Monday, January 29, 2007

Discussion topics for the Modernity and Technology Reading

Sorry, I guess this is late. I don't know why I had written in my notes that the topics/questions for discussion needed to be posted only 24 hours in advance . . . Anyways, this reading was oh-so-much more theoretical than I ever imagined. I think I must have increased my vocabulary by 50% by chapter 4. I hope the topics I came up with make sense - I noticed that most of the posts from the previous class were phrased as questions, but I couldn't seem to put these ideas into a question format. See you in class tomorrow!

Topic 1: Information Labor and Online Education

I thought that the section in chapter 3 dealing specifically with online education presented an interesting contrast to the documentary we watched during our last session. For the manual laborers who form the groundwork of our “information economy,” work conditions seem to be of greater concern that the number of jobs available due to the high demand for inexpensive manual labor. Chapter 3 presented, however briefly, a perspective from another professional group whose future employment may well be seriously affected by the evolution of different consumer technologies: educators.

The “faculty resistance to proposals for automated online learning” in the “name of human values,” addressed by Feenberg, highlights the fact that the current technological demands of contemporary society still rely on large quantities of inexpensive manual labor while threatening positions that, for lack of a better word, I will refer to as “intellectual” here, such as teachers, librarians, salespeople, etc. While technologies that make a fully-independent education possible (online, interacitve lessons, self-study distance courses, etc) might also make education more widely available and less expensive, educators question the value of a completely impersonal education process. However, given that their jobs may be at stake, how valuable is their opinion that these automated learning tools cannot replace classroom teaching? And could they create setbacks in the future of education with their concern for the future of their profession?

Topic 2: Micro & Macro versus Theoretical & Empirical

Throughout the readings, it seemed to me that the authors argued that the tension between the abstract and the applied, or the theoretical and the empirical, presented one of the more significant obstacles to progress in modernity and technology studies. The issue of combining macro- versus micro- is also cited as a great challenge to the field. For myself, I am not sure that I understand how this dichotomy presents a greater obstacle for modernity and technology studies than for any other discipline that involves the need to combine different levels of analysis across various fields. Perhaps it is a result of my liberal arts background, but I find it difficult to consider that any subject can be investigated comprehensively without including aspects of other areas or disciplines. Consequently, many of the authors’ proposals seemed somewhat obvious to me. For example, the idea of modernity and technology being entwined in a complex co-constructive relationship (without origin, as stated in Chapter 3 under the heading of Instrumentalization Theory on p.95) seemed self-evident, making me wonder whether or not I entirely understood the purpose of the author’s argument.

Topic 3: Agency in Complex Systems

In several of the articles, authors refer to the increasing complexity throughout modernity and into high-modernity or post-modernity (I’m not exactly sure what the difference is between the last two, but then again, I got the impression that the authors weren’t either). The best quotation encapsulating this idea I found in Chapter 7, which I will cite here since I don’t trust myself to paraphrase it accurately: ““As Paul Edwards points out (chapter 7, this volume), a major distinguishing feature of modern societies is their reliance on infrastructures, large sociotechnical systems such as information and communications networks, energy infrastructures, and banking and finance institutions. As Edwards argues, these infrastructures mediate among the actors that are studied in a micro-level analysis. In this sense they function as disembedding mechanisms, defining social relations and guiding social interactions over large distances of time and space . . . . The recent transition to a post-Fordian global economy has heightened the inadequacy of microlevel analysis by fragmenting industrial production and marketing and reorganizing it on a global scale.” (Modernity and Technology, p.60) Increasing complexity and layers of management in large corporations provide decision-makers the ability to distance themselves from the sometimes harsh realities engendered by their professional choices. Then there's the idea of corporate responsibility. It seems like a nice idea in principle, but is it realistic? When there are so many layers of organization it seems impossible to engender a sentiment of personal responsibility on the part of those in power. To use an example from the last class, how can we begin to hold decision-makers of companies like HP responsible for Manpower's actions?

Topic 4: Information Systems and Complexity versus Complicatedness

Another suggestion I would like to make regarding the book’s treatment of the idea of complexity, is the contrasting idea of complicatedness and how it may relate to the history of the development of technology. Increasing complexity forming complex systems, I gather, is usually seen as the ordered expansion of systems that integrate and include other systems, making possible the flow of energy, information, or matter inside the larger system itself through multiple layers of connection within an interrelated structure. Complexity in systems preserves its structure as the system grows, leaving it more resilient to opposition and navigable in terms of organization. Complicated systems, on the other hand, instead of developing different layers of organization that work together, grow in unstructured ways and generally lead to chaos due to lack of organization. Could it be possible that, where technological progress is concerned, complexity and complicatedness work in a manner similar to Darwin’s concept of “fit” and “unfit” in natural selection, thus forming a sort of “technological selection” for maximum rationalization and effectiveness? This may have already been mentioned in one of the chapters I didn’t examine deeply enough, but I though it would make for interesting discussion in any case.


Rick H. said...

Anna wrote: "For example, the idea of modernity and technology being entwined in a complex co-constructive relationship [. . .] seemed self-evident, making me wonder whether or not I entirely understood the purpose of the author’s argument."

I'm with you. Either I missed something, or the central argument regarding the co-constructive nature of the relationship between technology and society calls for a big "Duh!" --not that I didn’t learn a great deal reading these chapters. It will be interesting to see how others respond here and in class.

Thinking back on work in Writing Studies regarding the power of literacy, Scribner and Cole, for instance, concluded in their study of the West African Vai: "our results are in direct conflict with persistent claims that ‘deep psychological differences’ divide literate and non-literate persons" (Scribner & Cole 1981 : p251). What's at issue is the power of technology, in this case literacy, to change a society, specifically, literacy as a precursor to rational thought. And many subsequent literacy studies have found that people will take up literacy for their own purposes. Writing isn’t a stand-alone technology or practice; it complexly interacts with culture across time and space. But then, perhaps this work was developing simultaneously or coupled with work in modernity and technology.

natezilla said...

Anna wrote: "For example, the idea of modernity and technology being entwined in a complex co-constructive relationship [. . .] seemed self-evident, making me wonder whether or not I entirely understood the purpose of the author’s argument."

rick h. wrote: I'm with you. Either I missed something, or the central argument regarding the co-constructive nature of the relationship between technology and society calls for a big "Duh!

I think that it only seems like an obvious relationship because the authors had laid it out as such.

How exactly do you define technology, and why is it related to modernity at all? The inventions of hieroglyphics and writing predate the modern age, and I would make the claim that these inventions qualify as technologies.

Also, although the authors make the attempt to temporally categorize the modern age, they pay little attention to geography. A modern age is ubiquitous by definition, but technology is not. That is, not all places are saturated with the same types and levels of technology. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that micro-level analyses are common in technology studies.

To conclude, modernity theorists are doing the best they can to generalize about the entirety of an age. Some would argue that there may not be an adequate method of generalizing about technology to an entire age, but only to very specific situations. These situations could be seen outside of a definition of 'modernity'.

Barbara said...

I thought that the distinction between modernity and post-modernity was not that unclear in these readings. But I do question whether the two are actually separate from one another in contemporary society as it relates to technology. The modern and the post-modern seem to both be present in contemporary thinking about these issues, and in actuality. Thats'what I thought these theoretical approaches were about--wrestling with notions of a division between the modern and postmodern that don't hold. For me the notion of co-construction is very useful--shaping and shaped by.
Along with the importance of context. Interesting to see that these authors think this is not done very much in technology studies, because it seems that this is really important.The article on surveillance was a good example of co-construction, just too short, really just skimming the surface of something really interesting. Barbara (not yet able to post, but I seem to be OK to comment)

Anna said...

I agree that, as concepts, modernity and technology are obviously distinct. In my previous statement, I was rather trying to say that I don't understand the approach the authors are trying to combat: I simply do not see how technology could ever be studied without taking modernity into account and vice versa. It looks like we'll have a lively discussion today in any case!