Tag Archives: technology determinism

Up, Up, And Away!

up-up-and-away-susan-roberts

up-up-and-away-susan-roberts

Up, Up and Away in my beautiful machine. Remember that song from Sesame Street? Driving to the lake in our new Ford Focus, I felt like I was flying high. Off we were to our summer cottage in the New Jersey Highlands, with two cars in tandem, both stuffed to the brim with our treasured possessions–our books, are tapes, our CDs, our cloths, and of course our dog Sparky.

A new car you say? You are environmentalists, non-materialists! How did that come about?

Well, we had been thinking about it for a long time. Although our 20 year old CRX si (the last of its make) had served us well, it had seen better times. As well, we were beginning to creak, just like the CRX, so it was harder and harder to take advantage of its sporty appurtenances. Nonetheless, we procrastinated, not wanting to let go of the happy memories and associations that our CRX evoked. As importantly, negotiating a car deal is intimidating; much as in the case of birthing a baby, we had to wait until the pain of the previous experience had subsided before trying again.

We had to wait until the pain of the previous experience subsided, before trying again

What helped to overcome our inertia was our desire to bring all our stuff with us on our vacation to Hawthorne Lake. No doubt, it would take two cars. Did we really need all this paraphernalia? Most likely not! But, as one might well imagine, even though we could not possibly read all the books, wear all the cloths, nor listen to all the CDs that we had packed, together they comprised a web of connections and affordances, which made it easier for us to carry out our routine away from home.

so many choices

so many choices

The subject of things continued to preoccupy me even after we had unpacked our cars, put everything in its place, and settled into our cottage on the lake. For once I was ensconsed in the old wicker chair at the end of our long screened-in porch, the first book I drew from my grand pile was Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton’s The meaning of things: Domestic symbols and the self.

Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton’s perspective on the role of things is quite unique. Unlike most sociologists, they are not focused on the relationship between things and status. Nor do they take an especially critical perspective of things, bemoaning the evils of consumerism. As significant, the authors rise above the technology determinism vs. social constructivism debate. Instead, grounded in the symbolic interactionism of George Herbert Mead, and the philosophical pragmatism of John Dewey, they view the interactions/transactions between people and and things as a two-way street.

Generations of Things

Generations of Things

Embodying past associations and psychic investments, objects convey symbolic meaning to those engaged with them. At the same time, the users of objects can extend that meaning by investing their own psychic energy in the object to pursue their own individual goals. Growth occurs in the process, with respect to both the object and the individual. As importantly, because objects embody meaning at three levels–the self, the community, and the cosmos–the network of objects with which we are surrounded help us to orient ourselves to function both as individuals as well as participants in a larger whole.

Our home at the lake epitomizes the narrative that Csikszentmihayli and Rochberg-Halton lay out. As they point out:

One of the most important psychological purposes of the home is that those objects that have shaped one’s personality and which are needed to express concretely those aspects of the self that one values are kept within it. Thus the home is not only a material shelter but also a shelter for those things that make life meaningful.

Crossepatch

Crossepatch

Built by my grandfather in 1908, our house at the lake is home to prized possessions that span five generations–the deer head over the fireplace, first edition books, the mission oak furniture, blackened cast iron pots, my mother’s rolling pin, my father’s fly rod, my childhood toys, my son’s tools, my grandchildren’s paintings, and–last but not least–our new car. They serve not only to link me back through the generations that preceded me; they instill in me the insight and impetus to keep our house and its environs in tack for the generations yet to come.

Technology Indeterminism

the question I wrestle with is about agency–when it comes to technology, how much agency do we have? 

For me, being a professor is very refreshing. It is an occupation that never gets stale. For, even when I work with the same material year after year, I get to share it with a new class of students each of whom has unique interpretations to offer. If I am too provocative, or appear too certain, no doubt I will be challenged. Questioning whether my thoughts and ideas hold up in the face of this kind of scrutiny, I am thoroughly reengaged.

In the Communication Culture and Technology Masters Program, at Georgetown University, the topics I most frequently address revolve around technology. More specifically, the question I wrestle with most is how much agency do we have? At what points are technologies brought into question, and how can they be influenced most effectively?

This question has dominated my thinking ever since my days at the Office of Technology Assessment, when I first read Langdon Winner’s opus Autonomous Technology. Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 1977). Surveying the range of positions that major thinkers have adopted with respect to the march of advancing technologies, Winner challenges us, not to be technology somnambulists, but rather to develop our own philosophical positions with respect to technology. I try to pass this challenge on to my students.

I am a Technology Whore (courtesy of Theiss)

I am a Technology Whore (courtesy of Theiss)

To be sure, developing a coherent philosophy of technology requires a sound theoretical understanding of the relationship between technology and society. This relationship is the focus of my CCT course Technology and Society. In this class, we employ different theoretical lenses through which to consider how technology affects society and vice versa. In examining these theories, I encourage my students to approach them the way they select their clothes–that is to say, try them on for size. Each theory has its own strengths and weaknesses, but some are more suitable than others for the purpose at hand.

The Dressing Room (Courtesy of Eric Photostream)

The Dressing Room (Courtesy of Eric Photostream)

Thus, for example, theoretical approaches associated with technology determinism, such James Beniger’s The Control Revolution, can help us understand the big picture–that is, what underlies technological momentum and unintended consequences, but it says little about how and by whom technology decisions are actually made. On the other hand, while the SHOT approach (Society for the History of Technology) hones in on how concerned interests and decision-makers arrive at a consensus, it give short shrift to the role of power and the institutional and cultural environment in which decision makers act. Like the SHOT approach, Actor-Network Theory (ANT)–developed by French philosophers Michel Callon and Bruno Latour, discounts the social frame of reference. Its focus, instead, is on how actors (including technology) employ their power and resources to create networks in support of technology outcomes. Most comprehensive of all is evolutionary theory, which conceives of technology outcomes as emergent and indeterminate –the product of complex, cumulative forces.

Teaching a class on Technology and Society, I want to be able to assure my students that–yes–they can make a difference.

Teaching a class on Technology and Society, I want to be able to assure my students that–yes–they can make a difference, whatever their views about technology. And I certainly hope that they go on to do so. As well, I think that, when viewed together, the theoretical perspectives outlined above suggest a number of entry points where they might intervene successfully on behalf of technology-related issues. So I am not a pessimistic, technology determinist. But neither am I an optimistic somnambulist, ready to stand aside and give way to whatever forces come my way. After years of engaging with my students around these issues, I am existential in the face of technology. That is to say, I am–for lack of a better word–a technology indeterminist. Recognizing the complexity of the problem, and the unintended consequences of technology that are strewn all around us, I know I need to act, even if the outcome of my actions is uncertain. I draw comfort from the idea that, in a complex social environment, small changes at the local level give rise to large scale repercussions at the level of the whole.