Do Things Want?

Alan Jacobs’ 79 Theses on Technology were offered in the spirit of a medieval disputation, and they succeeded in spurring a number of stimulating responses in a series of essays posted to the Infernal Machine over the last two weeks. Along with my response to Jacobs’ provocations, I wanted to engage a debate between Jacobs’ and Ned O’Gorman about whether or not we may meaningfully speak of what technologies want. Here’s a synopsis of the exchange with my own commentary along the way.

O’Gorman’s initial response focused on the following theses from Jacobs:

40. Kelly tells us “What Technology Wants,” but it doesn’t: We want, with technology as our instrument.
41. The agency that in the 1970s philosophers & theorists ascribed to language is now being ascribed to technology. These are evasions of the human.
42. Our current electronic technologies make competent servants, annoyingly capricious masters, and tragically incompetent gods.
43. Therefore when Kelly says, “I think technology is something that can give meaning to our lives,” he seeks to promote what technology does worst.
44. We try to give power to our idols so as to be absolved of the responsibilities of human agency. The more they have, the less we have.

46. The cyborg dream is the ultimate extension of this idolatry: to erase the boundaries between our selves and our tools.

O’Gorman framed these theses by saying that he found it “perplexing” that Jacobs “is so seemingly unsympathetic to the meaningfulness of things, the class to which technologies belong.” I’m not sure, however, that Jacobs was denying the meaningfulness of things; rather, as I read him, he is contesting the claim that it is from technology that our lives derive their meaning. That may seem a fine distinction, but I think it is an important one. In any case, a little clarification about what exactly “meaning” entails, may go a long way in clarify that aspect of the discussion.

A little further on, O’Gorman shifts to the question of agency: “Our technological artifacts aren’t wholly distinct from human agency; they are bound up with it.” It is on this ground that the debate mostly unfolds, although there is more than a little slippage between the question of meaning and the question of agency.

O’Gorman appealed to Mary Carruthers’ fascinating study of the place of memory in medieval culture, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture, to support his claim, but I’m not sure the passage he cites supports his claim. He is seeking to establish, as I read him, two claims. First, that technologies are things and things are meaningful. Second, that we may properly attribute agency to technology/things. Now here’s the passage he cites from Carruthers’ work (brackets and elipses ellipses are O’Gorman’s):

“[In the middle ages] interpretation is not attributed to any intention of the man [the author]…but rather to something understood to reside in the text itself.… [T]he important “intention” is within the work itself, as its res, a cluster of meanings which are only partially revealed in its original statement…. What keeps such a view of interpretation from being mere readerly solipsism is precisely the notion of res—the text has a sense within it which is independent of the reader, and which must be amplified, dilated, and broken-out from its words….”

“Things, in this instance manuscripts,” O’Gorman adds, “are indeed meaningful and powerful.” But in this instance, the thing (res) in view is not, in fact, the manuscripts. As Carruthers explains at various other points in The Book of Memory, the res in this context is not a material thing, but something closer to the pre-linguistic essence or idea or concept that the written words convey. It is an immaterial thing.

That said, there are interesting studies that do point to the significance of materiality in medieval context. Ivan Illich’s In the Vineyard of the Text, for example, dwells at length on medieval reading as a bodily experience, an “ascetic discipline focused by a technical object.” Then there’s Caroline Bynum’s fascinating Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe, which explores the multifarious ways matter was experienced and theorized in the late middle ages.

Bynum concludes that “current theories that have mostly been used to understand medieval objects are right to attribute agency to objects, but it is an agency that is, in the final analysis, both too metaphorical and too literal.” She adds that insofar as modern theorizing “takes as self-evident the boundary between human and thing, part and whole, mimesis and material, animate and inanimate,” it may be usefully unsettled by an encounter with medieval theories and praxis, which “operated not from a modern need to break down such boundaries but from a sense that they were porous in some cases, nonexistent in others.”

Of course, taking up Bynum’s suggestion does not entail a re-imagining of our smartphone as a medieval relic, although one suspects that there is but a marginal difference in the degree of reverence granted to both objects. The question is still how we might best understand and articulate the complex relationship between our selves and our tools.

In his reply to O’Gorman, Jacobs focused on O’Gorman’s penultimate paragraph:

“Of course technologies want. The button wants to be pushed; the trigger wants to be pulled; the text wants to be read—each of these want as much as I want to go to bed, get a drink, or get up out of my chair and walk around, though they may want in a different way than I want. To reserve ‘wanting’ for will-bearing creatures is to commit oneself to the philosophical voluntarianism that undergirds technological instrumentalism.”

It’s an interesting feature of the exchange from this point forward that O’Gorman and Jacobs at once emphatically disagree, and yet share very similar concerns. The disagreement is centered chiefly on the question of whether or not it is helpful or even meaningful to speak of technologies “wanting.” Their broad agreement, as I read their exchange, is about the inadequacy of what O’Gorman calls “philosophical volunatarianism” and “technological instrumentalism.”

In other words, if you begin by assuming that the most important thing about us is our ability to make rational and unencumbered choices, then you’ll also assume that technologies are neutral tools over which we can achieve complete mastery.

If O’Gorman means what I think he means by this–and what Jacobs takes him to mean–then I share his concerns as well. We cannot think well about technology if we think about technology as mere tools that we use for good or evil. This is the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” approach to the ethics of technology, and it is, indeed, inadequate as a way of thinking about the ethical status of artifacts, as I’ve argued repeatedly.

Jacobs grants these concerns, but, with a nod to the Borg Complex, he also thinks that we do not help ourselves in facing them if we talk about technologies “wanting.” Here’s Jacobs’ conclusion:

“It seems that [O’Gorman] thinks the dangers of voluntarism are so great that they must be contested by attributing what can only be a purely fictional agency to tools, whereas I believe that the conceptual confusion this creates leads to a loss of a necessary focus on human responsibility, and an inability to confront the political dimensions of technological modernity.”

This seems basically right to me, but it prompted a second reply from O’Gorman that brought some further clarity to the debate. O’Gorman identified three distinct “directions” his disagreement with Jacobs takes: rhetorical, ontological, and ethical.

He frames his discussion of these three differences by insisting that technologies are meaningful by virtue of their “structure of intention,” which entails a technology’s affordances and the web of practices and discourse in which the technology is embedded. So far, so good, although I don’t think intention is the best choice of word. From here O’Gorman goes on to show why he thinks it is “rhetorically legitimate, ontologically plausible, and ethically justified to say that technologies can want.”

Rhetorically, O’Gorman appears to be advocating a Wittgenstein-ian, “look and see” approach. Let’s see how people are using language before we rush to delimit a word’s semantic range. To a certain degree, I can get behind this. I’ve advocated as much when it comes to the way we use the word “technology,” itself a term that abstracts and obfuscates. But I’m not sure that once we look we will find much. While our language may animate or personify our technology, I’m less sure that we typically speak about technology “wanting” anything.  We do not ordinarily say things like “my iPhone wants to be charged,” “the car wants to go out for a drive,” “the computer wants to play.” Although, I can think of an exception or two. I have heard, for example, someone explain to an anxious passenger that the airplane “wants” to stay in the air. The phrase, “what technology wants,” owes much of its currency, such as it is, to the title of Kevin Kelly’s book, and I’m pretty sure Kelly means more by it than what O’Gorman might be prepared to endorse.

Ontologically, O’Gorman is “skeptical of attempts to tie wanting to will because willfulness is only one kind of wanting.” “What do we do with instinct, bodily desires, sensations, affections, and the numerous other forms of ‘wanting’ that do not seem to be a product of our will?” he wonders. Fair enough, but all of the examples he cites are connected with beings that are, in a literal sense, alive. Of course I can’t attribute all of my desires to my conscious will, sure my dog wants to eat, and maybe in some sense my plant wants water. But there’s still a leap involved in saying that my clock wants to tell time. Wanting may not be neatly tied to willing, but I don’t see how it is not tied to sentience.

There’s one other point worth making at this juncture. I’m quite sympathetic to what is basically a phenomenological account of how our tools quietly slip into our subjective, embodied experience of the world. This is why I can embrace so much of O’Gorman’s case. Thinking back many years, I can distinctly remember a moment when I held a baseball in my hand and reflected on how powerfully I felt the urge to throw it, even though I was standing inside my home. This feeling is, I think, what O’Gorman wants us to recognize. The baseball wanted to be thrown! But how far does this kind of phenomenological account take us?

I think it runs into limits when we talk about technologies that do not enter quite so easily into the circuit of mind, body, and world. The case for the language of wanting is strongest the closer I am to my body; it weakens the further away we get from it. Even if we grant that the baseball in hand feels like it wants to be thrown, what exactly does the weather satellite in orbit want? I think this strongly suggests the degree to which the wanting is properly ours, even while acknowledging the degree to which it is activated by objects in our experience.

Finally, O’Gorman thinks that it is “perfectly legitimate and indeed ethically good and right to speak of technologies as ‘wanting.'” He believes this to be so because “wanting” is not only a matter of willing, it is “more broadly to embody a structure of intention within a given context or set of contexts.” Further, “Will-bearing and non-will-bearing things, animate and inanimate things, can embody such a structure of intention.”

“It is good and right,” O’Gorman insists, “to call this ‘wanting’ because ‘wanting’ suggests that things, even machine things, have an active presence in our life—they are intentional” and, what’s more, their “active presence cannot be neatly traced back to their design and, ultimately, some intending human.”

I agree with O’Gorman that the ethical considerations are paramount, but I’m finally unpersuaded that we are on firmer ground when we speak of technologies wanting, even though I recognize the undeniable importance of the dynamics that O’Gorman wants to acknowledge by speaking so.

Consider what O’Gorman calls the “structure of intention.” I’m not sure intention is the best word to use here. Intentionality resides in the subjective experience of the “I,” but it is true, as phenomenologists have always recognized, that intentionality is not unilaterally directed by the self-consciously willing “I.” It has conscious and non-conscious dimensions, and it may be beckoned and solicited by the world that it simultaneously construes through the workings of perception.

I think we can get at what O’Gorman rightly wants us to acknowledge without attributing “wanting” to objects. We may say, for instance, that objects activate our wanting as they are intended to do by design and also in ways that are unintended by any person. But it’s best to think of this latter wanting as an unpredictable surplus of human intentionality rather than inject a non-human source of wanting. The wanting is always mine, but it may be prompted, solicited, activated, encouraged, fostered, etc. by aspects of the non-human world. So, we may correctly talk about a structure of desire that incorporates non-human aspects of the world and thereby acknowledge the situated nature of our own wanting. Within certain contexts, if we were so inclined, we may even call it a structure of temptation.

To fight the good fight, as it were, we must acknowledge how technology’s consequences exceed and slip loose of our cost/benefit analysis and our rational planning and our best intentions. We must take seriously how their use shapes our perception of the world and both enable and constrain our thinking and acting. But talk about what technology wants will ultimately obscure moral responsibility. “What the machine/algorithm wanted” too easily becomes the new “I was just following orders.” I believe this to be true because I believe that we have a proclivity to evade responsibility. Best, then, not to allow our language to abet our evasions.

4 thoughts on “Do Things Want?

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