Here are a few questions to start our discussions of Ullman's book:
After the Second World War, however, a significant body of literature developed -- you can think of it as beginning with Martin Heidegger's "Question Concerning Technology" -- that claimed that technology was not at all neutral, that technology (at least some technology) exercises as much power over us as we do over it. For example, we might say that the existence of nuclear fission technology has determined the nature of global politics as well as our sense of personal security whether or not anyone chose to have it be so influential. The non-neutral view of technology is sometimes called the "substantive" theory.
Obviously, the role you think computers play in contemporary life depends a bit on your position concerning the neutrality of technology/technologies. In chapter 4, Ullman addresses the neutrality issue explicitly, but you might consider the entire book a comment on this issue. What is Ullman's position on the neutrality of technology and how does it compare to your own views on the subject?
"It is impossible to escape the impression that people commonly use false standards of measurement -- that they seek power, success and wealth for themselves and admire them in others, and that they underestimate what is of true value in life."Ullman's book is clearly about conflict as well, but what is the conflict about? If you were to imitate Freud's sentence so as to make it appropriate for a beginning to CLOSE TO THE MACHINE, how would you write it?
Finish the Ullman book, and think of examples of at least one technology you think is "neutral" (in the sense described by Ullman on p. 89), and one you think is not by its very nature.
Last Sunday that NYTM carried a cover story about a high school student who manipulated the stock market successfully simply by writing a series of e-mails in "chat" rooms that sounded authoritative. How does such a story, combined with the meditation on obsolescence in chapter 5 of Close to the Machine argue for a change in the nature of authority caused by the "computer revolution"?
Of those technologies you've identified as "non-neutral", which seem primarily to transform our lives spatially and which temporally? What are some examples from Ullman's text of her view that computers have transformative consequences in both spatial and temporal realms?
Like Copeland's Microserfs, Ullman's book deals with the way recent generational changes have become influenced as much or more by technology than by the traditional historical factors that have determined such changes in the past (e.g. compare the sources of generational differences at the turn of the 20th century with those right now). Do you agree that this is so, and do you imagine this a temporary phase of our history or a sign of a future in which traditional historical factors will matter even less in how the lives of parents and children differ?
Finally, let's discuss the technologies you've identified as "neutral" and see what, if anything, they have in common. As we turn to Borgmann's article, which is about "material culture", let's discuss the meaning of Things. Do you think it's accurate/appropriate/grandiose/?? to call something like a coffee maker an element of "material culture"? Your answer depends of course on what you take the word "culture" to signify.
Read Borgmann's (difficult but interesting) "The Moral Significance of the Material Culture" for Tuesday, and Marx' "The Meaning of Human Requirements" for Thursday.
© 2001 Roger B. Blumberg