In and Out of Control: Self-Augmenting and Autonomous Technique

Martin Heidegger and Jacques Ellul propounded substantivist accounts of technology which rejected the received instrumentalist view of technology according to which only the ends to which technologies are applied can be evaluated. In opposition to instrumentalism, they claimed that modern technology involves a displacement of non-technological values or (in Heidegger’s case) other ways of relating to Being. The theory of technical autonomy that Jacques Ellul sets out in The Technological Society is distinguished from Heidegger’s brand of substantivism, however, in providing a non-transcendental, naturalistic account of the conditions under which technique displaces non-technical values in modern societies. I show how Ellul’s theory resolves into two components – 1) a theory of the essence of technique given in terms of the notion of efficiency and 2) a theory of the conditions for autonomy - and set out some criticisms of Ellul’s essentialism by way of an analysis of the concept of efficiency. I argue that component (2) is incompatible with his essentialism because it is committed to techniques being replicable across different contexts of use. I then use Jacques Derrida’s notions of iterability and generalised writing to develop a theory of technical replicability which accounts for the historical particularity of techniques and for their mechanism-dependent replicability. I support this account of technical iteration by showing how it allows explanatory connections to be made between specific mechanisms of technical replication and the fragile cultural forms or phenomenologies they support. I then use it to reformulate Ellul’s theory without its essentialist commitments and claim that the background assumptions of the resultant theory are sufficiently weak to render it plausible. However, while this supports certain aspects of Ellul’s original thesis, I argue that the modified theory no longer implies a hegemonic role for technique. While technical process may be self-augmenting and uncontrollable (much as Ellul describes it) there are no grounds for claiming that it prescribes a particular set of values.
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