Establishing the Concept of Technology

Jaques Ellul published The Technological System as a followup to his book The Technological Society in 1982. After establishing a framwork for the concept of a technological system, he drills down to the background of technology as its own concept. Rather than beginning in the abstract and defining technology from there, the concept he creates deductively builds from observations of the commonalities of things called technology in the current society:

I do claim that, scientifically, I can construct a phenomenon from the features of, and the interrelations between, the phenomena generally known as "technological" in our society.

To begin with, the phenomena of technology were divided into five branches, by the close of the 19th century:

  1. Raw materials
  2. Processes and machines bearing upon the home
  3. Hygiene and health
  4. Light and heat
  5. Tools and instruments

The categorization logic that gave rise to these categories is based on the original eymology of the word technology, that is, their technique.

The next generation of classification was to differentiate between energy and instruments:

  1. Tools and instruments (systems for increasing efficiency of human action, aka multipliers)
  2. Machines (systems that replace a process done by humans)
  3. Apparatuses (complex instruments combined with small machines)

This classification makes clear for the first time that there are systems which are inanimate, but replace humans, in a coherent ensemble, seen as a:

"set of inanimate or exceptionally animate beings, organized to replace man in performing a set of operations defined by man" (Louis Couffignal, Théorie de l'efficacité de l'action)

My own side question here might be: is there an overlap with other branches of philosophy that designates a category of spirit to the independently operating systems?

With energy sources now factored out of the classification system, Ellul lays the stages of industrial development out congruently with the stages of industrial development:

  1. First industrial revolution. Power source: coal.
  2. Second industrial revolution. Power source: electricity.
  3. Third industrial revolution. Power source: atomic.
  4. Fourth industrial revolution. No new power source.

The fourth industrial revoltion provides no new power source, and is instead characterized by the shifting of decision making onto the autonomous ensembles of computers (apparatuses and machines). This change created effects on the fundamental organization systems that govern humans; and therefore leads us to the concept of the "Technological Society." The computers of the fourth revolution are in essence a binding force for all the preceding and contemporary technologies, recombining them and generating synergies not predicted, making it difficult to study a single technology in isolation any longer. The effects are compounding. The fact that the sum of two technologies, combined through a computer, yields a result that is larger than the sum of the two technologies, makes it very difficult to form a model.

The blurring described above, and its consequent confusion, is a phenomenon new enough that it has not yet receded into the past enough to be perceived clearly:

"It is not an exaggeration to say that, at the present day, one of the main dangers of civilization arises from the inability of minds trained in the natural sciences to perceive the difference between the economic and the technical.” (C. Wright Mills quoting Lionel Robbins The Sociological Imagination, p. 80)

This blurring between the economic and the technical, it seems to me, began around the end of the 1940s and can be observed through the rise of management science, Robert McNamara's computer aided planning in the Defense Department, and Norbert Weiner's cybernetics. I believe this was the beginning of the cybernetic reality forming a decision making process based on past data, thereby creating the unspoken yet pervasive behavior of conforming the future to the past. We can see flashes of consciousness about this issue in today's communities of machine learning practitioners.

Back to Ellul: he establishes that he will consciously differentiate between technology and economy, and not take for granted a link between them: for example the often taken for granted idea that technological growth leads to economic growth.

the first step in elaborating on the concept of technology is, obviously, to isolate it from untold connected phenomena that are not in the realm of technology. Or else, they are-at first sight, inextricable-mixtures of technologies and other factors (political, familial, psychological, ideological, etc.). A failure to isolate the concept in order to first consider it in itself will spawn countless mistakes.

If mistake number one is to conflate the binding force of technology with the technologies it is binding, then mistake number two is to conjecture loosely about which technologies are here and which are on the way to universal application.

...if we study a system in which the technologies correlate to one another and we perceive that the system is not closed, then we also have to realize that we can neither anthropologize the technologies nor imagine their indefinite development. That is why we have to start by conceptualizing technology and flatly rejecting the hyperbolic and phantasmagorical depictions of tomorrow's society...

This deliberate splitting of technology from imagined futures and from the environment from which is grows is designed to atomize and identify technology as a concept in itself, separate from our own consciousnesses, and seeing it as is is.

All quotes are taken from The Technological System by Jaques Ellul, unless otherwise noted.

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