Ouch!

Stanford visiting scholar and technology thinker Evgeny Morozov has a new review of Kevin Kelly's slightly aged tome, What Technology Wants, up at The New Republic, and it is a doozy. Firing away with both six-shooters, Morozov calls out Kelly for ignoring the extant literature on the history and philosophy of technology in order to make his own arguments sound novel. And then he takes on that novelty with a very sharp razor, shaving it down to this nub: "Kelly's project, by contrast, seeks to deepen the moral void -- and to establish its normative character by claiming that it is propelled by the same forces as evolution."

Here, I excerpt just a short piece of the work, which is Morozov's discussion of the etymology of the word technology and key variations used by scholars. I chose this piece mostly because I'd like to be able to link to it any time the contested meanings of "technology" arise. (Kelly, recall, created a new word, Technium, for use in his book.)

A digression into the linguistic history of technology and Technik is in order. (This history was masterfully retold by Eric Schatzberg in a couple of academic papers that Kelly seems to have missed.) For much of the nineteenth century, the English word "technology," just like the French and German "technologie," denoted a branch of knowledge--a science--that studied industrial arts and crafts; "technology" did not refer to those arts and crafts themselves, as it does today. Technology was much like chemistry: it was a field of study, not its object. It was in nineteenth-century Germany, which was undergoing massive industrialization, that intellectuals and engineers alike began using another term--Technik--to describe all the arts of material production, conceived now as a coherent whole. Technik was increasingly invoked in opposition to Kultur, with many German humanist intellectuals of the time being highly critical of the growing mechanization and dehumanization that pervaded the industrialized society.

In the early years of the twentieth century, the German debate about Technik made its way into America, when Thorstein Veblen discovered some of the key German texts and incorporated them into his own thought. But Veblen chose to translate the German Technik as "technology," most likely because by that time the English word "technique," the more obvious rendering, had already acquired its modern meaning. To his credit, Veblen's "technology" preserved most of the critical dimensions of Technik as used by German thinkers; and he masterfully located it within contemporary debates about capitalism and technocracy. Other American intellectuals, while following Veblen in using "technology" to mean Technik, soon dropped this critical dimension, settling on a more politically correct and progress-friendly meaning of "technology." When, in 1926, Charles Beard famously proclaimed that "technology marches in seven-league boots from one ruthless, revolutionary conquest to another," he gave the term "technology" its modern meaning, severing Veblen's connection to the critical theories of Georg Simmel and Werner Sombart. At the same time, the Technik vs. Kultur debate in Europe continued, with Martin Heidegger, Ernst Jünger, Hans Jonas, and Jacques Ellul producing penetrating critiques of how Western society had become dominated by Technik/technique and was therefore losing its moral bearings. Most of these thinkers posited the growing autonomy of technology--including the self-reinforcing behavior of the system that Kelly emphasizes--and they found this prospect terrifying.

Kelly does not mention any of this, which makes his thesis about the autonomy of technology look more original that it actually is. Had the English language pulled the same trick on "Technik/technology" as it did on "economy/economics," there would be far less analytical confusion about "what technology wants." As Kelly concedes in his bibliography, the idea of autonomous technology is very old, and its influence on social thought was already documented in 1977 in Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought by Langdon Winner. Kelly's book is deeply derivative of Winner's work: it's not only that Kelly steals some catchy phrases (like the odd quotation from Valéry), but that he also borrows entire arguments. One of his central arguments to prove the autonomy of technology--that many inventions are discovered simultaneously--was first used by Jacques Ellul, whose ideas occupy the lion's share of Winner's book. Coining a buzzword does not establish one's intellectual originality.

Read the full story at The New Republic.

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