To see the machine we need to dispense with the Weberian legacy on technology

In The Future of Social Theory Nicholas Gane draws attention to Weber’s remarks about technology and how they shaped the treatment of related questions in the discipline. As Gane puts it on pg 3, “In this perspective (which runs from the nineteenth century through to today), sociology is only to be concerned with objects and technologies in relation to their intended uses or meanings, so that, ultimately, they are to be understood in terms of the known intentions of human activity”. This is the extract from Weber he refers to

In all the sciences of human action, account must be taken of processes and phenomena which are devoid of subjective meaning, in the role of stimuli, results, favouring or hindering circumstances. To be devoid of meaning is not identical with being lifeless or non-human; every artefact, such as for example a machine, can be understood only in terms of the meaning which its production and use have had or will have for human action; a meaning which may derive from a relation to exceedingly various purposes. Without reference to this meaning such an object remains wholly unintelligible. That which is intelligible or understandable about it is thus its relation to human action in the role either of means or of end; a relation of which the actor or actors can be said to have been aware and to which their action has been oriented. Only in terms of such categories is it possible to “understand” objects of this kind. On the other hand, processes or conditions, whether they are animate or inanimate, human or non-human, are in the present sense devoid of meaning insofar as they cannot be related to an intended purpose. That is to say they are devoid of meaning if they cannot be related to action in the role of means or ends but constitute only the stimulus, the favouring or hindering circumstances.

This is helpful for understanding the tendency to treat machines as tools, helping us see what is lost in this reduction. Recovering the machinic involves recognising machines as having properties and powers beyond those relating to the uses we make of them.

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