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General History and the History of Techniques
The general concept of a technical system is elaborated by Bertrand Gille from the perspective of a historical science. Strictly speaking, in Gille's work there is no one technical system but a succession of technical systems. In the course of a historical period, a system is constituted as a stabilization of technical evolution around previous acquisitions and structural tendencies determined by a play of interdependencies and inventions complementing one another, in relation to other dimensions characteristic of a particular historical period.
This is a proposal in historical method not only for the history of techniques but for general history: it is a question of elaborating "a history bound, so to speak, by the material world" (Gille 1978, ix), a history that can account for the everyday material world throughout history, initiate a dialogue with the specialists of other systems (economic, linguistic, sociological, epistemological, educational, political, military, and so forth) on the question of the site of technics [la technique] in the global coherence of the "human system," and determine the periods of technical development.
Beyond this, what is in question is an apprehension of the possibilities of passage from one technical system to another. From the vantage of a synchronic principle, Gille proposes to describe and explain the diachrony of ruptures, mutations, revolutions, of what in general is called "progress" in the specifically technical sense of the term: "What may appear, in scientific progress, not so much simple as clear and rigorously ordered, appears infinitely less so in technical progress" (1978, x). How does invention take place? Through a process unlike scientific progress: "if there is a certain logic to technical progress, this logic is not perfectly autonomous. Firstly, a certain coherence is necessary in that an isolated technique does not exist without reference to attendant techniques" (x): the logic of this progress for a particular technique is primarily determined by the technical system to which it belongs.
Lucien Febvre called attention to the necessity and the lack of an actual history of techniques within general history, to the necessity of a concept founding its method: the history of techniques is "one of these numerous disciplines that are entirely, or almost entirely, to be created" (Febvre 1935,16). This necessity appeared notably in the thesis of Lefébvre des Noettes, which assigned to technical innovation—to the harnessing and saddling of the horse—a determining role in the disappearance of slavery, and highlighted the problem of the role of technics in human development and of a technical determinism in history.
The stakes are high. The incorporation of the history of techniques into general history is particularly difficult.
There is first of all the problem, intrinsic to the object "technics" [la technique], of not falling into a specialized, parceled history of techniques: technics is the object of a history of techniques, beyond techniques. At present, history knows only techniques, because technics is essentially specialization. Technics is not a fact but a result. The history of techniques, then, needs this result to become organized into a history of technics.
There is on the other hand a problem in establishing the actual connections with other historical aspects; this places the preceding problem at a more general level. There are economic, political, demographic facts, and so forth. But it is the unity of the historical fact that gathers this diversity into a general history. Here again, the result must provide the unity of the operation from which the result results.
The concept of a technical system aims at the solution of these problems. Such a result returns after the event [après coup] as the possibility of a new, more stable beginning.
The Technical System
As in linguistics, here the point of view creates the object, and the concepts will have to order reality according to the static and dynamic aspects of the general system that reality forms. As in linguistics, here the system is the major concept.
Technical structures, ensembles, and channels are static combinations in which phenomena of retroaction appear: by using the steam engine, the steel industry produces better steel, allowing in turn for the production of more efficient machines. Here, then, the necessity of a concept of technical system becomes urgent. The various levels of combinations are statically and dynamically interdependent, and imply laws of operation and processes of transformation. Each level is integrated into a superior level dependent upon it, right up to the global coherence that the system forms.
A technical system constitutes a temporal unity. It is a stabilization of technical evolution around a point of equilibrium concretized by a particular technology: "The establishment of these connections can only take place, can only become efficient, once the common level of the ensemble of techniques is realized, even if, marginally, the level of some of the techniques, more independent than others, has remained below or above the general level" (Gille 1978,19). A sort of technical mean is thus established around the point of equilibrium.
The evolution of technical systems moves toward the complexity and progressive solidarity of the combined elements. "The internal connections that assure the life of these technical systems are more and more numerous as we advance in time, as techniques become more and more complex." This globalization [mondialisation] of such dependencies—their universalization and, in this sense, the deterritorialization of technics—leads to what Heidegger calls Gestell: planetary industrial technics—the systematic and global exploitation of resources, which implies a worldwide economic, political, cultural, social, and military interdependence.
The Technical System in Its Relation to Economic and Social Systems
The question posed to history is that of the relation between the technical system and what we shall call the "other systems." In the first place, it is obvious that links exist between the technical and economic systems: there is no work without technics, no economic theory that is not a theory of work, of surplus profit, of means of production and investment.
There are two opposing points of view on what determines the relations between these systems: "Some have been led to think that the technical systems were, from the beginning, more astringent than the economic systems. Conversely, a technique must be incorporated into a system of prices, into an organization of production, failing which, it loses its economic interest—its proper finality" (Gille 1978, 24).
The economy may constitute a brake on the expansion of the technical system. Thus, the practice of preserving outlived techniques for economic reasons is commonplace—and only one example of the problem of adequacy between the evolutional tendencies of technics and economico-political constraints. The aim of state interventionism is the regulation of their relation—for example, through a system of customs regulations, or through public investment.
The transformations of the technical system regularly bring in their wake upheavals of the social system, which can completely destabilize it when "the new technical system leads to the substitution of a dominant activity for an out-dated activity of a totally different nature" (Gille 1978, 26). Hence the very general question of technology transfer arises. What is of interest to us here is the ever-present necessity of solving this problem in the twentieth century, which is characterized, as we shall see, by economic activity based on ever more rapid technological innovation. The relation between the technical and social systems is thus treated as a problem of consumption, in which the economic system is the third component: the development of consumerism, accompanying constant innovation, aims at a greater flexibility in consumer attitudes, which adapt and must adapt ever more quickly, at a pace obviously not without effect on the specifically cultural sphere. The twentieth century thereby appears properly and massively uprooting—and this will always provide the theme, in terms of alienation and decline, of the great discourses on technics.
The Limits of the Technical System
The limits of a system order its dynamism. Structural limits can be detected "either in the problem of increasing quantities, or in the impossibility of reducing production costs, or in yet another impossibility, that of diversifying production" (Gille 1978, 26). Economic crises are due to these structural limits.
The report A Halt to Growth characterized our age from 1970 as one threatened by the limits of the development of technics in its relation to the terrestrial ecosystem. Gille criticized the report in its failure to apprehend technics qua system and its consequent inability to analyze correctly the complex nature of its limits: the limit, exhibiting a negative and a positive side, is the principle factor in the transformation of the technical system. Technical progress consists in successive displacements of its limits. The steam engine, as it becomes more powerful, becomes more cumbersome. Below 5,000 horsepower, it is not profitable, and "above a certain capacity, no gain is possible: dimensions, turnover, costs, all necessarily linked to one another, impose a limit that it would be unthinkable to surpass" (Gille 1978, 32–33). Such limits, which can "block a whole system, ... can just as well ... create disequilibriums inducing crises," engendering evolutions and decisions. "If... all techniques are interdependent, reaching a limit in a given sector may stymie the entire technical system, that is, stymie its general evolution.... Around 1850–1855, the replacement of the iron rails of railroads threatened to become a financial disaster if the weight and speed of the trains continued to increase" (34). One had to await the invention of the Bessemer smelting furnace, which allowed for the production of steel rails, before railroad transport would show a marked improvement. This is a case of an endogenous limit to the technical system. But there are also exogenous limits. This is, for example, the case with French techno-economic protectionism in the nineteenth century: it was because of the imposition of duties on the importation of English iron, that is, because of "customs protection, that a country like France ... was unable to surpass certain limits"; in other words, protectionism stalled the evolution of the steel and iron industry and its global technical system. Conversely, dynamic analysis "highlights structural limits that induce invention and lead to mutations of the systems" (35). When a set of conditions is grouped into a system, a decision to evolve takes place. In other words, there is on the one hand progress qua the development of the consequences of a technological invention within a stable technical system, without obligatory crises, without brutal discontinuity—a development Gille calls "technological lines"—and on the other hand, progress as destabilization of the technical system, reconstitution around a new point of equilibrium, and the birth of a new technical system. New technical systems are born with the appearance of the limits of the preceding systems, owing to which progress is essentially discontinuous.
Rationality and Determinism in the Process of Invention
The question, in sum, is to know how an evolution of the system is decided: this is the problem of the logic of invention. The horizon of a mutation is a play of limits within a system, forming an evolutional potential; the effectuation of the mutation is the technical invention itself, qua the catalyst of this potential, qua the act of evolutional potentiality.
The explanation of this actualization is not to be found on the side of scientific discovery. Although technical and scientific progress may converge, and scientific discovery engender technical innovation, there are in each case two different processes of invention or discovery, possibly complementary but irreducible to one another. Technical discovery cannot be typified by the mere development and implementation of a scientific discovery. Such an "implementation," when it occurs, is itself autonomously inventive, following a logic that is not the logic of science.
There is, then, a singularity in the logic of technical invention. Réné Boirel speaks of a "diffuse rationality" (Boirel 1961). The term "rationality" is indeed apt, since technics, in functioning, enters into the causal chains of the principle of reason, is inscribed in the real while transforming it, thereby respecting its laws. But this rationality is nevertheless "diffuse" to the extent that the necessity it entails would be "looser" than that in scientific rationality. Technical invention, not being guided by a theoretical formalism preceding practical operation, remains empirical; however, the inventive operation cannot be said to be produced by chance, for an essential part of innovation is accomplished through transfer, whereby the functioning of a structure in a technical apparatus is analogically transposed into another domain. There is, then, a combinatory genius in technical invention. This also implies the cumulative nature of technical knowledge, although in another sense than in scientific knowledge. One should speak of technological lineages, of paths through the empirical realm [empirie], of tentative groundbreakings [frayages] in the development of the potential of a technique whereby invention deploys itself. The rationality of technical invention, "situated on a determined technological line," would then be diffuse "to the extent that choices may be made, various combinations set up. For the inventor, the whole question is knowing whether the road to follow is wide or narrow" (Gille 1978, 40).
As for this apparent possibility of choice, Gille speaks, with J. L. Maunoury, of "loose determinism." The difference of this from strict determinism would consist in the impossibility of anticipating technical evolution a priori, although this evolution appears necessary a posteriori—and Maunoury speaks here of chance (in Gille 1978, 41). Everything comes about as if technical innovation accomplished randomly, but certainly, the fulfillment [remplissement] of a technical, or techno-logical, "intention." We shall see this theme taken up in much more depth by Leroi-Gourhan and Simondon, when, once again, the hypothesis of a combinatory genius will arise, a hypothesis of such genius's random but ineluctable adjustment, an actual process of selection of technical archetypes recalling in singular fashion the play of chance and necessity in molecular biology.
Gille distinguishes between simple invention (for example, John Kay's flying shuttle), development (successive perfectings that improve a technique without modifying its fundamental principles), and invention as a mounting operation (for example, the internal combustion engine); it is not a matter of a unique technical lineage, but of a series of technical lines. In technical invention, other levels intervene above the technological lineage as such: scientific knowledge and interdependencies with other systems, along with external constraints in general, for example economic constraints (as was the case with the Bessemer smelting furnace), but above all, technical systematicity itself, that is, the play of constraints imposed by the interdependencies between technical elements and those intrinsic to the system. The systems dynamic offers the possibility of invention, and this is what is essential to the concept of technical system: the choice of possibilities in which invention consists is made in a particular space and particular time according to the play of these constraints, which are submitted in turn to external ones.
As a consequence, rationality "appears difficult to put into question to the extent that the number of usable combinations is not infinite, given that, basing itself on existing structures, it must follow quasi-obligatory paths." Determinism "is not less obvious. Technical determinism, scientific, economic, even social or political determinism" (Gille 1978, 47).
Excerpted from TECHNICS AND TIME, 1 by Bernard Stiegler Copyright © 1998 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted April 1, 2009
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