Infernal Machine   /   April 7, 2015

79 Theses on Technology: On Things

“The Sausage” (of Operation Ivy), 1952.

One of the more refreshing aspects of Alan Jacobs’s wonderful exercise, “79 Theses on Technology. For Disputation,” is its medieval cast. Disputations, as Chad Wellmon writes, were medieval “public performances that trained university students in how to seek and argue for the truth.” Theses were textual tidbits that mediated things (res) by means of words (verba). Theses spurred the search for truth as they pointed readers or hearers to a world of things (res), rather than, as we currently assume, codifying and hardening “claims.” “Commentary,” as Jacobs suggests, was one important medieval means of trying to get to the things behind or beyond words (Theses 26-36).

I find it perplexing, then, that Jacobs is so seemingly unsympathetic to the meaningfulness of things, the class to which technologies belong:

40. Kelly tells us “What Technology Wants,” but it doesn’t: We want, with technology as our instrument.

41. The agency that in the 1970s philosophers & theorists ascribed to language is now being ascribed to technology. These are evasions of the human.

42. Our current electronic technologies make competent servants, annoyingly capricious masters, and tragically incompetent gods.

43. Therefore when Kelly says, “I think technology is something that can give meaning to our lives,” he seeks to promote what technology does worst.

44. We try to give power to our idols so as to be absolved of the responsibilities of human agency. The more they have, the less we have.

46. The cyborg dream is the ultimate extension of this idolatry: to erase the boundaries between our selves and our tools.

Here is some of my own commentary on Jacobs' theses.

There’s a documentary film from the 1950s called Operation Ivy. Made by the US Air Force, it concerns the first-ever detonation of a thermonuclear device, a historic (and horrible) technological achievement. One of the pivotal points of the film’s narrative comes just before the hydrogen device is detonated. The narrator asks the chief engineer in charge of the test, ‘But what happens if you have to stop the firing mechanism, or can you stop it?’’ The engineer responds, ‘‘We can stop it all right if we have to. We have a radio link direct to the firing panel in the shot cab. If we have to stop the shot we simply push this button.’’

‘‘Just a simple flip of the wrist, huh?’’ the narrator says.

‘‘That’s right," says the engineer, "but a lot of work goes down the drain. You understand we don’t want to stop this thing unless it is absolutely essential.’’

Our technological artifacts aren't wholly distinct from human agency; they are bound up with it.

“Human agency,” then, is not a solution to the moral and political problems of technology; it is the condition of their possibility, and too often a means of their rationalization. We don’t need to reclaim “human agency”; we need to reclaim the meaningfulness and power of things (res)—the complex ways in which human decisions and choices become embodied, even sedimented in things.

It is odd to read a literary critic, one with some medieval sensibilities no less, expressing concern about ascribing “agency” to technology, calling it “evasions of the human.” Texts are technologies, technologies are things. In The Book of Memory, a book that every media theorist should read, Mary Carruthers writes of the medieval text:

[In the middle ages] interpretation is not attributed to any intention of the man [the author]…but rather to something understood to reside in the text itself.… [T]he important "intention" is within the work itself, as its res, a cluster of meanings which are only partially revealed in its original statement…. What keeps such a view of interpretation from being mere readerly solipsism is precisely the notion of res—the text has a sense within it which is independent of the reader, and which must be amplified, dilated, and broken-out from its words….

Things, in this instance manuscripts, are indeed meaningful and powerful. Why would we want to divest things of their poetic quality, their meaningfulness, and indeed their power? Kevin Kelly may be off in his aims or misguided in his understanding, but he’s right to recognize in things, even and especially in technologies, sources of meaning and meaningfulness.

Of course technologies want. The button wants to be pushed; the trigger wants to be pulled; the text wants to be read—each of these want as much as I want to go to bed, get a drink, or get up out of my chair and walk around, though they may want in a different way than I want. To reserve “wanting” for will-bearing creatures is to commit oneself to the philosophical voluntarianism that undergirds technological instrumentalism.

The cyborg dream may or may not be the extension of some idolatry, but there the remedy is not a firm boundary between “our selves and our tools.” “Then he said to me, ‘Son of man, eat this scroll I am giving you and fill your stomach with it.' So I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth" (Ezekiel 3:3). Our tools are our part of us, central to our subsistence and lives. They need to be digested, ruminated, regurgitated, and, yes, sometimes violently spit out.