From Karen and Tim (for Thursday’s readings):
“Each of these pieces examines how ideas about ‘technology’ have been formulated in response to specific social, cultural, and political questions. Kasson illustrates that an outpouring of utopian and dystopian novels were written in the late nineteenth century in response to the industrial revolution in the United States. He argues that late nineteenth century thinkers envisioned ways in which technology could either liberate society from inequality thus resolving class struggle OR produce outcomes that destroyed the environment and eroded healthy social relationships. ‘The hopeful vision of an integrated technological republic struggled against the dreadful anticipation of technological tyranny and holocaust’ (191).
Behrent’s piece examines the philosopher Michel Foucault’s understanding of what he calls the technological conception of power. Behrent explains that Foucault broke with a philosophical tradition that viewed power in negative or repressive terms, and instead used the idea of technology to describe ‘the ways in which modern social and political systems control, supervise, and manipulate populations as well as individuals’ (55). Foucault’s objective was to dissect how power relations operate and to challenge their professions of neutrality.
QUESTION: These authors tie ideas about technology to history. Does this connection help you see contemporary debates about technology as rooted in contemporary anxieties or concerns about other political and economic questions? Do these pieces help you think about technology in new ways? Or do they confirm or articulate ideas you already held about technological pasts, presents, and futures?
I’m intrigued by the focus on language, more specifically the culturally situated nature of language. The distinction made by Behrent between the French “technique” and the American English usage of “technology” (in service of better understanding Foucault’s uses of the terms highlights the cultural and social significance of language, particularly as it affects or applies to our attempts to consider the historicity behind any modern debate. In the same way that a student reading classical literature might need some terms defined contextually in order to make meaning that isn’t limited by modern perspectives or assumptions, our discussions of theory itself need contextualization. Theories of culturally situated cognition and sociolinguistics tell us that language exists where there is need for language. I am not surprised that Foucault’s predominant use of the term “technology” was in relation to technologies of power; more recent commentary (by Postman, even Portwood-Stacer, etc.) just as directly addresses the role of technology in relation to power structures. The view of technology Behrent attributes most frequently to Foucault is one that applies order, for better or worse. I would liken this to debates, both past and present, about the role of scientific method and reasoning in nonscientific fields, and particularly to the technocratic model of education in which we currently operate. That, of course, brings us back around to the connection between technology (or technologies, plural) and power structures. Ultimately, what these readings bring up for me is a question: given the need for language to communicate ideas, what new language have we develop or will we develop to address these concerns in a 21st Century American context?