A Conversation on “Technology” and “Technologism”

When “to be absolutely modern” has become a special law decreed by a tyrant, what the honest slave fears more than anything is that he might be suspected of being behind the times

— Debord, Panegyric.

Various events have caused me to take an interest in forming a working definition of “technology”. Not least of these is the fact that certain mystifying definitions of “technology” has become central to liberal ideology in the present conjuncture, and that this ideology has great traction with youth and with the student movement.

Certain figures and bodies have been instrumental in reproducing this ideology within the student movement – e.g. Aaron Peters, Laurie Penny – and forcing it upon the student movement – e.g. The New Statesman, The Independent and The Guardian. My position is basically this: this line has been damaging to the movement’s ability to understand itself and its problems, and has helped bolster and even fetishise negative tendencies and real weaknesses. I’m think here particularly of atomization, disorganisation, destructive individualism, &c.

I started to address this problem in a previous post:

Technologism is rampant: it’s been used to “explain” the student movement in the UK; protests in Iran and Egypt and – well, everywhere else; it’s used to explain how we will defeat climate change and how the financial crash came about. At the risk of simplification, let us propose a counter hypothesis: Technologism is the internalization of a myth used to sell cameras and printers and other pieces of useless gadgetry:

“It’s getting better”: An advert for Canon cameras: http://vimeo.com/3924823

Plainly “technology” is becoming a nodal point at which “culture”, “commerce” and (political) agency become intermixed. What we know as “technology” – i.e. heavily advertised commodities –  thus functions as “affirmative culture” in a far more direct way than Marcuse imagined.

This ‘counter-hypothesis’ was, however, inadequate and simplistic, aligning ‘technology’ only with commodities – gadgets, artifacts. Therefore, please find below a more extended note, followed by some discussion with a friend whose pseudonym on this site is usually Prof. Turnasol.

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Technology: A few incomplete notes toward a definition

 

‘Technologists’ claim that ‘technology’ is the result of innovation in the fields of science, business, industry and, depending on the breadth of their definition, perhaps arts and humanities; they further claim that this innovation drives and necessitates social, cultural and economic change, or is a major factor in necessitating this change.

But, for Marx and Marxists, however, ‘technology’ is a function of capitalist political economy. Technology cannot be understood or defined independently of this function, which can be summarised simply as follows: technology chiefly functions as one mechanism by which to increase the ratio of productivity to production costs, and therefore, to increase profits (or surplus value).

Even the claim by technologists that technological innovation necessitates social and economic change is troubled by this fact. Technologists tell us that new technologies necessitate change because old technologies become obsolete. The question remains: in what sense do they become obsolete? They become obsolete because (as even technologists will admit) they become less ‘efficient’, i.e. less profitable. The drive to increase profits underpins and determines ‘technological change’, not innovation itself.

 I would suggest that technology has several key functions:

 1)     The creation of new commodities – e.g. the DVD as opposed to VHS, or the touchscreen mobile phone.

2)     Opening new markets – e.g. in Asia, or online.

3)     The destruction of unprofitable ‘constant capital’ – e.g. the British mining industry.

4)     Reducing the cost of labour – e.g. self-service checkouts, internet banking, automation of manufacturing or farming.

It may also be that there are some minor improvements in the quality of the commodity, e.g. standardisation is useful in producing effective and reliable armaments (woo!). But, the chief function is always to generate increased profit, since this is the only crucial, structuring drive in capitalist political economy.

The internet, as we can see, takes on all of these four functions: it creates new gadgets, new advertising space; it opens up a new space for profit; it allows restructuring of capital more profitably (i.e. displacement geographically; restructuring of staff labour; liquidation of less profitable businesses, e.g. physical newspapers, or staffed public libraries, or bank branches).

What the internet is definitely not is a ‘technological and/or social revolution’. All attempts to define it as such represent in fact the organic development of an ideology (and a corresponding caste of technicians and intellectuals) wedded to the class interests of contemporary capitalism and its ‘technological’ developments (i.e. its drive for profits). It is of course no coincidence that many of those spouting this nonsense are themselves invested in reproducing this myth; indeed, it is a fact bound up in that very role, since spouting such nonsense can become a lucrative career. (By the way, if you disagree with this, you are probably part of the problem.)

Let us take a different tack. It is often claimed that technological innovation creates jobs. In fact, it merely restructures labour, often displacing it geographically (e.g. from rural to urban; from north to south; from west to east).Technology, as I have said, is a tool in the war on labour – an attempt to drive down labour costs. It is not the provider but the destroyer. The British miners were not disenfranchised because of technological change; nor because of a concern with generating cleaner fuel. They were disenfranchised because the mining industry in Britain, where labour had become very organised, had become unprofitable. This does not mean it had become unproductive or unsustainable; only that it could not generate the surplus value that could be generated by shifting to nuclear energy, and importing coal from China.

Likewise, many apparent technological advantages merely socialise (i.e. shift to the consumer) the labour costs of activities: e.g. self-checkouts in supermarkets and libraries, or internet shopping. Indeed, with internet shopping, not only can companies cut the costs of labour, but also the costs of running stores and associated infrastructure. But, not only that, they can now also make profit via packaging and shipping charges. A new Amazon warehouse creates a hundred jobs in one town; meanwhile, the city centres become ghost towns. That’s technological advancement.

The saddest thing about technologism in recent months has been its adoption by the anticuts protest movements, particularly following the ‘Arab Spring’. The facts of this are as follows: the students are young and often ‘middle class’ (whatever that means, these days), and therefore particularly targeted by the propaganda of the mobile phone, internet and computer companies. At the same time, this movement has certain organisational weaknesses, e.g. it is quite disparate and disorganised. Finally, all news of this movement comes from a media industry fully invested in reproducing the internet-as-social-revolution propaganda, since it is trying to develop means of using this technology to generate profit (as well as trying to give a centrist slant to any analysis). Whilst it is true that a mobile phone can be a handy thing for an activist, the technologistic ideology that has sprung from this is utterly spurious and damaging to the movement and its understanding of itself and the challenges it faces.

 Thoughts?

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Prof. Turnasol:

VERY interesting!

1. Question: who are the ‘technologists’?

2. Note: the marxist account you present is strictly limited to capitalist societies, as profit and surplus value are categories that have sense only in capitalism. (The invention of the wheel or the plough contributed to tremendous augmentation of output. But ‘profit’?) Even in capitalist society, innovation is not always corelated to profit, at least not as directly as you put it (think: internet-Pentagon)

3. Objection: you tend to identify technology with artefacts (just like the ‘technologists’). Technology is about ensembling artefacts; and people and artefacts: you can have the most advanced robots ever; if you do not arrange them the right way, they want make you a car; the most advanced comuter made is less usefull than a turd, if it is away from a plug, which is connected to the national grid etc etc). The implications are immense: (a) even in capitalist societies, main motor of innovation is not profit, but the shopfloor struggle -and informal re-arrangements- by the workers/users of the artefacts. (b) the outmost technological outcome is not some impressive artefact; but the organisation -the setting- of society itself! (Mumford’s ‘mega-machine’)

Wit:

Thanks Prof.

Thoughtful comments as always… hmm

Well, firstly I definitely agree with your second point, as my working hypothesis here is that “‘technology’ is a function of capitalist political economy” (para 1). But, at many points I didn’t make it clear enough that a) my observations are meant to apply specifically to the function of technology in capitalist society; b) that these functions would be different in a different type of society (e.g. in either a pre-capitalist or a communist society).

Your objection I also agree with, and it points to inconsistencies in my argument that really need to be worked out if it is to make proper sense. Because, what I was trying to do by theorizing technology as a ‘function of capitalist political economy’ was to talk about it as a means of reproducing capitalist relations of production. Therefore, I think I was wrong to say: “The drive to increase profits underpins and determines ‘technological change’, not innovation itself.” Profit is the motive from the capitalist point of view. But, I think really you are right: the drive is class struggle, the struggle of the shop floor, the struggle to maintain/destroy the existing relations of productions. The confusion here permeates my whole argument. But, then, the drive for profit is always the fight of the shop floor. So, I think there’s only confusion, not contradiction. For example, despite this confusion, I wrote:

“It is often claimed that technological innovation creates jobs. In fact, it merely restructures labour, often displacing it geographically (e.g. from rural to urban; from north to south; from west to east).Technology, as I have said, is a tool in the war on labour – an attempt to drive down labour costs.”

Certainly I don’t think I identify technology with artefacts – I think the whole thrust of my argument is against this. Maybe there are some moments where I slipped back into this way of thinking, or appeared to do so.

Following on from this, one thing I was never satisfied with was my second function – “Opening new markets – e.g. in Asia, or online.” The two examples I’ve given are really completely different. The internet/the virtual should probably be seen not as a new market, but as a sort of Omega-commodity – one that not only can be bought and sold, but which opens up a whole new space for the creation of new commodities, e.g. internet advertising, web-hosting, shares in websites like Google. Opening up such new spaces initially opens up the possibility for making huge profits (e.g. Google, Facebook), as companies are able enter an area without competition and eventually to monopolise certain areas. But, eventually this rate of profit will decrease and internet sector jobs that have been established will be lost. Even conceived as ‘Omega-commodity’ or whatever, you can still see that this is about reproducing capitalist relations of production; indeed, such new, profitable spaces are needed if these relations are to be maintained.

The opening up of global trade (for which “Asia” is inadequate stand in), is something quite different, I think. We can see how this “progress” is actually part of the class war, the struggle over the cost of labour. But, what is clear to me is that I don’t really have the economic vocabulary or necessary concepts to make such fine distinctions and do justice to either of these things. On this note, I haven’t come across Mumford. Is he any good?

Finally, who are the technologists? I give a little definition in my opening: they are the people who create and push the ideological understanding of technology as the motor of social change – of progress. But, when we speak of ideology we should always make clear the relation of a certain logic or understanding to a social group/class (especially because ideology is so often treated very abstractly these days, as though it were just a way of describing a set of ideas or beliefs). The technologists, I reckon, are the organic intellectuals of the class whose interests are bound up with ‘technology’ as a tool of domination, in the various ways we’ve discussed (here I must note I am not at all arguing the line given by the Frankfurt School; actually these notes could form the beginning of a critique of their ideas about technology and science as domination). At least, “technologism” is organically bound up with these interests. One place I see a lot of technologism (and statism) is amongst the environmentalist liberals – the people who can see the world’s a bit screwed up, but can’t allow themselves to put the blame for this on capitalist relations of production. But, you can see it across the parliamentary spectrum, e.g. even Cameron was harping on about the democratic possibilities of technology a year ago. You can also see it in the media a lot, partly because I think it’s a sort of propaganda for the economic interests of media companies (e.g. newspapers). But, also you see technologism amongst the student left. So, in the end, it’s important to see that it’s not the analysis itself (i.e. “technologism itself”) that is tied to a social group/ a social group’s interests. Rather, it is the way that technologism is made to function in an ideologically specific way that ties it to a social group. Each of these three examples is using ‘technologism’ in a different way; all are ideological, but the relation between ‘ideas’ and social group (i.e. the ideology) is very different. Does that make sense? I’m a bit sleepy. I’m defining ideology here, not as a set of ideas, beliefs or cultural practices, but as the relation between these ideas, beliefs, practices and a social group/class. I think that this way of defining it is a little bit new, a little bit Althusser, and a lot Gramsci.

Anyway, thanks for your thoughts.
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Wit
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~ by Wit on July 20, 2011.

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