Whenever one begins to discuss the impact of technologies on the social realm someone raises the spectre of “technological determinism” (if technology isn’t your thing you can add your favorite spectre here). Thus, for example, thinkers as diverse as Marx, McLuhan, Walter Ong, and Friedrich Kittler all get accused of technological determinism (and sometimes their formulations invite this charge). I think this issue is where the concept of withdrawal deployed by OOO can really do some work.

The idea and spectre of determination seems to be premised on the idea of a one-to-one correlation between an event and the event that is produced. Thus the idea seems to be that given this perturbing agent– say the emergence of phonetic writing in Havelock, or the gun in the hand of the person in Latour’s memorable discussion of alliances in Pandora’s Hope –the outcome of this perturbing agent is inevitable for either the human agent or the social system. At this point one rightly objects that there are all sorts of other factors involved such as meanings, beliefs, intentions, dispositions, signifiers, etc., etc., etc. We are then to abandon analysis of what role these non-human agencies might play in the evolution of those agents. In other words, reference to these non-human agencies can effectively drop out of the analysis because, the argument implicitly runs, they are but carriers of meanings and intentions anyway.

The problem seems to lie in the notion that a perturbation coming from something other than culture or humans can determine or specify the product produced. Yet it is precisely this thesis that the concept of withdrawal rejects. Within the framework of my onticology, withdrawal means “operational closure” (cf. Chapter 4, The Democracy of Objects). An operationally closed system (synonymous with “object”) is a system in which the “…identity of [the operations and events in the system] is specified by a network of dynamic processes whose effects do not leave the network” (Maturana and Varela, The Tree of Life, 89). Operationally closed systems– which compose the class of all objects –are self-referential insofar as processes taking place in the system 1) do not directly relate to events in their environment but rather only relate to themselves, and 2) where all processes in the system are responses to other processes in the system. Here objects are withdrawn insofar as the processes unfolding within an object only refer to those processes and never directly to the system’s environment.

The consequence of this is that the notion of one-to-one causal correlation must be replaced by the notion of structural causation (a variant of Harman’s vicarious causation?). As Maturana and Varela write,

In the interactions between the living being (or the nonliving being) and the environment within this structural congruence, the perturbations of the environment do not determine what happens to the living being (or nonliving being); rather, it is the structure of the living being that determines what change occurs in it. This interaction is not instructive, for it does not determine what its effects are going to be. Therefore we have used the expression “to trigger” an effect. In this way we refer to the fact that the changes that result from the interaction between the living being (or a nonliving being) and its environment are brought about by the disturbing agent but determined by the structure of the disturbed system. The same holds true for the environment: the living being is a source of perturbations and not of instructions. (Ibid., pp. 95 – 96)

In other words, the most that an external entity can do with respect to an object is perturb or trigger that object. It cannot determine or specify what the effect or outcome of that perturbation will be within the receiving system or object. As Maturana and Varela remark a bit further on, “[a]n interaction cannot specify a structural change, because that change is determined by the previous state of the subject unity [the object] and not by the structure of the determining agent…” (Ibid., 101). It is the structural/processual organization of the perturbed entity that determines the outcome, not the perturbation that specifies or determines the outcome. And this is why objects are black boxes. Often we, as observers, are able to correlate a perturbation (cause) with an outcome, without knowing much about the intervening operations internal to this outcome that produced this effect.

It is because objects are withdrawn or operationally closed in this way that causal correlations cannot be transferred from type of entity to type of entity (and in the case of living objects, from individual to individual). And this is why it is so important to specify which objects we’re talking about when examining these correlations. Above all it’s important to have a concept of larger-scale objects, what Morton calls hyperobjects, to track these sorts of interactions. The impact of the bubonic plague on 14th century Europe and China will be different in both instances and this will be because of how the bubonic plague, as a perturbing or triggering entity, will be metabolized differently by the social systems (hyperobjects) involved. Likewise, we cannot say a priori what the impact of cars, smart phones, and internet will be on various hyperobjects or communities for the same reason. The most we can say is that these hyperobjects entered into structural coupling (relations between two operationally closed or withdrawn objects that mutually perturb one another) and that the hyperobject subsequently evolved in this way. The perturbing agent– in this case the technology or the bubonic plague –does not determine or specify the outcome, but, at best, initiates a process that leads to an outcome. The determination and specification of the outcome will, by contrast, be determined by all sorts of elements internal to the system (in the case of cultural hyperobjects): meanings, laws, norms, institutions, economy, signifiers, myths, religions, etc.