My thermodynamics professor likes to talk about capitalism. The laws of thermodynamics were written down during a time of empires and emerging industry, so you see (he says), efficiency is defined as such because it's about the money spent powering your machine versus the money you can make by whatever it does, and the first law uses such variables because this way is more convenient when designing your steam engine to be as cheap as possible; and so on.

This really begs the question of whether different laws would have been developed under an alternative system - which itself really boils down to asking if the incentives that caused the field to develop in this manner are different in different systems. Under, say, socialism, would it not be in the interests of engineers to design systems that made as much use from the input energy as possible? Would we really be measuring the quality of an engine in any other way than it's ability to use the resources we give it to produce mechanical work?

Probably not, in fact, given that even under the strictest communism, things (resources, energy) still have cost, even if not price. It's not hard to see that under any popular alternative to capitalism, the goal to which a machine is theoretically optimized is the very same as under capitalism - to produce output with minimal input, again, to keep costs - which are not necessarily prices - low for the same result.

What my professor is really talking about is the dominance of technique. Technique, which is so ubiquitous it's often hard for people to grasp immediately, is the name given to all rationally arrived at means for reaching, with maximal efficiency, some set result. At once the issue seems tautological, almost silly - of course a society focused on efficiency (what one wouldn't be?) is going to result in semantics and procedures based on efficiency. That's too simple and it must actually be capitalism, right? but the objection of the last paragraph still holds and it's not reasonable to say this is unique to capitalism (or apparently any other single economic system).

Nevertheless, it is still said. Like the fish who is asked, "How's the water today?" people are not constantly aware of this universal aspect of modern civilisation, but we still feel the ill-effects and want to find what is responsible. However, people have an aversion to going after technique directly, for a few reasons. For one, and especially for a professor of the technique called thermodynamics, it throws their life, their work, their purpose, into question. It is natural to want to believe that you can keep what you like about your life (or "the system", or "society" or whatever) whilst getting rid of what you don't. The anti-capitalist wishes to keep his indoor heating and mobile phone after the revolution, and even the anarchist will frequently appeal to his preferred anarchy's ability still to provide the material standard of living we are used to.

To be against technique, really, is to be against these things - and they do not appear to be just comforts, we are talking about medicine, manufacturing and transport among others here - that permeate all our lives. To be against technique, people worry, is to be a hypocrite with which the stereotypical iphone-socialist cannot hope to compete.

Perhaps obviously, I disagree. The reasons for which technique can be considered in the negative are not necessarily effects increased by a person's usage of them (although they could be) and there is not necessarily a moral harm on others associated with participation (although there could be). Unlike many ideologies against the system (again, use whatever term you like) this idea does not (necessarily) place an ethical burden on a participating individual, perhaps beyond the prohibition against self-harm. This is all to say it is just as general as the technique it opposes.

That generality also means that it's not necessary that without technique we'd also be without all of these things, but it means being without the system that produced them as we have them today and makes or keeps them abundant. People got along before the advent of the technical society and could presumably get along after, but it was and would be different. What it means is no necessary guarantees of similarity between the two states.