Thursday, April 4, 2013

How do we think about technology as frozen social relations?

How do we think about technology as frozen social relations?

When I teach my class on feminism and writing technologies, I usually create a hand-out that I call The Tool Bag listing some ideas from an essay by Richard Ohmann, "Computers, Literacy and Monopoly Capital," which we then use throughout the class in examining all the materials of the course. The tool bag starts off with Ohmann's description of the three currently most powerful approaches to technology: technological determinism, symptomatic technology and neutral technology. These approaches virtually exhaust all the possibilities of narrative concerning technology today. Seeing oneself inside these narratives and imagining alternatives are each very difficult. Let me illustrate them with reference to television, even though for some television intuitively may not seem like a "writing technology"; however, in the year 2000, the age of WebTV, current interpenetrations of internet, cable & satellite TV, and various kinds of telephone and paging systems might make that a more obvious possibility than it might have appeared in 1985, when Ohmann's essay was published.
Think of "technological determinism" as the narrative in which we elaborate the social consequences that follow inevitably upon (as Ohmann says) "the seemingly accidental invention" of the TV: for example, we say, TV caused middle-class families of the 50s to retreat from community life and instead create their nuclear focus huddled together around the warm glow of the television set. A newspaper columnist puts it in a classic formation:"Technologies acquire historical weight by reshaping the human condition." Marshall McLuhan, for example, tells sublime tales of technological determinisms.
Next, think of "symptomatic technology" as the narrative in which TV, invented on the social margins, is used by other central forces informing society: for example, we say, Long hours of TV viewing show how our children have become either passive zombies or ravenous consumers of junk. Or we might say, Digital hype about the AOL-Time Warner merger is a symptom of rapacious late capitalism's death grip on every new market.
Finally, think of "neutral technology" as the narrative in which TV can be put to an amazing multitude of uses--oppressive and democratic, sexist and feminist, altruistic and profit-making. For example, we say, TV could both contribute to or work against teenage drinking; for every ad for drinking visible during the broadcast of athletic events, there is also some anti-drinking homily delivered by national and local stations and advertisers. Maybe. After a lot of social protest. Some discussions of the "Digital Divide" are variants on this narrative, saying, It's not the computers that are the problem, it's everyone not having access to them that's the concern.
What Ohmann points out is that in each of these approaches to technology, the processes of the production of the technology and their agents and intentions are elided. Rather, Ohmann says, " itself a social process, saturated by the power relations around it, continually reshaped according to some people's intentions." This is a variant on what Donna Haraway means when she calls technologies "frozen social relations."
What also goes into the tool bag are some wonderful rules of thumb for becoming conscious of the deployment of these narratives and of the elision of social processes. Ohmann suggests paying attention to key grammatical and lexical choices.
(1) Noticing phrases like "the computer." 
We might add: the book, the internet, the alphabet, the printing press. "As if," says Ohmann, "it were one, stable device." This is an amazing tool, so simple, so dramatically able to restore a sense of dynamic politics and history. Now my students usually just look rather puzzled when they first see this. It makes no sense to them, until I ask them about "the VCR" and whether anyone remembers something called Beta-Max? Suddenly they have epiphanies: they remember that were once two kinds of TV recording devices, and some even know that Beta was quote-unquote "better," and they mention that it is still used in certain areas of film and TV production, but they all understand that it is no longer what we mean by "the VCR." Some then bring in a little bit they know about DVD and HDTV and suddenly the sense that "the TV" is actually a least a series of devices, or sometimes competing devices, with complex interconnections and interproductions, with economic and social meanings and choices, produced by the intentions of various groups of people for their own purposes, and with effects both intended and unexpected, all this begins to take on a dynamic quality not captured by the linear narratives of determinisms, symptoms and neutrality. The instability of technologies, the work that goes into making them appear to be singular and stable, the dynamic ways in which they are continually reshaped, all become palpable.
Two other similarly eye-opening rules of thumb for spotting what one might call "mystifications of technology" suggested by Ohmann's essay:
(2) deploying the representations of single, stable devices as grammatical agents, and
(3) using phrases like "man," "the mind," and "the human condition."
He offers a "friendly objection" to Walter Ong, and quotes an example from Ong saying, "the alphabet or print or the computer enters the mind, producing new states of awareness there...." "[I]mplying," Ohmann says, "that the technology somehow came before someone'zs intention to enable some minds to do some things..." and making it seem that "technologies interact with people or with 'culture' in global, undifferentiated ways, rather than serving as an arena of interaction among classes, races, and other groups of unequal power." And, one might add, with unequal effects. Again, I attach this explanation to Haraway's phrase "frozen social relations."
Finally, one of my favorite parts of Ohmann's essay is a series of four imaginations of alternative technologies. I like this part so much that I always make it the jumping off point for one of the early assignments in the class. The four imaginations are on one side of your handout; I'll just read the first one, and you can look at the rest:
[scan in page from Ohmann?]
The creative assignment that the students do is based on this set of alternative historical scenarios and on an unusual science fiction novella by Samuel R. Delany, called "The Tale of Old Venn" from the book Tales of Neveryon. This wonderfully readable story is a luscious loving parody, appreciation and critique of feminist revisionist cultural and physical anthropology, Lacan psychoanalysis and Marxist theories of commodity fetishism, as well as a Derridian deconstruction of Ong's theories of oral and written consciousness. Luckily you don't have to know these theories to enjoy the story, and students generally don't. In the story Old Venn, a old woman sage and mentor to the young girl protagonist, invents civil engineering, green paint and an alphabet, while revealing theories of the unconscious, sexuality and gender formation, and of the origins of money, accumulation and writing. (I consider reading Delany one of the highlights of the course!)
The scenarios in Ohmann's essay and Delany's novella are ways of making real to the students what we mean when we abstractly call technologies "frozen social relations" or think of of them as "sites of struggles for power." In their creative assignment students conceive their own story of alternative possibilities, in which a different set of agents, intentions and historical circumstances lead to other technologies or to different forms of familiar technologies, or shift the historical circumstances and agencies of everyday life. Students have taken one of Ohmann's scenarios and animated it: for example when one student wrote a story about women workers in a factory making computer microchips, and how they created a way of writing labor organizing messages using the very wiring in the chips themselves; or students have come up with their own visionary ideas: another student writing a long ballad of the origins of purple chalk, a wonderful send-up of contemporary political struggles in lesbian communities; or when another student wrote a story about the invention of an eraser in a fantasy community of women, and used it to see what she could do with theories of "women's writing" in what some have called "French feminism," theories she'd brought with her from other courses. Other students have used such stories to write about violence against women and children, or other social concerns. This always turns out to be an ah-ha! moment for students in the course, this working themselves with theories, social concerns and the idea of technologies as sites of struggles for power. A wonderful fragment from Haraway's book Modest_Witness describes this, she says: "the point is to learn to remember that we might have been otherwise, and might yet be...."
Delany's story, like Ohmann's scenarios, concretely deploy a whole set of critical theories, enlivening their powers and uses. For myself as a theorist, for my students learning to theorize, such readings as Ohmann's and Delany's, and the theoretical apparatus they employ and instantiate, are able to produce those pivotal reframings of reality that shock us, shake us, enliven us. Indeed, provoke us to commit ourselves to participate in new social worlds. We often talk in the academy of the importance of critical thinking, and indeed may valorize our teaching as the transmission of critical thinking to our students. But this sort of work takes us through and beyond what we have ever meant by "critical thinking," expanding the horizon of meaning and possibility of theory as a form of social change, of theory as the direct action of social movements, of theory as that method through which we transform our relationships to reality.
See Richard Ohmann, "Computers, Literacy and Monopoly Capital," College English 47 (November 1985): 675-689; Donna Haraway, Modest_Witness @Second Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™ (Routledge, 1997); Walter Ong, Orality and literacy : the technologizing of the word (Methuen, 1982); Samuel R. Delany, Tales of Neveryon (Bantam, 1979).


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