Chapter 6: The contiguity of ‘mechanization’ and ‘universalization’

The question concerning the relationship between the two newly proposed “essences” of technology[1] in one potential “essence” of technology can be brought into focus by considering the first case of the transition from an “ancient” technology to the a genuinely “modern” one (as understood here), i.e. the emergence of the Gutenberg printing press from earlier forms of printing.  For as the alphabet represents the first instance of true universalization achieved in written language, so the invention of movable type printing represents the second:  moveable type truly universalized printing the written word in exactly the same way that the alphabet universalized writing words in the first place.  In this transition from pre-Gutenberg printing to truly universal movable type one sees most clearly both the essential kinship and the sharp difference between “ancient” technology as the mechanization of agency and “modern” technology as the drive to universalization.

Prior to Gutenberg’s invention of movable type, books and edicts in Europe[2] were almost exclusively copied through “human agency,” i.e. they were literally copied by re-writing them by hand; but eventually this hand-copying was, to some extent, mechanized, i.e. individual pages or edicts were engraved onto wooden plates that could be covered with ink and then pressed onto paper or cloth, producing an exact ‘copy’ of the original.  This “mechanization of agency” (the work of the scribe) characterized pre-Gutenberg printing in Europe.  Instead of a scribe copying the same page over and over again, his labor (his “agency”) was embodied in a machine that of itself represents a small step toward universalization, in that once pages can be replicated at will, the individual letters on the page need not be, thus ‘pages’ are more ‘universal’ according to a rule (the engraving) than the letters themselves.  Nevertheless, the “universality” gained in this limited sense (both the broader reach and the intrinsic universality of mechanization) was offset by its inherent limit: each page for each book or edict still had to be templated.  So although this mechanization of agency was both a step toward universalization in the strict sense and a “universalization” simply by virtue of being a machine (i.e. anyone being able to produce any number of copies once the original template was created), neither sense of universality gained by the mechanizing the agency of the hand-written word made the printing machine itself a truly universal one.  Pre-movable type printing remained essentially a labor saving device, not a universalization of printing in a very appreciable sense, and as such remained an “ancient” technology.

Everything about printing the written word changed, however, with the invention of moveable type, wherein the inherent limits of the “mechanization of agency” were eventually overcome by the first truly universal machine.  For by creating an engraved icon for each letter or common combinations of letters, Gutenberg made it possible to reproduce any page in any book or edict simply by rearranging the universal components of all written language, the engraved letters.  So not only was Gutenberg’s movable type printing press ‘universal’ in the sense that all machines are “universal”: it was universal in the sense that any printed word could now be printed with the same re-arrangable template, including words that had not yet been either written or even invented.  The analogy as a technical device between movable type and the alphabet is exact.  Both were truly universal in that all actual and possible particulars were reduced to a small set of elements arranged according a simple set of rules.  What the alphabet did for human ‘cognitive’ agency in written language Gutenberg’s printing press did for ‘the mechanization of agency’ in printing the written word.  In short, the printing press universalized human agency into a truly universal machine.  As such it remains today one of the singularly unsurpassed inventions in human history.  And it is quintessentially modern, perhaps the first stirrings of the distinctly modern age.

Two salient points emerge from this the developmental account of the printing press.  First, this first truly “modern” technology began with degrees of universalization as small steps taken from within “ancient” technologies that were in differing degrees ‘universal’ themselves.  It did not simply emerge as a clean break, as a radically new idea never before conceived.  Rather it emerged gradually from within ancient technological developments (improved writing tools, the development of better inks, block printing, the screw press, etc.).  Second, despite this emergence in small steps within pre-existing technologies, a “jump”[3] to true universalization occurred that made the moveable type printing the first truly universal machine.  This has occurred very few times in human history, perhaps only with moveable type printing and digital computing—though it has also occurred to various degrees in the increased universality of machines with respect to function and design (again, like from in the passage from the division of labor to assembly line manufacturing to 3D printing, or in the convergence of multiple media devices into the modern smart phone, etc.).    And third, this jump to universality raises an important question, perhaps the most important one for the issue at hand.  To use Heidegger’s terms again, did the disclosive looking guided by universals make possible the invention of the universal machine, or did the appreciation of its universality only come after the invention of the machine itself?  Or stated more generally, does the disclosive looking of a certain kind make possible technology of a specified kind, or does the development of technology make possible a new kind of disclosive looking afforded from it?  Framed in this way, the question with which the discussion of modern technology began—i.e. what disclosive looking subtends and guides “modern” technology?—comes to the fore.  To appreciate it scope and significance, several points can be made about ‘universals’ and their role in both ancient and modern technological disclosive looking.

First, even ancient technology as the mechanization of agency requires some appreciation of ‘universals’ in order to be possible.  For while not universal in the strict sense, the abstraction “agency as such” seen with respect to both water  power and human agency to produce a watermill is still a ‘universalizing’ step, much like the ‘universalizing’ taken in first steps for making new pictograms according to the simple rules of combining existing pictograms with similar sounds.  Without recognizing that ‘water power’ (agency) as a kind and ‘human power’ (agency) as a kind both participate in a more universal kind ‘power’ (agency as such), an invention like the watermill simply would not be possible.  Without this apriori appreciation, however vague, there would simply be no way to represent—to embody—the relationship between the two in a machine.  So in accord with what has already been stated, i.e. that the “essences” of ancient technology and modern technology are not mutually exclusive, both ancient and modern technology require a ‘knack’ for universals.  In fact, the latter seems to be presupposed to some extent in the former, but like the first rule governing the formation of new pictograms from the sounds of old ones, ancient machines and implements were too limited to be large steps in the ‘drive to universalization’ more characteristic of modern technology.

Second, it seems equally likely that just as ‘universalization’ in a limited sense made ancient technology possible, so these machines—once made—made greater degrees of universalization conceivable—again, much like new rules in constructing a written language eventually made more encompassing rules possible, eventually leading to the decisive step toward true universalization in written language, the alphabet.  To put the matter Heideggerian terms, the disclosive looking in terms of limited universals like the abstraction ‘agency as such’ first made possible the construction of ancient technical machines embodying that agency, but once these technical machines were created, used, and thought upon, a new disclosive looking in terms of universals building on the previous ones became more likely—or in any case, at least became possible.   Hence “modern” technology became possible as an emergence from the ancient, with the caveat that a “jump” to truly modern technology—a truly universal machine—represents a ‘break’ with the old into something uniquely new.  More concretely, once something like ‘water power’ was linked to a task previously requiring ‘human power’ in a watermill, a next plausible step would be universalizing the power source to run the watermill—for instance, using steam power that can be generated by burning many different fuels, or electricity generated in many different ways, and so forth.  That something like this incremental step toward universalization in design and function actually happened in the transition from naturally powered machines during “ancient” times to artificially generated power for machines in “modern times” can be readily observed.  So whatever its ultimate origins, the “drive to universalization” both required and created a disclosive looking in terms of universals with greater and greater reach, until eventually a truly universal system was invented, one with which any instance of a specific type can be produced through exactly the same means according to a rule or small set of rules (the alphabet, movable type printing, the digital computer).

Third, with these two points in mind, it becomes evident that “ancient” technology as the mechanization of agency and “modern” technology as the drive to universalization are not strictly speaking two separate kinds of technology as much as a matter of degree within technology itself, with a “jump” separating them once true universality in the strict sense is achieved (only then creating a uniquely new kind of technology).  Both historically and essentially (to collapse the Heideggerian distinction), modern technology builds on the ancient, even as that result itself becomes the basis for more significant steps towards true universalization, toward the “modern” in the stricter sense.  The generally recognized path to the Industrial Revolution represents one possible transition, but prior to that by several centuries was one equally as powerful for the destiny of human affairs—moveable type print.  In both cases, the jump to true universality was not ‘all of a sudden,’ as if out of nothing.  In both instances ancient techniques and implements were improved up to a point before a leap to another kind of machine was made.  As such, the mechanization of agency and the drive to universalization are more like two aspects of a single kind, based in a single disclosive looking, with the possibility of becoming a uniquely modern kind once a certain leap is made.

Fourth, in answer to the question indirectly addressed  by the previous three points and directly raised specifically at the beginning of this Chapter—what disclosive looking determines modern technology?—it can be said that an “appreciation for universality” subtends and guides the distinctly “modern” disclosive looking, as distinguished from the focus on agency as such in the “ancient.”   But as indicated before, the distinction between the two modes is not absolute, and apparently a ‘sense for the universal’ subtends both, at least to some extent.  However this subtending “disclosive looking” in terms of ‘universals in some sense’ is characterized—and recall that even seeing “agency as such” requires a limited sense of the universal—it cannot be said, with Heidegger, that during a given era either the apriori seeing of agency as such or the appreciation of universality as such prevails, such that one or the other strictly determines all relationship to and commerce with beings within that era, with one mutually excluding the other as unique offering of Being, in the sense that either manner of looking provides “the conditions for the possibility of” the intelligibility of beings, i.e. in the sense that one or the other is an exclusive way of being technological.  But nevertheless, in a more restricted sense, as options for disclosive looking, both “essences” remain conditions for the possibility of “ancient” and “modern” technological implements and techniques.  Given that at any time in human history since the advent of alphabetic writing both kinds of disclosive looking have been actual at the same time, only as freely available options to Dasein, and not as exclusive offerings by Being, can the “essence” of either ancient or modern technology make sense as “conditions for possibility of.”  In other words, only the account of “essence” offered here, in contrast to essence as the history of Being, makes sense of the diverse technologies that have actually occurred, and still actually occur, even as it makes sense of the apriority required in disclosive looking.  Since an appreciation for universality in some sense subtends both the “ancient” and the “modern” sense of disclosive looking—and therefore all technology—it may be that Being has given to Dasein a sense for the universal and left it up to us to develop that potential, but in any case this ‘sense for the universal’ does in fact subtend all Dasein’s technological creations, even as it develops from within reflection on the potentiality of those creations.

Fifth and lastly, since a ‘sense for the universal’ subtends in some respects both the mechanization of agency and the drive to universalization as “essences” of technology, it can be said that a sense for the universal is the “essence” of technology as such.  How this might be so is left for development at another time; it is merely offered here as a prospectus that makes sense of both history as it as actually occurred and the “essence” of that history in terms of apriori intelligibility—in other words, history with respect to both facts and the meanings that makes those facts intelligible.  But as a provisional foray, it can be observed that even hand tools like flint spear heads and stone axes require an ability to “represent” the universal, i.e. to envision a kind and create it, a kind with desirable and describable properties the construction of which constitutes the creation of the technological device.  It may be that this kind was happened up and recognized accidently; perhaps a sharp stone cut the Paleolithic hand, and in the Paleolithic mind appreciated a new kind, “cutting implement.”  But in any case, however the first implements were in fact formed, a sense for the universal broken down into the mechanization of agency and the drive to universalization as human alternatives makes more sense of both the actual and essential history of technology than poiesis and com-posing as mutually exclusive dispensations from Being, the acceptance of which is the condition for the possibility of all commerce with beings as being inherently technological.  It may be that Heidegger is wrong about poiesis and com-posing but right that Being provides Dasein’s manner of disclosive looking, and that that manner—mistakenly missed by him—is the sense for the universal.  But be that caveat as it may—and it is stressed here that no evidential grounds exist for attributing to Being anything—some sense for the universal seems to subtend all things technological, both in its embodiment as a machine and in its apriori role in developing those machines in the first place.  In this respect, the “essence” of technology can be called a “sense for the universal,” whatever that source of that sense may be.

As a prelude to a summary for this Part, the analysis of this Chapter can be wrapped up and made more concrete by reexamining the two windmills already discussed, this time in light of the results of this part as a whole.  In this examination, the results obtained by re-investigating the “essences” of “ancient” and “modern technology” are presumed, even as Rojcewicz’s—and therefore presumably Heidegger’s—characterization of the modern windmill as an “imposition” on a natural essence is challenged largely on Heideggerian terms (that is, as much as can be granted to Heidegger is granted, and only then is his position is refuted).  After this reexamination a summary statement of the results of this Part may stand to be more persuasive.

Recall that for Heidegger the ancient windmill and the modern windmill differ primarily in that one respects the natural essence at work in the wind, while the other imposes on that natural essence a pre-conception that ipso facto prevents that essence from revealing itself.  Now it has already been suggested that in fact the ancient windmill requires its own pre-conception in light of which the “natural essence” is revealed—agency as such.  It is now suggested that the modern windmill does essentially the same thing, i.e. that it does not differ in an essential way because it imposes and the ancient does not—for both ‘impose,’ or better, both interpose an abstraction.  Instead of differing with respect to ‘imposing’ as such, then, it makes more sense say the ancient and the modern windmill differ with respect to the universality of the abstraction ‘imposed’—or again, as better stated, interposed.   Specifically, for the ancient windmill, the abstraction agency as such refers to causal agency as it manifests itself in any natural force that observably causes change, be it wind, water, or human or animal muscle power.  With the modern windmill, by contrast, the abstraction energy as such refers to any causal agency taken in a more universal sense—as simply the ability cause change itself, regardless of the manifestation that ability takes.  So instead of seeing agency solely in wind, water, or human or animal muscle power, energy as such sees the ability to bring about change simply a ‘general power,’ as a ‘general energy,’ one that is manifest everywhere in nature where change occurs (and not just specific visible forces where change takes place, like wind, water, etc.).  With this disambiguation of “universality” in mind, the decisive question—at least under the stipulation of Heidegger’s terms—is this: is energy as such an imposition on nature, or is it as much a “natural essence” a ‘force in a certain direction’?  Or alternatively, in the preferred terms here: as an abstraction, does energy as such pre-conceive these natural “energies” or “forces taken in the broadest sense” from a foreign standpoint, imposing on this “natural essence” in such a way that precludes this essence from reveling itself?

A careful examination of what “energy as such” represents, and how that representation manifests itself naturally in unadulterated, native experience shows the answer is a decisive no.  As a “natural essence” like ‘force in a certain direction,’ energy as such reveals itself as almost as readily as the latter, once a certain abstract leap is made.  In other words, energy as such is revealed all over nature, if one knows how to look.

For instance, “energy as such” is revealed every time lighting strikes a tree in a forest, converting the electrical energy in the lighting to thermal energy in the tree, thus starting a fire that we now know is part of the natural life cycle of forests (some tree can only reproduce with the aid of fire).  It is revealed when heat energy converts to mechanical energy, causing the winds to blow, or causing the hurricane that devastates a fleet of ships (Greek civilization was saved by this once).  It is manifest when mechanical energy is converted to thermal energy every time a loved one rubs the body of another to keep it warm, or one rubs his own hands to warm them.  It is manifested every time mechanical energy converts to electrical energy in dry air when certain objects are rubbed together, and a sparks shoots from the hand to an object after they are rubbed.   Just because seeing “energy as such” in these observations requires a level of abstraction above that for seeing ‘force in a certain direction’ doesn’t mean “energy as such” is any less a “natural essence.”   This constant natural conversion of one form of “energy” (i.e. the ‘force for change’) into another in nature is directly observable if one knows how to look.  In that respect, energy as such is no more an impositional abstraction than ‘force in a certain direction’—or to state the same, “energy as such” is as much a natural essence as ‘force with a certain direction,’ once the requisite detachment from the concrete manifestations of force is achieved (i.e. once on sees in wind, water, lightning, heat, etc. something more general than ‘force 9agency) in a certain direction’).  One simply need see ‘force in any direction’ to get part way to “energy as such”—and so forth.    That the ancients in their profound ignorance of the natural world did not make this natural leap is neither here nor there for the point that essentially they could have, had then conceive as the ‘third cause’ of change a general capacity to bring about change in any form and any direction, a capacity as observable as change of a specific kind in a specific direction if one looks at the right kinds of change.

So with respect to reveling or concealing a “natural essence” with a pre-conceived abstraction, i.e. with an ‘imposition that forecloses a natural essence from revealing itself, the modern windmill does not differ from the ancient in two respects: first in the sense that both require an interposing abstraction, and second in the sense that neither abstraction forecloses the self-emergence of a natural essence any more than the other.  But the ancient and the modern windmill do differ in terms of the universality of the abstraction interposed.  For the ancient windmill, the abstraction deployed in the disclosive looking subtending its construction is agency as such, a ‘universalization’ of sorts of ‘causal agency’ as the ability to bring about change in otherwise inert matter through wind, water or muscle.  For the modern windmill, the abstraction deployed in its disclosive looking is energy as such, itself a more encompassing ‘universalization’ of agency as such in that it is not limited to the obvious natural presence of agency in phenomena like wind or water or muscle but instead broadens “agency” to include the more subtle conversions of ‘agency of as such,’ as evident in all of its forms—or in in any case, at least in more forms than the mechanical forces observable in wind, water, and muscle.  The abstract idea of different forms of energy capable of doing equivalent work is not an imposition on nature; it is a fact of nature, and it is a fact the ancients were simply too ignorant of to ‘gear’ into as they created their technical implements.   In this respect, then the modern windmill can be said to ‘gear into’ wind as energy as such just as much as the ancient windmill can be said to ‘gear into’ wind as a ‘force in a certain direction.”  The “gearing into” is the same in both because both rely on an abstraction, just one uses a more universal abstraction than the other.

With this example in mind, a concluding statement of this chapter can be made, and in a certain respect, the critique of Heidegger presented thus far can be brought to a close.  Specifically, as seen in both the previous and the current chapter, even on Heidegger’s own terms, poiesis and com-posing as the essences of ancient and modern technology fail to capture faithfully either the historical facts of existing technologies, or the “essences” of those technologies in terms of how those technologies have actually been developed.  In their place the mechanization of agency and the drive to universalization have been proposed, with a sense for the universal as a prospective “unifying essence” of technology as such.  As suggestions these alternative “essences” of technology 1) accommodate the historical facts without the contradictions engendered by essence in Heidegger’s sense; and they 2) accommodate aspects of historical fact that on which Heidegger’s simply fails, namely, the concurrent existence of both “ancient” and “modern” technologies.  Heidegger’s answer to the “question concerning technology” is therefore called into serious question, and absent the only modification that can save it—to wit, a sense for the universal as offered by Being for Dasein’s development on its own, irrespective of any time periods for Being’s own history—Heidegger’s solution to the problem posed by technology should be rejected.   Rejecting his solution in favor of the view presented here is actually quite a small step.  One need only jettison the idea that Being alone provides Dasein with a manner of disclosive looking necessary for the intelligibility of beings as such, and that Being alone does this in an historical phases.  In light of the problems those ideas present, the jettison seems warranted.

The existential and pragmatic motive (as opposed to the logical one presented so far) for jettisoning the quasi-agency of Being and any sense of “piety” toward it is discussed in the concluding chapter.  But before that discussion, it is necessary to revisit Heidegger’s conception of science, for in that conception one can see most clearly what is at stake in the question of Being, at least with respect to how that question manifests itself in the most reliable form of knowing yet developed, natural science.  Anticipating what is to come, a careful look at modern science in light of Heidegger’s conceptions shows that not only does com-posing simply fail as the essence of modern science: something like a “chauvinistic” imposing  is more characteristic of ancient science, and that modern science is in essence the more truly ‘poetic’ way of knowing, whatever the bad metaphors and pointless metaphysical rivalries it has engendered.  Once modern science is understood in its proper light as a pious form of regard for natural wonder, the piety of Being, as an imposition on humankind, can be rejected.  So with this prospective in mind, discussion now turns to modern science, com-posing, and the essence of modern technology.

[1] Again, it is stressed that these “essences” are offered only in the spirit of offering essences in the first place.  That much of Heidegger’s “path” for formulating “the question concerning technology” is retained, if only to add to the critique by accounting for what he cannot account for under his own terms.


[2] The Chinese actually invented moveable type, but as their system was not truly universal, it is not discussed here.

[3] The term is from Deutsch, the “jump” to universalization.

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