Technology and Contemporary Life

HPSS*S576, Wintersession 2003 -- Thursdays and Fridays 1-4 p.m.
The Rhode Island School of Design, Providence RI
546 College Building -- Roger B. Blumberg

Final update : 2/18/03

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 (1840-2002), reading works by Karl Marx, Martin Heidegger, Jacques Ellul, Ellen Ullman, N. Katherine 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 (in class and using the Computers and Human Values listserv), and a writing assignment designed to capture your reflections on technology. Students are expected to read critically and contribute regularly to class discussions and to the list. In addition, each student is required to keep a journal (in any format) that includes reactions to, and analysis of, his/her reading, as well as an autobiographical account of her/his relationship with/to contemporary technology The journal will be collected twice during the 6-week term and will be graded as the writing component of the course. There will be a final exam.


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

Recommended Texts:

We will rely on the World Wide Web for some of the assigned texts, and for recent publications. All links to the electronic required readings will be part of the electronic version of the syllabus, and the required texts will be on reserve at the RISD library. The electronic syllabus from the Spring 2001 version of this course is also available.

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).

Brin, David. The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? (Addison-Wesley, 1998).

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

Dreyfus, Hubert L., and Spinosa, Charles. "Highway Bridges and Feasts: Heidegger and Borgmann on How to Affirm Technology." from Hubert Dreyfus' Selected Papers, (University of California Berkeley, 2002) Electronic version at:

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

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

Fukuyama, Francis. Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (FSG, 2002).

Gray, Chris Hables (ed). The Cyborg Handbook (Routledge, 1996)

Hickman, Larry A. Philosophical Tools for Technological Culture: Putting Pragmatism to Work (Indiana University Press, 2001).

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)

Neumann, Peter G. (moderator). The Risks Digest: Forum On Risks To The Public In Computers And Related Systems (ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy:, 2003).

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.

Techné: Journal of the Society for Philosophy and Technology. Electronic version available at the Digital Library Archives of Virginia Tech:

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)

Winner, Langdon. The Whale and the Reactor (University of Chicago Press, 1986).

Weekly Schedule

Week #1 (January 9 and 10): 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 requirements, find out what prompted people to sign up for this course, and begin our discussions of Ellen Ullman's Close to the Machine.

Week #2 (January 16 and 17): 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 sheds light on that remark. We'll spend the first class of the week using Ullman's text to articulate our own questions concerning technology that we hope to answer and develop during the semester. On Friday, we'll discuss Ellul's The Technological Society, and his attempts (before the advent of computers) to formulate a general theory of technology and society.

Week #3 (January 23 and 24): The Technological Society Revisited.
We'll discuss Ellul's vision of the triumph of "technique" in modern society, and begin to evaluate how his views might be influenced by computing, biotechnology, and other recent technologies.

Week #4 (January 30 and 31): Technology, Humanity and Posthumanity I.
We'll begin by discussing Heidegger's "Question Concerning Technology," trying to figure out his picture of technology and its relationship to humanity, and then discuss Hayles' theory of the posthuman. We'll be especially interested in the difference a "posthuman" view makes to our thinking about the force that technology has in our definition of persons, societies, and notions of the good.

Week #5 (February 6 and 7): Technology, Humanity and Posthumanity II.
We'll pause in our reading of Hayles to discuss the "modern" and the "post-modern", and the views about technology associated with each. We'll then continue our discussion of Hayles' How We Became Posthuman, examining what it would mean to embrace and/or resist the posthuman. We'll debate whether/how art can help us with either that embrace or resistance.

Week #6 (February 13 and 14): Questioning Technology.
We'll spend the final week of the course formulating an approach to technology -- to identifying, analyzing, using and controlling technology -- that we think productive, hopeful and realistic. We'll spend Thursday reviewing the works we've read and some of themes that have characterized the semeseter. On Friday there will be a final exam in class.

Required Reading: Dreyfus and Spinosa 2002

Contact Information

I am most easily reached by e-mail ( or at my office at Brown (502 CIT, 863-7619). I am happy to schedule regular weekly office hours if requested.

© 2003 Roger B. Blumberg