Technology and Contemporary Life (Spring 2011)
HPSS-S101 – The Rhode Island School of Design
Final Exam -- May 23, 2011 -- Blumberg

Introduction: There are two parts to this exam. The first asks you to identify several passages, each drawn from the texts we've read and discussed this semester. The second asks you to write an essay interpreting and integrating ideas and perspectives from several of those texts. The purpose of the exam is to have you : 1) reflect on the entire semester's work; 2)demonstrate your understanding of the texts; and 3) offer your own perspective on some of the many questions and issues we've discussed this semester.

Part I: Identification and Explication (1 hour)

For any four (4) of the quotations given below, identify the author who wrote it, and the text in which it appears. Then briefly (i.e. in a few sentences) explain how it represents, or is indicative of, particular points or arguments made by the author.  A complete list of assigned authors can be found at the bottom of the page, and you should not recopy the quotation at the start of your response (just refer to it by number). When you are finished with this part of the exam, hand it in to get Part II.

1. “The distinguishing feature of advanced industrial society is its effective suffocation of those needs which demand liberation -- liberation also from that which is tolerable and rewarding and comfortable --while it sustains and absolves the destructive power and repressive function of the affluent society.  Here, the social controls exact the overwhelming need for the production and consumption of waste; the need for stupefying work where it is no longer a real necessity: the need for modes of relaxation which suit and prolongs duplication; the need for maintaining such deceptive liberties as free competition at administered prices, a free press which censors itself, free choice between brands and gadgets.”. 

2. “Even though freedom is obviously needed in order to be accountable for one’s actions, the thoroughly technologically mediated character of our daily lives makes it difficult to take freedom as an absolute criterion for moral agency.  After all, as became clear above, in virtually every moral decision we make, technologies play an important role. The decision of how fast you drive and therefore how much risk to run harming other people is always mediated by the layout of the road, the power of the engine of the car, the presence or absence of speed bumps and speed cameras, et cetera. And the decision to have surgery or not is most often mediated by all kinds of imaging technologies, blood tests, etc., which helped constitute the body in specific ways, thus organizing specific situations of choice.”

 3. “Some thinkers conjecture that there will be a point in the future when the rate of technological development becomes so rapid that the progress-curve becomes nearly vertical. Within a very brief time (months, days, or even just hours), the world might be transformed almost beyond recognition.  This hypothetical point is referred to as the singularity.  The most likely cause of the singularity would be the creation of some form of rapidly self-enhancing greater-than-human intelligence.”

4. “When we sit in our easy chair and contemplate what to do, we are firmly and matched in the framework of technology with our labor behind us and the blessings of our labor about us, the diversions and enrichments of consumption.  This arrangement has had our lifelong allegiance, and we know what to have the approval and support of our fellows.  It would take superhuman strength to stand up to this order ever and again. If we are to challenge the rule of technology, we can do so only through the practice of engagement.”

5. “These are instances in which the very process of technical development is so thoroughly biased in a particular direction that it regularly produces results heralded as wonderful breakthroughs by some social interests and crushing setbacks by others.  In such cases it is neither correct nor insightful to say, ‘Someone intended to do somebody else harm.’  Rather one must say that the technological deck has been stacked in advance to favor certain social interests and that some people were bound to receive a better hand than others.”

6. “The word expresses here something more, and something more essential, the mere ‘stock’.  The name ‘standing-reserve’ assumes the rank of an inclusive rubric.  It designates nothing less than the way in which everything presences that is wrought upon by the challenging revealing.  Whatever stands by in the sense of standing reserve no longer stands over against us as object.”

7. “Today, the logic of Smith is being used to say that people have no expectation of privacy when they use their cordless telephones since they know or should know that radio waves can be easily monitored!”

8. “This ‘knowledge’ proper to virtue (of the ‘where, when, to whom, and how’) stays with the immediate issue, in whose defined context the action as the agents own takes its course and within which it terminates.  The good or bad of the action is wholly decided within that short-term context.  It’s moral quality shines forth from it, visible to its witnesses.  No one was held responsible for the unintended later effects of his well-intentioned, well-considered, and well-performed act. A short arm of human power did not call for a long arm of predictive knowledge; the shortness of the one is as little culpable as that of the other.”

Authors assigned this semester (in alphabetical order): Albert Borgmann, Nick Bostrum, Corlann Gee Bush, Hubert Dreyfus, Andrew Feenberg, Michel Foucault, Martin Heidegger, Hans Jonas, Peter Kroes, Ray Kurzweil, Bruno Latour, Herbert Marcuse, Karl Marx, Robert E. McGinn, Richard E. Sclove, Lawrence H. Tribe, Peter-Paul Verbeek, and Langdon Winner.

Part II: Essay (2 hours)

Each of the following topics asks you to consider the works of several authors, and to synthesize their perspectives and your own into a persuasive short essay. Choose one (1) of the topics, and write an essay that communicates your thoughts as clearly as possible, while drawing on specific examples from the texts we've read this semester to support your views, arguments and explanations. Please know that none of the topics have been formulated to elicit a "right" or "correct" view or response, and your essay will be evaluated based on the quality, coherence and inspiration of your insights and arguments.

1.      The Definition of Technology: Although we have spent the semester studying the philosophy of technology we never attempted to define precisely what to count (and what not to count) as technology. Perhaps such a definition is easy enough to compose; e.g. the Mirriam Webster Dictionary offers the following: “1. a : the practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area : engineering <medical technology>  b : a capability given by the practical application of knowledge <a car's fuel-saving technology> 2 : a manner of accomplishing a task especially using technical processes, methods, or knowledge <new technologies for information storage>.”

Despite the admirable concision of this definition, it leaves some important questions unanswered. For example, should the practical application of any sort of knowledge be considered a technology? What about a poetry-writing workshop or a ceramics class in which the teacher applies her/his knowledge of in these areas in a methodical way? What about a psycho-therapy session in which the therapist is applying a very particular method? Is this sort of teaching/course/therapy a kind of technology? And should every use of a formal method or process for accomplishing a task be considered (a) technology? Does everything we undertake to do in a systematic or methodical way constitute a technology of some sort? What then isn’t (a) technology?

All of the authors we’ve read this semester assume a certain conception, if not definition, of technology. Write an essay about how you think we should define technology, what its boundaries are, and why it matters. In doing so, present the definitions/conceptions of technology implicit in three (3) authors from the semester’s assigned readings, and conclude the essay with your own definition/conception.

2.      The Significance of Things: Before taking this class, if someone wanted you to write about “the significance of things” you might have discussed the role of particular objects in your life past and present – e.g. the feelings and memories that such things evoke (for you) today. The emotional impact of things on our lives is clear enough. As Charles Swann says in Marcel Proust’s Cities of the Plain, “Even when one is no longer attached to things, it’s still something to have been attached to them; because it was always for reasons which other people didn’t grasp…”

Having spent the semester reading about the philosophy of technology, however, you know that some writers believe that the significance of things goes well beyond personal reflection and memory, and that at least some technical/technological things seem to have a social/political significance, and perhaps also a moral agency, of their own. Choose three (3) authors who you think speak to the question of the sorts of qualities/values/responsibilities we can/should attribute to technical/technological things, and write an essay presenting their views as well as your own. You need not quote Proust (or anyone else) in your essay, but you should make clear how/whether you regard technical/technological things as having a different significance than the sorts of things Charles Swann was talking about.

3.      Technology and Friendship: In both popular and scholarly writing about social networking and what the use of networked computers will or won’t done to human relationships, very often particular attention is paid to how “virtual relationships” compare to “real relationships”. In Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other (Basic Books, 2011), for example, author Sherry Turkle argues that while technologies like Facebook offer the illusion of companionship they fail to provide the intimacy of real/true/genuine friendship. According to Turkle, ““Often, we are too busy communicating to think, create, and connect with each other in ways that matter. Social media allows people to hide. Constant connection bypasses emotion.”

As a member of the generation subject to this sort of speculation and analysis, perhaps you are in a better position to assess the impact of contemporary technologies on relationships and friendships than any of the authors we’ve read this semester (including Turkle); on the other hand, perhaps older people can see these things more clearly because they knew what adult/quasi-adult social life was like before networked personal computing arrived. Choose three (3) authors we’ve read this semester who you think present views that explain how/why/when technology might: a) corrupt or impoverish friendship; b) enhance or enrich friendship; or c) have nothing much to do with friendship. Then write an essay that presents these views about technology and friendship in the context of your own views.

4.      Technology and Freedom: Whether in the opening line of Herbert Marcuse’s essay (Kaplan 34) or in Sclove’s discussion of the moral basis for strong democracy (Kaplan 284), we’ve encountered many suggestions this semester that a technological society can make it difficult for us to recognize, define, and/or secure our own freedom. The question of whether/when we are “truly free”, like the question of when exactly social constraints on our thoughts and actions render us “un-free”, is complicated by the degree to which our choices are not only mediated by technology but are very often created by the technical contexts in which we live and work. Nearly every author we’ve read in this course has something to contribute to a discussion of technology and freedom, but please choose only three (3) texts that you think speak to the issue. Write an essay presenting these views concerning the relationship between technology and freedom, and conclude the essay with your own analysis of the relationship.


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© 2011 Roger B. Blumberg