IMAGES OF TECHNOLOGY: PENTIMENTO
This essay examines the starkly conflicting images of technology from ancient times up to the present day. It discusses the popular image of computer technology as a tool, and how this relates to instrumental rationalism. Finally it proposes a group of alternative responses to the challenges of modern computer technology.
Table of Contents
- The Picture of Dorian Technology
- A Portrait of the Artifact as a Powerful Tool
- Group Portrait with Alternatives
Old paint on canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman's dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called pentimento because the painter "repented", changed his mind. Perhaps it would be as well to say that the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again. [Hellman 1973]
Marshall McLuhan, the prophet of the digital age, considered modern communication technology to be both the Saviour and the Enemy of mankind. At one point in his life, McLuhan, perhaps inspired by Catholic mystic Pierre Teilhard, proposed that electronic civilization should be able to extend the human nervous system, enhance our spiritual abilities, and put humankind in closer contact with God [McLuhan 1967]. Later, McLuhan determined that the electronic unification of humanity was only a facsimile of the mystical body. As an imposter, the electronic universe was a blatant manifestation of the Anti-Christ [Wolf 1996].
In this essay, we first examine the starkly conflicting images of technology from the Dorians up to the present day. Then we discuss the popular image of technology as a tool, and how this relates to instrumental rationalism. Finally we invite you to a think of a group of alternative responses to the challenges of modern technology.
The Picture of Dorian Technology
Images of technology as an empowering tool or an agent of destruction has probably been with us since we first started conjuring up images to better understand the world around us.
The Dorians viewed technology with profound skepticism and suspicion. Their word techné, which is the root of our technology, designated the art of fooling nature, and therefore something unnatural and, maybe, even sinister.
Then, as the renaissance in the 16th century saw a number of successful technical artifacts (moveable type, the telescope, the clockwork, the microscope) emerge, technological development was greeted with increased enthusiasm. Technology (knowledge about techné) was hailed as a force of civilisation and recognized as something which would bring wealth.
At the start of the 19th century, it became apparent that industrial technology enriched the few and made life miserable for many. The Luddites was a popular movement emanating from textile workers in the Regency area in England. They cast the new machinery in the role of Enemy, and proceeded to physically destroy the machines that robbed them of their way of life and their livelihood.
In the first third of the present century, despite (or as a consequence of?) a number of major wars where technology was used to create devastating destructive power, technology again swung back in favour. The images portraying "the American dream" in the fifties and sixties made heavy use of technical artifacts as icons: the family huddled around the television set, riding their new car, or celebrating the wonder of electric light. In the Soviet Union similar use was made of images of technical objects. Sputnik, the first human artifact in orbit, is the obvious centrepiece of this exhibition of success, skill and determination.
Today, technology is more controversial than ever.
Some cyberactivists argue that modern communication technology promise a new age of opportunity. Access to infinite information, education, entertainment and participation in the democratic process are just a click of the mouse away. On the Internet, new social relationships and powerful identities are formed. Cyberspace will nurture caring and sharing communities of common interest. Instead of the top-down, one-to-many model of communication, the new paradigm is bottom-up, many-to-many. The enthusiasts believe that:
We are now outgrowing the nation-state and a new form of world order is emerging, a global village, a universal brotherhood or world government on a shrunken planet. [Carey 1992]
Contrasting this image, the new sceptics paint a gloomier picture of the application of information technology. In Windows on the Workplace, Joan Greenbaum describes a world where modern information and communication technology is used by management to exploit modern workers in a manner very similar to what the owners of the industrial mills did to the Regency area textile workers at the beginning of the 19th century. While new technology requires new professional skills and higher levels of education, those qualities does not necessarily lead to higher pay or higher organizational status. Instead, the new technology has effectively devalued professional skills and college education.
What is commonly lumped together as technology everything from voice mail through software programs to networks is specifically designed to fit in with management politics to cut labour costs and speed up processing. [Greenbaum 1995]
A Portrait of the Artifact as a Powerful Tool
In the infancy of modernism, it was easy to be carried away by enthusiasm over the power that manifested itself through technology.
One is enchanted, filled with enthusiasm and overwelmed by the joy of being in the midst of power, midst of forces. [Le Corbusier 1929]
As a counterpoint to Le Corbusier's radical modernism, Heidegger concurred that technology gave birth to powerful tools. But Heidegger's reaction was that it was precisely this power which contributed to the dehumanization of modern society, what Heidegger called the "darkening of the world." In 1957, he had this to say about the then emerging computer technology:
The language machine (sprachmaschine) regulates and adjusts in advance the mode of our possible usage of language through mechanical energies and functions. The language machine is, and above all, is still becoming one way in which modern technology controls the mode and the world of language as such. Meanwhile, the impress is still maintained that man is the master of the language machine. But the truth of the matter might well be that the language machine takes language into its management and thus masters the essence of the human being. Heidegger, quoted in [Heim 1993]
Today, a popular image for a technological artifact is the tool. One possible interpretation of this image is that complex technologies, like computers and communication networks are just like a hammer. And like a hammer, they may be used for good or for evil. A hammer may be used to build a house, or to hit someone on the head. When using computers, we are presented with ethical choices of a similar nature. The technology is perceived as neutral, and the choice is believed to be ours.
This image of technology assumes that we are given a free choice when it comes to applying technology that we actually are free to choose whether we will build a house or bash somebody on the head.
As is shown again and again in [Greenbaum 1995] and [Zuboff 1988], most people don't have that degree of freedom. Instead, the introduction of technological artifacts such as telcommuting links, voice mail, virtual offices, electronic mail and call management systems are changing jobs into a something which is more stressful, more isolated and less likely to give the worker the power and flexibility to control his or her pace, priorities and tasks.
From this viewpoint, it is easy to cast information technology in the role of the digital villain, where the charges may be summarized as follows:
- information technology creates inhuman working conditions, where the natural work flow becomes cut-up and fragmented
- standardization and regimentation leads to loss of humanistic quality, as expressed through character and individuality in work
- loss of character and individuality in work leads to alienation
But this observation should not automatically send us into the other ditch where technological determinism conjures up an image of an autonomous technology where we have no choice and technology is a "natural force" imposing its wicked design upon us and the things surrounding us.
Group Portrait with Alternatives
If we discard the belief in instrumental rationality that underlies both the optimism of radical modernists (e.g. Le Corbusier) and the pessimism of their reactionary counterparts (e.g. Heidegger), how can (and should) we relate to modern technology?
A rejection of instrumental rationality implies that rather than looking at the ethical qualities of technology itself, we need to view the technological artifacts and their properties of use as a consequence of the social, economic and political superstructure they are created under.
In closing, we therefore want you to participate in a thought experiment. If your objective was to create "the good life", where people in general would be able to live satisfying, enriched and comfortable lives what would your response be to (undesirable) modern technology? To start you off, we have compiled a list of possible (and perhaps impossible) responses, and would like you to think about the pros and cons of each of the responses:
- The pastoral response
Abandon technology and build an economy without any technology.
- The third world response
Rejection of western civilization including its technology, with increased reliance upon pre-industrial technology (Ghandi).
- The critical response
Critical review by entire society of possible new technologies, and only adoption of a new technology after careful consideration of the technologies impact of society and the technology's concert the ideals of the entire society (Amish, as discussed in [Brende 1996]).
- The political response
Political organization and action to gain participatory access to any processes where technology are introduced and work processes re-engineered (Scandinavian trade unions).
- The aesthetic response
Re-interpret technology into a new form that transcends its currents properties. Change the world's view of its technology through deconstruction, semantic games and rhetoric.
- The deterministic response
Wait for the development of technology (the productive forces) in the context of capitalist accumulation and capitalist exploitation until they "automatically" transcend capitalism and in due cause give way for a socialist mode of production ("scientific" materialism).
- The revolutionary response
Conquer the means of production and put technology to work for the people (Revolutionary Marxism)
The list is by no means exhaustive, and if there are other and better responses please let us know.
Brende, Eric (1996): Technology Amish Style; Technology Review; vol. 99, no.2, feb/mar (pp 26-33).
Carey, James (1992): Communication as culture: Essays on media and society; Routledge.
Le Corbusier (1929): The City of Tomorrow and its Planning; John Rodker.
Greenbaum, Joan (1995): Windows on the Workplace. Computers, Jobs and Organization of Office Work in the Late Twentieth Century; Cornerstone Books.
Heim, Michael (1993): The metaphysics of virtual reality; Oxford University Press.
Hellman, Lillian (1973): Pentimento; Little, Brown & Company.
McLuhan, Marshall and Quentin Fiore (1967): The Medium is the Massage. An Inventory of Effects; Bantam.
Wolf, Geoff (1996): The wisdom of saint Marshall, the holy fool. Wired #4.01, January (pp 124-125, 182-186).
Zuboff, Shoshana (1988): In the Age of the Smart Machine. The Future of Work and Power; Basic Books.
Position paper for the 1996 Oksnøen Symposium on Images of Technology
Copyright © 1996 Gisle Hannemyr & Eline Vedel. Some rights reserved.
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