Jobs’ Pharmacy (Reading 00)

We buy computers just as we would buy a car, with a good sense of what we need it to accomplish and plenty of research beforehand. We come back to the dealer and make sure it is secure in our home, perhaps testing it carefully and stowing it away in its designated spot. Later on in their use cycle, we forget that these items had both equal status as treasured commodities. The car’s features disappear behind the routine of our daily commute, and the computer is a mere aperture for a world of possibilities online. As information technologies become more pervasive, the common notion of technology as a tool enabling some more efficient work becomes less suitable. Perhaps internet addiction has made this incongruity more apparent (no one has ever considered hammering addiction or driving addiction a possibility). Technology does not merely enable further actions but structures the world around us, changing how we interpret and engage with other things. Jonathan Harris is grappling with this idea(which dates from 1953, in an essay by Heidegger) in a biological metaphor. He sees information technology as a socio-organic development beyond individual, Darwinian evolution. Following his biological metaphor he takes software as medicine, which could help or harm the population.

Software is either the poison or cure: in other words, the pharmakon. This is a Greek term that could be rightly translated as either word, two antonyms in most modern languages. Derrida makes much of this word’s appearance in Plato’s Phaedrus, in which writing is presented to a god as the pharmakon. Translators today must decide between ‘poison’ and ‘cure,’ perhaps given the perceived sense in context. They must repeat the same choice made by the god, who declares it a poison that would cause forgetfulness rather than a remedy that would aid failing memory. Also at the center of Derrida’s reading is the term pharmakos, meaning a ceremonial scape-goat, which does not appear in the text.

Derrida wants to show how such an arbitrary choice, an exclusion of some level of meaning, introduces the structure of western metaphysics. At the beginning of metaphysics there is mark of difference, an arbitrary choice between inside and outside, cure and poison, essence and appearance. I love this stuff but I do not want to go too far into this text right now. I just thought that given the medicine analogy in Jonathan Harris, and his revaluation of technology, it was too perfect not to mention. Harris suggests that we must think of technology as a medicine to care after the new information society. He says, “Darwinian evolution at the individual level is about to be transcended by another kind of evolution at the species level.” Through the computer network a more complex organism is taking shape, he argues, and programmers must care after it by introducing proper medicine. The software can become addictive, like illegal narcotics, or helpful, like penicillin or ibuprofen. But even with this analogy have we come any closer to delimiting the poison and cure in software? Derrida states in the Plato’s Pharmacy that any disease is essentially an allergy; it has to do not with an essential ailment but with limits, an act of exclusion like the pharmakos. There’s no denying that software has the power to shape our lives, but with its inexorable development and extension there is not a clear delimiter between harmful and beneficial software. Still, I would not argue that such radical break in moral thinking takes place with the advent of software. Such pervasive, yet contingent, changes in human existence have taken since the advent of technology, including the activity of writing.