Culture + Technology: A Primer
Author: Jennifer Daryl Slack, J. MacGregor Wise
Publisher: New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2005
Review Published: November 2006
What do we want from technology? We want abstractions: the good life, happiness, connection, health, comfort, convenience ... And so we develop technologies that concretize abstractions. Today, as I write this, the heat and humidity outside are oppressive, but I'm comfortable in my air conditioned enclave. But my physical comfort comes into conflict with my mental ease, which is eroded in part by the knowledge that my air conditioned space, multiplied by the countless number of similar spaces on the planet, and the burning of carbon-laden fossil fuels upon which they depend, are depleting the ozone and warming the globe. To a shocking degree, technologies, as material responses to abstract, emotional desires, fail to deliver. Surrounded by time saving devices, we are busier that ever. As we grasp for energy sources to fuel our technologies, the world grows increasingly volatile. Clearly, technology holds a troubled place in society. Jennifer Daryl Slacks and J. Macgregor Wise's accessible text, Culture + Technology: A Primer, unpacks the conflicted complexity of technology's place in society.
Slack and Wise take a cultural studies approach to exploring the role of technology, new and old, in society. As such, the book is centrally concerned with how technologies contribute to inequalities of power and to the contested nature of the meaning of technology. This is not a text to turn to for a novel take on the well rehearsed narratives of technological progress and convenience. Instead, as the subtitle promises, it is the book to pick up when you need an introductory critique of these narratives to share with your students. It is a great teaching text. The logical articulation of its content also makes this a gratifying read for folks in media studies, as the book puts familiar notions into fresh terms.
In addition to providing an overview of the chapters that follow, the introduction's primary concern is to debate the relationship between the title's two terms. Introducing both cultural and technological determinism, the authors acknowledge their bias toward seeing cultural factors as more determinant that technological ones. For this reason, stronger lessons are to be learned on the cultural side of the "culture and technology" equation than on the technology side. Readers will not greatly enhance their understanding of how specific technologies work. Instead, Slack and Wise advocate for a term that folds technology into culture and one they employ throughout the text, "technological culture." By arguing that technologies are integral to culture, Slack and Wise challenge the technological determinist notion that technologies are exogenous forces that, hammer-like, hit us unexpectedly. As they will later argue in the third chapter, thinking in terms of cause and effect is an insufficient way to understand the complex processes within which technology plays a cultural role.
The book is organized into three main sections. The first addresses what Slack and Wise call "the received view," popular narratives about the role of technology in society with which we are all familiar. With chapters on progress, convenience, determinism, and control, this first section helps students learn to question and explore their taken-for-granted assumptions. The second section, with chapters on the much maligned Luddites, appropriate technologies, and the Unabomber, provides examples of cultural resistance to the dominant "technology is good for us" attitude explored in the first section. Lastly, the third section brings core cultural studies themes such as space, time, power, agency and identity into conversation with technology. This section emphasizes the power of language to shape our assumptions about technology, about how change happens and about who has the power to generate change.
While critiques of the received view permeate the first two sections, it nonetheless is not until about half way through the book that the cultural studies approach to technology is made explicit. Organization may be the greatest challenge in writing a text of this kind. That said, it is a bit disconcerting to find chapter eight entitled: "Defining Technology." Some of the information found here would have aided the reading of earlier sections. This is especially so of the ninth chapter, "Causality," in which Slack and Wise, condensing an earlier work by Slack (1984), carefully lay out latent assumptions behind various notions of causality. These notions include the mechanistic thinking that technologies are discrete things that are autonomous in origin and action or the countervailing, nonmechanistic perspective that holds that technologies are contextually developed and used. While bits and pieces of the information in this chapter are worked into earlier sections, a fuller explication would have been useful earlier in the text.
Slack and Wise acknowledge their biases and make some attempt to mitigate them. As communication scholars, they are biased toward consideration of media technologies, but they do make efforts to consider other sorts of technologies and their applications, from cloning and euthanasia to global warming and weapons of mass destruction. The authors acknowledge a North American focus, an emphasis that, unfortunately, will limit the book's usefulness and appeal to readers from other parts of the world.
My reading of Culture + Technology is positively colored by my use of it in a class on media technologies. The text provides a useful foundation for class discussion, as it articulates questions of culture and technology in their most universal form and without clearly stated "right" or "wrong" answers -- questions such as: What is the right and proper relationship between humans and machines? Have technologies produced social change? And how can we best conceptualize the cause and effect relationship between culture and technology?
Recounting how Slack and Wise unpack just one of the book’s themes, that of technological progress, demonstrates why this is a good teaching text: it models the analytical process of investigating culture. As they do throughout the text, Slack and Wise begin chapter one, "Progress," by exploring the meaning of the core term, progress, focusing on its temporal dimension and positive association in culture. They explain that while progress may seem like a transparent notion, the goals of progress and the concepts associated with it are often abstract, such as "the good life." The goals of progress, of moral and material betterment, coincide with the broad goals of culture in general, thus making the notion of progress extremely powerful. Those goals are often occluded by the application of the idea of progress to technologies merely because they are new. Newness, then, becomes the mark of progress and again the goals of progress fade and become inexplicit. When we are left unsatisfied by a new technology, we are left wondering why. To answer that question, the authors say we must untangle the conflation of newness with material and moral betterment, question the criteria for measuring progress, explore the history of the idea of progress to reveal the way this conflation began, and, lastly, consider the consequences of this conflation. In this way, the authors unpack the problem of progress and provide a clear path by which students can explore and debate that problem.
Students used the text as a springboard for questioning their own ideas and for engaging with each other. Students in my class wrote blogs, one purpose of which was to reflect upon the readings. Invariably, and often in contrast to other assignment readings, students remarked on the readability and usefulness of Slack and Wise's text. Here, for example, is a brief excerpt from a student's blog:
In addition to courses about technology, Jennifer Daryl Slacks and J. Macgregor Wise's Culture + Technology: A Primercould serve well in a class on cultural studies more broadly. While the text explains and applies cultural studies concepts, such as articulation and assemblage, it does not substitute for the reading of primary texts. At the same time, theoretical primary texts in cultural studies often leave students wanting for concrete application. Adding Slack and Wise's text to a cultural studies syllabus would provide an antidote to the abstraction of theory by demonstrating the successful application of core cultural studies concepts to the specific cultural domain of technology.
Slack, Jennifer Daryl. 1984. Communication Technologies and Society: Conceptions of Causality and the Politics of Technological Intervention. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
Louise Woodstock is an assistant professor of Media and Communication Studies at Ursinus College. Her research centers on the construction of identity and therapeutic discourse in popular culture and new media. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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