This comment is only metaphorically related to the post. I rode my touring bicycle in the Santa Fe Century yesterday, (which was also my fifty-seventh birthday). As usual, I wore my street clothes - some Carhartt pants, a wool t-shirt, and a seersucker shirt. They're comfortable. I have cycling shorts. I have a cycling jersey. I'm happier and just as physically comfortable in my street clothes. No one, I mean no one, was in street clothes but me. It was a sea of lycra. I felt I stood out like a sore thumb. I could see the "...and becomes a hypochondriac" part of Ellul's statement: Maybe I should wear cycling shorts, even though I have done and have an informed experience of my own personal preference. Am I missing something? Did I make the wrong choice? I think cycling wear and lightweight cycling everything must be part of La Technique. (I still managed 115 miles in about eight and a half hours, in spite of my maladjustment and all around bad attitude.)

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I’ve seen this trend in other sports, like climbing, hiking and running, where amateurs and dilettantes are all buying more professionalized gear as part of their participation in the sport. It raises the bar of entry for newcomers and also sucks the joy out of just doing the activity. Instead, the emphasis seems to be on to optimizing performance and tracking your stats with heartbeat monitors and smart watches.

There’s a funny Pottlandia skit about said tendency, called “Get the gear” : https://youtu.be/R3SFqV0hMyo

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I really like this example of application, thanks for sharing it. I teach music, and there's a really big difference between a student who wants to become an opera singer and one who just wants to play an opera singer in the drama of his/her life. Doing the work is not the same as playing the part.

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Perfect vignette. 100% encapsulates my experience as well - and is a statement about belonging and community and feeling loved as much as a statement regarding the need to optimize for sport.

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I suppose this differs from sport to sport--as a rock climber I appreciate safe, efficient, modern gear since my life depends on it! Climbers in the past used to merely wrap a rope around their waists, an easy way to break your spine in two if you fell.

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I think the trouble, perhaps as I can understand it meagerly, is that Ellul was what Albert Borgmann would call determinist in his views. I think he called it in its entirety “technological value determinism” or the “substantive” view. As in, technology is such a force it has no rivals. This camp tends to be anti-technologist. I’m sure there are many here among us.

But I think I’m with Borgmann here in thinking two contesting thoughts:

1) Being fully invested in the determinist view usually amounts to the idea that we have no agency as humans vis-à-vis technology. That technology fully determines what we do. And while it’s insightful, I’m not sure I’m convinced.

2) Yes, we should see the dark and worrisome side of technology as a taking up with reality, but in taking a paradigmatic view we should recognize it’s cultural force, discuss it, then reform it. (Easier said then done, or course!)

I think I can agree with you, Ellul’s brilliant observations, and Borgmann’s optimism in understanding how la technique has created an ordering that is extremely dangerous to our practices and our ability to engage meaningful in the world. But even now with the techno-economic crescendo of AI and social media and other capitalist technology tearing at the fabric of our lives, we can relate ourselves to technology in a way that resists it’s devastation of our essence as world disclosers AND take it up in a positive way. Such as using certain technological instruments that do more than respond to our subjective desires, by using them to open up new ways of being ourselves.

As always, thank you for a place to think.

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I agree that we have agency, but living with students on a college campus has made me aware of how radically students have to be prepared to act to resist the compulsive/addictive elements of the technology in their use of them. Jesus' hyperbolic admonition in the Sermon on the Mount "if your hand offends, cut it off, if your eye offends pluck it out" has a resonance with the depth of the struggle here to be free. And the system of 'la technique' is bent toward captivation and enslavement. I'm having conversations with our IT department, who for the sake of lowering our insurance costs have to submit to the demands of cybersecurity, which from their point of view is best solved by having a two-tier sign in for all on campus technology. But their default was to make professors' personal cell phones the backup, the second tier. They are fighting one battle, and it's a necessary one for the health of our institution, and I honor their efforts, but we're fighting a different battle in the classroom, a battle for our students' attention and their ability to think, and the simple tool of modeling our increasingly necessary demand that cell phones are not used in the classroom is taken away. I think that's what Ellul is getting at, and while agency is still possible, we underestimate how radically we will need to act in order to resist being enslaved to it.

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May 23, 2023·edited May 23, 2023

We had the same imposition of two-factor authentication on our campus. I know of four of our faculty members who do not have cell phones and intend never to get one. (I wish I were as steadfast in my Luddite leanings.) IT's solution was to provide them with some sort of two factor authentication dongle. I'm struck, and puzzled, by our inability, as a species, to say "no - that's enough." And that is where I see Ellul's determinist view frightening. Personally, I have some sort of onboard drive toward the most simple solution to any problem possible. When I hear about cybersecurity threats, my first thought is, let's just ditch cyberspace then. When I hear of car shortages because of chip shortages, I think, "why are they putting chips in cars anyway - take them out of the design, or even better, why aren't more people bicycling?" Are we that much more efficient now than we were thirty years ago? Does social media really add more to our quality of life than it detracts? Our lives, in general and as far as I can tell, are not better because of the current technology. So why, instead of feeling like the voice of reason, it feels like the voice of naivety whenever I hear myself speaking up against using something like a cell phone, or social media? Even here, replying to Mr. Sacasas's very apropos posts, admittedly, I feel like some cross between a curmudgeon and a crackpot. (After my last stint on the taskforce to address college communications, they have not asked me to be part of the subsequent ones. With our students complaining they get too many emails, guess what my radical solution to the problem was...)

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I also am a Luddite at heart. I wouldn't have a cell phone except my brothers insisted I needed one for driving alone in the winter in the Midwest. But I never bring my cell phone with me any time except on such trips, including to work. (I've became one of the testers of the "authentication dongle" option on our campus.) I've never used GPS because it creates such a visceral reaction in me to have a machine barking orders at me. I want to say, "No, I'm the human, I tell you what to do, you don't tell me what to do." I'd rather get lost and find my way by maps and asking for help from real people than to submit to mindless obedience to a machine. I just can't stand it. When I confess this to people, they look at me as if I had three heads, but that doesn't even bother me any more.

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...which I suppose makes me a curmudgeon by Edward Abbey's description.

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In referring to "curmudgeon" I was, admittedly, thinking of Edward Abbey's quote:

"I have been called a curmudgeon, which my obsolescent dictionary defines as a "surly, illmannered, badtempered fellow." ... Nowadays, curmudgeon is likely to refer to anyone who hates hypocrisy, cant, sham, dogmatic ideologies, the pretenses and evasions of euphemism, and has the nerve to point out unpleasant facts and takes the trouble to impale these sins on the skewer of humor and roast them over the fires of empiric fact, common sense, and native intelligence. In this nation of bleating sheep and braying jackasses, it then becomes an honor to be labeled curmudgeon."

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Oh yes. Don’t let my “convivial” tone throw you off--we’re in a desperate situation, especially for the younger generation. I have an eight-year old daughter and I am already bracing myself in preparation for the fight over a smart phone and social media before she’s an adult.

And I don’t think Borgmann was particularly shy to discuss the techno-economic epoch in dire terms either. His prescription for the good life was typically individually focused with not a lot of societal level way to respond that could move decision makers to change our world.

I’m feeling more and more that the world changers for the technological epoch are not coming any time soon. And I t will take a founding moment to bring these fears to the true center of public discourse—I fear that founding moment will be that of our environmental collapse in the not-so-distant future.

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"So, in brief, here is the point I’m driving at. Perhaps it is simply the case that a society ordered by technique, by the relentless pursuit of optimization, by a compulsive search for the “one best way,” necessarily yields a mental health crisis by generating unattainable goals and unsustainable pressures to, quite literally, measure up."

As a teacher in the UK, I think this is an excellent explanation of why we find official inspections utterly ludicrous and harmful. They are measuring school performance against an utopian target. All human communities are dysfunctional and suboptimal in every respect, especially real schools, but some of us used to look up to the stars and at least hit our heads on the streetlights from time to time. Now, we're all 'delivering' lessons - which I presume an algorithm could do better - and inputting meaningless data. Are they trying to replace human teachers? Or am I succumbing to paranoia? (Just because you think they're out to get you, doesn't mean there not. 😂)

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"So, once again I invite us to ask a simple question: Is there, in fact, “one best way” in every realm of experience? And even if there were, at what cost would we discover it? And what would we gain? Might it be that in the course of pursuing the “one best way,” we would lose our way in a more profound sense?"

This series of questions has echoes with the idea, given expression in both Aristotle and J. S. Mill (though each in his own way), that some goods are uncapturable, unexperienceable, if subject to explicit, deliberate, or focused pursuit.

One such good, according to Aristotle, seems to be friendship: the more you calculate how to achieve it with someone, the more true friendship with that someone recedes. Another example might be literary style. (See Lola Seaton's review of Brian Dillon's book, Affinities.) Health might be another example.

Both Aristotle and Mill suggested that happiness is another — though of course each meant something different by the term. As Mill puts it, "Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than happiness. . . . Aiming thus at something else, they are happy by the way."

Happiness, and the others, seem to emerge only in virtue of something like grace.

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May 26, 2023·edited May 26, 2023

Lying underneath my comment, I think, is a sense I have of a lurking equivocation non only in claims of optimization but in claims against it.

I assume we all have an intuition along the following lines: phenomena such as true friendship, true style, true health, and true happiness have a value that is not mathematically tractable and thus not quantifiably measurable. Anyone who claims to have devised a style-o-scope or happiness-ometer is either lying or confused.

But if it makes little sense to measure true goods in this way, it also makes little sense to search for a way of producing a measurably appropriate amount of them.

Thus, a careful claim of optimizing will not be a claim of optimizing a true good. It will be a claim of optimizing some measurable proxy for that good. These measurable proxies are assumed either to represent or to correlate with the true, immeasurable goods — an assumption encrusted with caveats and ceteris paribus clauses, to be sure.

So the careful friend of optimization will actually claim only to optimize the proxies. Supposing complaints against a view should address the most careful version of that view, then, complaints against optimization should be complaints against the optimization of the proxies.

My thought is this. Beneath the swirling dialectic between the friend and the foe of optimization, the true goods retain their character as true goods. The true goods disappear, if they do, not because they get absorbed and co-opted by technique. They can't; only their proxies can. They disappear, rather, because technique encourages our ignoring and eventual forgetting about them. We are lulled into treating the calculable proxies as though they aren't proxies *for* something incalculably valuable.

All I'm doing here is giving the charitable version of Albert Borgmann's critque of the claim that technique is total. In the article mentioned, Samuel Matlack dismisses Borgmann's critique of Ellul. If Ellul isn't an apt target for Borgmann's critique, the exaggeration of Ellul's views is. To claim that technique is total is to claim that there is nothing worth protecting, exalting, remembering.

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Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I am only just catching up with this post. I think you are spot on about proxies. Once the proxy is accepted, optimization follows automatically - humans are incentivized to adapt to the metrics and so the scores on those metrics will rise; optimization is achieved. As you say, though the question as to whether any real good has been accomplished is left unaddressed; the system is always satisfied with the improved metrics.

But perhaps there is hope in Borgmann's idea that some part of the human experience is untouched by technique. If so, we must give thought as to how we can protect the real goods - the ones MacIntyre refers to as "internal". This seems pertinent at a time when the internal goods of a university are under assault from the technicians and their proxies.

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