S576: Technology and Contemporary Life
The Rhode Island School of Design, Wintersession 2003
Notes, January 10th -- Roger B. Blumberg

By the Force of Technology

Introduction: "Neutrality" and its Discontents

Before the widespread use of computers, debates about the use of technology often concerned the sense in which technology should be considered "neutral" with respect to the way it is employed. As I mentioned yesterday, the view that technology *is* neutral is sometimes called the "instrumental" theory. For example, you can use fountain pen technology to write a short story or prove a mathematical theorem, to write a thank you note to your aunt or a letter of protest to the editor of a local newspaper, to sign a stay of execution or a declaration of war. Thus, you might say that the fountain pen is neutral with respect to how it is employed, for good or for evil, intelligently or not, well or badly, etc.

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. On page 89 of 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?

Explaining the Non-Neutral Character of Technology

We ended yesterday's class talking about my googling anxiety, and specifically my question about whether a generation growing up with the Web may have different senses of the nature & value of privacy, and perhaps even of the boundaries of the self. Do you: a) object to people googling you; b) make any effort to intentionally influence the information about you that is available on the Web or elsewhere; c) consider your virtual personae/identities part of your self in the strong sense, or something more like a photographic image or simulation of your "real" self?

One interesting opinion about the googling issue was that finding information on the Web was less a violation of privacy than traditional gossip because the information could be viewed by the googler and the googled equally well/easily. In other words, because there is transparency rather than secrecy, the lack of privacy is not such a big deal. This opinion is consistent with a view developed by David Brin, in his interesting book The Transparent Society, and I've added an article of his that appeared in Wired in 1996 to the Recommended Readings for the week.

Although we talked last time about "technological determinism" as a philosophical view, Brin's book shows how one can hold to the "substantive" theory of technology without attributing any special powers to technology per se. Just as the existence of Google.com didn't create but only made me acutely aware of an information ethics issue concerning the relationship between teachers and students, so Brin's book shows how new technologies for surveillance force us to confront the reasons we value privacy and secrecy, and to ask whether these values might be trumped by others (e.g. freedom). Thus, we can hold to a substantive theory simply by noting that new technologies change the ethical/political/social/personal landscape(s) and force us to examine how we live and why we think/act/prefer as we do.

Ellen Ullman's Close to the Machine

We'll begin our discussion of Ullman's book with the presentations by Bethany and Sundeep. In the second half of the class we might consider the following questions if they've not already been raised:

For Next Week: Read the rest Ullman's Close to the Machine and chapters 1 and 2 in Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society. Please begin your course journal, if you haven't already, and look for the notice that you've been subscribed to the CHV-L list over the weekend.

Back to the Syllabus

© 2003 Roger B. Blumberg