The Failure of Technology, pt. 2

I could excuse my recent lack of posting by claiming a lack of time, but that would be a lie.  I can only, and even then in the vaguest terms, note that I’m undergoing a crisis of expression and purpose that has sapped my desire to write, at least to write in this form in this place.  I apologize.

Another problem is one I’ve talked about before: everything feels too connected.  Conceiving of it all as a vast tapestry, you try to tug on a single thread, only to find that, the more you pull, the more and more unravels.  At a certain point, you just need to stop pulling, to tear the thread instead, but where? 

The problem is compounded by the fact that writing, especially with these delays, is taking considerably longer than reading, that I tend to get fixated in that reading on similar themes, so I keep encountering things that I want to bring to bear on the conversation (hey, why did it take you so long to write your dissertation?). 

With that in mind, I’m going to circle back to a passage of Jünger I quoted in the previous post:

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.

In order to mention a useful connected idea from Ivan Illich’s writing, “shadow work.” 

So much of our lives are consumed this way.  We work so that we can afford a car to drive us to work (this was one of Illich’s famous examples).  We work so that we can pay for childcare to watch your kids while you’re at work.*  Technical efficiency does not, it seems, reduce work, it simply displaces it.

This is because, as Jünger explains, technology (a category which, remember, includes technical thinking, technical organization), is not oriented towards reducing work, but managing poverty. 

The expansion and constant perfection of the technical apparatus are not merely the result of the technician’s urge for power; they are just as much the result of want. This is why the human situation characteristic of our machine world is poverty. And this poverty cannot be overcome by any technological efforts; it is inherent in technology itself; it has marched in step with the industrial age and it will do so to the end…Poverty remains because it is in the nature of the thing, because it is the infallible by-product of technical thinking, which is completely rationalist. True, there has always been and always will be poverty, because the poverty which by definition is a not-being cannot be resolved and by its very nature will always be with us. But the poverty produced by technological progress has something specific about it which sets it apart . It can never be conquered by an unfolding of rational thought, nor by attaining the ultimate in rational work organization.

Poverty here doesn’t mean simply of “lack of money” but, in keeping with the definition of riches discussed in the previous post, non-being, the scarcity of the actual, of the real.**

Jünger elaborates further:

Obviously, the object of the organization cannot be what is already organized; the organization must necessarily seize upon the things as yet unorganized, for only they offer the means to keep the organization alive. If I manufacture nuts and bolts, the material I am using will not be finished nuts and bolts but iron melted from crude ore. But here a peculiar and compelling law governs. Where there is plenty of unorganized material, organization is slight. Where material dwindles, organization begins to extend and intensify itself. Clearly one cannot forbid ocean fishing, because the ocean is so big and full of fish that an organization placing ocean fishing under definite regulations would make poor sense. Wherever such regulations exist, as in the international agreements on whaling and sealing, they are due to an anticipation of scarcity, the fear that ruthless and excessive hunting might reduce or wipe out the stock of game. The purpose of such organization is obvious. Its salient feature is not that it increases riches, but that it distributes poverty. But when poverty is distributed something occurs that cannot be prevented: it spreads. Thus it has to be distributed constantly anew; it has to be distributed continually, and so it spreads ever wider. Unorganized material decreases in proportion until the point is reached where the organization collapses, because nothing is left to be distributed, for when the number of whales has been reduced by ruthless whaling to the point where the hunt no longer makes sense, whaling stops. It is not at all certain that whales will become extinct in just this fashion – but if they do not, it will not be due to any merit of the whaling organization, whose technical equipment approaches perfection in the same ratio as the number of whales dwindles. This exact proportion applies to all organizations which are based on exploitation, whether they are concerned with whales, ore, oil, guano, or what-have-you.

The expansion Jünger describes is key and accounts for the apparently inexorable subsumption of all that is human to the technical.  The greatest expression of this expansion is the explosion of management:

There is no clearer, no more infallible sign of poverty than the progressive rationalization of organization, the comprehensive administration and management of man by a bureaucracy of experts especially trained for the task. Speaking in the technician’s terms, the best organization is that which is most rationalized – that is, the one which exploits to the fullest extent. For the more rational it is, the more inexorably it mines available resources. In an economy based upon the exhaustion of resources, the organization alone survives intact and unimpaired – its power grows as poverty spreads. The relation is reciprocal – unorganized materials vanish as the organization extends. And as poverty spreads, the pressure of the organization upon man increases, for it becomes more urgent to squeeze the last drop from him too. This mercilessness is characteristic of all moments of human distress. Beleaguered towns, blockaded countries, ships whose food and water are running low show like conditions. Technical progress – and we shall have occasion to return to this point – is coupled with a growth of organization, with a mushrooming bureaucracy. It requires an enormous personnel, a personnel which is wholly unproductive, yet increasing in number all the faster, the less there is of the things produced.

A rather bleak picture, and we’ll continue with that bleakness in the next post as we explore the effects of this technological engulfment on man and society, before turning to the way out.  On the latter, don’t expect the advice to be “practical”, for the practical as it is so often thought today is identical with the technical, and you cannot techne your way out of the problem of technology. 


*I have a friend who was working as an adjunct during the twilight years of graduate school.  He was forced to stop working, because he made less money as an adjunct than he was paying to have his children cared for while he taught.   This, of course, dealt a death blow to an already faltering career. The Machine at work in all its glorious efficiency.

The position of adjunct, at least in its modern form (I can’t speak to the past), is an exemplary product of the technical.  It serves nothing but the perpetuation of the technological leviathan that is modern academia, generating poverty all around, for the students, whose education is impoverished, for the adjuncts themselves in obvious ways, for the administrators morally culpable for the naked exploitation, and for the professors who continue the abdication of their duties and cheapen any claims to be the spokespeople of the downtrodden (we know how much so many professors love to do this).

**Worth noting that, in classical metaphysics, evil is similarly an absence of being.

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