Technology and Contemporary Life

HPSS*S576, Spring 2001 -- TR 11:20 to 12:50
The Rhode Island School of Design, Providence RI
Roger B. Blumberg -- Syllabus
Updated: 4/10/01

Books || Weekly Descriptions || Additional Bibliography || Final Exam

Briefly: Our Age is one in which technology, and digital technology in particular, is described routinely as having the power not only to accommodate our desires, enhance our experiences, and expand our abilities, but to transform the daily life of human societies and redirect the course of history. In such an Age, what does it mean to understand technology as a social and historical phenomenon, and how can we best analyze its character, claims and consequences? In this course, we'll discuss philosophical and historical interpretations of modern technology (1840-2000), reading works by Karl Marx, Martin Heidegger, Jacques Ellul, Ellen Ullman, Albert Borgmann, N. Kathryn Hayles and others, with the goal of deepening our understanding of the relationship between technology, history, society and character of contemporary life.

Requirements:: The foundation of our work in this course will be our discussions of the assigned readings, our reflections on our experiences with technologies, and related writing assignments. Students are expected to read critically and contribute regularly to class discussions. In addition, each student is required to keep a journal that includes reactions to, and analysis, of his/her reading, as well as an account of her/his use of a technology new to them this semester (these journals will be turned in periodically during the semester for a "grade"). There will be a final exam.


Required Texts (available in paperback editions at the RISD Bookstore):

Recommended Texts:

We will rely on the World Wide Web for some of the assigned texts, and all links to the electronic required readings will be part of the electronic version of the syllabus. There may also be a small reading packet for the course. The required texts will be on reserve at the RISD library. An electronic reference page will include additional recommended readings and reference material.

Additional Bibliography

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulations, trans. Paul Foss, Paul Patton and Philip Beitchman (Semiotexte, 1983)

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (Schocken, 1968/1936) pp. 217-252.

Berry, Wendell. "Why I Am Not Going To Buy A Computer," from What Are People For? (North Point Press, 1990).

Borgmann, Albert. Holding on to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium. (University of Chicago Press, 1999).

Brook, James, and Boal, Iain. Resisting the Virtual Life: The Culture and Politics of Information (City Lights, 1995)

Ess, Charles. Philosophical Perspectives on Computer-Mediated Communication (SUNY Press, 1996).

Feenberg, Andrew. Critical Theory of Technology Oxford University Press, 1991)

Feenberg, Andrew. Questioning Technology (Routledge, 1999).

Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. (Harper Collins, 1982).

Kargon, Robert H. and Molella, Arthur P. "Culture, Technology and Constructed Memory in Disney's New Town: Techno-nostalgia in Historical Perspective," in Cultures of Control, edited by Miram R. Levin (Harwood Academic Publishers, 2000), pp. 135-150.

Kranzberg, Melvin. "The Information Age: Evolution or Revolution?", in Bruce R. Guile (ed.), Information Technologies and Social Transformation (National Academy Press, 1985).

Marx, Karl. "The Meaning of Human Requirements," in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, edited by Dirk J. Struik, trans. by Martin Milligan (International Publishers, 1964), pp. 147-164.

Moser, Mary Anne, with Douglas McLeod. Immersed in Technology: Art and Virtual Environments (MIT, 1995)

Mumford, Lewis. Art and Technics (Columbia University Press, 2000/1952)

Pacey, Arnold. Meaning in Technology (MIT, 1999)

Scheffler, Israel. "Computers at School?" in In Praise of the Cognitive Emotions and Other Essays in the Philosophy of Education (Routledge, 1991), pp. 80=96.

Tenner, Edward. Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences (Knopf, 1996)

Weizenbaum, Joseph. Computer Power and Human Reason (W.H. Freeman, 1976)

Weekly Schedule

Week #1 (February 22): Introduction to the course
Why a course on technology and contemporary life, as opposed to one about politics, art, or science and contemporary life? We'll review the syllabus and course requirments, and then find out what prompted people to sign up for this course.

Week #2 (February 27 and March 1): Technophilia and Its Discontents
Krantzberg (1985) wrote "Technology is neither good nor bad, but neither is it neutral," and we'll begin with a discussion of how Ullman's book comments on that remark. We'll spend the week using Ullman's text to articulate our own questions concerning technology that we hope to answer and develop during the semester.

Classes cancelled on March 6th due to snow.

Week #3 (March 8, 13 & 15): Technology and Humanity I
We'll begin the week with a discussion of the significance of material culture, following up on issues raised in the Ullman book, and then we'll turn to the remarkable section of Marx' 3rd Manuscript in which he writes "The machine accomodates itself to the weak human being, in order to turn the weak human being into a machine." What are questions concerning technology (really questions) about?

Week #4 (March 20 & 22): Technology and Society I:

Spring Break: March 27 & 29

Week #6 (April 3 & 5): Technology and Humanity II

Week #7 (April 10 & 12): What Heidegger Thought I

Week #8 (April 17 & 19): What Heidegger Thought II

Week #9 (April 24 & 26): Enter the Computer

Week #10 (May 1 & 3):The Human and the Mechanical

Week #11 (May 8 & 10): The Human and the Virtual I

Week #12 (May 15 & 17): The Human and the Virtual II

Week #13 (May 22): Technology and Contemporary Life

May 25th: Final Exam

Contact Information

My office at RISD is 206 Carr House, and my scheduled office hour is Monday 11-12 a.m. and Wednesday from 6-7 p.m. I am most easily reached by e-mail ( or at my office at Brown (502 CIT, 863-7619), and I am happy to schedule additional office hours if requested.

© 2001 Roger B. Blumberg