In praise of ‘kaputt’ technology

The German philosopher Oliver Schlaudt concludes his book on the ‘Technozän’ (‘technocene’; he told me, originally the idea was to title it ‘The technosphere’) with fascinating thoughts about debris and broken technological artefacts, inspired by a contribution of the philosopher Sohn-Rethel published in 1926 who praised ‘kaputt’ (broken, kaput) things. The argument is intriguing and responds to many reflections on technology, perhaps beginning with Marx’s famous ‘machine fragment’, that we can only regain our human autonomy vis-á-vis technology when we escape its automatism and its totalizing grip on our actions. Technology mostly relates to ideas of perfection and flawless operations, and the more such standards evolve, the more we humans either need to fully delegate action to technology (the autonomous self driving car) or we must fully subject ourselves to the dictates of the mechanism (the assembly line). Yet, once the technology is kaputt, we humans gain control in our attempts at repairing it. That could be left to experts. Sohn-Rethel wrote about the masters of tinkering and improvisation in Naples of his times, a picture well-known from all developing economies, where people manifest great ingenuity in making broken things work again, and even more, using broken artefacts for creating new DIY devices.

in his book ‘The Shock of the Old’ the historian David Edgerton debunks the naive progressivist ideas about technology, showing that many ‘old technologies’ survive. The technosphere is not only defined by the cutting edge and includes, perhaps even to a large degree, for example, all the artefacts created by the hundreds of millions of humans who live in poverty, such as in slums. For Sohn-Rethel and Schlaudt, these are the places where we must look for ways to regain our autonomy in the technosphere. This is by no means just a theoretical idea. In my work on the city of Shenzhen I have paid much attention to the famous Shanzhai phenomenon, which for some years became a movement that attracted international attention a decade ago, as an initiative against the power of international brands and hegemonial claims of intellectual property. Shanzhai is the creative use of human capabilities to repair things, enabled by the modularization of technology in mass production, epitomized in the smartphone. It is not mainly about ‘broken’ technical devices, although many of the Shanzhai shops also do this and learn their skills in repairing things. ‘Broken’ means that Shanzhai starts out from the modules of the devices in completely disassembled state, as these are traded as commodities. Famous are the creative imitations of iphones that add new features and are also recognizable as copies. Shanzhai has been the cradle of world beating firms such as in commercial drones, and has been upgraded to a new engineering approach to innovation (for a brilliant report on the ‘sillicon vally of hardware’, see the video).

This example illustrates my point perfectly in comparing the dehumanizing megafactories of Foxconn making iphones in the same city and the decentralized small scale shops of Shanzhai makers embedded in vast social networks, many of them Chaoshan people with a distinct language and beliefs .These people live in places which, at that time, looked the same way, namely the ‘urban villages’ or handshake buildings, with no masterplan, no regular architectural design, but different from the ‘slum’ in offering decent living conditions for migrant workers. Both phenomena manifest the autonomy of the individual in manipulating and creating technological artefacts. In modern urbanism, such ideas have been ventilated by Richard Sennett in various ways, referring to both urban design and crafts. Shanzhai makers are the craftspeople of the digital age.

Such thoughts dovetail well with current efforts, such as in the European Union, to legislate technological designs that enhance capabilities of repairing them, mainly to reduce waste. But as we see, there is a deeper significance and also a more radical view: Technological design must follow the normative ideal of engaging human creativity in all ways. As in Shanzhai, that means, all artefacts must be amenable to individual and spontaneous tinkering. Well, that’s a nightmare for designers of safety standards, I agree. But that only means that we also need new approaches to safety and safety controls, focusing on the modules of technology, like traffic rules that constrain our movements, and still leave our freedom to move.

In a nutshell, this means to reduce the role of expertise and hierarchical power in managing technology and making it more democratic and inclusive. This requires adaptation in many domains of society, beginning with education. For example, our secondary education systems mostly distinguish between the track towards university and vocational or professional education. Hence practical work is not prominent in most mainstream schooling though praised and implemented in most alternative approaches. Human autonomy vis-à vis the technosphere must become embodied in enhancing our capacities to engaging with its parts in a creative way, thus hollowing out its totalitarian powers. Restoring the genuine nature of technology as a tool in our hand restores control of the individual over the technosphere.

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