Vilém Flusser, “Beyond Machines (but Still within the Phenomenology of Gestures)”, pp.10-18, in:
Flusser, V., 2014. Gestures. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
During its first phase (antiquity and the Middle Ages), history emphasizes the way the world should be; that is, people work to realize a value—ethical, political, religious, practical, in short, “in good faith.”During its second phase (modernity), it emphasizes the discovery of being in the world; that is, people work epistemologically, scientifically, experimentally, and theoretically, in short, “without faith.”
During its third phase (the present), it emphasizes methods; that is, people work technically, functionally, efficiently, strategically, and cybernetically, in short, “in great doubt,” “in // despair.”
During the first phase, the prevailing questions are directed toward purpose (for what?); during the second, toward causes (why?); and during the third phase, the prevailing questions are formal (how?). So history offers us three models for work: classical (engaged) work, modern (research) work, and contemporary (functional) work.[…] these three moments of work intersect. The three phases of history proposed here are only schematic, and the three models of work are never realized in pure form. But they serve a purpose, and they are adequate models, for they open a perspective on the so-called crisis of values.Work is, then, a gesture, an unnatural expression of the effort to realize values and to devalue realities.The three models of work open up the following perspective: in prehistory (magical work), the values were unquestioned; in the classical and medieval periods (engaged work), a decision had to be made between values; in modernity (work as research), the question of values lost its force; in the present (the time of technical work), the question of values has become nonsensical.
One no longer works to realize a value, nor to discredit a reality, but rather functions as the functionary of a function.
This absurd gesture cannot be grasped without observing machines, for we are actually // functioning as functions of a machine, which functions as the function of a functionary, who in turn functions as the function of an apparatus, which functions as a function of itself.
Machines are objects produced to defeat the world’s resistance, the substance of work. That is what machines are “good” for. A Paleolithic arrow is good for killing a reindeer, a Neolithic plow for working the land, and a classical windmill for transforming grain into flour, for the reindeer must be killed, the land worked, and the grain ground into flour. There is no problem with any of it: the machines are made to solve problems, not to create other problems.
Machines become problematical in the modern period, which is to say they become the opposite of what they should be, and that is the reason they attract interest to themselves (by way of definition, an interesting machine cannot be a good one, for by definition, interest in a good machine is in the thing for which it is good).Theoretical work in the modern sense (the gesture of evaluating essence) results in machines such as a telescope (so-called observational instruments), which are problematical. They are good for something (e.g., for seeing the mountains on the moon), only the word good has shifted meaning: no one can claim that the mountains on the moon need to be seen in the same sense that grain needs to be ground into flour.The second reason that modern machines are problematical is bound up with their being themselves objects of research. The question becomes “Why does a machine function?” rather than just “What is it good for?”This reversal in the relationship to the machine has a double result: the machine is perceived, for one thing, as a system that may serve as a model for the world, and for another, the machine’s theoretical principles of construction are revealed.
Machines will be the slaves of the future, and all human beings will become subjects of history, as they are freed from alienated labor. Machines will be the property of the whole of humanity, and each individual will be equal to others. The “classes,” that is, the division of humanity into those who do and those who do not possess machines, will die out, and there will then be a classless society. This optimism appears strange from our point of view, for to those who have lived in the late twentieth century, with automation, it seems obvious that the questions of value posed by modern machines rule out any optimistic interpretation, and have done so since the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century.
In fact, the Industrial Revolution accumulated machines very quickly, synchronized them with complex switching mechanisms, and so turned them into “apparatuses,” and the apparatus quickly made it clear that machines would have to be rethought. The nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century were optimistic, for they put off any radical rethinking of machines in terms of apparatus, with the sole exception of that technology that passed through the conveyor belt and rationalization of labor to full automation.Under preindustrial conditions, machines stand between people and the world on which they work.That is, under preindustrial conditions, a human being is the constant and the machine is the variable.
Under // industrial conditions, a person stands inside the machine as he is working, and the world on which he is working lies beyond his horizon (in the “metaphysical”). In a logical sense, the human being is an attribute of the apparatus, for someone else can replace him as the work proceeds, although the machine still retains human properties in a juridical sense. In the “man–machine” relationship, the machine is the constant and the human being the variable, which in itself renders the concept of “property” problematic: capitalists as well as proletarians become the property of machines, although in different ways.
We have learned that we cannot live without the apparatus or outside the apparatus. Not only does the apparatus provide us with our bodily and “intellectual” means of survival, without which we are lost, because we have forgotten how to live without them, and not only because it protects us from the world it obscures
Optimists with a faith in progress paint a picture of machines as slaves that will free human beings’ freedom for creative achievements. Only thanks to cybernetic apparatuses, “creation” is a concept quantifiable by means of information theory. Machines can be shown to be potentially far more creative than any human beings, if they are appropriately programmed by a human being or by another machine.There are various ways of functioning. With personal commitment, one loves the apparatus for whose function one is functioning (that is the good, career functionary). In despair, one turns in circles within the apparatus, until he withdraws (that is the man of mass culture). With a method, one continues to function within the apparatus, even if those functions change as a result of internal back-switching and merging with other apparatuses (that is the technocrat). In protest, one despises the apparatus and tries to destroy it, an effort the apparatus recuperates and transforms into its own functions (that is the terrorist). In hope, one tries gradually to dismantle the apparatus, to make it permeable, that is, one tries to reduce the quantity of functioning, to raise the “standard of living,” which automatically becomes another of the apparatus’s functions (those are environmentalists, hippies, etc.).
Epistemological and ethical thought has been replaced once and for all by cybernetic, strategic thought and by program analysis. History is over.Method for method’s sake, technology as a goal in itself, and “l’art pour l’art,” that is, function as the function of a function—that is the posthistorical life without work. It is posthistorical because history is a process in which people change the world so that it is as it should be, and when work stops, history, too, is still.And work stops when it no longer makes sense to ask how the world should be. It stops when the apparatus determines itself. Not because the apparatus “works for us,” but because the apparatus changes the world in a way that makes the question impossible. The apparatus is the end of history, an end that was always already foreseen by all utopias.But we don’t recognize our situation as utopia. For although we are already beyond machines, we remain incapable of imagining life without work and without meaning. Beyond machines, we are in an unimaginable situation.