it causes. The crippling fragmentation and dehumanization is countered by self-help techniques and pharmaceuticals, and compensated for by another season of “Survivor.” Many of the problems caused by the technological system cannot be repaired by technique. “Take for instance: the totalitarian character of the system, the indefinite complexification, the search for the quality of life,…the disappearance of natural rhythms,…the incapacity for moral judgment because of power.” (Ellul, 1980, 118) The organization and totality of the entire system would have to be changed to affect these problems. “Feedback is made possible by the data-processing complex, but the relationship has to be mediated by a nontechnological element—which runs counter to autonomy and is perfectly unacceptable.” (Ellul, 1980, 120) That is, man has the power to assert control. We can choose to attempt to do so, but as we are inside the system we do not see the need.
Later, in The Technological Bluff, Ellul changed his views some on feedback. He talks about a kind of double feedback. “Positive feedback arises out of the relation between politics and techniques and science and technique. Negative feedback arises out of the relation between economy and technique.” (Ellul, 1990, 101-102) It seems to me that this is a different kind of feedback than the previous type, which is based on systems theory. These are more simply ampliative and braking mechanisms on the system; thus, there still is no true feedback, and I believe that Ellul would agree. Technique provides politicians with the means to their ends; means of control, unification, and power. Politicians thus provide support to increasing means of technique and provide a form of positive feedback. Science is heavily dependent on technique and can make no further progress without inventing more technique. Knowledge of science, and the knowledge that it provides, allows us to better control nature, to include man. This investment in technique by science also serves as positive feedback. Economic growth is made possible by technique, but the huge costs act as a braking mechanism. Ellul lists four facts that he says make this inevitable. First are the projects of questionable economic value, such as rockets. Secondly, it reduces some sectors of the economy while increasing others, but the sectors that are increased provide no economic value. Thirdly, external costs such as pollution and the exhaustion of nonrenewable resources add to the complexity of the economic equation. Lastly, powerful and expensive armaments are produced. All of these act as brakes on the system as choices have to be made. We simply cannot afford them all. Again, I do not think that these truly qualify as feedback. They are more like positive and negative reinforcement. (Ellul, 1990, 105-106)
In discussing the interrelationships of two technological sub-systems I would like to discuss communications and the military and political sub-systems. In Runaway World, Anthony Giddens provides some useful facts about the growth of various communications media. It was in the mid-nineteenth century that for the first time a message could be sent without someone carrying it. In 1844 Samuel Morse received the first prophetic telegraph message, “What hath God wrought?” (Giddens, 28) The first commercial communications satellite was launched in 1969. Today there are more than two hundred commercial satellites providing instantaneous communication between both sides of the world. The first dedicated, transoceanic telephone cable went into operation in the late 1950s with less than one hundred voice paths. Today these cables carry more than a million voice channels each. Each new communication transformation grows more rapidly than the previous.
“It took 40 years for radio in the United States to gain an audience of 50 million. The same number was using personal computers only 15 years after the personal computer was introduced. It needed a mere 4 years, after it was made available, for 50 million Americans to be regularly using the Internet.” (Giddens, 30)
According to The Worldwide History of Telecommunications some of Gidden’s data is inaccurate, but it is accurate within an order of magnitude or a few years as applicable. In the foreword, Huurdeman states that modern telecommunications began in the nineteenth century and that developments were stimulated by “economic, political, and military requirements.” (Huurdeman, xv) Morse’s 1844 message inaugurated the first commercial electrical telegraphy line in the U.S., which ran between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Within ten years there was over fifty thousand kilometers of telegraph lines in the U.S. The same sort of progress was being made in England and on the European continent at the time. Major news organizations were soon formed. In 1850 Julius Reuter opened his news agency in Aachen, Germany; subsequently he moved to London in 1851. His news service was based on telegraphic connections between Berlin, Brussels, London and Paris connected by the first cross-channel submarine cable. “He made a fortune with sales of political and economic news by Reuter’s telegrams.” (Huurdeman, 88 emphasis mine) Back in the U.S., the first transcontinental telegraph line began on October 24, 1861, eight years before the transcontinental railway was finished. Chief Justice Stephen J. Field of California sent the first message to President Lincoln in which “he stressed the important role of telegraphy in the prevailing Civil War situation.” (Huurdeman, 100) As telegraph lines generally followed the railway lines in both Europe and America, which arose about the same time, I assume that this sort of parasitic relationship of the telegraph on the railway meant that the telegraph played a similarly influential role on warfare. Early on it was recognized that an international telecommunications infrastructure required detailed coordination. The first international agreement was between Austria-Hungary and Prussia in 1849. Many other international agreements soon followed, and in 1865 at the invitation of Emperor Napoleon III delegates from twenty sovereign states attended a conference that ended with the signing of the Convention of International Telegraph Union.
In 1896, Marconi demonstrated his radio to officials of the British Post Office, the Army, and the Navy. In this case it was used to transmit a signal terrestrially over a distance of 5.3 km, but Marconi had also sent a letter to the Secretary of State for War Affairs offering “his device as a system for radio control of torpedoes or other unmanned vessels.” (Huurdeman, 208) Radio experiments soon proliferated around the world. They usually involved military and maritime applications. Mobile radio equipment came about almost as soon as radio was invented. “The U.S. Army Signal Corps installed radio equipment in horse carriages in 1909.” (Huurdeman, 286) Mobile radio equipment was widely used during World War I. With the discovery of the triode tube in 1907 electronic radio equipment was poised to take off but World War I halted development. Shortwave transmission was discovered in the 1920s. The 2 MHz band was given to amateurs as it was thought that this frequency was useless for long distance communication. These amateurs, mostly ex-military radio operators, quickly proved the value of the high frequency range by communicating worldwide.
The Internet may now be a common household tool of entertainment and equally mundane tasks but it certainly did not start out that way. In the early 1970s the USSR claimed to have missiles that could reach major cities of the U.S. within minutes. This led to the first iteration of the Strategic Defense Initiative. A fail-safe computer network was required to coordinate and transmit data from the proposed grid of satellites that would conceivably detect any missile launch. This computer network, named Arpanet, came into operation in 1971. The origins of Arpanet actually go back to the launching of Sputnik in 1957, as the Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) was formed a year after, and in response to, Sputnik. The first email was sent in March 1972. This new U.S.-based terrestrial computer defense network was connected to a new satellite network called Satnet. This satellite network connected an Earth station in West Virginia with another at Goonhilly Downs in England and with the Norwegian Royal Radar Establishment “Norsar.” (Huurdeman, 584) Other terrestrial sites and Earth stations rapidly came online. In 1980, the National Science Foundation established a new network and within six years computer science departments of almost every university or academic institution in the U.S. were connected. Eventually in early 1983, DARPA separated the public network, which was named the Internet, and the military network, which was named Milnet. (Huurdeman, 585) It is easy to see that we simply would not have Top 40 radio, Oldies stations, the kinds of desktop computing power, and the Internet that we have today if it were not for early military development and applications. Still today, the military continues to drive telecommunications research. Frequency-hopping, multiple band radios; cryptography; low power, long distance, ultra-lightweight, secure radio-telephones; and Mobile Subscriber Equipment (MSE) capable of providing tactical battlefield Internet2 capability to the 4th Infantry Division are just some of the forms of leading edge telecommunications demanded by the military. As for computing in its raw form, one of the very few applications that require supercomputers is nuclear bomb simulation. The military has clearly been and continues to be a driving force and an early adopter of telecommunications and computers. These two sub-systems are clearly interrelated.
(Sources for this answer are primarily The Technological System chap. 4, The Technological Bluff chap. 3, Runaway World,The Worldwide History of Telecommunications and class notes from 23 Oct 03)
3. Ellul observes that “the better adapted man is, the more tolerant and liberal the system can act toward him. The more he conforms, the less constraint has to be used.” Write an essay explaining this and integrating Ellul’s insights with Perrow’s depiction of first, second, and third order controls.
Ellul says that “the better adapted man is, the more tolerant and liberal the system can act toward him. The more he conforms, the less constraint has to be used.” (Ellul, 1980, 109) He makes this claim while discussing flexibility as a feature of the technological system. Ellul says that as long as man does not challenge the system he is allowed a fair amount of independence. This is accomplished by increasing the abstraction of the system and the establishment of second- and third-order controls. Seemingly he acquires greater freedoms, but these freedoms are compensation for, or adaptations to, the system; thus, they actually further decrease our freedom and responsibilities while providing the sense that we are free and responsible. We are given more choices but these choices are only choices of technique. So long as we choose a new self-help group, or a little blue pill to elevate our mood or our members, or choose MP3 over CD, and so on, we are free to do as we like. In fact, these and many other lifestyle choices, to include who we want to be today, are marketed to us. So what are these second- and third-order controls that are used to give us the illusion of freedom and responsibility?
Perrow’s article gives us the answer to this question. First-order controls are direct surveillance, orders, and rules and regulations. These do, of course, exist in the technological system, but their overuse would result in our correctly feeling the loss of freedom and responsibility. Proliferation of rules and regulations also leads to errors, primarily because people will choose the least inconvenient rule to follow and not necessarily the most applicable. Second-order controls primarily consist of standardization and specialization, but also include hierarchy according to Perrow. He specifically says that these concepts have “technical origins and rationale,” that is, they are technique. (Perrow, 7) By limiting the amount of stimuli that people have to respond to they control people. They channel behavior and if they are well constructed they result in more predictable and efficient behavior. (Perrow, 8) So although second-order controls result in our having less to control, they provide us with the feeling of being in control. This parallels Ellul’s claim that the technological system strips us of our responsibility.
Large amounts of ambiguity and uncertainty produce fear and anxiety in us. We are afraid of making an error and the possible consequences of doing so. This is why we hand over all of our responsibilities, particularly our moral responsibilities, to experts. Moral judgments always involve contexts that include ambiguity or uncertainty. Thus, we rely on those who are specialized, or on standard procedures, to make these decisions for us. Third-order controls change or control our premises. By controlling our premises our attention can be directed to some stimuli and redirected away from other stimuli. This is done by reducing the amount of information we have in an area and increasing the amount somewhere else. By using this form of control less first- and second-order controls can be used. By having our premises changed we feel even more in control; that we are freer. Several of the ways that our attention is directed or redirected is by signs, posters, speeches, and performance reviews; frowns and smiles in everyday conversation; repeated use of keywords (ala plastic words); controlling the number of words; and reinforcement, particularly positive reinforcement. (Perrow, 11-13)
These types of control certainly seem applicable to the organization or corporation; but how do they apply to society in general, and how do they support the technological system?
nowadays we have all kinds
of complicated machines
so no one person
ever has to have blood on their hands
we have complex organizations
and if everyone just does their job
no one person ever has to understand
(Ani DiFranco – crime for crime)
Second-order controls are particularly prevalent. Our institutions are all highly standardized and specialized. Law no longer involves judgments but has become procedural rules to be followed. Techniques for everything from sales to test taking to critical thinking have been developed. Standardized testing is well, standardized, and is a massive industry. Standards apply to practically everything we buy or consume. Equipment must be interchangeable and work together, food must be safe, labeling laws specify what must be listed and how. Schools of higher education have reduced themselves to simply (re)producing technicians. I could go on ad nauseum about second-order controls, but far more interesting for the feelings of freedom and responsibility that they impart to us are third-order controls. The reduction of the amount of information in certain areas of our lives is easily taken care of by the control of the media by a very few, very large corporations. This is particularly important in the areas of politics and world affairs. But by control being in the hands of only a few, usually locally remote, corporations we do not even know what is going on in our “own backyards.” These same large media corporations also conveniently handle the redirection or replacement of these missing stimuli by other stimuli. The compensations of the media are practically endless, and this is where we are most “free.” There are a practically unlimited number of channels on TV, be it satellite, cable or broadcast. Every week several new movies are released. Didn’t that ad on TV look great? An unlimited supply of specialty magazines exist for the connoisseur of everything from Barbie™ dolls to cigars. Music—would you like that on tape, vinyl, CD, DVD-Audio, SACD… Propaganda of all sorts is used as redirection, or is it misdirection? How is it that over sixty percent of the American population came to believe that direct ties existed between Saddam Hussein and al Queda? Why were we being told in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 to go shopping? Just what does “We Stand United” mean? Psychological commitment to the organization is a classic result of third-order controls. By changing our premises—making us believe that if you do not support George Bush and his cronies that you are not only unpatriotic but treasonous; convincing us that Britney Spears can really sing—we believe that we are in control; that we are responsible for our choices; and that we are free.
(Sources for this answer are primarily The Technological System chap. 4, The Bureaucratic Paradox, crime for crime and class notes)
5. Discuss the military as a technological subsystem.
In systems theory there are two types of systems, opened and closed systems. Closed systems are more-or-less isolated from their environments as in a machine. Open systems continuously exchange matter and energy with their environments as in an ecosystem. Systems theory is based in part on holism in that the system is greater than the sum of its parts. It is also less than the sum of its parts in that it does not make use of the entirety of each individual or subsystem. There is a hierarchy involved in that each system (except the topmost) is both system and subsystem. Progressive integration, where the parts become more closely related to the whole, and progressive differentiation, where the parts become more specialized, leads to greater flexibility for the system. Progressive mechanization, which is the tendency to limit a part to one function, and progressive centralization, which is where the overall system becomes increasingly dependent on the leading subsystem, leads to greater fragility. Thus, each higher-level system tends to become both more flexible and more fragile.
The lecture on systems theory meshes beautifully with the history of warfare. In The Pursuit of Power, McNeill does not use or discuss systems theory at all, but the concepts of progressive integration, progressive differentiation, progressive mechanization, and progressive centralization with the accompanying greater flexibility and fragility are extremely applicable to militaries and warfare. Using the United States military as an example it is easy to demonstrate these ideas of systems theory.
Progressive integration is demonstrated by the existence of the all-volunteer force. Allowing the force to constitute itself through volunteers integrates the military to a much greater depth with U.S. society than the primarily draft force of the Viet Nam war era when the force clearly did not represent an equitable cross-section of the U.S. male population. In reality, neither does the all-volunteer force, but these are volunteers and thus as Americans we can be proud of them. They are our military. In a different context, progressive integration of the military subsystem within the larger U.S. system is demonstrated by the increased use of the military as a tool of foreign policy. Two wars fought for oil and the strengthening of our global (corporate) hegemony, despite the irrationality of a seriously increased lessening of security at home clearly demonstrate this. The military as a subsystem has become more dependent on the system as a whole to keep it functioning.
Progressive specialization is even easier to demonstrate. The ‘parts’ have become increasingly specialized in so many ways. Units, individual service members, specific weapons and weapons systems all are increasingly specialized. McNeill clearly demonstrated in his book the specialization of all these aspects of the military. Specialization began as far back as the ancient Assyrians. Individuals within the U.S. military each have a Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) that specifically details how and what they will be trained on and what their job duties will be at every point throughout their careers. All units, from as small as the squad all the way up to the division, are specialized. Throughout my career I served in many units at various levels. In my last unit I was the Noncommissioned Officer in Charge of the Communications-Electronic Maintenance Facility (platoon of communications equipment repairers) in the Headquarters & Headquarters Company (administration and support) of the 124th Signal Battalion (communications providers) of the 4th Infantry Division (mechanized infantry, and the most up-to-date high tech division). Within my platoon I supervised soldiers with six different MOSs! And I was supposed to know all of these jobs myself along with the various roles we played within the entire division! Specialization does not get much worse.
As weapons systems become more highly specialized they become more mechanized leading to greater fragility, as U.S. experiences in Iraq have and are demonstrating. The Patriot missile is a wonderful example from the first Gulf War. It was designed solely to destroy enemy aircraft although it was quickly used to attempt to shoot down Scud missiles. The actual results of this usage are still classified. Most civilians and the press howled at how incapable it seemed to be at this job, especially in Israel. But, in a sense, it was actually fairly successful because most people failed to realize that the task was one which it simply was not designed to handle. That it worked in this capacity at all is fairly amazing, but nonetheless demonstrates the fragility of highly specialized weapons systems. Another failure of specialization that we have seen demonstrated since at least Beirut in the 1980s is the repeated attempts at using the U.S. military as peacekeepers. While portions of the military do finally receive some training in peacekeeping, this mission is completely antithetical to the mission of warriors. Repeated failure of these missions, as demonstrated by the fact that since the end of hostilities in Iraq we have greatly passed the number of combat casualties, should alert us to the problems of progressive specialization and mechanization.
The amount of high tech equipment, which is used to coordinate and control the Army’s 4th Infantry Division, is proof of the progressive centralization of the system. All of the Division’s combat systems are highly computerized and feed into central Command and Control Centers, while the Commanding General guides his combat commanders via video-teleconferencing. The 124th Signal Battalion provides the tactical, mobile and secure equivalent of the Internet2 to the division to meet these needs. It is an incredible technical accomplishment which requires highly trained and skilled soldier-technicians, along with a veritable army of defense contractor technicians, to operate and maintain the communications system that allows this level of centralization.
I would like to end this discussion of the military as a subsystem of the technological system by discussing two points of integration that I was unable to discuss in my paper on McNeill’s book. The rise of rational planning on materiel testing began in France in the late eighteenth century. The arrival of solid bored guns spread rapidly across the European continent after 1750, but it was the Frenchman Jean Baptiste Vacquette de Gribeauval who took the next step. He began systematic and routine testing of barrels in the quest for the shortest and thinnest, yet safe for the cannoneer, barrels. He also applied the same methods of testing to all elements of field artillery weapons: “limbers, ammunition wagons, horse harnesses, gunsights, and the like. His idea was simple and radical: to apply reason and experiment to the task of creating a new weapons system.” (McNeill, 170) For the first time in history, cannons could keep up with marching infantry, and thus became a decisive force on the battlefield. In his discussion of industrial fatigue, Schivelbusch says that “in the 1860s, the German August Wöhler laid the foundation for modern material-testing,” by describing and quantifying fatigued and broken train-car axles. (Schivelbusch, 125) German metallurgy and chemistry may have been far enough advanced by the 1860s for Schivelbusch to make this claim. But, without knowing exactly how Schivelbusch was using ‘modern,’ I would say that McNeill has clearly shown that rational planning, at least, in material testing began ninety years prior. This state sponsored enterprise served to further integrate rational planning, material testing, politics, and science with the subsystem of the military.
The second point of integration I would like to discuss is the use of propaganda to mobilize the home front for war, particularly in the wake of 9/11. As McNeill states, “An enemy at the gates has always been the best substitute for spontaneous consensus at home.” (McNeill, 380) The U.S. political-military-media-industrial complex wasted no time at all in the wake of 9/11 in firing up the propaganda machine. In a matter of days, we had a new Department of Homeland Security, colored coded threat levels, ridiculous advice on how to protect ourselves (duct tape!), and an incessant spread of the culture of fear mixed in with the exhortations of spend, spend, spend to show our patriotism and lack of fear in the face of a new enemy. “Show them we are not afraid, buy a new SUV!” The system is well integrated when patriotism is defined by the purchase of consumer goods.
(Sources for this answer are primarily The Pursuit of Power, my review of The Pursuit of Power,
class notes from 23 and 30 Oct 03, and my own personal experience.)
7. Discuss the limitations and criticisms of the Internet, according to Dreyfus. How do these relate to Ellul’s and Stivers’ criticism of the computer?
On the Internet is an excellent introduction as to why the Internet will not solve our educational problems, deliver just the information we want, deliver all of reality to us, nor add meaning to our lives, as many claim. (Dreyfus, 2) Dreyfus’ main criticisms of the Internet are that: (1) the Internet’s size and structure preclude the finding of relevant information; (2) as an educational tool it can at best give us competency, but not proficiency or expertise; (3) telepresence fails as it presumes presence; and (4) the Internet destroys meaning in our lives.
Ellul’s criticisms of the computer are that: it accentuates the predominance of technicians; it accelerates technologies exteriorizing of human capacities; it cannot include qualitative factors that are needed for decision making; its true role is to allow the technological system to definitively establish itself as a system; it creates a new reality and imposes this reality as the only effective reality; it excludes dialectical thinking; and that it decreases democracy and increases centralization. (Ellul, 1980)
Stivers’ criticisms parallel and expand on Ellul’s. His primary contribution has been to show that the ridiculous claims are not just simply ridiculous, but that they function as magic. Also from Technology as Magic, he has shown that “the computer and statistical information are seen as synonymous.” (Stivers, 1999a, 107) Under Management as Magic he has shown how the computer has created only the illusion of decentralization. He also criticizes the computer on the grounds that it: is a threat to intellectual and moral education; reduces words to abstract meanings, thereby objectifying meaning; promotes logical thought at the expense of dialectical thinking; proliferates random information which fosters a cynical worldview; turns us into consumers of information which fragments the personality and makes moral responsibility difficult; and that it allows for anonymous discourse and substitutes information for judgment.
In Chapter One on hyperlinks, Dreyfus points out the structure of the web as single-level and as allowing links from any bit of data to any other for absolutely any reason. Table 1 opposes “Old Library Culture” and the “Hyperlinked Culture” which shows “the transformation of a meaning-driven, semantic structuring of information into a formal, syntactic structuring, where meaning plays no role.” (Dreyfus, 11, emphasis mine) Dreyfus talks of users wanting to collect as much information as possible, and their not being interested in what is significant. Quantity over quality is the point. If one were to spend just a short amount of time thinking about these single page comments about the fundamental structure of computerized information and some of the behavior that it elicits from us one should immediately be struck by the force of several of Ellul and Stivers’ criticisms. The formal, syntactical structuring of data excludes the qualitative data needed for decision-making, excludes dialectical thinking because Boolean logic is either/or, and it reduces words to their most abstract meaning thus objectifying meaning. If one can only work with language based on its syntactic structure then each word must have one and only one technical meaning. Words acquire their meaning from the context that they are used in, but computers are unable to recognize context. Thus, knowledge is reduced to information. This reduction of language and dialectical thinking also reduces our freedom. Both Kierkegaard and Ellul have shown that it “is only dialectical thought that allows us to be free.” (Stivers, 1999b, 100)
By allowing anything to be linked to anything else, and then noticing the collection behavior that it elicits we see that again dialectical thinking is excluded. Collection behavior has absolutely nothing to do with critical thinking, and in fact, may be antithetical to it. At the very least, the proliferation of random information and the cynical worldview that this fosters is antithetical to dialectical thinking. Stivers has shown that the “myth of the computer is that it maximizes human choice about information,” but that in “reality it establishes totalitarian control over information.” (Stivers, 1999b, 100) He has also shown that it mediates my relationship to my abilities, and to others. Excess information becomes disinformation, and we begin to think that the world is best understood by the greatest quantity of information. Thus, the cynical worldview arises “that we live in a random and meaningless world about which the omnipotent computer can generate an infinite amount of information that we can exploit to our advantage.” (Stivers, 1999b, 101)
The proliferation, and useless linking, of random information turns us into consumers of information, fragments our personalities, and causes us to substitute information for moral judgment. This happens because the computer gives us a false sense of power, while also leading to a “confused sense of impotence. Information overload leads to a failure to choose. Excessive information, particularly that of the mass media and advertising, turns us into consumers of information. From the age of sixteen until my mid-20s I subscribed to the magazine Stereo Review and I eventually had to stop because I found that although I had a very nice stereo I found myself always wanting something else, something more. I became unhappy with what I had although it still worked and sounded perfectly fine. I had turned into a connoisseur of stereo equipment and was being manipulated into always wanting something more.
In a sense, I think that Dreyfus’ Chapter Two and Three on stages of skill acquisition and the limits of telepresence along with Ellul and Stivers’ critiques of computers, while not directly applicable to each other, kind of skirt the larger questions of education, the goal(s) of education, and the way in which we should provide education to reach these goals. Of all of the pieces by these authors that I am aware of, or have read, Stivers most directly addresses these concerns in his “The Deconstruction of the University.” All three authors I believe would agree that for real learning to take place an involved, committed teacher must be present with involved, committed students. Learning is a slow, hard process. It involves risk, choice, and judgment. Computers act to speed up what is essentially slow human thought. Their anonymity reduces risk, while the excess of information reduces judgment.
Dreyfus’ critique in Chapter Four in some ways parallels Stivers’. Dreyfus says that the Internet levels all qualitative distinctions, leads to the holding of opinions without having to act on them, undermines commitment, and that “the electronic agora is a grave danger to real political community.” (Dreyfus, 104) Stivers says that information only shapes behavior, while it is qualitative knowledge that develops character. Moreover, moral judgment requires knowledge of culture and history. But today, ethics are taught as moral preferences, as simple consumer choices. Children are not taught the background knowledge required for moral judgment, and even if they were, they are handicapped by not understanding that it is only within cultural and historical context that they are able to evaluate moral actions. Thus, we are raising generations of children who are being denied the highest form of freedom, moral judgment.
Stivers also addresses the irresponsible discourse engendered and promoted by computers. All three authors have shown that the computer helps to foster the view that freedom exists without responsibility. They have also all addressed the point that totalitarianism makes everything public by blurring the distinction between public and private.
Because they each critiqued the computer for different purposes, and from different starting points, there are some differences between Ellul, Stivers, and Dreyfus. These differences are small though when compared to the immense amount of overlap one can discern between them when one takes the slow human approach and applies the freedom exercised by the use of language and of critical thinking.
(Sources for this answer are primarily Technology as a System,The Computer and Education, On the Internet and class notes.)
8. Discuss the idea that the technological system is out of control. How might we once again gain moral control of technology?
The idea that the technological system is out of control has been espoused by Ellul, Stivers, and others. I will discuss this idea as it constitutes itself in various sub-systems of the overall technological system and in aspects of our lives. The first clue that the system is out of control comes from the lack of true feedback as discussed in question one (1). Mankind can provide the only effective feedback, but we choose not to do so. This is not an active choice. It is a passive one, which by its very nature we are not aware of not making. We must learn to make a choice or we are doomed.
The first example that I would like to use to demonstrate that the system is out of control is from economics. Hermann Daly clearly showed in his article that free trade is not only destroying the Earth, but that it is doing so at an ever-increasing rate. His article was written before NAFTA was approved and we now face the FTAA assault. Deregulated international commerce, as Daly says free trade should be called, operates on faulty assumptions and by externalizing the true costs of trade. Transnational corporations have continued to push for weaker environmental and labor laws around the world, while they send their capital wherever they can get away with the most that increases the bottom line. Just look at what has been happening to environmental laws in the U.S. since Bush came to power. The same can be said of labor laws in the U.S. Even this weakening is not enough for corporations in the U.S. based on the number of jobs lost the last few years. Another sign of the economic sub-system being out of control is shown by the absolute power of these transnational corporations as demonstrated in Seattle, Quebec, and most recently in Miami, among other places. Cops in full riot gear, armed with metal nightsticks, tazers, rubber bullets, tear gas, and even tanks, attacked completely unarmed, law-abiding citizens, to include senior citizens, with absolutely no provocation. The city of Miami passed ordinances outlawing the wearing of any article of clothing with a political message or the congregation of more than three persons within a several block radius of the site of the FTAA meetings for a period of a few weeks before and after the meetings. How I would have liked to attend the protests in Miami wearing a shirt with the Bill of Rights printed on the front and “My son is fighting your dirty war for oil” printed on the back! When cities can pass and enforce ordinances that make our constitutionally given rights illegal simply to serve the interests of corporations the system is clearly out of control.
According to the lecture of 20 November, Robert Kaplan, in The Coming Anarchy, lists many symptoms we are currently seeing become manifest: disease, overpopulation, overuse of resources, refugee migrations, the erosion of the nation-state and international borders, and so on. The UNAIDS AIDS Epidemic Report 2003 claims that more than 40 million people worldwide are now infected with HIV/AIDS, and that in 2003 more than 3 million people died from this disease. At the largest hospital in the world, Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, South Africa, more than two thousand new patients a day filter through its doors with more than half of these being positive for HIV/AIDS. The vast majority of these patients, along with most of the 40 million infected people get no medical treatment because they are unable to afford the exorbitant cost of the relatively effective drug regimen. Of course, these drugs are manufactured and sold by huge transnational pharmaceutical companies who have no interest in sharing their products with those unable to pay. Interestingly, of the 3 million plus people to die from HIV/AIDS in 2003, only approximately eighteen thousand of these deaths were in North America and Western Europe, home to the major pharmaceutical companies. (UNAIDS Report)
Overuse of resources is another rapidly growing factor of a system out of control. According to an UN-backed report, half the world's population is living in unsanitary conditions without access to clean water. The report, drawn up by the World Commission on Water for the 21st Century, says three billion of the world's most deprived people live in squalor and misery without access to proper sanitation. One billion of them have no access to safe water at all. Over five thousand children die every day due to water-borne illnesses. Even in the U.S., particularly in the western states, fights over water and water rights are rapidly escalating. Cities, states, farmers, and ranchers are all taking each other to court over the use of water. Soon, if not already, in some places of the world wars will be fought over clean water. (WWC)
As these and other battles loom, much of the world tries to rely on national and international organizations for assistance and decisions. But, Richard Stivers has shown that management is simply another form of magic, while Henry Mintzberg has shown that the more we come to depend on these types of bureaucratic organizations the more unmanageable society becomes.
One of the great lies of the industrial revolution is that eventually all of the wonderful timesaving, unemployment producing technologies will provide us with unlimited leisure time. Unemployment will not matter, as we will finally be liberated from the clock and the need to work. In fact, this is the exact opposite of the case in traditional societies. Anthropology and other disciplines are finally coming to the conclusion that despite the many natural dangers faced by traditional societies, life was one of inordinate leisure. Once a modicum of shelter was provided and a sustainable source of food was located, traditional societies spent most of their time in leisure activities. In the technological society we have become slaves to the clock, constantly forced to multitask, spending an inordinate amount of time servicing the very possessions that are supposed to set us free. The computer, the supposed supreme tool of our liberation, enslaves us to an even greater degree as our lives become almost synchronous within society. The present becomes the ever present, while the past and future recede farther and farther from our lives. This is an extremely dangerous development. As we lose our sense of qualitative time, that is historical and narrative time, we lose our sense of meaning as meaning is developed through, and set in, time.
In The Technological Bluff, Ellul tells us that an excess of information has four results: our minds become filled with useless, purposeless information and it thus becomes disinformation; it creates a culture of forgetting and causes a broken view of the world; it turns us into exclusive consumers unable to care for our own needs; and, it ultimately leads to a failure to make choices and leads to a confused sense of impotence. The mass media, and in particular the visual media, are especially implicit in this process. Television turns us into intellectual aesthetes while striking a schizophrenic cord in us. We are intellectually fascinated by the category of the interesting while simultaneously developing an intellectual cynicism. All the while, the visual images grab us and affect us at an emotional level having a massive effect of disorganization and fragmentation on us.
All of these things that I have discussed so far clearly point to a technological system that is out of control. There are, of course, many other sub-systems and their effects upon us that I could cite, but now it is time to turn to what can be done. How is it that we might once again gain moral control of technology? Clearly this is a moral question of the utmost importance. The technological system is having devastating effects on humans, both in the developed countries and in the developing world. The haves do not share their largesse with the have-nots, ecological disasters and disease epidemics of magnitudes previously unseen are occurring or are looming over the near horizon, non-replenishable resources are quickly disappearing, the income gap between rich and poor is rapidly widening, wars are fought for access to oil and soon for clean water, and all the while every aspect of human life, physical and mental, is targeted by technique. Humankind has never faced a more important moral question than whether or not we will choose to take back control from the technological system. Unfortunately, the prospects are grim. The battle for control cannot be a technological one. Those very few of us who see this issue as a moral choice, and we are a very few indeed, simply cannot rely on technique to aid us. If we resort to the use of psychological technique to convince others to make this choice we will be no better than those who daily assault us with the myriad psychological techniques designed to adapt us to, or compensate for, the technological society. This choice must be made freely, because the use of technique enslaves both the target and the user. So what do I, and others, recommend?
There are both small, direct type actions and broader actions that individuals can take to regain moral control. The very first thing that I recommend be done, something that I did over two years ago, is to turn off the television! This will greatly reduce the quantity of visual advertising and propaganda that one is bombarded with every day. Yes, it may mean that one has far less to talk about around the proverbial water cooler with one’s friends and co-workers each day, but one can then begin the long, hard slog of finding others with interests besides what the media conglomerates tell us is interesting. This I have also undertaken by participating in several reading and discussion groups. This has led me to read several works of great literature, which while far too nuanced for the ‘made for TV movie’ treatment, do contain important insights and commentary on what it means to be a moral human.
Another useful tack is to ignore the ‘reality’ of the market and get a broad-based liberal arts education. This I have also done and continue to do so. Despite the criticism or outright bafflement of many, I continue my education as a graduate student at-large. While I did receive, or more appropriately took for myself, a good undergraduate education, it is only by continuing my education, broadly construed, that I am finally able to make so many important connections and insights into our world. This education, which will soon take on a more specialist bent and thus become less relevant in this regard, is one of my most prized possessions. I intend to continue down this path for the rest of my life. While I must spend some time specializing so that I may pursue my goals, I must also guard against becoming overly specialized. I hope to avoid this common educational outcome by attaining two masters degrees and then obtaining employment at an academic library as a subject specialist librarian or reference librarian. From this position I hope to be able to affect and to be affected by several generations of scholars, all the while pursuing my broad interests.
From this position as a librarian I also hope to be able to promote the use of language in discourse. It is only through the use of a living language that we can truly be free. Richard Stivers has recommended that we educate others in just this way. By going out and talking to as many local groups as possible about the technological society we live in we may reach others without the use of manipulative psychological techniques. There are others who have become convinced that life as we currently live it has become intolerable and that technology has run up against a brick wall. By engaging with others through the use of discourse, without sermonizing or manipulating, we may be able to reach those few who are in fact moral creatures and who want to be able to see through the massive confusion and indecision caused by the technological system. I also hope to be able to set an example as a moral individual. By exercising moral judgment through the application of a principled, but lived, moral attitude in both work and non-work aspects of my life I hope to combat an insidious and growing moralism.
One of the most important steps is to educate oneself and others as to the problem that we all face. Reading, thinking about, and discussing works by Ellul, Wendell Berry, Stivers, Ivan Illich and others is only the beginning. These folks have already pointed out a few ways of gaining control. Berry recommends that one must be careful of joining popular movements. These are usually single-issue movements that are too piecemeal, too specific, and all too easily become special interest groups that deal with the effects of a problem but not with the causes. Illich recommends that people in local communities must regain the ability to affect their communities, and that we must fight the taking over of our lives by experts. We must take responsibility for, and make, the decisions that affect our lives. Ellul tells us that the ‘revolution’ must be cultural, local, and more negative than positive. I agree with Ellul that it must be cultural before it is political. The kind of change we are talking about cannot be legislated. Even if it could be simply legislated, which is clearly an impossibility, it would be completely unenforceable. The revolution must be cultural in that the individuals that constitute each society must agree upon it. Ellul gives us even more specific guidance when he says that the revolution against the technological society must reject: nationalism, the centralized power of the political state, all forms of propaganda, consumerism, all human technique, the idea that the group or organization is all important, and the idea of life as a game. Although this is a fairly broad and radical sounding list, there are many actions that we as individuals can undertake on a daily basis. And make no mistake, the insignificant actions that we all go through each and every day are powerful in their support, or undermining, of the technological society.
Do I choose to shop at Wal-Mart just because it has the cheapest prices or is convenient? One must consider the reasons why those prices are low and whether the trade-offs implicit in the convenience are worth it. For me they are not. Do I drive an SUV or another form of gas guzzling vehicle instead of promoting efficient public transportation, car-pooling or riding a bike? By driving an SUV am I directly contributing to the costs, economic and human, of war for oil? Am I obliged to keep up and increase my level of consumer spending to be patriotic? Just what is it that is unpatriotic about energy conservation? We are all complicit in the technological society. It has become our milieu, our environment; we literally eat and breathe it, live and die in it. We must begin taking control, moral control, of this system. Our literal health and happiness, not just our symbolic health and happiness, depend on our doing so.
(Sources for this answer are primarily Technology as Magic, “The Perils of Free Trade,” “The
Power of Technique and The Ethics of Non-Power,” UNAIDS,AIDS Epidemic Report 2003, World Commission on Water for the 21st Century, class notes from 20 Nov 03 forward, and my own personal experience.)
Daly, Hermann E., “The Perils of Free Trade,” Scientific American November 1993, pp. 50-57.
DiFranco, Ani. crime for crime on Not a Pretty Girl.Righteous Babe Records, 1995.
Ellul, Jacques, “The Power of Technique and The Ethics of Non-Power,” in The Myths of Information: Technology and Post-Industrial Culture, (Madison, WI: Coda Press, Inc., 1980)
Ellul, Jacques, The Technological Bluff, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1990)
Ellul, Jacques, The Technological Society, (NY: Vintage Books, 1964)
Ellul, Jacques, The Technological System, (NY: Continuum Publishing Corporation, 1980)
Gibson, James William, The Perfect War, (Boston: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986)
Giddens, Anthony, Runaway World: How Globalization is Reshaping Our Lives, (NY: Routledge, 2000)
Huurdeman, Anton A., The Worldwide History of Telecommunications, (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Interscience, 2003)
McNeill, William H., The Pursuit of Power, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982)
Charles Perrow, “The Bureaucratic Paradox: The Efficient Organization Centralizes in Order to Decentralize,” Organizational Dynamics Spring 1977, pp. 3-14.
Schivelbusch, Wolfgang, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1986)
Stivers, Richard, Technology as Magic: The Triumph of the Irrational, (NY: Continuum, 1999) [1999a]
Stivers, Richard, “The Computer and Education: Choosing the Least Powerful Means of Instruction,” The Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 19(2), April 1999 pp. 99-104. [1999b]
Stivers, Richard, “The Deconstruction of the University,” Centennial Review 35(1), Winter 1991 pp. 115-136.
UNAIDS, AIDS Epidemic Report 2003, (Geneva, Switzerland: UNAIDS/WHO, December 2003)
World Water Council, World Commission on Water for the 21st Century, (Marseilles, France, 2000)