August 23, 2015 Apotheosis of Technique

I’ve taken it as something of a mission in life to speak out in opposition to technology’s absorption of contemporary culture, and I’m aware that my relentlessly negative commentary on the subject strikes some people (my wife, for example) as somewhat over the top.

For that reason I go out of my way on occasion to celebrate technologies that are making positive contributions to the world (the development of super advanced prosthetic devices, or the accessibility of obscure journal articles via the Internet). I also make a point of confessing that I’m as dependent on technology as anyone else. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but feel a shiver of satisfaction when I read the New York Times piece last weekend on working conditions at

For those who missed it, reporters Jodie Kantor and David Streitfeld interviewed more than 100 current and former Amazon employees to document what it's like to work at the world’s largest retail company. The article focuses on executives, marketers, retail specialists and engineers, which ignores the experiences of thousands of warehouse workers, whose treatment would presumably be at least as demanding as those of the company’s white collar employees. In any event, what’s revealed is a chilling picture of labor relations policies that are brutal indeed. “Purposeful Darwinism,” one former executive called them. Survival of the fittest, in other words. 

This is a place where 80 hour weeks are routine, where mountains of data are collected to measure employees’ every move, where ruthless evaluations by fellow workers are encouraged and used to justify terminations, where texts from superiors regularly arrive and are expected to be answered in the middle of the night; where having a miscarriage is no excuse for canceling a business trip the next day.

Jeff Bezos, in a letter to employees after the article appeared, complained that it portrayed “a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard.” He denied that’s the case, and urged any staff member who sees the sort of “shockingly callous” treatment reported by the Times to immediately “escalate” the matter, to the Human Resources department or to him personally.

The reason I found the Times article so satisfying is that it perfectly illustrates and affirms arguments I’ve been making for years about the fundamental nature of technology. The fundamental nature of technology can’t be seen by looking at one company, although Amazon comes close. Amazon is noteworthy because it represents an unusually advanced and unapologetic instantiation of qualities that pervade the technological project as a whole. Seeing technology from that perspective reveals that Amazon is a massively complex technological system that is itself encompassed in an infinitely larger web of massively complex technological systems. It’s not just the company’s labor policies that matter, or its obsessive collection of data. It’s Amazon’s combined application of an entire constellation of technologies and techniques. In that sense the company is a microcosm of the thoroughly technicized environment we inhabit.

In my book I describe four fundamental elements that define the nature of technology. They are:

1. Technology is by nature expansive.
2. Technology is by nature rational, direct and aggressive.
3. Technology by its nature combines or converges with other technologies.
4. Technology by its nature strives for control.

Anyone who pauses for a moment to ponder the scope and style of Amazon’s operations will have no trouble recognizing how thoroughly the company demonstrates those characteristics. Such a consideration would take into account not only Amazon’s labor policies and data collection, but also the incredibly sophisticated computer systems that display and sell the company’s vast array of products and services; its vast network of fulfillment centers and the incredibly sophisticated procurement, retrieval, packaging and shipping systems they employ; the massively complex public and private transportation and delivery systems it uses to get millions of purchases to millions of customers around the world; the credit card orders processed and billed through massively complex international banking systems; the stock exchanges around the world where Amazon shares are traded, etcetera, etcetera. 

The leviathan has many other arms; I could continue the list indefinitely. And of course, all those machines and systems are aimed at selling unprecedented quantities of consumer goods that are themselves the products of massively complex technological systems. Leave us not forget that Amazon, as huge and intimidating as it is, is essentially a middleman. It would be nowhere if it had nothing to sell.

The perspective on technology articulated here is not my own invention. Rather it is a summary of ideas garnered from scholars who have spent their careers studying the history and philosophy of technology. Chief among those scholars is the late Jacques Ellul, who would have had no trouble recognizing Amazon as the predictable fruition of drives inherent to technology, drives that have been gaining momentum since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

Two themes in Ellul’s masterpiece, The Technological Society, published in France in 1954 and in America a decade later, stand out as especially relevant to Amazon. One is the holistic view of technology I’ve described above. Ellul used the word “technique” to underscore his conviction that technology must be seen not merely as a collection of devices but as a way of thinking and a form of being. Technique for Ellul includes the methods and strategies that put technological systems into motion as well as the quantitative mentality that applies those methods and strategies. Machines, Ellul said, are “deeply symptomatic” of technique; they are “the ideal toward which technique strives.” The central goal and overriding value of technique is efficiency. Amazon is the embodiment of technique.

The second Ellul theme that Amazon embodies is how poorly prepared human beings are to keep pace with the machines they tend. “Technique demands for its development malleable human ensembles…” Ellul wrote. “The combination of man and technique is a happy one only if man has no responsibility. Otherwise, he is ceaselessly tempted to make unpredictable choices and is susceptible to emotional motivations which invalidate the mathematical precision of the machinery….Eliminate the individual, and excellent results ensue.” 

Automation hasn’t yet achieved that goal, although the roboticists are working on it. In the meantime, Amazon uses every possible technique to ensure that the workers who remain are pushed to their limit. A former employee told the Times that the company “is running a continual performance improvement algorithm on its staff.” Employees are expected not only to comply, but also to believe. The notion that some degree of balance should be maintained between work life and private life is taken as a joke, said one former staffer interviewed by the Times. Others said they were told that their only option when they hit the wall is to climb it. Those who do become what’s known within the company as “Amabots,” proud soldiers in Bezos’ march to world domination. Those who can’t or won’t climb the wall leave, if they’re not fired first. The Times article documents that Amazon’s rate of turnover is remarkable, though Amazon — despite the mountains of data it collects — declines to say what it is. The constant monitoring and measurement of employee activity and the ruthless evaluations that serve to weed out the less dedicated are manifestations of technique.

I must stress again that Amazon’s methodology and ideology are unusual only in the brazenness of their application; its basic approach will be all-too-familiar to workers in hundreds of corporate environments. It’s hardly unrelated that three trends have dominated national labor reports in recent years: flat or declining wages, eliminated benefits and increased productivity. All serve to further the efficiency of the enterprise.

Several commentators who wrote follow-up pieces to the Times article noted that Amazon’s policies are hardly unique, as did the Times’ authors themselves. Amazon, Kantor and Streitfeld wrote, “is in the vanguard of where technology wants to take the modern office: more nimble and more productive, but harsher and less forgiving.” 

Being in the vanguard means being in the lead; it does not mean being alone. Amazon may be ahead in some respects, partly because it’s less tied than older companies to traditional work-place convention (new recruits are told to forget the “bad habits” they learned on previous jobs), partly because of Bezos’ fanatical focus. Still, plenty of other companies in plenty of other businesses are using the same playbook and the same tools in pursuit of the same objectives.

“The question Amazon’s culture raises,” said Times columnist Joe Nocera, “is whether it is an outlier — or whether it represents the future of the workplace.” The answer is neither. The culture in general and capitalism in particular have been heading in the same direction as Amazon for a long time. At this point “the future of the workplace” that Amazon represents is well established and deeply entrenched.

The question isn’t when we’ll get there, but how far we still have to go.

August 8, 2015

Eyewitness: De Facto Technological Autonomy in Greece

In my book I argue that people who live in developed countries live in a state of “de facto technological autonomy.” While it is theoretically possible for them to get by without technology, practically speaking, they can’t. A refusal or inability to use technology results in exclusion from meaningful participation in the culture.

The fiscal crisis in Greece provided a powerful example of that exclusion recently when the government ordered the banks closed and set limits on the amount of cash that could be withdrawn from ATM machines. Those who had been foolish enough to think they could get by without ATM cards were out of luck.

The Guardian ran a series of photographs depicting the chaos that ensued when the government relented and told the banks to open for one day to let those without ATM cards (“desperate pensioners,” the Guardian called them) withdraw up to €120 (about $132). 

Photo by Lizzie Tucker, the Guardian

Saul Bellow on the Great Noise

But isn’t there a branch of the wonderful into which wonderful technology cannot lead us? If there is, how shall we know it? Why, we shall recognize it at once by its power to liberate us from the tyranny of noise and distraction….To be free from this would indeed be wonderful. It would mean nothing less than the restoration or re-creation of culture. Indispensible to such a restoration is the recovery of significant space by the individual, the reestablishment of a region about every person through which events much make their approach, a space in which events can be received on decent terms, intelligently, comprehensively and contemplatively….The destruction of significant space, the destruction of the individual, for is that is what it amounts to, leaves us helplessly in the public sphere. Then to say that the world is too much with us is meaningless for there is no longer any us. The world is everything….
 Am I proposing, then, that we should take refuge from crisis and noise in a contemplative life? Such a thing is unthinkable. I am saying, rather, that there is a mode of knowledge different from the ruling mode. That this other mode is continually operative – the imagination assumes that things will deliver something of their essence to the mind that has prepared itself and knows how to listen. I am saying also that full immersion in the Great Noise will kill us.
                      Saul Bellow, "A World Too Much With Us"

Paul Valéry on virtual reality

“The fabulous is an article of trade. The manufacture of machines to work miracles provides a living to thousands of people. But the artist has had no share in producing these wonders. They are the work of science and capital. The bourgeois has invested his money in phantoms and is speculating on the downfall of common sense.”
                                             Paul Valéry

August 2, 2015

An Interview With Yours Truly

The author, relaxing at home

I received a nice invitation recently from the popular blogger, Joseph Ratliff. Having read my book (Not So Fast: Thinking Twice About Technology), he asked if I would care to respond to a few questions regarding my views on the world of machines. I said sure.

Here’s our “interview," as posted July 23 on The Ratliff Notepad.

Thanks, Joseph. 

Think Technological Progress Is Always Something To Praise? Not So Fast…
As I’ve written before, I get a chance to interact with some pretty fascinating people.
One of those people you will be introduced to today is Doug Hill, who has some very interesting thoughts about technology (very similar to mine).  He had published a book on Kindle titled Not So Fast: Thinking Twice About Technology. 
Currently, that book isn’t available for reasons Doug will provide at the end of this post, but I did get a chance to ask him 5 questions via email about it.
The result was a “mini-interview” that should broaden your perspective about technology, Silicon Valley, techno-utopians, and our lives.
Enjoy, my questions in bold, Doug’s answers in standard text…
  1. You start in the introduction by introducing a hero of yours, Lewis Mumford, and his “bird’s-eye view of technology.”  Can you please give the readers of this interview a brief summary of what Mumford’s “bird’s-eye view” was?
I’m not sure how familiar your readers will be with Mumford. I’m no Mumford scholar but I’ve been profoundly influenced by his three monumental works on technology: Technics and Civilization, Technics and Human Development and the Pentagon of Power (the last two comprise two volumes of a collective work entitled The Myth of the Machine).
Those books are informed by an incredibly deep and broad knowledge of history, combined with equally remarkable powers of critical perception. Mumford’s “bird’s eye view” of technology is a product of that combination. As a longtime architecture critic for the New Yorker magazine, Mumford wrote well, but what’s most important are his observations regarding the fundamental characteristics of technological development.
I also quote in my introduction the philosopher of technology Albert Borgmann, who said that we can only begin to appreciate the nature of technology by looking at “the pervasiveness and consistency of its pattern,” just as we can only begin to understand its influence when we recognize the “normal totality” of technology’s presence in the world. That normal totality has created a massive forest/trees problem that afflicts everyone who lives in the technological society. You have to get a certain distance to be able to appreciate the degree to which technology has shaped and continues to shape our daily experience, which in turn has shaped and continues to shape who we are. That’s what Mumford meant by taking a “bird’s eye view” of technology.
  1. In chapter 1 you have a focus on “technological utopianism,” or the general idea that we can use technology to move closer to a “utopian” future. You focus on several thinkers like Ray Kurzweil and Eric Drexler.  Can you please share a brief version of your own view on this “technological utopian” viewpoint?
Technological utopianism is a way of describing the belief that technology will deliver us, soon, to some version of Eden. The two most commonly promised features of this machine-made paradise are universal plenty and endless leisure. Ray Kurzweil and other transhumanists have added to the list of gifts technology will soon bestow infinite cognitive power and the eradication of death.
We hear a lot of utopian promises coming out of Silicon Valley today, and it’s startling how closely they match the promises of technological deliverance that have accompanied technological advance literally for centuries. (I quote some then and now examples of these parallels in my book, and it’s fun to see them side by side.) The utopians uniformly fail to recognize that they’re telling an old story, which testifies to the narrowness of their vision. They also fail to adequately acknowledge the myriad ways in which technological advance has taken us in the opposite direction of Eden, however you define it.
These qualities make the technological utopians truly dangerous, rather than simply annoying, because the fantasies they promulgate are so seductive. Yes, they tell us, the world is a mess, but relax: the engineers know how to fix it, and pretty soon, if we stay out of their way, they will, at which point everything will be really cool! It’s a sales pitch that drowns out recognition of technology’s dangers, thereby undermining the possibility that we might proceed on the basis of more realistic expectations. A more measured approach could celebrate the contributions of science and technology to the betterment of the world without stimulating the pursuit of gold, glory and distraction that so dominate the technical arts today.
  1. My favorite part of the book is chapter 7, “The Nature of Technology.”  In that chapter you explain the 4 characteristics of technology’s nature.  Can you share a summary of those characteristics here?
I’m happy to hear that you liked that chapter, because that’s one I expect will rub some people the wrong way. The suggestion that machines collectively can be said to have a nature – a set of inherent characteristics that produce a consistent pattern of “behaviors” – might, at first blush, seem pretty wacky. My hope is that reading my analysis of those characteristics will allay that initial skepticism. Even if you don’t end up agreeing with my arguments, I think they can help you think about technology in a way you might not have before.
My argument about the nature of technology is set up by the book’s previous chapter, in which I review some of the definitions of technology that have been proposed by a variety of scholars over the years. My own view aligns with those who define technology broadly – systemically – a view that for me means that technological systems incorporate the human beings who run, manage, use or are used by them. At a certain stage of development – as the size, reach and ubiquity of the technologies in question increase – dehumanization becomes an inevitable result of that incorporation. Charlie Chaplin spinning on the massive gears of the factory in Modern Times is an expression of that view. Commercial air travel entails an especially immersive absorption in the technological web most of us are familiar with today. Many people have jobs that make them feel as though they’re cogs in a machine, and from technology’s point of view, they are.
The four characteristics that identify the nature of technology are:
  1. Technology is by nature expansive.
  2. Technology is by nature rational, direct and aggressive.
  3. Technology by its nature combines or converges with other technologies.
  4. Technology by its nature strives for control.
I won’t go into detail here about what I mean by those characteristics except to emphasize that together they lead to two of the most important points of my book:
1) That to see technology accurately is to understand it as a collective entity rather than merely a set of discrete artifacts, and…
2) That in its collective effects technology embodies a force in the world that is similar to but separate from the force of nature, and in opposition to nature.
A lot of writers disagree with that last point in particular. They argue that the opposite is true, at least as far as human beings are concerned: that human nature is inherently technological. I agree we have a tendency to bond with our machines, but again, as the size, reach and ubiquity of our technologies increase, the law of diminishing returns applies. As Jacques Ellul often said, at some point a change in quantity becomes a change in quality.
  1. Then, in chapter 8 you bring up the possibility of humans losing control of technology.  Please explain?
That’s the chapter in which I talk about the question of technological autonomy. To suggest that we don’t control our machines is another unpopular point of view that becomes more convincing upon examination. If we’re in control of our technologies we should be able to choose whether or not we want them in our lives. We simply don’t have that choice. That’s true in part because technology becomes a form of embodiment. As I said above, we’ve defined our physical world (academics would say our “surround”) and therefore our existence, by the technological structures we’ve put in place. We’ve also lost control of the impact our machines have on the environment. Global warming is the ultimate demonstration of that. We know they’re killing the planet and yet we’re incapable of taking the necessary steps to stop the damage because we can’t undo our commitments to technology.
My argument in the book is that we live today in a state of “de facto technological autonomy.” What that means is that although it is theoretically possible to live without technology, practically speaking you can’t. To reject technology is to find yourself excluded from any meaningful participation in the culture. Try applying for a job without using the internet, for example. Try getting elected to Congress without using television. Getting by without a car is possible, but not easy; if you don’t drive, you’re marginalized. In all those examples some measure of choice is involved; they don’t account for the countless exposures to technology over which we have no control. Again, global warming is the ultimate example. The lives of Inuit fishermen in Alaska will be profoundly disrupted by climate change even though their carbon footprint is negligible.
A reasonable response to these sorts of arguments is to say, sure, there are some problems associated with technological development, but there are also innumerable benefits. On balance, we’re ahead. To that I’d say, maybe – I would never argue that technology is all bad, and I’m well aware that I personally wouldn’t survive a week in the wild without it. My own way of life is as committed to technology as anyone else’s (or almost as committed – I still don’t own a smart phone). The point of the argument about technological autonomy is whether we can choose which technologies we want to live with and which technologies we can choose to live without. Is it really an all or nothing proposition? The nature of technology suggests that it is, and the consequences of that are disastrous, for a multitude of reasons.
  1. Throughout the book you refer to Jacques Ellul, as I have in many of my own essays on technology.  What are some of your favorite ideas about technology that Ellul explored?
Without question Ellul has influenced my thinking about technology more than anyone else. His work is brilliant, passionate, uncompromising and, I admit, occasionally over the top. A few years ago I wrote a piece for the Boston Globe intended to introduce general readers to Ellul; it’s here. I agree with what Albert Borgmann said when I interviewed him for that piece: It’s easy to dismiss Ellul as a bringer of bad news, but what makes him important is the comprehensiveness of his explanation of the technological phenomenon coupled with his powerful moral concern.
The essence of Ellul’s argument is that technology is a unified force that imposes demands that erode and ultimately destroy the fullness of what it means to be human. He used the word “technique” rather than “technology” to make the point that technology must be seen not merely as a collection of devices, but as a way of thinking and a form of being. Technique for Ellul includes the methods and strategies that drive technological systems as well as the quantitative mentality that applies those methods and strategies. The central goal and overriding value of that mentality is efficiency.
Here’s a representative quote from Ellul’s masterpiece, The Technological Society, published in French in 1954 and in English a decade later:
“It is mere vanity to wish to distinguish a technique as good or bad according to its end. Whether technique acts to the advantage of a dictator or of a democracy, it makes use of the same weapons, acts on the individual and manipulates his subconscious in identical ways, and in the end leads to the formation of exactly the same type of human being…the well-kneaded citizen.”
Here’s another:
“Technique worships nothing, respects nothing. It has a single role: to strip off externals, to bring everything to light, and by rational use to transform everything into means…Far from being restrained by any scruples before the sacred, technique constantly assails it…The mysterious is merely that which has not yet been technicized.”
One more:
“It is apparently our fate to be facing a ‘golden age’ in the power of sorcerers who are totally blind to the meaning of the human adventure.”
How can readers get in touch, and what is the status of your book?
The short story is that I’m a journalist who has studied the history and philosophy of technology for more than twenty years. My blog is The Question Concerning Technology. I also have a Facebook page and a Twitter account (@DougHill25) dedicated to my thoughts on technology.
I haven’t been very active on any of those fronts lately, due to the pressures of a new job, but I hope to resume regular communiqués soon. My book, Not So Fast: Thinking Twice About Technology, is currently in the review process at a major publisher and not currently available, but I hope it will be soon.
I will keep you posted.