(Rough) Notes on Refusing Technology

I now turn to Aristotle’s four causes for “why.” This is “why things are” but I want to use it the way Abbot does in “Methods of Discovery” to make an argument for a “potential why.” These are material (something happens because of social material that went into making or unmaking it, such as “the republicans lost the election because they lost the women’s vote”), structural (the shape of the structure gives it peculiar properties ( IE “all social groups with three members are inherently unbalanced, because two of the three always ally against the third”), effective (cause of something is what it brings about or forces to happen, IE a strike caused employer retaliation/newspaper caused a war), and final cause ( ultimate aims of events. IE “universities exist for education. pollution laws exist because of a need for clean air.”) Begining with an assumption that technology is part of what makes us “human” as we can understand it (and the only way we can understand it), the question should then be “why is it impossible to refuse technology?” We can also ask “why would people want to refuse technology?”

More fundamentally we can ask “what IS technology.” Above I noted that technologies “are both material (as in, having physical instantiations), social (as in engendered by social processes which make it possible) , and produce new forms of sociality, in both cultures that emerge around them and associative cultural effects.” This makes up the material, formal/sturcutral, and final cause, but I will write more in depth below.

Material Cause

When we ask “what is technology” we usually go back to this idea that technology is made up of strict artifacts – physical objects which could also be described as tools. All man-made objects are human tools in one sense or another. We can classify them as being largely related to specific types of goals, but this would bring us to the formal cause. Technology could be made of all sorts of natural materials and components, from wood and stone to refined elements like lead and iron. Sometimes, the material itself is a form of technology, like bronze or plastics. Even “native metal” or naturally occurring metals must be smelted or formed into a “useful” shape.

The distinction here then is a sense of “usefulness.” A rock is a useful piece of technology when placed into a sling. However many rocks are just rocks. So usefulness is also a form of intentionality. This again is jumping to effective cause, but the effectiveness is bound up in the material. A table may be made of wood or plastic, but a table made of water would not function as a table. All materials then embody a form of intentionality / effectiveness or usefulness than makes them functional.

On refusing technology, the material cause draws from our assumption that being “human” is impossible without technology. To refuse technology is to refuse what makes us human. “Humanity,” not the biological entities that make up humans, but the social reality we understand as the whole of homo sapiens on the planet, are wrapped up in material causes, both social and physical artifacts. This makes the assumption that we are not human without our technology – an especially easy leap to make if we label all our tools as technology, from alphabets to zippo lighters, technical, written, and spoken languages. But if I have created an impossible hurdle for the original question, then we could ask “why is it impossible to refuse certain forms of technology?” the material cause would again investigate those forms more directly. Why should I refuse GMOs for instance? This is one area of refusal that has popular support because of a negative public perception of the material. More typically, motivations for refusal result from other causes than the mere inert matter. It is the same dilemma over whether or not a gun is just a gun, or if it embodies something else. We say that what it embodies is a certain imperative for use, which comes out in the final cause. But we could also refuse “hostile design” for instance, materials with negative physical impacts in them (say, asbestos as insulation).

Formal / Structural Cause

The formal nature of technology speaks to the way it is fashioned or deliberately made intentional, whether this is through selection or by affecting changes upon the material to bring it into being. All technology has an intentionality on behalf of not just the material, but the designer, in the way it comes together so that it is possible for it to function or to fulfill its purpose (the effective cause). Its formal nature is at the heart of sociotechnical systems – in seeing what it takes to make a car then, we are talking about more than simply the plastics and metal that go into the car itself, but the plans, designs and means to bring all the materials together and make a vehicle, whether this is a truck or a sports car. The distinction between these two emerges in the effective cause.

Structural causes for refusal come from how we see the individual actors place in society and what elements facilitate or enable their refusal. Is their situation made up of components that exacerbate the feeling of tension with the “grid” but encourages them to get off of it? For instance, a wealthy tech CEO has a dual citizenship with New Zealand and has been criticized as though this were his “bug out” plan – if things go sour in the USA, he can escape the collapse and refuse to be a part of the horrorshow that he presumably will have created with Donald Trump’s administration. Less critically we could think about the way that some people have the ability to “retreat” to a state of affairs where they are less dependent on the system. The receeding of peoples and species further into the wilds, moving away from the frontier of their enemies – this arrangement of materials creates the conditions for refusal that they then can take advantage of.

Efficient / Effective Cause (actual course that brings it into being)

The process of what brings technology into being is one of the most generative ways of thinking about “why.” Because technology is co-constructive with humanity, and enables us to improve upon more technologies, it is in some sense its own why, and yet it cannot be. It’s reductive to think about technology as a “tech tree” of choices, because it brings us to prehistory and nowhere near the “essence” of technology. Instead, thinking about technology as more than artifacts but as social processes and things like language allows us consider it as not just the instrumental result of science and intellectual inquiry, but a metaphor for these things as well. More simply – technology begets science, and knowledge making, and other technologies. It is a process of making things “sensibile” and engendering new sensibilities, whose affordances can then be used to produce additional insights into the world (in the sense of the Greeks’ view of techne as unveiling or arts). It reveals three dimensions: a purpose of things, or essence (as seen by the natual philosophers), a sort of use value of things, as imagined by the mechanical philosopher and utilitarian humans who sees it as a resource (vis a vis hiedegger), and also its ecological, rhizomatic, networked type of self, by which I mean the way things relates to other actors and forces in the world. “Why technology” by the effective cause comes from not just process but motivation, and motivation is contextual, historically and culturally situated, and subject to the self-interst of the creator and the society that enables the creator to make technologies.

On asking “why refuse,” identifying the effective cause for refusing may come from this process. Broadly speaking, ideologies like capitalism or socialism reflect the processes which make it possible to create certain types of technology. A call to refuse social media is sometimes wrapped up in the structural cause of the system that makes it possible for facebook to exist (sillicon valley venture capitalism, the selling of private data, the generation of ad revenue, etc). A refusal to eat meat may come from a recognition that factory farming is what makes it possible for meat to be cheap and widely availible. The advocacy of public transportation is also in some part a refusal of private transportation, and calls to choose alternatives to driving oneself places recognizes the effects of pollution and energy inefficiency of driving something like an SUV alone down a highway with thousands of other people alone in their SUVs.

Final Cause

(I  never really finished writing the notes for a final cause of technology. I think this cause is somewhat utilitarian and instrumental. I started reading Heidegger to address it and became more interested in developing the notion of sensibility, which I will elaborate on later).

The final cause of “why refuse” has already been addressed somewhat. There is something not in the material but in the effective results that gives undesirable humans or forms of sociality the properties they have. As I said above, there is something essentialist in the idea of what it is to be human when we invoke technics as a necessary part of that subjectivity. But structuralist thinking also renders the objects inert and impotent without human users. Materialist approaches can be somewhat reductive – they identify the artifact as the primary source of investigation, and structuralist approaches are more about relationships. I think this is a more important line of approach than merely blaming everything on things. We get a good deal of the determinist arguments for and against technology uses from the material cause, but the final cause is a little more difficult to holistically pin down. We could also focus more on “technics” rather than technology in this vein of thinking – it is not the internet that is making me stupid (Nick Carr’s argument) but it is the sociality and currency of ideas that are shared thanks to the internet which make me stupid. We out to refuse

Additional Thoughts

As argued above, many technologies help to prefigure a sense of what is sensibile in the world, particularly those we may have an anxiety or feel a tension over using. Our obligation or indebtedness to the news media in helping to constitute a sensibile reality exacerbates our frustration with it. We do not like the news, but we would not know the world without it. Our choice is then to be frustrated or ignorant. Other forms of refusal emerge from themes of dependency or addiction, the insecurity over whether or not we could get along without that technology (or “apparatus” as some say). This perspective sees a material cause indebted to themes of control and power. However, if we scale back again to sense-making, then we see a playful form of engagement with the sensible world. “Why is it impossible to refuse certain forms of technology”? Because it’s no fun without them. The suburbs do not make sense for someone who wants to walk the streets. Sub-developments are built up with arterial roads and winding street plans optimized for a homeowner to feel the sense of low density and rolling lawns. The pedestrian wants to walk presumably as little as possible. A trip to the corner store is a bit out of the way if I have to wind my way out of a cul-de-sac.

On the second question (“why would we want to refuse certain forms of technology”) we could use the same answer. Maybe those technologies are no fun. The Prius is derided by automotive enthusiasts because it is not a fun car to drive. It is efficient, utilitarian, but it is not sexy. It doesn’t evoke the affective, ludic qualities that a classic American muscle car does. We could consider that those cars themselves have a type of affective social technology around them, in the glorification of American industry and Detroit’s nostalgic greaser magic, when people put more petroleum in the gas tanks and in their pomade, but this is an overtly cynical and potentially conspiratorial view. It requires that culture always be in the service of power, and denies the agency of individuals to merely like things because they are enjoyable. Many people enjoy energy inneficency, low-brow media, culturally derivitive ideas and artifacts and activities, from WWF to reality television, beer pong and Hummers. The pejorative and elitist critiqe of cultural artifacts claims that these prey on our basest natures, but there is no denying that a cheeseburger tastes better than salad. Is it engineered to do so? Yes! But so is the salad. Likewise, the opera house caters to a different clientele than the dive bar, and HGTV never attempted to be Masterpiece Theatre.

My point is that we should not diminish or ignore affective responses to technology in favor of purely critical perspectives. We have to operate from an assumption that people do not always behave in purely utilitarian or rational ways, and make decisions that are consistent with a personal, interior or internal form of logic.

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