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Culture & Technology

Author: Andrew Murphie, John Potts
Publisher: Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002
Review Published: February 2004

 REVIEW 1: Tim Detwiler

Andrew Murphie and John Potts, both Senior Lecturers in Media (Murphie at the University of New South Wales, Australia and Potts at Macquarie University, Australia), have written a wonderful text including philosophical, theoretical, and practical approaches to the general concerns of the symbiotic relationship of culture and technology. The text begins with a layered and richly textured insight into the multiple issues of the foundational relationship of the human condition to the technological products of culture produced by human agents. An insightful first chapter develops a theoretical framework by which the rest of the material is contextualized into a deep and broad interpretive framework. Additionally, many terms are used to introduce and to explain the language and thought processing of a British flavored sense of cultural studies -- this, I found fascinating and very enjoyable. This cross-disciplinary work is enlightening as one attempts to manage, as the authors suggest, the "churn" of a mix of concepts both cultural and technological. To finalize an excellent scholarly effort, an informative bibliography not only validates the author's data base, but it also provides the reader with an excellent list of sources for his/her enrichment and enjoyment.

The paperback of 229 pages covers a great deal of ground as it moves from a broad cultural context to specific technological manifestations of human creativity (i.e., cyborg technology, science fiction) and then back again to the relevant necessity of shared human experience/culture. As appropriate, the most important emphases are on the culture contexts and less importantly on a detailed analysis of technology as an object. As the authors state, their aim is "not to tell readers how to interpret technological change; it is to give readers enough to go on in analyzing this extremely complex area" (2). This allows each reader multiple options of approaching, understanding, analyzing, and working toward solutions. Humankind’s technology grows out of a cultural context and as well impacts that context as it grows and matures and infiltrates the very culture which gave it birth and yet provides the technology a sense of confinement. The authors, therefore, reveal the interaction of culture and technology at multiple levels of the human condition.

As a result, the authors deal with the multiple and complex concerns of the relationship and the interplay of technological determinism and cultural materialism. There is a learned and a sophisticated rendering of this interplay as the authors work very hard to interweave a good review of the literature into an intricately designed project providing a rich intellectual context for the reader. The reader is left with a clearly defined contour of the social shaping of technology via multiple cultural pressure points (i.e., economics, politics). The authors state that "technologies are as much about relations between cultural and physical forces as they are objects, if not more. This means that technologies can be studied not only in terms of their specific forms, but also in terms of their function and their various contexts" (31). Such a position allows for technological transformations to be both dependently contextual and at the same seeming independent agents operating by their own rules and assumptions. In doing so, there is always an axiological concern regarding the “ethical nature” of the cultural and technological questions in dependent and independent relationships impacting human thought and behavior.

In sum, a variety of diverse yet connected topics engages the reader as Murphie and Potts seek to explain what their theoretical approach actually looks like in practice for the lay person. The topics include:
  • art and technology
  • digital aesthetics
  • science fiction
  • cyborg technology
  • technology - thought - consciousness
  • war - commerce - the nation state
  • how to live with technology.
A feature of this project is always a good set of questions to begin and to end each chapter. If nothing else, this provides readers with a formed context as they make their way through the chapter and then allows for an open-ended process to continue when moving away from that particular part of the book. There is the exhilarating feeling that one is a member of a course in which the instructors are prompting their students to open their minds to the terrain about to be described.

Once an introduction is given and the theoretical framework postulated, the authors begin their work from a wide-angle perspective and move from the general to the specific. The first topic of investigation deals with artists and their interaction and reflection of the relationship of culture and technology. As with the other parts of the text, an historical and social context is provided for understanding the mechanical reproduction of images for popular consumption. In doing so, many areas are explored, including industrialization, architecture, painting, and film. In mounting an argument regarding signs, images, and mediated culture, the lecturers deal with the broad under currents of culture as the pretext for how one is able to best understand how society and technology work and function together.

Another topic considered is the notion of digital aesthetics (how humans create meaning through what is communicated), which the authors pursued in relationship to authorship, representation, distribution of personal and social meaning, and the role of technology in forming cultural myth and meaning. Subsequently, concerns of epistemology are at stake as the Romantic myth of the author as divinely inspired is given serious scrutiny as the writers contend that we are losing the "aura and loss of distance between artist and lay person" (85) as cyberspace art and spatial imagination are impacting memory and cultural history in a constant contact with images. Even though the issues of copyright are always in conflict with new forms of technology, the authors conclude this portion of the text by introducing a new series of practices in art and imagination and the process of how humans come to know culture through the medium of technology bound by a legal system regulating creativity.

In a section that deals with broader issues of social memory and cultural conversation, the authors begin to describe the writing/telling of “science fiction” as the reflective stories a culture attributes to technology (both good and bad). Highlighted are a number of the narrative patterns used by the storytellers of a culture to help people reflect upon and project onto technology the ever developing mythic understanding of the relationship between humans and machines. As the authors state so clearly, technology transforms the languages we use to communicate our individual and communal hopes, dreams, and fears. What I consider to be the most engaging aspect of the setting up of the cultural and technological contradictions (hope/despair; celebration/warning; utopia/dystopia) of the cultural narrative, Murphie and Potts proceed to probe the ethical consequences of using technology in both our personal and communal lives and activities. As in the other chapters, a wonderful set of questions is posed with the ultimate query of whether or not we have the moral vision to care for the technology we have created.

Although not in chapter order, the authors move us back and forth from the most broad and general concerns of the social structure to the most personal form of ontological orientation (thought and consciousness). There is a section on “war, commerce and the nation state” whereby the most encompassing sociotechnological principles of globalization and national sovereignty are explored. This yields rich insight into the most private of spheres for members of a culture when one considers the overt and external manifestations of the social orientations to the use of technology. Perhaps the major claim of this particular chapter is that our older notions of the nation state must be reconfigured for the present and the future if we are to truly understand the significant role technology plays in the way humans negotiate the way by which they form communities and how they define acceptable social order. The imagined nation state communities which bring personal and social identity defined by physical territory will probably become less important in a world increasingly defining itself virtually -- meaning outside the historical definitions of space, time, and place. Thus, managing and winning a war, in the mind of a technology savvy population, is more about perception and less about brute physical power and the possession of land.

Moving closer to the human being yet remaining separate from the purely internal nature of the culture/technology relationship, the authors deal with the intermixing of the technological and the biological (purely human) and explore the notions of cyborg technology -- the intersection of body/information/technology. This represents the movement of technology into culture (human formation) and literally then the ultimate sweep of technology as culture (as embodying the essence of what it means to be human). This duality of technology and human culture is becoming more blurred as time unfolds and a redefinition of the human-to-machine boundaries is being worked out. As the authors write, “the realization that bodies, like information, are as much about relations as they are about fixed forms and that is one of the most interesting ideas to arise at the juncture of culture and technology” (130). The grand narratives of history are changing in response to a post-modern and post-human philosophical context. As the ultimate questions of ontology are probed, ethical considerations become more of an ever developing creation of the relationship between humans and technology and less of a reflective activity as has been the historical tradition of ethicists.

In the most personal move to the center of the human being, a chapter is dedicated to the reciprocal relationship of technology and human thought and consciousness. The larger questions of the human spirit, mind, being, and existence are all considered since technology and human thought are connected at important hinges of this overall work. This is especially accurate as new theories of the mind are developed which impact our understanding of individual and social memory and thus the ability to move boldly and creatively into the future.

That all leads to the final chapter which asks: how do we live with the virtual in a technologically foreshadowed world where the foundational reference points are changing? The authors suggest that we realize that no definitive answer exists (as in the case of a cultural metanarrative) and it is the opportunity and responsibility of humans to critically and creatively come to terms with the human condition. The challenge of the final chapter and the overall purpose of the book is to assist us in developing a "logic" as a way to maneuver our way in the present and to provide at least the initial stages of a roadmap to guide us into the future. In short, we develop petit recits, or mini narratives, as the ingredients of a map. This allows humankind what Lyotard calls "imaginative inventions" in anticipating a future filled with hope rather than one bound in despair. As the authors conclude, Lyotard calls us to use technology not to become more utilitarian or profitable, but rather to become more sophisticated, imaginative, and inventive in the way we live (209).

In amazingly short fashion, Andrew Murphie and John Potts deal with the philosophical musings (axiology, epistemology, ontology), the theoretical explanations (psychology, sociology, ideology), and the practical (daily, nuts-and-bolts) out-workings of the relationship between humans and their created forms of technology. One thing I would suggest is that we continue to consider the voice of the ancients and allow their wisdom to provide at least the contours of a map for guiding us into the future - with the specific details of the new roads unique to our times and needs as being created by the postmodern human agents. In a sense, the maps of today and tomorrow are designed by postmodern classicists: humans living in a postmodern culture guided by the wisdom of the classics. Perhaps a form for the human map is in place as we live with and negotiate the same basic notions (historically constant set of variables exist in the human condition) of what it means to be human (regardless of the age and of the technology available). The freedom resides in the fact of our opportunity to move anywhere within that form to find meaning which provides the ultimate interplay of creative and critical human agents coming to know and live as active participants in negotiating answers for the human condition.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. (1984). The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Tim Detwiler:
Tim Detwiler is a Professor of Communication Arts at Cornerstone University of Grand Rapids, Michigan. His research interests include the integration of technology into culture, the self-conceptual impact of technology on organizational behavior, and a rhetorical understanding of the spiritual nature of technology. He reviewed Perpetual Contact: Mobile Communication, Private Talk, Public Performance for RCCS.  <Timothy_J_Detwiler@cornerstone.edu>

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