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Symposium 2011


The evolution of technology has always been enclosed in a meta-narrative that can be paraphrased essentially with a missive stemming from the Old Testament: to subdue the earth (and everything upon it). The idea of ruling through technology has inscribed itself deeply in our understanding of the same. In order to utilize it, we must first control technology itself. The desire for control emerges in the technological artefact in a twofold way: as the control we must exert over technology itself in order to utilize it to control others and the world. This is only successful where it functions in the way it's supposed to and does what we want it to do.

From this perspective, functionality appears to be the essence and inherent reason of all things technological. It recurs in the apparatus that should be easy to use, user-friendly, reliable, self-explanatory, compatible, suitable for day-to-day use and practical. When these criteria are met, it is successful. If they are not met, the device will not be accepted because it cannot be controlled. If the machine is out of control and not subdued, it is useless and therefore worthless. Technology turns into junk if it does not conform with the idea we have of it.

Experiencing technology, 'handling it, and with it, the world', is therefore an ongoing process of selection. Selection has become synonymous for 'the history of technology'. It is to be imagined as a process of evolution. Just as in nature, the evolution of technology relies on trial and error. Man became technical man by continuously sorting out, discarding and upgrading our technical lifeworld. We therefore confirm technology as a domain of utilitarian rationality. In it, technology is reduced to utility even when we approach it from an aesthetic point of view (for example in the area of design). Even there, the criteria of usability, approachability and ability to integrate it into our lifeworld play a decisive role. They recur in elements or attributes of design that negate the revolutionary idea of the aesthetic: to be an end in itself.

So, a function is inherent in each apparatus in our technical world. It is experienced as alienating and disciplining; the closer the users are to a device, the stronger this effect becomes felt. The technical world is therefore associated with a certain dread, as it seems to be wholly coalesced in a state of utilitarian rationality.
In the course of human history - which essentially has been the history of technology - our attempts to subjugate and exploit the use of technology have turned upon ourselves in an increasingly vertigo-inducing spiral of control. In order to control technology, we become one with it and dependent of it (as in the technological enslavement of our daily lives). The feeling of being controlled by it is incumbent: because by using technology we produce data and this data can be accessed by others; because technology is in a position to demand our understanding and being up to date with it, it has become a process of societal subjectivization; because the devices also need to be operated, we need to tautly organize our daily lives; because they enable enhanced productivity, we need to enhance our own productivity; because technology has converted the fordist age 'which was divided in phases of productivity and reproductivity' into an age of permanent productivity, we feel that our deregulated lives are slipping out of our control, etc.

So, technology is always a menace, and man is allegedly placed in contraposition to it, because it emerges as an 'other' in the function it has been assigned. Only with a last distinguishing criterion – 'the latent discomfort of the technological' - can we define ourselves as different to it. When we are no longer able to do this, we are reduced to primitive creatures (as countless science-fiction narratives demonstrate). In the converse argument, this means that the technological should be different to the living. In humanism - technophobe not without a reason – technology has been described as an inorganic, inanimate non-nature in order to be able to disclaim it. Therewith man can escape technology at least in the idea and, even as an idea, we don't need to be overwhelmed by it. This is our ideological treason: to hallucinate everything that does not pertain to the positive concept of the human as inhuman in order to avoid having to assume responsibility as an ideology for the inhumanity of the self-exploiting human.

That we feel alienated by technology is made plausible by its inorganic 'chill'. But appearances are deceptive: the inhuman aspect is entirely generated by ourselves, our dreams of subjugation, control and exploitation. These dreams steadfastly stare at us from utilitarian rationality because we have declared them to be its nature (although they were solely our requirements of technology). In their total domination we are confronted with our own lust for power.

Occasionally, technology fails in its task to exert control and integrate utilitarian rationality in more areas of our lives by not functioning as intended. When it therefore escapes our control, it also ceases to control us. It is no longer a travesty of the slavery of humanity. It has liberated itself as an end in itself. The history of technology obscures this by simply dispersing the devices whose functionality was inadequate or not up to date. Maybe this became so common because in these devices we could envision a different history: a history of refusal.

In failure, technology once again evades the mere utilitarian motive, creating genuineforms and solutions which do not necessarily require a problem defined by us. By failing, technology resists usability and undermines our fantasies of complete control delegated to it.
It thwarts our plans and becomes obstinate. Thereby it obtains an inadvertent 'freedom' and a technological potential emerges unintended by human engineering. It develops a promise of freedom contrary to that first one which we gave ourselves in the guise of technology: becoming free, utilizing it by controlling it (and in fact only entangling ourselves more in bondage). And it loses some of the chill which we attribute to it in order not to perceive ourselves as its cause.

We can relish in our visions of renitence when a device does not function as intended, or not functions at all. In an opaque act of volition (else we could repair the malfunction), we encounter an 'empty subjectivity of the technological', an autonomous entity without a subject. For in seemingly arbitrary refusal, technology does not want anything, has no intention. It ruptures its technicity (i.e. our inherited understanding of the same) and vivifies itself by turning moody and unpredictable. Its invisible power over us is revealed because it eludes us. And as it is fallible, it gains some sort of 'human' quality, because one of the elements of the classic self-image is: becoming perfect only through imperfection. It assumes similarities in different, unconventional ways: not as a rational power relationship (of oneself over oneself), but as an irrationality which encompasses that fundamentally rational rejection of function: the claim of self-determination.

The basic distinction between the technological and the non-technological (i.e. of tomato and organic tomato) is anyway merely felt subjectively. As a species, humanity has always been 'technological', the use of tools catapulted us from an animal slumber right into history: stones, sticks, tower cranes, data highways cannot be diverted from the human as something foreign any longer. But only when we allow the technological - which in many ways constitutes us - to sometimes fail and break down, we can also escape the disaster that technology as functionality has become. Only tentatively the thought emerges that failures in technology should also be conserved rather than just scrapped. And that it should be done in an entirely different way than in the technological museums of our present: as a pre-history of the current and as odd historical attestations of the human volition in inscribing ones ends on oneself. Merely net art and hacker culture have so far shown a real interest in the 'dionysic elements of technological history' as constituted by technological failure: a celebration of freedom from an intended purpose.

We should therefore ask ourselves: how can we redefine our relationship with the technological defying the principle of the user manual in which 'successful technology' presents itself? How can we position technicity as a value in itself? And to what extent can technology be what it wants to be without being able to want anything? How could the term autonomy, used up by humanism, be protected from itself by assigning it to technological artefacts (in the form of daring analogy)? What can we learn about ourselves by projecting autonomy into technology, revealing aspects that must remain hidden within ourselves? How can we learn from technology which rejects us? In what ways are we hampered by its merely functioning as intended?
Basically, it should first be clarified to what extent technology remains a (perhaps distorted?) self-portrait of man. And how could this self-image of man in technology be corrected in a way as to enable humanity to include their contradictions instead of externalizing them as a technological menace?

When technology fails, it fails as a receptacle of the hopes, expectations and desires we invested in it. These are disabled in failure, they are bared and are to be recovered from the junk they became. How can we do that, and how will the 'typical engineer' be converted from an outdated futurist-optimist with a rather nonchalant habitus into something new? What role will the new type of engineer play in demonstrating the contradictions of the technological as the one designing it? How can melancholic engineers (aligned with the known models of artist images and bohemians) position themselves in opposition to that which can only be described as repugnant in the technological pioneers and their 'achievements'?

Friday, Dec 2, 4pm - 8pm
Saturday, Dec 3, 4pm - 8pm
Ragnarhof, Grundsteingasse 12, 1160 Wien.

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