The Myth of the Machine
The Convivial Society: Vol. 3, No. 7
Welcome to the Convivial Society, a newsletter about technology and culture. I tend to think of my writing as way of clarify my thinking, or, alternatively, of thinking out loud. Often I’m just asking myself, What is going on? That’s the case in this post. There was a techno-cultural pattern I wanted to capture in what follows, but I’m not sure that I’ve done it well enough. So, I’ll submit this for your consideration and critique. You can tell me, if you’re so inclined, whether there’s at least the grain of something helpful here or not. Also, you’ll note that my voice suggests a lingering cold that’s done a bit of a number on me over the past few days, but I hope this is offset by the fact that I’ve finally upgraded my mic and, hopefully, improved the sound quality. Cheers!
If asked to define modernity or give its distinctive characteristics, what comes to mind? Maybe the first thing that comes to mind is that such a task is a fool’s errand, and you wouldn’t be wrong. There’s a mountain of books addressing the question, What is or was modernity? And another not insignificant hill of books arguing that, actually, there is or was no such thing, or at least not in the way it has been traditionally understood.
Acknowledging as much, perhaps we’d still offer some suggestions. Maybe we’d mention a set of institutions or practices such as representative government or democratic liberalism, scientific inquiry or the authority of reason, the modern university or the free press. Perhaps a set of values comes to mind: individualism, free speech, rule of law, or religious freedom. Or perhaps some more abstract principles, such as instrumental rationality or belief in progress and the superiority of the present over the past. And surely some reference to secularization, markets, and technology would also be made, not to mention colonization and economic exploitation.
I won’t attempt to adjudicate those claims or rank them. Also, you’ll have to forgive me if I failed to include you preferred account of modernity; they are many. But I will venture my own tentative and partial theory of the case with a view to possibly illuminating elements of the present state affairs. I’ve been particularly struck of late by the degree to which what I’ll call the myth of the machine1 became an essential element of the modern or, maybe better, the late modern world. Two clarifications before we proceed. First, I was initially calling this the “myth of neutrality” because I was trying to get at the importance of something like neutral or disinterested or value-free automaticity in various cultural settings. I wasn’t quite happy with neutrality as a way of capturing this pattern, though, and I’ve settled on the myth of the machine because it captures what may be the underlying template that manifests differently across various social spheres. And part of my argument will be that this template takes the automatic, ostensibly value-free operation of a machine as its model. Second, I use the term myth not to suggest something false or duplicitous, but rather to get at the normative and generative power of this template across the social order. That said, let’s move on, starting with some examples of how I see this myth manifesting itself.
Objectivity, Impartiality, Neutrality
The myth of the machine underlies a set of three related and interlocking presumptions which characterized modernity: objectivity, impartiality, and neutrality. More specifically, the presumptions that we could have objectively secured knowledge, impartial political and legal institutions, and technologies that were essentially neutral tools but which were ordinarily beneficent. The last of these appears to stand somewhat apart from the first two in that it refers to material culture rather than to what might be taken as more abstract intellectual or moral stances. In truth, however, they are closely related. The more abstract intellectual and institutional pursuits were always sustained by a material infrastructure, and, more importantly, the machine supplied a master template for the organization of human affairs.
There are any number of caveats to be made here. This post obviously paints with very broad strokes and deals in generalizations which may not prove useful or hold up under closer scrutiny. Also, I would stress that I take these three manifestations of the myth of the machine to be presumptions, by which I mean that this objectivity, impartiality, and neutrality were never genuinely achieved. The historical reality was always more complicated and, at points, tragic. I suppose the question is whether or not these ideals appeared plausible and desirable to a critical mass of the population, so that they could compel assent and supply some measure of societal cohesion.2 Additionally, it is obviously true that there were competing metaphors and models on offer, as well as critics of the machine, specifically the industrial machine. The emergence of large industrial technologies certainly strained the social capital of the myth. Furthermore, it is true that by the mid-20th century, a new kind of machine—the cybernetic machine, if you like, or system—comes into the picture. Part of my argument will be that digital technologies seemingly break the myth of the machine, yet not until fairly recently. But the cybernetic machine was still a machine, and it could continue to serve as an exemplar of the underlying pattern: automatic, value-free, self-regulating operation.
Now, let me suggest a historical sequence that’s worth noting, although this may be an artifact of my own limited knowledge. The sequence, as I see it, begins in the 17th century with the quest for objectively secured knowledge animating modern philosophy as well as the developments we often gloss as the scientific revolution. Hannah Arendt characterized this quest as the search for an Archimedean point from which to understand the world, an abstract universal position rather than a situated human position. Later in the 18th century, we encounter the emergence of political liberalism, which is to say the pursuit of impartial political and legal institutions or, to put it otherwise, “a ‘machine’ for the adjudication of political differences and conflicts, independently of any faith, creed, or otherwise substantive account of the human good.”3 Finally, in the 19th century, the hopes associated with these pursuits became explicitly entangled with the development of technology, which was presumed to be a neutral tool easily directed toward the common good. I’m thinking, for example, of the late Leo Marx’s4 argument about the evolving relationship between progress and technology through the 19th century. “The simple republican formula for generating progress by directing improved technical means to societal ends,” Marx argued, “was imperceptibly transformed into a quite different technocratic commitment to improving ‘technology’ as the basis and the measure of — as all but constituting — the progress of society.”
I wrote “explicitly entangled” above because, as I suggested at the outset, I think the entanglement was always implicit. This entanglement is evident in the power of the machine metaphor. The machine becomes the template for a mechanistic view of nature and the human being5 with attendant developments in a variety of spheres: deism in religion, for example, and the theory of the invisible hand in economics. In both cases, the master metaphor is that of self-regulating machinery. Furthermore, contrasted to the human, the machine appears dispassionate, rational, consistent, efficient, etc. The human was subject to the passions, base motives, errors of judgement, bias, superstition, provincialism, and the like. The more machine-like a person became, the more likely they were to secure objectivity and impartiality. The presumed neutrality of what we today call technology was a material model of these intellectual and moral aspirations. The trajectory of these assumptions leads to technocracy. The technocratic spirit triumphed through at least the mid-twentieth century, and it has remained a powerful force in western culture. I’m tempted to argue, however, that, in the United States at least, the Obama years may come to be seen as its last confident flourish.6 In any case, the machine supplied a powerful metaphor that worked its way throughout western culture.
Another way to frame all of this, of course, is by reference to Jacques Ellul’s preoccupation with what he termed la technique, the imperative to optimize all areas of human experience for efficiency, which he saw as the defining characteristic of modern society. Technique manifests itself in a variety of ways, but one key symptom is the displacement of ends by a fixation on means, so much so that means themselves become ends. The smooth and efficient operation of the system becomes more important than reckoning with which substantive goods should be pursued. Why something ought to be done comes to matter less than that it can be done and faster. The focus drifts toward a consideration of methods, procedures, techniques, and tools and away from a discussion of the goals that ought to be pursued.
The Myth of the Machine Breaks Down
Let’s revisit the progression I described earlier to see how the myth of the machine begins to break down, and why this is may illuminate the strangeness of our moment. Just as the modern story began with the quest for objectively secured knowledge, this ideal may have been the first to lose its implicit plausibility. Since the late 19th century onward, philosophers, physicists, sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and historians have, among others, proposed a more complex picture that emphasized the subjective, limited, contingent, situated, and even irrational dimensions of how humans come to know the world. The ideal of objectively secured knowledge became increasingly questionable throughout the 20th century. Some of these trends get folded under the label “postmodernism,” but I found the term unhelpful at best a decade ago—now find it altogether useless.
We can similarly trace a growing disillusionment with the ostensible impartiality of modern institutions. This takes at least two forms. On the one hand, we might consider the frustrating and demoralizing character of modern bureaucracies, which we can describe as rule-based machines designed to outsource judgement and enhance efficiency. On the other, we can note the heightened awareness of the actual failures of modern institutions to live up to the ideals of impartiality, which has been, in part, a function of the digital information ecosystem.
But while faith in the possibility of objectively secured knowledge and impartial institutions faltered, the myth of the machine persisted in the presumption that technology itself was fundamentally neutral. Until very recently, that is. Or so it seems. And my thesis (always for disputation) is that the collapse of this last manifestation of the myth brings the whole house down. This in part because of how much work the presumption of technological neutrality was doing all along to hold American society together. (International readers: as always read with a view to your own setting. I suspect there are some areas of broad overlap and other instances when my analysis won’t travel well). Already by the late 19th century, progress had become synonymous with technological advancements, as Leo Marx argued. If social, political, or moral progress stalled, then at least the advance of technology could be counted on.
The story historian David Nye tells in American Technological Sublime is also instructive here. Nye convincingly argued that technology became an essential element of America’s civil religion (that’s my characterization) functionally serving through its promise and ritual civic commemoration as a source of cultural vitality and cohesion. It’s hard to imagine this today, but Nye documents how through the 19th and early to mid-20th century, new technologies of significant scale and power were greeted with what can only be described as religious reverence and their appearance heralded in civic ceremonies.
But over the last several years, the plausibility of this last and also archetypal manifestation of the myth of the machine has also waned. Not altogether, to be sure, but in important and influential segments of society and throughout a wide cross-section of society, too. One can perhaps see the shift most clearly in the public discourse about social media and smart phones, but this may be a symptom of a larger disillusionment with technology. And not only technological artifacts and systems, but also with the technocratic ethos and the public role of expertise.
After the Myth of the Machine
If the myth of the machine in these three manifestations, was, in fact, a critical element of the culture of modernity, underpinning its aspirations, then when each in turn becomes increasingly implausible the modern world order comes apart. I’d say that this is more or less where we’re at. You could usefully analyze any number of cultural fault lines through this lens. The center, which may not in fact hold, is where you find those who still operate as if the presumptions of objectivity, impartiality, and neutrality still compelled broad cultural assent, and they are now assailed from both the left and the right by those who have grown suspicious or altogether scornful of such presumptions. Indeed, the left/right distinction may be less helpful than the distinction between those who uphold some combination of the values of objectivity, impartiality, and neutrality and those who no longer find them compelling or desirable.
At present, contemporary technologies are playing a dual role in these developments. On the one hand, I would argue that the way the technologies classified, accurately or not, as A.I. are framed suggests an effort to save the appearances of modernity, which is to say to aim at the same ideals of objectivity, impartiality, and neutrality while acknowledging that human institutions failed to consistently achieve them. Strikingly, they also retrieve the most pernicious fixations of modern science, such as phrenology. The implicit idea is that rather than make human judgement, for example, more machine-like, we simply hand judgment over to the machines altogether. Maybe the algorithm can be thoroughly objective even though the human being cannot. Or we might characterize it as a different approach to the problem of situated knowledge. It seeks to solve the problem by scale rather than detachment, abstraction, or perspective. The accumulation of massive amounts of data about the world can yield new insights and correlations which, while not subject to human understanding, will nonetheless prove useful. Notice how in these cases, the neutrality of the technology involved is taken for granted. When it becomes clear, however, that the relevant technologies are not and cannot, in fact, be neutral in this way, then this last ditch effort to double down on the old modern ideals stalls out.
It is also the case that digital media has played a key role in weakening the plausibility of claims to objectively secured knowledge and impartial institutions. The deluge of information through which we all slog everyday is not hospitable to the ideals of objectivity and impartiality, which to some degree were artifacts of print and mass media ecosystems. The present condition of information super-abundance and troves of easily searchable memory databases makes it trivially easy to either expose actual instances of bias, self-interest, inconsistency, and outright hypocrisy or to generate (unwittingly for yourself or intentionally for others) the appearance of such. In the age of the Database, no one controls the Narrative. And while narratives proliferate and consolidate along a predictable array of partisan and factional lines, the notion that the competing claims could be adjudicated objectively or impartially is defeated by exhaustion.
The dark side of this thesis involves the realization that the ideals of objectivity, impartiality, and neutrality, animated by the myth of the machine, were strategies to diffuse violent and perpetual conflict over competing visions of the true, the good, and the just during the early modern period in Europe. I’ve been influenced in this line of thought by the late Stephen Toulmin’s Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity. Toulmin argued that modernity experienced a false start in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, one characterized by a more playful, modest, and humane spirit, which was overwhelmed by the more domineering spirit of the seventeenth century and the emergence of the modern order in the work of Descartes, Newton, and company, a spirit that was, in fairness, animated by a desperate desire to quell the violence that engulfed post-Reformation Europe. As I summarized Toulmin’s argument in 2019, the quest for certainty “took objectivity, abstraction, and neutrality as methodological pre-conditions for both the progress of science and politics, that is for re-emergence of public knowledge. The right method, the proper degree of alienation from the particulars of our situation, translations of observable phenomena into the realm mathematical abstraction—these would lead us away from the uncertainty and often violent contentiousness that characterized the dissolution of the premodern world picture. The idea was to reconstitute the conditions for the emergence of public truth and, hence, public order.”
In that same essay three years ago, I wrote, “The general progression has been to increasingly turn to technologies in order to better achieve the conditions under which we came to believe public knowledge could exist [i.e., objectivity, disinterestedness, impartiality, etc]. Our crisis stems from the growing realization that our technologies themselves are not neutral or objective arbiters of public knowledge and, what’s more, that they may now actually be used to undermine the possibility of public knowledge.” Is it fair to say that these lines have aged well?
Of course, the reason I characterize this as the dark side of the argument is that it raises the following question: What happens when the systems and strategies deployed to channel often violent clashes within a population deeply, possibly intractably divided about substantive moral goods and now even about what Arendt characterized as the publicly accessible facts upon which competing opinions could be grounded—what happens when these systems and strategies fail?
It is possible to argue that they failed long ago, but the failure was veiled by an unevenly distributed wave of material abundance. Citizens became consumers and, by and large, made peace with the exchange. After all, if the machinery of government could run of its own accord, what was their left to do but enjoy the fruits of prosperity. But what if abundance was an unsustainable solution, either because it taxed the earth at too high a rate or because it was purchased at the cost of other values such as rootedness, meaningful work and involvement in civic life, abiding friendships, personal autonomy, and participation in rich communities of mutual care and support? Perhaps in the framing of that question, I’ve tipped my hand about what might be the path forward.
At the heart of technological modernity there was the desire—sometimes veiled, often explicit—to overcome the human condition. The myth of the machine concealed an anti-human logic: if the problem is the failure of the human to conform to the pattern of the machine, then bend the human to the shape of the machine or eliminate the human altogether. The slogan of the one of the high-modernist world’s fairs of the 1930s comes to mind: “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms.” What is now being discovered in some quarters, however, is that the human is never quite eliminated, only diminished.
Lewis Mumford uses this phrase as the title of one of later works, but I am using the phrase independently of Mumford’s argument.
Given the presumptive nature of these three values, I might borrow a page from anthropologist Bruno Latour and argue that we have never been modern because these core assumptions were never realized in practice (see We Have Never Been Modern).
That’s just more of me in a 2017 post about democracy and technology, which is very much related to what I’m saying here.
It might interest some of you to know that Leo Marx passed away in March of this year at the age of 102. The quotation is from “The Idea of ‘Technology’ and Postmodern Pessimism,” which can be found in a collection of essays titled Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism.