Thursday, May 20, 2010

Hornborg, Part 3: Machine Fetishism

As described in earlier posts (Part 1, Part 2), Hornborg argues that global technomass is embedded in a structure of unequal relations.

If this is so, why isn't it readily apparent to us? Why is technology generally viewed as liberating rather than enslaving? Hornborg answers this question by borrowing from Marx's notion of commodity fetishism, to develop a case for machine fetishism.

To illustrate how the process operates, Hornborg draws a parallel between the situation of the Inca Emperor and the concept of machine ferishism. The Inca emperor was understood to be the son of Sun god and, as such, was responsible for the wealth of the Inca people. The Emperor was viewed as generous, giving and the source of cornicopian benefits. According to Hornborg, the office of the Inca emperor was fetischized, a mystification of the unequal power relations necessary for his apparent productivity.

Hornborg views industrial technology in the same way. We think of it as productive in itself, but this depends on not thinking about the inputs and flows that make technology possible. Technology is, he argues, a fetishization of unequal exchange. Interest on money is mystification of unequal exchange. We invest material objects with magical qualities in order to hide this fact.

Hornborg isn't arguing that machines don't work or provide benefits but, rather, that like Inca ritual they do so through unequal relations of social exchange.

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