Week #1 Notes: Ullman and Technophilia

Roger B. Blumberg -- RISD HPSS*S576
February 27 & March 1, 2001-- 401 College Building

Seminar Requirements

Ellen Ullman's Close to the Machine

Here are a few questions to start our discussions of Ullman's book:

  1. 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. 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. In 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?

  2. The subtitle of Ullman's book is an obvious reference to Freud's CIVILIZATION AND ITS DISCONTENTS. Freud's book is beautifully written argument about life being a perpetual conflict between the individual's desire for freedom and the demands of society, and it begins with the famous sentence:
    "It is impossible to escape the impression that people commonly use false standards of measurement -- that they seek power, success and wealth for themselves and admire them in others, and that they underestimate what is of true value in life."
    Ullman's book is clearly about conflict as well, but what is the conflict about? If you were to imitate Freud's sentence so as to make it appropriate for a beginning to CLOSE TO THE MACHINE, how would you write it?

  3. Like automobile commercials in the pre-desktop age, computer ads often promote an equation between technology and freedom (e.g. "Where do you want to go today?!"), and such an equation is often part of the rhetoric concerning the use of computers in education. Ullman's book is clearly a comment on some of the issues involved with such an equation. Compared to Ullman, and the views of your peers, in what sense(s) do you think the equation is true and in what sense not?

  4. The introduction of any significant technology into human activities generally involves a change in the social characteristics of those activities. A question that such changes routinely provokes concerns whether we have "lost" something valuable by giving up the "old ways". Tales of "digital life" generally have something to say about this issue, and Copeland's Microserfs and Negroponte's Digital Life are examples of texts that respond quite differently to the nostalgia/loss issue. How does Ullman deal with the issue?

  5. Do you admire any of the characters in Ullman's book, and do your explanations of why you do/don't involve the sorts of things that might have been imparted/corrected/developed through education?

  6. The poet Octavio Paz once wrote: "The worship of the idea of technology involves a decline in the value of all other ideas." How is Ullman's book an elaboration of that idea? Which ideas fundamental to your vision of education are vulnerable to this sort of devaluation, and which might have their value increased by the embrace of technology?

For Thursday:

Finish the Ullman book, and think of examples of at least one technology you think is "neutral" (in the sense described by Ullman on p. 89), and one you think is not by its very nature.

Ullman, pt. II

Last Sunday that NYTM carried a cover story about a high school student who manipulated the stock market successfully simply by writing a series of e-mails in "chat" rooms that sounded authoritative. How does such a story, combined with the meditation on obsolescence in chapter 5 of Close to the Machine argue for a change in the nature of authority caused by the "computer revolution"?

Of those technologies you've identified as "non-neutral", which seem primarily to transform our lives spatially and which temporally? What are some examples from Ullman's text of her view that computers have transformative consequences in both spatial and temporal realms?

Like Copeland's Microserfs, Ullman's book deals with the way recent generational changes have become influenced as much or more by technology than by the traditional historical factors that have determined such changes in the past (e.g. compare the sources of generational differences at the turn of the 20th century with those right now). Do you agree that this is so, and do you imagine this a temporary phase of our history or a sign of a future in which traditional historical factors will matter even less in how the lives of parents and children differ?

Finally, let's discuss the technologies you've identified as "neutral" and see what, if anything, they have in common. As we turn to Borgmann's article, which is about "material culture", let's discuss the meaning of Things. Do you think it's accurate/appropriate/grandiose/?? to call something like a coffee maker an element of "material culture"? Your answer depends of course on what you take the word "culture" to signify.

For Next Time:

Read Borgmann's (difficult but interesting) "The Moral Significance of the Material Culture" for Tuesday, and Marx' "The Meaning of Human Requirements" for Thursday.

Back to the TCL Syllabus

© 2001 Roger B. Blumberg