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Chapter 55 ~ “Democratic Rationalization: Technology, Power, and Freedom” by Andrew Feenberg October 16, 2009

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Chapter 55 ~ “Democratic Rationalization: Technology, Power, and Freedom” by Andrew Feenberg (revised – 1992)

Reading chapter 55 was like reading a Who’s Who in the Philosophy of Technology. Many guest stars, to include Ellul, Heidegger, Marcuse, even hackers, make an appearance in this piece; I will say that it feels appropriate to have read this piece after Haraway. Though they tackle the idea of technology in two distinct ways, a bridge between them is that of embracing technology to better self and society.

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“Technology is one of the major sources of public power in modern societies” (652) and the “masters of technical systems” – to include corporate and military leaders and professional associations for groups such as physicians and engineers – have far more control over parts of society than all of governmental institutions.

Feenberg notes that this issue is at the heart of Marx and socialism, for there is the argument, found in socialism, that “democracy must be extended from the political domain into the world of work” (652).

Why haven’t we truly democratized industrialism?

Feenberg states two rationales behind this:
1- Modern technology is incompatible with workplace democracy. There can be no democratic theory that would destroy the economic foundations of society.
2- Technology is not responsible for the concentration of industrial power; that is a political matter.

Feenberg argues that technology is neither determining nor neutral; it is, in a sense, a mediator of a variety of social activities, and as such, Feenberg believes that democracy must be extended beyond its traditional bounds to include technology for society (and its relationship with technology) to sustain and actually do better than sustain.

After presenting an overview of various theories that link themselves to technological determinism, Feenberg presents his alternative approach, a non-deterministic theory of modern society: “critical theory of technology.” This approach follows the logic that:
1- Technology is not just the rational control of nature; both its development and impact are intrinsically social.
2- This view undermines the typical reliance on efficiency as a criterion of technological development.
3- Because of this, broad possibilities of change can be realized.

[Discussion Questions]

Chapter 45 ~ “Heidegger and McLuhan and The Essence of Virtual Reality” by Michael H. Heim September 21, 2009

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Chapter 45 ~ “Heidegger and McLuhan and The Essence of Virtual Reality” by Michael H. Heim (1997)

5 Heidegger and McLuhan: the Computer as Component

Heidegger and Computers
In the initial section of this work, Heim talks about Heidegger’s thoughts on technology and how technology and the looming development of computers could adversely affect and challenge “the legacy of human thought” as well as how we will come to process information — or if we even will.

Heim ends this section with the question, “Just what were the specific dangers of computers,” at which he states his initial “philosophical answer to this question was what I call the computer as opponent. In this approach, the computer appears as a rival intelligence that challenges the human being to a contest” (540).

The Computer as Opponent
Heim brings up Hubert Dreyfus, who argues “that we must delineate carefully what computers can and cannot do, lest we become unrealistic about computers and fall into a misunderstanding of the kind of beings we ourselves are” (540). Dreyfus also argued about information processing and the belief by some that human thought could be replicated because “human thinking operates in formal patterns” that could be easily replicated in computers.

Using Heidegger’s critique of technology to computers, Dreyfus seemed to see a combative stance between computers and humans, which caused him to see “the computer too narrowly as an artificial device” (541), and this notion moves us away from the real concern, which is not computers versus humans but we computers and humans can collaborate.

A part of me wonders if this “battle” they suggest between humans and computers is really a battle. Can you call something a battle if one opponent appears not to be fighting, but in fact creating an existence in which what they created (computers, other technologies) do all the work so that man can have more leisure?

By looking at how we work WITH computers, computers can now be seen as components instead of opponents. This relationship with computers also makes us ask an important question: how do computers, which have infiltrated every facet of our existence, shape our realities?

Going back to Heidegger, Heim concludes this section by examining that it’s not technology (or computers) that have the ability to overrun humans, but that humans by “being-with” technology (and computers) integrate technology, computers into our lives in a way that they affect the way we think, know, and will.

Heim also brings forth Heidegger’s notion of “the language machine” and equates it to the computer.

The Computer as Component
Heim discusses Heidegger’s criticism of the typewriter and its ability to remove “the word” from man’s hand. Heim disagrees with Heidegger’s assessment, stating how the computer (of which Heidegger was not around to see) actually brings the “hand” back into the interplay with words.

But he does state that Heidegger was right on the mark in regards to his fear “that electronic digital text might absorb his own work” (543).

Really love the quote “The word processor is the calculator of the humanist, giving its users the power to manipulate written language in new ways” (543). I recall hearing math teachers groan over the use of calculator. “Even for the most simplest of calculations,” they would say, “students are running to calculators for the answer,” moving the responsibility of thinking from the human to the technology. Are we not doing the same with computers? Sometimes, I think yes.

Toward the conclusion of this section, Heim asked, “What did he [Heidegger] mean when he said the language machine would ‘take language into its management and master the essence of the human being’?” (543). For me, I think again this is not about technology/computers taking over us so much as it’s about what “knowledge” humans place on computers and how this knowledge allows computers to do more and for humans to do less.

Because Heidegger never states clearly whether he’s optimistic or pessimistic about his thoughts, Heim likens him to Marshall McLuhan.

McLuhan and Computers
First, we learn of a few similarities between Heidegger and McLuhan:
1- Each man believed their reflections on technology were more important than their personal value judgments on technology.
2- Each man saw intimate connections between information technology and the way the mind works.
3- Each man was fascinated by the role technology played in shaping and defining reality.
4- Each man “considered the most awesome power of technology to reside in its newly achieved intimacy with language” (544).

McLuhan seems to agree with Heidegger “that language technology belongs to us more essentially than does any other tool” (544) because once something touches our language, it touches us completely.

Here, Heim moves from McLuhan to Walter Ong and examines two major shifts in knowledge storage – oral-to-literate and chirographic-to-print – both of which he states coincides with Heidegger’s history of being.

There is a trade off to typifying and standardizing things, however. For everything we bring into us as a gain releases a loss from us, too. And in a technological world, where everything is at our fingertips, we can receive a loss that’s more devastating than any loss we could have: the loss of process of discovery. [I’m not sure if this is Heim’s, Heidegger’s, or McLuhan’s thought; I’m thinking Heidegger’s.]

8 The Essence of VR
The second-half of Heim’s article focuses on virtual reality. In trying to define it, Heim realizes that instead of looking at dictionary definitions and looking at virtual reality for what it is not, it’s better to talk to pioneers of VR and look at the concepts, of which he talks about several: simulation, interaction, interaction, artificiality, immersion, telepresence, full-body immersion, and networked communications, and even discussing these concepts leaves us wondering still, “What is Virtual Reality?”

This moves Heim’s into a discussion on “reality,” in which he talks about how tentative people seem to be to actually discuss reality. Makes me wonder if reality is something we can really define anyway. There are too many examples that show us that some people’s beliefs are their reality, no matter what others think. If reality is something that we can individually create for ourselves, how can we begin to define it?

And Heim, though through looking at the last 2,000 years and how we’ve grappled with this notion, agrees that defining reality isn’t going to happen overnight; therefore, defining virtual reality won’t happen overnight either.

Instead, Heim suggests when we look for the essence of technology, we are thinking about the essence of who we are and tying that to a vision because “behind the development of every major technology lies a vision” (550). And sometimes that vision is vague, but when it’s connected to the essence, it “calls forth the cultural energy needed to propel it forward” (550).

This eventually leads Heim to ask, “Where in VR is a counterpart to the space program’s esoteric essence? What is the essence of VR, its inner spirit, the cultural motor that propels the technology?” (552).

Two lines of thoughts arise: the cyberpunk writings of William Gibson and the Holodeck from “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”

And then Heim just seems to completely dismiss those looking for a real definition, suggesting that maybe more time spent IN virtual reality will enlighten these questioners.

I like the thoughts of the “Holy Grail” mentioned by Zeltzer and continued by Heim. I think all of this, this pursuit to do bigger, better with technology, this pursuit to understand virtual reality is all a part of some “quest” we have fashioned for ourselves. Can’t help but wonder what we would do if we actually “achieved,” retrieved the Holy Grail. We’ve been propelling at such an accelerated rate for so long, what do we do when we reach the pinnacle of a thing?

He uses Wagner’s “Parsifal” to show how the aspirations of VR (like Wagner wanted his musical dramas to be) are more than just about thrills, but about experience and the insight found within those experiences. It’s about being more than the thing; it’s about the thing becoming a part of the person and affected him/her, changing him/her.

Some advantages that VR can offer seem to be activity/passivity (VR can call forth greater participation with audience), manipulation/receptivity (a move from aggressive, first-person attitudes that traditional VR possessed to a more receptive experience), remote presence (the development of VR in which humans are more than spectators, and “presence includes an openness and sensitivity of the whole body” (554), and augmented reality (VR’s ability to offer a “smoother, more controlled transition from virtual to real and back” (554).

Chapter 42~ “Three Ways of Being-With Technology” by Carl Mitcham September 13, 2009

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Chapter 42~ “Three Ways of Being-With Technology” by Carl Mitcham

From “From Artifact to Habitat: Studies in the Critical Engagement of Technology” (1990)

Mitcham begins his essay by revealing a question to which there is no clear answer: in the relationship between humanity and technology, which is primary?

Instead of falling into one of two camps on that issue – humanity controls technology or technology exerts “profound influences on the ways we live” (490) – Mitcham outlines three ways in which humanity is “being-with” technology.

Mitcham pauses to acknowledge Heidegger, who in his work Being and Time (1927), discussed the notion of “being-with.” However, whereas Heidegger  sees “being-with” as “an immediate personal presence in technics,” Mitcham also sees social being-with activated through ideas, which can “become a language or logos of technics, a ‘technology’” (491).

Because it may not always be possible for people to articulate or even be aware of this idea of being-with technology (and as a result, they cast it aside), Mitcham offers a “grounding” of sorts by discussing his three ways in which humanity may be-with technology: ancient skepticism, Renaissance and Enlightenment optimism, and romantic ambiguity or uneasiness. By looking at these three ways, we can perhaps begin to see how difficult it is to “live with modern technology and its manifest problems” (491).

Ancient Skepticism

The thought that technology is bad but necessary or technology is necessary but dangerous; these thoughts manifest themselves in early Western philosophy. Bending to technology, according to ancient skepticism, could result in a person denouncing faith and nature, could sway a person from moderation (the first thing Socrates believed a man should possess), and could keep a person from transcendence because he would be “of the world.” Being-with technology then, during this time, was “an uneasy being-along-side-of and working-to-keep-at-arms-length” (494).

Enlightenment Optimism

Major shift from ancient skepticism. Whereas in ancient skepticism, the burden of proof was on those who favored technology; in enlightenment optimism, the burden of proof is on those who oppose technology. The goodness found within technology, for this segment, seems to come from the notion that God has given us the OK to use technology and because of this, any misuse of the technology is an accident. Man, formed in the image and likeness of God, are meant to be creators; as such, it’s better “to pursue technological action, never mind the consequences.  Art plays a major role in this “movement.” Technology is seen as a virtue because our action toward it stimulates human action and increases sociability, and it [technology] is truer than abstract theory.

Romantic Uneasiness

Romanticism represents the first self-conscious questioning of modern technology. Its notion is “technological intention, that is the will to power, should not be pursued to the exclusion of other volitional options – or that it should be guided by aesthetic ideals” (498). Elements that constitute this period’s framing of technology include:

  • Technology is an aspect of creativity, and at times, the use of it makes man move away from other endeavors
  • Technology brings forth new material wealth, but tends to eliminate social affection
  • Imagination and vision are more important than technology, scientific knowledge, and reason
  • Artifacts [aside: the tools?] are part of the process and can reveal the sublime.

In the end, romanticism’s ambiguity and almost wishy-washiness toward technology has probably been its main hindrance and has hurt its ability “to take hold as truly viable way of life” (503)

Chapter 29 ~ “Tool-Users vs. Homo Sapiens and The Megamachine” by Lewis Mumford September 7, 2009

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From “Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development” (1967)

Chapter One: Prologue

Mumford begins his prologue discussing how fast

Within a century, the world has transformed drastically, mostly due to the impact of the mathematical and physical sciences upon technology and our move from empirical, tradition-bound technics to an experimental mode.

These changes have altered the human personality, and if the world continues in the pace it’s going, more alterations loom ahead – From that “loom,” I sense a concern that this could happen from Mumford.

Mumford sees the change of man (in regards to his relation with technics) as one that has gone from primeval man who crafted tools and weapons in order to do things (achieve “mastery over the forces of nature”) to a man who has disconnected himself from his “organic habitat” (343).

This new “megatechnics” (which I’m assuming is man as master who is disconnected from nature) will lead to a new automatic world in which man will be “passive, purposeless, and machine-driven.”

Mumford’s purpose is to question the assumptions that arose due to the present (1967) notion that scientific and technical progress are treated as ends in themselves.

Before starting upon his purpose, he does state is disagreement with Marx (that material instruments of production are the central place of human development) and with Teilhard de Chardin who projects a future in which all the possibilities of human development will come to an end.

Mumford wants to start with insight into the historic nature of man, but it’s hard to do so because the history has been puffed up with the moral superiority and the lack of discussion regarding human limitations and technical possibilities [aside, a lot of our readings touch upon this idea]. He decides to review the stages of man’s emergence from its primal beginnings to the present.

Many issues arise for Mumford.

We wrongly place tools as a central part of man’s survival, and we tend to substitute tools and machines for technology.

We dismiss other vital components of technics, like the role of containers, and even fail to mention the other animals who have their own innovations in this regard. In fact, if we truly looks at man pre-Homo sapiens, he would not compare with other species if technical proficiency alone defined intelligence. Man as “tool-using animal” has skewed the path of human development.

For Mumford, “…there was nothing uniquely human in tool-making until it was modified by linguistic symbols, esthetic designs, and socially transmitted knowledge. At that point, the human brain, not just the hand, was what made a profound difference” (345).

What was uniquely human was man’s use of his body and “a brain capable of scanning a wider environment and holding all the different parts of his experience together” (346).

Mumford argues that with man’s overdeveloped and overactive brain, man was able to not only assist in his survival needs but also to use his body and his mind for more cultural outlets…a notion that some have disputed or argued against. [aside, What is wrong with being cultural? Seems like a lot of people want to place man in the same box that Heidegger talked about. If technology is the means to an end, then man is simply a tool that makes the technology work. He doesn’t have thoughts, beliefs, values, morals, rituals. He’s a machine that works machines to produce things.]

Mumford latches onto this thought of mind and culture as he asserts “that at every stage man’s inventions and transformations were less for the purpose of increasing the food supply or controlling nature than for utilizing his own immense organic resources and expressing his latent potentialities, in order to fulfill more adequately his superorganic demands and aspirations” (347).

The Megamachine

Mumford introduces us to the “megamachine,” the men who collectively came together to perform tasks inconceivable of the time (and even now).

[aside, interesting to see Mumford move from “secured a corpselike obedience” (348) to megamachine’s ultimate products in Egypt (tombs, cemeteries, and mummies), to his question “If this association with inordinate power and productivity with equally inordinate violence and destruction a purely accidental one?” (349). My response, though pessimistic probably, would be no, it’s not an accident. Considering who ran the megamachine (men who derived their power and author from a cosmic sources with a “divine command and ruthless military coercion”) and how those within the machine were not truly men because they were “created” to be devoid of self and social aspects and to see their work as for the greater good, I could definitely see some violence and destruction being played out.]

And through this ritualistic work, the work began to replace “religious ritual as a means of coping with anxiety and promoting psychal stability in mass populations” (349-50). The repetitive work also seemed to work as a means of self-control. [aside, not surprised in the least. Can only imagine the urges, thoughts, fears, concerns, wants that percolated in the mind while doing such excruciating labor. To numb all the other human engines that couldn’t thrum, one – I’m assured – numbed those engines, controlled their urges and thoughts with the task at hand.]

Mumford jumps from early civilization back to the present and states, “This unconditional commitment to the Megamachine is now regarded by many as the main purpose of human existence” (350).

We are now, Mumford asserts, bound to reexamine the last several centuries to not only discuss the ideological foundations of the whole system, but also to “explain why the whole process of technical development has become increasingly coercive, totalitarian, and – in its direct human expression – compulsive and grimly irrational, indeed downright hostile to more spontaneous manifestations of life that cannot be fed into the machine” (350).

For if man’s manipulation and manufacturing of tools is the moment of his development, why are we now in a place where man has become an automaton and is the passive mover for the technology?

To bring balance to man, science, and technology; Mumford suggests a move toward a liberation from work. Man needs play and man needs serious responsible work. With “more educative, mind-forming, self-rewarding work, on a voluntary basis, the most salutary contribution of a life-centered technology” may be formed (351).

Chapter 23 ~ “The Question Concerning Technology” by Martin Heidegger September 6, 2009

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NOTE: This is the longest response I’ve written thus far primarily because I struggled with this piece on so many levels. I read it twice and what you read below are the summarization of notes I took while reading; I did try to synthesize them so that they made sense. Must conclude with following statement: I’m still lost.

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Heidegger asserts early on that by questioning technology, we create a free relationship to it; in order to obtain this free relationship, we need to pursue the essence of technology and not what is technological. When we see technology as “neutral,” we become blind to it; as such, through deep questioning and reflection, Heidegger sets upon a course that strives to answer the question how do we relate to technology: what do we think about it, how do we imagine it, how does it connect with our lives.

He first looks into defining technology to find its essence, “what” the thing is. In doing, we learn that two definitions prevail: technology is a means to an end and technology is human activity. Heidegger states these are one in the same because the “means” and the human activity are both human activity. As such, both a means and a human activity are called the “instrumental and anthropological definition of technology.”

Everything that we think about technology comes from its instrumentality; the instrumental condition of technology makes us hunger to master it, to wrangle it, to control it before it slips from human control.

From here, we are given a distinction between “truth” and “correctness.” Although it may be correct to define technology in this way, we still do not know what is “true” about technology, and it’s that truth will “brings us intil a free relationship with that which concerns us from its essence” (253).

We must seek the true (the essence) by way of the correct (what it is).

For Heidegger, this means understanding the term “instrumental,” which leads him into a discussion on the question of causality.

This brings Heidegger into a discussion that defines “means” and ties it to the question of causality, which springs forth a whole new discussion on what does it mean to say “cause”? Short answer: responsibility and indebtedness. But it’s important to note that Heidegger wants us to look at these words through an earlier lens. A lot of his essay hearkens back to earlier time, as if we as a culture has lost the basic ideas and tenets of that time, making life and our world more complex and tedious and exhaustion when perhaps we really didn’t have to.

In taking the four causes from philosophical doctrine and fashioning them into ways of being responsible, Heidegger seems to move us away from a notion that I’m sure a lot of people have had in regards to technology: we are the creator, the center to which is all comes into being. By looking through Heidegger’s lens of responsibility, we seem to become assistants as opposed to creators.

In essence, our roles as assistants help bring-forth a thing and unconceal it, which makes way for revealing.

He uses the example of the chalice to show us this transformation. Several components, from the silversmith to the silver itself, assist in the bringing-forth of the chalice, in the unconcealment and revealing of it as a chalice.

From this point, I take from this that Heidegger is creating a new way to look at technology. There is instrumentality, but there can be something else.

To get to that something else, Heidegger returns to the word we’ve been separated from for a while: technology.

We learn that “technology” derives from the concept “techne,” from which he reveals to things: techne refers to both manufacturing and to the arts, and the word “episteme” is connected to it.

Having stated this, Heidegger states that “techne” is a kind of knowing that goes beyond just human activity and getting things done.

If technology derives from techne, then technology, too, moves beyond instrumentality.

Hence, technology become a way of revealing.

And the revealing that finds its way into modern technology is one of a “challenging.”

Here, Heidegger illustrates a comparison between older forms of technology and modern technology. In older forms, nature was used but not taken and stored for future use; however, in modern technology, we – in essence – pillage our natural resources, not to use just for today, but to store. Everything in the modern world becomes a “standing-reserve,” meaning everything is – actually to go back to instrumentality – a means to an end. As Heidegger states, an airplane is not seen solely as an airplane but as a means to travel.

And because we seem to be stuck in viewing technology as an instrumentality, not only is the technology a standing reserve, but also we become standing reserves as well because everything – including us – is working and moving and doing toward a particular “end.”

As such, nothing controls anything, but humans lose a lot of their freedom because they do not see the errs of their ways.

So, now, humans have seen technology as a means to an end and because we are on this course, we aren’t free, and we actually believe we have “master” nature and technology.

To Heidegger, this is a part of “enframing,” in which we compartmentalize our notions of things into neat little boxes of understanding. And by placing everything in these boxes, we are able to “master” it.

To create that free relationship to technology, humans must open themselves to the essence of technology. If we don’t open ourselves and embrace technology’s essence, then we can potentially become like those things we claim to master: “standing reserve.” And that if our beliefs and our actions continue to spiral out of control, we will become blind to everything around us, a notion Heidegger stated at the beginning of his essay.

Heidegger doesn’t offer just a fatalistic view, however. He does state that we can realize that we are – like technology, like the world in general – in a moment of revealing, and as such, we are not creators and controllers of nature or of technology.