Technology Is A License To Forget

“It is at this point [when the power of technology becomes evident] that a pervasive ignorance and refusal to know, irresponsibility, and blind faith characterize society’s orientation toward the technical. Here it happens that men release powerful changes into the world with cavalier disregard for consequences; that they begin to ‘use’ apparatus, technique, and organization with no attention to the ways in which these ‘tools’ unexpectedly rearrange their lives; that they willingly submit the governance of their affairs to the expertise of others. It is here also that they begin to participate without second thought in megatechnical systems far beyond their comprehension or control; that they endlessly proliferate technological forms of life that isolate people from each other and cripple rather than enrich the human potential; that they stand idly by while vast technical systems reverse the reasonable relationship between means and ends. It is here above all that modern men come to accept an overwhelmingly passive response to everything technological [….]

[…] there is a sense in which all technical activity contains an inherent tendency toward forgetfulness. Is not the point of all invention, technique, apparatus, and organization to have something and have it over with? One does not want to bother anymore with building, developing, or learning it again. One does not want to bother with its structure or the principles of its internal workings. One simply wants the technical thing to be present in its utility. The goods are to be oriented without having to understand the factory or the distribution network. Energy is to be utilized without understanding the myriad of connections that made its generation and delivery possible. Technology, then, allows us to ignore our own works. It is license to forget. In its sphere the truths of all important processes are encased, shut away, and removed from our concern. This more than anything else, I am convinced, is the true source of the colossal passivity in man’s dealings with technical means.”

More from Langdon Winner’s Autonomous Technology. Let the record show that I do not consider myself immune to this sweeping indictment.

5 thoughts on “Technology Is A License To Forget

  1. The more and more I think about technological matters, the more I realise how important a small refusal is. I’ve had debates with a friend of mine over the merits of things such as Fair Trade, Vegeterianism, Ecological Consumption, etc. He’s very much a utilitarian- he takes the long view that such small scale actions can achieve nothing, that what we’re often waiting on is a large scale political and/or technological solution for poverty, ecological damage, etc (more often technological then not). The purpose of such actions, the turn of the argument always goes, is to offer a salve for our conscience. The truth is that such an action is egotistical.

    There’s something in that; a small action cannot achieve much. I cannot, in the face of large scale systems change much by refusing to eat certain things, consume certain things. But it’s only after sometime that I realised that I’d accepted a false framework- I believed that the only things that mattered were actions that could achieve large scale change and that our own selves were unimportant.

    If you invert that and take what is said above about forgetfulness, you realise that making the choices above are always, always to act against the logic of machinery. One choses not to forget. And arguably that is important, that not forgetting, if we’re ever to reason well about technology.

  2. Reblogged this on LETHATECHNIQUE and commented:
    I have been thinking about this passage all week, and it has spurred on some major questions.
    Do the forgetting, forgetfulness, and forgottenness engendered through technology as framed here by Winner become ever-present dangers only because of their status as (suspect or undesirable) results, consequences, and secondary effects?
    Can forgetting become a technique that does not rely on external tools and technology – forgetting not as result but as impetus and procedure, not as consequence but as generative tool itself to be wielded and extended towards a state untarnished by passivity?
    Or does forgetting-as-technique veer too quickly towards extinguishing the possible good and benefits of forgetting, for it is a status of technique that would force forgetting into the realm of the rational and efficient, the technological and the market?
    If conceiving of technique positively in relation to forgetting is a major challenge, then more questions may be raised. How does the lethatechnique relate to Jacques Elull’s definition of technique as, “the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity”? How does it relate to more classical notions of technic and technê as craftsmanship, mechanical art, or practical application of art? Or to Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s statement that, “One can only arrive at the experience of the transcendental – if it is reached at all – when one is oneself in a position of un-knowing, that is, of humility; namely, while remaining in the world of technê he or she begins to venerate a certain kind of experience, acquires it, makes it one’s own, realizes it, sustains it, repeats it – without burdening its sense, its essence with its own great questions”?
    Questions upon questions with that last quote, so one more: does the lethatechnique necessitate the forgetting of technique, the forgetting of “the world of technê”?
    Is it enough to advocate for the lethatechnique’s aim of positioning forgetting not as the byproduct, result, or consequence of uses of technology, but as the starting point at which uses of technology, various tools, as well as internalized and visceral practices can be considered? Forgetting-as-technique can be honed, for example, through working on music with tools, such as the Ableton Live software or a drum kit, that enable complete and utter engrossment. Forgetting-as-technique can be explored through the use of WordPress itself, with which you may engage a certain mode of writing that attempts to purge memories that haunt or aggravate, or with which you may investigate a similar mode of writing that appears to be driven by memory and a need to memorialize but which actually records the balance between forgetfulness and the desire to forget, between that which cannot be remembered and that which should be processed in order to move forward – all through the interface of WordPress in which tensions between private desire and public showmanship, data permanence and triviality bombardment, and mnemonic logorrhea and narcissistic forgetting arise. Forgetting-as-technique can be supported through practices such as Tai Chi, meditation, and mindfulness. There are innumerable examples, of course, once forgetting is established as the starting point – however difficult and problematic – for a creative process and not just a derogatory consequence of a random activity or engagement with technology. And once forgetting becomes the technique itself, all other tools, technologies, and practices become manifestations of that technique.
    Separating forgetting as synonymous with isolation, passivity, and ignoring from a more positively willed state, useful practice, and fascinating concept motivates the pursuit of understanding the lethatechnique. This blog is attempting to trace the potential successes, failures, and mistakes of such a pursuit, and a passage like Winner’s only shows how many questions there are to address as regards contemporary thinking on forgetting.
    When the lethatechnique positions forgetting primarily rather than secondarily, when it blurs the lines between means and ends in parallel to those blurred between memory and forgetting, what are the techniques you would utilize to engage positive starting points of forgetting?

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