In “Some Social Implications of Modern Technology” Herbert Marcuse examines technology in a broader sense. He defines technology as more than just “the technical apparatus,” which he calls “technics”; for Marcuse technology is “a social process” in which men are inseparably involved (138). The most significant implication of the technological process is the creation of dominative “technological rationality,” similar to but distinct from Horkheimer’s idea of subjective reason.
Marcuse traces the change in the individual and his rationality. He constructs the rationality of the individual in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and contrasts this “individualistic rationality” with the modern “technological rationality” (Marcuse 141). Individualism was based on autonomous self-interest, whereas technology makes self-interest completely heteronomous, achieved only by “adjustment and compliance” (Marcuse 146). Individualistic, rational self-interest was motivated towards finding “forms of life”; therefore, in the service of the realization of this interest, reason was critical of the world as it is (Marcuse 139-40). Technological rationality is instrumental; it is motivated towards efficiency, and technology makes any critical protest irrational. Marcuse uses Lewis Mumford’s phrase, “matter-of-factness” to describe an attitude of empirical rationality that in the age of technology becomes a dominating force over man. Through these social dominations of technology over the individual, man’s autonomy is erased—not by force, but rather by his identification with the apparatus, by a fetish of technique.
Marcuse is primarily concerned with the fate of the individual. One of the methods by which technology removes the dignity of the individual is by sublimating him into a crowd. Marcuse is critical of the crowd, which reduces the individual to a “standardized subject of brute self preservation” (150); that is, he is an atomic and standardized force whose only expression is self-interest. The specialization of professions does not contradict this standardization, because a man merely becomes one of several replaceable tools in the toolbox. Thus, specialization is simultaneously a force for standardization as well as division.
Truth, which as individualistic truth was once whole, is split into technological and critical truth. Technological truth is that set of values that “hold good for the functioning of the apparatus—and for that alone” (Marcuse 146). It is a truth concerned only with the goals of technological rationality, namely efficiency. Critical truth is antagonistic to the apparatus; it is autonomous and objective. However, Marcuse points out, the two truths are not completely contradictory, as technological truth often transforms critical truths for its own purposes. Critical truths are adopted by their opposition and thereby made impotent. This adoption is symptomatic of the way critical forces have been “incorporated into the apparatus itself—without losing the title of opposition” (Marcuse 149). Marcuse cites the example of the labor movement, which has changed from a truly critical force into a “business organization with a vested interest of its own” in the system (Ibid.).
But technological rationality does affirm critical rationality in two cases. First, technology “implies a democratization of functions” (Marcuse 152). Democratization is subverted, however, by hierarchical private bureaucracies that enforce division. Second, technics’ potential triumph over scarcity could allow for a “free human realization,” in which man can realize his true self in the freedom from “the hard struggle for life, business and power” (Marcuse 160). Marcuse closes with an imagination of this state, in which humans “are nothing but human” and allowed to live on their own terms. This autonomy of man is Marcuse’s Utopia, characterized not by “perennial happiness” but by the affirmation of man’s “natural individuality” (Marcuse 161). Technology, though it constricts individuality in the many ways Marcuse describes, is also necessary for its full realization.
Marcuse, Herbert. “Some Social Implications of Modern Technology”. The Essential Frankfurt School Reader. Ed. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt. New York: Continuum, 1982. 138-162.