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What is the meaning of technical objects?

Considering the proliferation of digital infrastructure whose functioning is increasingly complex and opaque, Bruno Bachimont speaks of a “crisis of intelligibility,” in particular the threat of no longer understanding the objects that surround us, leading to the impossibility of having a grip on them:

Undoubtebly the most important threat lies in the totalization of the contemporary technical system, when this totalization prevents alterity between the different technical systems and thus any friction enabling interpretation and the negotiation of meaning with tools and between humans. The totalization … has become clearly palpable with information technologies which have enabled complex treatments, and quasi-instantaneous execution and transmission. From calculations which one cannot grasp because of their complexity and speed, to their consequences on worldwide technical systems (financial, but also security and economic), we are experiencing a crisis of intelligibility. As mere toys of these systems that now have their own logics of calculation which grow out of the reach even of their own designers, we live more and more surrounded by the threat of technical and informational totalization.

Bruno Bachimont, Le sens de la technique: le numérique et le calcul, 2010, p. 177

Bachimont underlines the eventual loss of meaning that results from the systematic compliance with “programs”1. He denounces actions that become only passive or expected responses, because they are prescribed or conditioned by a device. Technique creates a double tension between opening and limitation—opening thanks to new technical possibilities (providing the ability to accomplish new things or in innovative ways), but also limitations (rigidifying processes or permitting only certain actions), hence the “programmed reduction” Bachimont warns about—because it dissolves meaning:

However, technique is also an instrument for alienation and elimination of meaning. … there is a tension articulating interpretative freedom, which seizes possible techniques in order to invent the future, and a programmed reduction which connects the future to the result calculated by the device.

Bruno Bachimont, p. 69

The pessimistic attitude of technical determinism can be overturned with the means of literacy (knowing how to read and write, how to “function” in society, and even defend oneself against sweet-talkers and phony friends). Except it is not enough to know how to read, in the literal (or optimal) sense, one must also know how to interpret:

Agent of their own freedom thanks to the interpretation they bring, or instrument of one’s own alienation by becoming the implementer of a given device, the human being is caught in an opposition that they must manage to compose if they do not want to become imprisoned and lose their autonomy.

Bruno Bachimont, p. 69-70

The tension is twofold: technique, vector of new possibilities, “eliminates the interpretative freedom that it also enables.” The key of the “retrieving”2 of meaning therefore resides in the process of interpretation, not just agential freedom (the possibility to simply chose one given option or another) but investing through one’s individual consciousness: it is the cornerstone that allows moving beyond programmatic determinism (“escaping from the immanent programming of situations and objects is therefore the issue” announces Bachimont, p. 29).

There must be a possibility of reading but also writing, in order to negotiate meaning, which leads to potential (but necessary) conflicts and roughness. The absence of friction (as in the paradigm of “seamlessness”, in particulra in digital interface design) erases the possibility of a discursive space, because there is nothing left to hold on to—it despises understanding by the user or the citizen by dissimulating its functioning.

This relates closely to Norbert Wiener’s cybernetic nightmare: without agency, the liberal, humanist subject dies. For Bachimont, that is where meaning is suppressed.

An object regarded as content, as a message (computer code as discourse for instance) becomes a semantic structure from which meaning can be recovered—since the object is embodying thinking, scripting actions, programming futures. Meaning is expressed through the writing of a program; it is exposed through reading; and, more significantly, it emerges uniquely via interpretation.

  1. Program: “A program is nothing else than a device regulating the unrolling of time, the calculation or execution of a program, based on a structure specified in space, within an algorithm or a program.” (Bachimont, p. 167) ↩︎

  2. Retrieving: Retrieving “in the sense that one can reorient their response to an event, reevaluate it, reinterpret it in a horizon” (Bachimont p. 29). ↩︎