Chapter 5:  “Modern” technology as the ‘drive to universalization’

If “ancient” technology is better described as the ‘mechanization of agency’ than as poiesis, what then about the “essence” of modern technology?  How might it be alternatively described as something other than com-posing?

A clue to what differentiates modern technology from ancient has already been indicated in the previous discussion of the technological disclosive looking specific to Heidegger’s examples of ancient technology, i.e. the ‘intervention’ of an abstraction.  Recall that under Rojcewicz’s elaboration of modern versus ancient technology, Heidegger can be said to differentiate modern technological disclosive looking from ancient in that the modern imposes onto a natural essence a pre-conception—i.e. wind as containing “energy as such,” moving air as “anemo-pressure,” tree as “lumber,” and so forth.  But as already noted, even the conceptualization of ancient technology with respect to any so-called natural essence ‘imposes,’ as it were, an abstract conception ‘over’ that essence—or more precisely stated in less Heideggerian terms, the “natural essence” like ‘force in a certain direction’ latent in the water’ or ‘in the wind is seen apriori in terms of “force-as-such” because agency as such is already understood in its apprehension.  So under the account presented here, the difference between ancient and modern technology can’t be an interposing abstraction precluding apprehension of a natural essence because ancient disclosive looking requires apprehending a ‘natural essence’ in terms of an interposing abstraction as well.  So what, then, if not a “conceptual imposition,” differentiates “ancient” from “modern” technology?  What “imposition” (to again use Heidegger’s term) or abstraction (to use the more appropriate term)—if any—guides the essence of modern technology?  If not ‘agency as such,’ then what?

These questions can best be answered using David Deutsch’s notion of “the jump to universality” in The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World, for the move from particularity to universality captures in an essential way makes modern technology quintessentially modern.  As Deutsch points out, the invention of the alphabet from pictographic writing marks the first known instance of true universality in human history; therefore a condensed account of this pivotal ‘technological’ development can be used illustrate the idea of universalization in general, particularly as it might apply to the “essence” of modern technology.  As an introduction, Deutsch’s account of the emergence of the alphabet from pictographic writing is considered; then the implications of this example are developed with respect to an example of modern technology (an automated pin machine), then though elaboration of this example two senses of “universal” at it applies to machines are developed.  For the purpose of introducing the “essence” of modern technology here, two steps to the universalization of written language as pictograms into an alphabet stand out.

As a first step toward universalization, pictographic writing was generalized to accommodate the formation of new words.  As best is known, prior to alphabetic writing, language was written in the forms of ‘pictograms’ representing specific words and concepts, but as Deutsch notes, no language had a pictogram for every spoken word.  Instead, pictograms were devised with specific purposes in mind, such as tax collecting, taking inventories, and maintaining public records; therefore pictograms would only exist for words required to fulfil those tasks.  But even within these tasks, presumably, there was a need to represent new words, and the most obvious means of doing this, perhaps, was to represent new words by combing the pictograms that when spoken sound like the spoken word to be represented.  Deutsch, for instance, suggests the pictogram for “sun” and “tree” might have been combined if a graphic representation for the word “treason” was needed, and so forth—the exact details are not necessary to establish the main point, namely, that some rule was needed to make new pictograms both possible in the literal sense—i.e. so anymore can create them—but more importantly tractable in the broad sense—i.e. immediately intelligible to anyone who sees the new pictogram for the first time.  For so long as the rule for understanding the formation of new pictograms is understood, any reader of any the newly coined pictogram could use the rule to decipher what word the new pictogram represents.  In this limited respect, the rule represents small step toward universality, in so far as an entire new range of actual and possible words can be represented by anyone but still be immediately intelligible to everyone.[1]

As additional step towards true universalization, however, the limits of this first step needed to be overcome.  Specifically, as good as the first likely rule was for forming new pictograms to represent new words—thus broadening immensely the scope and versatility of the written language—combining pictograms according to the sounds they represent hits several intrinsic limits.  For instance, single syllable words cannot be represented, nor can many other words that simply don’t sound like already represented word sounds.  In any case, as Deutsch notes, “as the rules of a writing system were improved, a significant threshold could be crossed: the system could become universal for that language—capable of representing every word in it.”[2] Again, the actual, historical progression from ‘some rules’ universalizing many aspects of written pictographic language into a truly alphabetic language need not be rehearsed in all its details.  Suffice it to say some clever scribe somewhere long before the Age of Homer came up with the idea of representing most constituent sounds of the spoken language with a small set of single letters, or simple combinations of letters; then the Phoenicians spread this invention throughout the Mediterranean, including to the earliest Greeks, who then added letters for vowels.   With this alphabet, every word both actually in the language and possible within the language could be represented by anyone to anyone, so long as the rule for forming words out of alphabetically represented sounds was understood.  This final step of pictographic language into an alphabet made it truly universal, and it represents the first known true universalization in human history.

The significance of this first “modern” invention—assuming for now the ‘drive to universalization’ is modern—occurring so far back in ancient times is addressed shortly.  Suffice it to say now that once this invention was made, no one appears to have appreciated its significance, neither in its own time nor for millennia afterwards.[3]  For, simply put, “universalization” has broader reach than merely creating an alphabet;[4] it can apply to many phenomena, especially—at least for the purpose here—to machines.   In an interesting sense, a machine is universality “embodied,” even as an actually “universal” machine itself as a kind of machine is made possible through this prior embodiment.  These two distinct way ways in which “universal” applies to machines—both to any machine as such and to a ‘universal’ machine—can be fleshed out using a specific example.

Consider, for instance, a modern machine like an automated pin manufacturing machine, to which Rojcewicz refers.[5]  The modern pin machine embodies “universality” in virtually every functional respect—i.e. in use, in design, and in operation.  First, electricity generated in any way will power it, so long as it is the right current and voltage (and any electricity can be converted to the right current and voltage).  This means the pin machine can be built just about anywhere.  Second, since the pin making is fully automated, virtually any user can oversee its operation.  Third, so long as the input materials are correct, the pin machine invariably turns out every pin to exactly the same specifications, and not only that, it can even produce different kinds of pins, each of varying sizes, so even the pins produced are ‘universal’ as far as pins go—i.e. many kinds can be produced.  Furthermore, the internal operations—and not just its inputs, power, and outputs—of the modern pin machine are universal.  Any part will replace a broken part, so long as the right specifications are met, and more than that, these internal parts themselves work in a system of connective interactions that work in the same way in every machine like it.  Finally, the automatic pin machine embodies universality in even a more basic sense, in so far as variations in its parts due to wear and tear and changing environmental conditions do not change the fundamental “means and consequence” relations that define its operation as the machine it is; throughout these minor variations, so long as the machine functions, it functions in the same way.[6]  The automated pin machine, then, by design, operation and use embodies the ideal of “universalization” both in that it is a machine and in that it is, at least as far as pins are concerned, a universal machine.  Taken together these two senses of “universal” can be understood as the inherent universality of the pin machine.  As a machine, it represents universality incarnate.

Now in one respect, all machines, even ancient machines, are inherently universal in that they embody universality in one sense simply by virtue of being a machine.  For even an ancient machine like a watermill can (mostly) be operated by anyone.  It will produce the same output if given the right inputs (like grain to flour).  Its operation is constant in terms of means and consequences so long as the fixed interrelations of its parts continue working, and if a part breaks, it can be replaced by exactly the same kind of part, and so forth.  So in the sense of embodying universality, a modern automated pin machine and an ancient watermill are no different; both, in so far as they are machines, are “universality” incarnate.

But the modern pin machine is also universal in two different sense of “universal” beyond simply embodying universality in being a machine.

First, it is more universal in its functioning and design—or more simply, its scope. That is, unlike a watermill, which can only be powered from water power from one stream, a modern pin machine can be powered by any electricity generated in any way from anywhere.  So the modern pin machine can be built anywhere; its location is ‘universal’ (this difference would of course apply to any ancient machine using natural power: they all must be built at the source of that power).  Also, unlike an ancient watermill, where the size of the wheel and gears and millstone must be suited to the water source at which it is located, the modern pin machine can be designed in exactly the same way where ever it is built; it is therefore ‘universal’ in design specifics (again, the same difference would apply to all naturally powered ancient machines).  And so on and so forth—the comparison would be even more apt if there were such a thing as a water driven pin machine.  In function and design, or in scope (what Deutsch calls “reach”) the modern pin machine is more universal in that it is more versatile and less limited by the particulars governing its powering and construction than an ancient watermill—and by extension any naturally powered ancient machine.

Second, the modern pin machine is more universal in a still deeper sense, in that universalizes the kinds of pins that can be made; it is more truly universal as a kind of machine.  That is, unlike an ancient pin press—which can only produce one kind of pin at a time—a modern pin machine can produce many kinds of pins with each kind of varying sizes; it is not limited to a particular kind and size (even if the press can produce many of the same kind at once, it can still only produce that kind).  While the modern pin machine isn’t strictly universal for making pins in the way an alphabet is universal for forming every written word in a language—i.e. it can’t make every kind of pin—it is nevertheless is a step toward that truly universal machine, in that many of the particular kinds of pins that can be produced is reduced to production according to rules in one machine.  So in two senses important for understanding the “essence” of modern technology, unlike ancient machine, modern pin machines—and by extension all modern machines—are more ‘universal’—i.e. universal as a machine, period, and as a machine with more universal reach.

This dual universality of modern machines—“universal” pertaining to scope and “universal” as a unique kind by virtue of being a machine—can be called the “drive to universalization,” a drive that characterizes most, if not all, distinctly modern machines.  That is, although all machines in a sense embody universality,[7] just by being a machine, modern machines are either actually a universal machine as a kind of machine (like the alphabet is a universal technique for a written language), or at least—when this kind of universality is not achieved—modern machines embody an explicit ‘drive’ to that kind of universality, in that they are designed with as much universalization as possible in mind (recurring to the historical example of the alphabet, modern machines can be said to be designed as though the steps toward a universal alphabet were taken with that goal in mind, though we know they were not).  Actual universalization has been achieved with the invention of the Gutenberg press (to be discussed shortly) and the modern computer (discussed extensively by Deutsch), but the ‘drive to universalization’ can be seen in the transitions in many other technologies, from the division of labor in separate machines to the modern robotic assembly line; from machines that make machine parts for manufacturing to 3D printing those same parts from one machine; from various separate media devices to the single smart phone—the list goes on and on and will not be elaborated here.  Instead, it is simply asserted that this actual universalization in some cases and the drive to universalization in so many others represents a distinct “essence” of modern technology.  Simply put, although the ancients achieved universality a few limited fields, and although even their machines are “universal” in the limited sense that any machine is “universal,” the ancients did not recognize the significance of “universalization” as such, but the moderns did.  To use Heideggerian terms again, modern disclosive looking, as a technological looking, is guided by universalization in much the same way that ancient technology was guided by the concept of agency as such; therefore the technology created by the moderns embodies this universality, while the ancients, as a tendency, does not.  To put the matter colloquially, where the ancients tended to create technologies to solve particular problems, the moderns do that too but then add to that process a tendency to create single technologies that solve many particular problems at one and the same time, hence the drive toward universalization.

Now this characterization of “modern” technology as ‘the drive to universalization’ suggests an immediate apparent problem, namely, how can the drive to universalization be all that modern when the first instance (the alphabet) occurred long before even the ancient Greeks?   Didn’t universalization, it could be pointed out, occur long before the modern period, and weren’t the ancient Greeks themselves great universalizers—Euclid in geometry, for instance; the pre-Socratics in their attempts to find single, universal causes of diverse natural phenomenon; the early proto-computer recently found in the Aegean, attributed to the Greeks?  Even Plato and Aristotle can be said represent a ‘drive to universalization’ in their philosophies.  How, then, is universalization a distinctly modern phenomena, not an ancient one simply employed by the moderns?

This apparent problem raises an important point, and per what has already been noted in the introductory remarks, it presents an opportunity to reiterate the contrast between “essence” as used here and essence as described by Heidegger.

First, it bears repeating that the “essences” of “ancient” and “modern” technology as understood here do not represent mutually exclusive alternatives unique to specific time periods, however well or loosely those time periods are defined—in other words, they are not such that when one “essence” prevails, the other cannot, and vice versa.  Without this Heideggerian stipulation for essence, the problem as stated simply vanishes.  That is, without this stipulation, no problem arises with noting that actual technologies representing the two “essences” co-exist because absent the stipulation of exclusivity, they can in fact co-exist at the same time.  In other words, under “essence” as understood here, there is no inherent problem in saying that the distinctly “modern” technology began in the ancient world.

Second, once Heidegger’s essence as mutually exclusive alternatives offered by Being is replaced with “essence” as understood here, the “essences” of “ancient” and “modern” technology can be seen as a characteristic features of the kinds of technology that prevailed (or prevails) in ancient and modern times.  As problematic as this use of “essence” might be in making historic facts intelligible, at least it is not problematic in the sense that Heidegger’s essence is problematic, in that it cannot make those facts intelligible, i.e. Heidegger’s essence cannot account for the actually existent technologies in either period under a fixed essence for that time.[8]  Instead, the distinction as used here is for the most part historically accurate, since to the best of historical knowledge, truly universal machines did not exist in the ancient world, nor was universalization as such recognized as a technological goal, even though the above instances of the ‘drive to universalization’ can be found in ancient times.  The co-existence of these two “essences” in actual technologies or techniques (and the alphabet is a “technology” in the sense of a technique) raises an interesting question about their possible relationship, but that question (considered next) is far more tractable than reconciling contradictory technologies that fail to abide under a fixed essence bestowed by Being—a reconciliation that is simply not possible on Heidegger’s own terms.

In any case, this potential objection to “ancient” technology as the mechanization of agency and “modern” technology as the drive to universalization simply falls away once the parameters for the “question concerning technology” set by Heidegger are set aside, as they should be now that the intrinsic limit of poiesis and com-posing as essences has been observed.  And in falling away a more interesting question arises, namely: what is the relationship between ‘the mechanization of agency’ and ‘the drive to universalization’? Are they related in a fundamental way?  Can their mutual co-existence despite their differences be reconciled in a more general—to use again Heidegger’s terms—disclosive looking subtending both “ancient” and “modern” technology?

[1] The argument of this entire paragraphs reiterates pages 125-126.

[2] BI, p. 126, emphasis added.

[3] BI, p. 127.

[4] For the idea of “reach” see BI, Chapter

[5] GT,

[6] Dewey, QC 130.

[7] Again, the very process of mechanization implied a universality in an important sense, in that by virtue of mechanization the same inputs universally lead to the same outputs.

[8] It bears repeating that however the essence of history is conceived, i.e. however ‘fact’ ‘abides’ under an essence that ‘holds sway,’ this abiding and holding sway must be consistent.  In other words, while it is entirely possible to say that the essence of technology is com-posing or poiesis, the actual technologies must for that reason in fact be com-positional or poetic. If they are not, then something is wrong with either the essence that holds sway of the characterization of the facts abiding under that holding sway. Historical fact can be counter-intuitively re-arranged under the auspices of essence, but that re-arrangement must for that very reason remain consistent and not embody a contradiction.

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