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I Just Work Here

Author: Brendon Moore
Category: Mapping the Technological Society

I Just Work Here

My body vibrates along with the humming gears. Beads of sweat trickle down my skin for my clothes to drink and to rest heavily on my body. The wind whistles sweet nothings in my ear, blowing hot air, carrying bits of grass and dried manure that splatter against my cheeks. My hand reaches to support the bandana that struggles to hang on to my slippery face, cover my mouth, and hide my nose from the acrid smell of dung and gasoline.

All I could do to help myself get through those summer days cutting grass was to mimic the words of a fellow co-worker and say, “I just work here.”

Strangely enough, similar words were uttered in Jerusalem in 1961 by Adolf Eichmann, who was being tried for organizing the Nazi death camps (watch the movie). His claim to innocence was this:

“There is a need to draw the line between the leaders responsible and the people like me forced to serve as mere instruments in the hands of the leaders…. I was not a responsible leader, and as such do not feel myself guilty.” (see more here)

Hear the same echo: “I just work here.” Why do people see themselves as amoral cogs in a machine? Why did Eichmann? Why did I?

According to Brad Kallenberg, the answer is traced back to a worldview called instrumentalism.

And the artist of this picture is technology.

How could this be? Well, get ready to drink from a philosophical fire hydrant. Kallenberg says that people in the fourteenth century started to change the way they perceived the world. Before this, people in the West largely understood the world through Aristotle’s concept of causality. Everything had its own material cause, that out of which something had its being and nature; its own formal cause, its shape and structure; its own final cause, its purpose; and its own efficient cause, its primary agents of change. To fully understand something, the relationship between the material cause, formal cause, final cause, and efficient cause had to be known. If something was going to act or be acted upon in the world (the efficient cause), then one thing would have to cooperate with the other according to their purpose (the final cause) determined by the structure (the formal cause) of their nature (the material cause). It was a deep understanding of the world that allowed for robust meaning. However, changes to this worldview began with what Kallenberg calls technological scripting:

“In effect…engagement with technology [reinforced]…cultural bias to think exclusively in terms of efficient causes acting upon passive bodies whose only purposes are those which are imposed on them from outside and whose only value is their ability to fulfill these externally imposed purposes” (Kallenberg 92, read the book).

A good example of these opposing ideas is seen in James Cameron’s Avatar (watch the movie).

The Na’vi people think like Aristotle. They see the interconnectedness of their forest home. Each thing has its purpose according to what it is. The Na’vi people manipulate and interact with the forest and its inhabitants, but it is not the primary purpose of their lives. They still have to cooperate within the complex relationships of the forest for the common flourishing of the forest.

On the other hand, the humans are instrumentalists. The protagonist struggles to see his avatar body and his crippled body as more than the mere instruments in the eyes of his government that only sees things in terms of obstacles or assets in their campaign of pillaging and plundering.

Naturally, the humans and the natives come into conflict in the film. Except in real life, the space marine ideology won the day. Over time, the idea of things having material, formal, and final causes began to fade. Meaning and purpose became shallow and unhinged.

Consequently, it is this picture of instrumentalism that primarily shapes our perspective. It measures the value of things according to its efficiency as a tool that brings external benefit. Considering unintended, negative, ethical consequences is often secondary. Purpose is determined by the various whims of the actors affecting those who are acted upon. Sometimes this puts humans as amoral actors upon a passive world. And sometimes humans can become instruments to be manipulated by various things, too, as workers labor in cubicles of a corporate machine or as people sit passively in front of amusing, electronic screens.

As a result, people’s perceptions change. Relationships with others often do not become more than the titles they bear, the duties they perform, the advantages they give. We predominantly value things by the external benefits that they produce just like our machines. We sit and wait passively to be acted upon just like our machines. We tell ourselves along with Adolf Eichmann, “I just work here,” just like our machines.

            So, is instrumentalism the best way to view the world? Can human life only be critiqued by the external benefits that it produces? When was the last time art or music brought world peace? What if there are internal benefits found within doing practices like these that reveal the value in being human, being at work, thinking about God, writing a poem, or sitting in a field watching the grass grow? What if the eyes of technology blind us to the subtler goods of human existence?

Brendon Moore is a junior theology major at LeTourneau University. He is often found sporting his favorite green hoodie.