Tuesday, September 25, 2012

To See Machines as Machinations

The following passage, from the conclusion to Alf Hornborg's "Animism, fetishism, and objectivism as strategies for knowing (or not knowing) the world," may not be the easiest thing for readers to grasp. The insight that it conveys, though, is worth whatever effort it may take to grasp it.
For a number of years now, I have been struggling with the intuition that there is something mysterious about technology. Something that strangely seems to escape us, both as social scientists and as citizens. On one hand, modern technology seems quite obviously to be a strategy for capacitating an affluent minority of the world’s population through an asymmetrical exchange — an expanding net appropriation — of resources from the rest of the world. On the other hand, technology tends to be represented as a politically innocent and intrinsically productive union of human inventiveness and the ‘pure’ material essence of Nature — indeed as a gift of the wealthier, ‘developed’ nations to the rest of humanity. How are these two contradictory images of technology able to coexist, without the former contaminating the latter? The answer, Latour would undoubtedly say, lies again in that rigid categorical distinction between Nature and Society, between the world of ‘pure’ objects and the world of human relations. Once classified as object, technology is automatically immune to political critique. For how could ‘pure’ objects be conceived as sources of malign agency? If the behaviour of the early nineteenth century Luddites today strikes us as odd, it is because they were not yet quite modern. Today we supposedly know better than to direct our political frustrations at machines. The efficacy of technology, we hold, comes from ‘objective properties intrinsic to the nature of things’. Like economic rationality and scientific truth, says Latour, technological efficiency ‘forever escapes the tyranny of social interest’.
But if these modernist convictions were indeed to collapse, as Latour predicts, and we should realize the extent to which our technologies are in fact politically constituted, our machines would cease to be ‘pure’ objects and conceivably be accredited with a malicious agency far surpassing that of any pre-modern fetishes. For to expose the agency of these cornucopian ‘productive forces’ as a transmutation and deflection of the agency of other humans would be to render morally suspect that which modernity had couched in the deceptive neutrality of the merely technical. And in seeing, for the first time, the machines as they really are — as machinations — perhaps the animist within us would stir again, and we would ask ourselves: What manner of creatures are these things, part mineral, part mind, that serve the few to enslave the many, while fouling the land, the water, and the air?

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