On the mode of existence of technical objects

Gilbert Simondon, ‘Introduction’, pp.15-21, in:

Simondon, G., 2016. On the mode of existence of technical objects. Univocal Pub, Minneapolis, MN.

p.15

Culture has constituted itself as a defense system against technics; yet this defense presents itself as a defense of man, and presumes that technical objects do not contain a human reality within them.

We would like to show that culture ignores a human reality within technical reality and that, in order to fully play its role, culture must incorporate technical beings in the form of knowledge and in the form of a sense of values

The opposition drawn between culture and technics, between man and machine, is false and has no foundation; it is merely a sign of ignorance or resentment.

Behind a facile humanism, it masks a reality rich in human efforts and natural forces, and which constitutes a world of technical objects as mediators between man and nature.

p.16

Misoneism directed against machines is not so much a hatred of novelty as it is a rejection of a strange or foreign reality. However, this strange or foreign being is still human, and a complete culture is one which enables us to discover the foreign or strange as human.

Furthermore, the machine is the stranger; it is the stranger inside which something human is locked up, misunderstood, materialized, enslaved, and yet which nevertheless remains human all the same.

The most powerful cause of alienation in the contemporary world resides in this misunderstanding of the machine, which is not an alienation caused by the machine, but by the non-knowledge of its nature and its essence, by way of its absence from the world of significations, and its omission from the table of values and concepts that make up culture.

The desire for power consecrates the machine as a means of supremacy, it makes of it a modern philter. The man who wants to dominate his peers calls the android machine into being. He thus abdicates before it and delegates his humanity to it. He seeks to construct a thinking machine, dreams of being able to build a volition machine, a living machine, in order to retreat behind it without anxiety, freed of all danger, exempt from all feelings of weakness, and triumphant through the mediation of what he invented.

We would like to show, precisely, that the robot does not exist, that it is not a machine, no more so than a statue is a living being, but that it is merely a product of the imagination and of fictitious fabrication, of the art of illusion.

p.17

Culture thus has two contradictory attitudes toward technical objects: on the one hand, it treats them as pure assemblages of matter, devoid of true signification, and merely presenting a utility. On the other hand, it supposes that these objects are also robots and that they are animated by hostile intentions toward man, or that they represent a permanent danger of aggression and insurrection against him.

This inherent contradiction within culture in fact comes from the ambiguity of the ideas related to automatism, and in them we discover the hidden logical flaw. Worshipers of the machine commonly present the degree of perfection of a machine as proportional to the degree of automatism. Going beyond what experience shows, they suppose that by increasing and perfecting automatism one would manage to combine and interconnect all machines among themselves, in such a way as to constitute the machine of all machines.

Automatism, however, is a rather low degree of technical perfection. In order to make a machine automatic, one must sacrifice a number of possibilities of operation as well as numerous possible usages. Automatism, and its utilization in the form of industrial organization, which one calls autom ation, possesses an economic or social signification more than a technical one.

The true progressive perfecting of machines, whereby we could say a machines degree of technicity is raised, corresponds not to an increase of automatism, but on the contrary to the fact that the operation of a machine harbors a certain margin of indeterminacy.

It is this margin that allows the machine to be sensitive to outside information. Much more than any increase in automatism, it is this sensitivity to information on the part of machines that makes a technical ensemble possible.

A purely automatic machine completely closed in on itself in a predetermined way of operating would only be capable of yielding perfunctory results. The machine endowed with a high degree of technicity is an open machine, and all open machines taken together presuppose man as their permanent organizer, as the living interpreter of all machines among themselves.

Far from being the supervisor of a group of slaves, man is the permanent organizer of a society of technical objects that need him in the same way musicians in an orchestra need the conductor.

p.18

Man thus has the function of being the permanent coordinator and inventor of the machines that surround him. He is among the machines that operate with him.

Man’s presence to machines is a perpetuated invention. What resides in the machines is human reality, human gesture fixed and crystallized into working structures. These structures need support during the course of their operation, and the greatest perfection coincides with the greatest openness, with the greatest freedom of operation.

Modern calculating machines are not pure automata; they are technical beings that, beyond their automatisms of addition (or of decision according to the operation of elementary switches), possess a great range of possibilities for the switching circuits, which allow for the coding of the machines operation by reducing its margin of indeterminacy.

It is also through the intermediary of this margin of indeterminacy and not through automatisms that machines can be grouped into coherent ensembles and exchange information with one another via the intermediary of the coordinator that is the human interpreter.

p.19

A genuine awareness of technical realities, grasped in their signification, corresponds to an open plurality of techniques. It cannot, moreover, be otherwise because a technical ensemble, even one that is not very extensive, comprises machines whose principles of operation are derived from very different scientific domains.

In order to restore to culture the truly general character it has lost, one must be capable of reintroducing an awareness of the nature of machines, of their mutual

relations and of their relations with man, and of the values implied in these relations. This awareness requires the existence of a technologist or mechanologist alongside the psychologist and the sociologist.

Moreover, these fundamental schemas of causality and regulation that constitute an axiomatic of technology, must be taught in a universal fashion, in the same way the foundations of literary culture are taught.

As the basis of significations, of means of expression, of justifications and of forms, a culture establishes regulatory communication among those who share that culture; arising from the life of the group, culture animates the gestures of those who ensure the command functions, by providing norms and schemas.

pp.19-20

However, before the great development of technics, culture incorporated the principal types of technics that give rise to lived experience, in the form of schemas, symbols, qualities, // and analogies. Our current culture, by contrast, is the old culture, incorporating as its dynamic schemas the state of artisanal and agricultural technics of bygone centuries.

p.20

Power becomes literature, the art of opinion, advocacy of plausibility, and rhetoric. The directive functions are false, because an adequate code of relations between the governed reality and the beings who govern no longer exists: the governed reality comprises men and machines; the code merely relies on the experience of the man working with tools, an experience which itself has become weakened and remote because those who use this code haven’t, like Cincinnatus, let go of the handles of the plow only yesterday.

Information that will express the simultaneous and correlative existence of men and machines must comprise the machines’ schemas of functioning and the values they imply. Culture, which has become specialized and impoverished, must once again become general. By removing one of its principal sources of alienation and by re-establishing regulative information, this extension of culture possesses political and social value: it can give man the means for thinking his existence and situation according to the reality that surrounds him.

In order to raise this awareness, it is possible to attempt to define the technical object itself, through the process of concretization and functional over-determination that gives it its consistency at the end-point of a process of evolution, thus proving that it cannot be considered as a mere utensil.

The modalities of this genesis enable one to grasp the three levels of the technical object and their non-dialectical temporal coordination: the element, the individual, and the ensemble.

Once the technical object is defined through its genesis, it becomes possible to study the relations between the technical object and other realities, in particular that of man at the stage of adulthood or childhood.

pp.20-21

Lastly, considered as an object of value judgment, the technical object can provoke very different attitudes depending on whether it is considered at the level // of the element, at the level of the individual, or at the level of the ensemble.

p.21

At the level of the element, the process of its improvement does not introduce any upheavals that would engender anxiety by conflicting with acquired habits: this is the climate of eighteenth century optimism, which introduces the idea of continuous and indefinite progress, bringing about the constant improvement of mans lot.

The technical individual entity, on the contrary, becomes for a certain time the adversary of man, his competitor, because man had centralized technical individuality within himself at a time when only tools existed; the machine thus takes the place of man because, as tool bearer, man used to do the job the machine now does. To this phase corresponds a dramatic and impassioned notion of progress, which turns into the rape of nature, the conquest of the world, and the exploitation of energies. This will to power expresses itself in the technophile and technocratic excesses of the thermodynamic era, which take on both a prophetic and cataclysmic spin.

Finally, at the level of the technical ensembles of the twentieth century, this thermodynamic energeticism is replaced by information theory, whose content is normative and eminently regulative and stabilizing: the development of technics appears to be a guarantee of stability. The machine, as an element of the technical ensemble, becomes that which increases the quantity of information, increases negentropy, and opposes the degradation of energy: the machine, being a work of organization and information, is, like life itself and together with life, that which is opposed to disorder, to the leveling of all things tending to deprive the universe of the power of change.

The machine is that through which man fights against the death of the universe; it slows down the degradation of energy, as life does, and becomes a stabilizer of the world.

This modification of the philosophical way of looking at the technical object announces the possibility of introducing the technical being into culture: this integration, which could not have taken place in a definitive way at the level of elements or at the level of individuals, will have a greater chance of stability at the level of ensembles; once technical reality has become regulative it can be integrated into culture, which is regulative in its essence.

This integration could only have occurred by way of addition in the age when technicity resided in its elements, or by way of a breach and a revolution in the age when technicity resided in new technical individuals; today, technicity tends to reside in ensembles.

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