S576: Technology and Contemporary Life
The Rhode Island School of Design, Wintersession 2003
Notes, January 9th -- Roger B. Blumberg

Thinking about Technology

An Introduction to the Course

When "Technology and Contemporary Life" was last taught, as a full semester course in the spring of 2001, the readings were organized so as to provide a historical approach to the philosophy of technology. As a result, only the final weeks were spent discussing digital technologies, although of course issues of contemporary technology were raised throughout the semester. In this Wintersession course, however, we'll read fewer texts and forsake the historical emphasis in favor of an examination of what characterizes the relationships between technology and contemporary life (by which I mean our lives at the start of the 21st century). We'll read texts contemporary (e.g. Ullman) and classic (e.g. Ellul), with the goal that, by the end of the 6 weeks, we'll all have developed a deeper approach to thinking about and questioning our relationship to technology, as citizens, professionals, and persons.

The course is organized as a seminar. As a result, you will be required not only to read the assigned texts but to come to the seminar prepared to debate and discuss them. Class participation will be a significant part of your grade in this class. In addition, each student will be responsible for presenting portions of assigned or supplemental readings at least once during the 6 week semester, and there is the writing assignment and final exam as mentioned on the syllabus.

We'll use the web site to post notes for upcoming classes, as well as follow-up. You should always feel free to send me links to texts and sites that you think address the questions and themes we're dealing with in the seminar, and I'll quickly add these to the syllabus. Similarly, as it is likely that we'll often run out of class time to discuss the assigned and presented material, we'll make use of a listserv (CHV-L@listserv.brown.edu) to which everyone will be subscribed. We can invite guests and authors to join us on the list if there is interest.

Having dealt with requirements, logistics, etc., we'll begin the discussion with introductions and motivations for taking S576 (hoping that the latter don't all have to do with scheduling conflicts and graduation requirements only!).

Two Views of Technology

One might reasonably ask whether the subject of Technology and Contemporary life merits a course with philosophical in addition to historical themes. For example, aren't technologies all products of science in one form or another, and oughtn't we instead to be discussing the relationship between Science and Society (if we have to discuss anything)? Similarly, aren't technologies by definition "neutral" with respect to society and our lives, in the sense that (a given) technology may be used well or badly, for good or for not-good, by dictators or democrats, within different countries by all sorts of people who may or may not share conceptions of the good?

These questions are typical of the sorts of questions we'll be asking each other this semester in the sense that they resist easy, settling answers. So lets consider a few more basic questions:

A second view that has characterized philosophical approaches to technology in the 20th century is sometimes called "technological determinism", and in Ellul's The Technological Society we'll read a famous example of this view. Briefly, determinists argue that technology is itself a force that transforms the nature of human thought and action, so that the interesting questions concern not what we do with technology but what technology does with/to us. We'll leave the strongest case for this view to Ellul, but for now:

Until quite recently, philosophical and social questions about technology were about machines of one sort or another. Today, however, some of the most pressing popular concerns about technology involve biotechnology, or the manipulation and/or creation of life forms rather than machines (as formerly understood). A last question to introduce on this first day of class is whether you think biotechnologies are significantly different from industrial and post-industrial technologies (e.g. automobile assembly lines and desktop computers) when it comes to examining our relationship with/to them.

For Next Time: Read chapters 0-4 of Ellen Ullman's Close to the Machine and be prepared to discuss your sense of her position concerning the neutrality of technology (and if anyone is familiar with Freud's Civilization and its Discontents, perhaps she/he would say something about the significance of Ullman's subtitle). Also have a look the Web-based syllabus (http://www.cs.brown.edu/~rbb/risd/TCL.syllabus.html), where you'll find the short outline by Feenberg and the link to the latest issue of Risks.

Back to the Syllabus

© 2003 Roger B. Blumberg