29 Jul

All how, no why

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 07/29/21

Langdon Winner summarizes a key theme in Jacques Ellul

Langdon Winner’s Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought was published by M.I.T. Press in 1977, and it remains a seminal resource to grasp the cultural and political dynamics active in technological societies. One of the themes that gets some attention is a phenomenon noted by Jacques Ellul, Robert K. Merton, and others whereby technology (in Merton’s words) “transforms ends into means. What was once prized in its own right now becomes worthwhile only if it helps achieve something else. And, conversely, techniques turns means into ends. 'Know-how' takes on an ultimate value.

Winner uses the term “reverse adaptation” to name the process whereby human ends are adjusted to match the character of the available technical means, and “in which people come to accept the norms and standards of technical processes as central to their lives as a whole. A subtle but comprehensive alteration takes place in the form and substance of their thinking and motivation. Efficiency, speed, precise measurement, rationality, productivity, and technical improvement become ends in themselves applied obsessively to areas of life in which they would previously have been rejected as inappropriate. . . .

“There is another important way in which the dominance of instrumental values is insured. . . . [B]eyond the fact that people experience a psychological obsession with instrumentality, the technological society tends to arrange all situations of choice, judgment, or decision in such a way that only instrumental concerns have any true impact. In these situations questions of ‘how’ tend to overpower and retailor questions of ‘why’ so that the two matters become, for all practical purposes, indistinguishable. . . .

Winner goes on to reflect on Ellul’s ideas about the receding of ends and the triumph of means in technological societies. “What causes are responsible for this state of affairs? Ellul argues that the withdrawal of the ends of action into an inert, moribund condition comes at exactly the time when the means of action have become supremely effective. The tendency of all people is to hold the ends constant or to assume that they are well ‘known’ and then to seek the best available techniques to achieve them. There is, then, a twofold movement affecting all social practices and institutions: (1) the process of articulating and criticizing the matter of ends slips into oblivion, and (2) the business of discovering effective means and the ways of judging these means in their performance assumes a paramount importance. Thus, new kinds of apparatus, organization, and technique become the real focus for many important social choices. Instrumental standards appropriate to the evaluation of technological operations — norms of efficiency above all others — determine the form and content of such choices. Locked into an attachment to instruments and instrumentalities, social institutions gradually lose the ability to consider their fundamental commitments.”