An argument with myself
“Technique encompasses the totality of present-day society,” wrote Ellul. “Man is caught like a fly in a bottle. His attempts at culture, freedom, and creative endeavour have become mere entries in technique’s filing cabinet.”Jacques Ellul
As an artist and amateur philosopher I often hold more than one perspective or opinion on things. Technology is a force, a power in the world like the force of nature. It can be a tool in our hands some other animals even have forms of technology. Language and writing are technologies that has allowed us to project our ideas, thoughts and laws into the future. We just need to be ready for the unintended consequences.
Consider the state of artificial intelligence. Is it good or evil or is it just a tool? Perhaps it is something entirely different. It is yet another level of technology that leads to the next form. A complex system of network effect that lead to a sort of emergent behavior.
Well perhaps that is a bit too strong. But consider that technology is a force in the world. An independent reality we push against each day. The French philosopher Jaques Ellul considered machines and technique as a drive to efficiency. Machine has no interest in truth, beauty as it only seems to make the world more efficient for more machines. It is impossible to distinguish between good and bad effects of technology they are seemingly just disruptive.
Consider that technology is used to increase the amount of profit by increasing efficiency. One inventor or business person will utilize a technique to out run the competition to make more money faster. I have done this this myself. To gain advantage over others in a job market I learn a new programming language. Or I learn to use a new artificial intelligence model and create something never seen before and gain money, fame and power.
Technology’s main role is to gain power. It can give a government more power over its citizens and sometimes if a populous is quick enough they can use a new technique or technology gain power over a government. Corporations that can afford large computers and Ai models can use it to change the calculus over how many people they employ and how much they pay. The technology is a power that has often been in the hands of the people with the most money. But as an individual we cannot resist we must adopt the new technology in order to survive as the network of people adopt it.
Efficiency Over Humanity
But yet this efficiency leads to unforeseen consequences. Consequences that impact humans. These undesirable consequences require more technology. Technology leads to more technology. It appears to be an impersonal force that individually we cannot stop. We say it is a tool for good. But do we mean it is a tool for efficiency? Is efficiency the good?
Or is technology born out of the human desire to create and to explore? It seems to me that not all cultures have desired to increase efficiency or perhaps various tribes moved at different speeds. In certain Amish communities they work as a collective to make decisions about technology. If it has the potential to harm the communication of the community or family they limit the use of the technology. For example some communities have chosen to use the gas engine but not for transportation. It is relegated to work in the wood shop. Or they put the telephone in a shack outside the home. As a community they can resist on some level.
The invention and advancement of the computer seems to have accelerated the pace of change and the individual has little free will to hold it back. Artificial intelligence has become the new technique to filter the massive amounts of information that we collect from humans and the sensors we have connected to monitor almost everything. But yet Ai again produces an exponential amount of new information. As an artist I can generate billions of new images, words and poems. Do we still have the ability to choose against this flood of information?
And now we have the increased ability to generate non-information or disinformation. There are certain people and nations that have found that creating more disruption increases their ability to gain power. And others have learned to continually make new weapons to keep ahead of rival nations to hold a power in the world. In this the individual is made smaller and smaller.
Now the impact of decentralization can push some power back to the individual. Things like open source software, public free Ai tools and the blockchain promise to help the individual or small communities compete in this soup of large governments and corporations. But yet all of these become a slave to the technology as they all fight to find the next technique that balance the power structure.
And yet I cannot resist using the Ai models I find. I work to break them in a futile attempt to express my free will, the control of myself, the power of my identity. But yet I use the tool that minimizes my will. It is all a dilution an illusion. Am I expressing a choice or just expressing one possibility out of the billions the model knows all at once? The human mind cannot experience the billions of combinations of the model itself. But when we ask the model for what we want it draws a possibility out of billions.
Perhaps this is less efficient but yet these Ai models are also used to detect and filter for us to help us efficiently find data in our global video feeds that monitor us. Does Ai become a self delusional machine that tricks us into a belief that we have a will? We might have a choice in the matter but we have to act collectively.
Lord of the Rings
This idea of technology as a power that can control us is a theme I see in the work of Tolkien. An evil force aided by the individual selfishness and fear of communities takes power by helping the different humanoids create technology that will help them. Mordor manipulates them act in self interest. The Dwarves hold their powerful mineral to protect themselves and hurt their enemy the Elves. the Elves need it to save their race. Each community forges rings of power but yet they did not know they were born from the master ring. To fight the power of evil they must adopt the tools of evil. To take the master ring, this magic technology they fall under its power and become the evil they fight. But there happens to be a single member of a humble tribe who becomes almost willing to destroy this singular power. One who was motivated by pity while holding the ring of power. And yet in irony the one who received pity is the one who accidentally destroys the ring, Golum.
Balance Pity Love
But perhaps there is a balancing point. Ellul described equally powerful forces to technique which were money and government. I would add another one today and that is the corporation. If I remember correctly Ellul held that a balancing of powers against each other could leave space for the individual to thrive. Could distributing power to each individual equally dilute the pull of these forces? Is decentralization and a strong community an answer to the pull of this evil force? I am hopeful but blockchain has the signs of the past where a new technology springs up from many minds to fix what technology broke only to leave more problems. Can we counter the evil of technology with love or pity?