S576: Technology and Contemporary Life
The Rhode Island School of Design, Wintersession 2003
Notes, January 24th -- Roger B. Blumberg

Ellul, Benjamin and Technology's Politics

Introduction: Technology's Keywords

As we conclude the third week of the course, we might begin by reflecting on why our discussions of texts as different as Ullman's Close to the Machine and Ellul's Technological Society have led us to common questions/themes. For example, what is it about technology per se that forces questions about "authenticity", "tradition", the "natural", and the "real". Would a study of the history and philosophy of modern science motivate the same questions?

One set of questions raised by both technology and science concerns "politics". We'll take some time to compare the political questions raised by science and technology, and see whether there is anything unique or especially interesting about the latter. For example, the phenomenon that Benjamin discusses in his 1935 article is a technical rather than a scientific one, and we might ask what exactly he means when he writes that:

.. the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice -- politics. (end of section IV)

Ellul's 2000 and Ours

We'll begin our discussion of Ellul's last chapter with Michael's notes and questions. Although it's obvious that the predictions he discusses on p. 432 are more comic today than he meant them to be, we'll hopefully look beyond the details and consider to what extent the society we find ourselves in reflects Ellul's sense of technique's triumph.

Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction"

We'll begin with Bethany's presentation and questions, and eventually try to draw out relations/parallells between his claims and those of Ellul. Of particular interest is the question of whether/how a new technological development, be it electric light, the photograph or the computer, necessarily transforms our perception/reception of objects and phenomena that predate this development.

Turning to the Digital

Several years before Ellul's book appeared, the scientist Alan Turing published an article in the journal Mind titled "Computing Machinery and Intelligence". The article is most famous because it gave rise to what is called the "Turing test" for deciding whether or not "thinking" or "intelligence" should be ascribed to a particular computer (program). Two years before that, in 1948, Claude Shannon published a paper called "A Mathematical Theory of Communication" that is the foundation of contemporary Information Theory and consequently of digital technology as well.

What difference does the advent of digital technology make to the discussion of "technology and contemporary life"? Clearly the machines we use today are different than those used by contemporaries of Ellul and of Marx, but is there anything about digital technology that should cause us to rethink either the questions or answers we've discussed so far?

Next week, we'll begin discussing N. Katherine Hayles' book, How We Became Posthuman, which is inspired by the development of information theory, digital technology, and some of the more radical claims of contemporary computer science (what is sometimes called "strong AI"). Specifically, she begins with a meditation on a scenario proposed by the CMU computer scientist Hans Moravec in his 1988 book called Mind Children. Moravec claimed that "We are very near to the time when virtually no essential human function, physical or mental, will lack an artificial counterpart" (p. 2), and went on to imagine a future in which we would shed our skins (and bodies) in favor of more durable, efficient media. Hayles considers the coherence of Moravec's claims and finds that, whether or not one agrees with Moravec's predictions or enjoys his zeal, his outlook makes us recognize that we have entered a new age, which she characterizes as "posthuman".

For Next Time: Read the Prologue and Chapters 1 and 2 in Hayles' How We Became Posthuman, and bring your journals to class next Thursday.

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© 2003 Roger B. Blumberg