Technology and Contemporary Life

HPSS S101-20, Spring 2011 -- Tuesdays and Fridays 11:20-12:50
The Rhode Island School of Design, Providence RI
Design Center, Room 211-- Roger B. Blumberg

Final Update: May 20, 2011

Books | Weekly Descriptions | Additional Bibliography | Final Exam

Briefly: Our Age is one in which technology, and digital technology in particular, is described routinely as having the power not only to accommodate our desires, enhance our experiences, and expand our abilities, but to transform the daily life of human societies and redirect the course of history. In such an Age, what does it mean to understand technology as a social and historical phenomenon, and how can we best analyze its character, claims and consequences? In this course, we'll discuss philosophical and historical interpretations of modern technology (1840-2010), reading works by philosophers, historians, scientists, and “technologists”, among others. The basic aim of the course is for everyone to develop/revise his or her own philosophy of technology in light of these readings, our discussions, and your writing about technology.

Requirements: The foundation of our work in this course will be our discussions of the assigned readings; and several writing assignments designed to capture your reflections on technology, aid your analysis of technology, and give you a sense of writing philosophy. Students are expected to read and question critically, attend and contribute regularly to class discussions, and to do their best to engage with the various topics we’ll cover during the semester. The writing assignments are:

1.    Several one-page “weeklies”, in which you identify a significant or challenging sentence in one of the week’s assigned readings, and explain its meaning.

2.    A dialogue or radio play featuring at least two different perspectives you find in the short essays in the Brockman book. The goal of the dialogue/play should be for the characters to resolve something between/among them. This may happen through argumentation/rhetoric, the presentation of evidence, circumstance, and/or the willingness to compromise on some but not all the sources of disagreement.

3.    An analytical essay that compares and contrasts two or more of the essays from the Kaplan collection and presents your own position as well.

4.    A journal (in any format you like) that traces your adventures adopting, learning, achieving equilibrium with, or giving up a contemporary digital technology of importance (to you). You may keep this journal online or send entries/updates when you turn in your “weeklies”.

In addition to these writing assignments there will be a final exam.


Required Texts (available in paperback editions at Symposium Books and Amazon, and on reserve in the Library):

  • Brockman, John (ed). Is The Internet Changing the Way You Think? (Harper Perennial, 2011). ISBN: 978-0062020444
  • Kaplan, David M. (ed). Readings in the Philosophy of Technology, 2nd edition (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009) ISBN: 978-0742564015

We may rely on the World Wide Web for some additional required texts, and for recent publications. All links to the electronic required readings will be part of the electronic version of the syllabus, and the required texts will be on reserve at the RISD Library.

Recommended Reading:

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulations, trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton and Philip Beitchman (Semiotexte, 1983).

Beniger, James R. The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society (Harvard University Press, 1986).

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (Schocken, 1968/1936) pp. 217-252.

Berry, Wendell. "Why I Am Not Going To Buy A Computer," from What Are People For? (North Point Press, 1990).

Borgmann, Albert. Holding on to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium (University of Chicago Press, 1999).

Brin, David. The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? (Addison-Wesley, 1998).

Brook, James, and Boal, Iain. Resisting the Virtual Life: The Culture and Politics of Information (City Lights, 1995).

Castells, Manuel. The Internet Galaxy (Oxford University Press, 2003).

Cockburn, Cynthia, and Ormrod, Susan. Gender and Technology in the Making (Sage, 1993).

Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. A Social History of American Technology (Oxford University Press, 1997).

Dreyfus, Hubert L., and Spinosa, Charles. "Highway Bridges and Feasts: Heidegger and Borgmann on How to Affirm Technology." from Hubert Dreyfus' Selected Papers, (University of California Berkeley, 2002).

Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Society (Alfred A. Knopf, 1964).

Ess, Charles. Philosophical Perspectives on Computer-Mediated Communication (SUNY Press, 1996).

Feenberg, Andrew. Questioning Technology (Routledge, 1999).

Feenberg, Andrew, and Hannay, Alaistair (eds). Technology and the Politics of Knowledge (Indiana University Press, 1995).

Fukuyama, Francis. Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (FSG, 2002).

Gray, Chris Hables. Cyborg Citizen: Politics in the Posthuman Age (Routledge, 2002).

Hanks, Craig (ed). Technology and Values: Essential Readings (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Post-Human (University of Chicago Press, 1999).

Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans.William Lovitt (Harper & Row, 1977).

Hickman, Larry A. Philosophical Tools for Technological Culture: Putting Pragmatism to Work (Indiana University Press, 2001).

Ignatieff, Michael. Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond (Metropolitan Books, 2000).

Jaspers, Karl. The Origin and Goal of History (Yale University Press, 1953).

Jonas, Hans. “Toward a Philosophy of Technology,” in the Hastings Center Report 9, no. 1 (1979). Reprinted in Hanks 2010, and Kaplan 2004.

Kaplan, David M. (ed). Readings in the Philosophy of Technology (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2004).

Kargon, Robert H. and Molella, Arthur P. "Culture, Technology and Constructed Memory in Disney's New Town: Techno-nostalgia in Historical Perspective," in Cultures of Control, edited by Miram R. Levin (Harwood Academic Publishers, 2000), pp. 135-150.

Kranzberg, Melvin. "The Information Age: Evolution or Revolution?", in Bruce R. Guile (ed.), Information Technologies and Social Transformation (National Academy Press, 1985).

Lightman, Alan et al (eds). Living with the Genie: Essays on Technology and the Quest for Human Mastery (Island Press, 2003).

Lyon, David. The Electronic Eye: The Rise of Surveillance Society (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994).

Marx, Karl. "The Meaning of Human Requirements," in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, edited by Dirk J. Struik, trans. by Martin Milligan (International Publishers, 1964), pp. 147-164. English translations also available at the Marxists Internet Archive (

Mitcham, Carl and Robert Mackey. Philosophy and Technology: Readings in the Philosophical Problems of Technology (Free Press, 1983).

Moser, Mary Anne, with Douglas McLeod. Immersed in Technology: Art and Virtual Environments (MIT, 1995).

Mumford, Lewis. Art and Technics (Columbia University Press, 2000/1952).

Neumann, Peter G. (moderator). The Risks Digest: Forum On Risks To The Public In Computers And Related Systems (ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy:, 2003).

Olsen, Jan Kyrre Berg et al. New Waves in the Philosophy of Technology (Palgrave MacMillan, 2009).

Pacey, Arnold. Meaning in Technology (MIT, 1999).

Powers, Richard. Galatea 2.2 (FSG, 1995).

Scharff, Robert C. and Dusek, Val (eds). Philosophy of Technology: The Technological Condition (Wiley-Blackwell, 2003).

Scheffler, Israel. "Computers at School?" in In Praise of the Cognitive Emotions and Other Essays in the Philosophy of Education (Routledge, 1991), pp. 80-96.

Spiller, Neil (ed). Cyber_Reader: Critical writings for the digital era (Phaidon Press, 2002).

Techné: Journal of the Society for Philosophy and Technology. Electronic version available at the Digital Library Archives of Virginia Tech:

Tenner, Edward. Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences (Knopf, 1996).

Ullman, Ellen. Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents (City Lights, 1997).

Vaughan, Diane. The Challenger Launch Decision (University of Chicago Press, 1997).

Vermaas, Pieter E. and Kroes, Peter et al (eds). Philosophy and Design: From Engineering to Architecture (Springer, 2009).

Webster, Frank (ed). The Information Society Reader (Routledge, 2004).

Weizenbaum, Joseph. Computer Power and Human Reason (W.H. Freeman, 1976).

Wilks, Yorick (ed). Close Engagements with Artificial Companions (John Benjamins, 2010).

Winner, Langdon. The Whale and the Reactor (University of Chicago Press, 1986).

Weekly Schedule

Week #1 (February 22 & 25): Introduction to the course

Why a course on technology and contemporary life -- as opposed to one about politics, art, or science and contemporary life – and what distinguishes the philosophy of technology from other branches of philosophy? We'll review the syllabus and course requirements, find out what (besides the 101 requirement) prompted people to sign up for this course, and begin our readings from the Brockman and Kaplan collections.

Required Reading: For Friday, read Hans Jonas’ “Toward a Philosophy of Technology” (1979) (available through JSTOR on the RISD Fleet Library website), and find a short piece in Brockman that resonates with you.
Recommended Reading: The Risks Digest


Week #2 (March 1 & 4): An introduction to philosophies of technology, old and new.

Krantzberg (1985) wrote that "[t]echnology is neither good nor bad, but neither is it neutral." We'll begin with a discussion of different views about how much power we should attribute to technology in evaluating changes in society and social life.


Required Reading: Brockman, pp. 1-65. Tuesday: The introduction (by Kaplan), and Albert Borgmann’s “Focal Things and Practices,” in Kaplan 2009; Friday: Identify a piece in Brockman that you think either supports or presents difficulties for the Borgmann essay.
Recommended Reading: "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," by Walter Benjamin (1935)

Assignment: Use either Jonas 1979 or Borgmann 1984 for your first one-page “weekly” assignment. It is due on Friday (the 4th) by the end of the day.

Week #3 (March 8 & 11): 19th Century (Industrial) Technology and the power of the machine.

We’ll try to remove ourselves from the digital age, and consider what technology meant for philosophers, artists, and social critics in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Required Reading: Tuesday: Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Third Manuscript; esp. “Need, Production and Division of Labor.” Friday: Marcuse’s “The New Forms of Control” (1964) in Kaplan 2009.

Recommended Viewing: Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, and Wachowski’s The Matrix.

Assignment: Write a one-page weekly using Marx 1844 (3rd manuscript), or Marcuse 1964, due by the end of the day on Friday the 11th.

Week #4 (March 15 & 18): Technology and Humanity I

Week #5 (March 22 & 25): Technology and Humanity II

We'll begin by reading & discussing Heidegger's "Question Concerning Technology," trying to figure out his picture of technology’s relationship to human being(s).

Required Reading: Heidegger 1977, and Dreyfus 1995 (in Kaplan); and Brockman pp. 66-96.
Recommended Reading: Dreyfus and Spinosa 2002

Assignment: Identify an issue or set of issues from the Brockman book that will form the basis of your dialogue or radio play assignment.

Week #6 (March 29 & April 1): Spring Vacation

Week #7 (April 5 & 8): Technology and Politics I

The rise of digital technologies has brought with it several reformulations of both the significance of technology and the significance (or lack of significance) of humanity. We’ll return from the Break talking about “post-modernism”, “post-humanism”, “trans-humanism” and the difference these perspectives (can/should/might) make to one’s philosophy of technology.

Required Reading: Brockman, pp. 97-130; Bostrom 2003 and Kurzweil 1999 (Tuesday); and Dreyfus & Dreyfus 1986 (Friday), in Kaplan.
Recommended Reading: Lyotard 1979 (excerpts), Joy 2000.

Assignment: Write a one-page weekly on Heidegger 1977, Dreyfus & Dreyfus 1986, or Lyotard 1979. It is due by the end of the day on Friday the 8th.


Week #8 (April 12 & 15): Technology and Politics II


Although recent events in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere have given rise to the use of technology (as a tool) in political revolutions, the issue of “politics” in the philosophy of technology has had to do with examining what it means to say that a particular technology “has a politics”.


Required Reading: Brockman, pp. 131-190; Winner 1986 (Tuesday); and Foucault 1975 (Friday), in Kaplan.
Recommended Reading: Lyon 1994 (excerpt).

Assignment: Write a one-page weekly on either Winner 1986 or Foucault 1975. It is due by the end of the day on Friday the 15th.

Week #9 (April 19 & 22): Technology and Politics III

This week we turn to the questions about technology and democracy.

Required Reading: Brockman, pp. 191-243; Scholve 2000 (Tuesday); and Tribe 1991 (Friday), in Kaplan.
Recommended Reading: Stanley and Steinhart 2003, in Kaplan.

Assignment: Write a one-page weekly on either Scholve 2000 or Tribe 1991. It is due by the end of the day on Friday the 22nd.

Week #10 (April 26 & 29):  Technology and Design I

Although the general connection between the philosophy of technology and design (whether of objects, systems or experiences) should be clear enough by now, we will spend the next couple of weeks discussing some explicit arguments concerning how technologies can/do embody/exemplify certain social and political values/commitments by design.


Required Reading: Brockman, pp.244-294; Bush 1983 (Tuesday); and Kroes 2002 (Friday), in Kaplan.
Recommended Reading: TBA

Assignment: Write a one-page weekly on either Bush 1983 or Kroes 2002. It is due by the end of the day on Friday the 29th, as is your Dialogue/Radio Play.

Week #11 (May 3 & 6): Technology and Design II

We’ll continue the discussion of whether/how technologies can be designed to promote certain values, and also question whether/how different philosophies of technology make a difference in assessing the potential/possibilities of contemporary technologies.

Required Reading: Brockman, pp.295-323; Feenberg 1992 (Tuesday); and Latour 1999 (Friday), in Kaplan.
Assignment: An outline or draft of your essay comparing at least two essays from Kaplan is due by Friday the 6th.

Week #12 (May 10 & 13): Technology and Ethics I

Building on our discussions last month of the seemingly peculiar question, “Does a technology have a politics?” we turn this week to the relationship between modern technology and ethics. We’ll be particularly concerned with issues of justification, responsibility, and Jonas’ worry that contemporary technology presents us with situations for which traditional ethics hasn’t prepared us.

Required Reading: Brockman, pp.324-362; Jonas 1974 (Tuesday) and McGinn 1994 (Friday) in Kaplan.
Assignment: Write your last one-page weekly (!!) on either Feenberg 1992, Latour 1999, Jonas 1974, or McGinn 1994. Due by the end of the day on Friday the 13th (!!).

Week #13 (May 17 & 20): Technology and Ethics II

In this final week we’ll continue our discussion of technology and ethics, but we’ll use most of Friday’s class to review the semester’s readings and discussions in preparation for the final exam.

Required Reading: Brockman, pp 363-408.; Michelfelder 2000 (Tuesday) and Verbeek 2005 (Friday), in Kaplan.
Recommended Assignment: Turn in the final version of your analytical essay by Friday the 20th.

Week #14: Final Exam (Monday, May 23rd @ 9 a.m.): The exam will begin with some quotation identifications (for which you may use your books and notes, but not your computers) and then you’ll be required to write an essay about your choice of (one of 3-4 given) topics. For the essay portion of the exam, you may use your computer and your books, notes, chocolate, etc.

Contact Information: I am most easily reached by e-mail (at rblumber at risd dot edu or rbb at brown dot edu), and you can send your written assignments to either of these addresses. I will set office hours once everyone has her/his schedule in place.

© 2011 Roger B. Blumberg