{jctv}//the question of technology, progress [AND] evolution\\ Back to 7X300



"We are not anything very much, not even machines..." Iris Murdoch, The philosopher's Pupil

Homo Autotekton: Techné, Tecton, Technique, Technology and the divine creative love of danger

Heidegger saw the difference between traditional technology and modern technology to be this: traditional technology was stuff made so that it would work only if and when acted upon by external forces. Modern technology was different because it could store energy and this energy was thus made orderable. One could order a machine to work by simply flicking a switch of an electrical circuit or some other power supply within the technology itself. This orderability was seen as new by Heidegger. I like that image but it is also problematic because it would appear as if traditional technology had something harmless and innocent about it: like one of Don Quichot’s windmills: why on earth would you want to attack that? In fact it is not orderability itself that is here at issue or indeed very new. Orderability, which is something that Heidegger did not mention, is not something modern. It may be modern putting that orderability into the machine from which the work is ordered but before the orderability could be put into the machine it was stored in the beasts of burden, pull-animals, slaves, serfs and indentured labourers not fortunate enough to belong to the ruling elite and who were free to order their services.

This old technology was thus made orderable by ordering the animal or the slave to work it. Technology has never been innocent, not when it was traditional and reliant on external forces, nor when it became modern and started storing its own energy requirements in the form of interconnected systems, networks of systems making us all changeable and exchangeable parts (bestand) of an endless coupling of systems to feed more systems; a wonderful image given in an earlier version of this essay which calls into question the very meaning of progress.
Technology is a means to something, but what is it a means to? It is a means to more. That is all.

More can only be qualified as better when you have decided on the basis of some desire, what the end is you want to reach. Why should six billion people be better than three billion? Because that is what modern technology has made possible? It has made possible more and quicker building more and quicker food. And the good that this was to serve, was it the fact that we did not have to kill or allow to die all the people born who would otherwise be part of the surfeit of our biological system? If that is the case I cannot help thinking that is a good of sorts, although it brings with it some interesting problems which we are beginning to confront at this moment, we know them all: climate change and the resultant “natural” disasters, overpopulation, hunger, economically inspired emigration and the resultant wars and exclusions. Having created the problem which was an answer to another problem, technology has had to come up with yet more answers; it is the only saviour that can save us from itself! We need new technologies to save us from the consequences of older technologies. This is maybe funny, but it is also deadly serious.

//design [AND[ style [AND] evolution//a tectonics of behaviour...
Evolution as a system of selection pervades everything in the world. One could speak of a tectonics of behaviour: what happens when two things meet implies selection: some things repel each other, some things are happy to coexist contiguously without bothering each other too much, others merge. It depends on their qualities in relation to each other. This is what we may call natural selection. Consciousness is an experiential selection system working with memory. Conscious Bodies select within their environment, conscious bodies thus have two systems of selection operating simultaneously. It is all selection: natural, artificial or even subversive. All we do is select and reassemble! What is not subject to selection? In which activity does one not select? In sawing a piece of wood? In hammering a nail in a wall? In writing a book? In marrying a husband or a wife? In reading stories to one’s children? Every activity, every act of production, even the production of social space is subject to selection. That is what things start off with. There is a plenum, a fullness of stuff which is presented to our senses and the first thing we do is make sense of that plenum by distinguishing styles of things, by selecting and making sets. We distinguish a bird because of its stylistic features, its bird-likeness and are able to determine that bird-likeness on the basis of the most fragmentary signs. Just a feather will do, or an outline, or a place where the bird is to be found, a shadow through the air. We have practiced those signs well. In differentiating the tableau into things which in experience have a certain separateness we can select that which we want to take account of. Any act of selection is a collecting, an aiming, an orienting, a placing, a moving.

The theological dimension of design is a very interesting one to pause at for a moment. Right from the beginning people had a sense that the world was a pretty sophisticated structure. The argument was that for something as complex as life to evolve there would have to be a designer. And indeed there was a tradition in the Middle-Ages, later reawakened by William Blake, to picture God as an architect, holding his compass and using the divine language of geometry to make this overwhelmingly beautiful world. This providential making came to be known as the argument of design, or the teleological argument. God made the world with a purpose. And the making of the world was itself a purposeful activity. There are many instances of it from Cicero to ibn Rushd (Averroes) to Thomas Aquinas. It is still held by some people. Charles Darwin used to enjoy the argument from design as presented by an English theologian William Paley who put the argument in a wonderfully compact way: If you were to be walking along a path and would come across a watch, you would look at the watch and would surely have to conclude that the watch were designed by someone. Darwin at first found this argument very sensible. Later in life he would shiver at the thought of an eye having been brought about through natural selection. It seemed so unlikely! And yet that is now not just the accepted theory, there is an increasing amount of empirical evidence to show us that this is what happened. The eye developed from a sensitive skin, giving each successive generation an advantage over others so that it not only survived but developed into an organ of extreme sophistication.
Richard Dawkins tries to make short shrift of the argument by design by arguing that if the world needs a designer who is clever then surely the designer needs a designer who is clever and so on ad infinitum. I find that pretty convincing even though I also find it something of a cop-out argument. If God can be infinite then what would stop a religious person from eventually entertaining the possibility of an infinite sequence of gods...? The difference is pretty insignificant. What about trying to prove that evolution and design are just simply not very different? We can leave in the middle whether we need a god. We certainly haven’t solved the mystery of the world. I just find the idea of an old-man-with-a-white-beard-as-a-god rather ridiculous. But the case of atheism as nihilism has not been put very powerfully at all. I would like to turn the argument on its head for a minute and ask ourselves the following question. Does design preclude the possibility of evolution? Are design and evolution mutually exclusive? The problem with this is that design is seen as intentional and evolution is seen as “blind” But is design intentional? And is evolution blind? Intentionality is in fact something that comes with experience. That is memory coded in a certain way so that it can be used to help deteremine action. Experience, the ability to have experience, or even to have an experience, are both products of evolutionary development in man. But DNA is both experience, code and the basis of evolutionary selection. Moreover it works simply in the very way that I described earlier using the phrase a tectonics of behaviour. We could quite easily and legitimately see the DNA strand that lies at the foundation of life as a coding of experience: the DNA strand is the experience of the world written up into building code. The DNA strand itself evolved from the behaviour of molecules which developed from the behaviour of atoms which developed, etc. The DNA strand says: [IF] {you want a body with a good chance of making it to reproductive age} [THEN] {do this} [AND] {this} [AND] etc. Evolution selects those products of reproduction that are successful, are winners in the narrow sense of achieving reproductive age and succeeding in reproduction. The DNA strand is “the book of life” and in the production of proteins selects and reassembles the raw materials of life into a body.  Evolution does its selection “blindly” perhaps but with the help of a code useful in an environment that is stable and upon which can be relied to provide the necessary raw materials. It works blindly only in so far as it selects that which succeeds in reproducing itself. But building code carries its experience with it. Some codes lead to structures which are more successful and survive than others which are not so successful, for whatever reason.  Evolution and design both work on the basis of selection and both have experience and raw material at hand. What is the difference exactly?

Furthermore when we make things according to a plan, we select blindly as we only select what is available to us. Design is evolution, or rather natural selection through deferment, it is evolution evolved, evolution improving on itself by introducing a new form of memory and experience into the equation and the ability to scan the environment through our spatial senses. It still works on the basis of natural selection. We might wish to call this natural selection with memory and experience artificial selection, but don’t be too confident of its difference. There is no difference between design and evolution: one uses DNA and the other uses both DNA and experience. Design works on the basis of selection and the coding of experience.

It has kept us busy. What is it? Where do we think we will end up when we have progressed sufficiently? Jorgé Louis Borges wrote a story about the immortals, their immortality led to brain-dead creatures thoroughly bored of their immortality, unwilling to talk, living their endlessness like the confused tramps around stations. Never going, never here. Borges singled out Homer. That same Homer’s immortality is fresh with every new student who bothers to read the Iliad. Although Homer needs not recite it to him, he has sent his epistle into the world through the written word so that even though it is discovered a billion times, Achilles’ anger over the death of Patrocles remains as fresh on the billionth time as it did on the first. Is that progress, the eternal return of freshness? The end of history, the last man? They will not bother us. There will be more Zarathustra’s and a lot more history, no worry there. Is progress then having more of something, being able to do things quicker? Is progress living longer and having to do less? Is progress supporting more people on this earth without violence and suffering? It would be a start. Is progress maintaining the balance? It did not used to be.

Evolution and the game of tennis
We play the game and win or lose. In order to ensure success we develop ourselves, the game develops, there is a progress. In the end the game is still a game with a winner and a loser. Evolution appears to concern itself only with advantages to be had within the game. Game-rules, game-space, game-time, game-equipment are all subject to critique and improvement. But in the end there are only winners and losers. The winners and losers are not better winners or better losers. Evolution requires a reasonably stable field, a stable game. Or has the evolution of the game within human life made us able to evolve our winning and losing, are we now better winners and better losers. Perhaps we are, perhaps we have come to understand the infinite possibilities of the win-win situation. In any case we need to explore our limitation and possibilities. Only in this way will we achieve more poetry, poiesis, creativity, godliness

Progress used to be the anabatic march to the plateau of perfection, didn’t it? Static ideal cities in squares of perfect circles, where life was not only stable but people were confident enough to be friendly. And the progress became frightening. It became logical, an Alphaville, and progress as nostalgia? Progress is weird. A silly word, there is only life that has to be lived well. Do we help others to be? Should we be allowed to ignore ourselves? Do not ignore yourself: help that self!
That brings me to the second image in Heidegger’s essay, the image of danger and salvation, that salvation lies in the very danger it needs to salvage us from. It gives a poetic justice to our blind evolutionary exploration of possibilities and limitations. Our poetic tectonics of behaviour, of being. In this poetic sense technology is at its best, it is an end in itself and becomes pure if rather bloody poetry. But do not allow that distance of poetry to make you feel comfortable. Suffering is real and serves no purpose except to overcome itself.

Art, craft. To make is to reassemble things. For this one has to put one’s own plan over and above any other plan or process. Making things is necessarily an act of violence. It socialises us because we interfere with the world and reassemble bits of it, stir in the metabolism of matter, energy and movement. Someone who makes something with wood, stops the plan of the wood and makes his own thing. He places this new thing in the world and it is taken account of.
One of the most remarkable essays by Martin Heidegger in his later period is his essay on the Question concerning technology. I am not concerned here with that essay and do not want to discuss its problems although these are fascinating. Heidegger was considered a technology pessimist by those who put this essay into the context of his many other comments on technology and modern life. Well so be it. But that is not the bit I want to focus on here. I want to focus on two rather interesting images in that essay, one being the difference between traditional technology and modern technology and the other being the idea of salvation lying within the very danger from which we desire salvation.
A way of doing things. Michel Foucault speaks of techniques of self: self-technology are the means and techniques of making your self. A very Nietzschean concept who considered the self a work of art.
One who builds, a carpenter, shipbuilder. He makes things because he has a purpose. The purpose is to make things and to make a living. He makes his living by making things. He has a plan when he works. He has his experience, his skills, well-practised. He has his attitude as he knows the world he lives in.He knows when he has to do his best.


C. Buskes, Evolutionair denken, De invloed van Darwin op ons Wereldbeeld, (2006)
Hans Achterhuis, De Maat van de Techniek (1992)
Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, 1953
P.E. Vermaas, P.A. Kroes, Andrew Light, and Steven Moore, Philosophy and Design: From Engineering to Architecture, (2007)
Peter Sloterdijk, Regels voor het Mensenpark (2000)

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