La Technique

Problems of the modern technological world

(Updated )

Here’s food for thought for those of us who cannot live nor work without digital technology, from LM Sacasas’s essay “The Myth of the Machine”:

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 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.

I’ve been reading Sacasas for many years now, and these two paragraphs are some of the best encapsulations of a few of his recurrent themes. The first, about how modern society glorifies the pursuit of the optimal, criticizes the way that we have been chasing productivity and efficiency throughout our lives. This criticism is especially provocative for technologists and engineers, myself included. The second is about the counterintuitive and unintended effects of the democratization of information, a democratization that has been thoroughly enabled by the internet and social media.

These ideas reveal, with greater clarity, the challenges of our times. They cut deeper than many of the critical takes I’ve seen floating around on various media platforms. I think they deserve more attention, and further reflection, because they also offer the hope of a more meaningful way for us to respond.

P.S. On the topic of optimization, Jia Tolentino’s famous essay “Athleisure, barre and kale: the tyranny of the ideal woman” offers a very different but equally incisive perspective. I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read it yet.