The Failure of Technology, Pt. 1

The original German title is Die Perfektion der Technik, or The Perfection of Technology.  “Perfection” here carries with it the sense of “fulfillment,” without the positive connotations we associate with the perfection in English, hence why the translator substituted failure.  And failure is justified because, Jünger argues, it is in its perfection that technology fails, though we won’t get to that for a number of posts.

The Jünger in question is Friedrich Georg, brother of the more famous literary philosopher and war hero Ernst, about whom I’ve promised to write more at some vague point in the future.  There are clear connections between the two brothers’ writings, and, in re-reading Ernst’s The Forest Passage (one of my favorite books) shortly after this essay, I’m struck by how many images and ideas he drew from his younger brother. 

Friedrich is writing shortly in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the book was first published in 1946, to give some flavor of the ideas flowing in the background here, I’ll quote from Ernst writing during that war about what the conflict was ultimately about: 

During World War I we confronted the question of whether man was more powerful than machines.

In the meantime, things have gotten more complex. We are now concerned with the problem of whether humans or automatons will dominate the earth.

It is against this automatism, the nature of which I’ll expound later (another promised post), and the power of the machine that Friedrich writes. I’ll be quoting at length, because I don’t believe that I can say things better than Jünger himself, and, it should go without saying, that you really ought to read the book yourself.  It’s quite short and not at all inaccessible. 

He first seeks to dispel myths about the success of technology.   First, the only hopes legitimately founded in the machine are mechanical ones, the central problems of our existence cannot be resolved by the technical:

Those who place their hopes in the machine – and hope implies an anticipation of the future – ought to be aware that the hopes themselves must be of a technical kind, for one cannot expect from the machine something which lies outside its potentialities.

Thus: “They must distinguish the machine from the chimeras which have become associated with it and which have nothing to do with its purpose.”

The totalization of the machine is often justified under the claim that through the labor of machines, our own is reduced allowing us space for the summit (or near summit) of human action, leisure (here, I and Jünger refer to leisure in the true sense, most ably elucidated by Pieper) But is this true?:

There is, for instance, a wide-spread belief that the machine relieves man of work, that thereby he gains leisure and time for free activity. This belief in many cases is unshakable and unexamined. Where one comes across it, one senses that it is one of the props which uphold technical progress, justify it, and secure an optimistic view of the future. Obviously, a machine which does not profit man appeals to no one – optimism is needed in this connection also. But we are here dealing with an assertion, the validity of which has not been established, and constant repetition gives it no greater conviction. Leisure and free activity are not accessible to everybody, and they are conditions in no way connected with the machine. A man who is relieved of work is not thereby capable of leisure; a man who gains time does not thereby gain the capacity to spend this time in free activity, for leisure is not a mere doing-nothing, a state that can be defined negatively. Leisure, to be fruitful, presupposes a spiritual and mental life from which it draws its meaning and its worth. An otium sine dignitate (“leisure without dignity”) is hollow, empty loafing. Nor is leisure, as many seem to think, a mere intermission in work for a limited time – no, by definition it is unlimited and indivisible, and from it originates all meaningful work. Leisure is the prerequisite of every free thought, every free activity. And this is why only the few are capable of it, since the many, when they have gained time, only kill it. Not everyone is born for free activity, or else the world would not be what it is.

Does it even reduce work?:

The bottle-making machine, the power loom, the threshing machine are only the end product of a vast technical process which encompasses an immense amount of work. One cannot compare the performance of a specialized machine with that of one craftsman, for the comparison is meaningless and futile. There is no machine product which does not involve the entire technical organization, no beer bottle and no suit which do not presuppose it. Consequently, there is no work process which can be treated as independent and isolated from this organization, as if it existed by itself like Robinson Crusoe upon his desert isle. No one has any doubt that the amount of work done by machines has grown. But how could it have grown without a corresponding increase in the amount of work done by men! For the human hand is the tool of tools, the tool that has created and now maintains the whole machine-tool arsenal. Never and nowhere does machine labor reduce the amount of manual labor, however large may be the number of workers tending machines. The machine replaces the worker only where the work can be done in a mechanical fashion. But the burden of which the worker is thus relieved does not vanish at the command of the technical magician. It is merely shifted to areas where work cannot be done mechanically. And, of course, this burden grows apace with the increase in the amount of mechanical work. No complicated calculations are needed to see this. It is sufficient to observe carefully the relation of the individual work process to the whole technical organization. This observation shows that every advance in mechanization brings with it an increase in manual labor. Those who are not convinced need only consider that our working methods are not restricted to one nation, or one continent. They strive to master all the nations of the earth, and the biggest share of hard and dirty work is piled upon the shoulders of people who have no part in the invention of the technical organization.

What about wealth? Aren’t we immeasurably richer than those before the dominance of the machine? Only if we operate under a distorted conception of wealth:

For “rich” here means no less than mighty, noble, regal, as one finds it in the Latin regius. And Reich is the same as the Latin rex, and the Sanskrit rajan, meaning king. Thus, riches in the original meaning are nothing else than the ruling, regal power and force in man. This original significance has been buried, particularly by the jargon of the economists who equate riches with economic having. But no one sensing the truth of the deeper meaning would want to accept so vulgar a conception. Possession of money, the sheer having of money, is contemptible, and it always becomes contemptible if it falls into the hands of that poverty which denotes a not-being.

Compare Louis de Bonald, writing more than 130 years earlier on the true “wealth of nations”:

For a society–a moral being–the means of existence and duration are moral riches, and the forces of conservation are, for the domestic society, morals, and for the public society, laws. Yes, society is a moral body: religion is its health, the monarchy, its strength, and the virtues its possessions. War, disease, and famine cannot destroy it, yet a book suffices to cause a revolution

Furthermore, if increases in production, technical organization, the machine, truly made us richer, in the real and most meaningful sense, if they gave us more leisure, made us happier (not the transitory emotion, but in truly happy), then why aren’t we fulfilled, happy, rich right now?

If we could get riches by raising production, by increasing the output of labor, we should have got them long ago, for the amount of mechanical and manual labor we are performing has been on the increase for a long time. If it were so, the signs of wealth would be apparent everywhere: greater freedom, greater happiness, greater abundance. But there is no trace of this. The fact that technical progress has enriched a small and not always pleasant group of industrialists, entrepreneurs, and inventors must not mislead us to the conclusion that it has created riches. It would be just as wrong for us to harbor the foolish notion that some exceptionally noble race of men had created our technology, or that scientists, scholars, and inventors were charitable by nature, for they are not. Their knowledge has nothing to do with riches, and therein lies the difference between all merely erudite knowledge and the knowledge of the wise.

There’s a lot to digest here, and objections may be springing to mind .  After all, the color palette of the past is so gray and depressing!  Of course, it is an act of mechanical reproduction that tells us this, mechanical reproduction in the service of a myth, that of modernity’s self-creation. Therefore, let us, if only for a moment, set aside these objections and consider stepping outside the myth, if only to give the argument its due. 

Even if we’re unable, it’s necessary to recognize that this is the background frame, or, perhaps better, the stepping out of frame, the shaking of presuppositions, the dispelling of (supposed or not) chimaeras from which Jünger begins, and we’ll move to the broader critique itself in future posts.

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