- Means without End: A Critical Survey of the Ideological Geneaology of Technology without Limits, from Apollonian Techne to Postmodern Technoculture
In this ambitious but flawed book, Gregory Davis seeks the intellectual roots of what he sees as the domination of our present-day culture by an ideology of technology without limits. His immediate inspiration is the work of Jacques Ellul, from whom he adopts the belief that technology, defined largely as means-ends rationality, has become an end in itself, completely determining modern life while undermining authentic human values and culture. This position is extreme though familiar, present in the later work of Lewis Mumford as well as in Ellul.
To find the roots of technology without limits, Davis surveys the entire history of Western thought from the Greeks through the postmodernists. Drawing on Camille Paglia, he argues that the “Apollonian” Greeks viewed techne as a neutral means strictly subservient to higher moral values. He also draws on Lynn White’s much-contested 1967 article to argue that Christian theology encouraged amore exploitative relationship to nature in the Middle Ages. This process was furthered by the disenchantment of nature in the Scientific Revolution, and also by Francis Bacon, who firmly linked science to practical application for the mastery of nature. These trends intensified in the Enlightenment, as science became further secularized and wedded to the idea of progress.
The idea of technology without limits was more firmly established during the nineteenth century with the arrival of Darwinism, which banished religion and enthroned science as the only means to human fulfillment, while Nietzsche’s “glorification of will” and rejection of limits promoted the embrace of technology by German “reactionary modernists” under Weimar. The program of the reactionary modernists was adopted by the National Socialists, who saw technology in racial terms as an autonomous expression of authentic German culture. After World War II, critiques of technology began to appear, most importantly Ellul’s Technological Society, which showed that modern technology had become autonomous, an end [End Page 781] rather than a means, destroying tradition and bringing all of human society under its dominion. Davis concludes with a discussion of the role of bio- and information technologies in creating a postmodern technoscience without limits, resulting in what Paul Virilio terms a “totalitarian technocult,” which so impairs cognition that all critique becomes untenable.
Ultimately, Means without End is not a successful book, even on its own terms. Although Davis defines it as a work of “broader synthesis rather than intensive scholarship,” the scholarship is thin even for that purpose. Davis relies heavily on dated secondary sources, including popularizations and textbooks. He shows little awareness of recent historiography of science, philosophy, or technology. In his discussion of ancient Greece, for example, he leans heavily on Paglia but ignores G. E. R. Lloyd (and every other serious scholar of ancient Greece in the last twenty years). His dated sources and polemical stance lead to many questionable assertions and overreaching conclusions. In both content and method, this overview is decidedly old-fashioned intellectual history, almost completely devoid of social context. Davis frequently makes exaggerated claims for the significance of the thinkers he discusses without supporting evidence. The book’s organization, while generally chronological, jumps abruptly from author to author without explanation, while the connections to the main theme often remain unclear. Davis never clearly defines what he means by technology, even while criticizing others for defining it incorrectly. He blithely projects present-day definitions of science and technology onto past scholars who simply did not have comparable concepts.
Perhaps one could make a more scholarly argument that present-day society has become dominated by technology as an end in itself that subverts authentic culture and human morality. I doubt it, though. Ultimately, Davis’s extreme technological pessimism is little more than a mirror-image of the most uncritical forms of technological enthusiasm. Both enthusiasts and pessimists accept exaggerated claims for the significance of new technologies, equally embracing a...