I am taking a break from reading about the corona virus, taking my temperature, checking on friends and what not to write this meditation on technology and technique that arose last week after a discussion with a bunch of Marxists on why we are are talking about technology NOW. Or why technology is something people only started really thinking about 150 years ago (I am not even sure if this assumption is correct, but I am going to go with it).
Last week I taught a workshop on modern development tools and modern development practices. I think about this workshop in terms of modules. There is the technology modules: Docker, Git, K8, CI/CD (Gitlab CI/CD), even GitLab the platform. Then there are the technique modules: Modern Ways of Working (Agile), Instrumentation (metrics such as cycle time), Value Stream Mapping, User Story Generation. It is to use something from the history of economics and technology the marriage between the Ford production line (technique) and modern machinery / the engine (technology).
The Interface Fallacy
In Capital Vol 1, there is a great quote that I am not going to look for now, that talks about how the worker is transformed by technology, just as technology is transformed by the worker. I always read this in terms of alienation, or modification. That in being forced to conform to the interface of technology. This is sort of my experience today when I fill out a linked in profile and all of a sudden I am turned into a sort of linked in commodity the same as everyone else, with a list of experience, education, certifications, recommendations. It is what happens when everything becomes input (an interface) for a database. (Read Hiroki Azuma’s Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals).
This is one aspect of how a worker is transformed by a technology. It has to conform to the interface of the technology. How the technology works, how fast the technology works, how the technology integrates with other technology, how to fix the technology, and so forth. And I do teach that, when I do a module on how to use a particular platform, what buttons to press, how to format a yaml file and so forth. This however is an intra-personal skill. The worker changes her self in order to work with a technology. However, there is a second aspect of worker transformation that I am focused on here: technique.
Technique and the Reorganization of Society
Technique takes place on the network level, on the interpersonal or person-machine level. Lewis Mumford interprets this as a group of people becoming a ‘megamachine’ And this is it is possible to build things like the pyramids. I will discuss this later in more detail. But I think it is more accurate to think of the interpersonal or person-machine, or organization of society as not a machine, but something you do in order to optimize the use of technology. Ford’s assembly line is a technique. Agile or Kanban, is a technique. How you merging Pull Requests on GitHub us a technique.
You can have technology without technique and technique without technology. The marriage of both is in service of optimization. Optimization is a relatively new concept. According to Manuel Delanda in the Age of Intelligent Machines it started with Napoleon and logistics and morphed into academic discipline Operations Research. Where you look at particular operations and trying to improve some sort of metrics.
Here we have a new sort of epistemology. There is no longer the subject-object distinction of transcendental philosophy, or form-content of Aristotelian hylomorphism, but function-metric (perhaps this will change). You are optimizing a process in response to a particular variable.
The optative is an ancient Greek verb mood – like the subjunctive. The subjunctive: I would like to go to the park today. The optative is for things that don’t exist, sometimes this is interpreted as a wish but I like to interpret it as a counterfactual. Like: I would like to go to ride a unicorn today, but unicorns don’t exist, so we cant. We can then expand this to Matrix Epistemology or Machine Learning Epistemology, where we optimize an entire process in response to a number of variables, according to a set of historical or prepared data rather than real world experience. But I digress.
This is really just an introduction to these ideas I have been thinking about. I should probably call these things metaphysics instead of epistemologies. Since epistemology is more about how we know things, not what is knowable in the first place.
But let me tie this back to COV19 – because its really on my mind. We could perhaps think of the virus as technology, or purel as technology, an social distancing as technique, for our goal (optimization function) – to flatten the curve.