Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Which modernity and which technology?

First, I am still struggling to define 'technology'. If I take the broad term so as to match the equally broad concept of 'modernity', technology could encompass all the mechanical inventions plus the social systems of communication, management, governance among others. But then, anything systematically constructed could be called technology which would make the definition too broad. Brey's notion of the micro-macro levels should not be applied to the social phenomenon only, but also the scope of technology (e.g. telecommunication technology in overall, or simply SMS). And in both areas, the various levels intersect and interact.

In this sense, one thing that can be easily overlooked is that it's not the broad terms of technology per se that characterized modernity, but the way some specific technologies were utilized. Murata's piece partly implies this subject by comparing modernization of Japan and China, but in most other chapters it is rather untouched. What specific forms of modernity has chosen to utilize some specific technologies while ruling out the others? It gets even more complicated if we take into account that there is not a single modernity, however broad we may want to define it. For example, there are huge differences between the 'Western' modernity that resulted from the Renaissance, enlightenment and capitalistic developments and the forced Westernization of the other parts of the world (Which again differs significantly among them). This notion is important not only in the philosophical sense, but that the social construction and values can differ. Different forms of values and labor relationships take place, and it inevitably results in different choice of technologies in each society or different use patterns of the same technology. Thus, I think the contextualization is the most crucial step that should be present when exploring into the interaction of technology in the modern life.

PS. Weren't we supposed to keep our personal blogs (e.g. http://nkim3.blogspot.com/) for the reading notes, instead of posting it here? Well... in fact, for comments and feedbacks, it looks better this way.

Modernity and Technology

It sounds quite strange that there exists a ‘gap’ between modernity theory and technology studies. Even authors of this week say that the gap can be bridged. Can we imagine modern world without technology? It is not possible according to our daily experience of life-world. Modern life begins with modern experience, whatever it may be, and the modern experience occurs when we encounter modern technology, such as ipod. However, modernity ‘theory’ and technology ‘studies’ cannot be explained solely based on our daily experience. According to readings, the definition of ‘modern’ and ‘modernity’ are extremely diverse, so that one can never confine modernity in a single perspective. For this reason, Misa urges readers to understand the fact that “the concepts of technology and modernity have a complex and tangled history” (p.5). Since the concepts of modernity and technology have not been clearly established, even making a link between these concepts produce more complex theoretical problems: linearity in the concept of modernity cannot be applied to multi-directional evolution of technology. Here is the irony: Linearity that characterizes modernity cannot be applied to technology on which modernity is based on. However, isn’t linearity in modernity refers to the operational principle of modernity, not the evolutionary process of it? And does linearity of technology still play a crucial role in the logic of technology’s operation, though not in the evolutionary path of technology? It seems that linearity in both area – modernity and technology – refers to totally different things.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Modernity and Technology

This was an interesting read, but I can't help but wonder if the authors of these articles would still agree with many of their writings. I suppose they would, but perhaps further clarification and social history would help to elaborate their arguments. As with many of my fellow classmates, I felt that this anthology too heavily relied on theory and lacked much substance. Misa comments: "It is important to understand the contextual dynamics of the development of new technologies and their actual embedding in society" (370). However, I felt that this set of articles would have benefitted from empirical studies and sociology, with much less philosophy (as Electra et. all have posted previously).
I am really struggling with this reading. My background is in ecology and botany so a lot of this is new territory for me. I guess an easy discussion question from the readings is do we live in a modern or post-modern society? Also I don't really understand the lack of empirical study involved in a lot of this theory. Is it just not possible or how did it stray from the research? I am excited to hear how others did with this reading and how y'all interpreted it.

30 January 2007 post, Modernity and Technology

The primary goal of these authors is to establish the reciprocal relationship between Modernity and Technology as a legitimate object of study, which fits with the original context of the papers, a conference in the Netherlands in 1999. So they are selling "Modernity and Technology." It's always good to read the fine print of any offer, so I found the conclusion by Rip to be more helpful than the four introductory papers in explaining what they were about with this collection. For me, the undercurrent might be called "post-relevance," because either they assume that things are pretty OK in today's world, or they wish the target audience (Deans? Potential funders of interdisciplinary programs?) to think that they think things are OK.

Some thoughts about Modernity vs. Modernism vs. the Modern as engaged in the book.

For us to perceive ourselves as Modern, we have to have consciousness of a history distinct from the present day. The present has to be seen as tangibly different from the past. Once a culture has embraced the consciousness of history, there is no going back, as the post-historians (Francis Fukuyama) are starting to acknowledge.

Modernity seems to be more global than "the Modern"; that is, Modernity includes up-to-date-ness, hipness, currency, attractiveness, glamor. How could there be a Post-"modernity"; who wouldn't want all these good things?

As for Modernism as a cultural or artistic movement, the identification of the Modern movement as a formalist reaction against Realism (Brey, p. 36) is wrong: modern art including abstraction began with Realism and incorporates its conventions. Realism is still the dominant way of representing reality in popular culture. In familiar parlance, it is convenient to identify Modernism in art with the period 1905-1975, with its peak in the 1920s and 1930s. The problem with this usage is that the culture, especially the popular culture of the '20s and '30s displayed all the characteristics-(p. 44:) "consumerism, commodification, the simulation of knowledge and experience...." that Brey identifies with the post-modern.

Rip acknowledges that the offer of Modernity as a topic is deliberately misleading; the real issue is whether technology is playing a modernizing role, that is, is helping to improve the quality of life in contemporary society.

Where the authors become vague is in identifying the controlling hand of technology. As Brey and Feenberg have it, that is a space for theory. I was happy to see that Feenberg touches on the conflict between operationalism and any issue that might lead to opposition. In this space between theory and a systems approach there does not appear to be much room for political action.

The distance learning issue is one we need to discuss in class. For those who are working or plan to work in libraries, you may find your institution depending for support on maintaining a distance learning program of some kind.

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.