Integral Manifesto Pt I(5): Three Cautionary Tales of Scale/ Technologies

Books Discussed in this Section

Hannah Arendt (1958)  The Human Condition, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago

Bruno Latour (1999)Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies, Harvard University Press


In the realm of human action, technology elevates it’s own power through two outstanding characteristics: unpredictability and endurance. This greatly worried Hannah Arendt

In this aspect of action– all important to the modern age, to its enormous enlargement of human capabilities as well as to its unprecedented concept and consciousness in history– processes are started whose outcome is unpredictable, so that uncertainty rather than frailty becomes thedecisive character of human affairs.

… the strength of the action process [techne] is never exhausted in a single deed, but, on the contrary, can grow while its consequences multiply … The reason why we are never able to foretell with certainty the outcomes andend of any action [techne] is simply that action has no end. The process of a single deed can quite literally endure throughout time until mankind itself has come to an end.

Even today, as our technologies bear down on planetary limits, they continue to journey “where no man has gone before”– into new outer spaces as well as new inner spaces. Nations co-conspire and collaborate on projects of massive physical scales and with enormously powerful potentials– as well as on projects of infinitesimal scales such as nanotechnology and genetic engineering– and continue to do so regardless  of our knowledge of, or lack of knowledge of, their unintended consequences. We know what we know, and we know what we don’t know– and sciences can only scratch the surfaces of these questions; whereas theoretical contemplation cannot even address the question of not knowing what we don’t know– but time and again, technology supplies the missing link; and so, in a sense, humans have always engaged technology to complete an epistemic circle. The switch from homo faber to homo techne occurs when the center of that circle is no longer the “who I am” but the “will to power” that lies within.

The tremendous power of technology is not only due to its ability to scale to enormous proportions, but also due to its capacity to overdetermine patterns of use that develop deep grooves or habits, traces in the way humans continue to act and employ certain technologies over long durations of time– even beyond the term of their usefulness. We have yet to experience the Brave New World where machines conspire to be completely independent of human control– no technology today can operate without a great deal of continual human support and interruption– but because of the way technologies become engrained into the fabric of society, we continue to support them even as their destructive consequences come to outweigh their social utility and human value.

These “deep grooves” are not only physical precedents, like ancient paths that have been made into local streets, and then remade into major thoroughfares– they can also be ritualistic or mimetic structures deeply embedded in cultural heritage and social consciousness. Moreso than ever before, these “grooves” are not merely large in scale and long in standing, but are increasingly complex and multi-dimensional. Today’s technologies are not merely aggregates of materials, man-power and the convenience of habit– rather they are complex networks of deep and extensively distributed processes that, in the lexicon of Bruno Latour, include “humans and non-humans alike.”

… the prime mover of an action becomes a new, distributed, and nested series of practices whose sum may be possible to add up but only if we respect the mediating role of all the actants [ entangled humans and non-human agents] mobilized in the series.

 Latour describes a technology as a collective of humans and non-humans wherein humans and non-humans are enfolded within each other. Take for example, his consideration of a man and a gun and their relative agencies. For Latour, it is insufficient to contend either that “guns kill people” or that “people do.” Rather, he contends that both the human and the non-human (person and the gun) are enfolded in such a way as to create a new kind of composite agent, referred to him as an actant.

You are a different person with a gun in your hand. This translation is wholly symmetrical. You are a different person with a gun in your hand; the gun is different with you holding it. You are another subject because you hold the gun; the gun is another object because it has entered a relationship with you. …When the propositions are articulated, they join in to a new proposition. They become “someone or something” else.

It is now possible to switch our attention to this “someone else” the hybrid actor comprising (for instance) the gun and the gunman. We must learn to attribute– redistribute– actions to many more agents than are accpetable in either the materialist or the sociological account. Agents can be human or (lie the gun) nonhuman, and each can have goals (or functions, as engineers prefer to say). Since the word “agent” in the case of nonhumans is uncommon, a better term, as we have seen, is actant.

 As Latour would have it, our modern dispensation is that we live not “in society” but  in collectives of humans and nonhumans, and the process that creates increasingly indelible relations in these collectives are becoming more intricate, more complex, and conceivably richer all the time.

Contrary to what makes Heiddegerians weep, there is an extraordinary continuity which historians and philosophers of technology have increasingly made legible, betweeen nuclear power plants, missle-guidance systems, computer-chip design, or subway automation and the ancient mixture of society, symbols, and matter that ethnographers and archaeologists have studied for generations. … Unlike what is held by the traditional distinction, the difference between an ancient “primitive” collective and a modern or “advanced” one is not that the former manifests a rich mixture of social and technical culture while the latter exhibits a technology devoid of ties with the social order.

The difference, rather, is that the latter translates, crosses over, enrolls, and mobilizes more elements which are more intimately connected, with a more finely woven social fabric, than the former does. The relation between the scale of collectives and the number of nonhumans enlisted in their midst is crucial. One finds, of course, longer chains of action in “modern” collectives, a greater numbe of nonhumans (machines, automatons, devices) associated with one another, but one must not overlook the size of markets, the number of people in their orbits, the amplitude of the mobilization: more objects, yes, but many more subjects as well. Those who have tried to distinguish these two sorts of collective by attributing “objectivity” and”efficiency” to modern technology and “humanity” to low-tech poeisis have been deeply mistaken. Objects and subjects are made simultaneously, and an increased number of subjects is directly related to the number of objects stirred– brewed– into the collective. The adjective “modern” does not describe an increased distance between society and technology or their alienation, but a deepened intimacy, a more intricate mesh, between the two.

Harking back to the writings, but not the warnings of Arendt, Latour confirms– actually affirms– that techniques, as a class,  are unpredictable in nature — not means, but mediators– means and ends at the same time– and that the conviction of actants, as it were, is to remake social relations through “fresh and unexpected sources of action” since, as Arendt herself noted, “society is not stable enough to scribe itself in anything.”

On the contrary, most of the features of what we mean by social order– scale, asymmetry, durability, power, hierarchy, the distribution of roles– are impossible even to define without recruiting socialized nonhumans. Yes, society is constructed, but not socially constructed. Humans, for millions of years, have extended their social relations to other actants with which, with whom, they have swapped many properties and with which, with whom, they form collectives.

For Latour, technology irrupts the temporal scale of science which in all of modern times has had the conviction of separating the “objectve” portionof reality from the “subjective” portion– in other words, of rescuing what objects really are in themselves from the barbarian superposition of what human beliueve them to be, projected with passions, biases and prejudices of all sorts–toward a situation where “time enmeshes, at an even greater level of intimacy and on an ever greater scale, humans and nonhumans with each other;” a temporal map where “the confusion of humans and nonhumans is not only out past but our future as well. As technology scales along this temporary projectory, Latour concludes

Political representation of nonhumans seems not only plausible now but necessary, when the notion would have seemed ludicrous or indecent not long ago.

Given the complexities of these relations, it is as if the enormous momentum needed to overhaul existing technologies and replace them with completely new ones, is in turn stored as the tremendous inertia tahat overwhelms the ordinary person when s/he contemplates change in a completely new direction.