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Scientism Unbound: Baudrillard and the Critique of Technology (Part I)

Scientism Unbound: Baudrillard And The Critique Of Technology (Part I)

“The damage of scientism is done.”1 So said Eric Voegelin in 1948, amidst the afterglow of the allied defeat of fascism on the continent. The damage he spoke of was a spiritual closing, prompted by an obsession with “the utilitarian segment of existence,” which turned, as he put it, on “the interlocking of science and social power.”

It was the conflation of modern science with the “one true way” of understanding reality that accounted for modern science’s social prestige and the stature of the technological order it spawned. Voegelin challenged the presumption that the scientific method could serve as the model of inquiry for the whole of what is. Yet he realized the extent to which this presupposition informed what had become a planetary worldview. So, for Voegelin, the damage done by scientism was total in two senses. One, the scientization of society is premised on the assumption that there exists one path to a true understanding of reality, a path that for Voegelin is inadequate to the task of providing a full account of reality. Two, this totalizing vision of the real has become a de facto global outlook.

This is a bleak reading of the contemporary landscape, made all the more dire for its apparent finality. But was it misguided, for all of this? Is the damage done by scientism still with us today? Do we continue to live in the midst of “the greatest power orgy” the world has ever witnessed and, if we do, should this give us pause for concern?2 To help answer these questions I turn to Jean Baudrillard, one of the most incisive interpreters of the technological order to have appeared over the past half century.3

Baudrillard gives us a report from the “other side” of the power orgy that is modernity, and the picture that emerges from his analysis reaffirms the damage done by scientism as it outlines what it is like living in a world “dominated by a flight of magical imagination,” in Voegelin’s apt phrase.

Technology as Worldview

We are least aware of what is closest to us, precisely because of its proximity. What is closest to us is what we take for granted as self-evidently true or axiomatic. In any society, including our own, the most fundamental of these axiomatic truths are the dominant beliefs about the nature of reality and our place within it. With few exceptions, the beliefs that condition the way the world appears are as unknown to us as the sea is to the fish that swim in it. This ignorance lends them their power, which is to say that we are never more conditioned by such beliefs than when we are oblivious to them, or think we remain unconditioned by them.

Technology is the contemporary world’s unexamined “sea,” the background environment we navigate through as we busy ourselves with our daily activities: it is what is closest to us today. Technology is such an integral part of who and what we are that we overlook its pervasive influence on our thoughts and actions. Its overwhelming presence goes largely unnoticed. What remains unseen and unthought is not the realm of technological instrumentation – of technologies – but technology understood as a worldview,4 a mode of perception that shapes the way we relate to the things we perceive.

It is to be expected that thinking of technology as a mode of perception is not the way persons in a technological culture typically think about technology. For to approach technology in this manner is to begin to understand the nature of technology, which, as stated, remains largely unexamined in our society. This means that to the extent technology is considered at all these days, it is done in a way that masks its nature or essence.

The nature of technology remains hidden from us as long as we continue to talk of technology predominantly in instrumental terms, that is, as long as we associate technology exclusively with tools that help facilitate the realization of desired ends. It need hardly be said, for instance, that iPhones or BlackBerrys are technologies, but we mislead ourselves if we think that technology is merely about tools and about the business of building better tools. What has to be asked if one wants to understand more deeply technology and the world we live in – and increasingly it is the world we are speaking about, not just the developed West – is the perception of reality that must prevail in order for iPhones and Blackberries to exist at all.

What is it about the way we perceive things that makes technology possible to begin with? What underlying assumptions about the nature of reality must be in place in order for us to have devised the vast powers of control technology provides? Are these assumptions valid or defensible when assessed within contexts other than the technological? These are the kinds of questions that must be asked if we are to think critically of technology and the world transformed through technology’s power.

The writings of Jean Baudrillard constitute one person’s effort to understand and critically assess what it means to live in the age of science and technology.3 While neither the first nor the last word on the matter, his writings provide us with a singular view of such a life and will serve as a means of engaging in an examination of technology. The goal of this analysis is not to prove Baudrillard is correct in his assumptions about technology and its effects on society, although he may very well be. Rather, its purpose is to show us what it means to think about technology. Whether one agrees with the general contours of his reading of technology is therefore not a matter of ultimate concern. What is important is to understand why it is necessary to reflect on technology, to make the technological worldview an object of critical thought.

An Artificial World

So what is it like to live in the age of technology, according to Baudrillard? In general terms, it can be likened to a surreal or dream-like experience in which it is no longer possible to distinguish reality from our re-creations of reality.

We live in a world strangely similar to the original, as Baudrillard likes to say. It bears a striking resemblance to the so-called “real world,” but it is not. We live in a world of artifice – a hyper-real world5 – a world reworked by human ingenuity in ways that occlude its artificiality. This fake, real world has an advantage over the real, real world: It works better. Being a product of human ingenuity, it exists for us, not for itself. It does our bidding, not its own. We are no longer held hostage by reality and its ways, by fate. We do not have to suffer the fate of the real. In the real world, for instance, people are separated by time and space. In our recreated reality, people can talk with or text each other in “real time” anywhere around the world. In the real world, human beings struggled to find the means of producing things. In our recreated reality, the main challenge is to find consumers for those things we readily make – which explains modern advertising. In the real world people grew old and died. In our recreated world they still do, but aging and death have been transformed into challenges to be overcome, and progress has been made in meeting these challenges.

Reading Baudrillard

Before describing several of the main features of our surreal technological age, and reviewing Baudrillard’s critical response to them, it is important that we acknowledge that Baudrillard is not an easy read. How he expresses his ideas can present an obstacle to their understanding. Without doubt, his manner of writing is decidedly at odds with the spirit of the modern age, in which knowledge must be precise and presented in transparent prose. Baudrillard does not write that way. He is a prose stylist, which is to say he writes in an artful manner that is bound to frustrate readers who want the goods delivered to them “straight up.”

What many of Baudrillard’s detractors do not seem to appreciate fully is that how he writes cannot be dissociated from the content of his critical encounter with science and technology. The spirit of technoscience6 is aligned with a specific variant of thinking or understanding. When, in a technological society, we speak of knowledge and the kind of thinking that supports it, what comes to mind is a pragmatic, goal-oriented form of understanding. It is thinking understood as “problem solving.” This kind of thinking may be called “instrumental reasoning,” (or, in Voegelin’s phraseology, “utilitarian rationality”) because it is an active and practically useful type of thinking.7 We employ it like a tool to make and fix things. When educators, for instance, describe what they do as providing “tool kits” or “skill sets” for students, they are speaking and thinking about education in instrumental or functional terms.

Against this understanding of what it means to think and reason stands another. It runs against the grain of technology and what technology represents. It is not an instrumental form of reasoning and therefore is not useful in the conventional sense of the word: It does not help us make better bridges or save the environment. This does not mean reflective or contemplative thinking – the alternative to technological thought – is useless, but only that its utility is of a different kind than technological thinking. Usefulness in the context of a technological culture is restricted to meaning something like “materially practical.” The aptly named “applied sciences” are exemplars of this modern conception of utility in that they are devoted to expanding the boundaries of scientific understanding for the purpose of advancing the practical arts.

In contrast, more philosophical pursuits of the sort we find in reflective thinking are assumed to have no practical benefit because they do not help advance the technological project, whose aim is to reconstruct the world so as to improve it. Because philosophical or reflective thought does not “make” the world a better place, as does computer science or engineering, it is relegated to the rank of a theoretical activity – to “mere thinking.” Of course, reflective thought is useless if utility is defined so narrowly as to exclude from consideration other meanings of the term.

It is true that reflective thinking is not self-consciously purposive. Reflection is a disinterested activity that arises from the simple desire to know, from a need to understand something for its own sake. Rather than move us forward, reflection holds things in suspension. It is akin to slowing down. Reflective thought is a form of disengagement through which one steps back from the regular course of daily affairs and considers it in a broader context. It is a form of thinking that, while hardly irrational, feels comfortable employing devices that, from a technological viewpoint, may appear poetic and therefore frivolous, such as imagination, metaphor, and the like. And it is a form of thinking that is eminently practical if we are willing to reclaim an understanding of the term that aligns practice with human action in the political or public domain.8

So how does all of this relate back to the business of reading Baudrillard? First, we have to acknowledge that Baudrillard has no interest in providing his readers with information about technology, even “critical” information. His texts are not information delivery systems. He wants us to think about the phenomenon we call technology, to reflect on technology and its meaning. His manner of writing about technology serves this end perfectly in that he writes in a way that the meaning of his texts are not always evident at first glance. In a cultural context where transparency is all the rage, where the real is ruthlessly exposed, Baudrillard writes in a way that forces his reader uncover meaning. In an age of instantaneous and ubiquitous communication, and fractured attention, he invites us to dwell on the meaning of the technological project.

The Value of Alienation

A commentator once quipped that Baudrillard must love ideas, since he has so many of them.9 He certainly does.

To help make coherent sense of the tangle of ideas that constitutes Baudrillard’s reading of technology, it is necessary to isolate what may be seen as the single unifying theme of his reflections. Alienation (and the lack of it) is this theme. Baudrillard is obsessed with the notion. It is all he talks about once you understand the essentials of his thought. Now, what exactly does alienation mean? What does it mean to feel alienated or to call something an alien experience? We can look to the origins of the English word “alien” to get a better sense of its meaning.

The word alien and its derivatives come to us from the Latin root word alius, which means “other.” So to be alienated from something is to be other than that thing – to be separate, apart, or removed from something. Conversely, the antithesis of alienation denotes a condition where the gap or dividing line that distinguishes one thing from another has been erased. The opposite of feeling alien to something is to identify with it. The opposite of alienation, then, is aligned with terms such as identity, likeness, or sameness. A friend, for instance, is someone you identify with, someone with whom you share an affinity or likeness. Friends share likenesses that unite them.

It is reasonable to suggest that most people consider alienation an undesirable condition. If it were within their power to do so, most would choose to live a life of little or no alienation. It is alienation or otherness, after all, that accounts for why we may not feel at home in our bodies and in ourselves as persons. It is alienation that accounts for tensions within families and amongst friends, between ourselves and our workplaces, between ourselves and the natural order, even amongst nations and peoples. Eradicating otherness would resolve all of these tensions or problems, and this would lead to a perfect life of perfect happiness. But would it be a desirable one?

Many signs indicate that a life devoid of alienation is the kind of life we Westerners are trying to realize and are in the process of exporting to the entire globe. This global ideal, if completely realized, would constitute a planetary system. The globe would be fully integrated at an economic and political level, at the very least. This is not to say all differences of a cultural, religious, or linguistic sort would disappear. However, they would come to represent variations within a singular or homogeneous way of life unsympathetic and inhospitable to radically different or incommensurable patterns of human existence.

What kind of planetary system are we talking about here? The short answer is a system modeled after the one already in place in the so-called “developed” world: a world united in its commitment to the political ideals of liberalism and to the economic prosperity that capitalism secures. It is a world where the rights and freedoms of persons the world over are enshrined and respected, and where everyone has an equal chance to live a materially secure life. That is the promise, at least.

It is a very attractive promise. Who would not like to live in a world where everyone is treated equally in the eyes of the law and where everyone has the same chance to attain a measure of material wealth? Sameness is good, is it not? That is why people all over the world fight to universalize human rights or to secure desired social goals, such as equal pay for equal work. And if sameness and equality are good, then alienation is bad, since alienation is linked to otherness and the recognition of otherness often serves as grounds for treating certain people differently than others – for inequality.

A strong case can be made that the world needs more sameness, not less. However, Baudrillard disagrees. He argues that the problem today is not too much alienation but too little. We need more, not less, otherness in our lives. Alienation from Baudrillard’s perspective is a good thing, not an evil to be eradicated. This is not to say that alienation is necessarily a “good” only that alienation is preferable to its antithesis, a state of identity that Baudrillard equates with death.10

One also would be mistaken to assume that in promoting alienation Baudrillard is against sameness altogether. It would be as difficult to imagine, let alone live, a life saturated with otherness as it would be a life completely devoid of otherness. All Baudrillard is saying is that, given the civilizational path we are on, it is essential that we learn to appreciate otherness and its place in the overarching order of things.  Or, to use a more traditional language, we must remember the gods.

I will explore the theme of alienation on two broad fronts. Both have to do with technology and its consequences, but relate to different aspects of the technological order. They are not entirely separable, but will be distinguished nonetheless to provide a better account of Baudrillard’s thoughts on the matter. The first front concerns technology understood as “systems of control” and will constitute the primary focus of the first two parts of this essay. Such systems of control can be and are applied routinely to all aspects of modern life, from politics to human health to sexuality. The second front is associated with the related issues of simulation and virtual technology, which pertain to the proliferation of signs and images in contemporary society. This latter subject will be examined in parts three and four of this essay.

The Problem of Existence

Let us begin, then, with the question of otherness as it applies to technological systems of control. To understand what a system is and why technology is intimately related to systems, we first must understand what technology means at a fundamental level: We have to articulate what technology is essentially.

One way to do this is to ask: What problem is technology meant to solve? Before an answer to this question can be offered, it is important to acknowledge that some persons might think the question itself a bit odd. For, if anything, technology appears to be a response to problems, not “a” problem. There is no single “thing” technology responds to, it could be argued, which is why we have technologies, or different tools for different problems. For instance, the electronic linking of communication devices has helped solve some of the difficulties associated with earlier, less efficient means of communication. We have developed antibiotics, to cite another example, to help us prevail over disease because we find it unacceptable that people should have to suffer or die needlessly from avoidable illness. The problem with raising these sorts of objections is that they effectively skirt the original question, which is, to repeat, whether these and other technologies can be seen as responding to a more general, unifying problem that it is technology’s essence to solve.

To understand what technology is essentially we must first recount the obvious fact that not all cultures are or have been technological. Technology is an outgrowth of a specific civilization –Western civilization – and it emerged at a specific point in time, roughly five hundred years ago.11 That other cultures, including our own, have not always been technological indicates that something must have triggered the emergence of technology and the problem it is meant to solve. What was the trigger, then? It was the rise to power of an idea – the emergence of a new worldview. If this idea does not seem revolutionary to us today, it is only because we have been living its vision of reality for centuries now. But it was revolutionary nonetheless, and fateful, since this idea lies at the root of the phenomenon we call technology.

Ironically, the fateful idea in question is the questioning of fate or destiny itself. Fate became a “problem” when we began to question it, when the idea arose that what “is” does not necessarily “have to be,” that humans have a capacity to remake the world in a manner more suited to their perceived interests and desires. The purported “natural” conditions of life came to be viewed not as impositions to be endured or suffered, but as amenable to human manipulation. To be a modern is to reject the belief that we are placed here to be buffeted by outside forces – be they natural or supernatural – and to embrace the notion that the world is an object of real or potential control. In the history of political thought, Niccolò Machiavelli was one of the first observers directly to confront the issue of fate in human affairs. He was acutely aware that for leaders to rule effectively they had to know more than the political tricks of the trade.

The Art of the Possible

Machiavelli knew that the key obstacle to the successful practice of power politics was more psychological than intellectual. What had to change to usher in a new age of rulership were attitudes toward the art of the possible.

To wield political power in such a way as to effect real and lasting change requires first a belief in one’s capacity to do so. This belief cannot flourish when it is assumed that events unfold either by force of some predetermined logic (as fate would have it), or by sheer dumb luck. In both instances, events are seen to lay largely beyond the province of human control. Machiavelli explicitly challenged this perception. In The Prince, for instance, he chastises the ancient Greeks for their idealism, for conjuring “imaginary republics,” before offering insight into the real world of politics and providing practical guidelines for effective rule.12

Machiavelli’s “take charge” orientation toward politics was a manifestation of what was then a new and emerging worldview that considers mastery of human affairs to be both realizable and good. In its defiance of fate, The Prince captures the modern spirit and what it means to live in the age of technology. To live in an age informed by the spirit of technology is to reject the view that there exist permanent obstacles to the powers of human mastery. While the technological worldview acknowledges the existence of forces that resist control, these forces are assumed not to reside in the world itself. That resistance to the powers of control might be rooted in the nature of things cannot be countenanced by the technological mindset because such an admission would undercut the very premise that lends technology its faith in conquest.

To be operative, the technological mind must assume at least two things. One, that it and the world are attuned at a fundamental level, so that with some prodding, the secrets of the world (human and non-human) can be revealed to the rational mind. Two, that the world – the object of its thought – makes coherent sense. Together, these assumptions underpin a view that posits a “categorical agreement of being.”13 Coined by Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera, this expression describes an “aesthetic ideal” that purges from consideration anything that may be thought unpleasant, impure, or heterogeneous. It is an expression equally applicable to Baudrillard’s understanding of technology, in that for him the image of reality constructed by technology also is founded on the denial of what offends.

Technology as Kitsch

“Shit” for Kundera represents both literally and symbolically our categorical disagreement with being. Its denial produces kitsch, a sappy and sentimental view of the world that is responsible for tacky art, like garden gnomes or paintings of cute furry kittens. Kitsch is present in politics, too. Kundera saw in the leftist politics of his homeland the same mawkishness, a parallel propensity to assume the “Grand March” toward socialist equality and freedom was just a rally away. The Grand March for Kundera is a fantasy premised on the denial of the real. It is the political equivalent of a porcelain kewpie doll, and like all expressions of kitsch, in denying shit – in this case, by denying that certain forces might forever prevent the realization of the socialist ideal – kitsch veers toward totalitarianism.

For Baudrillard, the totalitarian spirit lives on in technology, and for the same general reason articulated by Kundera. Both phenomena deny the existence of whatever cannot be incorporated within the existing worldview, and, equally, both assume everything can be assimilated within the prevailing perceptual framework. There is no more room for “otherness” in the technological paradigm than there was for shit in the totalitarian politics of the Grand March. Like Kundera and Voegelin, Baudrillard takes as illusory the notion that there exists a magical cure for the evils of existence.14 No ideology, no level of scientific or technological advance, can eradicate otherness (that is, perfection’s nemesis), the force that sees to it that nothing ever attains a state of perpetual harmony or pure functionality.

Otherness versus Difference

Baudrillard is at pains to dispel the modern penchant for reducing otherness to “difference.” A technological society is premised on the unleashing of the forces of differentiation. Modern economies, for example, thrive on product and service differentiation, and on creating a consumer base that ties matters of personal identity to specific patterns of consumption.

The Internet, to take another example, opens up an almost unimaginable array of information, sufficiently fragmented so as to meet the varied interests of its users. In a culture given over to the itemization and circulation of innumerable goods, services, and ideas, it is understandable that the meaning of otherness – which Baudrillard equates with incommensurability – might be lost. This is because most of the variation we observe today amounts to distinctions within a single totalizing system, which renders these differences commensurable or commutable. Coke, for example, may be distinguishable from Pepsi as a consumer product, but because this difference occurs within a system of exchange that codes products relative to each other, they remain related to each other as products arrayed in an extended series of consumer options. Like integers within a common numbering system, consumer items gain their significance in relation to other items, to their position within an overall structure of meaning.

Otherness, unlike difference, is not a relational concept. To the contrary, for two things to be “other” than one another they must bear no relationship to one another; they must be in classes of their own. This is why Baudrillard associates otherness with notions such as incomparability and disparateness. Life and death are non-equivalences, for instance. They cannot be placed on a single scale or system of exchange: They are not commutative realities. The same, for Baudrillard, can be said of masculinity and femininity.15 These “traits” can be harmonized as per modern gender equality only if they are conceived as a mere set of behavioral “differences.” Their oppositional quality is obscured when they are regarded as anything less than distinct realities or modes of being.

We have to ask ourselves at this point why Baudrillard is so keen to draw a distinction between otherness and difference. The answer lies in the consequences of not doing so. If, as Baudrillard believes, the otherness that haunts reality (and foils our effort to perfect reality by reconstructing it) is denied or otherwise overlooked, we will continue to act on the assumption that there are no insurmountable challenges to the attainment of perfection.

Introducing the notion of otherness serves the purpose of complicating the world picture technology has constructed for itself. Difference is as close to otherness as one gets in a world reorganized by technology. But the two are nothing alike. This is because reality for Baudrillard is not a system and otherness not a “part” within the monolithic whole. Rather, reality is self-divided in a way that not everything holds together or coheres. Otherness is the name given to the irreducible “gaps” in the fabric of being that effectively withhold the promise of perfection and the hope of realizing a totalized system. Conceived this way, otherness symbolizes what remains beyond our powers of control and suggests the existence of limits to the project of technological mastery.

Otherness has manifested itself historically in a belief in the will of an omnipotent God or the workings of an inscrutable nature. To believe in fate is to accept and respect the fact that there are forces other than the merely human that shape you, your life, and the lives of others, and over which you have no power to effect or change. But otherness, as a general condition of existence, also persists in our largely secular technological era.

As will be discussed below, Baudrillard’s efforts to describe reality as alien are an attempt to show up the mystery of everyday experience and to regain a sense of wonder at the sheer “thereness” of the world around us, a sensibility all but lost on us today.

To gain a fuller sense of what constitutes the technological worldview, it helps to contrast it against its antithesis. The Old Testament story of Job offers insight into a fatalistic, pre-technological era. Job, we know, was a God-fearing man who did everything right according to his creed, yet was delivered to one misfortune after another for his obedience to God. Eventually, he demanded to know why he is being made to suffer for no discernible reason. God’s answer is brutally direct: Humankind’s lot is not to know why, but to accept on faith the existing conditions of life.16

This attitude is unacceptable to us today. Job’s suffering is unacceptable not because he suffered misfortune. Everyone experiences adversity at times. Good people every day hear from their doctors they have cancer, for example. Yet hearing that you have cancer is acceptable because we know (or think we know) what cancer is and what causes cancer, and have developed methods of dealing with the disease. Cancer is accepted because it is a known enemy, so to speak, even though this enemy often prevails over us. Job’s misfortunes, in contrast, have no rational explanation. God’s will is inscrutable: it is “other” than human. God’s will and justice lie on the other side of an impenetrable wall separating us from Him.

As stated, we moderns reject the notion that there is such a thing as an unknowable other. Technology deals with the problem of otherness by denying its existence. That is technology’s genius, if it can be called that. The technological mindset flatly rejects the notion that there may exist permanent and insurmountable obstacles or barriers to the understanding and mastery of nature, including ourselves as natural beings. Every roadblock along the way is viewed as a provisional and hence ultimately superable challenge to be overcome by the technological will.

Increasingly, we want the world around us be to “on demand,” to comply with our wishes. This is what perfection means to us as members of the technological order. Technology thus far has been linked to the denial of otherness. But how exactly does technology work to humanize the world, or make it less alien to human purposes?  To answer this question we must disabuse ourselves of the habit of associating technology with technical gadgetry. While it is not entirely inappropriate to associate technology with tools and tool use, it does not get us very far in understanding what technology is about fundamentally. We can look to the origins of the English word “technology” for added insight into the worldview that bears its name.

From Technē  to Taylorism

The word “technology” is a seventeenth century neologism. It combines the Greek root words technē (making) and logos (knowing), and can be translated roughly as systematic or scientific knowledge of how things are produced. Any task can be technologically conceived. What makes technological thinking different from other kinds of thinking is not its subject matter but its methodology. It is reductive and analytical.

To think technologically is to break down or resolve a process into its component parts, and to see how these parts relate to each other and to the whole. The knowledge gained from technological thinking is always practical, or instrumental, as previously cited. Knowing how something functions opens the door to rearranging its parts so as to make the whole function better, or more efficiently. Another way to put this is to say that technological thinking tends to operationalize whatever it analyzes. In making an operation out of something, technological thinking frames its subject matter in a way that makes it measurable and therefore subject to control.

Taylorism is a frequently invoked term that captures the operational ethic. A century ago, Frederick Winslow Taylor wrote an influential treatise that revolutionized modern industry.17 He argued persuasively that industry ought to reorder itself in line with scientific principles, the adoption of which would result in the “one best method” of production. From a technical perspective, the best method of production is a method of perfect efficiency, where every resource (i.e., time, money, materials, etc.) employed within the production process is fully utilized. Although perfect efficiency is unrealizable in practical terms, systems of production work toward the realization of this ideal, producing things ever more efficiently, or ever less wasteful of resources.

Highly inefficient methods of production of the sort associated with the term “craftsmanship” have no place in a world imbued with the techno-scientific spirit. Such things as personal skill or individual style are idiosyncrasies that interfere with efficient production. The objective scientific method must prevail over “rule of thumb” methods of work, which allow for latitude in the application of work principles in individual circumstances, as determined by the experienced judgment of skilled workers. Taylor is adamant: “In the past the man has been first, in the future the system must be first.”18

Taylor, however, had bigger plans than just the scientific restructuring of industry. The “one best method” was for him applicable to the whole of society and its management. A perfect society would be a society in which all operations would function with near perfect efficiency, where integrated management systems would see to it that resources are allocated effectively throughout. What Taylor and others of his persuasion did not envisage, of course, was that the one best method, as a system of means, could and would soon be applied to any end or purpose. Horrors such as genocides can run with the cool efficiency of a Toyota manufacturing plant, as Nazi concentration camps gruesomely attest.

Baudrillard appreciates Taylor’s prescience. Indeed, we have embarked on a collective project to operationalize anything and everything we come across. It is scorch and burn warfare. It is total war, Baudrillard announces. We operationalize what and how we eat, how we gain fitness and stay fit, how and what we learn, how and what we teach, how we reproduce as a species, even how we die. We regard everything as a system with a special function or purpose. We have sound systems, waste disposal systems, information retrieval systems, and weight reduction systems, to name but a few. Even the humble “door” is spoken of these days as an “entrance system.” Everything from the sublime to the ridiculous is systematized.

Operational Mania

The fact that everything, every process, these days is addressed in operational terms leads Baudrillard to conclude that society is afflicted with an operational mania.19 We seem to be driven by a crazy and uncontrollable drive to systematize.

And it does not stop with the systematizing of single operations, such as the production of hamburgers or running shoes. We also seek to systemize systems, to link pre-existing systems systematically to produce what is desired more effectively still. For example, consider the notion of the “24-hour knowledge factory,” as some MIT researchers have termed it.20 They and others question why the production of knowledge (or any other ‘commodity’) ought to be restricted to a day shift at a research lab in Toronto or Düsseldorf. Down time is idle time, wasted time. So why not build knowledge factories that consist of globally distributed work environments, so that someone, somewhere, is always on task? Doing so would increase production, and who in their right mind would be against such an idea if it were feasible, as it is today? What argument could there be against the notion that it is better to have more of something rather than less?

The collective effort directed toward systematizing everything is undertaken for the ultimate purpose of making the world “better,” which in our technological era means making the world function more efficiently, a goal that, ostensibly, we human beings desire and deem to be good. Technology humanizes reality by making it less alien to human purposes. To understand Baudrillard it is necessary to realize that for him the premise underpinning the modern or technological worldview is fatally flawed. We have misunderstood what he calls “the rules of the game”21 that constitute reality and our place within it. We have acted on this misunderstanding for centuries now, and Baudrillard believes the error of our ways is in plain view, for all with eyes to see.

But what exactly have we misunderstood? Simply put, we mistakenly think that alienation or otherness is an “evil” that must be eradicated and that happiness is achieved when human beings are liberated from fate, from those forces that limit their power to become masters of their own fate. We think happiness will result from our closing those obtrusive gaps that keep us from getting what we want, or delay the attainment of our desires. We are smitten by technology because technology involves the creation of efficient delivery systems that respond to our perceived needs. The utopian ideal that drives our technological society is the promise of a perfect system – a System of all systems, an “Integral Reality”22 – in which resources and knowledge are globally utilized to best realize the goal of human mastery.

The Illusion of Control

Baudrillard believes this ideal is totally illusory. The rules of the game are such that alienation can never be vanquished. The rules of the real world – in contrast to our fantastical, technological perception of reality – see to it that no system can approach perfection for the simple reason that reality is self-divided.

And yet, Baudrillard observes, we persist in thinking otherwise. So the problem, the hidden problem from the contemporary perspective, is not our alienation from things but precisely the opposite. We take everything to be fodder for technological control, a “standing-reserve,” in Martin Heidegger’s language.23 We assume nothing lies on the other side of technological manipulation. We assume nothing has a right to remain what it is independent of us. To the contrary, we think everything is susceptible to being conceptualized, systematized, and reordered in accord with what we take to be human needs and wants.

This is the understanding that underlies technology. It presupposes “the disenchantment of the world,” as Max Weber said nearly a century ago, the assumption that “there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation.”24

Baudrillard likewise believes we moderns are wholly within the grip of the view, implicitly totalitarian, that everything can be assimilated into the technological system, or brought under the cloak of complete control. Baudrillard realizes that, increasingly, everything we see, hear, or touch already has been worked over by humanity.25 The damage of scientism is done. A veritable cosmos, the technological system for Baudrillard is not delimited by anything that rightfully transcends the system. It is a self-enclosed world, a world without escape, of the order of Orwell’s 1984.26

The Surgical Removal of Otherness

In The Transparency of Evil, Baudrillard describes the relentless drive toward systemization in the following terms: “We are under the sway of a surgical compulsion that seeks to excise negative characteristics and remodel things synthetically into ideal forms.” He continues: “Every last glimmer of fate and negativity has to be expunged in favour of something resembling the smile of a corpse in a funeral home.”27

In a technological context, erasing negativity, or whitewashing, means eliminating everything that does not directly contribute to the realization of the task at hand. So a ‘perfect’ system is one without gaps, overlaps, duplications or redundancies that might lead to less than perfect efficiency. Importantly, for Baudrillard, one of the consequences of systematizing processes is that the key concern becomes the performance of the system itself, or how well the system is meeting its stated objectives. In a technological society, he argues, what is really important is not what you do but how well or effectively you do it.  Focus is redirected away from the content of an operation and toward the measurement of outcomes as a sign of success.

Consider, in this context, a noted expert’s remarks about recent developments in education:

“Content has taken a beating over the last decade. First with web 2.0 and now with social media, focus has been on interaction and engagement. Obviously content has a role to play. The key question for me is whether we need content in order to start learning or whether content is the by-product of an effective learning experience.”28

This is a remarkable admission, for it says, in plain English, exactly what Baudrillard says happens to all operationalized processes, namely, that matters of content give way to concerns over the effectiveness of systems. Educators everywhere are scrambling today to provide effective learning experiences for students, more so than concentrating on curricular issues and how what is taught relates to concerns over the ends of learning.

What Baudrillard is suggesting here, more generally, is that although systems initially may be set up to realize external objectives, attention invariably shifts to the performance of the system itself. This obsession over how effectively a system works he calls “the performance principle.”29

Jogging, he claims, perfectly illustrates the performance principle in action. The pleasure of jogging, Baudrillard says, is not derived from “pure physical exertion,” or with the body “in its fleshly reality.” Rather, it is a pleasure of dematerialization, of an “endless functioning.” He sums up the phenomenon best when he says: “To jog is not to run but to make one’s body run.”30 Jogging becomes a performance where the body is subjected to a discipline to test and monitor its capacities. Jogging, in other words, is its own end. Increasingly, this self-referential logic is being applied to all fields of endeavour. You go to class not to learn something but to participate in the learning experience. You enter politics not to make your community a better place but for the rough and tumble of politicking. Instead of doing things, we play at doing them in the same way we play a game, whose rules and objectives are internal to the activity.

For Baudrillard our love affair with technology leads to our systematizing everything, which in turn results in a forgetfulness of why we do what we do. So wrapped up are we in monitoring how we do things, we lose sight of why we do them and, in addition, fail to appreciate the inherent pleasures of doing what we do. Everything becomes a technical exercise, a performance. “The drama of the subject,”31 as Baudrillard puts it, gets lost in the logic of our systems. We do not imprint ourselves on the world around us so much as see ourselves as nodes within the integrated circuits that regulate our mediated connections to reality. In the process the real world becomes redundant. It appears, in Baudrillard’s words, “only as some vast useless body, which has been both abandoned and condemned.”32


If one is inclined to find Baudrillard’s logic fanciful and prone to excess, reflect for a moment on the cluster of technologies that go under the rubric, “Advanced Driver Assistance Systems.”33

What does it say about us, and about our relationship to our machines, that we are willing to cede to technology our capacity to park a vehicle, or safely change lanes, or handle an icy patch of pavement? Have we not already entered a post-human age when we willingly forego acquiring those skills that help us navigate about the world? Likewise, is a technology such as iTunes “Genius” nothing more than a steering system that helps users navigate a different kind of space – a virtual space?

Relying on an algorithm to help create playlists is no different than deferring to any other technical regime that places decision-making powers in the hands of an operationalized system. All are instances of a general trend that is seeing “the drama of the subject” yielding to the cool efficiency of systems of control.

For Baudrillard, the operational mania that afflicts the contemporary social order reflects our entry into a post-human age. The price paid for humanizing reality, for making reality less alien to human purposes, is to become an adjunct to the system that facilitates the realization of such an end. The humanizing of reality is concomitant with the dehumanizing of the human. This inescapable trade-off explains Baudrillard’s penchant for identifying the effects of technology with death, for to be alive is to make a mark upon the world, to impress oneself on it and on other persons in ways that leave a trace of one’s presence. In contrast, to be dead is, in metaphorical terms, to exist in a way that leaves no impression upon the world. Technology lends itself to the art of dying by minimizing our presence as creaturely beings.

Think, for example, of present day concerns over the environment and the effect these have on the evolution of clean technologies. Whatever the future may bring, it is safe to say it will be cleaner, more environment-friendly. Extrapolating from this trend, it is possible to foresee the day where the technological means are found to reduce our ecological footprint to near zero. But what would it mean to find a way of existing on earth that leaves virtually no trace of our existence as biological beings? As Baudrillard might respond, if your environment no longer bears the mark of your presence, you must be dead.34

Why, it may be asked, do we seem to be hell-bent on functionalizing everything? What are we avoiding with all this attention being compulsively fixed on the performance principle? What is making us so anxious that we feel compelled to whitewash or purify everything by remaking the world in a perfectly functional manner?

These are very important question, and some headway can be made toward answering them by citing an observation Baudrillard makes in The Transparency of Evil. He says there that when viewed from the perspective of a perfectly operational system, human beings can be seen as “a dirty little germ.”35 Inviting us to reverse perspectives, Baudrillard asks us to imagine what we humans might look like from the viewpoint of a perfectly ordered system. If technology were the judge, in other words, what would its verdict be of humanity? It would conclude, Baudrillard suggests, that humans are messy and contradictory creatures, full of secretions and uncontrolled passions. And what would be technology’s reaction to such an unsavoury being? It would wish its disappearance, and would work toward this end by re-engineering the grubby little virus that is humankind so as to eliminate from it everything that is negative.

Total Prophylaxis Is Lethal

This thought experiment is employed by Baudrillard to question the conventional belief that it is we humans who use technology. We may think we do, but our actions strangely conform to the demands of technology itself. It is as if we are doing technology’s bidding, as if we see ourselves from the perspective of the good as technology defines it. We behave, through our technological interventions, as if we were in truth dirty little germs. So, for example, we work toward scrubbing humanity clean by effectively encasing human bodies in protective bubbles that shield them from invading biological threats. It stands to reason that if condom use is central to the practice of safe sex – if it keeps humans sexually “hygienic” or “positive” – then the creation of a total body condom would represent the ultimate in human hygiene.

But is not the creation of such a bubble a project that we, through technology, or technology, through us, have already embarked upon? Was not our panicked reaction to the threat of H1N1 (and the bird flu before that) and the steps taken to avert the contagion, a special case of a general trend that sees more and more resources given over to finding ways to protect ourselves from all possible contagions?

Herein lies the rub. By seeking to protect the human body from all sources of biological aggression, in trying to keep invading germs and viruses at bay, we are inadvertently creating a hyper-integrated system out of the body. The body becomes a hyper-integrated system insofar as it is effectively shut off from any intercourse with the outside world that may threaten its integrity.

Such a system is ideal from a technological perspective, since it prevents the intrusion of invading germs and viruses, which work to corrupt the system, or impair its functioning. Germs and viruses are causes of system breakdown and therefore are targets of pre-emptive strikes, via medicines and disciplinary therapies. But is there a consequence of our extensive and progressive efforts to shrink-wrap the human body? Baudrillard certainly thinks so. Any hyper-integrated system, for lack of an external threat, he says, will invariably produce its own internal virulence or malignancy. Once, in short, a system is tightened beyond a certain point, it effectively turns on itself. For want of an external threat a system attacks itself, which is why Baudrillard concludes: “Total prophylaxis is lethal.”36

His analysis here brings to mind the adage: “The path to hell is paved with good intentions.” It is understandable that we have a vested interest in protecting our bodily integrity. We would not exist as a species today if were totally indifferent to external threats to our security. The problem lies not in our desire to protect ourselves, but in the extension of the means we have developed to do so. They are extensive today, so much so that we know, for instance, that the overuse of antibiotics has helped to create new contagions largely resistant to available medical treatments. The superbug MRSA is a good example of a contagion of this sort, and the fact that it proliferates in hospitals is very telling. What it reveals is that the aggressive technological pursuit of a contagion-free environment aids in the emergence of new threats that might not have appeared in its absence.

Baudrillard is struck by the fact that many of today’s leading pathologies are immunodeficiency related. An illness such as cancer, for example, appears to be triggered when defense systems designed to protect their hosts from illness fail to function properly, and turn on themselves. It is a disease of our time, Baudrillard notes, because it is generated “by the very success of prophylaxis and medicine.” It is an illness “bred of the disappearance of illnesses. . . .”37

The Nature of Evil

The point to be made here is that the human immune system, like any other system, is prone to breakdown should it become unemployed. Pure systems, systems purged of the “other,” are fatally unemployed. ‘Perfect’ systems tend toward self-destruction for want of engagement with an “enemy.”

This insight appears to be lost on us. We fail to realize, as stated earlier, that reality itself does not cohere into a tight system of perfectly interrelated parts. It is self-divided, we said. Ignorance of the nature of things provides a breeding ground for evil. The evil of which Baudrillard speaks is not evil as traditionally understood: it is not evil in a moral sense. Rather, he calls evil the “fundamental rule of reversibility.”38

Closed circuits are vulnerable to evil, to breakdown. Any system we create that actively eliminates all signs of negativity in hopes of attaining perfect functionality is susceptible to a reversal of fortune, to attack by a disintegrating force. Such systems secrete their own internal virulence, Baudrillard says. This explains why athletes at the peak of their powers are most susceptible to injury or illness. This explains why computer networking systems that seek perfect and total communication, where anything and everything circulates freely in a virtual web of interconnectedness, provoke the emergence of hackers and computer viruses.

There is no escaping this rule. The ‘good’ of a system is invariably linked with its ‘evil.’ Because Baudrillard sees the good (functionality, order) and evil (chaos, disorder) as necessarily intertwined, evil for him is not something that can be condemned out of hand. In arguing this Baudrillard is not saying some people ‘deserve’ to contract a disease like cancer. This illness is not to be interpreted as punishment for personal behaviour. Yet, in an impersonal way, it can be viewed as retribution for an imbalance in our dealings with the real.

The Ethic of Interactivity

We live in a society that is hopelessly committed to the pursuit of perfection. Twelve step programs and management courses are in place to modify errant personal thoughts and behaviours. Conflict resolution and anti-bullying programs proliferate to combat interpersonal conflict. International organizations, think tanks, and peace institutes arise in the hope of offsetting social and political strife. Pharmaceutical research addresses pathologies of mind and body. Green technologies and practices like carbon trading are responses to our growing intolerance of environmental degradation.

So entrenched is the technological will to perfection that successes in the war against negativity often lead to the formation of new (and often dubious) targets of correction, as witnessed in the medicalizing of certain non-pathological conditions, such as menopause or sadness.

In criticizing the technological drive to whitewash reality, Baudrillard is not saying we ought do nothing to counteract obstacles to human well being. What he does say is that whatever we do we must do in full awareness of the rules of the game, the chief one being the coexistence of good and evil. Evil, as he defines it, must be accepted and respected as part of the order of things, which ironically means the ‘order’ of things is as much about disorder as order proper. We can accommodate ourselves to evil only when we come to accept otherness, when we learn that the world is not constituted in a way that allows for its relentless operationalization. So the rules of the game for Baudrillard run counter to the dynamic of technology.

This is why he can say:

“Everything which offends against duality, which is the fundamental rule, everything which aims to be integral, leads to disintegration through the violent resurgence of duality – or in conformity with the principle of evil, whichever you prefer.”39

Consider these remarks in relation to premium placed today on that much iterated word, “interactive.” It seems everyone wants everything to be interactive. Constant and total communication is the order of the day. We must communicate amongst ourselves. Our technologies must interact amongst themselves. We must interact with our machines. And all of this interacting must happen simultaneously, always.

This interactive ethos Baudrillard rightly calls a “gigantic mythology.”40 It is mythological because the way the real world and we operate has nothing to do with interactivity. Whatever life is, it is not a video game. In a video game, all the parts fit into a homogenous whole, including the actions of the game player. A video game constitutes a system. Again, no matter how varied and complex the system, a video game (or any computer program) springs from a singular code or algorithm. This code contains all the options available within the game and to its user.  There is no “other” to the code: it is totally self-contained. This is why the interactive video game experience, or any other type of digital interactive experience, is at odds with so-called “real world” experience.

Reality does not supply us with ready-made answers as to its purpose or path. Otherwise, we would all be Christians, Rastafarians, or atheists. To the contrary, our experience of reality is open-ended, perhaps radically open-ended: We are fundamentally out of joint with reality.

The interactive ethic of our technological culture amounts to an almost violent repudiation of such a view. We build feedback loops that link people, places, and things in defiance of what Baudrillard considers the ways of the world. We take at face value the merits of being connected, being tuned in, being part of a planetary communications network. We get off on our “sense of throbbing connectedness to Something Important,” as Thomas de Zengotita observes.41 As de Zengotita suggests, being connected this way is tantamount to an erotic experience. But if we feel truly alive only when linked to the “Flow of Events,” then being dislocated from this flow amounts to a death-like experience. And who wants that? Who wants to be alienated from the web of interconnectedness that is the virtual world?

Technology, then, can be seen as saving us from the death-like experience of disconnection. After all, if death signifies the Ultimate Disconnect that puts an end to our immersion in the world, then technology, in working to allow us to better “hook up” with reality, constitutes a symbolic antidote to death.

The Limits of the Game

The problem with this ‘solution’ is threefold, according to Baudrillard. First, as already mentioned, remaking the real as a positive system devoid of all negativity invites blowback. The more we try to perfect reality through technology, the more vulnerable we become to breakdowns of order, on increasingly expansive scales.

Second, technology breeds dehumanization. Our efforts to operationalize everything reduce us to prostheses or extensions of our tools and the systems of which they are a part. So a price is paid even when technology succeeds in its ambitions.

Finally, there is the motivation behind technology. What explains our collective commitment to the technological project? The answer to this question, which will be explored in more detail in the second of these paired essays, has to do with the previously cited “rules of the game.”

For Baudrillard, the rules by which reality operates are either unacknowledged or profoundly misunderstood by technological thinking. To the extent we think about it at all, we assume reality is real in the sense that we believe we have access to its definitive meaning. This is where we err. For Baudrillard, there is a decisive break between perceptions of reality and the nature of the real itself that results in nothing meaning what it appears to mean. “There is a kind of inner absence of everything to itself,”42 he notes, which prevents anyone from understanding the meaning of anything definitively.

Even though we are “in” the world, and part of it in a substantive sense, the world is not present to us in an immediate way that would allow us to grasp its truth unequivocally. We human beings, in other words, are constitutionally incapable of knowing Reality. Because the real in itself is forever “other” than us, Baudrillard calls it an illusion. Of course, in saying this, Baudrillard is not discounting the physical givenness of the world. Stubbing your toe results in real, not imaginary, pain. His point is that, within the realm of understanding, the world is and will always remain a profound mystery. It has the properties of what Baudrillard calls the “Object,” a “strange attractor.”43

The pursuit of perfection is a fool’s errand because the task of improving upon reality presumes knowledge of what constitutes a purportedly ‘imperfect’ reality. This knowledge is unavailable to us, Baudrillard says. Reality does not divulge its deep structure. But if reality is illusory, then how can Baudrillard claim to know reality’s rules, those rules of the game to which he refers? Is not his critique of technology and the pursuit of perfection implicitly founded on a “true” reading of reality?

It certainly appears that way. However, the ‘true’ reading of reality Baudrillard offers is an odd one in that it acknowledges the fundamental mystery of being. Baudrillard remains a philosophical skeptic. He does not deny there exists a “truth” to reality. His reference to the rules of the game acknowledges that there exists for him some kind of order to reality, even though, as we have seen, this order is not perfect. Yet this order is only alluded to, as it must be for Baudrillard, since it is not within our power as human beings to give a full account of the reality within which we participate, precisely because we constitute a part of the whole of reality.

If Baudrillard calls reality an illusion, it is only to underscore the transcendence of the real, the otherness that haunts reality at its core, that dimension of lived experience that eludes capture. His animus toward technology can be fully appreciated only in the context of its closing the hidden dimension of life, what amounts to its spiritual dimension, a position aligned with Voegelin’s critique of scientism and the technological order.



1. Unless otherwise noted, all references to Eric Voegelin in these essays are taken from his “The Origins of Scientism,” Social Research, Vol. 15, No. 4 (December 1948), 462-494.

2. Where we are positioned today relative to the power orgy Voegelin spoke of in 1948 is an interesting question. Are we still in its midst, as Voegelin’s reading of modernity might have us believe, or is Baudrillard’s claim that we are living after the orgy of liberation a more accurate assessment of the contemporary scene?

3. There is no need here to rehash Baudrillard’s career and impact as a thinker. Suffice    it to say that he was trained as a sociologist and was influenced by many of the intellectual currents that were popular in France during the mid to late 20th c., including Marxism, phenomenology, and semiotics. His writing career spanned many decades – from the 1960s up to his death in 2007 – and his books are widely read by people of varied academic and non-academic backgrounds.

4. Martin Heidegger offers the most penetrating analysis of technology as a worldview.   See his The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (New York: Harper Colophon Books), 1977.

5. Hyper-reality is reality’s proxy, its “operational double,” (2) as Baudrillard says in Simulacra and Simulation, and is closely related to simulation, a topic of discussion in    the second of these paired essays. Hyper-reality is a primary target of the investigation in Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995).

6. I employ the term “techno-science” to describe the intertwining of modern science with the technological project of mastering nature. Techno-science illustrates the inherent “interested” quality of modern scientific understanding.

7.  The twentieth century German sociologist Max Weber has written extensively about instrumental reason. Weber used several terms to refer to this form of reasoning, calling it, variously, “purposive rationality,” “instrumental rationality,” “means-ends rationality,” and “technical rationality.” A review of Weber’s theory of rationality is contained in my book, A Discourse on Disenchantment: Reflections on Politics and Technology, (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1993), 36-7.

8. Today the term “practical” is aligned with the realm of making, with the production of things, which is why we refer to the study of medicine as a practical art, for example.  But it was not always so. The word “practice” (praxis) was originally linked with the domain of human action within the private and public spheres. The ancient Greeks, therefore, saw ethics and politics, as preeminently practical activities. Thus understood, alterations in perception regarding what constitutes the good life can be seen as having a practical impact.

9. Madran Sarup, An Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism, 2nd ed. (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1993), 161.

10. Baudrillard states succinctly: “… if we ever attain identity with ourselves we are dead. It is only in sleep or in death that we are identical to ourselves.” See Baudrillard’s Art and Artefact, ed. Nicholas Zurbrugg (London: Sage Publications, 1997), 50.

11. Martin Heidegger argues that the roots of the technological worldview extend back to the ancient Greeks and to Greek rationalism, a reading that would have him agree with Friedrich Nietzsche’s claim that Socrates was an Athenian degenerate. Heidegger’s claim can be defended if one links the birth of modernity to the onset of the Renaissance, a period in Western history where the spirit of Greek rationalism was reborn and routinized in the practice of modern science.

12. Machiavelli tackles the issue of fate head-on in chapter twenty-five of The Prince, where he suggests, in the name of preserving free will, that we humans they have the power to control approximately one half of our actions. Whether this ratio reflects prudential considerations on Machiavelli’s part, or accurately portrays his activist ambitions, remains a matter of conjecture.

13. Milan Kundera’s exposition of the interrelation between kitsch and politics is contained in Part Six (“The Grand March”) of his philosophical novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1999).

14. In “The Origins of Scientism,” Voegelin observes that science, having taken on the mantle of an “idol,” is thought to have the power to “magically cure the evils of existence and transform the nature of man.”

15. Jean Baudrillard, The Intelligence of Evil or the Lucidity Pact, trans. Chris Turner (Oxford: Berg, 2005), 188.

16. After God reproaches Job for questioning His authority, Job submits: “I know that thou canst do all things and that no purpose is beyond thee. But I have spoken of great things which I have not understood. I knew of thee only by report, but now I see thee with my own eyes. Therefore I melt away; I repent in dust and ashes.” The New English Bible (Oxford and Cambridge University Press, 1970), Job, 42: 2-6.

17. Frederick Winslow Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management (New York: Harper, 1911), 7.

18. This quotation can be found at the internet address:

19. Baudrillard’s writings are littered with references to extreme phenomena, which makes perfect sense given that modernity for him is typified by excess on all fronts. There is madness in contemporary attempts to incorporate everything into the operational ethos. This sentiment clearly is in evidence, for instance, in “Operational Whitewash,” a chapter in Baudrillard’s, The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena, trans. James Benedict (London: Verso, 1993),

20. This concept is given full treatment in Amur Gupta and Satwick Seshasai’s 2004 paper, “Toward the 24-Hour Knowledge Factory.” The article is available online at the website:

21. As Baudrillard defines it in The Intelligence of Evil, “the rules of the game” are the forces that prevent Integral Reality, or universal order, from establishing itself. These rules see to it that any effort to create positive or unitary systems is bound to meet with reversals that undo them. See 185-186.

22. Baudrillard defines “Integral Reality” as “the perpetuating on the world of an unlimited operational project whereby everything becomes real, everything becomes visible and transparent, everything comes to fruition and has a meaning (whereas it is in the nature of meaning that not everything has it).” See The Intelligence of Evil, 17.

23. “Standing-reserve” (Bestand) is a well-known Heideggerian term that describes the technological stance toward Being. This orientation has the world revealing itself as a resource whose energy humankind can extract, transform, and store for future use. See Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology,” in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays.

24. Max Weber, “Science as a Vocation “in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, eds. H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (London: Routledge, 2001), 139.

25.  Hannah Arendt is a theorist who anticipated Baudrillard’s concerns over the consequences of our inhabiting a wholly reworked nature. In her words: “Every progress in science in the last decades, from the moment it was absorbed into technology and thus introduced into the factual world where we live our everyday lives, has brought with it a veritable avalanche of fabulous instruments and ever more ingenious machinery. All of this makes it more unlikely every day that man will encounter anything in the world around him that is not man-made and hence is not, in the last analysis, he himself in a different disguise.” See Arendt’s “The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man,” in Between Past and Future (London: Penguin Classics, 2006), 277.

26. The Party’s overarching goal in Orwell’s 1984 was to erase the notion of a reality exterior to the social reality of the state. Paramount was the erasure of a reference point beyond the existing social system by which the system could be measured and evaluated.

27. Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil, 45.

28. The quotation is George Siemens’, founder and president of Complexive Systems, a research lab that helps develop integrated learning structures. The quotation is taken from a presentation of his entitled, “Changing the System at a National Level,” which was posted online in 2010. It can be found on the website, Connectivism: Networked and Social Learning, at:

29. The Transparency of Evil, 47.

30. Ibid., 47.

31. Jean Baudrillard, The Ecstasy of Communication, trans, Bernard and Caroline Schutze (New York: Semiotext(e), 1988), 16.

32. Ibid., 18.

33. Advanced Driver Assistance Systems, many of which already are operational, include in-vehicle navigation systems, adaptive cruise control, lane change assistance, automatic parking, blind spot detection, collision avoidance systems, and hill descent control. The ne plus ultra of this trend, of, course is the self-driving vehicle, which is under development and likely to see production in the not too distant future.

34.  This conjecture on my part issues from the following line of Baudrillard’s, which was stated in reference to the development of the compact disc: “If objects no longer grow old when you touch them, you must be dead.” See The Illusion of the End, trans. Chris Turner (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), 101. The “death” Baudrillard speaks of here is a metaphorical death, or death understood as dematerialization. I have addressed the interrelated themes of technology and dematerialization in some depth in Spirits in the Material World: The Challenge of Technology (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books), 2009.

35. The Transparency of Evil, 61.

36.   Ibid., 64.

37.  Ibid., 64.

38. Ibid., 65.

39. Ibid., 185.

40. Ibid., 188.

41.  Thomas de Zengotita’s “The Numbing of the American Mind: Culture as Anesthetic” first appeared in the April, 2002, edition of Harper’s Magazine. It is available online at:

42. Jean Baudrillard, Art and Artefact, ed. Nicholas Zurbrugg (London: Sage, 1997), 49.

43.  Jean Baudrillard, The Conspiracy of Art, trans. Ames Hodges (New York: Semiotext(e), 2005), 79.


This is the first of two parts, with part two available here.

Gil GermainGil Germain

Gil Germain

Gil Germain is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Prince Edward Island. He is author of Spirits in the Material World: The Challenge of Technology (Lexington Books, 2009).

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