Victor Scardigli: the meaning/direction of technique

It's often when reading obscure and never translated european writers that I find the most intriguing ideas, especially when it comes to foresight and innovation. The book "Les sens de la Technique" by Victor Scardigli is no exception to this; the title is a sort of pun since "sens" in french means both "meaning" and "direction". Thus you can read the title as "The Meaning of Technique" or "Where Technique is heading", which reveals the ambivalence of technical innovation. What's intriguing here is that the author, for once, do not distinguish "techniques" and "technologies", rather taking techniques as a whole that encompass vaccines or ICTs. Above all, the book is above the gap between the expectations our societies put into innovation AND the weak consequences of the first change we can notice. After inventions and R&D processes, innovation is expected by some (especially the inventors) to diffuse in society and "impact it" (for best or for worse). Different rationales are at stake here since engineers or biologists expect Sciences to serve Progress, the reciprocal adaption of human beings and techniques and hence measure the "social impact" of their invention. On the other hands, social scientists often more convinced by the prominence of human causalities are more skeptical and think that new techniques are only tools to modify the course of time based on their own objectives.

The author then addresses how techniques and their usage evolve over time, for which he describes 3 phases in his "diffusion model" using a raft of interesting examples that I won't describe here:

  1. Phase 1: The "time of prophecy and fantasy" (enthusiastic or terrifying) where revolutions are predicted and technique is "inserted socially" (right after invention and R&D). It's mostly the time of positivists and the moment where imaginary symbols are constituted. The less objective fact you have, the more imaginary you get, so irrational thoughts are important here. Prophecies (or social actors who promote them) attempt to create a connection between 3 elements: the new technical object, human desire and expectations/fear of the time being. This leads to imaginary representations that you can find in the discourse of companies promoting the innovation, surveys or advertising/media messages. For Scardigli, there are of course constant imaginary issues: power on constraints (liberty of slavery), knowledge, fear of death, social justice, social bounds, economical wealth and global solidarity. There is therefore a discourse around the hopes and fears linked to these issues which are recurring in history. What happen is that fantasy, scientific knowledge and actions are intertwined and even the weakest signal is turned into an excessive hope or fear. Prophecies become necessities and then self-justificated.
  2. Phase 2: The "delusion phase" that suggest how the expected technological revolution does not lead to a social revolution. Positivists' prominence is obscured by skeptical voices who raise the gap between forecasts and realizations/effects. They also reveal how "techniques" themselves are not sufficient to change "society". To some extent, observers realize that science only make progress... in science. It's of course the time where "users/people" enter the scene and begin employing the technique. These small actors transform, invent new uses, hack or tweak the innovation. This appropriation and reinvention of daily life leads to a third phase.
  3. Phase 3: "the side-effect phase": 30 or 40 years after, the real diffusion of the technique is effective and some social and more long term consequences appear but often different from the one expected at first (new social form, new forms of cultures or human activities). He cites an example of a sort of bulletin-board system in the 80s in French that was expected to revive surburbian communities. What happened is that technology vanished (the state program was stopped) but it allowed people to gather, meet and create "mediating" organizations that survived. In the end, the collective imaginary of progress from the 1st phase is articulated with the strategy of actors who promote the innovation. Social change appear as a side-effect of the technical innovation, not because of it. The introduction of the innovation acts as a "analyser" revealing problems, social dynamic, aspirations, needs and above all as an alibi for new forms of sociality. And at the end of the road, it's end-users themselves who give sense to techniques by integrating to their daily life/culture.

Also Scardigli raises the importance of the socio-cultural context of innovation, who often fail without it. He exemplify this with a description of "mediating" persons who are social actors who can promote technologies and make people understand how it will be of interest for their purposes/life. In addition, there is of course a compromise between the Ideal of the project and the economic/user realism. If what happen in the 3rd phase is different than what was expected in the first one, it's because big actors (States, companies) are struggling with each others with different visions BUT also because small actors (users!) modify, change, tweak or slow down the unfolding of these innovation.

Finally, in his conclusion, he discusses some lessons about progress and innovation:

  • Human beings build their own history, sometimes by designing new techniques but often with other means (e.g. organizational). And it's not these techniques that will change or social and daily life.
  • These innovation effort are always carried out over and over, as a sort of Sisyphean curse because new techniques have to articulate both Science (who likes to "discover") and social demand for a better world. Unfortunately, harmonious encounters between both is very rare and needs and innovation are scarcely matching. Technical inventions are always the fruit of a culture and inventors, engineers or users all share the will to have a better world so they try, like Sisyphe.
  • Social appropriation is always slower than technical innovation. 5-10 years are needed to go from the fantasy phase to find a niche of users. 10 or 20 years are then needed so that the innovation is entirely appropriated in daily life.