Technology and Contemporary Life (HPSS S576)
The Rhode Island School of Design, Spring 2001
Final Exam -- Roger B. Blumberg

The purpose of this exam is to have you bring together some of your thoughts about the semester's readings, the discussions we've had, and the personal technology experiences you've had this semester, in the context of an interpretation and analysis of particular viewpoints and claims concerning the role of technology in contemporary life. To encourage you to think a while about the topic you've chosen, before you begin writing, you'll have at least 90 minutes to write just one essay (chosen from the four essay questions/topics below).

1. An influential writer on Technology and Society, whom we did not read this semester, was Lewis Mumford (1895-1990). A historian, architectural critic and urban planner, he wrote several books over several decades concerned with the effects of technology on human societies. In his 1952 lectures, Art and Technics (recently republished by Columbia University Press), he was especially concerned with analyzing the impact of technology (he called it "technics") on the practices of art and architecture. In the lecture titled "From Handicraft to Machine Art," he mocked attempts to "humanize" machines extraneously (e.g. by painting flowers on your coffee maker, or naming your car), concluding:

"The point is that the machine is not a substitute for the person; it is, when properly conceived, an extension of the rational and operative parts of the personality, and it must not wantonly trespass on areas that do not belong to it. If you fall in love with a machine there is something wrong with your love-life. If you worship a machine there is something wrong with your religion."

Mumford's comment not only reflects a particular vision of technology, but also prompts a question about what exactly are the "areas that do not belong to it". In a short essay, discuss how three of the authors we've read this semester might (in your opinion) respond to Mumford's comment. Your essay should include, and might possibly conclude with, your own analysis and response to Mumford's meaning.

2. The term "cyborg" was coined by the inventor Manfred Clynes around 1960, for a paper he and Nathan Kline (a psychiatrist) were giving, at a NASA conference, about preparing humans for life in space. Among other things, Clynes and Kline suggested that humans destined to live in space could be "modified" with implants and drugs so as not to need special space suits. Today "cyborg" is used by cultural theorists more often than by space scientists, and the general definition of a cyborg is: a self-regulating organism/system that combines both natural and artificial components and/or subsystems. At a time when a variety of "implants and drugs" are used routinely in contemporary life, the "cyborg" idea motivates consideration of a great many themes concerning technology and the "self". In The Cyborg Handbook (Routledge, 1995), Chris Hables Gray and Steven Mentor write:

"The same technology that will hardwire a pilot into the computer that flies the jet and enables the missiles, will allow our friend, hit by a speeding truck, to walk again. There is no choice between utopia and dystopia, Good Terminator and Evil Terminator -- they are both here. We are learning to inhabit this constructed, ambiguous body (and explore who constructs it) whether its the one we walk around in or the one we are told to vote in..."

In a short essay, discuss how three of the authors we've read this semester might analyze and respond to this claim by Gray and Mentor, with special attention to assumptions it makes about "the self", and provide your own interpretation and criticism of their perspective.

3. In his most recent book, Holding On To Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium (University of Chicago, 1999), Albert Borgmann writes:

"As it is, contemporary culture may lapse into a condition where a surfeit of information is as injurious as the lack of information. Where in the latter case one is confined by the darkness of ignorance and forgetfulness, today we are blinded by the glare of excessive and confused information."

Borgmann's is certainly not a common view, and indeed the access to information that characterizes the "information age" and the "information economy" is thought by many to empower individuals as never before. In a short essay, discuss how you think three of the authors we've read this semester might analyze Borgmann's claim, providing examples you think they would use to support their analyses, and conclude the essay with your own interpretation and criticism of Borgmann's claim.

4. From the earliest days of the Internet, the communications options facilitated by networked computers have been heralded by some as the basis for the spread and/or revival of meaningful democractic societies and institutions. In his recent book about deliberative democracy in the Information Age, (Princeton University Press, 2001), Cass Sunstein argues that, despite the popularity of using new technologies for communication to customize one's exposure to information (and to other members of society) a well-functioning system of free expression actually requires that: 1) people should be exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance; and 2) citizens should have a range of common experiences. As if wary of the "nostalgia vs. genuine loss" theme we've been struggling with this semester, Sunstein writes:

"An insistence on these two requirements should not be rooted in nostalgia for some supposedly idyllic past. With respect to communications, the past was hardly idyllic. Compared to any other period in human history, we are in the midst of many extraordinary gains, not least from the standpoint of democracy itself. For us, nostalgia is not only unproductive but also senseless. Nor should anything here be taken as a reason for 'optimism' or 'pessimism', two great obstacles to clear thinking about new technological developments. If we must choose between them, by all means let us choose optimism. But in view of the many potential gains and losses inevitably associated with massive technological change, any attitude of 'optimism' or 'pessimism' is far too general to make sense."

In a short essay, describe how you think three of the authors we've read this semester might respond to Sunstein's comments, and then, assuming he is right about the poverty of the "optimisim/pessimism" stance, provide your own description and analysis of an attitude concerning technology you think more productive and sensible.

A gentle reminder that the authors we've read this semester include: Ullman, Borgmann, Marx, Ellul, Heidegger, Longino, Henaf, Weizenbaum, and Hayles.

Thanks for all your patience with and hard work for this class, and best wishes for an excellent summer.

© 2001 Roger B. Blumberg