Call for submissions on Critical Technology Studies

The following call for papers has just been released:

Minority Report: The Rise and Fall of Critical Technology Studies

Open Session CFP for the Joint Meeting of Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) and Sociedad Latinoamericana de Estudios Sociales de la Ciencia y la Tecnología (ESOCITE)

 

August 20 – 23, 2014 | Buenos Aires, Argentina
Organizers: Ben Brucato (RPI) & Gretchen Gano (ASU)

Technology Studies aims to render technology comprehensible in historical, social, and political terms. A subset of this work we call Critical Technology Studies (CTS), holds that technologies are forms-of-life with intrinsic features that produce or merge with certain political and social arrangements. Under this premise, technologies are not like a hammer that can used and put down at will; instead they represent a kind of embedded legislation that structures human behavior and ideas (Winner 1986). Central CTS thinkers such as Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, Langdon Winner and others not traditionally cited in STS such as Verbeek and Borgmann have given us a framework to interrogate how technical demands can overrule capacities for civic comprehension and democratic control of complex technologies. Counter to the social constructivist narrative that relevant actors are ever busy negotiating our technological reality, CTS suggests that pervasive technological systems can tightly constrain and sometimes confound social and political action.

Although STS owes an intellectual debt to the trailblazing works of CTS, its key contributors’ methods and insights are marginalized in the field today. In an interdiscipline where scholarship is often embedded in its scientific and technical focus, with many in our ranks enrolled in the innovation enterprise, the time is ripe for a minority report on Critical Technology Studies. Organizers invite contributions that unpack and challenge the view that critical technology scholarship is merely anti-technological Luddism grounded in sidelined arguments of determinism.

We seek submissions that:

  • reenergize our understanding of the primary claims of CTS;
  • trace the critical reception of CTS within STS;
  • connect CTS with parallel political commitments, such as those of neo-Luddites (i.e. Kirkpatrick Sale) and social activists (i.e. the anti-nuke movement);
  • apply CTS to contemporary studies of innovation;
  • propose new areas of inquiry for CTS.
We encourage those seeking additional information to visit ctstudies.wordpress.com
Deadline for abstract submissions: March 3, 2014. 
Abstracts should be no more than 250 words.
Languages accepted: English
To apply, submit an “individual abstract” via the 4S portal at http://convention2.allacademic.com/one/ssss/4s14/
Once you have a user name and password, go to submit proposal > submit new proposal > paper abstract. After entering your details, check the box beside Open Session #45. Minority Report: The Fall and Rise of Critical Technology Studies.
More conference information: http://www.4sonline.org/meeting
More panel information: http://ctstudies.wordpress.com/
Contact: Ben Brucato (ben@benbrucato.com) or Gretchen Gano (ggano@asu.edu)

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Jacques Ellul commended by Walter Ong for his optimism toward the ‘fake problems’ of technology

It’s been quite some time since I posted here. It seems inappropriate to break a long silence with such a brief note and an incomplete thought. Nonetheless, I offer this here as an interesting bit from my recent research on the reception of critical technology studies.

In 1962, a summation of Ellul’s primary theoretical claims regarding ‘la technique’ (delivered in the paper, “The Technological Order”) was critically received by none other than Walter Ong. A point of agreement between Ellul and Ong challenges the typical depiction of Ellul as a pessimist. Ong wrote that

Ellul treats the “fake problems” of technology extremely well. He [Ellul] says, first: “We make too much of the disagreeable features of technological development, for example, urban overcrowding, nervous tension, air pollution, and so forth. I am convinced that all such inconveniences will be done away with by the ongoing evolution of Technique itself.” I agree, and am persuaded that many critiques of contemporary conditions are based on a romantic symbolic transformation of the past. Those who dwell on these obvious faults of present technological society pretend there weren’t worse inconveniences before.

Here we see Ellul proclaiming these problems to be resolvable and certain to be resolved by (post)industrial technological civilization, and Ong in agreement. Yet, 50 years later, these problems are not “fake” but vicious. Urban overcrowding a thing of the past? The psychic distress of (post)modern life a thing of the past? Air quality resolved?

Let’s remember that in his time, Ellul was not criticized for his major theoretical claims nearly as much as he was for his prognostications, his style, and his ‘pessimistic’ attitude. If we look at most of the criticisms levied by his peers, they often lauded his acumen and the utility of his theses while decrying his futurology.

On Technology and Human Agency

A perennial debate in technology studies is over the question of agency and determinism. Does technology drive history? Is technology socially constructed? Who or what exercises agency in sociotechnical development? In this blog, I summarize and analyze the ideas that have emerged from this debate that I find most useful. Specifically, I  touch on the work of Jacques Ellul and Langdon Winner.

For Ellul, “when technique enters into every area of life, including the human, it ceases to be external to man and becomes his very substance.”[1] Donna Haraway has taken this point to the extreme, suggesting that humans are cyborgs, inextricably linked to their devices, not only to participate in social life, but in their conceptions of self.[2] “This transformation, so obvious in modern society,” wrote Ellul, “is the result of the fact that technique has become autonomous.”[3] By autonomous, Ellul meant that “technique pursues its own course more and more independently of man.”[4] Humans are directed to technical ends by their reliance upon its means for every aspect of their lives, whereby humans are “reduced to the level of a catalyst…”[5] It is not technology alone that requires this relationship, but the role of technology in society. “When technique enters into the realm of social life, it collides ceaselessly with the human being to the degree that the combination of man and technique is unavoidable, and that technical action necessarily results in a determined result.[6] This characterization has led some to dismiss Ellul’s philosophy as “technological determinism.” Winner rejects that Ellul commits to determinism, and finds utility in this approach – that of autonomous technology – when he presents Ellul’s vision “that technology is somehow out of control by human agency.”[7] In this view, “far from being controlled by the desired and rational ends of human beings, technology in a real sense now governs its own course, speed, and destination.”[8] Ellul argued that “there can be no human autonomy in the face of technical autonomy.”[9] Continue reading

The material and political confinement of social constructions

Between the politics of technology and the social construction of technological systems (SCOTS)[1], exists considerable tension over three distinct problems centered on the commitment of SCOTS to relativism. First, the SCOTS program can find no useful criteria to judge a technology. But can society in “an age of high technology” (Winner 1986) afford this position? Second, the defining of the “social groups” or actors involved in shaping a technology during the innovation and diffusion stages brackets off the agents in consideration. What about those impacted by a technology who are outside this consideration? And, while Latour (in Bijker and Law 1992) wants us to consider the nonhuman, the SCOTS program disregards issues related to the processes by which resources are made available and sustainable access to them. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the question of whether the socio-political structure and the status of actors should be left out of the discussion. “Where’s the power?” we might ask.

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