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.

Brief thoughts on the surge in gun control discussions

I’m happy for the revival of Luddism in American culture that finds intractable problems associated with particular technologies, such that the only thinkable solution is to remove them from circulation. Let’s begin by rank ordering those most harmful to lives and freedom and begin with the most egregious of them. I’m sure we’ll eventually get to guns. But let’s be honest about the fact that dismantling dams, shutting down nuclear reactors, eliminating toxic synthetic chemicals, and reducing the numbers of vehicles on the roads and planes in the sky would be no more difficult a task and have a far more significant improvement on the quality and longevity of lives, human and otherwise. To select those technologies only based on their purpose in design (for instance, those designed to kill), while simultaneously disregarding the relative magnitude of their actual effects is to appeal to blind moralism. I’m too much of a materialist to believe we should focus only on intention and not on consequence.

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

Techno-utopians, then and now

“the wealth of networks is just as concentrated as financial wealth.”

 

Techno-utopianism has a history that extends beyond the widespread use of the personal computer. The champions of the PC itself have a past that extend into the 1960s counterculture. In this blog, I examine the relationship of the Whole Earth Network to the techno-utopianism of today.

The Whole Earth Network emerged not only out of 1960s counterculture, but also out of new modes of work and organization that emerged during and after WWII. These modes stressed collaboration, flexibility, and, at times, decentralization. “[M]embers of the Whole Earth network helped reverse the political valence of information and information technology and turn computes into emblems of countercultural revolution,” writes Turner. “At the same time, however, they legitimated a metamorphosis within – and a widespread diffusion of – the core cultural styles of military-industrial-academic technocracy that their generation had sought to undermine” (2006, p. 238). This network, which Turner refers to as the New Communalists,” began with “the bohemian artists of cold war Manhattan and San Francisco, and later the hippies of Haight-Ashbury and the youthful back-to-the-landers,” which later in the 1980s and 1990s became the pioneers of internet culture. Contrary to the New Left, the New Communalists “in fact embraced technocentric optimism, the information theories, and the collaborative work style of the research world” (p. 240). Continue reading

Autonomous Technics & Civilization: Mumford and Winner in conversation

In Technics & Civilization, among Mumford’s other work, he develops a rich historical account of technological development. Being “the last generalist,” I would imagine unfamiliar readers today might be surprised by Mumford’s ability to eloquently transcend disciplinary boundaries among sociology, anthropology and history. He was particularly skilled at conveying nuance and the important interactions among environment, artifacts, techniques, human organization, labor, infrastructure and so forth. Additionally, Mumford articulates an approach to ‘social construction’ that avoids the solipsistic idealism now popular. Instead, technics and society are constantly engaged in remaking one another – and confining and constraining one another. Certain innovations are either promoted with vigor and others stalled or abandoned because technics serves the worldview and values of the society that shapes it. Simultaneously, existing technics transform how we see and relate to ourselves, one another and our environment. This process is shaped by values, as specific paths are chosen among others because they fit the ethics and motives of those steering innovation, but also as the material, machinic and organizational demands of existing technics. Winner’s discussion of autonomous technology carries a similar theme to the latter point, addressing specifically how existing technical systems create demands of their users and the society in which they are embedded. Social reproduction in a highly complex technological society generates a considerable momentum for increasing the role of technology in social and individual life, an apparently out-of-control juggernaut. Mumford demonstrates that this has deep historical roots, particularly over the last 1,000 years. This is not the experience of industrial society, but the experience of civilization in toto. Continue reading

“The Whole World Is Watching”: Protest Videos as Techno-Fix

“People don’t want to get involved. They’d rather watch on TV,” said Troy Simmons, 47, who joined demonstrators as he left work. [1]

“The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!”

The crowd resounds, chanting condemnation in unison to an army of police abusing Occupy Wall Street protesters.They are, of course, referring to a contingent of protesters and media armed with still and video cameras, who appear to outnumber those protesters without.

Let’s consider this chant, and what’s being said. Continue reading

Peak Everything Anarchism

I’m working on an article for a special issue of Anarchist Studies focusing on technology. This article focuses many of my central ideas about technology toward anarchists in particular, but it has implications for direct or participatory democrats, and radical democrats. It would also pose problems for communists who hold true to Marx’s commitment to the withering away of the state under communism.

This article focuses on issues of justice that have unfortunately not been taken up very well in the literatures I have been able to find. The treatment of justice by anarchists has been incomplete and haphazard. Distributive and resource-based justice and social justice have been well developed more broadly (by liberals and socialists), and have important uses when injected into an anti-authoritarian politics. With the added demand of simplicity – of relying on neither representatives or authorities, nor on unwieldy participatory models which may not be capable of grappling with overly complex sociotechnical systems – we may turn to the systems themselves to ask of them what they demand from us in order for them to function. Which artifacts permit a nonauthoritarian, stateless society when deeply embedded in social reproduction? Continue reading

Selling the lie: will the technophiles eat their own virtual hats?

When Kirkpatrick Sale was finishing up Rebels Against the Future, he was interviewed by Kevin Kelly for Wired.[1] This interview, however, became more of a debate, between a technophile and someone urging caution and limits with regard to technology – a neo-Luddite.

Kelly begins by wondering whether the Luddites accomplished anything “other than arson and a lot of vandalism.” Perhaps a brief history is in order for some of my more casual readers. Even Kelly doesn’t seem to understand the Luddites, as he claims:

The Luddite cottagers thought it was inhuman to be put out of work by machines. But what’s really inhuman is to have cloth made by human labor at all. Cloth should be made by machines, because machines make much better cloth than humans. Making cloth is not a good job for humans… Continue reading

Phenomenal experiences of technology

In “Feelings and phenomenal experiences” by Schwarz and Clore, in Social Psychology: Handbook of Basic Principles, they discuss the role of feelings in social behavior. They especially consider “feelings as a source of information.” They profile the literature concerning bodily experiences (e.g. hunger, pain, arousal), emotions (with a referent), moods (lacking a referent), “cognitive experiences” (e.g. surprise, boredom), “fluency” (including “processing fluency,” “perceptual fluency,” and “conceptual fluency,” none of which I have the time or space to explain). Continue reading