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Translation by AB – November 12, 2023
The French word “sidération” means “shock” or “amazement”, and is almost never found in English. But in this article, as we will see, the etymology of the word “sidération” plays a role. We therefore translate it here as “sideration”, an English word that seems rather outdated and which means “sudden paralysis”, especially of a part of the body.
As for the French verb “sidérer”, it has unfortunately no English equivalent, and then we will translate it as “to stagger”. The same goes for the adjective “sidérant” translated as “staggering”.
The initiative for technology lies in the demands of the living. Just as Descartes felt the urgent need to create the infallible medicine he had long dreamed of when his hair turned white, and because death would deprive him of that “hope of more than a century” which justified the care he took to preserve himself; so too, for him to write Dioptrique, some man’s eyes must have become ill or capable of illusions, rendering him incapable of discerning infallibly all things useful to the conduct of life. And since “we cannot make ourselves a new body”, we must add external organs to our internal organs, and artificial organs to our natural organs. It is in needs, appetite and will that we must seek the initiative for technical making.
Georges Canguilhem – 1937 – Descartes et la technique1
In the Informatization Age, does technology still respond only to the “demands of the living”, like those of Descartes’ “body”, or has it in some way become its own cause and sufficient in itself?
Sideration (n.) “sudden paralysis”, especially of a part of the body, 1610s, from Latin siderationem (nominative sideratio) “blast, blight, palsy”, from siderari “to be planet-struck, afflicted as if by an evil star”, from stem of sidus (genitive sideris) “heavenly body, star, constellation” (see sidereal). English in 17c. also had siderated “blasted”, literal or figurative
Among the feelings that arise from explorations of the technical system, sideration deserves special mention. We can be staggered by violence, left speechless, our psychic functions suddenly suspended. In exactly the same way, technology staggers us, not by its “violence”, of course, but by its effects, both disastrous and fabulous, which derive from unreachable causes, from distant stars. Technology seems to appear out of nowhere.
Sideration generally occurs in the abolition of higher psychic functions patiently polished and educated over the centuries, and in particular these two closely related to our general theme: consciousness and reason; the former, because it ebbs, as well as in action, in the face of the events that technology provokes; the latter, because technical phenomena emerge from causal chains so complex that they become impossible to trace back to an overall view, as in Descartes’ time, when demand, technical realization and use could still be the work of a single man.
What’s more, technology doesn’t just stagger us from time to time, as it does when confronted with an event, it staggers us relentlessly. We can understand this self-perpetuating state if we remember the two essential characteristics of the technological system: its power (“puissance”) and its opacity (the essence of the argument is metaphorically developed in The “progress” unveiled by Photography (with Henri Van Lier)). In a nutshell, technical power “assomme”2 us with effects of no clear origin, which themselves automatically produce other effects from afar, constantly saturating the scene with a “kaleidoscopic” reality, detached from real, and therefore totally opaque (The Informatization Age (1) Automation).
Contemporary technology thus appears, to a certain degree, unanalyzable and therefore exposed to the polarization of judgment and opinion: positive and generating “progress” for some, enslaving and dehumanizing for others.
The latter, struggling to find their voice and not yet “de-staggered”, criticize environmental damage, the attention economy, the digital “Submersion” (Bruno Patino), the “Screen Damage” (Michel Desmurget), the “Dark Cloud” (Guillaume Pitron), the disappearance of human employment, “algorithmic biases” (Aurélie Jean), or even “Existential Risks” (Future of Life Institute) and so on. It’s hard to argue with these observations, which are increasingly shared, albeit in a rather confused way, by the general population. The zeitgeist seems once again to be permeated by a techno-distrust to which political powers tend to respond with ad hoc legislation and often muddled discourse, taking great care to preserve the economic activity fueled by technological “solutions”.
Faced with the rise of this techno-distrust, technoptimists can no longer settle for touting the material advantages of a radiant technological system, accepted by all, “techno-rich” and “techno-poor” alike (“Digital Divide”: outline of a concept), on the pretext of an objective convergence of interests for all. They now need to radicalize their discourse and step over the factually pernicious effects of the system by elevating technology to the level of a “moral”, an “aesthetic”, if not a “religion”, from which it can no longer be rationally contested. Here’s just one example.
On October 16, 2023, techno-investor Marc Andreessen, a leading voice in Silicon Valley, published a manifesto entitled “The Techno-Optimist Manifesto”, which consists of a staggering, if not violent, apology for technology against this raising techno-defiance. He refers to his “enemies” as “not bad people, but rather bad ideas”. Let’s take a look3:
Our present society has been subjected to a mass demoralization campaign for six decades – against technology and against life – under varying names like “existential risk”, “sustainability”, “ESG”, “Sustainable Development Goals”, “social responsibility”, “stakeholder capitalism”, “Precautionary Principle”, “trust and safety”, “tech ethics”, “risk management”, “de-growth”, “the limits of growth”.
This glorification of technology consists mainly of a haunting anaphora beginning with “We believe”. While Andreessen seems to be expressing a point of view (“theirs”, then), this figure of speech also triggers an effect of illusory truth, implicitly sending his “enemies” back to the deepest obscurantism. Thus:
We believe any deceleration of AI will cost lives. Deaths that were preventable by the AI that was prevented from existing is a form of murder.
Nothing less! Or even:
We believe in nature, but we also believe in overcoming nature. We are not primitives, cowering in fear of the lightning bolt. We are the apex predator; the lightning works for us.
This manifesto has the great merit of existing and offering us a panoramic view of the “ideology” connected to this technology that we have integrated into our daily lives and which has structured our habitus for several decades. The technoptimist view of technology is also becoming more radical, to the point where we worry to see who’s behind this anaphoric “We”:
To paraphrase a manifesto of a different time and place: “Beauty exists only in struggle. There is no masterpiece that has not an aggressive character. Technology must be a violent assault on the forces of the unknown, to force them to bow before man.”
This “manifesto of a different time and place”, whose name and author Andreessen does not give – we shall understand his “modesty” – is the “Manifesto of Futurism” by Italian writer Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, published in the French newspaper Le Figaro in 19094. In this passage, Marinetti spoke not of “technology” but of “poetry”, even though his “poetic” manifesto unequivocally celebrated technological fury, the “beauty of speed” and “the nocturnal vibration of the arsenals and the workshops beneath their violent electric moons”, etc. This Manifesto of Futurism also contains a number of “quirky” passages, such as the following5:
We want to glorify war – the only cure for the world – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.
An enthusiastic supporter of Mussolini’s Fascist regime, Marinetti was mad about modernity, betting on the absolute presence of the machine and, in the words of French historian Jean Marabini, on the “erasure of the human being in man”, who adds6:
The image of the man a the “will of steel” opposed to his all-too-human double was the one the Duce wanted to assume. Hitler, Stalin and all would-be dictators.
In fact, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti was one of 119 people, along with Benito Mussolini, present on the day of the founding, in March 1919, of the Italian Combat Fascists, the first European Fascist party in modern history.
Technology is not colorless. It is not a simple application of science, from which it inherits both a project and a neutral, abstract rationality. As the philosopher Georges Canguilhem reminded us, “the initiative of technology lies in the demands of the living”. So, through the choice of problems “it” sets out to solve and the solutions “it” invents, technology does not fall from a distant star is always rooted in someone’s way of being (if not our own), and therefore in a moral and aesthetic axiology (thus technology as “poetry” for Marinetti or as “romance” (sic) for Andreessen7). Unless contemporary technology is no longer really responding to anyone’s needs, but, thanks to the miracle of computerization, has its own internal cause, in which the human being is “erased”, as Jacques Ellul put it with his concept of “technological system” (Jacques Ellul and the Technological System). However, we believe less and less in this hypothesis, which perhaps stems from a moment of sideration.
One that’s said…
But once we’ve said that, “where do we land?” (“Où atterrir?”) to quote the French sociologist Bruno Latour. Are de-sideration and de-radicalization still possible, or have the cumulative effects (non-linear, as the mathematician would say) of computer-doped technology already made the technical system out of control and indifferent to both aggressive proselytizing and the laments of the “machine’s” despisers?
Let’s note that the latter still lack a positive ideology, a manifesto perhaps, and only conceive of landing on one of the following three “airstrips”: 1) adoption (in the sense proposed by the French philosopher Bernard Stiegler8), 2) ethical and ecological “purification”, and ex post regulation, or 3) “soft” reactionism in the form of demands for a return to the past (read more, produce less, etc.). Incidentally, these three proposals are simultaneously being worked on by religious circles, who seem to be practicing a kind of slightly embarrassed technological parallelism, accepting like everyone else “the passive reception of a technical change that is in some way exogenous”9
Adoption, ethics and “soft” reactionism are of no concern to techno-prophets like Andreessen, because none of them calls into question the very form of the technical system, as if there were only one possible. Thus, everyone has admitted, without ever having assented, that technology in general would be this technology we know in particular. Then, Andreessen has no problem essentializing techno-deplorers and calling them “(neo)Luddites” (he also adds “communists”), i.e., destroyers of machines and therefore of dreams in general.
Andreessen’s un-rational fetishization also testifies to a climate of growing tension with certain sections of the civilian population who are very concretely affected, and who have only this fourth “airstrip” available to them: radical action, a kind of “hard” reactionism, whether in the form of very concrete but non-violent activism (such as projecting soup or sticking hands on paintings by masters, strikes by Hollywood scriptwriters…), more strong activism (in France, assaults on mega-basins10…) or extreme violence (Unabomber11…). But for what technical alternative? What’s more, radical action is affected by a kind of paradox, since its effectiveness depends entirely on technology, such as communication tools and other social devices.
This climate of tension, exacerbated in turn by unbridled technoptimism, is part of a distressing political context, at least in France. We can therefore fear that the political use of this rift is progressing between the two camps, as the populist dynamic always resembles that of a cyclone, which is only born and fed by temperature differences (the “digital divide” is a good example of a rift feeding political vortexes – see “Digital divide”: outline of a concept).
However, it remains difficult to predict how politics will take hold of this polarization. Does the “machine” tend to serve the right, and is technical lament necessarily left-wing? Does technology undermine democracy in favor of authoritarianism? Does technology’s need for security and automation, to the detriment of the demand for freedom, structure a new political offer inspired by “reactionary modernism” or “technicized romanticism”12?
A fifth “airstrip”?
To desire is to stop contemplating the star, this mother of the sky – desiderare, de/sidus (star) –, this star that illuminates and subjugates, dazzles and prevents us from thinking about our lives if we don’t separate ourselves from it.13
How can we “stop contemplating the star”? How can we enable our suspended consciousness and reason to come back, to pull us out of our sideration? Etymology shows us the way: de-sideration passes through “desire”, which itself is reactivated by “separating” us from the star. Of course, it’s not a question of concretely separating ourselves from technology (“hard” and “soft” reactionary options), but rather of objectifying it anew, following in the footsteps of Heidegger, Ellul, Simondon and other philosophers of a long-gone 20th century, whose representations now hardly coincide with a technology that is no longer embodied only in objects, “devices” or “machines”, but which now forms a total system, including with our bodies (The Informatization Age (2) Process). Wide remit, indeed!
Assuming that this project is brought to fruition – and let’s be clear about this, against Andreessen as well as against false leads – it could open up a fifth path already mentioned in our postscript to A reading of Philippe Descola: a kind of “technological diversity” echoing the “cultural diversity” celebrated by the anthropologist. In their own way, certain religious groups are telling us the same thing14:
In the face of technological change, the Pope warned against a technological uniformity that would disregard our own cultures.
But is this technological diversity even possible?
Technology is the result of living organisms “tinkering” to enable them to live (better) in the material and cultural conditions available to them. It therefore naturally inherits the variety of these conditions, not to mention the fact that, like all creations, it also inherits its creator’s reasons alone. So what powers are homogenizing it at breakneck speed across the globe, as the same “digital” for all, Western and non-Western, religious and secular, right and left, technoptimists and technopessimists? How has this tinkering come to meet the demands of all human beings, apparently?
One of these powers is perhaps science itself (another is probably competition of means fueled by eternal wars), in particular the Western science mathematized from the 17th century onwards, to which this technology owes its universal effectiveness. Let’s come back to Georges Canguilhem’s text, with this passage just before our incipit (emphasis added)15:
[…] technical imperfection provides an “opportunity” for theoretical research through the “difficulties” that need to be resolved. Science proceeds from technique, not in the sense that the true would be a codification of the useful, a record of success, but on the contrary in the sense that technical embarrassment, unsuccess and failure invite the mind to question the nature of the resistance encountered by human art, to conceive of the obstacle as an object independent of human desires, and to seek true knowledge.
So, science derives from techniques and their obstructions, but the “true knowledge” it claims to elaborate from all this tinkering turns out in the 20th century to be a universal orientation for this modern technique, whether we like it or hate it. In this way, the “diversity of technology” rooted in each individual’s specific conditions became, by the force of science, an impossibility. Andreessen can then tell us from his star:
We believe technology is universalist. Technology doesn’t care about your ethnicity, race, religion, national origin, gender, sexuality, political views, height, weight, hair or lack thereof. Technology is built by a virtual United Nations of talent from all over the world. Anyone with a positive attitude and a cheap laptop can contribute. Technology is the ultimate open society.
We understand Andreessen’s kind of “Benetton” intention, which is not so much to assert the universality of technology – which would be a rational point of view – as to assert the universality of the human being in the face of this technology that provides so many benefits. This universalism thus turns into a moral imperative, for while technology supposedly has no concern for our differences, the zealot undertakes to firmly distinguish the “enemy” mentioned above from the “positive” individual equipped with a “cheap laptop”, a kind of modern-day missal. So, beyond the staggering and confused forms of radicalization, isn’t a “religion” of technology emerging? Technoptimists won’t have to waste their time arguing with techno-pragmatists. All they have to do is excommunicate them.
1. ↑ (in French) Georges Canguilhem – 1937 – Descartes et la technique – “L’initiative de la technique est dans les exigences du vivant. De même que Descartes éprouve l’urgente obligation de constituer la médecine infaillible dont il rêve depuis longtemps lorsque ses cheveux blanchissent et parce que la mort le priverait de cette « espérance de plus d’un siècle » qui justifie le soin qu’il apporte à se conserver ; de même pour qu’il écrive la Dioptrique il faut que des yeux malades ou capables d’illusions aient rendu quelque homme inapte à discerner infailliblement toutes choses utiles à la conduite de la vie. Et puisque « nous ne saurions nous faire un nouveau corps », nous devons ajouter aux organes intérieurs des organes extérieurs, aux organes naturels, des organes artificiels. C’est dans les besoins, l’appétit et la volonté qu’il faut chercher l’initiative de la fabrication technique.”
2. ↑ This term is used in GPT-3, LaMDA, Wu Dao… The blooming of “monster” AIs, from which the following excerpt is taken: “Digital progress often proceeds like this: “il assomme” (there is no exact English translation of this French verb “assommer”, which means more or less “to stun”, but whose etymology allows a little play: “assommer” contains the root “somme” which means in English “sum” or “load”). Etymologically, the idea that dominates is that of a load that falls from top to bottom and crushes without remission what is placed below. It is therefore understandable, for example, that “assommer” could have meant “overburden a beast”, i.e., to overwhelm it by crushing it with a load.”
3. ↑ Marc Andreessen – October 16, 2023 – The Techno-Optimist Manifesto
4. ↑ Wikipedia – Manifesto of Futurism
5. ↑ Filippo Tommaso Marinetti – 1909 – Manifesto of Futurism
6. ↑ (in French) Jean Marabini / Le Monde – 8 octobre 1979 – Marinetti, futuriste et fasciste
7. ↑ Ibid.3 : « We believe in the romance of technology, of industry. The eros of the train, the car, the electric light, the skyscraper. And the microchip, the neural network, the rocket, the split atom. »
8. ↑ (in French) Ars Industrialis – Adoption – “Adoption is the process of individuation, i.e. enrichment, while adaptation is deindividuation: a restriction of the individual’s possibilities.”
9. ↑ (in French) Michel Lagrée / Presses universitaires de Rennes – 2003 – Religion et technologie : l’exemple du bateau à vapeur en France dans les années 1840
10. ↑ (in French) Rémi Barroux / Le Monde – March 27, 2023 – Mégabassines : le mouvement de contestation veut irriguer les luttes locales et s’organiser internationalement
11. ↑ Wikipedia – Ted Kaczynski
12. ↑ (in French) Mark Hunyadi / Le Temps – 23 septembre 2018 – La technophilie des nazis
13. ↑ (in French) Dominique Besnard / VST – Vie sociale et traitements 2014/4 (N° 124), pages 123 à 124 – 2014 – Désir – “Désirer c’est cesser de contempler l’étoile, cette mère du ciel – desiderare, de/sidus (astre) –, cet astre qui illumine et subjugue, éblouit et empêche de penser sa vie si aucune séparation ne s’opère.”
14. ↑ (in French) Olivier Bonnel / Cité du Vatican – Février 2023 – Les nouvelles technologies, un défi persistant pour l’homme contemporain
15. ↑ Ibid.1 – “[…] l’imperfection technique fournit « l’occasion » de recherches théoriques par les « difficultés » qu’il faut résoudre. La science procède de la technique non pas en ceci que le vrai serait une codification de l’utile, un enregistrement du succès, mais au contraire en ceci que l’embarras technique, l’insuccès et l’échec invitent l’esprit à s’interroger sur la nature des résistances rencontrées par l’art humain, à concevoir l’obstacle comme objet indépendant des désirs humains, et à rechercher une connaissance vraie.”